Emma. (B+). Did we really need another movie of the beloved Jane Austen novel? I guess the box office will tell. This is a fine and, I believe, faithful adaptation of the book, so being an ardent disciple of the divine Miss Austen I quite enjoyed it. Anya Taylor-Joy was an interesting choice for the title role; her large, wide-set eyes give her a somewhat exotic appearance that may have worked better in her other movies like The Witch and Split, but she does a good job on the whole. In this version, I think Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria) at least looks quite a bit younger than he was in the novel (and the familiar 1996 movie version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam), and perhaps as a result this Emma–Knightley combination actually generates a little romantic heat. What else to say? The music stands out; there’s quite of bit of it, and a lot of it sounds like religious music of the period (or at least some long-past period). In this version, Emma’s older sister and her family come to Highbury for a visit and make a vivid impression; I don’t remember them from the book or prior movies. Anyway, if you like Jane Austen, or period pieces, or romantic comedies, I think you should like this movie.
P.S. Yes, the title of the movie really does have a period at the end, which I noticed on the opening title card. According to Wikipedia, “The title of the film has a period attached to signify it being a period piece.”
Richard Jewell (B). This is a solid, interesting little movie about a real-life event that I only dimly remember. A nail-bomb exploded in downtown Atlanta while that city was hosting the 1996 Olympics, killing one person and injuring over 100 (per wikipedia). According to the movie, the federal criminal investigation turned up no real leads, and the FBI decided to focus on Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered the bomb before it exploded and seemingly saved lots of lives by alerting law enforcement and helping evacuate the area. (The actual bomber was identified and apprehended only years later.) Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) portrays Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) as a real odd duck—hugely overweight, socially inept, living with his mother (Kathy Bates, Midnight in Paris), and yearning to be a real policeman. Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies) is an unscrupulous reporter dying for a scoop after the explosion, and Jon Hamm (Bridesmaids) is the integrity-challenged FBI agent who tips her off that Jewell is a person of interest. When she breaks the story, Jewell goes from hero to presumed villain in no time flat, and he turns to the only lawyer he knows, a solo practitioner played by Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back), to help him fight back. Hauser and Rockwell turn in fine performances, and the movie vividly demonstrates how the combined power of the government and the media can unjustly destroy an ordinary guy’s life and reputation (and really upset his mama).
Little Women (2019) (A-). I haven’t seen any of the numerous prior dramatizations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, and I haven’t read the book itself in decades, so I was a fairly clean slate. I just remembered it was the story of four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) living with their mother “Marmee” in the North while their father was off with the Union army in the Civil War. Director and adapter Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) complicates the narrative by making the “present” some seven years later and having headstrong sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) remember the Civil War-era events in extensive flashbacks.
At first, I didn’t care for the movie very much, but it quickly grew on me. I think it was mainly the story—the little domestic squabbles, setbacks, and victories—that won me over. Aside from Ronan, who’s always good, and Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated…) in a small but fun part as the girls’ rich and crusty spinster aunt, I thought the acting was merely adequate. Emma Watson (This Is the End) didn’t have a lot to do as oldest sister Meg. Laura Dern (Star Wars Episode VIII) mostly just beams happily at her wonderful daughters. And I thought Amy, the youngest sister, was miscast. I vaguely remember her as a flighty, spoiled, kid-sister type in the novel, but Florence Pugh (Midsommar) is a sturdy, husky-voiced gal who seemed more mature than all three of her “older” sisters. I expect she’ll be a better fit for her part in the upcoming Marvel movie Black Widow.
Bombshell. (B) I had time to squeeze one last movie in before the end of 2019, so of course I opted for the one starring the flawless Nicole Kidman (Aquaman). It’s based on the sexual-harassment scandal that engulfed the Fox News organization in 2016 and ultimately took down CEO Roger Ailes (played here by John Lithgow, Confessions of a Shopaholic). I’ve never watched Fox News and paid no attention to the scandal, so it was all rather new to me. The incomparable Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, a Fox personality who first got demoted, then got fired, and then sued Ailes individually for sexual harassment. Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) plays Megyn Kelly, an even higher-profile Fox newswoman who has to decide whether to protect her very successful career or come forward to corroborate Carlson’s story with her own account of Ailes’s misconduct some ten years earlier. And then there’s Margot Robbie (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), who plays a wide-eyed up-and-comer who’s currently being victimized by Ailes. Although the movie was interesting, I think it suffers from the fact that Robbie’s character is fictional (a composite of several women, I’ve read). The main suspense of the action is whether any women who work at Fox will come forward to substantiate Carlson’s claims, and the movie sort of sets you up to expect that Robbie’s character will be the one to come forward because, unlike Kelly, she’s suffering from Ailes’s misconduct right now. But then she doesn’t, presumably because she’s not a real person and the movie wanted to stick closer to the facts. Anyway, I thought it was worth seeing, and I note that Theron and Robbie have picked up Golden Globe nominations for their performances (though not Kidman, criminally).
Also, I was again impressed by the Alamo Drafthouse’s pre-show entertainment, which included clips from Kidman’s first film, BMX Bandits, and a comic bit from Funnyordie.com in which Theron pretends to be practicing an Academy Award acceptance speech in her bathroom mirror.
Ad Astra (C). This movie has done very well with other critics—currently scoring 80 out of 100 on metacritic.com—but I was underwhelmed. It’s a sci-fi flick set in the near future. Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading) stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut so unflappably cool he makes Neil Armstrong look like a bowl of quivering jello. Strange, deadly energy pulses from Neptune start threatening life on Earth (and on the moon and Mars, which have been colonized), and it seems that Roy’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman), who disappeared on a scientific mission to Neptune years before, may have something to do with it. Before you can say “2001,” Roy is blasting off from Earth on a mission to contact dear, old dad and, with luck, save the world(s). Lots of critics have compared Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now, which is fair, but to me the more obvious comparison is the 2007 space thriller Sunshine. Anyhoo, I found the movie visually appealing but much lacking in the story and character departments. Roy is so locked down he is hard to empathize with. Donald Sutherland (Forsaken) pops up in a small role, and Liv Tyler (That Thing You Do!) has the tiny and thankless task of flashing on the screen a few times as Roy’s estranged wife.
Cool Hand Luke (B). I think it’s hard to rate a movie that is well-made and interesting but also bleak and depressing. That’s how I found Cool Hand Luke, the 1967 film starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and co-starring George Kennedy (The Naked Gun) in an Oscar-winning supporting performance. Newman plays the title character, a decorated war veteran who lands himself on a prison road gang in the deep South after drunkenly vandalizing a bunch of parking meters. Luke’s blasé attitude and ability to absorb punishment make him an object of suspicion among the prison guards but admiration among his fellow prisoners, who are led by a loud-mouthed fellow called Dragline (Kennedy). In Luke’s shoes, I’d do my best to keep my head down and survive my two-year sentence, but after his ailing mother dies he starts the shenanigans that will get him in increasing amounts of trouble with the sadistic Captain (who has the famous line “What we have here is failure to communicate”) and his goons. What’s Luke’s deal? He’s plainly made out to be a Christ figure, and the movie kind of plays like a drawn-out Garden of Gethsemane sequence. But what’s his message? Love thy neighbor doesn’t seem to fit. Resist authority? What about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s? Even if Luke’s punishment was excessive, he did vandalize public property, after all. And why is he so rebellious? He alludes to having grown up without a father, and maybe his wartime experience affected him somehow, but I still didn’t really get his motivation. I guess some people are just ornery by nature.
Watch for Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Harry Dean Stanton (Escape from New York), and Wayne Rogers (TV’s M*A*S*H) in small parts as fellow prisoners. Apparently Joe Don Baker (Mitchell) was in there too, but I didn’t spot him.
Yentl (C). Hm, seems to me that the Magnolia Theater is pushing the limits of what counts as a “classic” in its Tuesday night classic-movie series. Nevertheless, onward! This was my first time see this 1983 musical starring (and directed by) Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). What can I say? If you want an extra-hearty helping of Ms. Streisand, this is the movie for you. The movie is set in “Eastern Europe” in 1904 (I think that’s what the caption said), and Streisand plays Yentl, a young Jewish woman who scoffs at marriage and wants only to be allowed to study Torah. Alas! Such study is reserved for men! But that’s little obstacle for plucky Yentl, who skedaddles from her small town as soon as her dear old dad dies, disguises herself as a man, and joins the yeshiva in the next town over. She soon falls for her passionate study partner Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin, The Princess Bride), but he’s madly in love with his fiancée Hadass (Amy Irving, Traffic). Oh, and there’s the little detail that he thinks Yentl is a man (although he does seems to get kind of handsy in after-school horseplay with his younger study partner). As the melodrama builds, Yentl pushes her cross-dressing scheme surprisingly far. Anyhoo, the movie was okay, but I didn’t think much of the songs, and I couldn’t quite suspend disbelief at the idea that Streisand (then 40ish) could pass for a Jewish man too young to grow a beard.