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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The Rhythm Section

Posted on January 30, 2020 at 5:39 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended very graphic and intense peril and violence, characters injured and killed, terrorism, suicide bomber, guns, knives, chases, explosions, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2020
Copyright 2020 Paramount

What is this weird fascination with stories of men taking lost, pathetic, but lissome young women and turning them into spies and assassins? A century ago, we had Henry Higgins teaching a flower girl to speak like a duchess. Now, we have “La Femme Nikita” and its American remake “Point of No Return,” its Hong Kong version, “Black Cat,” its Italian version, “Sexy Killer,” its two television series, the Jennifer Lawrence film “Red Sparrow,” the Jennifer Garner series “Alias,” Luc Besson’s 2019 flop “Anna,” and the father/daughter version — movie and television series — “Hanna.” When that training includes masquerading as a prostitute so we can see her in her skivvies, it becomes clear how outdated this set-up has become.

And now we have Stephanie Patrick, played by Blake Lively in a series of bad wigs, as the brilliant Oxford student turned narcotic drug abuser and prostitute after the death of her family in a plane crash three years before this movie begins. I should say played by a series of bad wigs with Blake Lively in a supporting role, because this very talented actress is given little to do but look sullen, sullen and a little afraid, and sullen and a little determined. Please add “A Simple Favor” to your Netflix queue if you have not seen it yet to get a look at how good she can be.

The people behind this film are the producers of the Bond films, and they are clearly trying to create a distaff franchise, based on the books by Mark Burnell, who also wrote the screenplay. Unfortunately, it is weak on character and plot and fails to have any of the ingredients that make the Bond movies work. While there are stops in many cities, identified on screen but otherwise mostly interchangeable, it does not have the glamor, the urgency, or the fun of seeing all the gizmos and how they get deployed. Revenge is so reliable and relatable a motive that it is almost impossible to get wrong in a movie, but even that cannot bring this story to life. It’s supposed to be all you go girl! with a badass female lead. But, sigh, it’s more male gaze again, with one of her disguises being high-end call girl in skimpy skivvies and somehow a shocking tragedy inexplicably inspires her to jump into bed with someone she barely knows.

A journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) finds Stephanie, a drugged-out prostitute constantly replaying images of the last time she saw her parents and brother and sister, and the voicemail message her mother left her before getting on the doomed plane. He says he has information showing that it was not an accident; it was a terrorist bomb, and he knows how to find the man who built the bomb. She initially refuses to have anything to do with him, but then goes to his apartment, where he has one of those movie-friendly rooms with walls covered with clippings and photos. He unwisely leaves her there, giving her money and keys, and she unwisely tips off the bomber, and soon Proctor is dead, on the floor in a pool of blood.

Stephanie follows a clue she got from the photos on the wall to track down the Proctor’s source, a former spy turned rogue played by Jude Law. No cold turkey montage (“I’m a user, not an addict,” she explains), so straight into the training montage, turning Stephanie into a lean, mean, fighting machine in a matter of months, while we flashback to Jude Law doing the same thing for Captain Marvel, only better.

The action and characters would have to be so much better to persuade us to miss the howling plot holes and tinge of misogyny — really, she has to be a prostitute? Luckily for the movie, we never invest enough in it to care.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended and very graphic peril and violence, murders, chases, explosions, terrorism, knives, guns, bombs, poison, characters injured and killed, disturbing images, very strong language, prostitution, and drugs.

Family discussion: What were Stephanie’s most significant assets in accomplishing her goals? Why did the reporter want to contact her? What will she do next?

If you like this, try: “La Femme Nikita” and “Hanna” (movie and television series)

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Dolittle

Posted on January 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard langage
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Attempted murder by poison, action/animal related peril, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 18, 2020

Copyright Universal 2019
“Dolittle” is mildly entertaining, silly and more than a little strange. It is loosely based on the original books, which also inspired the musical with Rex Harrison, featuring a two-headed llama-like creature called a pushmi-pullyu and an Oscar-winning song, and the modern-day-set remakes with Eddie Murphy. But mostly it’s a “we can do anything with CGI now, so let’s make a movie about a man who can understand animal language.” And that’s where the entertaining part comes in. It’s also where the odd and silly parts come in. For example, Robert Downey, Jr., who produced and plays the title character, speaks in a husky, oddly accented (Welsh?) voice for no particular reason. A significant extended scene involves giving an enema to a gigantic animal.

This version, set once again in the Victorian era, begins with Dolittle a recluse in the animal sanctuary given to him by the young queen in appreciation for his special gifts. Devastated by the death of his wife, a fearless explorer lost at sea, Dolittle is a mess, almost more of an animal than the creatures living with him, until the arrival of two young people. A boy named Tommy (Harry Collett) who refuses to hunt with his father accidentally wounds a squirrel and brings it to Dr. Dolittle for treatment. And Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives with an urgent request. The queen is critically ill and wants to see him.

