Saturday, February 27, 2021

In a Dark Place (2006)

Spoilers and various triggers below

Last year's The Turning wasn't the first film to update The Turn of the Screw with a contemporary setting. As far as I can tell, that was 2006's In a Dark Place starring Leelee Sobieski as the governess, named Anna Veigh in this version.

It would be fairly easy to reset James' novella in modern times without changing much about the relationships, but In a Dark Place takes the opportunity to do a couple of things. First, it sidelines the already minor, but important character of the uncle who hires the governess. In this version, he sees her on someone else's recommendation and spends all of ten seconds looking her over before hiring her. All other contact between him and her is handled through his assistant, Miss Grose (Game of Thrones' Tara Fitzgerald).

In the novella and other adaptations, Grose runs the house, but has no authority over the governess or anything involving the children. She's Anna's boss in In a Dark Place and that power shift makes a big difference. For one thing, it's now very important whether or not she believes Anna's claims about seeing the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. In the novella, Grose could only affect the governess' state of mind by supporting her or not. In this film, Anna could lose her job if Grose decides she's crazy.

More importantly though, it's eventually revealed that Grose is lesbian and - early coolness towards Anna notwithstanding - attracted to her new employee. Anna makes it clear early on that she's fascinated by Grose and wants to be her friend, but Grose crosses a professional boundary by initiating an actual physical relationship. And by the time she does, it's already very clear that she's just one in a long line of people who have behaved inappropriately towards Anna.

The movie opens with her being harassed and then fired by the headmaster of a school where she's teaching, but he then recommends her for the governess job. In addition to him and Miss Grose, the movie gradually reveals that Anna was also sexually assaulted as a child. And then there are Miles and Flora's hints at their own abuse by Quint and Jessel and that they possibly expect the same kind of treatment from Anna. 

This kind of abuse is heavy subtext in the book, but In a Dark Place pulls it into the overt text and shines a spotlight on it. Anna causes trouble for the children not because she's naively inexperienced as in the novella, but because her own, actual experiences of abuse by multiple people in her life, including her current employer, cause an incredibly strong reaction when she suspects that Miles and Flora suffered the same thing by the living Quint and Jessel, and are in danger of continued abuse by their ghosts. Anna gets so caught up in trying to protect the children that she becomes a monster herself and the final scenes of her chasing Miles through the mansion (insisting that she's trying to save him) reminded me a lot of Jack Nicholson's hunting Shelley Duvall in The Shining.

It's a fascinating twist that still stays quite true to the spirit of the book. If the film were better directed, I'd probably love it, but Donato Rotunno uses a lot of weird camera angles and points of view and long periods of silence that distracted me rather than enhancing anything. 

Three-and-a-half out of five troubled teachers.   

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Writing is Hard: Humans are humans

After the last After Dinner Lounge episode, Erik Johnson made a comment on Twitter that reminded me of something I want to drop here. Jack Kirby came up in the podcast thanks to Evan's reading The Eternals, which led Erik to write, "I’m foaming at the mouth with excitement hearing your Jack Kirby discussion being such a big fan of the man’s work, but I will admit my knowledge dips off after Silver Age years. His visuals are still great but the writing is a bit out there."

Thinking about Kirby's writing reminded me of a piece of writing advice he gave that's stuck with me ever since I read it. I've reinterpreted it and probably misquoted it through the years, so I want to document it here in case I need to refer to it again. 

In an interview posted at the Jack Kirby Museum, Kirby said that "Superheroes may be superhuman in stature but inside they’re human beings and they act and react as human beings [...] It  doesn’t matter whether you’re doing legendary characters like Hercules or modern characters, you’ll find that humans are humans and they’ll react the same way in certain situations."

That's profound and like I said, it's always stuck with me. You can put characters into all kinds of crazy, outlandish situations, but as long as they act like real people, as a writer you'll always be okay.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Hellbent for Letterbox | El Dorado (1966)

After loving Rio Bravo, Pax and I come back for more with the similarly plotted Howard Hawks / John Wayne / Leigh Brackett classic El Dorado. Robert Mitchum steps in for Dean Martin, James Caan subs for Ricky Nelson, and Charlene Holt replaces Angie Dickinson, but how do the films compare?

