“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 House with a Clock in its Walls” full movie review

Whimsical and terrifying. A departure for the maestro of gory horror movies, Eli Roth’s foray into children’s horror-lite cinema is a hit! The House with a Clock in its Walls is the film adaptation of the 1973 novel, by the same name, written by John Bellairs. While there is a childlike wonder about the film, Roth’s trademark stylistic direction is clearly seen in brief glimpses into the movie’s much darker and disturbing moments. Already a rumored house for next year’s Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida, this film provides many opportunities to adapt the house and its inhabitants into a fantastic haunted house maze. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are incredibly entertaining, and offer an incredible banter that will leave you wanting a friendship like the one shared by these two characters. Our leading young star Owen Vaccaro is less interesting to watch and displays terrible crying skills; however, he does deliver a performance that shows he has potential to grow as a child actor. Although the movie largely takes place within the victorian mansion, it never feels limiting or redundantly boring. Eli Roth’s expertise for visual storytelling makes every room just an interesting as the previous one. For a children’s horror movie (what I’m calling horror lite), it has some scares and twisted moments that are actually terrifying if you stop to think about it. Roth takes this PG movie as close to a PG-13 movie without ever crossing that line. Never evoking strong emotion, you will still find moments that you will laugh and jump!

When Lewis’ parents are killed in a tragic accident, his estranged uncle Jonathan (Black) send for him to move to his mansion in Michigan as he is the only family Lewis has. After Jonathan uncouthly picks him up on the bus, Lewis begins to wonder what he’s gotten himself into. Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to encounter in the mysterious mansion. In very little time, Lewis learns that his uncle and their intelligent, feisty neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett) are practitioners of of the magical arts, to the highest degree! With his eyes now opened to the fascinating world of magic, Lewis expresses an interest to learn magic himself. Struggling to make friends in his new school and neighborhood, Lewis tries to impress the student council president by raising the dead; but unbeknownst to him, Lewis unleashes an evil warlock who seeks to bring an end to humanity. It’s a race against the mysterious, hidden clock within the walls of the mansion to stop the warlock from destroying the world and all its inhabitants.

A perfect way to introduce kids to horror films, Eli Roth’s The House with a Clock in its Walls strikes a perfect balance between maintaining a kid-friendly plot while strategically including terrifying imagery. Although I watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone with my mom growing up, it would be a while before I truly found that I absolutely loved horror films. Fortunately, kids of the 90s had more options for gateway horror than kids today. When I was a kid, I had Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps to introduce me to horror. Sadly, there do not seem to be nearly as many options for today’s kids to discover a love of horror early on. Mainly, that’s because filmmakers are more concerned with creating horror movies and TV shows for teens and adults due to  the increased gory, sexual, and disturbing content. Thankfully, one of the masters of horror took it upon himself to channel his 10yo self in order to adapt his penchant for popular, cult classic horror to provide a great experience for kids. And Roth did a superb job! Perhaps Roth does not bring his trademark torture porn and queasy horror to the screen in this children’s movie, but he does apply that same ability to scare us to the macabre puppets, man-eating topiaries, and demonic hand licking. That tongue was soooo Roth. Love it.

The production design is brilliant! Instead of relying upon digitally conjured terrifying or whimsical effects, this film largely delivers practical effects against the backdrop of a tangible set. That’s not saying that there isn’t CGI in the film, there is quite a lot. But it never takes me out of the world that Roth created for the screen. As I am not knowledgeable in architectural design, I am not sure if the setting is more Baroque or Victorian, but it’s gorgeous! The setting was quite immersive for a children’s movie, and gives the film a sense of dimension that is so often lost in 21st century movies. Editors and graphics designers are so preoccupied with whether or not they can achieve the effect that they don’t stop to think it is will detract from the believability of the setting and set-builds.

