Focus Features

Emma (2020, Autumn de Wilde)

If IMDb is correct, there have been only ten other adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, and I’m including the modernizations. So it’s not so much Emma is oft-adapted, maybe just it’s got a very memorable story. Memorable enough even I was anticipating how—oh, wow, it’s director de Wilde’s first feature. Like, remember when music video directors were a punchline when they went to features?

Anyway, even with my limited Emma knowledge, I was able to anticipate—gleefully—how de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton were going to adapt the twists and turns. Because once Emma arrives, so to speak, which probably happens with the appearance of Tanya Reynolds as odious vicar Josh O'Connor’s new good lady wife, there’s no longer a question of whether or not the film will be a success. Instead, it’s a question of how successful it will be. And de Wilde, leads Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, Catton, they seem to peak Emma. Like, it’s hard to imagine how you could do the film better given Taylor-Joy is basically a villain for much of the film’s run time. Not exactly and it’s all very complicated, but watching Taylor-Joy manipulate the worlds around her for her own amusement and questionable pursuit of perfection… she’s not a hero.

It’s what makes her eventual friendship of social cruelty with Callum Turner so effective. He’s encouraging her worst compulsions and doing so for his own benefit. The film sets Taylor-Joy and Turner up as alter egos of sorts, with him using his powers of handsomeness, cleverness, and wealth for selfish purposes, Taylor-Joy uses hers for altruistic ones. But she gets to determine the altruism. The film doesn’t emphasize these parallels and inversions, it just presents them plainly, unspoken. The young, rich, and unmarried in nineteenth century England are have their lane and they aren’t going to deviate. I suppose there’s also a parallel with Flynn, older than Taylor-Joy and Turner, who was once young, is still rich and still unmarried.

Did I just describe the obvious themes of the novel, because when I was watching the film, I finally “got it.” Taylor-Joy’s arc is fantastic in this film. De Wilde and Catton have this very rich backdrop for her to act in. It’s not just getting to see her in the gorgeous production—production designer Kave Quinn, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, and set decorator Stella Fox do exquisite work. There’s a scene where notoriously private Flynn gives a tour of his house to his friends, showing off his various art treasures and the camera can never be slow enough on the pieces, with de Wilde and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt so gorgeously showcasing. As the characters are all reacting to this art around them, being able to see the art so beautifully rendered makes for an entirely different scene than if it were just the drama of the characters.

But the film is a comedy of manners. The narrative twists and turns are only consequential because of the strict cultural norms the cast finds themselves in. It’s very layered, with the characters being very constrained in what they can do and stay. Again, de Wilde and Catton do an excellent job of establishing the rules without any big exposition dumps. Instead, we pick it up from Taylor-Joy’s friendship with latest matching making victim but also apparently first real friend, Mia Goth, or from Taylor-Joy’s dad (a truly wonderful Bill Nighy) in his whining about their social obligations, or from the supporting cast as they fret to one another; Flynn has, of course, the most to say about the cultural norms but also the most restraint. If Flynn’s going to say something about how people are behaving, it’s going to have to be egregious. He’s got all the wisdom and knows it, whereas Taylor-Joy thinks she can bend wisdom to fit her knowledge.

Taylor-Joy and Flynn are the most important performances. They make the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job with this material than Taylor-Joy and Flynn. Taylor-Joy becomes sympathetic through Flynn’s approving eye, but her character development is all her own. Outside that approval, in fact. The ending does something really lovely—and lightning fast—reorienting how to read that character development throughout too. de Wilde and Catton always keep some distance from Taylor-Joy, even when we’re seeing her in distress, and are then able to move in for the ending and really leverage the work Taylor-Joy’s done along with some narrative echoing to earlier in the film.

Who’s better, Taylor-Joy or Flynn? It’s a toss-up. Taylor-Joy’s always excellent but she gets more material. Until all of a sudden Flynn gets more material and it seems like he’s even better. But with the third act, the scenes functionally depend on Taylor-Joy and her performance so… Taylor-Joy. Flynn’s still great (and contributes the end credits song, which is adorable).

The supporting cast is all outstanding. Turner’s an excellent rich heel, Goth’s great as the friend; Goth gets a great third act showcase. Nighy’s great as the dad, who’s a hypochondriac. Lots of laughs for Nighy with that detail. Including Chloe Pirrie as Taylor-Joy’s married with children older sister, who’s caught the “bug.” Suffering husband, Oliver Chris (also Flynn’s brother), is hilarious with all his reactions. Then there’s Gemma Whelan as Taylor-Joy’s former governess, first matchmaking victim, and only friend. She’s good. Not in it a lot, but when she’s in it, she’s really good. The baked-in character relationships, the established ones, they’re all really well-done. Rupert Graves is good as her new husband. Miranda Hart’s great in a really important and complicated part. Amber Anderson, as the analogue Taylor-Joy rejects, is good. O’Connor and Reynolds are wonderful.