Download or listen to the episode here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Turn of the Screw: The Opera by Benjamin Britten

In 1954, composer Benjamin Britten debuted his operatic version of The Turn of the Screw. I watched a performance directed by Katie Mitchell with music by City of London Sinfonia. I've had a hard time verifying when it was recorded, but that's not important anyway. It's sometime within the last couple of decades and Mitchell's given the production a stark, modern quality with minimalist sets. I've seen photos of other productions that embrace the story's period, gothic atmosphere and I wish those were available to watch. Even though I don't love the version I saw, I'd be interested in a live production with a more opulent look.

It's impossible to tell how many of the changes to James' story are Britten's and how many are Mitchell's, but whoever's responsible, the performance I watched is explicit about the existence of the ghosts. They not only appear to Miles and Flora when the governess isn't around, but they also appear in one scene together alone with no mortal humans to witness them. This emphasizes what I've decided for myself lately: that whether or not the ghosts are real, their power in the story is what they did to the children while still alive. The haunting can be literal or figurative, but it's the same result either way. The kids are screwed up, the governess senses it, and because of her inexperience and delusion that she's capable of handling the situation, she screws the kids up even more. 

While I don't care for Mitchell's spartan set, I do quite like the look of her ghosts. Both are dressed in unnatural, electric blue fabric and have blue coloring in their hair. Peter Quint (Mark Padmore) also has an ugly, red wound on the back of his head, relating to how he died. And Miss Jessel's (Catrin Wyn Davies) hair is wild and her dress is hanging loose, perhaps suggesting her drowning, but also giving her a disordered, abandoned look. That could be related to her general nature or to her victimhood by Quint, neither the opera nor James' novella give enough detail to know. But it works both ways and the ghosts are plenty striking. They're my favorite thing about this production.

Sadly, the other characters can't compete, even though the actors are all good. Operatic acting is different from film acting, but Lisa Milne is especially excellent as the governess, always looking around in curiosity, awe, or terror. But the production doesn't focus much on her. It's more interested in the ghosts and their influence over Miles (Nicholas Kirby Johnson) and Flora (Caroline Wise). The kids are close in age in this version, so the story loses the horror of Miles' adding his own manipulative influence over Flora, but that element isn't crucial in this version. Quint has targeted Miles and Jessel has targeted Flora and the unnamed governess has to try to rescue both.

Unfortunately, a side effect of the increased attention to the ghosts - both in how great they look and the amount of time they're on stage - is that the governess becomes dull in comparison. Britten's lyrics give her plenty to moan about and struggle with, but she can't compete with the ghosts. And she really needs to for the story to work. It has to be her versus the spirits with the kids at stake. And since the kids in this version can't really compete with the ghosts either, the consequences of the ghosts' winning aren't as dire and the whole production is off balance.

Two out of five apparitions of alarming associates. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

AfterLUNCH | After Dinner Lounge, Feb 2021

Evan, Pax, Rob, and I reconvene to talk about what we've been reading, watching, and thinking about. As always with the After Dinner Lounge, the conversation meanders, but topics begin with:
  • Books like Carthage Must be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Mediterranean Civilization by Richard Miles, Redwall by Brian Jacques, the Horatio Hornblower series by CS Forester, The Tournament by Matthew Reilly, and Storykiller by Kelly Thompson.
  • Comics like The Eternals by Jack Kirby and Marvel's Killraven series.
  • Movies like Mank, the Schwarzenegger Conan series, and Legendary Pictures' Godzilla and Kong MonsterVerse.
  • TV shows like Ted Lasso.
  • And real talk about Heist Stories, Separating Art from Artist, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Truffles.
Download or listen to the episode here.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Mystery Movie Night | Treasure Island (1950), Kelly's Heroes (1970), and Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)

It was 5 years ago this month that the first episode of Mystery Movie Night came out. 50 episodes later, Dave, David, Erik, Evan, and I are still making connections between movies: this time about pirates, privates, and puddle-booted primates. And there's a special announcement about the future of the show.

00:02:15 - Review of Treasure Island (1950)
00:15:40 - Review of Kelly's Heroes (1970)
00:32:46 - Review of Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)
00:50:22 - Guessing the Connection

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Presence of Mind (1999)

I wrote about Presence of Mind about this time last year shortly after watching The Turning, which is what got me interested in The Turn of the Screw again. At the time, I hadn't yet reread the novella, but based on my memory of it, I judged Presence of Mind to be a faithful adaptation except for some changes in location and characters' names. Now that I'm better able to compare it with the novella and some other versions, I realize that while it's certainly closer to the book than The Turning is, it still takes some big liberties.

I do still really like it though. Sadie Frost's version of the governess is young and naive like in the novella, but Presence of Mind comes at her from a slightly different angle from Henry James or even Ben Bolt's adaptation also from 1999. In Bolt's version, Jodhi May beautifully pulls out the intensity and paranoia of the governess. Presence's director Antoni Aloy seems more interested in the character's sexual awakening.

The movie includes some prologue scenes that aren't in the book, showing the death of the governess' father and suggesting that he was an oppressive figure in her life, even after his death. When she interviews with Miles and Flora's uncle (Harvey Keitel), he's charming, but unapologetic about his inability to look after his niece and nephew. He leads a lazy, luxurious life and can't be bothered to manage children, but what's important is his effect on the governess. His habits are so different from the austere, repressed existence she's used to and she can't help but be curious and attracted to him. When she visits his secret rooms at the estate, she learns that he's maybe even more wanton than she realized. But it doesn't stifle her interest in him.

He's exactly the sort of fellow who would tolerate a man like Peter Quint running the estate. And while the Mrs Grose character in this version (played by Lauren Bacall and renamed Mado Remei) is strict in her own way, she's also supportive of the Master. The governess is going to have to explore and awaken without support from anyone else.

The setting for the story is relocated from the English countryside to a sumptuous, Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain. Everything about the story is designed to arouse the governess, including - unfortunately - the children. It's clear in the book that Miles and Flora have been somehow abused by Quint and Miss Jessel, the previous governess, but the extent and exact nature of that abuse is vague. At the very least, the kids have seen and heard things that they shouldn't have seen or heard. It's affected them and Miles in particular has begun repeating some words - and possibly actions - that have gotten him expelled from school and that make his new governess very uncomfortable. 

Miles is experienced beyond his age and eager to experiment and experience even more. That's all in the book, but the extent of his "maturity" and experimentation is open for interpretation. Dan Curtis' Miles is pretty far gone and irredeemable, for instance. Ben Bolt's Miles struggles a lot more, as does Aloy's. Miles is a good, sweet kid, but in Aloy's version especially he can't unsee or unthink what he's experienced and that leads him to want to experiment with the governess. And because of her own interest in emerging from past repression, she's not equipped to resist Miles' invitation. She wants to though and that's the central conflict of this version. (Flora isn't a temptation to the governess in the same way that Miles is, but she's still affected by her environment and the film makes it clear that she and Miles are experimenting with each other.)

Meanwhile, the ghosts are very real in this one. It's Quint's specter who kills Miles at the end, not the governess' accidental smothering of him. Maybe that's because Miles has been more in control through the rest of the story. The governess has made an attempt to keep herself and Miles (and Flora, to a lesser extent) under control, but she's mostly failed. The more versions I watch though, the less interested I am in whether or not the ghosts are real. They can or can't be; it doesn't affect the real drama of the story either way. My favorite versions - this one and Bolt's - are about the governess' inexperience and complete lack of equipment for dealing with even the non-supernatural horrors of the household. 

I still love the ambiguity and certainly the filmmaking of The Innocents (with its older governess), but I love even more the boldness of Bolt and Aloy to deal frankly with the disturbing implications of James' story. From a sheer craft perspective, The Innocents has Presence of Mind beat. But as a piece of art that's trying to communicate something very specific (though disturbing), Presence of Mind is excellent.

Four out of five inappropriate instructors.

Monday, February 15, 2021

AfterLUNCH | Star Trek Trek 1 - First Contact

Rob, his daughter Delaney, Evan, and I begin a journey through the various movies and TV shows of Star Trek, in chronological order. In this first episode, we discuss humanity's introduction to the larger galaxy in First Contact

It's a controversial place to start since it's neither the first adventure of the time travelers who are trying to protect the historic meeting, nor is it the earliest time period that these travelers have visited. So we also discuss other Star Trek movies and TV episodes in which Starfleet crews (and the occasional Ferengi) go back in time.

