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Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women (PG) takes liberties with the structure of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, opening roughly halfway through the original story with Amy (Florence Pugh) in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep), Meg (Emma Watson) already married to John (James Norton), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) in poor health, and Jo (Saoirse Ronan) on her way home from New York to knit together her unravelling family.
Given that this is the umpteenth adaptation of Little Women, however, Gerwig is to be applauded for delivering a fresh approach; besides, extended flashbacks soon restore the balance, introducing Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) into the chaotic whirlwind of creativity that is the March household.
What unfolds is a superb period drama that is utterly faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the novel, and while the focus is on Jo as the aspiring author rails against the strictures imposed on 19th century women, this is very much an ensemble piece — even Eliza Scanlen, whose sickly Beth spends much of the story flopping about like a damp dishcloth, delivers an affecting turn.
Florence Pugh is deliciously vain as the flighty Amy, Emma Watson is pugnacious as the sensible Meg, and Tracy Letts is brilliant as the March’s elderly neighbour Mr Dashwood. However, Saoirse Ronan continues her recent excellent form with another stunning performance, creating a Jo who is gawky and brash, passionate and shy, and a proto-feminist. The sub-plot involving Jo’s romance with Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) is so slight as to feel tokenistic, but otherwise Greta Gerwig’s ( Lady Bird) latest film is another triumph. It may well be one of the finest adaptions of the book.
Inspired by Lucas Martell’s short film Pigeon: Impossible, Spies in Disguise (PG) features the voice talent of Will Smith as the cool international spy Lance Sterling, an all-action hero (“I am the difference!”) who is famous for working alone.
Until, that is, Lance’s arch-nemesis Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) frames Lance so that it appears our hero is scheming to steal a weapon of potentially limitless energy, whereupon Lance throws himself upon the mercy of geeky inventor Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), whose latest invention promptly transforms Lance into a pigeon.
Can Walter and his fuming feathered friend save the world?
Written by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, with Nick Bruno and Troy Quane directing, the latest offering from the Blue Sky Studio ( Ice Age, Rio) is an amusing spoof of the more ridiculous aspects of James Bond-style spy movies: the tuxedo-wearing Lance is much given to quips and overcoming impossible odds, and generally by employing violence as a first (and only) resort.
Idealistic young Walter wants to find ‘a good way to fight the bad’, which philosophical enquiry into the nature of good and evil only further ruffles Lance’s feathers.
It all amounts to solid but unspectacular entertainment for younger viewers: the central plot-line of unlikely partners gradually learning to appreciate the other’s unique talents is by no means new, and while it’s the pacy and colourful romp that we’ve come to expect from Blue Sky Studios, there isn’t a lot here that’s fresh or original — except, of course, that this time a pigeon gets to save the world.
Playing with Fire (PG) stars John Cena as uptight fire-jumper Jake ‘Soup’ Carson with ambitions to become a division commander.
His remote fire-station in the Californian mountains is thrown into chaos, however, when Jake rescues three children from a burning cabin, and discovers that he is legally obliged to act as their guardian until their parents arrive to claim them.
Applying the basic rule of fire-fighting (“You don’t control a fire, you contain it until it burns itself out”) to child-minding, Jake finds his ordered life quickly descending into bedlam.
Written by Matt Lieberman and Dan Ewen, and directed by Andy Fickman, Playing with Fire is a movie very much aimed at youth, and generates most of its laughs by making its adult characters look ridiculous, the pick of which is the sight of ex-WWF wrestler John Cena strolling around in a belly-cropped My Little Pony T-shirt.
Most of Jake’s fellow fire-jumpers come off as delightfully odd, from Jake’s creepily loyal sidekick Mark (Keegan-Michael Key) and his nervy helicopter pilot Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) to the mute giant Axe (Tyler Mane), and much of the movie’s appeal is the way in which the kids’ irrepressible sense of fun allows the ostensibly serious, responsible adults to respond in kind.