Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Incredibles 2’ Was Well Worth the Wait

Incredibles 2 movie poster

I was beginning to think Pixar had made one too many sequels to their biggest hits, but now we have “Incredibles 2” which brings writer and director Brad Bird back into the Pixar fold as he continues the fantastic adventures of Bob and Helen Parr who try to balance out their crime-fighting ways with raising three kids, each who has their own unique super powers they are ever so eager to use. It is no surprise how this sequel is not as fresh or as inventive as its predecessor, but I am thrilled to say “Incredibles 2” proves to be just as much fun as the original, and it is a blast from start to finish.

It has been 14 years since “The Incredibles” was unleashed on us, but “Incredibles 2” begins just mere seconds after it ended with the Parr family doing battle with the Underminer who lays waste to their town while robbing the Metroville bank. They manage to thwart the Underminer’s dastardly plans, but in the process they leave a tremendous amount of damage in their path. Despite their goodwill in preventing many citizens from getting hurt, the police do not even try to contain their fury at these supers to where they flat out tell them it would have been better to let the bad guy get away as the bank are insured. Hmm, it kind of makes you think how the story might just reflect the state of our society today…

While attempting to do the right thing, the Parrs forgot that, in spite of their victories, supers are still illegal and have long since been forced to adhere to their secret identities. With this latest incident, the family has been forced to say at a motel as their home was destroyed, and they are informed by government agent and friend Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) that the “Super Relocation” program is being shut down permanently. Bob and Helen now have two weeks to figure out what they can do to support their family before they find themselves homeless and out on the street.

Their savior comes in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a telecommunications tycoon who has been a big fan of superheroes since he was a child. Winston is intent on changing the public’s perception of supers with the help of his tech savvy sister Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), and he chooses Helen to revive her superhero alter-ego of Elastigirl to make this happen. However, this leaves Bob, better known as Mr. Incredible, at a loss as he feels he should be the one to start things off, but Winston feels Elastigirl is a better choice as she does not leave the same path of destruction Mr. Incredible does on a regular basis. This ended up reminding me of what Al Powell told John McClane in “Die Hard 2” after McClane said he had a feeling about something:

“Ouch! When you get those feelings insurance companies start to go bankrupt!”

Seeing Helen/Elastigirl take center stage as the main superhero in “Incredibles 2” is a wonderful twist on the original when Bob/Mr. Incredible did his superhero thing while Helen stayed at home to look after the kids. With “Wonder Woman” having been a critical and commercial smash hit, lord knows we have been long overdue for female superheroes to take charge as this genre can no longer be considered a male dominated club. Holly Hunter returns to her role with great relish as she makes Helen/Elastigirl into a wonderfully realized human being who runs the gamut of emotions throughout, and the action sequences she is featured in puts those in so many live action movies rendered in this past year to utter shame.

It’s also great to have Craig T. Nelson back voicing Bob/Mr. Incredible, and hearing him here reminded me of the welcome presence he gave us in movies like “Poltergeist,” “All the Right Moves” and on the television series “Parenthood.” He does great work in making Bob’s heroic efforts in caring for his children by himself all the more palpable as he experiences sleep exhaustion any parent can relate to. Whether its desperately trying to understand how Dash’s teachers want him to do math in a completely different way from what he as taught or dealing with Violet’s descent into adolescence, Bob has more to deal with than any parent could ever expect, and having to handle so many real-life obstacles on your own has to be admired more than criticized.

This is Brad Bird’s first movie since “Tomorrowland” which proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment. After his phenomenal success with “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “Tomorrowland” was greeted with a lot of criticism to where it seemed like Bird lost his mojo, but every director has their failures, and we are always eager to see them make a comeback. With “Incredibles 2,” Bird shows us how quickly a filmmaker can recover from a cinematic failure as he raises the bar for the other movies to be released in the summer of 2018. When “The Incredibles” was released, the superhero genre was not at the same level of popularity it is at now, and this created challenges for any sequel destined to follow it. But Bird more than rose to the occasion as he has given us a sequel which is gloriously entertaining and full of heart.

I also have to say Jack Jack steals every scene he’s in here. Whereas we saw some of what Jack Jack was capable of in the first movie, his parents are only now discovering he has many superpowers. This makes Bob’s role as a parent more challenging as Jack Jack won’t stay still, refuses to fall asleep, and turns himself into an angry beast at the most inconvenient of moments. Even Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) cannot maintain his cool self once he sees how this baby boy can make himself invisible and not easily detectable.

And yes, Bird reprises his brilliant character of Edna Mode, fashion designer to the supers who, in her first appearance, reveals herself to be infinitely perturbed to learn Elastigirl is wearing a suit not designed by her. Still, she becomes Bob’s savior when upon agreeing to babysit Jack Jack so he can for once get a decent night’s sleep. The bond she forms with this baby boy is a hilarious sight to take in as he is quick to mimic Edna’s every move, and it makes her appearance all the more delightful to take in.

I got to see “Incredibles 2” with a nearly sold out audience, and it reminded me of how much fun it is to watch a movie with so many enthusiastic people. You could complain at length about how this sequel doesn’t have the freshness of the original, but it would just take away from the fun it contains. I had a great deal of fun watching this long-awaited motion picture, and the rest of the audience clearly felt the same all the way through the end credits. Pixar still succeeds in making movies for audiences young and old, and I eagerly await an “Incredibles 3.” Of course, it would be nice to see it come out in less than 14 years.

* * * ½ out of * * * *