“Little Women” ( 2019)

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women” has a disparaging title for 21st century women. Granted the absent Marsh father, a Civil War chaplain, calls his four young daughters “little women” instead of “girls”; but, director Greta Gerwig does all she can to show us mature women. I miss not seeing children huddled around their mother, Marmee, yet Gerwig has given filmgoers something more: a quartet of passionate, rational women with discernment and heart to be loved again.

The film begins with Tracy Letts’ feet on his New York publisher’s desk and a fat cigar in his mouth. He orders Jo Marsh (Saoirse Ronan) to sit before he tells her that he will accept her manuscript with alterations. He espouses that “morals don’t sell”. Letts has a gleam in his eye as he pontificates on spicing her story up and making certain that her heroine either marries or dies. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “ The Vindication Of Women” (1798) comes to mind eighty years earlier. Director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig reminds women that we had not come much further in 1865.

“Little Women” (2019) jumps back and forth in time and in place. The screen tells us it is seven years earlier and we are in Concord, Massachusetts. Here we are reintroduced to the four Marsh girls and their mother, Marmee ( Laura Dern). Meg, the eldest is the most conventional. Emma Watson does little to draw out her character. Saoirse Ronan is stunning as Jo, as is Florence Pugh as the youngest, Amy. Pugh’s Amy is, in fact, is my favorite. Her deep voice and psychological insight made her wiser than her years. Timothee C. did not seem her match. Amy, also, held her own in the scenes with Meryl Streep ( Auntie Marsh). Amy comes to life not as a selfish and jealous baby sister of Jo, but as an brutally honest and insightful woman. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) looked too healthy for death, but the swelling music of composer and conductor Alexandre Desplat helps. The windy beach scene with Jo is grand. Beth tells her sister that she is not afraid of death. For Beth, death is like the tide going out very slowly.

The cinematography and score are lush. The film’s start slow. Too many long scenes packed with kite-flying, ice-skating, play-acting, piano playing, and painting. I noticed lots of fake-joy on female faces in Christmas scenes. And Jo’s shoulder-thrusting walk got on my nerves. The book binding and gold-gilt embossing of Jo’s first book is more evocative and one of my favorite scenes. Chris Cooper’s Mr. Lawrence stood out in the few male roles, as did Tracy Letts. Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie was too foppish for me. All in all,Greta Gerwig’s production has received more positive press than the final production warrants. A nice walk down memory lane.

“A Hidden Life”

A George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) quote underscores the meaning of Terrence Malick’s best film to date, “A Hidden Life”. In “Middlemarch: A Study Of Provincial Life” ( 1872 ), Eliot writes “ …the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts….is half owing to the number who live faithfully in hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs.” The true events of a conscientious objector, an Austrian farmer who is conscripted into Hitler’s army, plays out for almost three hours on screen. It is a spiritual experience that has me reevaluating Director Malick. ( I almost walked out on his “Tree of Life” 2011 pomposity . ) Eleven years later, this time Malick has a story to tell of obscurity and truth.

“A Hidden Life” is philosophical in tone. There is not much dialogue, and when there is , it is through letters being read. We see some real images of WWII Austria, newsreel footage of Hitler parades, but most of the film is in the small mountain village of upper Austria. The frames are replete with gentle swaying grass, meadows, and all absence of concrete. In domesticity, it could be 1600 rather than 1938. We are given to miss the simple valley life of white clouds resting on mountains, brooks babbling, and church steeples peeling. The film is worth seeing for its beauty and sound track. But there is an important story to be told.

Before France’s 1940 surrender, Austrian men when conscripted were made to recite an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Our protagonist, Franz Jagestatter ( August Diehl) silently refuses. His wife, Fanni ( Valarie Pachner) supports his stance. The St. Radegund rural community whispers non-support while potato planting, and we see the coming storm as Franz’s family is ostracized from communal work and festivities. The village women tell Fanni that her husband’s non-compliance is an ” act of madness”. Even the village priest counsels Franz to comply for the consequences of remaining silent are too severe. ” God does not care what you say. He knows what is in your heart.”

