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
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 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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Olympic Dreams

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:28 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language and sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020
Copyright IFC Films 2019

“Olympic Dreams” is a slight but sweet story set inside a big, colorful, dramatic world, the Olympics. It is the only movie ever filmed inside the actual Winter Olympic Athletes Village, and the behind the scenes settings and encounters are a lot of fun to see, giving us an idea of the vast scope and international culture of the games. Alexi Pappas, who represented Greece in the 2016 summer Olympics 10,000 meter race, co-wrote and stars in the film with her co-star, Nick Kroll, and the director (and her husband), Jeremey Teicher.

Pappas plays Penelope (a tribute to her Greek heritage), an American cross-country skier whose event is on the first day, so once it is over, she does not really have anything else to do. Kroll plays Ezra, a dentist who has volunteered to be on the medical team at the Games. There are not a lot of dental issues, so he, too, has a lot of free time. Much of the movie is just the two of them at various places in the Olympic Village, having awkward conversations. Her side is awkward because she has done nothing but prepare for the Olympics her whole life and has not had much opportunity to have non-sports competition related interactions. His side is awkward because he is an awkward guy, trying to re-connect with his ex long-distance and generally anxious.

So, kind of like “Before Sunrise” if the two people involved were older, less open, and not as good at putting their feelings into words. Much of the film has a gentle, improvisational tone that is appealing, and Kroll in particular shows his range. Pappas is not as experienced an actor, and her director/husband lingers longer on her face than a non-husband might have chosen to do. Real Olympian Gus Kenworthy is a natural in a small role as a sympathetic athlete, and it would be great to see him do more films. The bittersweet romance does not have much depth, but the novelty and natural interest of the setting and the small incidental details provide enough interest to make up for it.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and sexual references.

Family discussion: What will Alex do next? How did she make Ezra think differently about his options?

If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise” and “Medium Cool” (which also used a real-life setting, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, as background to a fictional story).

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The Photograph

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:22 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 11, 2020
Copyright 2019 Universal

Of all the reasons to see a movie, there is none better than this: two gorgeous, immeasurably magnetic and talented actors falling in love on screen. And so, the universe (and Universal) have given us a luscious valentine of a movie, Issa Rae and Lakieth Stanfield starring in “The Photograph,” the kind of romantic drama audiences keep complaining they don’t make any more. From the steamy moments with a storm outside the window to an Al Green LP to flirtatious banter about the relative merits of Kendrick Lamar and Drake, the swoony romanticism is captivating all the way to the last moment.

Rae (who also co-produced) plays Mae, an art curator mourning the recent death of her mother, Cristina (Chanté Adams), a talented photographer who was, as she describes herself in a video interview, better at taking pictures than at love. Rae is sorting through her mother’s things, assembling a retrospective exhibit of her work. And she is sorting through her feelings about her mother, already complicated, with additional complications coming from a letter to “my Mae” she left behind. Cynthia’s instructions were for Mae to read the letter before delivering a second sealed letter to her father.

Stanfield, always a most thoughtful and charismatic actor, plays Michael, a reporter who happens on Cristina’s photos when he interviews a man who knew her before she left him and her home in Louisiana for a career in New York. He meets Mae when he is researching a story about Cynthia’s life. Stanfield played the break-up boyfriend in the popular Netflix films “Someone Great” and “The Incredible Jessica James,” (along with memorable appearances in “Short Term 12,” “Atlanta,” and “Sorry to Bother You””). He gets to be the romantic lead here, and his performance beautifully conveys his character’s confidence and vulnerability, and his immediate connection to Mae.

Both Mae and Michael are hurting from recent break-ups. And Michael has applied for a job in London, so that makes it difficult to start a new relationship in New York. But as always, the real obstacle to romance is the struggle between the yearning for intimacy, for truly knowing and being known, and the fear of exactly that. It may be lonely to be single, but it is safe, or it feels that way. “I’m comfortable” being unhappy and jaded, one of them says.

We go back in time from the present-day story of Mae and Michael to see the story of young Cristina and Isaac (Rob Morgan in present day, Y’lan Noel of “Insecure” in the past). They have a strong connection, but he is rooted in Louisiana and she has ambitions that can only be realized in New York. We see Cynthia’s conflicted relationship with her own mother (a terrific Marsha Stephanie Blake). We see her resolve, even after her heart is broken when she learns she cannot expect Isaac to wait for her forever.

