Personified Timelessness: Little Women (2019)

With this miserable year coming to a close, I figured that a quintessential December movie is the need of the hour. However, instead of suggesting an on-the-nose cheesy Christmas film, I’ve decided to go for a film which, in my opinion, reinvigorates the mind and soul while also being aptly themed for Christmas. Enjoy!

When I first heard about the latest take on “Little Women”, my joy knew no bounds. I was even more excited to hear that Greta Gerwig would be directing as well as writing the adapted screenplay.

Having watched her solo directorial-cum-screenwriting debut “Lady Bird” (an absolute must-watch) before, it’s apparent as to why Gerwig was the right fit for this project. Her knack for exploring and showcasing interpersonal relationships in their truest sense, is par excellence. And a film like “Little Women demands exactly that. Add to this, her stellar casting choices, and you’ve got a solid, meaty project.

Initially “Little Women” was due to release globally on Christmas Day 2019, which in my opinion was perfect timing. If you’ve read the book, then you know why. So imagine my utter dismay on finding out that it would release in February in India. Come February, with the bad show timing schedules and yours truly was left fuming. Thankfully streaming came to my rescue unexpectedly soon and now I’m a happy camper.

Well, enough of my rambling for now. Let’s get back to the film.

(From left to right: Watson, Ronan, Pugh, Scanlen)

“Little Women” commences with an adult Jo March working in New York City, reminiscing her past spent in 19th century Massachusetts. Gerwig decides to shake things up (quite literally) by focusing on perspective and dismantling the chronology of events in Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel that we’ve all come to know and love. There are constant shifts between the past memories and the present events at hand.

You’d think that such a ruse would end up confusing the viewers. However due to its deft handling, with the right cuts and edits, it ends up being a much-welcomed change. In fact it makes the plot, dare I say, more alluring. The confusion is further cleared by the use of subtle tones. The past is presented in warm, golden hues while the present is shown with relatively darker, cool tones. The purpose of this tonal scheme is not lost on me, since it’s a wonderful way of depicting the character’s (in most cases, Jo) frame of mind. It also lends itself wonderfully to the plot in terms of foreshadowing, whilst simultaneously involving and elevating the stunning cinematography, headed by Yorick Le Saux.

The film does a thorough job of not only introducing the characters but also enhancing them seamlessly. The March sisters may share a surname and home, but they are poles apart in terms of personality and represent a smorgasbord of aspirations. We’ve already met headstrong, literary Jo (Saoirse Ronan). Then there’s the eldest March sister: beautiful, traditional Meg (Emma Watson). Further down the line, we meet the gentle, musical Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and finally, the baby of the family: artistic, demanding Amy (Florence Pugh). The present March family is rounded off with the selfless yet quietly strained matriarch Marmie (Laura Dern).

In due course, we also meet the supporting characters and love interests. Some notable ones being Aunt March (Meryl Streep), Theodore Lawrence a.k.a. Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), John Brooke (James Norton), and Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts).

Although the story is set in the backdrop of the American Civil War, the main focus is on the coming-of-age aspect of the March sisters. The film perfectly captures siblinghood and childhood with all its warmth and struggles. It’s the attention to the tiniest of details, such as the orchestration and execution of the sisters’ exuberant overlapping chatter, akin to reality, which really stuck with me. Another wonderful feature is the downright refusal of restraint in scenes depicting childhood squabbles which allows the ferocity to organically mature into palpable family tensions by the time the sisters reach adulthood.

The plot does not shy away from the expectations and repressions that the 19th century society exerted on women. Rather, it underscores them since several of these issues, namely: gender dynamics & discrimination, lack of creative liberty, societal and class distinction and more, persist even today. The vulnerabilities and struggles which stem from the aforementioned issues are also addressed through two standout monologues. The first monologue is by Jo who laments about loneliness being the cost of her high ambitions. The second one is surprisingly by Amy, who easily takes Laurie down a peg, by presenting the harsh truth of the economic proposition of marriage and its consequences, as opposed to its romanticism. The issue of marriage has further been referenced in a rather amusing banter between Aunt March and Jo, where the former promptly reminds the latter that her wealth grants her spinsterhood.

