Little Women (2019) (A-). I haven’t seen any of the numerous prior dramatizations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, and I haven’t read the book itself in decades, so I was a fairly clean slate. I just remembered it was the story of four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) living with their mother “Marmee” in the North while their father was off with the Union army in the Civil War. Director and adapter Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) complicates the narrative by making the “present” some seven years later and having headstrong sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) remember the Civil War-era events in extensive flashbacks.
At first, I didn’t care for the movie very much, but it quickly grew on me. I think it was mainly the story—the little domestic squabbles, setbacks, and victories—that won me over. Aside from Ronan, who’s always good, and Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated…) in a small but fun part as the girls’ rich and crusty spinster aunt, I thought the acting was merely adequate. Emma Watson (This Is the End) didn’t have a lot to do as oldest sister Meg. Laura Dern (Star Wars Episode VIII) mostly just beams happily at her wonderful daughters. And I thought Amy, the youngest sister, was miscast. I vaguely remember her as a flighty, spoiled, kid-sister type in the novel, but Florence Pugh (Midsommar) is a sturdy, husky-voiced gal who seemed more mature than all three of her “older” sisters. I expect she’ll be a better fit for her part in the upcoming Marvel movie Black Widow.
Bombshell. (B) I had time to squeeze one last movie in before the end of 2019, so of course I opted for the one starring the flawless Nicole Kidman (Aquaman). It’s based on the sexual-harassment scandal that engulfed the Fox News organization in 2016 and ultimately took down CEO Roger Ailes (played here by John Lithgow, Confessions of a Shopaholic). I’ve never watched Fox News and paid no attention to the scandal, so it was all rather new to me. The incomparable Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, a Fox personality who first got demoted, then got fired, and then sued Ailes individually for sexual harassment. Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) plays Megyn Kelly, an even higher-profile Fox newswoman who has to decide whether to protect her very successful career or come forward to corroborate Carlson’s story with her own account of Ailes’s misconduct some ten years earlier. And then there’s Margot Robbie (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), who plays a wide-eyed up-and-comer who’s currently being victimized by Ailes. Although the movie was interesting, I think it suffers from the fact that Robbie’s character is fictional (a composite of several women, I’ve read). The main suspense of the action is whether any women who work at Fox will come forward to substantiate Carlson’s claims, and the movie sort of sets you up to expect that Robbie’s character will be the one to come forward because, unlike Kelly, she’s suffering from Ailes’s misconduct right now. But then she doesn’t, presumably because she’s not a real person and the movie wanted to stick closer to the facts. Anyway, I thought it was worth seeing, and I note that Theron and Robbie have picked up Golden Globe nominations for their performances (though not Kidman, criminally).
Also, I was again impressed by the Alamo Drafthouse’s pre-show entertainment, which included clips from Kidman’s first film, BMX Bandits, and a comic bit from Funnyordie.com in which Theron pretends to be practicing an Academy Award acceptance speech in her bathroom mirror.
Ad Astra (C). This movie has done very well with other critics—currently scoring 80 out of 100 on metacritic.com—but I was underwhelmed. It’s a sci-fi flick set in the near future. Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading) stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut so unflappably cool he makes Neil Armstrong look like a bowl of quivering jello. Strange, deadly energy pulses from Neptune start threatening life on Earth (and on the moon and Mars, which have been colonized), and it seems that Roy’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman), who disappeared on a scientific mission to Neptune years before, may have something to do with it. Before you can say “2001,” Roy is blasting off from Earth on a mission to contact dear, old dad and, with luck, save the world(s). Lots of critics have compared Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now, which is fair, but to me the more obvious comparison is the 2007 space thriller Sunshine. Anyhoo, I found the movie visually appealing but much lacking in the story and character departments. Roy is so locked down he is hard to empathize with. Donald Sutherland (Forsaken) pops up in a small role, and Liv Tyler (That Thing You Do!) has the tiny and thankless task of flashing on the screen a few times as Roy’s estranged wife.