But the heart of the film is the romance between Mae and Michael, with a suitably gorgeous score by Robert Glasper and lush cinematography by Mark Schwartzbard. I have complained in the past about the failure to light the skin of black performers correctly, especially when there are white performers in the same scene. Schwartzbard lights them beautifully, bringing out all of the rich, golden tones of their skin. Interestingly, most of the photos taken by Cynthia that we see are black and white, striking images, but all in shades of gray. We’re told she hated having her own picture taken, but we see one, taken by Isaac, tellingly a bit out of focus. And we see her take one self-portrait, holding then-four-year-old Mae in the Louisiana house she shared with her own mother. But we never see the image. Instead, we see them ourselves, through Schwartzbard’s beautiful cinematography.

Lil Rel Howery provides (as usual) some warm humor as Michael’s brother, with the always-wonderful Teyonah Parris as his wife, and up and coming star Kelvin Harrison Jr. is excellent in a small role as an intern in Michael’s office. Along with Chelsea Peretti as Michael’s boss and Courtney B. Vance as her sympathetic father, the cast gives the central characters the context of a larger world, where we see them as real people of accomplishment and confidence who have to learn how that fits with the vulnerability of allowing themselves to need and be needed in a romantic relationship.

“The Photograph” is a beautiful story, beautifully told, filled with heart and wise about love.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and a situation, issues of paternity, sad deaths of parents, drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why couldn’t Christine tell her daughter the truth? What would you ask someone to get an idea of who they are?

If you like this, try: “Beyond the Lights,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Love Jones,” and “Something New”

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Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted on August 29, 2019 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexuality and some drug material
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs, references to addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Injury, references to
Date Released to Theaters: August 30, 2019

Copyright Amazon Studios 2019
The title of this film, “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” is not really a spoiler. Yes, it is an inspiring story of a young woman named Brittany (Jillian Bell, outstanding in her first lead role) who has a sobering visit with a doctor, an equally sobering visit with an expensive gym. She decides that since running is free, she will start with just one block and see — literally — where that takes her. But the real story of the film is about what she discovers along the way about herself and the people around her. Her real problem was not being overweight. Her real problem was what being overweight helped her hide from.

Brittany feels that she is both stuck and drifting. As she approaches 30, her friends all seem to be settling into jobs and relationships while she is still living in college slacker mode, sharing an apartment with her BFF Gretchen (Alice Lee), and barely managing her internship-level job with a small theater group. Brittany is in debt, goes out partying nearly every night, goofs off at work, and makes fun of a neighbor they call “Moneybags Martha,” scrolls through social media to look at everyone else’s seemingly perfect lives, and tries very hard not to notice how awful she feels.

Brittany goes to a doctor because she says she cannot focus and asks him for Adderall. He tells her, as sympathetically as he can, that what she has to do is lose 50 pounds. She cannot afford a gym. The longest journey begins with a single step. And so, she begins with a run for just one block.

First-time writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo was inspired by the real-life story of his friend Brittany (glimpsed over the closing credits). It would have been easy and probably very popular for him to make a feel-good Cinderella story, with losing weight playing the role of the fairy godmother; makeover stories are hard to resist. But Colaizzo tells a smarter, subtler, more meaningful story here, with structural, symbolic, and character-based moments that illuminate Brittany’s growing understanding of herself and her world. Repeated incidents of Brittany racing for a subway as the door is closing are as important in marking the story’s development as the more conventional shots of the number on the scale as she weighs herself. The diverse cast is especially welcome, and Calaizzo balances the Lil Rel Howery character’s near-saintly level of advice and support with more flawed characters like her frenemy Gretchen, her new running buddy Seth (Micah Stock), and someone as lost as Brittany and almost as defensive, Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

We see that Brittany was not just heavy; she was numb. Any time she felt vulnerable or uncomfortable she made a silly joke or put on a silly accent. And that was most of the time. There were so many things she didn’t want to think about: being sad and scared as a child, feeling lost and unloved now. The reason she feels unfocused is not because she needs Adderall; it is because all of her emotional energy is put into not focusing on why she feels hopeless. Learning to be honest with herself is more painful and much more terrifying than running a little longer every day. And there is something even more terrifying: allowing herself to get close to other people, to allow other people to get close to her.