Glorious visuals of fast flowing streams and streaming clouds shepherd in reprisals for our pacifist. ” You can not put your home, your village in jeopardy. They will hang you.” ” You are worse than them, because you are a traitor to us.” Franz’s mother blames his wife for supporting his refusal to contribute or to accept the family allowance from the state. The mayor, his sister, and others admonish his pride.

Franz seeks further Church guidance from the bishop, whom he thanks for seeing him. ” Your excellency, ”If God gives us free will and our leaders are evil what do we do?” The answer comes too easily. ” Duty to the fatherland. Let every man be subject to the power that is placed over him.” The church bells are melted down for bullets. Living in fear is for the clergy, too. The cardinal rationalizes that Franz may be a spy. Priests are sent to concentration camps, too. “ God does not want us to bring suffering on ourselves.”

Malick has composed a very metaphysical and religious film. Using natural light only, we see Franz in his cell. We see Stations of the Cross, and an artist refurbishing the village church. Of his refurbishing, he states: “ I allow those who sit in the pews to dream. I create admirers. Many ignore the truth. I paint the comfortable Christ with a halo on his head. Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” Here, we don’t need to intuit Christ’s call to action.

When asked by the prison commandant what purpose his defiance serves, Franz stands firm. He is asked if he hears voices. He is told that the anti-Christ is clever. He uses man’s virtues to mislead him. We see a frame of a water spout dripping doubts. The film is technically perfect, with the depth of a man’s conscious in full view. Franz says that his bound hands are better than if my will were bound.

Cinematographer Jörg Widmer is the master of diffused light, awe-gasping frames, and Vermeer-like focus. I have not seen a more artistic eye. In capturing nature, the human face , and interior scenes his camera will stop your heart. The music score is by James Newton Howard. He features the violin. A forty piece string section is as romantic as it gets. Franz Jägerstätter is executed at 36 in 1943. His wife and three daughters survive knowing that Franz was beatified by the Catholic Church as a martyr. No matter what your beliefs, Malick’s film is truly heavenly. One of my favorites of 2019.

“The Irishman”

Praying that we see ourselves as God sees us has all the weighty guilt of a confession in “The Irishman”. ” The Irishman” is director Martin Scorsese’s best film to date~ “The Godfather” included. For Robert De Niro, it is a tour de force. De Niro controls the screen. His pain is palpable, and he makes us care about the morally passive Frank Sheehan, the man who quite possibly murdered his friend Jimmy Hoffa. Frank can’t own up to regret. He states facts rather than partaking in free will choices. A few hints are given as to why this may be. Sheeran’s World War II soldiering with its 411 days of combat and his “just following orders experiences” are equated to the relative ease in which he carries out Mob hits. Frank Sheeran is used to just doing what he is told. He fought under General Patton in Italy.

Frank is the Irishman. And he is a Philadelphian, who just seems to have drifted into Italian crime with the Bufalino family. Starting out as a food truck driver in the 1940’s carting beef carcasses to restaurants, he soon befriends the heavies: ” I can deliver you steak, the best.” We see him develop into a loyal enforcer, who sees more than a few threads in how the Mob has woven itself into American events. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Jimmy Hoffa’s rise as the head of the Teamsters. The film’s scope is subtilely large, almost epic, in how organized crime makes it mark. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is close to perfection. Based on Charles Brandt’s book, “I Heard You Paint Houses”, the action and Sheeran’s late attempt at contemplation balance our feelings of horror and judgement.

Likewise, the structure of this cinematic wonder is perfection. We first see De Niro, our bodyguard and hit man, in a fancy, Catholic facility for the aged. The score belts out ” In The Still Of The Night”. It is a grand opening for reflection. The camera pans the holy statues, the card games, the wheel chairs. De Niro’s monologue begins..” When I was young, just a working stiff..I started “painting houses myself”, a euphemism for wiping people out. He sets up his tawdry tale of actions with a kind of pilgrimage to a Detroit wedding ~ the wedding of his attorney’s daughter. The same lawyer is Wm. E. Bufalino ( Ray Romano) who saved him from a slew of crimes. In fact, thirteen grand jury investigations were held with no indictments.

Cool, episodic flashbacks are interspersed during the trip-ticked car ride. The pace is sublime. The period details wonderful. Who doesn’t remember the Howard Johnson orange and light blue interiors and the ice cream flavors on the wall?! Who doesn’t remember Lum’s hot dogs steamed in beer? The white walls of a shiny, black Hudson glide by ; guns are tossed nonchalantly into a river; Frank takes his family bowling , and they play miniature golf. ” Remember, You Belong To Me” is in the background. A fleet of taxis are exploded.

Robbie Robertson comprised the score. The chosen lyrics match the period and the existential place of the main characters. Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is rife with unique character traits and intense opinions. We learn that Hoffa loved ice cream,and that he never drank. He believed in dressing for the occasion and hated when anyone was late for an appointment. Hoffa’s ” You can’t trust millionaires kids.” refers to Robert Kennedy’s inquest of the mob going to the Teamsters for money and using pension funds to get it. Pacino gives a larger than life performance. His ” I ‘m going to jail because of you!” is a line delivered in lieu of a dozen jack hammers. There are some amazing Pacino scenes where an ice cream parlor’s tv screen announces the death of JFK. He is both respectful and certain that the Teamster’s half- mast flag will be returned to the top of its flagpole. Al Pacino’s Hoffa knows how ” to put on a show!”

There is humor interspersed with all the darkness. Hoffa bemoaning that all the Italians are named ‘Tony” is only one example. Prison bocce ball played in wheel chairs, another. There is a back-seat, fish-smell scene that will become a classic in every film school. The bread and grape juice Communion with Russell Bufalino and Frank’s selecting of his own casket after the salesman asks, ” If he sees anything that he likes” are perfection in symbol and resignation. Scorsese has a masterpiece here; and Joe Pesci, Frank’s godfather, has yet to be mentioned! Pesci is a powerhouse of silence. The antithesis of Pacino’s Hoffa, who never stops talking. Pesci is the perfect foil. He is like the devil when he utters to Frank, ” How strong I made you.”

See Martin Scorsese’s film on the big screen with an audience around you. De Niro has left the door open for both daughter Peggy and for you.

“Ford vs. Ferrari”

Two former Hoosiers, executive producer Kevin Halloran and screenwriter Jason Keller help to make a true car-racing epic fire-up the screen. Plus, “Ford and Ferrari” has an over-arching theme of friendship and admiration that makes the heart soar along with the cars. And Oscar-worthy performances by Christian Bale and Matt Damon are reasons enough to see this film on the big screen! Tracy Letts as the grandiose Henry Ford II and Caitriona Balfe as Ken Miles’ savvy wife are equally remarkable in supporting roles. The film is a “don’t miss”.

High whines and racing sounds set the pace for an re-enactment of the French 1966 Le Mans race where corporate intrigue, mechanical perfection, and individual decision-making keep the wheels spinning until they don’t.

The plot is emotionally resonant. Ken Miles (Bales) is the British mechanic, who marries the girl who likes the smell of wet gasoline. Their son Peter (Noah Jupe) is just as enthusiastic in his support. Miles is centered (even though he talks to his cars), driven to drive, and honorable. Carroll Shelby (Damon), is the Texan car designer, who admires him. Shelby has wit, swagger, and a sense of even play ( though he cops a couple Italian stop watches). All in a matter of fun, Shelby also likes to mess with the psyches of the Italian pit crew.

The photography with its reckless spins, u-turns , 7000 rpms, and rainy night maneuvering is worthy of a 100 million dollar production. Director James Manfold keeps his road-racing champions dear. If Ken is ” difficult” he also embodies an artistry not often celebrated: the genius mechanic cum intrepid racer. One terrific scene has him alone in the garage tinkering. As Miles listens to a race, he innumerates every part failure and mechanical wrong that transpires before the car is even pulled off the track. In the midst of his accounting, his wife enters his sanctuary with a picnic basket dinner. They dance to lyrics “you are mine”. Such an understanding and cohesive couple has not graced the screen in awhile. Another quiet moment is when Miles tracks the race on his son, Peter’s course diagram. These personal interludes work well for character development as they balance the pace of life on and off the race track.