Dolittle operates on the squirrel but refuses Lady Rose’s request until he learns that if the queen dies he will lose his home, an unnecessarily sour and distracting detail. And so the animals shave his beard, trim his hair, make him bathe, and accompany him to the palace. There, after consulting a small squid in the queen’s aquarium, he learns that she has been poisoned by one of her courtiers (Jim Broadbent), with the help of the court physician, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen). The only antidote is on a legendary — and uncharted — island, the very same one Lily Dolittle was seeking.

Dolittle, Tommy, and the animals take off to find it. So does Müdfly, who is determined to stop them and to get the antidote for himself. They have various adventures along the way, including a stop at an island ruled by the semi-barbaric King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who immediately throws Dolittle in prison because they have a history.

The movie never finds the right balance between comedy, adventure, and heart, probably reflecting the reported extensive reshoots following disappointing early screenings. But it is still watchable due to the sumptuous and imaginative production design by Dominic Watkins and the stellar voice talent for the CGI animal characters, especially Emma Thompson as Poly the wise and sympathetic parrot. Also fine are the bickering polar bear (John Cena) and ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), who find a way to become friends. Frances de la Tour provides the suitably imperious voice for a dragon and Ralph Feinnes is a surprisingly vulnerable lion. But my favorite was Jason Mantzoukas as the dragonfly.

Too much of the animals’ dialog is just silly (“You answer the door because you’re the only one with arms.” “That’s coming from the guy (dog) who loves the smell of butts”). Hugh Lofting, who created the character knew that it would always be fun to have a story about a person who could talk to the animals. But the various versions of the story sometimes forget that it is important to give them something worth saying.

Parents should know that this film includes action/animal-related peril, attempted murder by poison, chases, crotch hits, a sad offscreen death, schoolyard language, and potty humor.

Family discussion: What did we learn about the characters when they talked about their parents? How did listening to the dragon make a difference? What should people do when they cannot stop feeling sad or being afraid of being hurt?

If you like this, try; “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the musical “Doctor Dolittle”

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Just Mercy

Posted on January 9, 2020 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets
Profanity: Strong language including n-word and other racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to violent crimes, non-explicit depiction of an execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 10, 2020

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
The third 2019 awards season story based on a real-life lawyer stars producer Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Legacy Museum (sometimes referred to as the Lynching Museum) and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The movie shows him as a young graduate of Harvard Law School who moved to the small town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Lee’s Atticus Finch, Stevenson defends those who were unfairly accused. He established the Equal Justice Initiative. The only other staff was a local woman named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Stevenson began helping men on death row at no cost.

The local community, especially law enforcement, did not like having old cases re-opened and weaknesses of evidence and exposed. The hostility and obstruction seemed insurmountable. But Stevenson was undaunted. Unlike most heroic lawyers in movies (and real life), this story does not have family members complaining that he is working too hard or a love interest who feels neglected. Stevenson does not lose his temper or feel like giving up. The great gift of this movie is what sometimes, if you are not watching carefully, may make it seem like its pilot light is turned down too low. This movie does have some rousing moments (and some sad ones) but it does not follow the usual courtroom underdog stories that make the intricacies of the judicial system follow the beats of a feel-good sports story.

Jordan is that rare performer who is a superb actor and a full-on movie star. After his electrifying appearance in “Black Panther,” he shows his range as a lawyer whose only superpowers are his integrity and his constant courtesy toward everyone he deals with. client, friend, and foe. The quiet power of the respect he shows to his clients is critical to gaining their trust and to restoring their sense of dignity in a system that has done its best to take it from them. And it is wisely given as much weight here as any revelation of evidence or legal right left out of the original proceedings.

Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton also treats Stevenson’s clients with respect, with an outstanding performance by Jamie Foxx as Stevenson’s first significant client. It’s a quieter role than we have seen him in for a while, and his subtle work here is extraordinary, telling us the whole history of a man who has never been able to expect fairness for himself or his family. Rob Morgan plays another prisoner, performed with heartwrenching simplicity and delicacy to bring home to us what brought Stevenson to devote his life to this cause.

Parents should know that this movie concerns men on death row and abuses of the justice system. It includes some strong language, including racist epithets, and references to sexual assault and violent crime an a non-explicit depiction of an execution.

Family discussion: Why was it important for Stevenson to address his clients and their families as Mr. and Mrs.? What kept him from giving up?

If you like this, try: Bryan Stevenson’s book and TED Talk, and documentary

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