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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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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Little Women

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, brief smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death, references to other deaths including death of a baby
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Copyright 2019 Sony Pictures

You need to know where I’m coming from on this one. There is no book more central to my life than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My mother, Josephine Baskin Minow, has been Jo since she first read Little Women when she was a child, And now our children call her Marmee. I loved it so much that I read all the other Alcott books on the library shelf (I especially recommend Eight Cousins and An Old Fashioned Girl). Little Women has been central to the lives of young women for more than 150 years, inspired by its heroine, who was inspired by Alcott herself. Jo March is fiercely loyal, impetuous, impatient, and a writer, both eager and reluctant to find her own voice. Authors who name the book as a major influence range from Cynthia Ozick, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ursula Le Guin and Nora Ephron to “Twilight”‘s Stephenie Meyer.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story of four sisters has been adapted many times, including a Broadway musical, a 48-chapter Japanese anime series, an opera, and films starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Winona Ryder. The most recent BBC version (of four) was shown in the United States on PBS. One of two major adaptations last year was a modern-day retelling with a quartet of appealing young actresses, adapted with skill and understanding by writer/director Clare Niederpruem.

So, my standards and expectations could not have been higher and it is my very great pleasure to tell you that this new film from writer/director Greta Gerwig exceeded them all. Writer/director Greta Gerwig not only loves and understands the book, she also appreciates that in 2019 we are only beginning to catch up to Alcott’s vision of what is possible for young women and for all of us. Those who do not know Alcott’s work or have only seen the early versions may think that Gerwig has “modernized” the story. But every part of it comes from Alcott (some from other writings) and every part of it is entirely consistent with her fierce, independent, and devoted spirit and rebellious energy. And Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo March yet, her long-limbed coltishness not so much “boyish” as vitally engaged in a world that cannot always keep up with her.

The book was originally written in two parts, but the second volume (called Good Wives) has been a part of what we know as Little Women for more than a century. Gerwig begins the story in the middle of the second book as the now-adult Jo (a teenager in the first volume) meets with a newspaper publisher (a charmingly crusty and wry performance from playwright Tracy Letts, last seen as Henry Ford II in “Ford v. Ferrari”). In case we are not as quick as he is to see through her claim to be bringing stories written by a “friend,” Gerwig lets us see the ink that still stains her fingers. When her story is accepted (with the moralizing parts cut out), she exuberantly races home.

Then, as we will throughout the film, we go back and forth between the two parts of the story, indicated by different color pallattes, the warmer hues for the earlier years, when the girls were all at home and their father (Bob Odenkirk) was a Union volunteer in the Civil War. There were struggles and growing pains, but there was also a sense of purpose and possibility that is not as clear in the cooler-hued older years, when Jo is in New York living in a boarding house, and Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Europe and studying art. Pugh may be too old for Amy in the early scenes, but she and Gerwig give Amy far more depth than any previous portrayal (perhaps including Alcott’s). Emma Watson is lovely as oldest sister Meg (obligatory complaint about what was left out of this version — the scenes of Meg coming to John’s defense when Aunt March attacks him and the scene of her showing off her “new dress” to him). Gerwig’s script softens the professor’s critique of Jo’s more lurid stories-for-hire and his involvement in getting the book-within-a-book published, but the scene of his telling her that the melodramatic stories she is writing for money are not good is still an important turning point.

Laura Dern plays Marmee, a woman of character, courage, and intention. The private moment she takes in the foyer of the house to make sure she can greet her daughters with good cheer on Christmas morning after caring for the impoverished Hummels is a small master class of acting. When Marmee tells Jo that she still struggles with anger every day, we see where Jo got her inner fire and how inner fire can become the foundation for determination and principle.

And then there is Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the sensitive boy whose temperament is protected from becoming headstrong and careless by the example of the March family, their attitude toward work and also their attitude toward fun. Like Laurie to Jo, Chalamet is a perfect match for his “Lady Bird” co-star Ronan, and we could happily watch a whole movie of them putting on plays, attending riotous meetings of the Pickwick Society, and skating on the pond.

It is still one of the all-time great coming-of-age stories of a family and an artist finding her voice. By putting making the early year portion of the film flashbacks that comment on, provide context for, and deepen the “present-day” storylines, Gerwig makes us ready for a perfect ending that brings Alcott, her fictional avatar, and the story of all of us who have tried to tell our stories together.

Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and reference to other deaths including the death of a baby, family stress and conflict, and brief smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: Which sister is most like you? Was the publisher right about the ending to the story? Why do so many women, especially writers, say that this story was their most important inspiration?

If you like this, try: the book by Louisa May Alcott and the other movie and miniseries versions of this story

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The Aeronauts

Posted on December 5, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril, character sacrifices himself to save another
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (though the real-life character played by Felicity Jones was male)
Date Released to Theaters: December 6, 2019
Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios

Science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” “The Aeronauts,” based on the true story of early adventurers in meteorology and flight, exists at exactly that point in the middle. The “Theory of Everything” stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne play balloon pilot Amelia Wren and scientist James Glaisher, and for most of the movie they are up in the sky, marveling at sights and atmospheric conditions no humans have ever experienced before — or trying to survive them.

When they are in the air, it is gorgeous, exciting, and great fun. The visuals are spectacular, and sound designer Andy Kennedy and his team get a special shout-out for the superb audio effects, the exquisite silence, the creaking of the balloon basket, the clinks of the instrumentation. The never-ending series of life-or-death challenges are staged with such urgent vitality we almost feel that we are in the basket with them.

For most of the scenes on the ground, including a number of flashbacks, well, the screenplay never quite slips the surly bonds of earth. It is much better when they are up in the sky, battling the elements.

Wren and her husband piloted balloons until he was killed on one of their flights. Glaisher was a scientist who insisted that weather could be predicted with the help of meteorological data, despite the scorn of the scientific community and lack of support from his father, who is struggling with dementia. Glaisher is finally able to get the money for the balloon and persuades Wren to be the pilot.

Wren is highly theatrical, and Jones is utterly captivating in an early scene as she plays to the crowd, as savvy about showmanship as she is about flying. It is a lot of fun to see the actress who has often been given more subdued or internal characters do everything  — even cartwheels — to charm the crowd. She may appear to be light-hearted and flamboyant, but it is all precisely orchestrated and calculated. She knows what it takes to get the balloon in the air is not just the equipment and fuel but the other fuel, money.

Redmayne’s character is more like the shy, bookish type we’ve seen him play before. But it is fun to see his growing appreciation for both Wren and the adventure.

Those of us who pull down the shade on our airplane windows so we can watch movies on our laptops should take a moment to look outside and imagine what it was like to be the first human beings who saw — and heard — the inside of a cloud. “The Aeronauts” is best at conveying the thrill of that discovery, or, rather, series of discoveries, and the courage and ingenuity that went into getting up there and getting back down as close to safely as possible. It should inspire the audience not just to look out at the clouds but to dream of their own adventures.

NOTE: Rolling Stone did a fact-check to compare the movie to the real story.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril with a lot of suspense and some disturbing images. A character sacrifices his life to save someone else.

Family discussion: Why did Amelia change her mind about taking James up in the balloon? Who is most like James and Amelia today?

If you like this, try: “The Theory of Everything” also starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” and read the book that inspired the film, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

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Trailer: Jane Austen’s Emma With Anna Taylor-Joy

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 10:26 am

I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s Emma (the novel she famously described as having a heroine no one would like) and the movie version with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Toni Collette. This new version, starring Anna Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds, and Connor Swindells, looks just as delightful.

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