Emma.

Posted on February 24, 2020 at 4:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief partial nudity
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 21, 2020

Jane Austen described the eponymous central figure of her 1815 novel as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” The opening sentence of the book almost challenges us to like her: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” How can we root for someone who already has everything?

The answer, as Austen knew, is to immediately have her lose much of it. She will still be handsome, clever, and rich. But the rest of the story will bring plenty to distress and vex her. Emma’s past freedom from distress and vexation has left her blissfully unaware of the risk of failure. She is about to find out that those risks include not just personal humiliation but pain caused for others.

As this brightly sumptuous story begins, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), who lives in a Downton Abbey-like great house with her widowed father (Bill Nighy) is delighted to have arranged a match between her neighbor (Rupert Graves) and the governess who has been her dearest friend and substitute mother (Gemma Whelan). It was such a triumph that she is eager to do more to rearrange and improve the lives around her, starting with an unassuming young woman named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). Just as the last match had the double benefit of romance and an elevation of status (from paid companion to wife of landed gentry), she expects the same for Harriet, who is in the society no-man’s-land of having been born out of wedlock to unknown parentage. A step up for her would be a match for the local clergyman, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Emma is determined to make this happen.

Meanwhile, two newcomers arrive in Emma’s very small community, where the number of people near her social level, meaning worthy enough to be entertained in her home, seems to be around a dozen at most. A kind-hearted spinster named Miss Bates (the wonderful Miranda Hart of “Call the Midwife” and “Spy”), who lives with her hearing-impaired mother, is delighted that her niece, the lovely and talented but poor Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) has come for an extended stay. Emma is no longer the center of interest, just as she has new reason to wish to be noticed. The other arrival is the handsome and charming Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Also in the neighborhood is George Knightly, whose brother is married to Emma’s sister, which gives him some basis for familiarity. He does not hesitate to correct Emma when he thinks it is called for.

As Emma tries to orchestrate the match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, she ends up making one mistake after another, hurting her trusting friend, and revealing her own snobbishness. She tries to impress Frank Churchill, publicly humiliating someone else and revealing her own insensitivity.

There have been many versions of the Emma story, most notably the elegant Douglas McGrath version with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam and Amy Heckerling’s wittily updated “Clueless” with Alicia Silverstone. This one, a first time feature from music video director Autumn de Wilde is an “Emma” for our times. It is visually luscious, with endless, exquisite period detail. But to keep it from feeling stuffy, it is briskly edited, almost a door-slamming farce at times, with literally cheeky touches (a brief look at a couple of very attractive bare bottoms). The costumes are meticulously researched with details to swoon over, but they are also perfectly suited to provide more insight into each of the characters.

I was particularly taken with the hat worn by Mrs. Elton that made her look like an exclamation point and the red capes of the schoolgirls who march in rows through the town. The food in the novel plays a significant role, and it does in the film as well. Sparkling performances by a cast mostly not (yet) big names make this a welcome ensemble piece. If Knightly or Churchill or Fairfax were played by people already featured in People’s “most beautiful” issue, we would be able to anticipate some of the storyline’s best surprises. The most recognizable, of course, is Bill Nighy, perfectly cast as the anxious Mr. Woodhouse, always worrying that someone might be in a draft. This interesting essay speculates that he is not just querulous but actually suffering from early stage dementia, which puts Emma’s attentiveness/co-dependence and need to control others in a more nuanced light.

Most of all, this movie is fun, as much fun as Austen herself would have wanted it to be. “Emma” movies just keep getting better, like Emma herself.

Parents should know that this film is unrated. There is brief, nonsexual rear male nudity and there are some tense and uncomfortable situations.

Family discussion: Why was Emma so thoughtless with Miss Bates? Why was it hard for her to see the truth about Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax?

If you like this, try: the Gwyneth Paltrow version of “Emma” and the book and the updated version, “Clueless”

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The Call of the Wild

Posted on February 21, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, human and animal characters injured and killed, animal abuse, guns
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 22, 2020

Copyright Twentieth Century 2020
My review of “Call of the Wild” is on rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

Harrison Ford made me believe he was talking to Greedo and Jabba the Hutt in the early “Star Wars” films and those characters were as low-tech as Gumby and Pokey compared to the technology used to create Ford’s canine co-star in “The Call of the Wild.” And yet, I never bought it. Instead of getting caught up in the story, I kept wondering how they achieved the effects, like the interactions between the CGI dog with the real-life people and props around him. A lot of work clearly went into scanning a dog from every angle, and getting the muscles, fur, weight, and shape to look real. But the dog still seems synthetic compared to the animals in movies like “A Dog’s Purpose” and Disney’s own annual nature films (even compared to fully animated characters in the original “101 Dalmatians” and “Lady and the Tramp”). And so does the story.

