Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Takes Us Back to When Queen was King

Bohemian Rhapsody poster

Many will say this in their reviews of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and I have to as well: Freddie Mercury was a one-of-a-kind performer. Whenever he was onstage, he had a commanding presence only a handful of artists could ever hope to equal. Nothing seemed to ever hold him back as he rocked us in a way few others, if any, ever could. Watching him and Queen perform in front of thousands of fans also had a cinematic quality to it, and I went into this biopic hoping Bryan Singer (and Dexter Fletcher who replaced him as director) could capture the exhilaration of their live performances. Could such a thing even be possible?

Well, right from the start when Queen performs their own kick-ass version of the 20th Century Fox fanfare, “Bohemian Rhapsody” proves to be an exhilarating ride. While there were times when I thought the filmmakers could have dug even deeper into Freddie’s life and the lives of his fellow bandmates, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, it proves to be a biopic which takes you back in time to when Queen was the biggest thing in music, let alone in the world. But at its center is an iconic singer who is on a long journey not to stardom, but finding respect for himself.

When we first meet Freddie, we learn his birth name was Farrokh Bulsara and that he was the child of a Parsis couple, something I was previously unaware of. His mother Jer (Meneka Das) proves to be a loving presence, but his father Bomi (Ace Bhatti) doesn’t even try to hide his disappointment over the lackadaisical way in which his son lives his life. By day he works as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, and he spends his nights at a local club where a band named Smile performs to an enthusiastic audience. When the lead singer quits, Freddie seizes the opportunity to grab the job, but Brian and Roger feel his overbite will easily upstage him. That is, of course, until they hear him sing.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” at times speeds through the history of Queen to where I wished they would slow down a bit and focus on bits and pieces which haven’t been covered as much in the past. I kept hoping there would be a sequence on the making of the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack, one of the best soundtracks ever. The filmmakers don’t even get around to dealing with the songs they did for “Highlander,” and that was a real bummer. Still, we get to learn about the beginnings of some of their most famous songs like “Another One Bites the Dust” which features one of the greatest bass lines in the history of music, and the immortal rock anthem that is “We Will Rock You.”

One of the movie’s centerpiece’s is the creation of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which allowed Queen, as the Beatles did with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to push the boundaries of mainstream music to create something truly unique. This all leads to a scene where the exasperated EMI executive Ray Foster (a priceless Mike Myers) explains how no radio station is about to play a six-minute song, especially one which features opera in it. While it is seen as one of the greatest rock songs ever created, this doesn’t stop the filmmakers from throwing out initial reviews of it which showed anything but admiration. It’s only over time that something can ever be truly considered a classic.

Looking at Freddie’s life overall, it does seem deserving of an R-rating. But for a PG-13 movie, I felt “Bohemian Rhapsody” dug deep enough into the man’s life in ways I usually expect a PG-13 movie to avoid. Some may say this is a sanitized biopic, but I was surprised at how willing the filmmakers were to portray Freddie’s debauched lifestyle and of the underground worlds he chose to delve into. The scene in which Freddie learns he has AIDS is especially devastating, especially when scored to the song “Who Wants to Live Forever.” There is even video footage of people with AIDS, and seeing Freddie watching it is especially heartbreaking as it gives him a glimpse as to what is in store for him.

When it comes to music biopics, I keep thinking of ones like Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” and “I Saw the Light” and of how they kept their main subjects at a distance. This proved to be especially frustrating as I felt like I never got to know more about their main characters, Jim Morrison and Hank Williams, and even wondered why anyone would bother to spend time with them. “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t make this same mistake nor does it hide from Freddie’s flamboyant lifestyle which alienated many of his closest friends. It’s not afraid to make the singer unlikable at times, but it also pays him the respect he deserves especially when he humbly reunites with his bandmates who, unlike other musicians, were never afraid to tell him no.

Rami Malek gives a truly phenomenal performance as Freddie Mercury. If you are still wondering what this movie would have been like had Sacha Baron Cohen not dropped out, Malek will silence those thoughts immediately. It’s as if the actor is possessed by Freddie’s spirit as he inhabits the role with a fearlessness and a gusto to where it is impossible to think of someone who could have been better suited to play the lead singer of Queen. Malek owns the movie from start to finish, and you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Malek also does a brilliant job of letting you see Freddie’s inner turmoil as he struggles with who he is and his sexuality. In many ways Freddie was a social outcast before he came to be the lead singer of Queen, but he becomes even more of an outcast at the height of his fame. Seeing him in almost near isolation from the rest of humanity is distressing, and it reminds me of what the late Robin Williams said in “World’s Greatest Dad:”

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

Kudos also goes out to Lucy Boynton who proves to be a fetching presence as the love of Freddie’s life, Mary Austin. Boynton, whom you may remember from “Murder on the Orient Express,” makes you believe how Mary was a huge lifeline to Freddie, especially when he became deluded and was ruthlessly manipulated by those who never had his best interests at heart. Even as their loving relationship was torn apart, they remained the best of friends, and I believe Freddie when he was quoted as saying how Mary was really his one true friend in the world.

But if you need only one reason to buy a ticket to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it is Singer’s (and Fletcher’s) recreation of Queen’s epic performance at Live Aid in 1985. I’m sure you have all seen footage of this concert on YouTube, but I was enthralled at how the filmmakers made us feel like we were right there in Wembley Stadium where the band played to the largest crowd any band could ever play to. This recreation proves to be one of the most exhilarating sequences I have seen in any 2018 movie, and it is the perfect way to cap off this biopic.

Could a better movie have been made about Freddie Mercury and Queen? Perhaps, but I find it tiring to think of what could have been and would much rather deal with what ended up on the silver screen. “Bohemian Rhapsody” proved to be an immersive cinematic ride which brings back to life an amazing performer who left the land of the living far too soon, but whose role in music history will never ever be forgotten.

Regardless of who deserves the most credit, we owe Dexter Fletcher many thanks as he managed to bring this chaotic production to the finish line and oversaw it during post-production. Without him, I wonder if this movie would have ever been completed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *