Tag Archives: Emma Thompson

The Pleasure Principle

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

by George Wolf

If we’re boiling down film narratives to heroes and quests, it won’t take long to define Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.

Nancy is our hero, and sex is her quest.

And she would like good sex, thank you, although she can’t quite bring herself to expect the elusive release that she spent decades faking for her husband’s benefit.

But now Nancy (Emma Thompson) is an aging widow, fidgeting nervously in a hotel room and second-guessing her decision to hire handsome young escort Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) for a tryst.

Thompson is, of course, glorious. And as much fun as it always is to see her command those in-charge characters spitting ruthlessly droll asides, Nancy reminds you how equally adept Thompson is with self-effacing humor, vulnerability and longing.

Writer Katy Brand’s script is filled with delightful wordplay, subtle wit and insightful details, one of the most resonant being Nancy’s history as a religious education teacher. We see her as a woman not only desperate to learn things she was never taught (and she has a list!), but also now regretting some of the lessons she passed down to young girls in her classrooms.

To Nancy, Leo represents more than just lust. He is the power of youth, and all the possibilities of a different generation that have long felt shameful to many from her generation.

McCormack is terrific, worthy of extra kudos for not shrinking from the prospect of simply being the “other half” of a two-hander led by a rarified talent. Leo has some issues of his own beneath his suave demeanor, and McCormack reveals them with subtlety and heart.

But back to our hero.

Nancy’s journey is, of course, an intimate one, and director Sophie Hyde doubles down on the intimacy, rarely leaving the privacy of the hotel room. Regardless, the film is never claustrophobic and always cinematic, framing even the most sexual moments with a refreshing honesty that the characters (and these two impeccable performances) deserve.

And you know what? We deserve it, too. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a simply wonderful look at embracing who you are and what you want. It’s funny and empowering, warm and touching, even heartbreaking at times.

Let’s hope it finds the audience it deserves.

No Evil Thing Will

Cruella

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Disney possesses more of the greatest villains than any other studio or property in existence, more than Marvel, more than DC, more than even Universal and its set of classic monsters. By more we don’t mean quantity necessarily, but quality: Maleficent, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, Snow White’s evil queen, Scar, Ursula, Jafar, Madam Medusa (seriously, if you haven’t seen the original 1977 The Rescuers, you need to do so at once), and of course, Cruella De Vil.

That’s a stash of villains to covet or to celebrate, so why does Disney hate them so?

Cruella is the mouse’s latest attempt to give a villain the Wicked treatment with an origin story that offers insight into the root cause of their villainy. As these things go, Cruella does have a few really bright spots.

Emma Stone has honestly never been bad in anything. She brings a charmingly conflicted Jekyll/Hyde to a character who is working against her own instincts to be a good person. Joel Fry and Paul Walker Hauser are endlessly endearing as her cohorts Jasper and Horace, respectively. But can we talk about Emma Thompson for a second?

The definition of glorious, Thompson delivers a delightfully droll Baroness Von Hellman – the fashion icon nemesis who brings out the wicked in Cruella. Scenes between the Emmas elevate the entire project, allowing Thompson to radiate devastating narcissism and Stone to mine her character’s emotional and intellectual landscape.

And who doesn’t like to see Mark Strong? He’s one of maybe a dozen performers in tiny, mainly pointless roles decorating the dozens and dozens of scenes that should have been purged from a film that runs two hours and fifteen minutes but feels twice that.

My God does this movie need trimming. You will have aged noticeably by the time it’s over. It meanders for the better part of an hour before actually hitting the catalyst for the story, then stages heist upon gala upon big reveal upon public comeuppance upon more big reveals before actually getting to the point.

Some of these are interesting and fun, but most of them serve no real purpose. Director Craig Gillespie, working from a script by committee (there are 5 credited screenwriters), belabors everything. This not only leaves his film almost structureless, but it also guarantees that nothing sticks with you, not even individual scenes that absolutely should be memorable. No scene or plot point is allowed any real emphasis or import.

It’s curious that Gillespie – who proved a master of tone with I, Tonya – can never find a consistent one here. It doesn’t help that a nearly endless parade of pop/rock hits are jammed into the soundtrack with questionable regard for cause or effect.

And still, there are fun-filled stretches that seem desperate to claw out from under all the dead weight. Cut a full 45 minutes from this film and you may have something. Instead, we get a pointless mess that can’t decide how it even feels about Cruella de Vil.

Dolittle Jones

Dolittle

by George Wolf

Man, when I was a kid I wanted a Pushmi-Pullyu so bad.