De Wilde’s direction—composition, performances—is superior. All the technicals are great—wonderful music from David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge—Blauvelt’s aforementioned photography and Nick Emerson’s editing are superlative.

Emma is an absolute delight.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Autumn de Wilde; screenplay by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Christopher Blauvelt; edited by Nick Emerson; music by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge; production designer, Kave Quinn; costume designer, Alexandra Byrne; produced by Tim Bevan, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, and Eric Fellner; released by Focus Features.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma Woodhouse), Johnny Flynn (Mr. Knightley), Mia Goth (Harriet Smith), Callum Turner (Frank Churchhill), Gemma Whelan (Mrs. Weston), Rupert Graves (Mr. Weston), Miranda Hart (Miss Bates), Amber Anderson (Jane Fairfax), Myra McFadyen (Mrs. Bates), Josh O’Connor (Mr. Elton), Tanya Reynolds (Mrs. Elton), Connor Swindells (Robert Martin), Chloe Pirrie (Isabella Knightley), Oliver Chris (John Knightley), and Bill Nighy (Mr. Woodhouse).


Atomic Blonde (2017, David Leitch)

Far more often than not, Atomic Blonde is not more than it is. Atomic Blonde is not a “realistic” late eighties spy thriller à la Graham Greene or even John le Carré (see, I can do nineties “New Yorker” levels of extra too). It’s not a James Bond movie with a female lead (Charlize Theron). It’s not a great part for Theron. It might be a great role–Blonde’s got its problems but none hurt the idea of a sequel for Theron. In fact, if it weren’t filled with so many twists and turns–which is, unfortunately, what Atomic Blonde is, what it wants endeavors to be—full of twists and turns. Because Blonde really doesn’t care about logic, it cares about effect. I was going to say impact and effect but… actually, not so much impact. Because Blonde also isn’t some amazing all-out action picture with Theron kicking ass for a hundred minutes set to an amazing eighties soundtrack. There’s some Theron kicking ass, there’s some excellent action, there’s some… great songs… adequately applied, but all of those successes are extremely qualified.

First—Theron. Who is in every scene save a handful and the action is centered around her. She’s a British spy going to West Berlin to get a master list of spies out of East Berlin before the wall falls or the Soviets find it. Now, maybe biggest logic problem in the movie? Who made the stupid list. See, there’s the super-secret double agent who is doing terrible damage. Double agent British and Soviet, so originally a British spy, but then turned to the Soviets. The movie takes a while to introduce that detail—originally Theron just thinks the list is about not outing all the other spies, she’s not even aware of the double agent until the action in the movie takes place. Also there’s a dead ex-lover in Berlin. There’s a lot. And Blonde does a good job establishing it. The first act is incredibly solid. But once it becomes clear it’s not going to do anything particularly interesting with Theron or anyone else… it gets a little tedious. Even the action, which isn’t good.

See, Blonde increases the spans without action as the film progresses. Less action overall, longer action scenes. Sometimes it’s a car chase all in a “continuous” shot, sometimes it’s a fistfight. Actually, in the case of the car chase, it’s the fistfight then the car chase. It’s a whole lot. Atomic Blonde can be a lot, but never quite the right a lot. Where to gets going in the third act, with all the reveals and consequences of twists… there’s enough material it could’ve been a much better part for Theron. If it had been more Graham Green or John le Carré. Or if it had been less. If it had just been the action, the endurance aspect would’ve been awesome for Theron. The in-between doesn’t leave her much in the end. Potential for a better written sequel, which isn’t great.

It would also help if James McAvoy weren’t so bland. He’s the British West Berlin station chief and he’s “gone native,” or so spymaster Toby Jones worries, which immediately makes McAvoy suspicious re: the double agent to the audience and Theron and even Bond girl French spy Sofia Boutella, but not Jones or big boss James Faulkner or, seemingly, anyone in Berlin. Maybe it’s bad exposition on the double agent thing. Blonde sometimes rushes exposition—it leverages the direction, the photography (Jonathan Sela), Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir’s excellent but underutilized editing, and lead Theron being cool to get over the pesky details. Blonde avoids the details of the twists and turns to get the effect. Hence the aforementioned lack of impact.

Anyway.

Director Leitch doesn’t care enough about the soundtrack—and, I’ve been wanting Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” in an action movie since the late nineties and it’s finally in one and it’s in a very problematic sequence involving Bond girl Boutella. They do a really weird job of establishing Boutella in the film—including via a Blow Out homage—and she’s one of the film’s biggest misses. Biggest miss? James McAvoy. He’s got less heft as a Berlin spy in the late eighties than Til Schweiger, who’s in three thirty second scenes, with no close-ups, always sitting down. Theron carries McAvoy through their scenes, which isn’t easy because she doesn’t get a lot of lines opposite him. She does with some of the other characters, but McAvoy’s supposed to be dominating their scenes and Theron literally has to hold it up with silent energy. McAvoy’s exhausting. And he never pays off, even in a little, in performance or script. The latter isn’t the bigger problem but it never giving McAvoy anything good, even at the end… eh.