Download or listen to the episode here.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Turn of the Screw (1999)

I first noticed Jodhi May as Madeleine Stowe's younger sister in the 1992 Last of the Mohicans. Her last name of course stood out to me, but I also thought she did a great job with a mostly thankless character whose main purpose is to motivate other characters. Anyway, I was excited to find out that she also played the governess in a 1999 Masterpiece Theatre version of The Turn of the Screw.

And it's excellent. It also has Colin Firth as the young, handsome gentleman who hires May's character to take care of his niece and nephew. And right away, I knew that director Ben Bolt was on the right track by having May's character be clearly smitten with Firth's. This is something that the novella is subtle about, but The Innocents emphasizes and I think it's crucial to explaining some of the governess' future decisions.

I didn't mention it when I wrote about Dan Curtis' adaptation, but its more experienced governess was hired by a stern, no-nonsense master who gruffly ordered her never to contact him. The lack of contact between master and governess is crucial to the plot, but I like it even better when it's not just a professional arrangement. Firth is kind with May and when he emphasizes that she'll be on her own with the children, it's not just a contractual arrangement. She's emotionally invested in pleasing him.

Her intense desire to do a good job affects everything. She becomes immediately, deeply attached to the kids, so when she starts seeing ghosts and learns that Quint and Jessel were past threats to the children and still may not be leaving them alone, she gets protective to the point of paranoia. She's nervous about the ghosts and suspicious of the children who seem to be under the ghosts' influence. May is amazing with all of this, showing her character's emotional and mental vulnerability right away and then allowing it to grow into something frightening and dangerous. 

The film is so good at the psychological stuff that it doesn't even really matter whether the ghosts are real are not. Either way, the effect is the same, which is the perfect way to think about them. It's the same in the novella. I like believing that the ghosts are real, but they don't mean anything if I don't understand and feel their effect on the governess. 

Miles and Flora are great in this version, played mostly as sweet by Joe Sowerbutts and Grace Robinson, but with occasional periods of mischievousness. In Curtis' version, the kids have been corrupted by Quint and Jessel and are now mostly naughty under a thin veil of sweetness. In Bolt's version, their natural inclination is to be good, but Miles especially is haunted by dark thoughts put into his head by Quint. That struggle affects Flora, too, and the two of them occasionally act out as a way of testing themselves and their governess to see if their relationships can survive the misdoings.

Jason Salkey's Peter Quint isn't a particularly shocking ghost, but he's none the less terrifying. Even without scary makeup, he's an imposing, brutal figure. Caroline Pegg's Miss Jessel is more conventionally frightening in her black dress and malign stare. She's a great, gothic ghost and maybe my favorite interpretation of the specter so far.

This version is so well done. Its interpretation of the story is well thought out and easy to follow, all the way up to its explanation for Miles' death at the end. 

Five out of five disturbed duennas.   

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Turn of the Screw (1974)

After enjoying what I've seen so far of Dan Curtis' Dark Shadows and his Dracula adaptation, I was looking forward to seeing what he did with his TV movie version of The Turn of the Screw (aired the same year as his Dracula). Curtis' gothic sensibilities seem perfect for the story.

And he certainly had a top notch lead actor in Lynn Redgrave. The house he shot in is cool, too. It's not exactly the sprawling mansion I imagine from the book (and that appears in other adaptations), but it looks authentic and has all the nooks and corners needed for a good, spooky story.

There are a few things keeping me from loving the movie though. First is just the cheap look of it. It was shot on video tape which does weird things to candle flames (an essential part of any gothic atmosphere) besides just giving a soap opera feel to the whole thing. It was also clearly structured for television, with dramatic pauses on characters' reactions as scenes fade to black for commercial breaks. 

That's a nitpick though and I can't imagine that I'd have felt the same if I'd watched it on TV in the '70s. The bigger issues for me are what it does to the governess (named Miss Cubberly in this version) and Miles. 

Miss Cubberly isn't the first time the governess has been aged for an adaptation, but The Innocents balanced Deborah Kerr's age with questionable experience and a lot of ambiguity that cast doubt on her mental state. Redgrave's character is almost Mary Poppins-like in her experience and competence. And when we first see the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, there's little doubt that they're real ghosts. So the movie has a harder time when it begins to suggest late in the game that maybe something else is going on.