In France, excitement and adrenalin flow as the drivers sprint to their cars and the French tri-color goes down. One handsome Ferrari driver gives the “ smoldering, European stare” and the American “can do” spirit is ratcheted up a notch. There is a little “trash talking” through side windows and plenty of torque. There is American ingenuity in the idea of switching out the brake system. A part is a part, and it is not against the rules Shelby maintains. There is more competition than the Enzo Ferrari team, however. The Ford Motor boardroom is full of powerful egos trying to make their mark.

The sound track tempo is grand. The human psychology resplendent.

“ The Miseducation Of Bindu”

The 2019 Heartland International Film Festival’s premiere of “ The Miseducation Of Bindu” was the fastest sell-out in Heartland’s history. A comp ticket from a college friend, who also happens to be the producer’s ( Ed Timpe ) mother set me up for a prime seat. Her daughter-in-law, Prarthana Mohan, is the director and, along with Kay Tuxford, co-writer. There is reason to be proud.

The film’s premise has a bright, but home-schooled and protected 15 year-old “drowning in every possible way” as she attempts to negotiate the vagaries of high school, U.S.A. style.

Barbarous assaults of racial taunts, gossip and slander combine with shaving cream and coin-stack pranks, lunchroom-tripping, and pool-pushing to keep the innocent Bindu painfully treading water. Actress Megan Suri is stunning as she brings her Indian culture to the forefront. Bollywood dancing and spice heavy food prep are lauded; her protective mother ( Priyanka Bose), not so much. Suri is in every scene, but one. Her eyes and head shots are memorable for both their innocence and their determination.

Bindu has a plan: she will test out of high school. This is possible if she can come up with the $57.00 fee for the Spanish exam by the end of the school day. Sam ( Gordon Winarick ) and Trenton ( Logan Scholfield) are the film’s bullies. Peter ( Phillip Labes ) is her stalwart friend, whom she protects with her own reputation in my favorite scene.

The serious topic of making a place for oneself in the world is replete with chuckles and some nostalgia for a simpler time, though there were always “Holly the Heads” ( Hannah Alline ) in our lives. Kudos, also, to David Arquette who plays a step-dad who really tries. Tonight, at Newfields catch “The Miseducation Of Bindu”. Many will learn what today’s high schoolers deal with without a principal’s mandate for inclusive, building-culture oversight. Timely, and a microcosm for us in this era.

“ The Nightingale”

“The Nightingale” is set in early 19th century Australia. Our protagonist, Clare, ( Aisling Franciosi ) is a Irish convict who is trying to get released from a penal colony where she lives with her loving husband , Aiden, ( Michael Sheasby ) and three-month-old daughter. The British officer in charge ( Sam Claflin) rapes her in front of her husband, shoots him, and tells his sergeant to silence the child. When the underling can’t, he throws the baby against a wall. Clare somehow survives the rifle butt to her head, swaddles her dead child and carries her through the colony. Clare calls on friends to place the baby in her father’s arms and bury both under a designated tree. Then, Clare is off to seek revenge.

Brutal, yes. But brutality in director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent’s hand is different from the Quentin Tarantino variety. Violence in “The Nightingale” is emotional. It is not violence for violence’s sake, nor is it being made fun of. Unlike a pornography expunger collecting his own cache of filth, Kent documents historical, sadistic viciousness rather than make fun of a culture that seems to vicariously enjoy viewing it.

On Clare’s revenge quest, vivid dream sequences swirl around her. Through crazed and in shock , she does take her friend’s advice and hires a black tracker, Billy, ( Baykali Ganambarr) to lead the way through the aboriginal forrest. The dripping fern and rain sounds are glorious, the mud and leeches less so. The high river, the lack of food and its procurement add adventurous scenes while bonding Billy and Claire as two oppressed souls: blackbird and nightingale.