Cool Hand Luke (B). I think it’s hard to rate a movie that is well-made and interesting but also bleak and depressing. That’s how I found Cool Hand Luke, the 1967 film starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and co-starring George Kennedy (The Naked Gun) in an Oscar-winning supporting performance. Newman plays the title character, a decorated war veteran who lands himself on a prison road gang in the deep South after drunkenly vandalizing a bunch of parking meters. Luke’s blasé attitude and ability to absorb punishment make him an object of suspicion among the prison guards but admiration among his fellow prisoners, who are led by a loud-mouthed fellow called Dragline (Kennedy). In Luke’s shoes, I’d do my best to keep my head down and survive my two-year sentence, but after his ailing mother dies he starts the shenanigans that will get him in increasing amounts of trouble with the sadistic Captain (who has the famous line “What we have here is failure to communicate”) and his goons. What’s Luke’s deal? He’s plainly made out to be a Christ figure, and the movie kind of plays like a drawn-out Garden of Gethsemane sequence. But what’s his message? Love thy neighbor doesn’t seem to fit. Resist authority? What about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s? Even if Luke’s punishment was excessive, he did vandalize public property, after all. And why is he so rebellious? He alludes to having grown up without a father, and maybe his wartime experience affected him somehow, but I still didn’t really get his motivation. I guess some people are just ornery by nature.
Watch for Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Harry Dean Stanton (Escape from New York), and Wayne Rogers (TV’s M*A*S*H) in small parts as fellow prisoners. Apparently Joe Don Baker (Mitchell) was in there too, but I didn’t spot him.
Yentl (C). Hm, seems to me that the Magnolia Theater is pushing the limits of what counts as a “classic” in its Tuesday night classic-movie series. Nevertheless, onward! This was my first time see this 1983 musical starring (and directed by) Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). What can I say? If you want an extra-hearty helping of Ms. Streisand, this is the movie for you. The movie is set in “Eastern Europe” in 1904 (I think that’s what the caption said), and Streisand plays Yentl, a young Jewish woman who scoffs at marriage and wants only to be allowed to study Torah. Alas! Such study is reserved for men! But that’s little obstacle for plucky Yentl, who skedaddles from her small town as soon as her dear old dad dies, disguises herself as a man, and joins the yeshiva in the next town over. She soon falls for her passionate study partner Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin, The Princess Bride), but he’s madly in love with his fiancée Hadass (Amy Irving, Traffic). Oh, and there’s the little detail that he thinks Yentl is a man (although he does seems to get kind of handsy in after-school horseplay with his younger study partner). As the melodrama builds, Yentl pushes her cross-dressing scheme surprisingly far. Anyhoo, the movie was okay, but I didn’t think much of the songs, and I couldn’t quite suspend disbelief at the idea that Streisand (then 40ish) could pass for a Jewish man too young to grow a beard.
Lolita (B). This past Tuesday evening I took in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita at the Magnolia Theater. I’ve never read the book, so I didn’t quite know what to expect, but of course I knew the gist of the story, so I was prepared for a squirm-inducing experience. A snooty, middle-aged British academic named Humbert Humbert (James Mason, A Star Is Born) moves to a small American town for a summer, and he immediately falls into a lusty obsession with his landlady’s under-aged daughter, who is named Dolores but nicknamed Lolita (Sue Lyon, The Night of the Iguana). I read on the internet that she’s 12 in the book, but Lyon was 15 when the movie was filmed and looked older to me. Skeezy things ensue, and Humbert and Lolita wind up traveling across country together. Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank) is memorable as Lolita’s pathetic, desperate, and widowed mother. Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove) turns in a scene-stealing performance as a bizarre character named Clare Quilty. I hardly know what grade to give this odd movie about an untouchable subject, but I will say I was never bored and didn’t squirm all that often.