I would try to get all the way through “If I Could Talk to the Animals” without messing up a lyric, and imagine how fun it would be to get one of those mythical Pushmis delivered in a crate, just like Rex Harrison in 1967’s original Dr. Dolittle.

Over thirty years later, Eddie Murphy ditched the tunes for a more straightforward comedic approach in two franchise updates, and now Robert Downey, Jr. steps in to move the doctor a little closer to Indiana.

Jones, that is.

But’s it’s Indy by way of Victorian-era Britain, as Young Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) calls on the famous animal-taking doctor with a dispatch from Buckingham Palace and an urgent plea to help the deathly ill Queen Victoria herself (Jessie Buckley).

As suspicions arise about Royal Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen) and the true nature of the Queen’s ills, Dolittle and friends (some human, most not) set sail on a grand adventure to acquire the cure from King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who just happens to be the father of Dolittle’s dear departed Lily (Kasia Smutniak).

Plus, there’s a big dragon.

Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) re-sets the backstory with an animated fairy tale, then ups the ante on action while letting Downey, Jr. and a menagerie of star voices try to squeeze out all the fun they can.

From Emma Thompson to John Cena, Octavia Spencer to Rami Malek, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes and Kumail Nanjiani to Selena Gomez and more, the CGI zoo juggles personalities, while Downey curiously chooses a whispered, husky delivery that sometimes makes his Do a little hard to understand.

But, of course, he still manages to craft an engaging character, even centering the Dr. with a grief just authentic enough for adults without bringing down the childlike wonder.

This is a Dr. Dolittle set on family adventure mode, with plenty of talking animal fun for the little ones and a few clever winks and nudges for the parents. But as the start of a possible franchise, it’s more of a handshake than a high-five. It may not leave you with belly laughs or tunes stuck in your head, but it’s eager to please manner doesn’t hurt a bit.

The Spirit of Giving

Last Christmas

by Cat McAlpine

Last Christmas, Kate (Emilia Clarke) had a lifesaving operation. Instead of gaining a new lease on life, she seems to have stumbled onward with a bad attitude and very little hope.

This Christmas, she works days at a Christmas shop in Covent Garden run by “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh, wonderful).  She spends her nights lurking at bars and begging friends to let her crash on their couches. In between, Kate rushes to West End auditions with little to no preparation.

She’s a grumpy, miserable elf.

Last Christmas is, first a foremost, a Christmas romcom. There’s baggage that comes with that specific niche, and in a desperate effort to buck the norm, a truly awful and predictable plot emerges.

When Last Christmas isn’t trying to be a Christmas romcom, it shines. The script penned by Oscar-winning writer Emma Thompson (who also plays Kate’s mother) and Bryony Kimmings (story by Thompson and Greg Wise) has witty and heartfelt dialogue, developed characters, and b-plots that flesh out the main story rather than distract from it.

The film’s best moments come when it explores the relationships between women, the power of embracing your heritage, and the scariest parts about being a family.

Even some of the most melodramatic moments are made gut-wrenching by Clarke’s honest and genuine performance. “They took a part of me and they threw it away.” She cries, and you feel it.

If this film had been written as a family drama or a late-in-life coming of age, it would be a strong seasonal flick. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) has shown time and time again that he can do female comedy, and do it well, but the expectations and trappings of this specific and outdated genre hold him back.

In the end, if you enjoy a good romcom, Last Christmas soars far above any of its recent direct-to-Netflix counterparts. If you already roll your eyes when men work hard to convince messy women that they are, in fact, worthy of love – this one’s not for you.

Back in Black

Men in Black: International

by Hope Madden

Someone somewhere at some recent point in history must have said, “What we need is another Men in Black movie.”

Someone else surely disagreed, suggesting that they’d beaten that dead alien long enough.

“We’ll change it up,” this imaginary and somehow sad conversation continued. “Hire a new director, new writers, new actors, take it international. It’ll be—”

“Great?!”

“—mediocre.”

And there you have it. F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) directs an entirely new batch of humans in black as they don sunglasses, erase memories and suss out an alien conspiracy in their ranks, this time on European soil.

Tessa Thompson shines, as is her way, starring as Molly, a tenacious nerd who’s tracked down this mystery organization in hopes of a shot at joining. Head of the US division, Agent O (Emma Thompson—no relation that we know of, but how cool would that be?!) reluctantly gives her a shot.