Despite addressing such serious issues, the film has some terrific positive spins and takes. The familial affection, friendship, optimism and poignancy has not been skimped out on. Be it the surprise Christmas dinner, Beth’s unexpected gift or Laurie and Jo’s first meeting and ensuing shenanigans. None of the March sisters’ differing aspirations have been judged with a cynical eye, especially the rather traditional ones involving Beth and Meg. However, the most positive take of them all is that the fruition of one’s aspirations and goals has been considered as the happy ending, as opposed to the romantic couplings which very rightly get the deus ex machina treatment, as Alcott had originally wanted.

The ensemble cast as a whole is excellent and overall the performances definitely match up to what the film and plot demand. A fun fact to note is that none of the actresses playing the March sisters are American. The standout performances for me are Saoirse Ronan, who accurately represents Jo’s ambitious nature as well as its clash with her vulnerabilities, and Florence Pugh, who goes above and beyond with a complex, fleshy take on Amy, that easily throws away previously held notions of the youngest sister simply being a spoilt brat. Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, has excellent chemistry with all the sisters. Meryl Streep and Laura Dern, as always, shine in their respective roles in their limited screen time. A special mention goes to Eliza Scanlen as Beth, who is absolutely expressive even in the character’s most quiet moments, proving her wide range. This is even more remarkable given that she has previously played sociopaths all too well on-screen. And how can I forget Tracy Letts‘ memorable turn as Mr. Dashwood, a book publisher whose conversations with an adult Jo are highly entertaining. Now for the flip side. I had high expectations of Emma Watson since she has nailed far tougher American accents in films before (see The Bling Ring and The Perks of Being a Wallflower). However, she surprisingly stumbles, and its even more apparent in light of the superior performances by her fellow non-American peers (FYI: Ronan is Irish, Pugh is British, and Scanlen is Australian). In terms of casting, I wish that an appropriately aged actress were cast to play baby Amy. As a viewer, it’s a little disconcerting to see (a very much adult) Pugh play a fellow classmate of actual 10 year old kids. They could have taken cues from the 1994 version of “Little Women“, which had an excellent (and then appropriately aged) Kirsten Dunst play baby Amy. It just makes the transition to adulthood for Amy, all the more impactful. As much as I like the little things that Gerwig added to the film, she sometimes goes for the overkill, a prime example being the letter fiasco concerning Jo and Laurie. Such scenes added nothing but dead weight to the film. That being said, the positives of the film easily outweigh the negatives.

“Little Women” provides as much heart as it does substance, which makes it the perfect go-to film in December. Staunch Alcott purists will definitely have something positive to take away from the film as well. You all can rest well-assured knowing that Greta Gerwig has done her homework. So by all means, go ahead and immerse yourself in the lives of these bright, young women set in beautiful Massachusetts. It’s best enjoyed on a cozy night in, with a warm cup of hot chocolate and/or the ever-indulgent chocolate chip cookie.

Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! I’ll see you in the New Year.

Cheers,

Shamika

Copyright © 2020 by Shamika Lal,  all rights reserved.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: Halloween Reads

After a solid break and a lot of thought, I figured this would be the right way to resume blogging. I was previously working on restaurant reviews and other food themed posts. However, given the situation we’re all facing, it would be tone-deaf on my part if I wrote and posted about food. All I can say is that I’m utterly grateful to have a roof over my head and a meal on my plate, every single day.

Besides, I consider well-made films and shows alongside well-written books to be some major “food” for thought, which we could all use more of.

Here’s my first post on books and reading recommendations. Let’s get to it!

It should come as no surprise to you that Halloween fascinates me.

(P.S.: You might want to visit the “About” page of my blog, featuring an image of Shaggy and Scooby if that were not glaringly obvious)

As a kid, I was really taken up by cartoons that revolved around the supernatural and its impending mysteries. I can still vividly recall, sing, and play (the keyboard and guitar, if you will) the Addams Family theme song (cue, finger snaps). Ditto, for the ever-evolving Scooby-Doo theme song.