McAvoy being so bland hurts the rest of the cast. John Goodman being bland in a much smaller role, an extended cameo maybe—he’d be able to get away with it if it were’t for McAvoy. Even Jones, who does an entirely serviceable job… it’d be nice if he had some personality. Faulkner’s good though. Eddie Marsan’s good enough. Roland Møller and Bill Skarsgård are both fine and likable, but there’s not much for them to actually do.

Last minute callouts to Cindy Evans’s costumes (she makes Theron into an unironic fashion icon and David Scheunemann’s production design; Blonde does look good.

As a “Charlize Theron, action hero” vehicle, Atomic Blonde’s solid enough. But it’s not Atomic or Blonde and doesn’t even really try to be. It’s perfunctory.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Kurt Johnstad, based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; costume designer, Cindy Evans; produced by A.J. Dix, Eric Gitter, Beth Kono, Kelly McCormick, Peter Schwerin, and Charlize Theron; released by Focus Features.

Starring Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton), James McAvoy (David Percival), Eddie Marsan (Spyglass), Sofia Boutella (Delphine Lasalle), Roland Møller (Aleksander Bremovych), Toby Jones (Eric Gray), James Faulkner (Chief ‘C’), John Goodman (Emmett Kurzfeld), Bill Skarsgård (Merkel), and Til Schweiger (Watchmaker).


Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

I’m trying to decide if Downton Abbey is wholly incomprehensible to someone who didn’t watch the television show, or if they’d appreciate it. Julian Fellowes’s screenplay is very tidy, no loose strings, always the right mix between A, B, and C plots, so one can at least appreciate the pacing without knowing exactly why it’s so especially funny when footman Kevin Doyle makes a fool of himself in front of the King and Queen, but one would still get the surface humor. Downton’s got a bunch of great surface humor, including Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, which is a rather impressive feat for Fellowes, Smith, Wilton, and director Engler because the film doesn’t do any setup. There’s not just very little ground situation establishing going on, there’s none. The movie opens with the hook—the King and Queen send a letter to Downton Abbey, let’s watch the letter get there via 1920s transportation, oh, how lovely and quaint, thanks to Ben Smithard’s gorgeous photography (they go Panavision for the movie, which is full of lingering shots on the country house itself, also showing off the increased helicopter budget)—plus the letter getting to the town and the familiar sights before the house itself. Maybe, with the quaintness, the lovely photography, and John Lunn’s always very effective theme… an unfamiliar could get in the right mood.

Because while it’s impressive how successfully Fellowes writes the almost two hours, with the fifteen or twenty person principal cast, it’s not a surprise he’d accomplish it. Fellowes wrote many years of the show, including some extended length holiday specials. Downton Abbey: The Movie feels very much like a very special holiday episode. There’s not a lot of progress from when the show ended, at least not in terms of new cast. There aren’t any new regulars, there are a lot of previously emphasized, sort of unresolved subplots examined—Sophie McShera still hasn’t decided if she’s getting married, Robert James-Collier’s still miserable in the closet, and… um. Okay, maybe there’s not a lot on that front. But James-Collier gets one of the bigger B plots, and McShera’s got a solid C. The only reason James-Collier’s subplot, involving actual romance for him, isn’t an A plot is Fellowes keeps it on low until the third act when he needs some drama to juxtapose with the chaos at the royal dinner. It’s a very smart script, just self-indulgent enough, just pleasant enough.

Is it particularly ambitious? No. The biggest A plot—besides everyone in the movie preparing for the royal visit in one way or another—is Allen Leech. Leech gets to do the “Irishman under investigation” subplot and he gets to do a “maybe the widower finally move on” subplot. Laura Carmichael gets a solid B plot. Michelle Dockery, however, is seated at the “here to support other people’s plots with none of my own” table, along with Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. There are good moments for everyone and all the acting is good, they just don’t get anything special to do. No heavy lifting.

Though Dockery does get a little at the end, as she’s the one who gets to have the big moment with Maggie Smith. In its last few minutes, Downton: The Movie unintentionally reveals its great potential would not have been as an extended, Cinemascope holiday special, but as something from Smith’s perspective. The ambition isn’t there though. The film’s got just the right amount of fan service as well as new material.

