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Movie reviews: 'Little Women' reshapes the coming-of-age story in new ways
Published Tuesday, December 24, 2019 7:00AM EST
Emma Watson, from left, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in a scene from 'Little Women.' (Wilson Webb / Sony Pictures via AP)
LITTLE WOMEN: 4 ½ STARS
Director Greta Gerwig keeps the bones of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” in the new big screen treatment of the 19th century story, but reshapes the March sisters’ coming-of-age in fresh and exciting ways.
Set at the time of the Civil War, the eighth film adaptation of the tale sees the March’s, debutant Meg (Emma Watson), strong willed Jo (Saoirse Ronan), sickly and sweet Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and self-centred Amy (Florence Pugh), with mother Marmee (Laura Dern), living a threadbare existence. The war has stripped them of whatever money they once had but they remain committed to charity—helping a destitute family down the road—and one another as they wait for the return of their father (Bob Odenkirk) from the battlefield.
As the story jumps through time, their lives intersect with Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), a charming, wealthy lay-about neighbour who has designs on Jo, his millionaire uncle (Chris Cooper), acid-tongued Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and Mr. Dashwood, the terse-talking newspaper publisher.
Told on a broken timeline, “Little Women” forgoes the linear structure of the novel to jump back-and-forth in time. It’s a clever device that takes some getting used to—at first it’s not immediately obvious the story is skipping around — but ultimately it provides insightful perspective on the characters and why they make the decisions they do. Gerwig has fiddled with the story’s collision of feminism, romance and family dynamics just enough to amplify its resonance for a modern audience. Playing around with a well loved and well-worn classic is risky, but Gerwig pulls it off with panache, aided by an extraordinary cast that brings the material to vivid life.
As a collective, the cast of “Little Women” are as finely tuned as the piano Beth practices on; pitch perfect with no sour notes.
Chalamet, reteaming with Ronan and Gerwig after the success of “Lady Bird,” drips charisma as the foppish and devoted friend/love interest Laurie. He’s equal parts awkward and arrogant, putting a new spin on a character that has been played by everyone from Peter Lawford to Christian Bale.
Streep and Letts drop in for some comic relief but it is the chemistry between the sisters that is the film’s biggest success. Previous adaptations have tilted in Jo’s favor, giving her the most screen time and the juiciest character arc. Gerwig recalibrates, allowing each of the sisters to shine. The story still revolves around Jo’s interactions with the women, but in this adaptation, each of them push the story forward. Watson brings kindness and empathy to Meg. In Scanlen’s hands, Beth is sweetly realistic about her lot in life. Ronan and Pugh leave the largest impression, imprinting the tale with their steeliness, humour and humanity.
“Little Women” is a rarity. It’s an adaptation of an often told tale that manages a rethink while still holding true to what made the source material so beloved.
1917: 4 STARS
“1917” is a simple story of duty wrapped up in a high gloss technological package that delivers a vividly immersive look at life during wartime.
Designed to look like one continuous shot, the action in “1917” begins in the trenches of Northern France with two men, Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), assigned a dangerous mission. With telephone lines down, their general (Colin Firth) dispatches the pair travel through No Man’s Land on foot to the front lines. If they can make it past the barbed wire, booby traps and German snipers, they are to deliver the message that the Germans have set a trap, enticing the unwitting British to attack. “If you fail, it will be a massacre," the general says. If successful, Schofield and Blake could save 1,600 lives, including Blake’s Lieutenant brother (Richard Madden). But first they must travel through nearly 13 kilometres of the most dangerous territory on earth.
It’s easy to feel that “1917” is a gimmick film. In the opening scenes I found the continuous, one shot nature of the filmmaking a distraction. I kept wondering, “How is Sam Mendes doing this?” or looking for clever, surreptitious edits. It took me out of the story but once accustomed to the gliding camerawork by the legendary Roger Deakins I began to focus on the story’s tale of bravery and resilience, and less on the trickery that created it.
The horrors of war are duly represented—there’s barbed wire, rotting corpses litter the landscape and a bombed-out town is nothing more than the skeletons of buildings—but “1917” doesn’t focus on that. This is a contemplative story of a mission and the men who sacrifice their own safety for the greater good. It highlights the ever-present danger of attack but it is the character’s emotional journey that makes for a compelling story. Blake wants to stop his brother from walking into a trap, while Schofield is driven by a sense of duty. Both men are working for the collective, which in our era of the individual, is a potent reminder of the importance of the cooperative effort.
“1917” is a beautifully grim movie. Death lurks around every corner and the success of Blake and Schofield’s mission is never assured. Hope is a remote, elusive concept in the theatre of war but Mendes weaves in enough humanity—the relationship between the soldiers, a scene with a French mother and her daughter—to give viewers a window into the horrors of war.
JUST MERCY: 4 STARS
When we first meet Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known to friends and family as Johnny D, he’s in his element, in the woods chopping down a tree as part of his pulping business. The calm and serenity of his life is soon uprooted by Alabama lawman Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding). What at first seems to be a routine stop takes a turn when Tate snarls, “You wanna make a break for it? ‘Cuz after what you did I’m happy to end this now.”
Those words kick off the action in “Just Mercy,” a based on life events legal drama starring Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. Johnny D is sent to death row even before he is tried and convicted of the murder of an 18-year-old local girl. “You don’t know what it’s like down here when you are guilty since you were born,” he says.
After languishing in a tiny cell near the prison’s “death room” for several years, Johnny D is visited by Harvard-trained civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Jordan). The former church pianist is an idealistic young man, new to the profession but fuelled by a passion to fight injustice. “I wanted to become a lawyer to help people,” he says. Moving to Monroeville, Alabama—where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird”—he sets up the Equal Justice Initiative with the aid of Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) to focus on undoing wrongs.
It’s a daunting task. On his first visit to the prison he is illegally strip searched by a leering guard on his way in. Worse, the community sees him as someone who wants to put convicted killers back on the street. He deals with death threats, witness intimidation and racism but the biggest hurdle comes down to one cold, hard fact: “You know how many people been freed from Alabama death row?” asks Johnny D. “None.”
Working against the odds, Stevenson begins a campaign to expose the corruption that landed his innocent client in jail. “Whatever you did your life is still meaningful,” he says, “And I’m going to do everything I can to stop them from taking it.”
“Just Mercy” does a good job in setting up the obstacles Stevenson encounters on his search for the truth. The film could be criticized for director Destin Daniel Cretton’s traditional, linear approach but the entrenched racism and systemic resistance to change Stevenson deals with are undeniably powerful indictments of a legal system that favours the establishment over everyone else.
The core cast brings the tale of injustice to life with formidable but understated performances. Jordan and Foxx keep the theatrics to a minimum. As Stevenson, Jordan is all business, driven by personal passion but bound by his professional attitude. Foxx is stoic, a man who has lost all hope. When his case takes a turn, the change in his body language is a subtle reminder that his attitude has shifted.
Equally as strong are the supporting players. As death row inmate Herbert Richardson, Rob Morgan brings vulnerability to the kind of character who is so often portrayed as a one-dimensional stereotype.
The film’s showiest performance comes from Tim Blake Nelson as a man tormented by his role in Johnny D’s wrongful conviction. His face contorted and scarred, he gives the character an arc within his relatively short time on screen.
What “Just Mercy” lacks in flashy storytelling it makes up for in its earnest examination of injustice and discrimination.
UNCUT GEMS: 4 ½ STARS
It has been a long time — possible forever — since anyone has written that one of the year’s best movies stars Adam Sandler. No, it’s not a rerelease of “Billy Madison” or the director’s cut of “Happy Gilmore;” it’s a crime thriller from acclaimed indie filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie called “Uncut Gems.”
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a walking, talking raw nerve. As a New York City jeweller, his life is a mess. His business is failing, he owes everyone in town money and yet he can't stop gambling. He’s planning on leaving his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) for new girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) — who also works in his store — and the damn security door in his shop is on the fritz.
Like all hustlers he’s always looking for the big score and thinks he may have found it in, of all places, the History Channel. After watching a documentary about mining in Africa he hatches a plan to get his hands on a rare Ethiopian black opal he figures is worth more than a million dollars. He has a buyer in NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who thinks the gem has mystical powers that will help his game, but Howard needs more cash upfront than the basketball player is willing to pay.
He’s trying for a win, the kind of windfall that involves great risk, but will the risk be worth it in the end?
Watching “Uncut Gems” is an exhausting experience. Howard’s jittery personality is brought to vibrant life by Sandler. For two hours he’s like a N.Y.C. traffic jam come to life, complete with the shouting and jostling. He’s the architect of his own misfortune, constantly in motion, bringing chaos to all situations. With handheld cameras the Safdies capture Howard’s gloriously scuzzy behavior, luxuriating in the character’s foibles.
Sandler has breathed this air before — most notably in “Punch Drunk Love” — but he’s rarely been this compelling. He brings his natural likability to the role but layers it with Howard’s neurosis, frustration, conniving and even joy. It’s a remarkable performance powered by jet fuel, and by the time Sandler is locked in the trunk of his own car, naked, you'll be drawn into the dirty little world of “Uncut Gems."
SPIES IN DISGUISE: 3 ½ STARS
The animated “Spies in Disguise” features the voice of one of the biggest movie stars in the world and one of the strangest premises we have seen all year.
Will Smith voices Lance Sterling, the world’s greatest spy. “I’m out here saving the world,” he says. “That’s what I do.”
Back at HQ after a daring mission, he’s drinking from his '#1 Spy' mug when he’s taken into custody for stealing a secret weapon called the M9 Assassin. He claims he’s innocent, that a villain named Robot Hand (Ben Mendelsohn) stole his identity and made off the weapon. One daring escape later Sterling sets off to prove his innocence.
Trouble is, he’s easy to find so he tracks down the one person who can help him, MIT grad Walter (Tom Holland), a junior inventor in the agency’s Gadget Lab. “I need to disappear,” he tells the youngster.
Walter obliges, sharing his biodynamic concealment potion with Sterling. The spy disappears but not in the way he hoped. Instead of becoming invisible, the next best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) thing happens. He turns into a pigeon. “There are pigeons in every major city,” Walter says. “It’s the perfect disguise.”
It’s a good way of going incognito perhaps but not practical in the hunt of Robot Hand. “I’ll come with you and show you all the advantages of being a pigeon," Walter says. "It might even make you a better spy.” Together they set off to find Robot Hand as Marcy (Rashida Jones), the agency’s head of security, tries to find and arrest them.
Featuring Pierce-Brosnan-era-007-style action and gadgets, “Spies in Disguise” is frenetic, family friendly James Bond Lite. Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane keep the pace brisk, pausing only to emphasize a gag. The movie works best not when it’s in action but when Sterling is adjusting to life as a pigeon. As his latent avian instincts come on strong, for instance, he finds he can’t resist eating garbage on the road. It’s goofy fun that is more interesting than Sterling’s human form, which is all swagger.
The script, by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, also mines a considerable amount of humour from the odd pairing of Sterling and Walter. Sterling is a shoot first and ask questions later kind of spy while Walter favours unusual methods, like disarming the baddies with wild, glittery cat videos because, well, everyone loves a cat video. “You can do more by bringing people together than blowing them up,” he says.
“Spies in Disguise” is buoyant enough to entertain the eye but the messages for kids about the benefits of being part of a flock and celebrating one's differences are expertly woven throughout.
THE SONG OF NAMES: 2 ½ STARS
“The Song of Names,” based on Norman Lebrecht's award-winning novel, is a story of two people sent off in different directions searching for lost family members.
The action begins in 1951. On the eve of his debut concert performance for a packed house of kings and queens, Polish musical prodigy Dovidl Rapoport (Jonah Hauer-King) disappears. His adopted English family, including his brother Martin (Gerran Howell) is distraught. They first met Dovidl as a nine-year-old who, when he moved in with them to study violin, declared, “If I snore I snore in tune. I am a musician!” The family kept him safe from the Nazi threat and groomed him for greatness.
Cut to 1986. Martin, now played by Tim Roth, is adjudicating a music competition in Northern England when a contestant uses a technique that seems very familiar. Thoughts of his former brother have consumed Martin and this simple but unique method of rosining the bow sets Martin on a journey that will take him to Poland and finally New York City. His quest has one simple purpose: to find out why Dovidl (played as an adult by Clive Owen) left.
As a celebration of music, “The Song of Names” is terrific. Legendary composer Howard Shore has written new music for the film, including the “Song of Names,” a moving recitation of the names of all the Jewish people killed at Treblinka. It’s a powerful moment, solemn and heartrending, that is the film’s absolute high point. More playful is a violin duel in a London air raid shelter between the nine-year-old Dovidl and a teenage rival. Both scenes display the power of music to move us, whether it is to tears or to applause.
It’s the detective story that falls short. Clues that have eluded Martin for decades suddenly become obvious and the journey seems less like a mystery and more like a game of “Where’s Waldo.” More intrigue may have brought with it more emotional weight.
“The Song of Names” is a handsome, yet somewhat dreary historical drama that does hit the emotional notes it needs to succeed.