Did I also mention my fascination with cemeteries as a kid? Creepy, I know.

It goes without saying that Halloween isn’t as widely celebrated in India when compared to the United States. That being said, it hasn’t stopped me from whole-heartedly embracing the spirit. Although COVID-19 has sadly changed things for all of us this year, we shouldn’t let it dampen our zest for life. In these trying times, there’s no better way to partake in the spooky October festivities than by indulging in some great reads over the month.

The way I see it, reading ticks all the boxes. It proves to be a great escape from the stress, worry, and fatigue that are now commonplace owing to the absolute whammy of work-from-home schedules, online classes, and household chores. More importantly, it’s the safest way to celebrate the fall spirit and welcome Halloween this year. Also, it doesn’t stop you from getting decked up in your Halloween best (read: costume), settling in a cozy nook of your house and happily chomping away your candy, all while getting lost in the pages of a book.

My recommendations include novels, short stories – standalone & collective, series, and even a play, for the literary at heart. Without further ado and in no particular order, here are some spooky reads:

  1. The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

This short story is unarguably the winner of the most misleading title, in my list. The basic premise revolves around an annual lottery held by a small but tight-knit township. At twelve pages, the build-up and conclusion are nothing short of extraordinary. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the befuddlement I experienced in the last few pages, definitely made for a very memorable read. For a story of its length, it is quite allegorical in nature too, which is an unusual but welcome change. This is perfectly aligned for the busiest of bibliophiles and for those currently experiencing the much-dreaded reading slump.

2. The Landlady – Roald Dahl

This absolute cracker of a story is from Kiss Kiss, one of Dahl’s revered collections of short stories. The genius lies in the sheer subtlety of Dahl’s writing as well as the satisfactory conclusion which spurs the reader’s imagination. In fact, the shift is so subtle that it left me stumped for years until a recent discussion with a friend prompted me to revisit the story that subsequently changed my perception. Dahl is noted for infusing dark humour into his works, including children’s literature, so I should’ve seen this one coming. By sole virtue of this piece of work, Dahl easily gives Stephen King a run for his money. It’s that good.

3. 99 Fear Street: The House of Evil Trilogy – R.L. Stine

The nostalgia is strong with this one. My school gets full credit for introducing me to this series. A boring “Library” period was transformed into a gruesome delight when a classmate stumbled upon the books by happenchance. To this day, I can still remember the absolute ruckus which ensued due to the sheer number of people fighting to get their hands on these books. The plot follows a family moving into the most dreaded house of the new neighbourhood, despite warnings from everyone around them. The frights and gores are well-earned, and the campy plot holds up well, even today. This is the perfect childhood horror throwback for all 90s kids.

4. The Pillowman – Martin McDonagh

This play is widely acclaimed for many good reasons. The story introduces us to Katurian, a fiction writer residing in a totalitarian state, who is interrogated about a string of bizarre child murders that closely mirror those in his books. Katurian’s gothic stories serve as excellent plot devices that add another dimension to the play. The main plot puts forth the real-life horror of police brutality in the spotlight, which further amps up the suspense. By cleverly introducing us to real & fictional horrors and presenting them in a cohesive way, The Pillowman is a revelation.

5. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Whirlwind romances, sandy beaches, massive estates, unwelcoming hosts, buried secrets – these are just a few of the themes explored by this gothic novel. The narrative is just as much a deep-dive into the human psyche as it is into the mystery. The novel is a slow burn with an excellent description that draws you in. The fleshed-out female characters are another plus point. To those looking for a leisurely albeit haunting read, this book is it!

6. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

I know, I know. Why choose a massively popular book which has spawned scores of shows, movies and plays when you could go for something more under the radar? However, the fact of the matter is that this is Christie at her best and a terrific introduction for those new to her bibliography. Ten strangers are invited for a stay on a lonely, private island. What is the common factor you ask? Other than their questionable pasts, a macabre nursery rhyme outlining their fates. Christie expertly marries the themes of isolation, deception and suspense while firmly staying in her wheelhouse of the mystery genre. The climactic build-up is matched by the eerie undertones, making it a very hard book to put down.

7. Night Shift – Stephen King

There’s something for everyone in this varied collection of short stories. The reigning king of horror has written short stories that range from classic King to surprisingly poignant. Among this collection is a precursor to his famous novel Salem’s Lot, which will delight hardcore fans. His trysts with romanticism and mystery are also commendable. Some of my personal favourites from this collection are: Graveyard Shift, Strawberry Spring, The Last Rung on the Ladder and The Woman in the Room.

8. A Rose for Emily – William Faulkner

Ah, this one. Although not an easy short story to read, the non-linear narration is intriguing enough to keep the reader hooked. The story begins with the unnamed narrator attending the funeral of Emily, the grouchy town recluse, out of a sense of obligation. What follows is a look back into Emily’s life alongside her questionable actions and equally strange interactions with her fellow townsmen. The strong sense of foreboding cuts through very well for this rather slow story. The conclusion makes the reader appreciate the symbolism of a preserved rose, which is alluded to in the title.

9. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Humanity has witnessed and committed unspeakable atrocities which easily challenge the grisliness of fictional horror. The extensively detailed account of events mentioned in this true-crime novel is proof of the pudding! The events center around the quadruple murder of the Herbert Clutter family from Holcomb, a small farming community in rural Texas. The novel gives a blow-by-blow account of the victims, the murder, and the neighbouring residents of the concerned community. It also details the killers’ backgrounds, interpersonal relationships and, psychologies, which are deeply unsettling. This penchant for detail alongside Capote’s knack for eloquent prose is the main reason why this piece of non-fiction is hailed.

Fun fact: Capote’s good friend, Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) assisted him in the interview and compilation processes. No big deal.

10. The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

How could I not! As is obvious, the graveyard plays a central role in the story. It unexpectedly becomes the home of Bod Owens, a human infant whose tendency to wander mercifully saves him from being murdered with his family. The residents of the graveyard adopt Bod as their own and keep him safe from the insidious Jacks. The book strikes a wonderful balance between horror and heart. Gaiman’s writing compels the reader to view the graveyard for more than what it is believed to be. As if this were not enough, Bod’s hijinks and shenanigans quench the reader’s thirst for adventure. Only Gaiman could spectacularly bridge the gap between the themes of adolescence and arcane horror. A highly recommended read for Gaiman fans and newcomers alike!

With that, I conclude my current list of recommendations. Do you have any recommendations for me? I’ll definitely add them to my ever increasing TBR pile. Maybe we could have some wonderful discussions in the comment section below!

In the meantime, stay safe. Happy Halloween!

Copyright © 2020 by Shamika Lal,  all rights reserved.

Kubrick’s Cube: The Shining (1980)

New year, new post, new subject. I’ve decided to expand my domain of critical appreciation and experiment with it. Cinema is one of the newer subjects that I’ll be tackling in this post.

Here’s a well-known fact: Stephen King is a masterful storyteller.

Whether or not you consider his plots to be twisted, grotesque, heartbreaking and every other adjective that you can think of, you cannot deny that they’re undoubtedly memorable and do make a lasting impression.

Even today, people find it hard to believe that the guy behind novels such as “Carrie” and Pet Sematary” turned out to be the person responsible for “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Stand by Me”(The Body). This is a testament to the versatility of King as an author.

Want to know another fact?

Most films based on Stephen King’s works have not fared well.

By “fared well”, I mean hit the three check-boxes: – the critics, the audiences, and King himself. Notable exceptions do exist, of course. “Stand by Me”, “Misery” and “The Shawshank Redemption” have gone on to exceed far beyond even King’s own expectations. However, when compared to the sheer number of King based films made, the number is very low.