The problem is less the technology, which is very impressive, than it is the uneven storyline, which zigzags from slapstick to poignance to action. The Alaskan and Canadian scenery is spectacular, the production design is exceptional, and Ford brings heart and dignity to his role, including the narration throughout the film. But the movie is uneven in tone and in its sense of its audience—it is too sad and violent for young children and too superficial for older audiences. The many-times-filmed story has here been sanitized a bit for modern audiences (less racism, for example), but it is rougher than the typical PG film, including animal abuse, and sad deaths of both canines and humans.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence affecting animals and humans, sad deaths of dogs and people, guns, animals beaten with clubs, and some mild language.

Family discussion: What did Buck learn from his first experience pulling a sled? From his rescues? From the wolves?

If you like this, try: “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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Babies: Coming to Netflix

Posted on February 18, 2020 at 8:00 am

Available this Friday on Netflix: Babies is a landmark series that explores the miracle of the first full year of life through the pioneering work of leading scientists from across the globe. It’s an in-depth look at the first year of life — the science behind babies’ developments, from sleeping, to eating, crawling to walking and everything in between! The series follows several new parents as they go on this new journey as well as 30+ of the top scientists from around the globe.

Episodes:

LOVE – The birth of a baby is a life changing event. It triggers a deep emotional bond that is not only vital for a babies’ development – but is fundamental to what makes us human. But how does this happen? How do we learn to love and care for our babies? In this episode, we follow three scientists who are decoding the biological mysteries of this powerful connection.

FIRST FOOD – A baby’s first food is a big moment – they’re not just embarking on a lifetime of pleasure through food – what they eat matters for the development of the body and the mind. In this episode we meet three scientists who investigate how breast milk and food are more than just fuel.

CRAWLING – A baby’s entire world opens up when they learn to crawl. We follow scientists who study how a baby’s relationship with their surroundings change as they learn to move.

FIRST WORDS – Over the course of the first year of life babies embark on a journey towards language – allowing them to enter a world that would be unobtainable without it. We follow three scientists who study how babies use sophisticated techniques to decode the language they hear around them.

SLEEP – For new parents, babies lack of a sleep pattern is a frustrating mystery. But scientists are realizing that a baby’s sleep is packed full of learning and is fundamental for a baby’s development.

FIRST STEPS – A baby’s first steps mark their first moment of independence. In this episode we unpack the extraordinary science involved in learning to walk.

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VOD and Streaming

President’s Day Movies

Posted on February 16, 2020 at 10:50 am

Some movies for President’s Day:

Celebrate President’s Day with some movies about our 16th President. Reportedly, Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed more on screen than any other real-life character.  I was honored to be invited to participate in the 272-word project from the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois.  Each of us was asked to contribute an essay that was, like the Gettysburg Address, just 272 words.

Here’s mine:

Two score and six years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, he was first portrayed in the brand-new medium of film. 102 years and over 300 films later, Lincoln has appeared on screen more than any other historical figure and more than any other character except for Sherlock Holmes. In 2013 alone there were three feature films about Abraham Lincoln, one with an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg. In another one, he was a vampire slayer. He has been portrayed by Henry Fonda (John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” Raymond Massey (“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”), Walter Huston (D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln”), and Bing Crosby – in blackface (“Holiday Inn”). The movies have shown us Lincoln defending clients, mourning Ann Rutledge, courting Mary Todd, and serving as President. We have also seen him traveling through time with a couple of California teenagers in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and granting amnesty to Shirley Temple’s Confederate family in “The Littlest Rebel.”

Lincoln is appealingly iconic as a movie character, instantly recognizable as a symbol of America’s most cherished notion of ourselves: unpretentious but aspiring for a better world and able to find both the humor and integrity in troubled times. In every film appearance, even the silliest and most outlandish, he reminds us, as he did in The Gettysburg Address, of what is most essential in the American character: the search for justice.

The Steven Spielberg epic, Lincoln, based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

Young Mr. Lincoln Directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, this is an appealing look at Lincoln’s early law practice and his tragic romance with Ann Rutledge. Particularly exciting and moving are the scenes in the courtroom as Lincoln defends two brothers charged with murder. Both have refused to talk about what happened, each thinking he is protecting the other, and Lincoln has to find a way to prove their innocence.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois Raymond Massey in his signature role plays Lincoln from his days as a rail-splitter to his law practice and his debates with Stephen Douglas. Ruth Gordon plays his wife, Mary.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore star in this miniseries that focuses on Lincoln’s political strategies and personal struggles.

Sandburg’s Lincoln Hal Holbrook plays Lincoln in this miniseries based on the biography by poet Carl Sandberg.

It’s not that I’m forgetting the other President we pay tribute to this week; it’s just that George Washington has never had a movie worthy of his contributions to our country. Lincoln has had films from directors like John Ford and Steven Spielberg. Washington has television. There’s a 1984 miniseries:

And a History Channel miniseries:

Scorsese? Sorkin? Spielberg? There’s a great opportunity here.

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Based on a true story Epic/Historical

Downhill

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual material
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, tense family confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020

Copyright 2019 Searchlight
It’s a movie about marital dysfunction on a family ski trip. So, “Downhill,” get it? Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, are the screenwriters of “The Descendants” and writer/directors of “The Way Way Back.” The key element that made those films remarkable was a blending of wry humor with heart-breaking family tensions and conflicts. But here, co-scripting with Jesse Armstrong (“In the Loop”), that is where it fails. Both elements are present, but the film and its performers never seem to know which part they are in.

Perhaps one problem is in the casting and marketing of the film, with two of the most beloved comic actors of all time creating an expectation that we are there to laugh at them. Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are equally good in serious roles, but having them in a film that tries to make us laugh at their struggles and feel sympathetic to them or at least recognize something of ourselves in them is more than even the most adept performers can manage. It does not help that the trailer makes it seem like an outright comedy, so the audience arrives with expectations that make it difficult to locate the movie’s tone.

It is based on the Cannes-jury prize winning Swedish film “Force Majeure.” The name is a legal term meaning a supervening event that makes it impossible to fulfill a contract, like a catastrophic storm. In this version, it is an American family with two sons who arrive at an Austrian ski resort for a family vacation. Peter (Will Ferrell), is still mourning his father who died eight months earlier and is questioning his own life, whether he is missing something he might never find time to have or do. Billie (Julie Louis-Dreyfus) is a lawyer looking forward to quality family time and her husband’s undivided attention. The opening scene (also in the original) is reminiscent of “Ordinary People,” making clear the family’s inability to get together for a photograph, demonstrating the deepening divide between the way they want to appear and the way they are.

On their second day at the resort, a controlled avalanche on one of the mountains briefly looks as though it will cover the balcony cafe where the family is eating. In that split second, instead of protecting his family, Peter grabs his cell phone and runs for cover. Billie and the boys are badly shaken but say nothing at first. As the vacation continues, Billie’s feelings: abandonment, anger, contempt, bubble up, revealed in ways that range from passive aggressive to micro-aggressive to outright, pull out all the stops aggressive.

Louis-Dreyfus, who also produced, navigates this range of moods with extraordinary sensitivity as Billie struggles to do what is best for her sons’ sense of security and respect for their father and her fury, fear, and frustration with Peter first for his cowardly, selfish act and then for denying it and trying to blame her for talking about it. It all erupts into a painful and humiliating series of accusations and denials in front of Zach, one of Peter’s colleagues from work (Zach Woods) and his free-spirited new girlfriend (Zoe Chao). There is an intriguing idea there about what Peter hope to appear or be for Zach and why, but instead of exploring it we get Miranda Otto in the thankless role of a resort liaison whose job seems to be welcoming guests with the very definition of sexual TMI. The same goes for brief flirtations with flirtation by both Billie and Peter. Yes, middle-aged people sometimes wonder where their youth has gone and long to be seen as new and desirable. That point has been made much better many, many times.

Even with a brief running time and deft performances, the movie never settles on a tone or perspective.

Parents should know that this movie includes some peril and extended family dysfunction, tension, and arguments. There are very explicit sexual references and a situation and a reference to drugs.

Family discussion: Why did Billie want her sons to see Peter do something good? What would you do if you were faced with Peter’s decision? How do you know? Why was it hard for him to tell the truth?

If you like this, try: the original film, “Force Majeure” and “Carnage”

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