To be fair, Miles and Flora give Miss Cubberly an especially hard time in this one. Miles is older than usual and extra creepy and cruel. The actors who play him and Flora had to have been hired for their ability to smile sinisterly whenever Miss Cubberly's back is turned. So I can believe that they and the ghosts wear her down so that she becomes paranoid and that her resulting bad behavior begins to feedback on theirs and create a dangerous situation. It's a reasonable approach to the story, but it's not very subtle. I prefer Miles and Flora and their governess to be more complicated and nuanced. Miles is downright nasty in this one. He has some fleeting moments of remorse, but there are very few of those that don't feel like an act he's playing to fool Miss Cubberly.

I do kind of like the ending though. By the time the story's wrapping up, it doesn't really matter if Quint and Jessel are actual ghosts or just symbols of the legacy of abuse that their living counterparts have left on the children. I think it's harder to read them as symbols, but Miss Cubberly's final confrontation with Miles does allow it. She shouts encouragement at Miles to overcome Quint's influence and it seems to work. Miles becomes penitent and they both hug, but in a last minute shock, Miss Cubberly looks at Quint's ghost and see that it's actually Miles. Then she looks at who she's hugging and sees that it's Quint. She instinctively shoves him away, he falls over a bannister and crashes to the floor below... and of course when she looks again, it's Miles whom she's thrown to his death. 

Thanks to some great acting by Redgrave, Miss Cubberly's reaction is heartbreaking and the whole thing feels satisfying until I realize that I'm still confused about what just happened. Why did Miss Cubberly see Peter Quint in her arms? Is it symbolic that Miles was still somewhat under Quint's influence and Miss Cubberly felt it and reacted viscerally? Or is it a literal transformation as a last effort by Quint's ghost to do harm? 

I prefer the symbolic reading, but that's true of the entire story. And since I feel that way about the novella as well, I've figured out that my favorite versions are going to be the ones that leave the most room for that interpretation. Curtis' adaptation is mostly literal, to the point that I wonder if he's actually left room for a symbolic explanation or if I'm forcing that on the movie simply because I prefer it.

Two out of five creepy kids.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The Nightcomers (1971)

Now that I've finally finished the Little Women project, it's time to get back to adaptations of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. I hadn't got very far in it. I wrote about the novella and two movie adaptations: the classic 1961 film The Innocents and an okay 1999 version re-titled Presence of Mind. Getting back to this series of posts properly, it's fitting to start with a prequel to James' novel. 

Director Michael Winner is probably best known for Charles Bronson action thrillers like The Mechanic and the Death Wish series. That helps explain some things about The Nightcomers, which stars Marlon Brando as groundskeeper Peter Quint. In Turn of the Screw, Quint is long gone and may or may not be haunting the home of two kids named Miles and Flora. If his ghost is real, then the ghost of the kids' former governess Miss Jessel is probably real, too. But there's a lot of ambiguity about how much of this is all in the head of the children's current governess.

Part of what makes The Turn of the Screw fun to revisit is its refusal to explain exactly what's going on. That leaves it wide open for interpretation by various adaptations as they use the story to address a variety of different themes. And a big part of this is the mysterious backstory of what happened to Miss Jessel and her abusive lover and what relationship they had with the children she was in charge of. Peter Quint clearly had a powerful, negative effect on Miles, but was the abuse purely psychological or was it physical as well? 

The Nightcomers takes a stab at answering these questions by showcasing the gardener's perverse ideas about the relationships between love and hate, pleasure and pain, and life and death. His point of view has a horrible effect on Miss Jessel and the kids, creating a dark, disturbing take on James' story. But it's also a valid and fascinating one.

As a fan of the novella, though, I was sorry to see some details from the book changed or ignored. Flora's age is a big difference. She's older in The Nightcomers and closer in age to Miles. I presume that's to mitigate the super creepy relationship between the siblings as they imitate the abusively sexual relationship of their older role models. It's bad enough as it is in the movie, but it would be even more horrific if Flora were the age she is in the novel.

A smaller change is the new governess who shows up near the end (and will be the protagonist in James' story). She's only there briefly, but comes across as more experienced and confident tham she probably should be. In the book, she's so excited about her new post that she gets out of the carriage once it arrives on the estate's grounds so that she can walk the rest of the way and explore. There's no such foolishness in The Nightcomers, which has her simply take the carriage all the way to the house.