Bell has acknowledged that this story hit close to home for her. For us, as audience, we have known her as a comic performer with a gift for delightfully offbeat quips. Her fight scene with Jonah Hill in “22 Jump Street” is a loopy delight. Here, like Brittany, she has to let go of her natural reflex for comedy to allow us to see her character’s pain. Seeing Bell open up to show us how Brittany opens up as she learns to judge other people — and herself — less harshly is what makes this movie one of the summer’s sweetest surprises.

Parents should know that this movie includes some strong and vulgar language, sexual references, some crude, and sexual situations, drinking and drug use, reference to addiction, and references to family dysfunction and stress.

Family discussion: What upset Brittany about the couple at her brother-in-law’s party? Why was it so hard for her to accept help? What did she learn about Gretchen and why didn’t she see it before?

If you like this, try: “Wild,” “Tracks” and the recent “Sword of Truth,” also featuring Bell and Watkins

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Blinded by the Light

Posted on August 15, 2019 at 5:35 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs
Profanity: Some strong language including racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 16, 2019
Date Released to DVD: November 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
If we’re lucky, some time in August, as the big blockbusters of July taper off, we get a heartwarming little indie film to brighten the end of the summer. This year we are very lucky. The film is “Blinded by the Light,” set in Thatcher-era England, where the teenage son of Pakistani immigrants heard a song that seemed to explain the world to him. More than that, it explained him to himself. The song was by someone who was not British, Pakistani, or a teenager, but to Sarfraz Manzoor, New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen understood him better than anyone he knew.

Around the same time, Gurinder Chadha, the daughter of Indian immigrants in England, was also listening to Springsteen. Manzoor became a journalist whose memoir about his love for Springsteen (Greetings from Bury Park) then inspired Chadha, the director of films like “Bend It Like Beckham,” to make it into a movie.

The character based on Manzoor is Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), who dreams of being a writer. He writes poems that he does not share with anyone, even his sympathetic teacher (Hayley Atwell). The world around him seems bleak, unforgiving, and uncaring. An anti-immigration white supremacist group called the National Front is organizing protests and Javed and his family are subjected to harassment and racist graffiti. Javed’s father is strict, holding on to traditions as he is anxious about a lack of control when he is unable to support the family. His son’s sensitivity and inclination to assimilate into English culture makes him even more anxious. Javed’s mother is sympathetic but she has to work around the clock as a seamstress to earn money and does not want to put more pressure on her husband by challenging him. Javed has one friend who shares his love of music, but his freedom and ease only sharpens Javed’s sense of himself as isolated and ineffectual.

At school he meets a Sikh classmate named Roops (Aaron Phagura) who gives him a Springsteen CD. Chadha’s endearingly cinematic depiction of Javed’s reaction to the songs — the words as much as the music — beautifully conveys the jubilant, visceral reaction to truly connecting with another person, whether it is Gene Kelly splashing in puddles to celebrate falling in love or just knowing that somewhere in the world there is someone who has seen into your deepest secret heart and understands and accepts you. For Javed, who cannot fit into his father’s notion of who he should be but is not exactly sure who he will be instead, Bruce shows him the transformational power of putting feelings into words and music. A voice that means the world to him brings him closer to trusting his own voice.

As in “Bend it Like Beckham,” Chadha’s gift for kinetic storytelling reflects the turbulent emotion of the young protagonists. There are so many lovely details and moments — Rob Brydon (of “The Trip” movies) as the Springsteen-loving father of Javed’s friend, Javed’s discovery that his sister has found her own way to be herself, and of course a sweet romance, complete with a musical number that Gene Kelly himself would appreciate. Most important, the movie shows us that the feelings and the issues Bruce was singing about in the 70’s that spoke to Manzoor in the 80’s are still powerfully speaking to us today. Just as Springsteen let Manzoor know that his feelings were real and valid and understood and could be expressed, so Manzoor and Chadha tell us that with this lovely film.

Parents should know that this film includes racist language and attacks, some strong language, family tensions, mild sexual references, and kissing.

Family discussion: What was it about Springsteen’s music that made it so meaningful to Javed? How did listening to the music give him courage? What music is meaningful to you?

If you like this, try: “Bend it like Beckham” from the same director, and the music and autobiography of Bruce Springsteen

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