Little Women


Little Women (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Greta Gerwig’s retelling of “Little Women,” based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, made me realize how unconvincingly most families are portrayed in the movies. Here, notice how the March family are always touching each other, whether they are playing, providing comfort, fighting, or simply hanging about the house and discussing what it is they hope to achieve or become in the future. We get so comfortable in inhabiting their specific living space that eventually we know which comb, or doll, or dress belongs to which sister. And by the end of the film, we not only have a complete idea of their personalities and interests, we know what it is that they value as individuals—so we see beyond their words and actions as if looking through glass.

For the most part, the picture is composed of impressions; it is almost like a collage. When Jo the writer (Saoirse Ronan) decides to chop her hair off for a noble cause only to cry about it that same night. When Amy the painter (Florence Pugh) wishes to get revenge on Jo and so she decides to hit her elder sister where it hurts most. When Meg the actress (Emma Watson) confesses to her husband she is bone-tired of being poor. When Beth the pianist (Eliza Scanlen) contracts scarlet fever for trying to help out their indigent neighbor in the dead of winter. Despite the differences among the young women, the writer-director manages to find and underscore their similarities in just about every scene. Even when the sisters clash, there is an underlying message they are family first. It proves a warm feeling, at times even simply a flicker of it, in the face of life challenges big and small.

There are two timelines seven years apart: When the March sisters are still living under one roof and when they have taken their separate paths. Because Gerwig’s energy as a director can be felt so strongly, it would have been preferred if she had found a way to show the past and current time outside of the warm/yellowish and cold/bluish color palettes, respectively. The approach is too ordinary, generic, for Gerwig’s caliber. Perhaps the fresher choice would have been to choose one color palette and relied on cosmetics or clothing style to reflect where the sisters are in their lives. An argument can be made that there is already a vast difference in how the characters look and carry themselves as youths versus young adults that changing up the hues is unnecessary, maybe even heavy-handed.

Although the story focuses on the young women’s pliability and strength, it finds no need to bring down its male characters—which is so unlike movies these days that wish to make a statement. On the contrary, it treats both sexes as real people with real feelings, real thoughts, and real problems. Appropriately, the central couple, Jo and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), is provided complexity even though they do not undergo a standard courtship.

There is tension in the possibility of the two being romantically connected because we learn that Jo regards marriage as a sort of prison, an act of relinquishing freedom as a writer, as a woman, and as a writer who happens to be a woman. Her ambitions are great and nothing may get in the way of it. Laurie, on the other hand, is a classic romantic. He is kind, patient, and giving. We know he means what he says, and he does love Jo, possibly more than Jo even realizes, but we wonder if his values match that of Jo’s. It is without question his ambition is smaller than her’s—possibly because he was born in an affluent family. Thus, we wonder if they can remain happy as a couple, and as individuals, in the future. The question is whether or not they will end up together, but rather whether they are right for each other. There is a difference.

This is only one example of the many compelling relationships in the film. Nearly every one is given detail and dimension. Interestingly, notice that the most telling moments are the quiet sort. For instance, early on in the story Laurie is welcomed into the March’s home after helping Meg get home due to a twisted ankle. Chalamet stands in one spot and allows his character to enjoy the laughter, the chatter, and the commotion in the house. Laurie does not say a word, but the camera observes him closely. I am convinced it is the precise moment when the character decides to be part of this family. The March may not have a library or a grand piano as his palatial home does. But there’s always warm food on the table, there’s happy screaming and cackling, teasing, and somebody to lean on. The movie is a reflection of what many of us wish to have. And, for some of us, a reflection of the things we have lost. It is a worthy retelling of a classic novel.

Jacob’s Ladder


Jacob’s Ladder (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Screenwriters Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorp prove to have no understanding of why Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder” works as psychological thriller because this remake gets just about every element wrong. It is neither psychological nor thrilling; it is composed merely of would-be creepy or shocking images that are ineffective, a few downright laughable, because there is minimal context behind them. While an attempt is made to avoid telling an identical story as its inspiration, it fails to drill deeply into the connection among post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and war veterans. Instead, these fascinating and important subjects are summarized into post-it notes—notes from bad and reductive movies, not even from textbooks.

It fails to establish a dream-like tone or feeling—a crucial element so that later on we could not help but to buy into the story’s nightmarish and hallucinatory sequences. Instead, observe closely on how the one-dimensional screenplay often builds up to a standard chase scene where Jacob (Michael Ealy), a trauma surgeon, ends up cornering a person of interest who disappears into thin air the very last second. How convenient. This formula is tired, boring, and highly repetitive. It commands no tension and each attempt is less effective than the last.

