At The Movies

Hopeful escapes

The Garden Of Evening Mists stars Angelica Lee Sin-je and Hiroshi Abe (both above). The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen (far left) as a young man who runs away from the retirement home he is housed in and Shia LaBeouf (left) as a fisherman
The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen (left) as a young man who runs away from the retirement home he is housed in and Shia LaBeouf (right) as a fisherman with a troubled past. Saoirse Ronan, who plays Jo March in Little Women, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress.PHOTO: HBO, SHAW ORGANISATION, SONY PICTURES
The Garden Of Evening Mists stars Angelica Lee Sin-je and Hiroshi Abe (both above). The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen (far left) as a young man who runs away from the retirement home he is housed in and Shia LaBeouf (left) as a fisherman
The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagenas a young man who runs away from the retirement home he is housed in and Shia LaBeouf as a fisherman with a troubled past. Saoirse Ronan (above), who plays Jo March in Little Women, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress.PHOTO: HBO, SHAW ORGANISATION, SONY PICTURES
The Garden Of Evening Mists stars Angelica Lee Sin-je and Hiroshi Abe (both above). The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen (far left) as a young man who runs away from the retirement home he is housed in and Shia LaBeouf (left) as a fisherman
The Garden Of Evening Mists stars Angelica Lee Sin-je and Hiroshi Abe (both above). PHOTO: HBO, SHAW ORGANISATION, SONY PICTURES

The March sisters in Little Women strive to improve their lot by marrying up, while Zak in The Peanut Butter Falcon runs away to train at his idol's wrestling school

There have been several movie adaptations of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. The latest, Little Women (PG, 135 minutes, opens today, 4 stars ), brings a jolt of energy to a story set in 19th-century Massachusetts, making it spring to life in a way that sets the standard for period drama.

Told as snapshots in the life of the March family, the story opens with the March sisters and their mother "Marmee" (Laura Dern) already living in "genteel poverty" - the women are not exactly starving, nor are they ready to give up their housekeeper. Yet they cannot afford to pass up any chance of improving their lot, whether it be by cosying up to wealthier relatives or by marriage.

Much credit for this work's vibrancy goes to director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig. She makes every line and scene count.

When Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan, goes dancing with Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), for example, what might be a throwaway set-up for another film-maker is a "go big or go home" moment for Gerwig, who seizes on it as both a visual experience to be enjoyed and an investment in the relationship of the two characters that will pay off later.

That holistic approach to storytelling - that it is not just dialogue, but also the other senses that convey emotion and propel the story - sets this work apart from other film versions of the 1868 novel.

This film is sweet, without being cute, and just clear-eyed enough about the realities of life for a certain class of women without turning it into a statement about historical gender inequality.

Gerwig recuts the chronology too, so that events of the past might be seen as honeyed reverie if it is a happy moment remembered in the present time, or made more bearable by an uplifting coda, if tragic.

The time-hopping adds layers of emotion not available in the text, especially when it becomes apparent that the story comes from the point of view of Jo, who in the first scene is introduced as a starving writer willing to embellish a point or two if it will get her published.

Ronan's Oscar nomination for Best Actress is richly deserved, as is this film's entry into the Best Picture list, but where is Gerwig's Best Director nomination? Her work here is superior to that of, say, Todd Phillips (Joker) or Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood), both of whom are nominated directors, so her snubbing once again proves Hollywood is a clique.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (PG13,97 minutes, opens today, 3 stars) is a rambling, ramshackle comedy-drama that like the makeshift boat at the centre of the film, should not float, but does so anyway.

The story turns its minuses into pluses because it never gives in to irony. Every moment feels authentic, even if some of them rely on broad Southern stereotypes.

 
 
 
 

Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, is Zak, a young man obsessed with escaping the retirement home in which he has been housed, so that he can train at the Florida wrestling school of his idol. Slipping through the gates, he meets Tyler, a fisherman with a troubled past played by Shia LaBeouf. Hot on their trail is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak's guardian.

The pair run, swim, paddle and sail their way through the swampy heat of the South, having adventures which change the course of Zak, Eleanor and Tyler's lives.

This is a work that comes with the usual lesson about what the handicapped can teach the able-bodied about following one's dreams, but film-makers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz breathe new life into that old theme by never buffing away the film's improvised rawness.

Its odd beats and eccentric set-ups play out in full. Not all of it works, but the production makes a convincing and entertaining argument for including actors with intellectual disabilities.

This film opens the Minds Film Festival, which runs till Sunday. It features six films that create awareness of the issues surrounding people with intellectual disability and autism.

Also opening this week but not reviewed is fantasy-adventure Dolittle (PG, 102 minutes, opens today), a big-budget retelling of the classic story about a man of the film's title (played by Robert Downey Jr) who has the ability to speak to animals.

Filmed in Cameron Highlands, The Garden Of Evening Mists (M18, 120 minutes, opens today) is based on Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng's 2012 novel of the same name, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Man Asian Literary Prize.

The historical drama, set in the years after World War II, stars Angelica Lee Sin-je as Yun Ling, a woman who suffered under the Japanese occupation. As she has to create a memorial to her dead sister, she is forced to put aside her hatred for the former enemy when she seeks the help of a Japanese gardener, played by Hiroshi Abe.

After its run in theatres, the film will be released later this year on HBO and HBO Go.

The action movie Primal (NC16, 97 minutes, opens today) appears to be a mashup of Snakes On A Plane (2006) and Die Hard (1988). Nicolas Cage plays a big-game hunter who has to track and kill a super-assassin while both are trapped on a ship. The assassin, in a bid to stack the odds in his favour, has freed the ship's cargo of deadly animals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2020, with the headline 'Hopeful escapes'. Print Edition | Subscribe