Little Women (2019)

I have never experienced the apparently widespread phenomenon of being in a theater full of people who applaud the end of a film (at least not in a regularly scheduled film, as it has been known to happen at Weird Wednesdays and Terror Tuesdays, or when the director is in attendance), but I got my first taste of this peculiarity yesterday when Little Women concluded. Perhaps it is because I rarely find myself viewing a period piece at 1:15 on a Saturday afternoon and thus am almost never the youngest person in an auditorium by 30 years. I did expect that this might be the case, and I’ve certainly been in my fair share of screenings in which someone fell asleep, but this was definitely the first time I could hear someone snoring during the trailers (the same poor soul likewise dozed off again about an hour in, judging by the identical sounds). This is not indicative of the quality of Greta Gerwig’s latest, however; this movie is fantastic.

It’s the Reconstruction era. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) has just sold a piece of writing to a newspaper in New York for $20, the same going rate as freelancers get in 2020, 150 years later, just in case there are any Boomers reading this and wondering why their grandchildren are so frustrated all the time. Elder sister Meg (Emma Watson) has married “a penniless tutor” and had twins, youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) learning painting and hoping to be courted by a man wealthy enough to support her and her family, including “indigent parents” Marmee (Laura Dern) and Father (Bob Odenkirk) March later in life. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who many years earlier caught Scarlet Fever from a poor family that the Marches look after, is largely too weak to leave her bed after developing a weak heart as a result. Seven years earlier, Father March was working as a volunteer for the Union Army while Marmee tried to keep the family together, all four girls as vivacious and full of life as one small band of people could be, full of dreams. When the misunderstood lonesome older neighbor Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) takes his orphaned nephew “Laurie” (Timothée Chalamet, or Timmy Chalchal as we call him around these parts) into his home, he becomes close friends with all of the girls, inspiring an unrequited love deep within the young Amy while only having eyes for the independent Jo. Back in the “present” (seven years later), Jo makes her way home to Concord upon learning that Beth’s condition has taken a turn for the worse, while Laurie and Amy reunite in Paris as the latter begins to believe that her artistic talent is workmanlike and passionless in comparison to the pursuits and interests of her sisters.

This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent (minus one odd casting choice, which I’ll get to momentarily) and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable. Aunt March in particular comes across quite well in this outing, with Streep infusing the role, one of a harsh spinster who condescends and proclaims a hardline fusion of morality and manners at her nieces (especially the recalcitrant Jo), with a mild comic edge that humanizes her. Her appearances are rare, but gone is the feeling of dread that her appearance could summon when reading the original novel, or in other adaptations. And it’s not the same old Miranda Priestly, either, but a new casual cruelty tempered by kindness.

Likewise, Pugh infuses Amy with a likability that can be absent in other versions, relying solely on the charisma of the actor to take the shallow, bratty, narcissistic monster who (spoiler alert for a novel that’s older than radio) in a particularly petulant moment burns her sister’s long-labored upon novel out of spite for not getting to go to the theater. That still happens in this version, and it is still treated as unforgivable, but Pugh’s elevated performance lends Amy’s childhood frivolity a lightness: when Jo cuts her hair in order to obtain money for Mother March to go the DC hospital where her husband is being treated, Pugh’s delivery of “Your one beauty!” is hilarious. Likewise, the recurring element of Amy being proud of her diminutive feet (“the best in the family”) is delightful, appearing first on the evening that she first meets Laurie as she proclaims that she would never twist her ankle while dancing as Meg had, and later when she decides to make him a plaster mold of said dainty feet so as to prevent Laurie from forgetting about them. Even her marriage, which for fifteen decades has been near universally read as the ultimate culmination of her childhood model of femininity, is presented here as the result of an awareness of the necessity of sacrifice as much as it is an unearned reward for her behavior. “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life,” Jo says at one point, and while she’s right, there comes a time when youngest March girl woman steps up and takes responsibility where her sisters can’t or won’t.

Of course, Jo is the star, and Ronan plays her with aplomb, but the internet will soon be full of gushing pieces that are better written than mine about her newest star turn. The only truly miscast part here is Odenkirk as Father March. I may be dating myself here, but the equation “Bob Odenkirk + period piece + sideburns” will always have the sum “A new Mr. Show sketch is starting!” to me, and there’s no way around that. When Father March comes back from DC after his recovery, there’s no way that your first thought isn’t that we’re about to hear about megaphone crooner Dickie Crickets or The Story of the Story of Everest (which you either love or hate). It’s not enough to bring the movie to a halt, but if you start laughing, you may get accusing stares from the elderly.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Midsommar (2019)

“For Dani, it is a wish fulfillment fantasy. A fairy tale.”

