“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.

“ Beautiful Boy”

A family split apart by drugs is not fun to watch, but this is a film that should be seen for its empathetic value.. In 2017, over 10,000 lives were lost in the United States due to crystal meth use. This film does not show most of the grungy side effects, but it does provide facts on brain neural function decline while skipping the rotting teeth. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen has just the right objectivity to frame the true story of the dynamics of a family in pain without shocking us with ravaged bodies.

Based on the memoirs of San Francisco journalist David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” begins with the father seeking help in understanding what this drug is doing to his son. Steve Carell tries to be stoic as he asks a drug counselor ( Tim Hutton) what he can do to help his son, Nic. ( Timothee Chalamet). Through a series of flashbacks, the film gives us a history of fatherly love of the unconditional sort.

Sweet episodes of Carell singing John Lennon’s “ Beautiful Boy” to his own son at age four mesh into memories of father /son surfing, biking, and sharing experiences. They talk. They hug.

Events have not been perfect. There has been divorce and two siblings,ten years younger, vie for parental attention. Stepmother Karen, played beautifully by Amy Ryan, supports her husband and loves her stepson. Tension arises while protecting their younger children. Her artist easels and canvases eventually are crammed into Nic’s room which make him feel pushed out. When a druggy girlfriend and Nic break into the house, Karen chases them but gives up in a puddle of fraught sobs.

Chalamet’s interplay with his young siblings is some of the most affecting. When the six-year-old asks if Nic is on drugs again, we wince. The family turning lights on and off has symbolic meaning. Like all drug addictions, this is a roller-coaster ride of hospital calls, disappearances,in-house treatment centers, and relapses and recoveries. Nic sees the hopelessness in the process. When David mimicks his counselor’s bromide that “ relapse is part of the process of recovery”, Nic chides in with “ Dad, that’s like saying crashing is part of piloting!”

The editing of the first part of “Beautiful Boy” is perfectly nuanced, but then it is as if the editing team went on vacation. Signs of depression, isolation, heavy metal music, experimentation, and fear and anxiety of high expectations are touched upon. Hedonic excuses of “I felt better than I ever have” sink into more lies and hiding. “Taking the edge off stupid reality” has its draw backs in rainy searches, group sessions, internet tutorials on injecting safely, and dark poetry, and wild handwriting.

When Carell begins lunching with users to learn more of what his son is experiencing, we know he is going to snort to feel his son’s euphoria. Monsters are back two-fold. The young children, Daisy and Jasper, are the only ones who don’t seem to know of the single digit success rate for meth addicts. Nic’s biological mother, Vicky( Maura Tierney) gives her best, as does Nic’s AA sponsor, Spenser.

I have warned my three friends who have been through this ordeal not to see this film alone. Seeing a family from the rear view mirror is just too much. The pee specimens, the morgue visits, the vomit are dirges enough. When Nic says “ I am addicted to craziness. You are embarrassed. Mom should have gotten custody. You try to control everything”, the audience sighs. And when Carell says, “ I trust you, but we need proof” as he hands Chalamet the pee jar, we acutely understand Nic’s wry comment: “ That’s about as contradictory as it gets.” The film’s ending leaves us feeling the same way.

An endnote:
Film viewers, you will miss the tone of this memoir if you leave before the poem by Charles Bukowski, “ Let It Enfold” is recited by Nic. If you jump up and walk out, you have lost.

“Call Me by Your Name”

Director Luca Guadagnino has given us a sensual ode to first love. While we all can identify with those feelings of being completely enveloped in another, “Call Me By Your Name” is a gay film. The screenplay by James Ivory is based on a novel by Andre Aciman. Greek statuary and Whitman’s body electric are on full display. Lovely Northern Italian scenes of fountains, orchards, and riversides mesh with stonewalled villas and alfresco dining. The handsome Armi Hammer is Oliver, 24 , brilliant, confident, and charming. An American doctoral student ready for a six-week stint helping an archeology professor ( Michael Stuhlbarg ) and father to seventeen year-old, Elio. ( Timothee Chalamet)  We know what the circumstances will ignite, but it will be a slow, romantic smolder. This is a film with no gender boundaries in love.

Timothee Chalamet is amazing as the young virtuoso pianist, who is both embarrassed and controlled by his gonads. This is a coming-of-age film and a celebration of the joy two people can feel when they appreciate and understand each other. At the same time, when Elio puts Oliver’s bathing trunks over his head and breathes deeply, we laugh at his impetuosity. Chalamet was also the love interest in the film “Lady Bird” . His easy change from  sophisticate  to innocent is fun to compare.

The themes of  pain and joy in total intimacy and their  obsession reminds me of Scott Spencer’s  novel “ Endless Love”. It may not be healthy, but it is romantic. Scenes where Elio places his matching Star of David necklace on his own body are as sweet as the juicy peach scene. The staring into the fire ending will melt your heart.

Armi Hammer is an Adonis who can not dance, but glows in Elio’s rapture. As Oliver, his  flirtatiousness and self-restraint are attractive end marks in his personality. We smile at his easy American nonchalance, even his chambray shirt. We know he cares deeply. All this is entwined with academic discussions on Brunel’s cinema, 17th c. German romance readings, and glorious pond swims in freezing alpine drifts.

Elio’s father’ s reaching-out speech elevates Elio’s suffering  and experience, though it made me a tad sad for Mr. and Mrs. Perlman’s marriage. Somehow, after viewing this film, the title made consummate sense. “Call Me By Your Name” or taking on your lover’s name personifies oneness here. It is a lovely film about human connection. Life tells me there will be a sequel, and that some many re-visit “ The Cosmic Fragments of Heraclitus” and the art and thought of other pre-Socratic philosophers.