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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CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2015)

April 25, 2015

clouds of sils maria Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us don’t spend much time re-living our past, and we certainly don’t go through the emotional turmoil of analyzing our early lives from a different perspective. This story puts actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) in those shoes and then we watch as she fights, claws and battles her way through.

Maria is a well-respected veteran actress who has been offered a role in the revival of the play that made her a star more than 20 years earlier. The play was written by her mentor, who dies suddenly as she is on her way to visit. Hotshot director Klaus (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria for the role of the older woman, and this is difficult for Maria to accept since she played what she considers the far more interesting younger woman in the first version. Internal psychological warfare breaks out.

Maria’s personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) struggles to keep Maria informed of today’s world – celebrity gossip is especially key in their conversations. They also run lines together, and the parallels between the play and their real lives are so prevalent that the lines are often blurred between written word and spoken word. Things get really dicey when Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) enters the picture as the talented, extremely popular, personally out of control actress slated to play opposite Maria in the play.

These three actresses are exceptional … yes, even you Kristen Stewart haters will be impressed. They each bring extraordinary depth to their role, and all are a bit outside of what would be considered their comfort zone. Their exchanges are fun, but what’s not said is every bit as exciting and key.

Filmed in the Sils Maria area of the Alps, the landscape is beyond breathtaking. Maloja Snake is the title of the play, and it refers to the fantastic cloud formations that snake through the peaks and valleys of this marvel of nature. The scenery is a nice complement to the emotional rides each of the characters take, and writer/director Olivier Assayas ensures that we have no shortage of talking points after the film.

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SONG ONE (2014)

January 21, 2015

 

Song One Greetings again from the darkness. Fresh off her Oscar winning performance and infamous onscreen haircut in Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway stars in this infinitely smaller film from writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland.  A Sundance Film Festival entry, the movie winds through the clubs, coffee shops and second hand stores that make up the indie music scene in northern Brooklyn.

Ben Rosenfield (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays Henry, the kind of musician so enamored with his own folk sound that he is willing to play for pocket change in the subway tunnels. Failing to adhere to mother rule #1, Henry pays the price for not looking both ways prior to crossing a street in front of a New York cabbie. Next thing we know, he is comatose in a hospital bed. Henry’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) beckons wayward daughter Franny (Anne Hathaway) home from her worldly pursuit of a Ph.d in Anthropology.

When last they spoke Franny and brother Henry had one of those nasty sibling fights where angry words were spoken and no apology followed. It’s been six months and now a guilt-ridden Franny sits by his hospital bed hoping for a shot at redemption. She soon discovers Henry’s journal and begins re-tracing his favorite hang-outs and bands. This journey leads her to a meeting with Henry’s musical idol James Forester (played by Johnny Flynn). Lacking suspense, the story leads right where one would expect – James and Franny taking a liking to each other, Franny discovers her own love for music, and the songwriting block that has burdened James slowly breaks down.

The film is at its best in the musical moments. Flynn is a very talented guy as a musician (not so much as an actor), and 5 or 6 live musical acts make appearances as the story unfolds. Most of the quiet scenes between Hathaway and Flynn seem a bit awkward, but not awkward in the good way that leads to real romance. Connection and re-connection are quite common in times of tragedy, as we are at our most emotionally vulnerable state. The biggest issue here is that everything develops just as we would expect … no surprises, no twists. Even the re-connection of Franny and her mother is a sweet scene where Franny sings along to America’s “I Need You”.

Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley fame) and Jonathan Rice co-wrote the original songs used in the film, and as stated, a hand full of other bands perform their own material. For a musically based romantic drama, it does have a couple of really nice scenes, but for the most part, the drama and romance lag the music.

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