EMMA. (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Choosing Jane Austen’s beloved 1815 novel for one’s feature film directorial debut is an ambitious decision, and one for which photographer Autumn de Wilde proves she is up to the challenge. Ms. de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton may have added a period to the title to distinguish this version from the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, or perhaps it was a personal stamp proclaiming this to be the definitive version. Regardless, coming on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s superb LITTLE WOMEN, both films blend a timeless literary classic with contemporary talent and attitude. Additionally, viewers may note some tonal similarities to this and the 2018 hit THE FAVOURITE (for which Oliva Colman won an Oscar).

It’s one of the finest crafted and most famous opening lines in the history of literature: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The decision to cast mega-talented rising star Anya Taylor-Joy (THOROUGHBREDS, THE WITCH) as Emma provides a level of deliciously wicked entertainment that we can only hope Ms. Austen envisioned. Emma is spoiled and not really very likable, and though she sees herself as an all-knowing matchmaker, her family wealth and social status do little to override the quite common level of immaturity and faux-wisdom associated with her age.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, you may experience a slow build-up to connection with the characters … of which there are many who appear early on and with little introduction. Emma lives in her “comfortable” home Hartfield with her father (an offbeat and slyly comical Bill Nighy). Days are spent visiting and being visited by a community of folks who seem to have little to worry about in life other than who might marry whom. When young Harriet Smith (a terrific Mia Goth, A CURE FOR WELLNESS, 2017) comes to live with Emma, Harriet’s naivety causes her to easily fall under Emma’s matchmaking spell – resulting in some awkward moments and regretful decisions.

Interesting characters are everywhere we turn. Mr. Elton (an energetic and riotous Josh O’Connor) is the local vicar who is both amusing (“Inn-O-cence”) and a bit difficult to read, as Emma misinterprets his intentions causing one of the more startling developments. Frank Churchill (a stout and smirking Callum Turner) is initially one of the community’s more mysterious characters, and his looks and future holdings make him a desirable catch. Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) carries on a nuanced rivalry with Emma, and brings a new dynamic when she visits her chatty and ‘’try-so-hard” aunt, Miss Bates (a marvelous turn from Miranda Hart). As viewers we find Miss Bates to be at least as entertaining as Emma herself. Later in the film, Mr. Elton takes a bride (Tanya Reynolds), and her character provides a welcome and unsettling spark at just the right time.

Of course, it’s Mr. Knightley (played by musician Johnny Flynn, BEAST, 2017) who provides the moral backbone of the story. He seems to be the only one (other than her father) who recognizes the shred of goodness buried within Emma. Mr. Flynn gives a soulful performance, and is responsible for the single most touching scene in the film – a simple gesture of asking for a dance. Beyond that, his verbal sparring with Emma is usually morality based, or at straddling the line between politeness and rudeness. Ms. Taylor-Joy and Mr. Flynn and Ms. Hart are stand-outs in a superb cast that delivers the goods in each and every scene.

What makes the Austen novel, and the film, so captivating are the issues of romance, marriage, age, and social status woven into each moment – each dramatic turn laced with comedic undertones. Subtext abounds in every conversation and interaction, and words spoken do not always carry the same message as body language or a glance. To top things off, the film is beautiful to look at. The dreary lighting often associated with period pieces is non-existent, and the costumes and set design are extraordinary. The score from Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer is a perfect fit, and allows us to recall that for the 1996 EMMA, composer Rachel Portman won the Oscar … the last female to win until this year when Hildur Guonadottir won for JOKER. It should also be noted that the 1995 film CLUELESS with Alicia Silverstone was a modern-day take on the Austen novel, and regardless of the format (or whether there is a period in the title), Emma continues to be “handsome, clever, and rich.”

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FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDEWALD (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been seven years since the final Harry Potter movie, and this is the second entry in the planned series of 5 prequels entitled FANTASTIC BEASTS, based on a (fictional) Hogwarts’ textbook written by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne). Of course the characters and stories are from the pen of J.K. Rowling, and who better to bring us the war pitting pure-blood wizards against Muggles?

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM was released in 2016, and it was mostly an introduction to these characters and to some of the cutest and oddest creatures we’d ever encountered on screen. This second entry is much darker and more sinister, and tries to develop quite a few characters … perhaps too many. On top of the roster of players, romantic complications abound, and a search for one’s roots/identity is yet another sub-plot. And then there’s that whole Nazi element – leaving us all a bit bewildered at trying to keep up (although, it is fun trying).

