“Little Women” (2019) Review

Authentic. If I had to sum up the experience of watching Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, then that’s the one word I would choose. Thankfully, I am not limited to simply one word to describe this brilliant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s best-selling, timeless novel. Being out of town visiting family for a couple of weeks, I do not have the same amount of time to watch movies at home or at the theatre, as my family isn’t nearly the film fan as I am. However, when my mom wanted to go to the movies, and asked me if I wanted to see Star Wars (again), I countered her idea with suggesting Little Women. She was utterly delighted to see the movie, and I am so glad that my mom and I got to watch this movie together. Just now, my mom walked through the living room (as my head is buried in my laptop) and exclaimed “I just loved that movie, the story is so familiar yet so fresh.” Sounds like something I would write. To my mom’s point, I feel strongly that the reason she feels that was is because this is modern story of the complex emotions, societal expectations, and ambitions of women masquerading around as a period drama. It feels both “of its time” and “today.” While to the casual observer, this may seem like a story for women, young and older alike, it is a powerful story for anyone that has dreams but feels trapped by whatever societal or familial forces. Little Women is incredibly heartfelt and uplifts the human spirit. Just the gift of the season we needed. There is something for everyone in this movie that remains committed to its literary roots, yet plants itself in a modern garden to be appreciated by and inspire all those whom choose to watch it. Greta Gerwig’s masterful storytelling is evident from beginning to end, and all the performances are excellent. You will undoubtedly fall in love with this story all over again, or will fall in love for the first time.

Following the lives of four sisters, Amy (Florence Pugh), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Meg (Emma Watson), as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times.

While the 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn has long sense been seen as the gold standard, I will be so bold as to state that this may be regarded as the best adaptation of Alcott’s timeless novel. Ever since I saw Frances Ha, I’ve known that Gerwig is destined for cinematic greatness. Her trademark artistic expression and ability to disarm even the most hardhearted, is witnessed time and time again in this film. Furthermore, Gerwig possesses a unique gift that quickly establishes empathy from the audience and begins to develop a relationship between them and the central character(s) quickly and effectively. For those of you whom are familiar with Gerwig’s semi-autobiographcial debut of Frances Ha, you will undoubtedly pick up on hints of Frances in our central character of Jo March. Although Gerwig has demonstrated an uncanny ability to write and direct, the real power of this film comes form her knowing the novel from cover to cover; the only way to intertwine the original narrative with the journey of the author is to have known everything there was to know, and then some, about Little Women. Gerwig’s creative decision to meld the Jo’s struggles and joys of being our de facto Alcott with the original story allows the film to comfort audiences with the familiar while wowing them with a fresh, modern interpretation of the story.

I love the five primary archetypal characters we have in this film. Jo is the rebellious independent thinker but struggles with loneliness, Meg desires a more traditional life but has a strong will, Amy has a creative spirit but desires to be a kept woman, Beth is empathetic selfless and nurturing, and Laurie is a self-centered bachelor whom lacks direction and focus yet wants to love. These characters provide ample opportunity for the audience to connect with one or more of them. The relatively simple plot of the film paves the way for complex characters and prolific amounts of dramatic conflict. While the main plot is about Jo and her goal of publishing a novel, all the other character have their own respective goals that support the subplot and are the conduit through which the subtext flows. While the characters remark that domestic struggles and joys are not entertaining, the irony is that these are the very things that make for a strong film. Strength of character is witnessed in how a character responds to and is affected by conflict–we love to see the reactions. No two characters respond to the same stimulus in the same way, and they each speak with their own voice. Through these characters, we experience triumphs, struggles, love, and loss. No Mary Sues in this bunch, nothing comes easy for any of them; and they work diligently to achieve what they want, whether that is marriage or a career. Each and every goal is earned, the windup equals the payoff.

