Oscar Movie Minute: Little Women, Dark Waters, The Two Popes, 1917, and Knives Out

Wow, after all of that Marvel propaganda, it’s time to talk about some real cinema! 

Little Women

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More than any previous adaptation, this Little Women has meta-textual interaction with the source material. Telling the story out of order and cutting between the adult and younger versions of the March sisters work mightily in some areas (Beth’s death has never been more devastating) but not as effective in others. Some characters suffer from this structure, such as Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie, who unlike Christian Bale’s version doesn’t get to build up into a confidant and friend of the March family. But it also helps characters like Amy, who is given her due and more time to justify her point of view and actions. 

Some of the ideas writer-director Greta Gerwig puts forth and the way she speaks to how the novel has been received and critiqued didn’t agree with me, but I admire how she elevates the art of adaptation. I’d rather have a story that had a unique perspective rather than just dutiful, stuck-to-the-original material. 

But what hasn’t been changed from the source material to this adaptation is the coziness or the timelessness factor. The story still rings true for women today and celebrates female narratives. The movie portrays sisterhood and women’s socialization with astounding accuracy. It also shows how women, who throughout time have been confined to the home, have made these domestic spheres into feminine sanctuaries, and the beauty in that. This adaption pays special focus to the bewilderment Mr. Brook, Laurie, and his grandfather have at experiencing for the first time a peek into this world, which probably will ring true to many men (including men like my father, who has a house full of girls). It’s charming, though, with no malice on either side. 

While this film does depict sorrow and struggle and pain, it’s ultimately a celebration, and that makes it not only a perfect holiday movie, but it’s also, in part, what helps it be one of the best movies of the year: beautifully made and carefully crafted at every level. 

Dark Waters

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True advocacy in the world, the work activists do, is long. It’s time consuming. It’s often detail-oriented and tedious. It’s not sexy. For every great march or momentous legislative win there are hours upon hours of unrecognized labor (often underpaid or not paid at all). Behind every win is a million disappointments and setbacks. 

Movies about advocacy and justice often win awards, but they win not for their realism but instead because they are perfectly engineered to boil down years of work into two hours, giving audiences a concentrated dose of inspiration that has plenty of spectacle and triumph. They’re a cliche, but they win. They make us feel good and keep up optimistic. 

Dark Waters, the newest film by director Todd Haynes, starring Mark Ruffalo (who also produced) and Anne Hathaway, is adamantly none of those things. It’s the anti-Oscar movie. Dark Waters tells the real-life story of corporate defense lawyer Rob Bilott, who discovers that the DuPont company is poisoning water in West Virginia and becomes a whistleblower. The film, which takes place over seven years, gets into the nitty-gritty details of the case it’s following, and shows the true, grueling nature of legal work. It doesn’t have a victorious ending, or big bravado speeches. It stubbornly refuses to fall into any of those tropes, and that’s probably why it hasn’t been nominated for any awards, including for Ruffalo, who gives probably the most humble performance of the year. 

It’s hard to recommend this film. It’s a downer. It feels long. Ruffalo and Hathaway give great performances, but their roles require them to be unlikeable and stripped of their natural charisma. The film, from simply a visual standpoint, is ugly. The movie wears on you. But… that’s kind of the point. By the end of it, you’ll feel defeated, like Bilott. You’ll feel like his wife and family, who have had to sacrifice an attentive dad. You’ll feel the wariness of knowing the corporations who make all of the products you use daily could be poisoning you, and you might never know it. And even if you did- what would you even do about it?

The Two Popes

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I didn’t expect to enjoy The Two Popes. Afterall, I’m not Catholic, and don’t know much about either Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. What could this film have for me?

I’m here to tell you that The Two Popes is a marvelous film, for anyone. It is worth seeing for the performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce and the sharp screenplay alone. But, there are two other elements I found that truly set this film apart. 

  1. Despite not being Catholic, I found plenty of similarities between the conversations of the Popes to conversations happening not only in my own church denomination but also in American politics. 

Pope Benedict represents a conservative interpretation of the faith. Pope Francis represents a more liberal one, both theologically and socially. This opposition extends into mercy vs. the law, personal responsibility vs. corporate responsibility, individual change vs social justice. None of these ideas should be binaries, but in both the evangelical protestant church and in American politics, crossing the aisle and creating bridges across what has become divided stances becomes more and more difficult. 

The Two Popes brings us a beautiful picture of what it looks like to actually engage someone on a human level, and only then being able to confront the differences between one another. You can’t always change someone’s mind, but sometimes you can. And sometimes you’ll find your own beliefs changed as well. But you must first engage as people. That applies even to Popes. 

  1. The Two Popes also captures something I very rarely have seen in film. If last year’s criminally overlooked film First Reformed understood the inevitable tragedy of being a minister, then The Two Popes understands the inherent comedy of being one. 

The concept of being a pastor/reverend/minister/priest- whether a humble youth pastor or a Pope, is somewhat ridiculous if you think about it (wait, hear me out- as a second-generation PK I say it with love). 

We suppose that the God of the universe has created an institution for his people, his beloved sinners, which will be led by other sinners. If you’re a pastor, you’re trying to guide others in all the ways you still sin yourself. You want to lead by example, but your example is littered with failures. You try to be truthful about your struggles, but you can’t be too truthful or people get uncomfortable and nervous. If you are a good pastor and in it long enough, you will see dozens of people fall and betray everything you thought you had taught them, and you will betray your own deepest held convictions dozens of times (a week) and yet you must continue admonishing and extending grace and forgiveness.

Isn’t it preposterous? Absurd? Contradictory, yet commonplace, yet rare? And yet it still remains almost untouched by cinema. 

The Two Popes is a serious drama, but moments of levity come from embracing the contradictions of being considered sacred while also being human. The two popes eat pizza in the Sistine Chapel. They watch football. They joke and laugh because they are human. They dance. Then they forgive one another. Neither knows exactly what they are doing, but when they are able to extend grace, they’re closer to God then they’ve ever been. 

Films that take religion seriously (and aren’t marketed as “inspirational films”) are fairly rare, and the conversations of doubt, forgiveness, and church bureaucracy in this film were deeply moving, thoughtful, and rang true. It’s one of the most well-written movies of the year, and I believe, a must-see.

1917

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1917 is a spectacular technical achievement that really can only be seen to be believed. The “one-shot war movie” pitch is executed perfectly. It’s exciting to watch cinematography be pushed to its very edge, right in front of you.

But what is there to 1917 outside of the one-shot gimmick? What does it have to say and reveal about war?

A friend who saw the film with me said that in a political time where many are hungry to start wars at seemingly a whim (*ahem* WW3 with Iran *ahem*) a war movie like 1917 is always timely and important to remind us of the truth of war: it is hell. It is not glorious. It should be avoided at all costs. 

But the warfare of WWI shown in 1917 is radically different from how war looks today, and this period of warfare had already been covered extensively in film. Any relevance and timeliness is rendered mute. This war is so removed from modern warfare that it is easy to categorize it as the past, with little to teach us today that has not already been taught. 

Because of this, 1917, outside of the cinematography, has no new things to add to the already extensive war-movie genre, on a storytelling or aesthetic sense. It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to have been made. I’m glad there’s a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen- those are becoming rarer. 

Yet it’s impossible to talk about this film outside of the knowledge that it’s currently a frontrunner for best picture, and so I have to remark that I sure don’t think it should. The best picture award is not awarded to the crew who wins the suffering-olympics. It’s about the best overall film, ideally one that captures its particular year’s zeitgeist, which 1917 does not do in any respects. 

Knives Out

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Knives Out isn’t quite the ensemble murder mystery it was advertised to be, but it’s got great surprises in store nonetheless. The main twist is that you learn who the murderer is right away, and are poised to root for them as they try to get away with their plan. The movie is atmospheric and fun, and the whole cast seems like they’re having a good time playing this deliciously spoiled family. 

There is an overt political message to the film that casts the Thrombey clan as emblematic white Americans who believe they earned everything they’ve got and who like legal immigrants who keep their heads down and work hard, but don’t like any immigrants that either challenge that persona or make them feel threatened in any way. I enjoyed the creativity in which this message was incorporated throughout the film, and loved the perfectly meta-casting of Chris Evans, the literal Captain America, as the embodiment of the worst of socially-accepted white nationalism. 

But outside of this political message is a spiritual one, one that was pointed out to me by my pastor, Ricky Jones. That is of true innocence unveiling fake righteousness. Marta’s innocence lays bare the fake righteousness of the Thrombeys. Her simple truthfulness confronts their deceit. This immigrant may remind us of another visitor, an immigrant to our world, whose complete holiness and innocence illuminated the sins of those around him and put their hypocrisy into the light. 

-Madeleine D. 

Next week: Top Ten of 2019

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