Tag: florence pugh

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.

Outlaw King

Outlaw King (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

With a keen eye for beautiful vistas of majestic cliffs overlooking rivers and oceans, verdant forests, and flat terrains plagued with bogs, “Outlaw King,” directed by David Mackenzie, is visual splendor. It has a knack for placing the viewer into its particular time and place. But the deeper it gets in excavating the conflict between Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), soon-to-be murderous king of Scotland, and the tyrannical King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), details are presented in a cursory and unsatisfying manner some of the time. Its constricted two-hour running time does not allow for the material to breathe between major turn of events. Right when one is finished, the next one is presented. It becomes a challenge to buy into the passage of time and so a fully immersive experience is not achieved. In the middle of it, one considers that perhaps telling the story in the form of mini-series might have been more effective. The work is elevated, however, by committed supporting performances, from Florence Pugh as Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert’s intelligent, supportive, and headstrong wife; Billy Howle as the irascible Prince of Wales with serious daddy issues; and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as revenge-driven James Douglas whose lands have been taken away on the basis of treason. I wished to know these figures and all their complexities, but we are provided only a glance.


Midsommar (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is further evidence that horror films need not unfold in the dark in order to be effective. Instead of hiding horrific elements and then throwing them at the audience at precisely the right moment, as generic jump scares would, the unsettling and curious images are almost always out in the open, exposed to the harsh light of day. It is a different horror picture, one for the patient viewer who enjoys taking a magnifying glass on a specimen and appreciating how one organ connects to another. It is not without a savage, ticklish sense of humor.

The plot revolves around four male graduate students (Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper) who plan a trip to Sweden to enjoy an idyllic retreat at a commune. They expected to get high and have a lot of sex with exotic women, but this part of their plan is foiled when Dani (Florence Pugh), Christian’s girlfriend, is invited out of pity following a recent family tragedy. Reynor and Pugh possess an interesting dynamic together exactly because they have nearly zero chemistry on top of their characters being romantically involved for the wrong reasons. In a way, the film can be seen through the scope of a drawn-out, twisted break-up. On this level, it is fresh.

The more uninspired choice would have been to jump directly in getting to know the isolated Swedish community and its leaders. But notice how the writer-director takes his time with the exposition. By laying out some of the more unpleasant details of Dani and Christian’s relationship first, we have an appreciation of the more vicious turn of events that occur later. We are not asked to take sides, but we are required to understand.

On the one hand, Dani comes across as needy and clingy even before the tragedy. We all have that one friend who treats everything as an emergency. Can we or should we blame Christian for wanting out of the relationship? On the other hand, at times Christian does not always have the “we” mindset despite being in a serious relationship. As a result, he may come across as detached or cold. I enjoyed that from the moment we meet these two, they are already living their lives. Like in effective dramas, we are tasked to navigate through motivations and psychologies instead of being spoon-fed.

The work commands an impressive eye for detail, from the arrangement of flowers on people’s heads, intriguing patterns on robes, strange figures on wallpapers, down to the guts of an animal sliced open—it dares us to look closer and examine every part of the subject. When a disgusting image is front and center, for instance, not one sharp note or noise is employed to distract us from what we are supposed to digest. Aster gives us the choice of what we want to do with the images. Stare unblinkingly or look away—it doesn’t matter because the representation does not change either way. That’s a powerful statement; it shows that the filmmaker is confident in what he puts forth.

Did I find the movie to be scary? Not particularly. I admired it, especially the creative ways it introduces familiar elements, and sometimes that’s enough. I think the reason is because in my culture, we have some bizarre traditions that may seem somewhat surprising or disturbing to outsiders. The rituals of the Swedish commune presented here are way more out there, certainly twisted and hyperbolic, truly within the realm of the horror genre. I guess I saw the story mainly from the perspective of a person of color who did not only grow up within the culture or perspective of white America. But that isn’t to suggest the picture’s goal is to present social commentary.


Malevolent (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Although “Malevolent” is based on the novel “Hush” by Eva Konstantopoulos, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben Ketai, it does not feel like one because there is a lack of mythos behind the story being told. Instead, it is more in line with badly conceived and even more poorly executed horror films in which paranormal investigators are paid to investigate dark basements, bedrooms, and other creepy areas with a certain horrific past. Naturally, from time to time we observe the action through a grainy or shaky camera. Its tricks become old quite quickly and it tests the patience.

Its premise is promising because the so-called ghostbusters are simply university students who swindle desperate people, often bereaved, for extra cash. The team (Scott Chambers, Georgina Bevan) is led by Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) who is hinted to have drug problems and owing thugs some cash and so he seizes every potential job despite the fact that his sister, Angela (Florence Pugh), simply wishes for them to have a fresh start in Scotland. (The siblings are Americans.) Unbeknownst to Jackson, Angela has recently developed powers that enable her to see the dead. This is a great runway to lift off from—but the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with the usual machinations of horror films.

From 2000 to 2006, there was a television show called “Scariest Places on Earth” in which a documentary crew visited locations across North America and Europe where paranormal phenomena had been reported. Clearly fake in retrospect, it captured my imagination at the time because it bothered to detail the history of each place. Each episode worked to establish a thick atmosphere of mystery and, eventually, terror. We even learn about some of the equipments employed that allowed us to hear ghostly voices or see shadows that human eyes are unable to see. Take any episode from this show and it would be better than this film. At least each one was only about forty-five minutes. On the other hand, this picture is twice the length and significantly less entertaining.

Spanish and Mexican filmmakers have such talent in changing the gears halfway through—or two-thirds of the way through—by introducing convincing twists and turns. While this film attempts to surprise the audience by moving toward slasher territory during the final thirty minutes, it does not work at all. The reason is because the majority of the work is dedicated to silly jump scares as we follow Angela down dark hallways. There is no story—no meat—to bite into that could then lead to a believable pivot that makes sense to the plot. In other words, the change in tone is superficial and unbelievable. It comes across as a gimmick.

“Malevolent” is low on scares and even lower on imagination. The latter, I think, is the key to telling effective ghost stories. The funny thing about horror films is that they don’t need to be scary as long as they are well-told. It must engage us intellectually and emotionally. Doing so allows us to forget how stupid it is to go down a dark basement after hearing raspy whispers. The best of the genre makes us to want to explore that basement in morbid anticipation.