As expected, all scenes between the Thompsons spark. And, as T. Thom has proven twice already, she shares solid onscreen chemistry with Chris Hemsworth, here portraying her new partner, H.

Gizmo-riffic adventures follow, although it’s pretty soft. There are a couple of fun sight gags, especially one with a hammer. Kumail Nanjiani pops off a few drolly comical lines as this go-round’s cute little alien sidekick, Pawnie.

Then the three are off to Marrakesh, then a fortress island, back to London, a desert, and London again all in pursuit of answers about a tiny little device and the evil twins looking for it. But the storyline was never really the MIB selling point, it was the relationship between the partners.

Thompson and Hemsworth seem like fine choices, having shown both chemistry and comedic spark in Thor: Ragnarok. But Thompson’s early, geeky charm is given little opportunity to show itself once she dons the black suit, and Hemsworth—fun enough as he, once again, basically mocks his own persona—has even less opportunity.

Writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum don’t articulate enough in the way of plot or character arc and Gray’s listless direction leaves us with a Summer popcorn muncher that coasts rather than thrills.

Funny How?

Late Night

by George Wolf

Just weeks ago, Long Shot gave us an in-the-moment, proudly raunchy comedy with brains and big laughs. Audiences largely balked.

Late Night also offers plenty of insightful funny business, but trades the hard R-rating for a more agreeable sell, one that will hopefully translate into selling more tickets.

Mindy Kaling’s debut screenplay may be ultimately eager to please, but it’s also a sharp and solidly funny takedown of the challenge in navigating a social landscape in motion.

Kaling also stars as Molly, a factory worker who’s main outside interest is comedy. Though her only standup experience is cracking them up over the intercom at work, Molly lands an interview for a writing gig at her favorite late night talk show.

Her timing is perfect. Comic legend Katherine Newbury (a pitch-perfect, absolutely Oscar-worthy Emma Thompson) has ordered some diversity be added to her all male, all pale writing staff, so Molly gets the gig.

Katherine may have been the first woman to enter the late night wars, but her act has grown stale and complacent. Icon or no, Katherine faces an overthrow attempt from a network president (Amy Ryan) with eyes on an obnoxiously edgy comedian (Ike Barinholtz as Kaling’s barely-veiled swipe at Daniel Tosh) as new host.

Can Molly’s fresh comedic takes save her hero’s job?

Credit Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra for answering that question without sacrificing the bigger points at work.

From slut shaming and #metoo to diversity, office politics and the shifting sands of comedic relevance, Kaling’s script is brimming with writing-what-you-know confidence, even when it’s coasting on roads most traveled.

But still, in those most predictable moments, Thompson’s deliciously droll timing meshes irresistibly with Kaling’s wide-eyed enthusiasm. They both get able support from a uniformly solid ensemble, and the biggest question mark about Late Night becomes that R rating.

The convenient layups the film settles for in act 3 seem like an understandable trade-off for a greater chance at mainstream appeal. So why not trim a few of those F-bombs to get a PG-13?

Late Night deserves plenty of eyeballs. For F@#! sake, let’s hope it gets them.

Part Man, Part Monkey

Missing Link

by George Wolf

Like its titular character, Missing Link is a bit of a mixed breed. An animated family adventure, its humor is more dry than zany, with a stellar voice cast and an often sophisticated air to its snappy dialog that is centered around a lonely Sasquatch.

And it looks freaking gorgeous.

Hugh Jackman brings charming life to Sir Lionel Frost, an ambitious, self-centered 1800s explorer on the trail of any big discovery that can get him admitted to the prestigious adventurer’s club led by the aggressively pompous Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry).

A hot tip leads Frost to a face-to-face with the fabled missing link between man and monkey who, as it turns out, provided that hot tip.

See, “Mr. Link” (an endearing Zach Galifianakis) is lonely, and figures Sir Lionel is just the guide savvy enough to lead him to his people, the equally urban-legendary Yeti tribe of Shangri-La.

So our heroes set off across the globe, enlisting the help of Frost’s old paramour Adelina (Zoe Saldana) while they try to outwit Stenk (a perfectly villainous Timothy Olyphant), the assassin sent to stop them.

This is the latest animation wonder from Laika studios, and the follow-up to 2016’s amazing Kubo and the Two Strings. Even if Mr. Link’s adventure wasn’t as engaging as it is, the film would be worthy on visuals alone, as you’ve barely digested one “wow” moment when another is there to blow your hair back.