David Yates directed the last four Harry Potter movies, and now the first two Fantastic Beasts films. He kicks this one off with a spectacular action sequence featuring a black carriage being drawn by a team of majestic flying dragons during a driving rain storm … all part of a daring 1927 prison escape by the titular Grindewald (Johnny Depp with a bleach punk do). It’s a breathtaking sequence, and the best of many visual wonders throughout – including my favorite, a very cool statue effect and a fabulous kelp seahorse.

Most of the key players return from the first film, though, as previously mentioned, their stories are more elaborate. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt, our main guide through this universe. Katherine Waterston is back as auror and fringy love interest Tina, Alison Sudol returns as Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie, and Dan Fogler resumes his comic relief duties as Jacob. Jude Law is Albus Dumbledore (yes, the first name is needed), and he is prevented from fighting Gindewald (Depp) due to some youthful “bonding” that occurred years prior. Zoe Kravitz is Leta Lestrange, Carmen Ejogo is Seraphina Picquery, and Ezra Miller is the lost soul Credence Barebone. Newly introduced characters include Claudia Kim as shapeshifter Nagini, Callum Turner as Newt’s brother Theseus, and Brontis Jodorowsky (son of renowned cult director Alejandro Jadorowsky, EL TOPO) as non-ghost Flamel. If that’s not enough characters to track, you should know the story skips from New York to London to Paris and back around again.

Expect some happy gasps from the audience as Hogwarts is revisited, but the darkness and similarities to Nazi beginnings may surprise those expecting two hours of cutesy creatures springing from Newt’s coat … although, those exist as well. We do learn that ‘salamander eyes’ are not to be used while flirting, and it will be quite interesting to see how these stories close in to the Harry Potter world over the next 3 prequel-sequels (scheduled through 2024). It should be a fun ride – though not as fun as riding that seahorse.

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THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK (2017)

August 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a movie borrows its title from a great Simon and Garfunkel song, and then utilizes the song to emphasize a point during the story, we can’t help but have high expectations. This is often true even if it appears we are likely to be subjected to yet another movie featuring the all too familiar ground of New York intellectuals brewing and stewing their own problems. Director Marc Webb (500 DAYS OF SUMMER, GIFTED) delivers the type of film that critics tend to rip, and audiences like to watch.

Much of the story seems familiar, but the excellent cast prevents the clichés from being overly distracting. Callum Turner stars as Thomas, an aimless writer-wannabe and recent college graduate with daddy issues. Thomas spends his time dreaming about what he might be and pining for the beautiful, intelligent girl with whom he hangs out. It’s understandable why Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) has friend-zoned him, since she has ambitions and goals, while he mostly just talks and drifts through each day. One evening while enjoying their conversation over drinks, Thomas spots his dad getting beyond “friendly” with a beautiful young woman in a corner booth. This is upsetting because Thomas’ parents are still married, and his mother is at home working through clinical depression.

Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) is a well-known publisher and Judith (Cynthia Nixon) is an artist in a fragile state. As with most self-centered twenty-somethings, Thomas has just assumed the marriage was fine and their family fell into the “normal” range of dysfunction. It’s about this time when the movie assumes the tone of a Woody Allen movie. Thomas turns detective and begins following the mysterious beauty from the booth, and their first encounter is a bit awkward. He finds himself mesmerized by Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). She’s the stuff that dreams (and fantasies) are made of … for both fathers and sons.

Johanna is really the second spell that Thomas has fallen under. His neighbor W.F. has been providing sage advice on love and writing. It’s yet another terrific performance from Jeff Bridges, who plays the alcoholic mentor with secrets of his own. See, every character here carries the weight and burden of their own secrets and plays games in every relationship. In fact, much of the movie plays like group therapy – two characters at a time.

No superheroes exist in this world. There are no car chases or guns, and the only knife is used to slice strawberries in the kitchen. The movie could be described as a coming-of-age story; however, it’s not just Thomas that has growing up to do. A deeper message is on display for those who take notice. Every person and every family has secrets, and many people find an inability to be honest and open to be a much simpler way to go through life. We know that people aren’t always good – even when we really want them to be.

Of course, we do get the obligatory dinner party with a table full of New York intellectuals (including Wallace Shawn) reminiscing about what a great city it used to be. Actually, nostalgia is an underlying theme throughout. The dinner party does provide Thomas the opportunity to drop the best ‘Philadelphia’ line since W.C. Fields. The script provides some other quality lines, and though it’s certainly not at the level of Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach, it marks a step up for writer Allan Loeb, who is renowned for such lackluster efforts as COLLATERAL BEAUTY, THE SPACE BETWEEN US and JUST GO WITH IT. He likely owes director Webb and cast a debt of gratitude.

watch the trailer: