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Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

There have been a lot of Little Women film adaptations. Most of you who go to the movies or watch them on TV are probably most familiar with the 1994 adaptation that starred Winona Ryder; the little vampire from Interview With the Vampire; and Batman. I recall liking that one. I mean, it had Batman and Vampire Girl in it, for God’s sake. And the girl from Beetlejuice!

Now comes the umpteenth adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel—and it’s safe to say this one is the best adaptation of the story. Ever. Directed by rising directorial juggernaut Greta Gerwig (the magnificent, ultra-fantastic Lady Bird), who has a vision with her films that declares, “Hey, we aren’t screwing around here!” her third feature effort is a stunner across the board.

It’s a beautiful thing to look at due to some of the year’s best art direction and camerawork. It’s chock full of tremendous performances, and it’s written and directed by Gerwig, whose vision makes this an admirable update of a precious work.

Saoirse Ronan, who also starred in Lady Bird, headlines as Jo March, eldest sister of the March clan, which also includes Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Ronan, not surprisingly, makes the intrepid character of Jo her own; she’s a budding writer who is trying to get her ideas past a crusty editor (Tracy Letts, who had a damn fine 2019).

Gerwig, in a departure from past adaptations, focuses more on the girls as adults, with flashbacks to their younger days. As a result, she has chosen not to cast Amy with two different actresses. Pugh, who is well into her 20s, plays Amy at every stage, even falling through the ice as a pre-teen. I’d say that was an odd choice, but the other choice would have meant less screen time for Pugh, and I say a big “no” to that. She doesn’t look like she’s 12, but who cares? She’s a master in every scene.

Timothée Chalamet steps in for Batman as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, and there couldn’t have been a better choice for the role. His first dance with Jo, where they go a little crazy outside on a porch alone during a party, is as timeless as movie dancing gets. Chalamet has such skill and charm with every line delivery that not a single second of his movie time is wasteful.

My one minor quibble with the film: Gerwig is so damned ambitious with the way she shows the many timelines—out of chronological order—that there were definitely moments when I was a little confused. Again, it’s a minor quibble, because even though Little Women is occasionally confusing, it is always enjoyable.

Filmmakers: This is how you do a period piece, dammit. It’s a fresh take that makes you feel like you are seeing a story for the first time, even when you’ve seen that story multiple times before. This Little Women also transports you to another time—and it doesn’t hurt to have Meryl Streep (as Aunt March) in your period piece. Always a good thing.

Driving it all home are characters you root for, played by one of 2019’s greatest ensembles. All hail Greta Gerwig for bringing this group together in delightful, superbly entertaining fashion.

Up next for Gerwig? Possibly a Barbie movie with Margot Robbie. I am curious to see how that one pans out. It’s going to be interesting if it moves forward … because films are always interesting when Greta Gerwig is at the helm.

Little Women is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

If you’ve been sitting around waiting for a Wes Anderson film featuring a stop-motion cast of animated dogs, influenced by Akira Kurosawa and the guys who made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer … your wait is over!

Isle of Dogs is one of the strangest—and coolest—experiences you will have in a theater this year. Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation (after 2009’s excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox) is another visual masterpiece, and while the story goes a little flat for stretches, the film is visual splendor during its entire running time.

Two decades in the future, Megasaki, a fictional Japanese city, is ruled by the evil Mayor Kobayashi (the voice of Kunichi Nomura). Kobayashi is a cat person, and after the nation’s dogs come down with a strange strain of dog flu, all canines are banned to Trash Island to live out their days, scavenging through garbage and rumbling in the junkyards.

Kobayashi’s nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), misses his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and sets out to find his beloved pet on Trash Island. The island is occupied by various dog gangs, one of them consisting of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Whether it’s live action or stop motion, you can count on Anderson’s usual gang of performers to show up—and welcome to the Wes Anderson party, Bryan Cranston!

There’s some squabbling among the gang members for leadership honors, with Rex often calling for votes that the rebel Chief always loses. When Atari shows up on the island, Chief winds up spending the most time with him—and he learns a little bit about bonding with a boy, as dogs do.

There’s a very sweet “love your dogs” message at the center of Anderson’s story, which he wrote with story contributions from Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Nomura. This is one of the rare Anderson films in which neither Schwartzman nor Owen Wilson appear.