From the texture of Frost’s gloves to the ripples in a puddle, from a slow dissolve into a binocular lens to a wide, eye-popping set piece on an ice bridge and beyond, Missing Link serves up a hearty feast of cutting-edge stop motion technology.

And while the pace may leave the youngest viewers a tad restless, writer/director Chris Butler (Laika’s ParaNorman) crafts a heartwarming, witty and intelligent tale anchored in the layered relationship of Frost and Link.

Jackman and Galifianakis make them a wonderfully odd couple, and play off the indelible supporters around them (including a gloriously droll Emma Thompson) to keep all the globe-trotting character driven, leaving just enough room for the messages about inclusion and progress to be subtly effective.

The result is a film that’s confident but unassuming, fun without being silly, and satisfying from nearly every angle.

 





Ask the Dishes

Beauty and the Beast

by George Wolf

Word is, the early plan for Disney’s live-action remake of their 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast did not involve a musical production.

Um, that’s crazy.

That soundtrack from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is in the team picture of Disney’s all-time best, and director Bill Condon politely reminded studio bosses that without it…what’s the point? Sanity prevailed, and Condon brings the familiar tale to life again with a lush, layered, often gorgeous vision, celebrating the brilliant songs that helped make the original the first animated film to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Condon’s directing his first musical since the excellent Dreamgirls, and he hasn’t lost the instinct for staging a show-stopper or two. His camera pans and zooms during “Gaston,” revealing a village full of buoyant choreography, while the title song gets an intimate, classic treatment that builds upon a possible decades long investment in these characters.

“Be Our Guest,” the early request from various castle housewares to the captive Belle (Emma Watson), emerges as a joyous Catch-22. We can’t wait for Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and the gang to start singing…but it is a hard act to follow.

Watson delivers a spunky Belle who’s more industrious than the animated version, yet at times bland next to the gregarious Gaston (a scene-stealing Luke Evans) and the often distracting face of the Beast (Dan Stevens). Even as wondrous visuals fill frame after frame (see the 3-D IMAX version if you can), CGI facial features can’t quite keep up, and choosing this tract over makeup artistry feels like an ambitious misstep.

The supporting cast, including Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald and Josh Gad, is delightful at every turn, and shows more welcome diversity from Disney. The brouhaha over the sexuality of LeFou (Gad) proves as inane as expected, though it does add some sly gravity to Gaston’s campaign against the Beast. As he rallies the villagers by exclaiming there is “a threat to our very existence!” Gaston leans in to LeFou and asks, “Do you want to be next?” Well played.

Add to this a diverse array of townspeople, two high-profile mixed-race couples, and LeFou’s partners during the dance finale, and Disney’s path to progress grows more concrete.

Devotees of the original Beauty and the Beast will have their nostalgia rewarded, but Condon’s vision has the flair and substance to earn its own keep. Though not quite as magical, there is something here that wasn’t there before.

Call it maturity, call it pizzazz….or just ask the dishes.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 





Bridget Jones, Back in Medium-Rare Form

Bridget Jones’s Baby

by Matt Weiner

It’s been over a decade since Bridget Jones last went through an embarrassing series of personal and professional mishaps on the way to learning that opposites attract after all. Anyone expecting a change in formula will be disappointed, but there are worse ways to spend two hours finding Mr. Right (again) than with Jones, thanks in large part to Renée Zellweger.

Zellweger grounds Jones this time around as quirky, confident and—more or less—competent TV news producer. Colin firth returns as the priggish Mark Darcy, and Patrick Dempsey steps into the Hugh Grant point on the love triangle as the charming Jack Qwant. (Metaphor alert: Qwant made a fortune off a dating website but hasn’t found his own perfect match.)

Jones has one-night stands with both men, getting pregnant by one of them and setting off a competition between the suitors to prove their worth as potential fathers—and win Jones’s heart in the process. (A fear of needles rules out the in-utero test that would’ve made for a much briefer film.)

Despite the tension the film wants to set up between Darcy and Qwant, the best running theme for much of the movie is that Jones doesn’t need either of the boobs vying for her. And it’s a credit to the film that the madcap finale turns out some of the movie’s biggest laughs without cheapening everything Jones has done to get to that point.

Bridget Jones stands on her own far more in this film than the previous two, with most of the supporting characters—from best friend Miranda (Sarah Solemani) to Darcy and Qwant—simply along for well-timed banter or convenient plot devices. Two exceptions are Bridget’s father, Colin—filled with a depth of emotion that far exceeds Jim Broadbent’s criminal lack of screen time—and Bridget’s physician, Dr. