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”
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”
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”
Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language
Some schoolyard langage
Attempted murder by poison, action/animal related peril, sad offscreen death
Date Released to Theaters:
January 18, 2020
“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”