Before addressing the technical elements that worked flawlessly, I cannot ignore the one element that did not work for me, at least in the beginning. And even then, I merely got used to it as the film went on. The editing. There are times that I was taken out of the movie by the pacing and structure of the editing choices, but ultimately it did not greatly hinder my experience of watching this future classic. It took several scenes, before I realized that we had more then one concurrent timeline. As a matter of fact, I believe we had three (1) present day (2) seven years earlier and then (3) shortly before present day. I’ve read that there are only two timelines, but I truly feel that I was following three different ones. I wasn’t always sure where I was in the trifecta of timelines. Eventually, I realized that I could follow the color palette, hair styles, and costumes as my timeline token. If we were going to alternate between present day and the past, I would have preferred if Gerwig took a page out of the Fried Green Tomatoes handbook for two concurrent storylines.

Now that’s out of the way, I have to remark on how much I love the cinematography, costuming, and production design. The cinematography works in tandem with the tone of each scene; moreover, there are moments that the cinematography is snug and warm, and other times that it is distant and cold. The emotion of the scenes is communicated lowkey through the camera choices. Period dramas are known for great opportunity for costuming to shine, and this film is no exception. Much like one’s fashion choices, in real life, are often an expression of the soul, so are the costumes of the lead and supporting cast. The costumes are almost characters in and of themselves. We can read some into the personality of the characters by the choice in attire. Along those same lines, the production design is also an extension of these characters. The locations, sets, and set dressing communicate so much about where these characters are mentally and where they want to be. The various production design teams demonstrate a keen eye for even the smallest detail that communicates the right mood, texture, subtext, or atmosphere. Period dramas sometimes struggle with making the locations and settings feel like real places that the audience can smell, feel, and touch; but this isn’t true with this film.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is truly a wonderful Christmas gift this season. You will laugh and cry along with these endearing characters in this Civil War era world in which the story unfolds. Gerwig takes the timeless story and brings it into a modern world to entertain and inspire a whole new generation.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“The Circle” movie review

Tries for a perfect circle, but winds up more like an oval. Full of endless circular logic and irony, director James Ponsoldt’s The Circle depicts the story of a not-so-distant future, or perhaps an alternative present, in which one company dominates digital media, data gathering, and surveillance services. Based upon the four-year-old novel by author Dave Eggers, you’ll notice some stark similarities between this motion picture narrative and the smash hit TV series Black Mirror. The biggest difference between the two is that The Circle is fast-faced and poorly written whereas Black Mirror is a slow-burning but well-written anthology series. In addition to the similarities between the aforementioned, there are certainly elements of The Truman Show in this movie as well. With a powerhouse cast, brilliant composer (Danny Elfman), and excellent editing, The Circle appears to have what a blockbuster needs; however, the hollow characters, poor character development, fractured subplots, and overall diegesis hold the film back from reaching the impact that it could have had. Having taken a digital media and privacy class in graduate school, and published a few articles, this is a film that I was looking forward to in order to analyze how the social commentary or commentary on the human condition regarding reasonable expectations of privacy and big data were integrated into the plot. Sadly, the screenplay was not strong or developed significantly enough to provide big data and privacy discussions.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) hates her job at the water company, so she is incredibly excited when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) lands Mae an interview at The Circle, the world’s most powerful technology and social media company. Mae’s fear of unfulfilled potential impresses the recruiters at The Circle and she lands the opportunity of a lifetime. After Mae puts herself into harm’s way but rescued, thanks to The Circle’s newest surveillance and data gathering system, she is encouraged by the company founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) to take a more active role in technology development by participating in an experiment that puts Mae’s life on display for the world (in the vein of The Truman Show) to see. Once Mae turns on that camera, she has more “friends” than she ever imagined and becomes an instant online celebrity. Unfortunately, this decision will affect those closest to Mae and the negative ramifications will reach far beyond her inner circle and begin to impact humanity at large. Sometimes, people just don’t want to be found or be “social.”