Billy calls himself ” Blackbird” and he tells us that he doesn’t wish to be a white devil. The English have killed off most of his tribe. Billy is astounded by Claire’s own violence. When she stabs and pummels the ensign who killed her daughter, Billy turns his back on her. ” What did he do to you to turn you into a mad devil? ” More dream sequences follow and Billy stays. In one sweet scene, he offers a recipe for paste to dry-up Claire’s painfully milk-full breasts. ” None of your hocus-pokus on me” is her initial retort, but soon smokey ceremonies prove Billy’s ancient wisdom.

Though much of the film consists of 1700 style revenge, the themes of racism, colonial power, and freedom ring true. Some normal acts of kindness show when an elderly couple see Claire dazed and seemingly alone on the road. ” You look a fright. Come for a wash and a feed” , the man says. He later asks Billy to get up from the floor and eat at the table with them. Billy’s appreciation and tearful rage of ” This is my country” is understated acting at its best.

Expect raw emotional experience, and the most callous British officer ever depicted.

“Luce”

The film “Luce” highlights what a provocative tale and fine acting can do. Luce Edgars is the central mystery. He is a high school stand-out. The soon-to-be valedictorian is also cagey and at times too smart for his own good. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is marvelous in this role. Both like Lucifer and a lucent angel.

His white , adoptive parents ( Naomi Watts and Tim Roth ) have nurtured the seven-year-old former Eritrean child soldier to succeed ~U.S. middle-class-style. He partakes in athletics, debate, and leadership positions. He is the principal’s “poster child”. When an intuitive and stern teacher, Mrs. Harriet Wilson, ( beautifully rendered by Octavia Spencer) sees an alarmingly violent tone in one of Luce’s assignments, she calls Luce’s parents, but not before she has checked his locker. Illegal fireworks are found, not an AK-47. Still the musical score heightens the tension. Mrs. Wilson has previously found weed in Luce’s friend DeShaun’s locker and he has lost his scholarship. Confrontations ensue that suck the air out of every room your mind may enter.

The history and government teacher is savvy to Luce’s mind games and subtle threats. Spencer does not over act here. She is a marvel of restraint even if her language slips in passionate caring. She tells his parents: “He can’t fuck this up. Talk to him.”

Watts and Roth are superb, too, in their back and forth dance with their son’s guilt. Did he orchestrate the vandalizing of his teacher’s home? We know he set-up his Asian girlfriend to retract her previous statements. There are numbing scenes of manipulation by Luce around shared lockers; Wilson’s mentally ill sister, Rosemary; and a bouquet of flowers. When Spencer’s Harriet poured a stiff drink, I wanted one, too. She is this film’s tragic figure~so like our times.

Naomi Watts’ Amy is perfect as the liberal parent, who wanted to use her infertility to do something praiseworthy. Tim Roth’s Peter delivers his “ missed babyhood and diapers” speech to deepen the psychological fray. Amy does all the wrong things out of fear: “ I won’t risk the trust we built”, she intones. One of the most chill-producing events was to hear how Amy could not forget the pet goldfish that Luce threw across the room like deli-meat. This mom will lie for her child, and ironically his knowing this may save him. The fireworks have been both symbolically and literally hidden!

Kelvin Harrison,Jr. is impressive as Luce. We want him to be perfect, but he isn’t. Has America put him in a box where he can’t breathe? When he says, “ I haven’t been my best self”, we cringe at his understatement. Questions like “ Do you hurt people to prove a point?” surface. In his valedictory speech, Luce tells us that he was renamed because his adoptive mother could not pronounce his African name. In America, resilience is a virtue, too. As a “ war zone pull-out”, is Luce allowed to define himself ? When Luce asks his teacher “ What if you are what I need protected from?, we understand. Is reading and championing Frantz Fanon’s violence scary from a revolutionary stand point?

When Luce tells Mrs. Wilson , “ I’m sorry if I scare you, I just hope you know me better than that”, is he taunting or conforming? Are both equally bad? It will depend on who you think Luce is. What is behind the smile? What is behind the tears? Viewers only know that Luce gets a second chance, and that Mrs. Wilson may not. A stunner of a film.