With Roth directing, this film benefits from its emotional beats, turning points, and moments of shock and terror being placed and executed with precision. Whereas a gateway children’s horror film cannot have much, if any, true body horror, it can include imagery that lends itself to more conventional horror such as evil Jack-o-lanterns, clown puppets, and ventriloquist dolls. Think of this film as introducing young audiences to those same tropes, that adults love about horror films, but in innocuous ways that may be just above a kid’s head but close enough that it may ignite an interest in horror films. Sometimes Roth’s more horrific elements of this film are witnessed as lurking in the shadows. Sort of a nod to his legacy but everything is still masquerading around as a family-friendly horror movie. In addition to talking about the horror and magical elements of the film, the plot is pretty simple and is ostensibly about the true sprit of family. Although each of our three main characters could, in many ways, not be any more different from one another, they all have a love of magic, education, and loyalty. Furthermore, each of them has suffered the loss of loved ones that leaves an empty hole in their respective hearts. Through these common interests, Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman, and Lewis form a bond that enables them to form a new family. If there is something conspicusoly missing from the plot, it is more of an exploration of post WWII trauma.

If you’re looking for a family-friendly gateway horror movie to watch, then definitely check this one out. The House with a Clock in its Walls proves that there is a need for more TV and film programming that is suitable for younger audiences who want a good thrill just like you and me. One thing is for sure, this film sill undoubtedly prompt young audiences to open their minds to the amazing world of horror movies, or perhaps scare them away.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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The Psychology of Horror: An Exploration of Freud’s ‘Uncanny’ through “Psycho”

“Oh no, don’t go in that house!” “Watch out! He’s right behind you.” Some of the most memorable movies of all time are horror films, of which, some of the best and most revolutionary were made in the 1930s and 40s by the original production house of horror Universal Studios. The early horror films set the foundation upon which all other horror films would be judged. Ask anyone, and the single most famous scene in all of cinema is the famous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, widely regarded as the most pivotal horror film in all cinema history. The aforementioned scene gains a greater eerie feel upon the close of the movie when the audience realizes that Norman has little to no control over his mind and actions. There is something about horror films that beckons the audiences to find enjoyment in that which in real life would not be enjoyable—and not only see it once but repeat it over and over again. And furthermore, find the unfamiliar and grotesque fascinating to behold as what should remain hidden comes to light. The return of the repressed.

Throughout history, from the fights in the Roman Coliseum to Michael Myers’ slaying of people in Halloween, audiences have been both entertained and repeatedly drawn to stories and shows that highlight horrific acts of violence or feelings of terror and anxiety. Perhaps there is a deep seeded reason as to why millions of people find entertainment value in horror films. This question has been tackled by many psychiatrists and psychologists, each has come up with a different explanation as to “why horror?” Most notably, famed psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud provided great insight into an explanation of why people find horror films fascinating in his essay on the Uncanny.

Although many of the conclusions drawn by Freud have been challenged over the years, he spent a great deal of time on the uncanny; and his analysis on such has helped a great deal in understanding the psychology behind horror. The word uncanny comes from the German word unheimlich, which is literally translated as something unfamiliar. However, that which is unfamiliar is not necessarily uncanny. In particular, he was interested in the return of the repressed. And, in this return of the repressed, “other” scenes, to which we do not have direct access, would reveal themselves. It is this revelation that is what Freud terms the uncanny. This theory is an explicitly aesthetic inquiry regarding what in art (or life) produces sensations of dread and horror, repulsion, and a return to such unpleasurable sensations. There are many elements or groups of elements that Freud deemed as uncanny. Each one is burdened to exceed intellectual uncertainty in order to fit the definition of uncanny as laid out by Freud.

In order to fully understand unheimlich, it is necessary to understand the antithesis of the aforementioned which is heimlich. The word Heimlich means something that belongs to the familiar, something not strange, and is friendly. Diving into a deeper reading of the word Heimlich, it can also mean something that is concealed from the conscious—not accessible by our conscious mind. Freud even goes as far as to suggest that this refers to something that is kept from sight so that others do not get to know about it. Knowing the definition of Heimlich, it is easier to understand how and why Freud chooses to use it in his evaluation of art (in which, we have literature, theatre, and cinema). According to Freud, “unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden, but has come into the light.” In his study on the uncanny, Freud takes on the literary imagination (this same literary analysis can and is used to analyze film) by dividing his theory up into three sections. He first defines the concept of the uncanny, then performs an examination of the context required for understanding the experience of the uncanny, and finally explores the effects of the uncanny on the psyche through literature and fiction. Some of the running themes throughout his essay are loss of eyes, castration, the double-ego, and self-reflexivity. Through the framework laid out by Freud, scholars and film critics can explore the themes in horror film as it relates to the human subconscious.