Technically the only complaint is, occasionally, Engler chooses the wrong character to—literally—focus on in a shot. It’s like he doesn’t have the right sense of some scenes’ emotionality. And, of course, it’s over too soon. It’s not too short. But it is over too soon.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Engler; written by Julian Fellowes; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Mark Day; music by John Lunn; production designer, Donal Woods; produced by Fellowes, Gareth Neame, and Liz Trubridge; released by Focus Features.

Starring Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Smith), Kate Phillips (Princess Mary), Geraldine James (Queen Mary), Simon Jones (King George V), Max Brown (Richard Ellis), Stephen Campbell Moore (Captain Chetwode), Susan Lynch (Miss Lawton), David Haig (Mr. Wilson), Mark Addy (Mr. Bakewell), Philippe Spall (Monsieur Courbet), and Richenda Carey (Mrs. Webb).


Greta (2018, Neil Jordan)

Greta is exceedingly competent. It’s way too unimaginative, predictable, traditional, and restrained in the final third, but it’s always exceedingly competent at those things. Even after it’s clear top-billed Isabelle Huppert isn’t going to create a singular cinema villain and even after it’s clear she’s not even as good as she was in the first hour… she’s always exceedingly competent. Ditto de facto lead Chloë Grace Moretz; she gets thin, melodramatic backstory, an annoying sidekick, a boring job, and a bland dad, but she always makes it work. Greta’s even able to make its utterly predictable last shot work.

Probably because the whole thing is utterly noncommittal and emotionally exploitative until the thriller dangers take over.

The film doesn’t start out noncommittal or emotionally exploitative. The first act at least hints at some sincerity—another of the script’s efficiencies—Moretz is a recent college (Smith, natch) graduate living the dream in New York City. Literally. She works as a waitress, but has no future ambitions and doesn’t need any because she lives with good friend Maika Monroe, whose dad bought her a loft for college graduation. Monroe doesn’t appear to do anything but yoga and party. Again, efficiency after efficiency. Moretz’s dad, Colm Feore, lives back in Boston. Moretz came to New York not because she gets to live rent-free in a bitchin’ loft but because her mom died the year before and she’s grieving. It’s implied Feore grieved his way immediately into another marriage, but it’s never explained. Because efficiency. And also the implied detail makes the film less shallow.

So one day Moretz finds a handbag on the train and—thanks to the lost and found not being open—has to bring it back to the owner herself. The owner is French-ish Isabelle Huppert, who lives all by herself because her husband died the year before and her daughter is off in Paris. Huppert and Moretz immediately bond, much to Monroe’s chagrin—she feels like Moretz is judging her negatively for being a superficial rich girl (which Moretz can’t be because she doesn’t do yoga and also dead mom). Except (and it happens before the second act) it turns out Huppert is seriously creepy creeper and Moretz tries to break off their relationship, only for Huppert to start stalking her. And eventually Monroe, leading to some great thriller sequences from Jordan, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and editor Nick Emerson.

Huppert’s stalking gets worse, leading to bigger and bigger set pieces, until the last third (or so) of the film when the danger to Moretz starts to become far more literal. No more foreshadowing, no more backstory hints (and the ones the film has revealed add up to nothing because of how the third act plays), just terror.

The conclusion is a mix of predictable, problematic, satisfying, and truncated. Greta runs just less than a hundred minutes and definitely could use a more thorough denouement. Jordan and co-writer Ray Wright go for intensity to get the film to the finish, which is fine in the moment, it just doesn’t add up to anything. Nothing in the film adds up to anything. None of the suspicions, none of the characters’ traumatic histories, none of the characters’ criminal histories (private investigator Stephen Rea discovers more about Huppert from one file folder than the cops do after multiple interactions with both Huppert and Moritz); none of it matters in the end. So no character development, not for Moritz or Huppert. Moritz definitely needed some. Huppert, if the villain role were better, might be able to get away without it. But the role’s not better. It’s lacking. Even if she does power through the third act quite well.

Moritz is good too, though the film’s patronizing towards her, like it resents her for not having enough to do because it doesn’t give her enough to do. Monroe gets better as things go on. She’s good at action, not at exposition. She’s real rough in the first act.

Rea’s great.

Feore’s okay. It’s a perfect role for stunt-casting or a character actor and instead it’s filler with Feore.

Like I said, it’s all exceedingly competent, making Greta a successful viewing experience without being a successful film.

It’s too bad. A better, sincerer, more ambitious script could’ve given Huppert, Moretz, and Monroe some great roles.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Ray Wright and Jordan, based on a story by Wright; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Nick Emerson; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, Anna Rackard; produced by Lawrence Bender, James Flynn, Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, and Karen Richards; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isabelle Huppert (Greta Hideg), Chloë Grace Moretz (Frances McCullen), Maika Monroe (Erica Penn), Zawe Ashton (Alexa Hammond), Stephen Rea (Brian Cody), and Colm Feore (Chris McCullen).


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