For all The Circle has going for it, the weak screenplay keeps it from being the blockbuster that it so desperately wants to be. A great movie typically begins with solid writing, and that is what’s missing here. After five minutes (or so it seems) of opening title logos, perhaps that is indirect evidence that there were just too many hands in the pot, each trying to take the movie’s narrative in a different direction. Much like Frozen plays off like two different movies crudely sewn together, The Circle appears to be one movie for the first two acts, but takes an unexpected and unfulfilling turn in the third. A couple of conspicuous unanswered questions come after Mae meets TrueYou designer and founder Ty (John Boyega). He designed the platform that launched The Circle. At one point he asks Mae to meet him in a secret tunnel (where all the servers are stored) and tells her that “it’s worse than I thought.” Great opportunity to introduce intrigue, suspense, and more. The problem is that the audience is never told what Ty finds or what happens with what he found. You can remove that whole subplot and the movie remains the same. There are other subplots that are nicely introduced, but never carried out as well. Any or all of them can be removed and the film proceeds the same. Not good. If you can remove several subplots or unfulfilled turning points and the film’s diegesis remain largely untouched, then you have poor writing. The third act in and of itself leaves audiences with a hurried ending that does little to provide closure to the narrative; however, it does support the film’s circular logic and irony. Hardly satisfying.

In terms of the allegory here, The Circle is a Google-like company with Apple’s technology. Eamon Bailey is a Steve Jobs type innovator with characteristics of Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Thankfully, The Circle does not represent any one company, but rather combines all the most notable innovations and technological achievements of Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, and more into one globally dominating company. Antitrust issues are introduced early on, but again, that’s never fully developed. The movie highlights many issues faced by private citizens, governments, and digital data driven companies today; therefore, it sets the foundation for a movie that could have been thought-provoking, but the writing hinders that ability. The irony in the movie is for every digital answer to streamlining services or bolstering conveniences, a little privacy is eroded each time. Pretty soon, if one shares enough information, the idea of privacy is extinct. Privacy was central to the plot, but it just wasn’t handled in the most effective way. Concepts such as “off the grid,” self-proclaimed “celebrity,” and “calls to action” are displayed and discussed in the film, connecting this augmented reality to real-world issues each of us encounter or think about. One particularly interesting theme in the movie is deep friendship. Unfortunately, this was not fully fleshed as is the case with most of the movie; but still, it does get touched upon.

Exploring digital media and privacy is something I have written on within the last couple years. More specifically, I explore how entertainment media companies collect big data, and the privacy issues faced therein. In 2016, I published a short series of articles on the Walt Disney World Magic Bands entitled “Magical Data Collection.” You can read those articles by clicking HERE.

If you were hoping for another film like the brilliant Social Network, then you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Films such as The Circle should be memorable, but unfortunately this one is very much forgettable. Coincidentally, the movie itself is as hollow as the plot and characters.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) movie review

Prepare yourself for “a tale as old as time” that is ultimately better told through its animated counterpart. Director Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the (1992) Academy Awards, is an extravagant display of visual effects and digital imagery necessary to animate a live-action motion picture. Essentially, he took an animated movie, made it live-action, just to make it animated again. Sure, this new version of the “song as old as rhyme” can certainly stand on its own and is demonstrably well-directed, but 2017’s Beauty and the Beast largely comes across as unnecessary. In terms of the storytelling (or diegesis), the film’s effort to nearly shot-for-shot translate the most memorable parts of the film from animation to live-action pays off nicely! It’s when the film tries to be different that it falls short in its delivery. There are sufficient moments that beautifully recreate that which caused you to fall in love with this movie more than two decades ago; although, with this version, you may find yourself exhausted and over-stimulated by the constant waves of computer-animated figures in a live-action world. Oh yeah, you’ll likely miss hearing the legendary Angela Lansbury as the iconic Mrs. Potts. The film does its very best to justify its existence, but begs the question whether or not this was the movie for which you were waiting.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a young lady with a longing for adventure and a great big imagination, but she lives in a rather provincial French town. But, Belle is about to get more adventure than even she, in her wildest imagination could have dreamt. For through a series of strange circumstances, she finds herself trapped inside a dark foreboding castle, surrounded by a very odd collection of characters. It’s in this castle that she finds her father who she feared injured or dead imprisoned by a Beast (Dan Stevens). Against her father’s wishes, she reluctantly exchanges herself for her father’s release. After the Beast sets him free, Belle is to remain a permanent resident of the castle. Fearing the worst, Belle’s father seeks the help of the misogynistic village heartthrob Gaston (Luke Evans) and his band of goofs and thugs to rescue her. During this time, however, Belle begins to feel “something there that wasn’t there before” as she learns more about the Beast of the castle.