Freud explains the realm of the uncanny as the place at which aesthetics and psychoanalysis merge because it deals with a particular feeling or sensation combined with emotional impulses. The substances or manifestations of the uncanny are elements that are fearful and frightening. Proceeding with Freud’s definition of the uncanny being a class of frightening elements, plaguing the psyche, ushering an individual back to what is familiar (heimlich) and known (as opposed to what is unknown). Freud refers to the uncanny as that “which should have remained secret and hidden, but has come to the light.” Furthermore, he goes on to further describe the uncanny as the “mark of the return of the repressed.” The concept of the uncanny is a type of unwilling or mistaken exposure to something surprising, unexpected, or horrific.

Freud claims that the source of the uncanny in literature is the recurrence of something long forgotten and repressed. However, not everything that returns from the psychic depths of repression is uncanny. The mere return of repressed feelings and experiences is not sufficient for the uncanny to occur. It requires something repressed having returned but represented by an unexpected and outside the realm of reality. This is easily accomplished in literature (and by extension, movies, and plays) because fantasy is different from reality. Just because something works as uncanny in a work of literature doesn’t mean it can work in real-life as well. Within literature, if the author makes a pretense to realism, then he or she opens the door to supplying the story with the uncanny. Often times, the uncanny in literature and film is the projection of the psyche of the central character on another object or person combined with a warped view of the objective and subjective of a given situation. It’s like something within the fictional world creeps into the real world. And, this is definitely manifested within the character of Norman Bates in Psycho.

Within the horror genre, there are many different stories or narratives that exist. And, each type of horror film tells its story in different ways; however, they are all concerned with getting the same emotional response from the “people out there in the dark,” as famously stated by Norma Desmond in the timeless film noir classic Sunset Boulevard. Sometimes the audience will go on a journey into the crazed mind of a psychopathic serial killer or they may witness a supernatural monster terrorizing a small Bavarian village. In either case, Freud believes that the writers of horror are concerned with exposing the audience to “other” scenes. And, these “other” scenes are rooted in the subconscious. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is a perfect lens through which to evaluate horror films and the effects of them.

The character of Norman Bates became a revolutionary breakthrough in cinema and entertainment as Freud’s psychoanalytic theory gained prominence in a major motion picture. Not only using it as a character archetype but using the motion picture’s exposition, via the psychiatrist at the end of the film, as a way to explore the subconscious of Norman. Keeping inline with the pace and substantive matter of the film, Hitchcock meticulously and skillfully used the characters and dialog to frame and reveal Norman’s feelings, subconscious thoughts, and conscious behaviors despite the aforementioned being very pleasant. Although the feelings and behaviors were unpleasant, subconsciously Norman enjoyed them. And, Freud touches on this too. He refers to it as the pleasurable unpleasureable. Despite Freud’s revelations of the subconscious mind, the subconscious is not something anyone has access to or can, much less, exhibit control over its goals. Therefore, as Norman was unable to exhibit control over the actions and tendencies of his subconscious mind, he did not realize he subconsciously allowed his mother to take control over his body and turn this “normal” guy into a serial killer.

Understanding Freud’s theory of the uncanny can best be fully grasped and comprehended by applying it to a particular scene(s) in a work of horror. In this case, the actions leading up to, and including, the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho will be used. Before the screeches of the violins, before the more than fifty cuts (edits) to the film, and before the audience slowly spins away from the lifeless eye of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) shows signs of being intrigued with generating erotic feelings of arousal in his mind and body. Prior to removing the portrait of the bird from the wall of his office, Norman exhibited mostly homosexual-ish signs. He did not appear to be sexually attracted to Marion and behaved more like a new girlfriend than a potential sexual partner. However, this is all about to change.

