Cinema 2019: Top Three

So now that I’ve talked a tad about books, allow me to turn our attention to some movies from 2019 I’ve seen and feel worthy to discuss. I’m not an aficionado like my teenaged son, who has been studying film and film history for years but, as I’ve long maintained, liking, even needing, to be told stories is coded into human DNA. I like most genres, but especially love a good mystery, drama, even comedy. My favorite for years has been Casablanca, and no amount of persuasion has ever been able to budge that. There are loads of movies I love—more on that in an upcoming blog—but nothing beats Bogart & Bergman and “We’ll always have Paris.” It was even my go-to sickbed film.

Most of the time I go to the cinema with himself, and it’s not unusual for me to be talked into checking out certain flicks because they are ones I might not have chosen to see on my own. I’m happy to report that I like most of them; occasionally, I’m more enthusiastic about one than either of us expected. Every so often I’m less than impressed. This time there were, however, a few I felt worthy of special mention because they touched me in a meaningful, more long-lasting manner, and maybe they will you too.

Honorable Mention:
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

While I’m not a ginormous fan of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, I can see what a good director he is, with shots that work perfectly and tight sequences embedded in nostalgia and paying homage to people and the era in which they lived. Set in 1969 Hollywood, with Sharon Tate and a declining Tinseltown as major characters (even if you don’t see the fabulous Margot Robbie’s Tate very often), Once Upon a Time gives us a view of life backstage and is advantaged with fantastic scenery and costuming. Brad Pitt as a heartthrob was never that impressive to me, but now, older and with a different aura about him, one that conveys a flawed nature, seemingly without much effort, his performances comes off as more on point and authentic. Of course, it helps that his character has more dimension, but I still think he brings something to the role that makes it truly his.

My top three:

Ford v. Ferrari (James Mangold)

3. Don’t let anyone tell you this is a movie for boys only—my mistake ran along those lines. This is one of the shows I was persuaded to go watch and I’m glad I did. First of all, yeah, Christian Bale is sort of out there, but he’s a damn good actor and gives heart to Ken Miles, a sports car racing engineer I’d barely heard of but as a character came to care about. Playing a major role in Henry Ford II’s efforts to compete with Enzo Ferrari’s racing cars, Miles is a little on the edge and this very non-racing-enthusiast was absolutely thrilled with the speed and how the main players dance with each other in their battles of wits.

I found Catriona Balfe’s performance as Mollie Miles a little insipid, but also felt her character was robbed, especially with her dialogue during an argument between husband and wife. Here the exchange casts her grievance along the lines of the whinging, stereotypical woman who goes in for the attack without giving her husband a serious chance at presenting his perspective. Mollie always just kind of hangs back, which I found a bit annoying because though I am aware she is a supporting character, even the screws holding an engine together have to have some dimension—and in this movie they do. Mollie Miles, not so much.

Overall the film does an amazing job of widening its appeal to audiences: I understood what they were talking about and why their endeavors meant something, even though car engine chat makes my eyes glaze over. Even more than that, though, the magic of it all, the passion and the dream—I could practically feel the power of all that coursing through my veins, and not just because of the outstanding cinematography. Bale, whose performance I marvel over even in one of his movies I really dislike a lot, delivers yet again and Matt Damon—whom I used to confuse with DeCaprio—is a fantastic Carroll Shelby whose gum chewing and subtle but powerful facial movements tell so much about the real Shelby and what drove him.

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
(Adapted screenplay, based upon the
book Caging Skies by Christine Leunen)

2. I hyper studied World War II in high school and at one time couldn’t get enough. Now, however, I’m a little burned out and can’t—or don’t want to—stomach the way some approach it today, with the current rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and attendant excuses for it. Waititi, however, presents a very different view of this time, not just by individualizing the experiences, which of course has been done before, but also by creating it as a comedy drama. I think we may have learned a bit from the brouhaha over Maus, one of the first graphic novels and one that tells the story of a Holocaust survivor—and royally cheesed a lot of people for telling such a somber story in “cartoon” form. Since then audiences have matured a little more and are able to recognize why the story of JoJo Beltzer and his mother, Rosie, might be told as it is.

I found this format to be the perfect vehicle for this particular era, even more so than it might have done for the Great War, which was novel in its far-reaching destruction and horrific outcomes and consequences. The Second World War, however, opened up to a bitter frustration that more often seemed to find humor as a way to alleviate the pain and fear, many times out of necessity and not just because it could. Rosie embraces this approach, knowing that her Nazi-loving young son won’t be easily separated from the indoctrination by seriousness. Besides, he is lonely for his father, who we (and he) are told is fighting for Germany on a foreign front. At the same time, JoJo’s mother engages a subtle sternness, for example when the pair see a group of executed souls hanging in a square near their house and JoJo turns away. Rosie does the mother thing with her hand—placed on top of her child’s head, which she swivels in the direction of what she insists he look at—and its ordinary mother power is elevated as we recognize that covering a child’s eyes from horror is not the only form of psychological protection.