Can this film stand on its own? Sure. There is no question in that. Moreover, is it enjoyable and magical? That, it is. But when most of the campaign, leading up to the highly anticipated release, was primarily built upon how similar the live-action film would be to its animated counterpart, therein a problem arises. Because most people going into the movie will have seen the animated version, Broadway show, or even the show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which, in full disclosure, is a show that I worked when I was a Cast Member at Walt Disney World), you are predisposed to looking for and eagerly awaiting the nostalgic references and memories. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was looking forward to reliving the experience of when I first saw the animated movie. For the most part, if you are like me, then you will be pleased with the live-action translation–truly. However, it’s when the live-action version departs from or adds in material not found or referenced in the animated classic that you may be disappointed or simply ask “why?” You may find yourself wondering why was a live-action remake even necessary?

One of the most memorable elements of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the music! Still to this day, millions of people love hearing the classic music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Both the Beauty and the Beast and Be Our Guest can be heard as part of other shows at Walt Disney World and of course are included in the stage show at Hollywood Studios. Fortunately, the most iconic songs from the animated version are largely untouched; however, with a couple of the songs, there are breaks for diegetic dancing, fighting, or other material that essentially interrupts the organic flow of the music from the buildup to the climax and denouement. Again, the question “why” will likely pop into your head. We are introduced to a few new songs, and in and of themselves, are beautiful! Every note and lyric has that Disney magic that many of us have come to expect and appreciate. Unfortunately, the songs just don’t fit in with the original numbers in terms of pacing, lyrics, and score. Furthermore, here’s something quite interesting and odd: the song [To Be] Human Again was written for but deleted when it originally hit theatres in 1991. It was, however, added back in for the Broadway show and in the 2010 (and Diamond Edition) re-release of the movie. Although it was seen as important enough to include in the Broadway show and add back into the animated version, it is conspicuously missing from the live-action remake.

With the exception of Emma Thompson replacing the legendary Angela Lansbury, the cast was well-selected and demonstrated excellent chemistry between one another. Although Emma Watson is not a singer by trade, she was able to capture a Belle-like essence in her delivery of the various songs throughout the film. There was something uniquely organic in her voice that is seldom captured by other Disney “princesses” (note: Belle is not a princess). I greatly appreciate the dynamic range of characters that Watson has demonstrated that she can play over the years. Dan Stevens wows audiences with his vocal prowess especially in his solo number as we transition from the second to third acts. I appreciate how he stuck a fantastic balance between his human and beast sides respectively. Luke Evans was a perfect choice for Gaston, and his vocal talent matches his muscles–big, bold, and flawless. The rest of the cast, which includes some A-list talent itself, was ideally suited for the enchanted objects in the castle and the village.

Okay, now for the white elephant in the room: Josh Gad’s Lefou. Unless you have been completely disconnected from social media and the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about the first ever Disney “gay moment” in this film. Suffice it to say, the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion. In fact, more attention is likely being paid to Lefou now than had the story never grown to the size of Gaston’s ego. For the most part, the subtext and subtitles of Lefou’s are largely just that–subtle–unless you are looking for them. But, in doing that, you may miss some of the more important and impressive parts of the movie. Moreover, there is nothing in Lefou’s actions that come across as offensive or obnoxious. Before audiences begin accusing Disney of pushing their ideals on those eager to attend this film, it is likely that the entertainment and media giant is simply delivering what audiences already expect or want. As a film and media professor, I can tell you that by in large, media simply delivers what audiences and investors are telling them to produce–not the other way around. Looking back at the animated film, it is pretty obvious that Lefou has a thing for Gaston anyway. Although most of the hints at his sexual orientation are more-or-less winks or nods at the audience (winks or nods that you have to be looking for), there is a moment that is a trifle more obvious at the end of the film. Diegetically, there is nothing bizarre about Lefou’s behavior and it suits his character well.

Prepare to be whisked away to an enchanted castle in a remote part of France. So remote is this province in France, that most everyone speaks with a British accent. Bill Condon’s film will take you back to when you first saw this magical tale of falling in love with someone based upon what’s on the inside and not allowing a beastly outward appearance to detract from the gentle soul. Relive the music that you may still listen to in the car or eagerly look forward to when visiting the Disney Parks and Resorts. Ultimately, this film may not capture the magic of the original for you, but there is a lot to enjoy! Looking for a great date movie this weekend, then this is definitely it! Hopefully a side effect of this film may remind producers and audiences that some stories are better suited for an animated motion picture.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“Regression” movie review

RegressionIntimately disturbing and suspenseful. Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke star in a film that is one part crime drama and one part supernatural thriller. Inspired by actual cases and claims of growing Satanic cults in the Midwestern part of the country in the late 80s and early 90s, Regression follows one detective’s journey through science, superstition, and organized religion to discover the truth of what happened to a seventeen year old young lady named Angela (Emma Watson) who claimed her father molested her. Opening with the interrogation of her father, Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) is confronted with the conundrum of a suspect who does not deny the vomit-inducing allegations, but is greatly struggling to remember what happened. Cool color temperatures, dreary weather, effective acting, and a creepy small town all come together to make creepy psychological thriller of good versus evil.

Occurring at a time that reports of Satanic cults with blood curdling rituals began to hit a high, Regression brings you face to face with now-discredited psychological therapy practices, blood sacrifice, and sexual deviance. Follow detective Bruce Kenner as he attempts to put the puzzle of what actually happened to Angela together in order to solve this perplexing mystery. First approaching this as a disturbing but typical minor molestetion case, Kenner quickly learns that there is much more to this case than meets the eye. As evidence is uncovered and truths are made known, this investigation goes much deeper and crosses public safety and family boundaries.

This is one of those plots that is difficult to analyze without giving away key parts of the mystery. If you enjoy watching films that contain prolific symbolism and question institutions that exist for physical and spiritual protection, then you will undoubtedly find this film, from the Weinstein Company that flew under the radar, intriguing. Although it is definitely a slow burn, it never moves too slowly and does provide enough of a hook to keep you going. Be sure to pay close attention to every line of dialogue because (hind sight being 20/20 and knowing the ending) there are definitely clues dropped here and there that all point to the answers for which Kenner is looking.

The investigation at the core of the plot is three fold: spiritual, scientific, and legal. Bruce Kenner partners with both a local psychology professor and a reverend to uncover what happened to Angela. As one might expect in a movie such as this, the professor and reverend have vastly different approaches to this mystery. For psychology students or professionals watching this film, you will witness the practice of regression as it plays a significant part in the investigation. The aforementioned practice also raises awareness to invasive psychological therapy techniques. As this film technically falls within the horror genre, it is definitely not short on social commentary. With physical evidence in short supply and a suspect who cannot remember what happened, Kenner relies upon the psychological evidence gather by the professor. Little do our investigators know that these aggressive interview techniques play more into the mystery than they could have known.

Ugh. There is so much more about be plot I’d love to analyze but that would take the fun out of watching it and ruin the mystery for you. So switching gears. From a technical perspective, the film is not remarkable in any way. Neither is it lacking in cinematography or direction. However, movies in this sub genre of horror can so often feel and look like a Lifetime original movie, especially because it includes a significant female character who claims to have been molested. Thankfully, director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) provides audiences with a “Lifetime” plot that is still cinematic enough to avoid the stigma of “another Liferime movie in theatres.” Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke display excellent acting prowess along with a few of the other key players in this narrative. For the most part, the acting is on par with this crime drama. All the filmmaking elements come together nicely to keep your attention for the hour and a half runtime.

If you enjoy mysteries that confront science and religion, then you will definitely enjoy this film. Right now, it is one of the movies included with your Amazon Prime subscription. Rated R for some visual sexual content, it is pretty tame as far as rated R movies go. There is a gritty and real feel to the movie that might be a little too terrifying for some viewers. However, this IS a psychological thriller that contains many of the earmarks of a good horror film.