To quickly navigate the scene prior to applying Freud’s theory of the uncanny to it, Norman bids farewell to Marion after a good dinner turns to the creepy side. Marion begins to disrobe and prepare to take a relaxing shower. Unbeknownst to her, Norman has removed a portrait of a bird from his wall and is using a peephole to gaze into her room. After spending some time on an extreme closeup of Norman’s eye, Marion puts on a robe and sits down at the desk. Norman replaces the picture on the wall and heads back to his house. Marion does some math (pertaining to the $40 thousand she stole) and then gets in the shower. Not long into the relaxing hot water, Marion is attacked by a shadowy figure resembling an old woman. She is stabbed repeatedly and left to die. We slowly spin out from Marion’s lifeless eye to close out the scene.

There is a great juxtaposition in the Norman before his peeping-tom voyeuristic actions and during (and after) his choice to peep into the bedroom on the unsuspecting Marion. It is as though there was something repressed–hidden down deep inside–Norman that unexpectedly returned to the surface of the conscious. This return then prompted him to go from exhibiting homosexual (or perhaps asexual) behaviors to clear hormone-driven heterosexual male behaviors.  Although on the juvenile side, Norman clearly shows that he not only wants to be friends with Marion but to experience sexual relations with her. And, he gets his rocks off by watching her disrobe. Interestingly, the fact he is behaving similarly to a 14 or 15-year-old male plays directly to the notion that these heterosexual emotions were repressed since he was young.

But, Norman does not continue indefinitely gazing into the room of Marion; he eventually replaces the picture and heads to his house and sits. Perhaps he is in contemplation of what he wants and what he knows he cannot have. He clearly wrestles with this uncanny appearance of these feelings he is not used to experiencing. An important aspect to the uncanny is that the individual has no control over when this return of repressed unfamiliar feelings emerges. So, this isn’t something that he, in all likelihood knows how to control. So, instead of controlling it, these repressed feelings begin to take over his conscious by using pathways in the unconscious (the home of that which is uncanny).

Back in the bathroom of Marion’s room, Marion steps into the shower and is soon attacked by a dark shadowy old-woman-like shadow. This shadow is Norman dressed as his mother. Since the uncanny lives in the unconscious, over which we can exhibit no control, it develops its own mechanisms of dealing with this return of the repressed. By killing the object that aroused these unconscious feelings, the unconscious is able to then return to a balance. Of course, this isn’t truly a balance because it is directly linked to socio-pathological behaviors that rely on violence to purge the emotions and drive them back to the unconscious where they belong.

Norman’s initial response, following the iconic brutal murder of Marion, was denial and projected blame onto Mother. From the time the audience is first introduced to Norman, they are presented with an individual who is timid, shy, and nervous. But, when Mother breaks through his cognitive defense mechanisms, he becomes aggressive, destructive, and volatile. As a result of this cognitive struggle between the conscious and subconscious, the presence of Mother causes pain, anguish, and both internal and external conflicts within the mind of Norman. As the psychiatrist Dr. Fred Richmond, in the movie, stated, “At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely. Now he was never all Norman, but he was often only mother. And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was jealous of him. Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild.”

Through the psychiatrist’s psychoanalysis, rooted in Freud’s theories, the audience learns that Mother was a permanent part of his mind. After watching the movie, the audience is only ever faced with a brief moment of the pathological side of Norman. However, this brief moment is enough for the psychiatrist to conduct a preliminary evaluation of Norman’s psyche. Playing to the unheimlich of the film, umheimlich referring to what’s “uncanny” about the film (or more literally translated as unfamiliar), despite the mere glimpse into the crazy side of Norman, the audience begins to allow fear and terror to take over and imagine what he is truly like. Oddly enough, even though the audience is terrified of Norman, they also sympathize with him because of the trauma exercised on Norman from his domineering mother, thus debilitating Norman for the rest of his life.

Using Freud’s model and theory of The Uncanny to evaluate these famous scenes from Psycho, it is clear that Freud was ahead of his time and was able to explain what would drive someone to behave in such a horrific manner. By breaking it down this way, Freud actually makes Norman seem like someone that could exist in real life, and that is perhaps the most terrifying aspect to the movie. The fact that Norman could be your next-door neighbor, is enough to spark fear and horror into the lives of those who watch this masterpiece.

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Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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