Of course, there’s a budding love story, with Chief coming across Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), who, unlike Chief the stray, has papers and can do tricks. (A bit in which Nutmeg reluctantly shows off a few tricks provides some of the film’s best laughs.)

The story elements are secondary to how damned good this movie looks. While Fantastic Mr. Fox had a better overall story, Isle of Dogs is, hands-down, the best-looking stop-motion-animation film ever. Each one of the dogs is a marvelous creation, and their human counterparts are just as amazing. Anderson and crew get extra credit for taking fight scenes and explosions to a new level through their use of what appears to be … cotton?

This is a Wes Anderson film, so, yes, you are going to see a stop-motion-animation kidney transplant with a bird’s-eye view. Hey, it wouldn’t be a PG-13 stop-motion Wes Anderson film without something like a detailed—yet somewhat tender—kidney transplant toward the end of it, right? The man is a beautiful nut.

Other voices that show up include Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono and, most notably, Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker, an American exchange student with a crush on Atari.

Much of the film is spoken in Japanese with no subtitles, but it’s never hard to understand what is going on. (Thankfully, all of the dog barks have been translated into English.)

With every passing second of this movie, I was thinking, “How the hell does Anderson even think this stuff up, let alone get it onscreen?” This movie is a feat that will never be duplicated. I seriously doubt anybody in the future will make a movie that reminds us of Isle of Dogs. It’s off in its own, unique cinematic zone.

Isle of Dogs is showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Greta Gerwig makes her solo directorial debut with Lady Bird, a semi-autobiographical look at her life growing up in Sacramento—and she immediately establishes herself as a directing force to be reckoned with.

Saoirise Ronan, who should’ve won an Oscar for Brooklyn, will likely get another chance for her turn as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, an artistic Sacramento youth who yearns for the East Coast and some distance from her domineering mom (Laurie Metcalf). This is a coming-of-age story like no other thanks to the insightful writing and brisk directorial style of Gerwig, who makes Lady Bird’s story consistently surprising.

Ronan’s Lady Bird is a rebel with a good heart—a theater geek who stinks at math—but she’s on an emotional rollercoaster. She also gets a lot of laughs, especially in her showdowns with Metcalf, who has never been better.

Lucas Hedges, on a roll after Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is funny and sad as one of Lady Bird’s young love interests, while Odeya Rush is golden as Lady Bird’s best friend, Jenna. Tracy Letts is perfect as the nice dad dealing with warring factions in the household, while Timothée Chalamet (currently racking up awards for Call Me by Your Name) is perhaps the biggest laugh-getter as another love interest, the aloof Kyle.

Lady Bird is a triumph for Ronan and Gerwig, and while it would never happen, I’d love to see a sequel about Lady Bird’s college years.

Lady Bird is showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup shine in 20th Century Women, Mike Mills’ ode to his unusual mother, who raised him in the late 1970s and tried to like punk music as much as she could.

Bening is terrific as Dorothea. She represents the prototypical late-1970s woman—still cool, but perhaps slowing down a bit due to too many cigarettes and a general disillusionment with the changing culture. Mills uses Dorothea as a sort of narrator from the future who talks about the events of the film while observing from a perch in years ahead. It’s an interesting technique, and Bening’s performance is a career milestone.

Gerwig and Fanning are great as two different women who hang around Dorothea’s apartment, both with their own highly interesting subplots. Cruddup chimes in capably as a local handyman who will sleep with you if you ask him to.

I love the way this film utilizes music on its soundtrack, from Talking Heads to The Buzzcocks. This is a great depiction of the late 1970s, with a vibe that feels authentic.

20th Century Women is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

With Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach writes a love letter to his current girlfriend, Greta Gerwig, who stars as the title character and co-wrote the script (with Baumbach).

Frances is an New York City dancer apprentice who really loves her best friend (Mickey Sumner …the daughter of Sting!) and has to move between apartments a lot. The movie follows her often-failed attempts to settle into some kind of groove—which is hard to do when you’re doing things like taking an impromptu trip to Paris after getting drunk at a dinner party.

Shot in black and white, the film has a nice, natural feel to it, and it’s propelled by Gerwig’s quirky performance. The comparisons to vintage Woody Allen are well-deserved, with Gerwig proving that she is much better in smaller fare (this and Damsels in Distress) than big Hollywood productions (No Strings Attached, Arthur).

Frances Ha is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews