“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.

“Lady Bird”

Actress Greta Gerwig’s directional debut in “Lady Bird” has a lot a humanities major would love: John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, August Wilson, and palindromes galore, and even Kierkegaard.  That being said there is also a lot that irritates.

This reviewer is still living in the Midwest and went to Catholic schools. I get Sacramento as the Midwest of California, and I get nuns. But as a rebellion film “Lady Bird” falls short.

Our narrator is Christine, (also my name) but “Lady Bird” is her name of choice. Lady Bird has an endearing habit of correcting adult statements with, “that we know of yet.” Her youth is open to all possibilities, yet she ends up back in her hometown after giving the big city only months.

This is a coming-of-age mother-daughter film, that while winning the Golden Globe for best Comedic Picture and  crediting Saoirse Ronan with Best Comedic Actress,  left me wanting. The repartee is alternately cute and affrontive. When NYC seems too far for her baby to go, mom Marion says   “What about terrorism ?”  LB eye rolls with an imperative: “Don’t be a Republican.” It is well-timed and funny, and merrily we roll along for ninety-three minutes.

We have the eating of unconsecrated wafers on the sacristy floor, and the derisive nomenclature akin to Trump’s “Rocket Boy”. Here it takes a Catholic twist bending in with a sacrilegious “Immaculate Fart”. Adolescent, yes. Rebellious, really?

A devoted, but jobless father( Tracy Letts), an over-worked and brittle mother ( Laurie Medcalf) , a  gay boy friend, and lust for the in-crowd’s acceptance all come into play as we would expect. Reading Zinn’s  “ The People’s History” during Mass, a creative touch. But rebellious?

We feel for Jules, LB’s “ghosted” friend, and for the Thrift Store prom dress scene with mom.  “Can’t you just say that I look nice?! , LB opines. Her alternative sassiness  and angst, and consummate self-centerness makes for a perfect adolescent documentary.

Lady Bird is plucky, passionate, and funny, but the film leaves little in the way of surprises in a teen’s life. A catharsis for Gerwig, maybe, but for most “ho hum”. My daughter’s rebellion would make a better story, just saying.


What romantic hasn’t thought that they should be at the Sorbonne, living in a garret? Who does not cry out in protest at straight jackets in Kansas ?  The film “Indignation”calls for adjustments in the world.

The score, the screenplay, the acting and the set design all coalesce in making Philip Roth’s 1950’s novel “Indignation” shimmer on the big screen. What a glorious old-fashioned film that has us either wet-eyed  or indignant that life has such suffering. Melodramatic ,yes, but exquisitely so.

Even the smallest of acts seem to cause real consequence. Being catatonic almost makes sense in this worldview. Not that there is not humor and nostalgic reminiscences in play, too. I defy any viewer not to care for Marcus Messler, our protagonist, ( Logan Lermen) who never really gets to come of age.

The score’s producer, Annette Kudrak, has joined two classical  composers,  Franz Liszt and Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky, to mirror the passion and the concentrated step-by-step work of a gifted college student. Logan Lermen’s face  is hammered with the music. Our hearts feel doubly.

An only child of Jewish heritage  Lermen is Marky, an aspiring lawyer whose sensitivity and wholesomeness of character will sere your heart. Yes, he can be intellectually brash and know-it-all, but his studious spirit, his love of family, and his intensity will be an archetype for what fate can serve.

In one of the most surprising scenes, Marcus’ mother visits campus.  As Esther, Linda Emond amazes. She is not buying her son’s new love relationship or his response to her warning of becoming side-tracked. Marcus tries to tease his mom with ” she ( the mesmerizing Olivia) is a weak little thing”.  “It is weakness that makes her powerful ” his mother wisely intones.  She is not so wise when she sacrificially bargains with her son. She will not divorce his dad Max if Marcus stays away from his suicidal girl friend. Danny Burstein uses every muscle as the frantic, neurotic Max. Images of him slumped and crying in the meat freezer, hoary faced and trying to literally “chill” will have you shaking and forewarned at what is yet to come.

The set design is beautifully evocative. The conservative Newark  home, the meat market, the funeral parlor and temple are all somber and dark. In contrast, the bright college campus is both intimate and communal, argyle sweaters, the one Jewish fraternity. Scenes like the mother’s apology and the twenty minute dean conference where  beaded sweat and tears show Logan’s indignation bursting are all  director and screenplay writer James Schmas’ gifts to us.

Sarah Gadon is haunting as Olivia Hutton. Gadon lights up the screen as well as Marcus when she says, ” I what to hear everything!” after she hands him a warm wash cloth and a glass of water. She is a mother’s worse nightmare under hospital sheets. She has smitten Marcus with her sexual experience and her vulnerability.  We know there is a backstory to her psychological state.The last wallpapered set has us  crying for her slumped figure,too.

Dean Caudwell ( Tracy Letts) is stereotypically the dean, insufferable because he is so sure he knows truth. His cliches are born from his experience and his traditional role. He is both easy to mock and easy to like, a role hard to balance. Pigeon-holing students may be his only crime. We can smirk and recognize  his intentions while never wishing to be in his  big shoes. The early fifties at the beginning of The Korean War is the era and the mores understandable.

Ironically, we are left thinking of the parents, Max and Esther, as the credits roll. Love hurts.  Marcus had returned  their love in touching patience and acknowledgement. You think of them and wonder how they will survive as much as you think of mistakes and consequences. Bring a handkerchief, Kleenex won’t do here unless you bring the whole box. And re-read Roth; he has lots to offer.