These aren't really important changes though (even Flora's age) and they serve the story that the movie is here to tell. But they do get in the way of my thinking of it as a proper prequel. It's a compelling story, but also feels like an indulgent one with Winner highlighting the same unpleasantly gritty themes as in his other films.

Three out of five fake moustaches.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Little Women (2019)

And so we're back to the movie that started me on this journey. Greta Gerwig's adaptation was my favorite film of 2019 and sent me to finally reading the book and watching all the other versions I could get my eyes on. I was curious and eager to watch it again now that I know the story much, much better.

I gotta admit though, after re-watching and loving Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version, I was a little afraid that I wouldn't love Gerwig's adaptation as much in comparison. But that's not the case. This project did reveal that some of Gerwig's techniques aren't original to her, but even though they're important to my enjoyment of it, Gerwig lays a tone over the story that makes it distinctly hers and so heart-warming.

Armstrong was the first to infuse the story with overtly feminist commentary. The 2017 BBC miniseries added shots of Jo's school at the end, giving viewers a peek at the futures of the characters. And surprisingly, it was the 2018 modern-day retelling that innovated starting the story with Jo in New York and using flashbacks to bring the earlier story up to speed. Gerwig repeats all of these tricks and does them super well. 

The 2018 movie uses heavy visual cues to denote the transitions between the present-day narrative and the flashbacks, but Gerwig is more subtle. She lets memory and the present flow naturally together and then trusts the viewer to keep up with some help from color filters, hairstyles, and other context clues. She also doesn't just insert the flashbacks in the order they happened in the book, but puts them at relevant spots that are connected to whatever's going on in the present.

I especially love Gerwig's feminism, because it's so heart-felt and natural and never didactic. Jo's speech always tears me up when she talks about how women are so much more than just beauty and love, but that doesn't help the fact that she's profoundly lonely. And then there's Meg's insistence that feminism isn't about rejecting marriage, if marriage is truly what a woman wants. And Amy's defense of marriage as an economic proposition, because that's the deal that society has given her. And I'm in awe at how Gerwig eats her cake and still has it too with the romcom trope of Jo's chasing Friedrich Bhaer to the train station, commenting on and subverting it while still delivering it in a crazy satisfying way. 

As she builds on these approaches from other films, Gerwig also adds completely new touches. Her March sisters are gloriously lively and rambunctious. They wrestle and run and talk over each other. It's no wonder that Laurie, alone in his own home with only his quiet grandfather and the household staff for company, longs to be next door. 

Speaking of Laurie's grandfather, Chris Cooper is easily my favorite iteration of that character. In a lot of these adaptations, I've enjoyed identifying MVPs who bring various non-Jo characters to life in surprising ways. Claire Danes' Beth in 1994, for instance. Or Emily Watson's Marmee in 2017. Gerwig's movie has several stand-outs, but the older Mr Laurence deserves extra mention because that character often doesn't have a lot to do. 

Gerwig's script and Cooper's performance make me feel how much Mr Laurence misses his daughter and how much he relishes Beth's filling that spot in his heart... only to have her ripped out of it again. It's so tragic and Cooper lets me see just how horrifying it is, and yet the character doesn't give into despair, but allows the rest of the family to comfort him even as they're suffering under their own grief. The two households love and support each other and not just after Beth is gone. It's a lovely picture of what neighbors can and should be for each other.

(Speaking of which, I adore the scene when the March women take their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels and tramp past a church as people are gathering for worship. I can cynically read that as an indictment of a certain kind of religion that elevates ritual above actually putting one's faith into practice. Or I can more generously see it just as a statement that what the Marches are doing is worship. I prefer the latter, because we don't know any of those people gathering for church or what their motivations might be or how they are or aren't practicing their beliefs in the rest of their lives. But the symbolism works both ways and either reading is valid and powerful.)

Another thing Gerwig does remarkably well is Amy and Laurie's relationship. It helps that Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet are amazing actors, but the script fully embraces the novel's scenes of Amy and Laurie in Europe, helping each other to grow up and mature through some things that are holding both of them back. And then there's maybe my favorite scene in the movie where Laurie tells Amy that she shouldn't marry Fred Vaughn and hints that she knows why he objects and she stops him cold. 