About a week after seeing Midsommar, the friend with whom I attended a screening featuring a post-film Q&A with director Ari Aster turned to me as we were hanging out and asked, “Boomer, did you actually like Midsommar?” And I replied, “Yeah, of course I did. Didn’t you?” To which he responded, “I’m not sure. I think that Q&A kinda ruined it for me.” And I have to admit, as soon as the film ended, I was fully ready to do my write-up, only for my excitement to dwindle as Aster and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League swirled mostly-empty rocks glasses and chuckled. At first, I was mostly concerned for Aster’s feelings (I’m a softie like that); when I saw Hereditary, there wasn’t a single guffaw or chuckle from the audience with whom I sat in the dark and partook in a somber meditation on grief (at least until the very end, but I’ll circle back around to that), but in the sold-out audience for Midsommar, there were laughs within the first 5 minutes, leading to out-and-out peals of laughter until the film’s closing moments. I worried that Aster would hear this reaction and determine that we were a theater filled with bumpkins and deviants–and not the fun kind–who didn’t appreciate his work.

This was not the case, or if it was, Aster did a good job covering his disappointment, engaging in the good natured ribbing of the characters’ foibles, noting that if a viewer didn’t think the film was intentionally comedic by the time an older woman was manhandling the male lead’s buttocks and helping him thrust, then he must not have done his job. Comedy was his real interest, he stated, and he had gotten sidelined into doing horror because that seemed to be of greater public interest. And that is one of the beautiful draws of Midsommar: it is hilarious. I needn’t have worried at all it seems; I wrote in my Hereditary review about “a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences,” but Aster stated that he himself found that scene hilarious, and it was intentionally comedic.

It’s been long enough since Midsommar came out that an extended director’s cut rerelease has already happened, but in case you’ve had the misfortune of missing the film, a brief synopsis: Dani (Florence Pugh), recently having experienced a horrific family tragedy, accompanies her douchebag boyfriend Chad Christian (Jack Reynor) on a trip to Sweden. Ostensibly, this is not a holiday but a research expedition as part of Josh (William Jackson Harper)’s thesis research about Hårga, the commune from which the group’s exchange student friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) hails. However, the inclusion of Mark (Will Poulter), a doofus completely lacking in even the least bit of self-awareness, cements that the Swedish foray exists solely for the purpose of eating a bunch of mushrooms and trying to bed as many commune girls as possible during the Hårga’s titular Midsommar festival, with this year’s being a special kind that only comes every ninety years. And then, as is the genre’s wont, bad things happen. And good things, too. After all, that quote about Dani above? That’s from Aster.

From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dead Calm to upcoming Movie of the Month Who Can Kill a Child?, I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the “day won’t save you” concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of “darkness” with about the success that you would expect. People lose track of time and then possibly lose track of the concept of time, all under the watchful and unfaltering gaze of the sun. That alone isn’t enough to make the film worthwhile, of course; the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man kept the seminal original’s daytime frights, but lost the core of what made Robin Hardy’s version a classic (although what it lost in the fire it gained in the flood; it’s a romp).

What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called “static image[s] of relatively little interest.” It’s been three years since the YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” stopped updating, but I have no doubt that they would have a lot to say about the growing Aster oeuvre. His two big features so far have depended heavily on lingering shots of mostly-static settings to convey a sense of displacement and balance. The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.

A friend who is known for his tirades recently produced a new rant about the performative sententiousness of horror fans, noting that many he has met seem to think that horror fans have a kind of ownership of subtextual analysis. And hey, I know I’ve been guilty of that. (Said friend also hated Hereditary, unsurprisingly.) In a way, Aster reminds me of Panos Cosmatos, in that his films act as originals in spite of being pastiches of older genre films; I’ve said before that my favorite thing about Hereditary is how it starts out as an apparent homage to The Bad Seed, before turning into Ordinary People for so long that you gaslight yourself into thinking all that seemingly extraordinary stuff from Act 1 was just in your head, before bam: Rosemary’s Baby all along. In Midsommar we find a movie that, frankly, owes its existence to the aforementioned The Wicker Man (1973, just to be clear), but has a lot more going on than at first meets the eye. You don’t need another thinkpiece on this movie; various outlets have already dove into the apparent pro-eugenics nature of the narrative, an argument that I’ve read four times now and still have difficulty following, and have read the film as a trans narrative and a new camp classic. And if a slightly sloppy Q&A (someone actually gave Aster their contact info on a Drafthouse order card and asked to work on his next project, so the audience was matching the level of “shoot your shot” that the director was putting out, at least) in which Aster admitted under questioning that the 72-year life cycle didn’t actually jibe with the 90-year festival cycle didn’t ruin it altogether, I don’t think anything can.