The 21st century has continued to adapt King’s works on the small and big screens. But among this eclectic mix of King films, none has garnered as much buzz as this one:

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“The Shining” is one of the most polarizing films ever made, not just from the point of view of King but also of Hollywood. Initially, the film received lukewarm reviews and had left critics divided. But as the years passed by, many respected filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese lauded it and it went on to become one of the greatest horror films ever made. The Kubrick-helmed film spewed a new generation of filmmakers and its lasting impact is seen in many movies and TV shows till date.

As a fan of King’s novels, I decided to watch the film and give my take on it. I expected to either like the film at most or abhor it for steering away from the original.

However, I did neither of those things.

Rather, I was left deep in thought.

It was one of those rare moments where you’re left so intrigued and perplexed by what has happened, that you fail to register the depth and complexity of what truly lay beneath. Then and there, I knew that this was not going to be an easy film to review.

Nevertheless, I’ve decided to give it a brave stab.

The basic plot of the film revolves around Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a recovering alcoholic and aspiring writer, who takes up the job of off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. Joining him for his new stint, are his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). The Overlook has a haunted and gory past, with the previous caretaker having lost his mind and gone on a killing spree. Meanwhile, Danny possesses some telepathic abilities also known as “shining”, through which he discovers more about his current lodgings.

Now, if you think that the plot veers towards blatant predictability then cease your thoughts at once. Unlike the horror films we’re accustomed to today, this film is out in the left field. As a viewer used to the bloodshed, violence and shocks prevalent in stereotypical horror films, it was such a refreshing change to have a film focus on the psychological aspect. It’s an incredibly tough task to box this film because it’s so much more. Kubrick’s meticulousness is seen through and through right from the duality aspect to the emphasis on derangement. The film is interspersed with vivid imagery such as the Grady Twins’ greeting, the cascading blood, the hedge maze and of course, the symmetric symbolism. The performances by the actors are top-notch. Jack Nicholson flawlessly pulls off the role of a light-hearted, possibly abusive protagonist whose descent into madness is riveting to watch. “The Shining” would not be the same without him. The scenes at the bar and the typewriter scenes were standouts for me. Shelley Duvall looks perpetually miserable and lifeless. Danny Lloyd is brilliant to say the least. His performance solidifies his status as one of the best child actors of the eighties. The music score is way ahead of its time, a cacophony of eerie sounds and echoes which effectively amps up the theme of the film.

However the credit goes to Kubrick who has been very hands on with every minute aspect of the film. He has mastered the art of effortlessly blending the dramatic with the relatively normal. Although this film strays far away from King’s original plot (easy to see why King still hates it to this very day), there are some wonderful character arcs which complete the story and make it a standalone. The movie does an excellent job of building the suspense and igniting a slow burn of fear within the viewer. It has ample amounts of what-if moments too. And when the unhinged parts of the story have been done justice, the film really rips. Good move on Kubrick’s part to add an R rated scene, which (hopefully) pacified King to some extent.

The movie has its flaws too, certain parts felt gimmicky. For me, the “redrum” reveal was flaky and not dealt with carefully. But that does not take away or dilute the film’s authenticity.

What the film is truly great at is giving more. The viewer always has something distinctly unique to take away from this movie. And the more times it has been watched, it always throws up something new and plausible. However, my favorite part of the movie is its unsettling ending which features a photo. The questions that crop up make the viewer want to revisit and never get bored.

Ultimately, I recommend people to watch “The Shining” with an open mind and no expectations. The surprises and scares that it has in store for you are absolutely worth it.

For the die hard Stephen King fans, with hopes that the original plot shall be followed to a tee, this film is not for you. Unless you are willing to witness & accept some drastic plot changes, I’d rather you be excited about the “Doctor Sleep” movie being in the works. For those of you who don’t know, “Doctor Sleep” is the sequel to “The Shining”.  It’s been confirmed that Mike Flanagan, the director of “Gerald’s Game” (another good King movie), has been roped in for the project.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

And that’s all, folks. For now, I’ll leave you this.

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You know I had to.

Copyright © 2018 by Shamika Lal,  all rights reserved.