“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 Founder” movie review

thefounderOutstanding biopic that typifies what the American dream actually looks like–but that’s the scary part. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Ray Kroc, the (self-proclaimed) “founder” of McDonald’s, is positively brilliant! Comparing his look and performance to the real Ray Kroc seen before the credits roll, there is no doubt that director John Lee Hancock (known for The Rookie and The Blind Side) made the right choice. The Founder takes us on a journey from Southern California to Illinois and beyond as we follow the course of events that radically revolutionized an entire industry and gave birth to one of the most recognized brands in the world as well as the very concept of modern franchising. What Henry Ford did for American motorcars, Kroc did for American “speeedee” service food. Ray Kroc realized the American dream by stopping at nothing until he built his empire, even if it meant stealing from a business and breaking up a marriage–all within the confines of the law. We’ve all heard about “the American dream;” well, The Founder depicts what it takes for that dream to come true. If you’re willing to be a cut-throat bully with few if any inhibitions, then you can build an empire and claim to be the founder of another’s company or even run a country.

This biopic drama tells the story of how Ray Kroc (Keaton), a 55 year-old milkshake machine salesman from Illinois, met Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald in San Bernardino, CA during a sales transaction that would start something big. Who would’ve guessed that a man who was the definitive door-to-door salesman would see great potential in a small-town burger joint. Recognizing the great potential for a successful franchise, Kroc entered into a business proposition that would change the quick service food industry forever and essentially perfect the business practice of franchising. Over a relatively short amount of time, Kroc maneuvered himself into a position of power and dominance over the brothers, and eventually took the very company they founded away and never looked back. Kroc stopped at nothing when appropriating the intellectual property of the McDonald brothers to build a vast empire that would find its way into thousands of towns and become just an American an icon as the flag, churches, or the eagle.

Although the film is presently foundering in box offices, it is definitely worth a watch because of depicting the story of one man’s American dream that would essentially steal the laurels from baseball and apple pie to become a larger than life symbol of America recognized throughout the world. It’s unfortunate that this film is not garnering more attention because the writing, directing, and acting are absolutely brilliant. Full of irony and ambiguity, The Founder could have easily been called or at least subtitled Birth of a Salesman. While watching the movie, I could not help but compare the plot of this film with the iconic play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Both tell stories of salesman but the end result is vastly different. Both Willy Loman and Ray Kroc were dedicated to their respective craft of salesmanship; however, Kroc took the practice of sales and pitches to the next level–in fact he created his own game in which only he could win. Where else have we seen a bully play by his own rules and build an empire into a brand in and of itself? I’ll allow you to draw that conclusion. Further irony can be seen in Ray Kroc’s surname. His sheer cunning, predatory ways of conducting business can easily be likened to the crocodile itself. Despite receiving credit for inventing the fast food assembly line, much like Ford did for American car manufacturers, the “speedee” service was invented by Dick and Mac McDonald of San Bernardino. Thankfully, the brothers are receiving the credit that they deserve–albeit posthumously.

It’s difficult not to root for the villain in this film. Even though you tell yourself that he was a monster and a complete leach to the McDonald brothers, his first wife, and other friends, you may still find yourself in his corner because of McDonald’s being the American icon that it is. The cognitive dissonance that many will experience during diegesis of this film is fascinating in and of itself. Early on, you will find yourself rooting for Ray Kroc because he comes off as an underdog. He is able to provide decently for him and his wife, but it is evident that his business is in the process of collapsing. Even after striking the proverbial deal with the McDonald brothers, you may still root for him because the brothers make it difficult for Kroc to actually engage in successful franchising. The tide begins to subtly shift when the chain begins to take off. When the brothers deny Kroc a request to renegotiate the terms of the contract in order to boost capital and revenue, Kroc hires a new business partner who provides the knowhow to shift the focus from running a burger chain to being a real estate mogul. That shift from only burgers to real estate is what truly built McDonald’s Corporation into the giant that it is today. Interestingly, when confronted by the brothers on a break in the contract, Kroc points out that they could take him to court and probably win, but by the time he would drag them through hearing after hearing, and trial after trial, the brothers would be completely bankrupt. Much like the milkshake substitute that boosted revenue and mitigated refrigeration costs, but contained no milk, a handshake deal with Kroc is just as fake.

The set designs and costumes in The Founder are impressive and so incredibly well executed that audiences will be transported from 2017 to 1950s America. From the cars to the architecture to the print advertising and marketing, this movie boasts an authenticity that is on par with larger budget period films. The supporting players in the film are equally captivating too. Parks and Rec‘s Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are absolutely perfect as the McDonald brothers, and I cannot think of two better actors to bring these “hidden figures” of fast foot history to life. It’s unfortunate that Laura Dern is underutilized as Ethel, Kroc’s first wife, because she is a dynamic actress capable of adding significantly to a film. Although not featured on screen a lot, Patrick Wilson plays Rollie Smith, an early investor, but his acting excellence is still showcased well. Finally, Linda Gardellini is captivating as the future Mrs. Ray Kroc–problem is, that she is married to Rollie Smith at the time they meet. It’s her suggestion to switch from real ice cream and milk to instant milkshake powder that sets the final dominos in motion to topple the McDonald brothers. In continued irony, the story of McDonald’s contains people who are excited about fake food product. But those were the times the characters lived in. The chemistry between the characters helps to reinforce the authenticity of this biographical motion picture.

Ray and Joan Kroc are well known philanthropists–in their later years. In fact, Joan Kroc left most of her vast fortune to many charities. The most well-known recipient of the inheritance is NPR. Even today, if you listen to the programming, you will hear the Estate of Joan Kroc mentioned as a supporter of the public radio organization. Whether you appreciate NPR or not, one cannot help but think that all the philanthropy of the Kroc (namely Joan) is a result of easing the conscience since the Kroc fortune can be likened to blood money. It’s entirely plausible that much like Marion Crane figuratively cleanses her spirit in the infamous Psycho shower after having stolen the money from her employer, Joan may have very well given her fortune away in an effort to ease her conscience and do good with the figuratively ill-gotten money.

Such an incredibly fascinating movie! If you enjoy historical dramas about American icons, then you will definitely enjoy The Founder. It may prompt you to grab a McDonald’s burger and fries after the movie or perhaps never go there again after learning the company’s history. Whatever the case, it cannot be denied that the story of McDonald’s is incredibly interesting and IS the product of persistence and business ingenuity. If there is anything inspirational to take away from this film, it is the power of that persistence and looking for potential in the most unlikely of places.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead