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.
Lady Bird (B+). Indie actress Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) wrote and directed this indie dramedy about a high-spirited girl’s tumultuous senior year in a Sacramento Catholic school and her rocky relationship with her mother. I enjoyed it, and it moved along with a brisk 94-minute run time. Saoirse Ronan (The Way Back) shines as the title character (she’s named Christine McPherson, but she insists on being called Lady Bird), and we follow the ups and downs of her experience in Drama Club, her crushes, her relationship with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Neighbor 2: Sorority Rising), her college aspirations, and most of all her relationship with her mother, a hard-working and long-suffering psychiatric nurse (Laurie Metcalf, TV’s Roseanne). Based on Ms. Gerwig’s IMDB biography, I’d say this movie has a strong autobiographical component. It also has a 94 score over on Metacritic.com, so what are you waiting for?
Brooklyn (B). This new movie has generated tons of critical acclaim and lots of Oscar buzz for its star Saoirse Ronan (City of Ember), who also happens to be one of my favorite young actresses. But as my grade indicates, I liked it; I didn’t love it. It’s a straightforward and rather old-fashioned coming-of-age/romance tale. Around 1950, a young Irish woman named Eilis (Ronan) is leaving her little seaside town in Ireland, where her prospects are poor, for New York City. Her beloved older sister Rose has helped pay for Eilis’s passage, and Rose will stay behind and care for their widowed mother (who doesn’t seem like great company, so Rose is quite the martyr). A kindly priest (Jim Broadbent, Another Year) has arranged for a job and a boarding house to be waiting for Eilis on her arrival. She’s badly homesick for a while, but Eilis is a plucky gal, and the attentions of a nice young man named Tony ease the pain. Life throws some curveballs at Eilis, and the rest of the movie is seeing how she deals with them. This is Ronan’s picture, and I thought she gave a good performance. And yet, somehow I was never quite swept away–never quite forgot I was watching a movie. I think maybe the character is part of the problem. Eilis is smart and seems to be basically nice, but she is pretty quiet, takes her time to make her mind up about things, and definitely doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve. So she’s kind of hard to relate to or root for. We’ll see what the Academy’s voters think soon enough….
The Grand Budapest Hotel (B). I hardly know what grade to give the latest movie from writer-director Wes Anderson. He is known (to me, anyway), as director of whimsical movies, some of which I have liked (Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox) and some of which I haven’t (The Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket). The Grand Budapest Hotel is a very watchable film, with a madcap story that barely pauses to let you catch your breath. Although the movie is imaginative and occasionally amusing, it is so suffused with nostalgia and deeply felt loss that I left feeling pretty sad. The cast is a who’s who of working actors, but Ralph Fiennes (Wrath of the Titans) is the star and really steals the show. He plays M. Gustave, a concierge at a fabulous resort hotel somewhere in eastern Europe just before World War II. He takes a young refugee (from the Middle East, I think?) under his wing as the hotel’s new lobby boy, and the two have quite a series of adventures. Among the many familiar faces who turn up are the lovely Saoirse Ronan (The Host), F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus), Jeff Goldblum (Nashville), Jude Law (Side Effects), and Edward Norton (Fight Club). If you like Wes Anderson, I think you will almost certainly like this movie. But don’t go expecting a straight comedy.
How I Live Now (B-). What is the deal with this movie? It stars up-and-coming actress Saoirse Ronan, who has talent to spare (her recent appearance in The Host notwithstanding). It’s based on a supposedly-young-adult novel that won some awards and was presumably somewhat popular. Yet, I never saw a preview for it, and it opened in only two theaters in the Dallas area. And, in fact, I was the only person in the movie theater when I saw it! Anyhoo, it is an odd movie, and its R rating is well earned. Ronan plays Daisy, a Goth girl with some serious anger issues. Her mother is dead, and her father has shipped her from America to England to stay with some step-relatives. (It is important that they be step-relatives, because one of them is Edmond, a brooding hunk to whom Daisy is instantly drawn.) But this is a strange England, with tons of army guys everywhere on alert for some nameless threat. And suddenly, England is at war and apparently being invaded, and Daisy and her step-cousins are cut off and isolated in their little English farmhouse. After that, the movie gets surprisingly violent and ugly, and I emerged from the theater feeling a little shaken and brutalized. I cannot really recommend the movie in good conscience, but Ronan gives a good performance.
The Host (C-). I knew this movie, based on a book by Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, was almost certainly going to be terrible, so why did I see it? Because it stars Saoirse Ronan, a young Irish actress who has impressed me with her talent in pretty much every film I have seen her in (City of Ember, Atonement, Hanna, The Way Back). I wondered, would she be able to overcome the almost certainly bad source material she’d be working with here? The answer is: not entirely. The premise is mostly Invasion of the Body Snatchers, mixed with a bit of Starman. Aliens called “souls” have taken over the bodies of almost every human being on Earth, leaving only a few pockets of human resistance out in the hinterlands. Ronan’s character, Melanie, gets captured and possessed by a soul within the first few minutes of the movie, but her alien possessor is surprised to find out that Melanie’s consciousness is still present inside her head and quite resentful of the occupation. Melanie persuades the soul to go AWOL with her body, and the rest of the movie involves pursuit by a dogged alien “seeker” (Diane Kruger, Troy) and Melanie’s efforts to persuade the alien in her body that maybe it’s not so nice to steal other species’ bodies from them. Unfortunately, the movie is weak in several respects. It’s too long (2 hours and 5 minutes) and draggy. The dialogue (including the occasional internal dialogue between Melanie and her alien soul) is frequently wooden, and the suspenseful moments are not very suspenseful. Several of the actors are just not very good. Still, Ronan deserves some credit for making her weird character at least somewhat believable and sympathetic despite the underwhelming script. In sum, the movie’s not a complete turkey, but I really can’t give it a thumbs up.