In the middle of this misfire of a remake, I began to feel sorry for Ealy who deserves better than this train wreck. Watch him closely during the more dramatic sequences, particularly when Jacob’s seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. You will see a performer begging to be challenged. Director David M. Rosenthal neglects to recognize his lead’s strength. Ealy is capable of looking vulnerable and tough, sometimes at the same time, at a drop of a hat. He is so expressive that at times allowing the camera to focus on his face is enough for us to get a readout of what his character may be thinking or feeling. Instead, Jacob is forced to go into all sorts of histrionics—like writhing on the floor, wailing, screaming, and such—in order to create a semblance of torment and urgency.

But the thing is, the material is already about a man’s anguish since he is slowly realizing that maybe he can no longer tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Urgency comes—or should come—in the form of viewers wishing to know more about the curious story and its shady characters. But because the screenplay is stuck in the limbo of providing easy answers, all mystique is lost. The movie clocks in at only ninety-three minutes, but it feels much longer. One of the reasons is because we already know all of its tricks after the first act. And so we grow impatient for the movie to surprise us at least once. It never surprised me.

“Jacob’s Ladder” is a remake without flavor, purpose, or spine. Perhaps the initial draft wished to say something of value about how our American society tends to treat our troops once they’ve come home from war—that maybe we celebrate them more when they are stationed in foreign lands, much less when they are home and in need of the best healthcare. But somewhere along the way substance is diluted in order to make room for jump scares.

About Last Night…


About Last Night… (1986)
★ / ★★★★

Danny (Rob Lowe) and Debbie (Demi Moore) decide to build a relationship from a one night stand. They are physically attracted to one another but neither is completely sure if they were ready for a mature, mutually beneficial relationship. Still, they decide to move together with the hope that the latter crucial ingredient will somehow fall into place. After a few months of living together, Danny and Debbie, in their own ways, begin to yearn for their former single lives.

Based on David Mamet’s play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and written for the screen by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue, “About Last Night…” is a tolerable romantic-drama because of its somewhat erotic love scenes but the love story tests the patience. Because it becomes obvious to us early on in the protagonists’ relationship that they may not be a good fit for one another, the material forcing the characters to play catch up is not an involving experience. Although Lowe and Moore are appealing together, I was mostly bored by the story. It is about thirty minutes too long.

Danny and Debbie have their own personalities but they are upstaged by their best friends. James Belushi plays a party-loving guy and every time he is on screen, he floods the frame with energy and color. Although I found his character, Bernie, a bit abrasive and over-the-top at times, at least he made me laugh. That is more than I can say about either Danny or Debbie. These two are pleasant but they are not the most exciting—either together or apart.

Belushi needs an equal and Elizabeth Perkins, Debbie’s roommate and best friend, is up to the task. Perkins plays Joan as a huge Debbie Downer, the kind of friend who one almost would like to hate from a third party point of view because not once does she root for Debbie’s romantic life to turn out well. She fears that if Debbie got into a relationship, she would end up being the third wheel. Her solution is to act unpleasant around Danny. Because she is unlikable at times, she is not boring. We have a defined opinion of her. Less can be said about the couple.

That is the picture’s main problem: the two central characters have middle-ground personalities, attitudes, and outlooks on life. It makes them lukewarm, almost soporific. It does not help that Lowe and Moore are not the most versatile performers. In some scenes, they are downright terrible. Still, at least they try to emote when the occasion calls for it instead of simply standing there like a pile of wood. It is difficult to invest in characters who are thinly written and portrayed.

Perhaps “About Last Night…,” directed by Edward Zwick, ought to have focused more on having more love scenes because that is its strength. Everything else is corny, from Danny wanting to open up his own restaurant to Debbie telling Joan that she loves her anyway even though Joan wanted the relationship to crash and burn from the moment Debbie and Danny met. Give me a break. If the screenplay had any semblance of reality, these two so-called girlfriends would no longer be friends by the time the movie hit its third act.

Good Boys


Good Boys (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is way to make a raunchy tween pseudo-sex comedy for adults, but Gene Stupnitsky’s “Good Boys” misses the mark completely. The reason is because it is a one-trick pony when it comes the would-be comic moments: Put six-graders Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon)—collectively known as the Beanbag Boys—in adult situations (buying drugs, stealing beer, spying on neighbors, and the like) and allow their innocence to shine through. The formula is lazy, repetitive, and, for the most part, unfunny. Notice how there is minimal flow to the comedy; just a parade of one wacky scenario after another with no dramatic pull. Cue the boys screaming when things go awry. Just because the tweens utter curse words like sailors does not automatically mean the material is effective. Two-thirds of the word through, the work undergoes a forced and unconvincing tonal shift. However, there is a lack of convincing drama in the boys realizing they will not be best friends for life precisely because the screenplay by Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg has treated these characters as cardboard cutouts for the majority of the picture.

Luce


Luce (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Julius Onah’s “Luce” is like a nesting doll. Just when you think you know what it is about and have it all figured out, it gives birth to another layer worth putting under a microscope. It possesses a keen understanding of human psychology and behavior, particularly the social contracts between parent and child; students and teachers; and peers who wish to maintain or improve their status. In its core, it is a drama. But it is told like a thriller. What results is a picture that commands utmost urgency. Every word counts. A certain look or deafening silence functions like a fire alarm. We find ourselves evaluating who knows what and precisely how much. We must think like the subjects in order to have a thorough understanding of them.

The first curiosity begins with the act of a concerned teacher having a meeting with the mother of the student with whom she suspects to be a possible threat to the school. Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) assigned her students to pick a historical figure and write a paper using their chosen figure’s perspective. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—model student, ace athlete, excellent debater, and soon-to-be valedictorian—chose Frantz Fanon, a theorist who believes in using violence against those he disagrees with. Ms. Wilson was so disturbed by what she read, she took it upon herself to search through Luce’s locker. She found illegal firecrackers—enough to create a shotgun blast. The screenplay by J.C. Lee and Julius Onah is correct in not allowing the viewers to read any portion of the paper. Doing so leaves plenty to the imagination.

The drama unspools from here onwards. Given that Luce was adopted by white, affluent American parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) at the age of seven from a war-torn country in Africa, it touches upon race. Specifically, what it means to be a young black immigrant in America, the expectations one must grapple with in order to avoid being just another stereotype. It broaches the topic of parents’ hardships and sacrifices for choosing to adopt instead of having and raising a biological child. Specifically, what they lost, individually as well as a couple, in the process. It tackles the subject of knowledge, how we cannot un-know information and the numerous implications that come with it. Clearly, the material is not simply interested in shocking plot turns. It is interested in providing context; it aims to inspire debate.

From the moment we meet the Edgars, notice right away how they do not feel like a family. They live in the same house, eat the same food, converse, laugh, make jokes, travel together once in a while—but there is a disconnect. This is an excellent choice by the filmmakers. It shows that even before the first controversy, there is something… not quite right about the Edgars. Perhaps the revelation regarding the essay and the firecrackers is simply a catalyst of what must be brought to the forefront. But this is no ordinary drama. In the end, there is little catharsis. There remains great uneasiness, questions, pain. It is apparent that the work is not for those who wish to feel good in a traditional sense.

“Luce” is based on a play screenwriter J.C. Lee, and it shows. Confrontations evoke a strong personality to them. Words are memorable because they hurt like daggers. It is fond of close-ups, as if to savor every minute emotion. Rooms tend to have a feeling of coldness to them even when it is full of people. When characters recall traumatic memories, we paint vivid portraits in our heads. It is mesmerizing nearly every step of the way.

Rocketman


Rocketman (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Maybe I should’ve tried to be more ordinary.”

In the opening sequences of Dexter Fletcher’s entertaining and surprisingly moving “Rocketman,” which focuses on Elton John’s breakthrough years, it is communicated with blinding clarity that the subject will never receive the love he deserves from his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh). And so the viewers are inspired to make an assumption: The rest of the picture will be about Elton attempting to fill that void. On the one hand, the presumption is accurate. There is an abundance of rock-and-roll, sex, booze, and drugs. On the other hand, the film is able to overcome the expected trappings of a musical biopic because it is willing to embrace a more introspective approach—even if it means applying the breaks on its forward momentum. It dares to take risks—sometimes unnecessary risks. And that’s rock ’n’ roll.

It is an interesting way to tell a story, particularly when real-life events merge—at times quite suddenly—into imaginings and longings. The approach is never the same. A song and dance number can break out at any time: in the middle of a suburban street, at a psychedelic party, while making a record, while arguing over a record, back stage before a big show, even when one’s life is on the balance. It makes the point that putting on a performance is almost like another addiction for Elton. That is why when confronted by the searing question of why he feels the need to put on ostentatious outfits during a show, he cannot provide a strong answer. A performance is expected out of him, on and off the stage. He feels the need to deliver because he does not wish to disappoint his fans—just as he is afraid to disappoint his parents who are already cold to him.

While all of Elton’s memorable songs are present, from “The Bitch is Back” and “Your Song” to “Crocodile Rock” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” notice that if these were stripped away completely, the movie would be able to stand on its own. Taron Egerton plays Elton John with such high level of vivacity, even when his character is in the dumps, that it is near impossible not to feel impressed with his all-in approach. Egerton shines most when paired with Jamie Bell, portraying Bernie Taupin, the lyricist alongside Elton’s melodies and Elton’s best friend. The love shared between Elton and Bernie is so strong and infectious, I caught myself wishing they had a movie of just hanging out, laughing, being silly, writing songs.

It does not glamorize the life of a superstar. In fact, the screenplay by Lee Hall makes a point that it can be such a cripplingly lonely profession. It is a great challenge to discern between those who only want you for your fame and money and those who genuinely care about you. Elton is able to find financial success, but he remains that child who yearns to be hugged by his father. This theme runs throughout the film and it becomes sadder every time the subject is disappointed by a person he thinks is being true. And so he snorts another line of cocaine. Followed by gulping down yet another bottle of vodka.

Unlike the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman” is proud to embrace its subject’s sexuality. Instead of hiding it, or toning it down, or shaming it, as in the former picture, it is celebrated here—not by flooding the movie with characters who nod or smile approvingly but through Elton’s resiliency as a gifted artist who just so happens to be a homosexual. Here is a musical biopic with elements of fantasy that gets it exactly right.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged


47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“47 Meters Down: Uncaged” is not unlike its predecessor in that attempting to survive a series of grizzly shark attacks is an indirect way of solving a personal crisis on land. Specifically, stepsisters Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and Sasha (Corinne Foxx) not only do not get along, they do not consider each other as sisters. This is established during the opening scene in which the former is bullied by schoolmates and the latter chooses to stand by with her friends in silence. Most of us will recognize immediately the story’s ultimate destination and so the journey there must be strong. On a few levels, it delivers. But it leaves plenty to be desired as a potent survival horror.

The movie is beautifully photographed, particularly the early underwater scenes that take place in the ancient Mayan city. Because the caves are unexplored for the most part, there is a certain creepiness in the solemn statues and obelisks, how corridors tend to get narrower the deeper one gets into the labyrinthine city. We even get to lay eyes on the catacombs, skeletons undisturbed for many decades. There is a sense of wonder and claustrophobia in these sequences which suggest that some thought and genuine care is put into picture instead of rehashing the same old scenario as the predecessor. It is apparent that this is not just a movie composed of jump scares involving sharks. Johannes Roberts co-writes (along with Ernest Riera) and directs both works; I detected a certain pride in making the work as good a genre piece can be.

But the characterization is a significant shortcoming. Aside from the superficial conflict between Mia and Sasha, we are never provided a genuine sense that they are family even during the later scenes when they finally learn to have each other’s backs. Perhaps it has something to do with the script, the fact that it never bothers to pause, to breathe, to allow its main players to connect. Once the scuba diving gear is on, it is all business—wonderful in theory if the material could find surprises, big and small, on a consistent basis. The work is fond of the following formula: new area to be explored, shark attack, panic and splashing about, escape. Once in a while an inconsequential character gets eaten (some gnarly deaths).

It should have taken a page from Jaume Collet-Serra’s “The Shallows.” In that film, although the script is barebones, it is so efficient in allowing the audience to understand how its character recognizes a problem and finds solutions. She is smart and resourceful. Early on in “Uncaged,” it is acknowledged that Mia is an experienced scuba diver. It is so disappointing that when the chips are down and the pressure is up, she, like the others, ends up panicking and screaming as if oxygen tanks would not run out of air. The previous “47 Meters Down” makes a point not to scream, breathe, or panic so much because every movement uses up oxygen. This fact is not brought up even once in this sequel. It’s Survival 101.

Is it unrealistic? A resounding “Yes!” But I enjoyed it enough, particularly the twist regarding the sharks. Since these creatures have been living in these caves for so long, surely they must have acquired abilities that typical sharks do not possess. Had there been a bit more research during the screenwriting stage, the level of creativity would have surged. Perhaps the characters struggling to survive against these sharks would have been forced to become more resourceful.