"That's mean, it's just mean of you," she says. "I've been second to Jo my whole life in everything and I will not be the person you settle for just because you can't have her. I won't do it. Not when I've spent my entire life loving you." I fully believe her and it murders me.

So, yeah. I can say with certainty now - having seen all the other major adaptations - that this is still my favorite with 1994 being a close second and the 2017 BBC miniseries close behind that.

Five out of five letters from Father.   

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Little Women (2018)

Adapting Little Women to a modern setting sounds complicated and possibly ill-advised, but I looked forward to the experiment for the same reason that I don't complain about remakes and reboots. I'm always curious to see what artists choose to keep and what they change. And that's especially true in a story where the Civil War, small pox, and Nineteenth Century women's roles play such huge parts. 

Director Clare Niederpruem and her co-writer Kristi Shimek do a great job of updating the historical elements. Pa March is now a military surgeon deployed in the Middle East. Amy falls from a horse instead of through thin ice. Instead of catching small pox from a neighbor family, Beth contracts leukemia that goes into remission before eventually coming back. Instead of balls, there are high school parties and proms. That all works really well and I was fascinated by the modernizations. The only thing I scratch my head about is Jo's relationship with Professor Bhaer who appears to be her actual college professor? If that's right, there are some ethical questions that the movie never addresses.

What really doesn't work though is the extreme focus on Jo to the point that the film is only interested in how the other characters affect her. Laurie's grandfather only spends time with Beth in a quick montage and the whole Amy/Laurie romance happens completely offscreen. I would have loved to see Lea Thompson do a lot more with Marmee (weird that the movie keeps that outdated nickname), but she never gets the chance. 

Even more frustrating, as obsessed as the movie is with Jo, it doesn't think about her nearly as much as she thinks about herself. This Jo is completely self-absorbed, mean, destructively angry, and has a laughably juvenile concept of what it means to Write (capital W; back of hand to forehead) that she carries well into her college years where she should have learned better. 

The point of the film is to watch her grow out of that, but I still think it takes the character too far. The book's Jo matures from writing pulp to creating personal stories with artistic merit, but she's also always aware of the difference between the two. She just prefers pulp and has to grow into appreciating literature. In this movie, Jo believes that her 400-page YA mythopoetic epic (or whatever she calls it) is Literature and it's embarrassing to watch her finally realize the truth about that. Especially after she's been such a stubborn jerk about it for so long.

On the other hand, the cast is pretty great. Sarah Davenport brings out Jo's feistiness, but also her eventual regret and desire to change. Allie Jennings is super cute as homebody Beth who fights to keep her humor even when she's really sick. Elise Jones plays the younger version of Amy as an obnoxious preteen and I really like the hints early on that she has a crush on Laurie. It makes it a bit easier to believe their later relationship, even though there's less reason to understand why he's fallen in love with her. Lucas Grabeel is charmingly nerdly as Laurie, a kid who'd get picked on at school if he wasn't so stinking rich and self-confident. I liked him a lot and wish the film had a kinder Jo for him to fall in love with.

One final note as I head towards Greta Gerwig's adaptation: unless I'm forgetting something, this is the first version to start the story with Jo in New York and reveal the previous events in flashback. I think that's a smart way to remix the story and keep it interesting for modern viewers. Gerwig does it too and gets even better results.

Three out of five Skypes from Father.   

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Little Women (2017)

I liked this second BBC adaptation much more than the first. I wasn't sure about it after the opening scene in which the four sisters cut off locks of hair to send to Father, but director Vanessa Caswill shoots them in extremely intimate close-ups, giving the activity an off-putting, seductive quality. Caswill and cinematographer Piers McGrail love focusing on warm, sensual details all through the mini-series and it reminded me of Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. But The Age of Innocence is all about seduction and sensuality. Little Women is about compassion and wisdom. Especially in that opening scene (but also a later one when Meg's friends are getting her ready for a ball), the sumptuous focus on hands and hair and ribbons and undergarments are out of place.

Caswill also uses the technique on household items and nature photography and other places where it's not as jarring and I was able to just enjoy the beauty of the images. The look of the production is gorgeous.

Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) is maybe my favorite Jo so far. She's certainly up there with Winona Ryder and Saoirse Ronan. She's natural in the role and never feels like she's merely acting boyish or hot-tempered. She struggles to control her tongue, but not because anyone wants her to be modest and quiet. She struggles the same way a character like Han Solo does: because when she speaks without thinking, she alienates or even hurts people without meaning to. Hawke is wonderfully convincing in her struggle to control that.

Willa Fitzgerald and Annes Elwy are good as Meg and Beth. And Kathryn Newton is perfectly beautiful as teenaged Amy. She also plays the younger version of Amy though and that doesn't work as well. After seeing how nice it was to let Amy be a child in the anime series and the 1994 version, I've sort of lost patience with watching older actors play the spoiled, self-absorbed child. I'm kind of scared about how that will effect my enjoyment of Florence Pugh in the role when I re-watch that.

This adaptation doesn't really belong to Amy though, so I learned not to care so much about how it handles her. Her eventual romance with Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) just sort of goes through the motions without showing the couple's love and support for each other in Europe or even hinting at a deeper attraction until its time for them to get engaged.

In contrast, I deeply believed Laurie's feelings for Jo. The series has a few scenes that show him clearly in love with her and wanting to talk to her about it, but she keeps putting him off. She tries to be gentle about it, but he persists until it finally comes to a head and he ends up sitting in the grass, bawling, the only version of Laurie I've seen do that. It's heartbreaking and real and I loved it.

This version pays a little more attention to Beth than most (with the exception of the 1994 movie) and deals with her realization that she's dying and her reluctance to burden anyone else with that information. There's still no beating Claire Danes' version, but this one is especially tragic.

It's even more tragic thanks to the MVP of the series, Emily Watson as Marmee. More than any other version so far, Watson's Marmee struggles hard with raising these girls by herself. She's not equipped for it, neither with the support structure she needs nor even with the inner resources. As she tells Jo in the book, she herself struggles with anger every single day and that comes out in Watson's performance. But what also comes out is her deep, deep love for her daughters and her husband and her perseverance to keep her anger and despair under control for their sakes. She's inspiring. 

Dylan Baker is good as Mr March and the script even gives him some nice, extra conversations with Jo where he tries to mentor her on writing (he's been working on a book of his own for a couple of decades) and she ends up mentoring him instead. Baker also gets to show Dad's grief over Beth, which is lovely. Mr March is often very stoic through all of that in other versions. (I did have a little trouble accepting Baker in the part just because I love his hilariously evil character in The Good Wife and this was such a different role, but that's not his fault. He's great as both characters and I have new respect for him as an actor watching this and The Good Wife so close together.)

The two most famous actors in this don't get a lot to do. Michael Gambon is Laurie's grandfather and he's great as always, but the script doesn't go too deeply into his relationship with Beth. They have a nice scene or two together, but a more touching scene is with Laurie when the elder Mr Laurence offers to accompany his grandson to Europe as an escape from Jo.

Angela Lansbury is Aunt March, but she's underused, too. It's always nice to see Lansbury and she does a fine job with Aunt March's mood swings between snobbishly overbearing and surprisingly compassionate. I just wish there was more of her.

Finally, Mark Stanley plays Professor Bhaer and he's fine, too. He's ten years older than Maya Hawke, so the relationship isn't creepy. But Gillian Armstrong spoiled me with the 1994 version by having Bhaer be such a positive influence on Jo's transformation from dreaming child to functioning adult. 2017 Bhaer is handsome and gentle and supportive (when he insults Jo's sensationalist stories, it's an accident, because he's only seen them in print and doesn't know she's the writer). Armstrong showed me that Bhaer can be even more than that, though, so it's hard to go back to even a merely adequate interpretation of the character.

But while I pick on some of the characters that this version has made minor, I also adore the characters it puts in the spotlight: Jo, Marmee, and to a slightly lesser extent, Laurie. Jo carried me on her journey every step of the way and I ached for Marmee like I never have before. And I ached pretty hard for Laura Dern's version.

Four out of five letters from Father.

Monday, February 01, 2021

AfterLUNCH | The Expendables of Period Movies

Lizzie Twachtman, John Vanover, and Jeeg join Rob and I to create an historical period film with an all-star cast of actors known for their historical period films. And if that's not enough for ya, stay tuned to the end for Real Talk about New Math and Arrested Development.

Download or listen to the episode here.


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