P.S.: I didn’t even get to touch on my three favorite moments, but here they are:

  1. The paneled cloth depicting a particular Hårga fertility ritual, and each time that something popped up on screen that had appeared in it previously (how Christian didn’t notice that his lemonade was distinctly pinker than anyone else’s is a mystery).
  2. The foreshadowing in Pelle’s scene with Dani, where he tells her that his parents died too. In a fire.
  3. “What game are those kids playing?”
    “Skin the fool.”

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Fighting with My Family (2019)

Even though I’m a huge pro wrestling fan and Stephen Merchant’s dual credit as writer-director vouched for its quality, I did not expect to get much out of Fighting with My Family. WWE-produced content tends to have a slick, careful, personality-free approach to revisionist history when telling its own story, which usually prompts me to expect the eerie gloss of a Dianetics infomercial DVD rather than heartfelt cinema. Maybe it was that hyperactive skepticism that allowed me to have an intense, unexpected emotional reaction to this picture despite its unembarrassed commercialism and weakness for revisionist bullshit. This is the hardest I’ve laughed and the most I’ve cried in a movie I didn’t expect either from since 2017’s Power Rangers reboot (which was essentially a feature-length commercial for Krispy Kreme donuts). Aesthetically & craft-wise, Fighting with My Family feels like a poorly aged relic from the early aughts, a once-true story sanitized for wide commercial appeal. Yet, as an achievement in screenwriting, it’s a shockingly dirty, oddly inspiring rise-to-power story that somehow does the pro wrestler Paige’s early career & peculiar familial dynamic full justice, against all odds. The clash of its rowdy dialogue & commercial production sheen feels like an approximation of an R-rated Disney Chanel Original Movie – the exact kind of target audience grey area pro wrestling occupies in the real world.

Paige, born Saraya-Jade Bevis & originally wrestling under the ring name Britani Knight, is portrayed in this simplistic rise to power biopic by acting chameleon Florence Pugh (entirely unrecognizable from her breakout role in Lady Macbeth). Raised by professional wrestler parents (Nick Frost & Lena Headey), she was trained in the ring by her older brother as a family-supporting commodity, just like in any other clan of carnies. When she’s unexpectedly signed by the WWE to wrestle on international TV, Paige has to contend with two separate crises: one with her family and one with the outdated shape of the wrestling community’s inclusion of women. Her family is proud of her professional accomplishments, but also sad to see her go (along with the money she makes for their local promotion) and resentful that her wrestling fanatic brother was not also signed. As a pale mall-goth with a life-long pro wrestling fetish, she’s also at odds with how major promotions treated their female performers until recent years: as eye candy or, in her parlance, T&A. Paige’s major contribution to WWE, what makes her biopic worthy to fans in the wrestling community, is how her unconventional fashion choices & legitimate ring skills helped bring an end to WWE’s Divas era, where women were mostly hired as models & dancers to stir up fans’ libidos. She helped usher in the current so-called Women’s Revolution, where legitimate female performers from the indie circuit are being given an opportunity to wrestle in earnest. What makes Fighting with My Family impressive as a piece of writing, though, is that it never villainizes Paige’s family or the more conventional eye-candy babes she seeks to prove herself against. Nor does it let her off the hook for her shortcomings in handling these conflicts as a naive teen suddenly burdened with massive responsibilities. The movie offers empathy to every character its story touches while not at all shying away from their faults, which is just as important to its success as sketching out how influential Paige was in wrestling’s recent, gendered sea change.

Of course, anyone who’s already familiar with Paige’s WWE career should find plenty to chew on here while picking apart the film’s rearranged timeline & selective memory. Specifically, Paige’s career-ending injuries & backstage controversies are (smartly) excised here to make for a cleaner, more inspiring version of the truth. Yet, the movie surprisingly doesn’t shy away from including WWE pariah AJ Lee from the story of how Paige influenced a massive change within the Women’s Division, which Lee also had a major involvement in before she became a persona non grata within the company (although they do weirdly mischaracterize Lee here as an ex-model Bella-type instead of a fellow wrestling-nerd goth). For wrestling fans, these storytelling decisions (along with the company’s continued support & inclusion of Paige after her body gave out at a disturbingly young age) are an encouraging sign of changing times, and it feels great to see the upswing of that change reflected here in the context of Paige’s early-career accomplishments. I’d like to think Fighting with My Family works just as well for audiences who don’t care at all about wrestling, though. Stephen Merchant’s dialogue (and bit part cameo) is sharply funny. Paige’s familial dynamic as the sole breakout star in a clan of fame-starved wrestling carnies is objectively fascinating (and well-performed by Pugh). The film also makes a genuine effort to convey pro wrestling’s artistic & emotional appeal – both on the scale of communal VFW hall events and on the global stage of the WWE. I can’t guarantee that everyone will have as emotional of a reaction to the film as I did – both because of my personal interest in women’s pro wrestling and because I’m generally an emotional wreck. However, I can at least testify to the movie achieving far more than you would typically expect from something so aesthetically unassuming, given its cheesy guitar-riff soundtrack & Disney Channel sheen. The strengths of Merchant’s writing instincts & Pugh’s fully-committed performance are likely to catch you off-guard in tandem, forming one superb tag team.

-Brandon Ledet

Lady Macbeth (2017)

I’ve always thought of myself as enough of a costume drama nerd to always be on the hook for a period piece with enough pretty dresses & careful attention to set design. Lady Macbeth proved me wrong. Adapted from the 19th Century bodice-ripper
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and stripped to only the barest of narrative details, the film is both slight & driven by prurience. That exact formula didn’t stop me in the past from enjoying the Russ Meyer schlock Fanny Hill: A Memoir a Woman of Pleasure, though, so the things that bothered me about Lady Macbeth have been much more difficult to pinpoint. My problems with the film have been much more tied to how its narrative structure obscures its themes & intent until the very last minute, so that the film’s thesis plays like a gotcha! twist instead of a fully explored idea. Lady Macbeth is a harsh film packed with cruel, confusing behavior from characters we don’t know and we don’t get to know. Withholding the purpose of their vicious selfishness until the last minute leaves the film leading up to the reveal feeling pointlessly ugly on a spiritual level, something even a (very) pretty dress can’t quite cover up.

Florence Pugh stars as the murderous protagonist referenced in the title, a young woman recently married off as part of a land deal to an older man who has zero sexual interest in her. Alone in a rural England home with her husband, his ornery father, and a mostly black staff of servants & farm hands, she finds herself emotionally isolated & hopelessly bored. She acts out under this pressure in dangerous ways, “failing miserably in every one of [her] marital duties,” which, since her husband will not sexually interact with her, mostly includes listening to the clock tick while wearing a beautiful blue dress. Her protest of this unwanted life mostly entails starting a dangerous, adulterous affair with one of her PoC farm hands, a transgression she makes little, if any effort to hide. As the Shakespeare allusion in the title suggests, it’s a transgression that comes with a body count. She and her lover have to commit an exponentially depraved set of crimes to keep their affair alive, a path of atrocities she pressures the man into until his conscience can no longer take it. There’s a tonal shift from sympathy to shame as her transgressions progress this way, but by the time the film attempts to make a coherent point about the damage she’s causing the runtime comes to halt.

Lady Macbeth is a 90 minute adaptation of a (trashy) novel, stripping almost all story & character development that might provide helpful context for its flawed-by-design protagonist’s actions. There’s a Marie Antoinette-style critique built into the story that faults the title character for her flagrant misbehavior risking other people’s lives as she carelessly has her fun. That subversion of typical costume drama sympathies for women who are sold as wives/property against their will into a story about mishandled, deadly white privilege is certainly interesting, but there’s something infuriating about how Lady Macbeth saves that theme’s development as a last second twist. In the meantime, character motivations are baffling & left to be interpreted as pointlessly cruel. Two early, violent sex acts are depicted so coldly and without context that the question of consent is left entirely obscured, leaving them to feel like un-critical participation in the rape fantasies common to ancient romance novels. It takes an incredible amount of time for the protagonist to start laying the blame for her crimes on her PoC servants, who stand to lose much more than her for the transgressions, leaving no room for reflection on what that dynamic means after the film has concluded. In the meantime, what’s left onscreen feels far beneath the film’s visual quality as a period piece, yet not nearly fun or exciting enough to justify its pulpy tone. Then eventual theme is worthy of exploration it never receives, the characters on both sides of the crimes are never developed enough to elicit a genuine emotional reaction, and everything in-between feels like wasted time, save Pugh’s performance & costuming. Depending on your patience with its thematic reluctance, it might test the period drama devotee in you as well, if not make you question that inclination entirely.

-Brandon Ledet