This becomes more important as we learn Rosie’s dangerous secrets and JoJo becomes embroiled within them. Having failed at a Hitler Youth (“HJ”) weekend camp in which he becomes known as a coward, “JoJo rabbit,” for his refusal to wring the neck of the animal that becomes his namesake, he amps up his efforts to be a good Nazi, along with some help from his imaginary friend, Adolph. Yes, it’s the same Adolph we all know and hate, presented as a bumbling, awkward caricature who aims to appear as an authority figure and dispenses advice to the young boy. One could almost see the spittle flying as the real Hitler would scream at such a depiction: running through the woods, flailing and falling; pleading with a ten year old; gorging himself on unicorn.

Having watched the film in its entirety, a moviegoer might be tempted to point out a presentation flaw in that the sheer absurdity of at least one character—surely this one doesn’t take this garbage seriously?—makes for a predictable arc later on. However, Waititi turns events in a way one might not predict at all, and when we do learn what happens, it is because we didn’t see it that we know for sure. We do know that this can be dangerous territory for a filmmaker to traverse, but Waititi brings us across through the eyes of a child. There is no need to “cut to the heart” of Germany’s 1940s abyss: we already know about it, and JoJo’s ignorance of darker matters is part of the larger point. Apart from that, knowing what we do hasn’t exactly worked out as we wanted, has it? The director’s presentation may be a dangerous one, and it should be: a bitter frustration with what we are seeing, long after we have laughed at crazy Hitler and turned from our awareness even as our real world contains absurdities not unlike one scene in which a fanatical officer comments, “I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism.”

Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
(Adapted screenplay, based upon the
novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

1. Ah yes, the wee women everyone seems to know all about…except those of us who never read the book as a child. If I recall correctly, it was Saoirse Ronan’s attic scene in a film preview that drew me in, a passionate burst of emotion in which she, Jo March, comes to understand the reality of the choice she faces. Having grown up amongst a close family, she becomes the breadwinner when her father marches off with the Union army during the Civil War. Working as a teacher and freelance writer, she is delighted to discover the income she can attain with these abilities, though family law of the day dictates that everything previously hers, such as real property or finances, passes to her husband upon marriage. Determined not to allow this to happen, she by necessity erects a wall between herself and anyone she might become close with, not fully realizing, until the day in the attic, that this also blocks out many of life’s pleasures.

Greta Gerwig approaches these struggles with a balance that remains faithful to true feminism, one that demands what it does—legal existence—by refusing to forfeit it to marriage. When Jo’s sister Meg prepares for her wedding amidst Jo’s entreaties to run away because “we will be interesting forever,” she scolds her sibling: “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they are unimportant.” Jo’s reluctant acceptance of her sister’s impending departure juxtaposes with an acknowledgement that childhood is over, a strong indicator of the maturity required to recognize and respect the choices of others. Politics have probably always embedded themselves into film, but given the aggressive and bullying nature of today’s cinematic industry, one that steadily alienates those it seeks to attract, it was great relief to witness these scenes when Gerwig could easily have gone in the other direction. The director shows that film can be both romantic and inspiring; indeed, I found myself as sympathetic to nineteenth-century feminists as I always have been and with renewed determination to reach for my own stars.

Told along a split timeline, the March sisters (and others) make statements about life without lecturing the audience. Not all have as strong a character arc as one in particular, though this reflects reality, especially under the circumstances they all endure. They do live a life of genteel poverty, but it is one of struggle, perhaps reflected best in Emma Watson’s Meg, specifically when she goes away for a week to attend a ball. Save for youngest sister Beth, Meg is the kindest of the four, though with low self-esteem. Wearing a borrowed dress, she is browbeaten by her wealthy neighbor, Laurie, for participating in such a pretentious activity. They come to terms shortly after and Meg pleads with Laurie not to tell her sister Jo. One of the most poignant scenes in the film, with Watson’s eloquently subdued expressions magnificently reflecting her insecurity, movements and hesitations, it brings the story into sharp relief.

While I don’t dislike Watson as an actress, I never saw her as a brilliant performer, but here she greatly contributes in a lovely way to Gerwig’s vision for the film: to retain the traditional feel of it and the era in which it is set, while simultaneously making it accessible to modern viewers. Florence Pugh as Amy enables viewers to see that self-centered behavior was as ordinary an attitude in the often-romanticized nineteenth century as it is today. Amy also reflects heavily on how marriage would shape her life, and Pugh’s performance as she works her way through her internal struggles is poignant and masterful. She too presents a face of feminism very unlike today’s movement, reminding us—also without any grandstanding—of the range of hardship women faced, from casual discrimination to literal loss of autonomy.

Certainly not an exhaustive review, this one would definitely be missing something without mention of costumes. The “traditional modern” is indeed realized in many of the outfits, fitting the period very nicely while also having the character of clothing many of us would quite like to wear today. The hoop skirts are rather another story, though the dresses themselves are quite attractive. Clothing matches characters’ moods or temperament, it seems, though nothing is ever overly or obviously utilized, such as Jo’s red, illustrating the streak of temper within her persona.

There are so many reasons to adore Little Women—the story itself, the many ways Greta Gerwig and others pulled it off, scenery, collaboration and more—and I am sure I will be exploring these in future blogs. As with so many others, this story has shifted something within me, and moving forward will be quite a different proposition than it would have been before I watched this film the first time. This is true with everything one experiences, of course, but we aren’t always privileged to feel that change, extraordinary indeed.

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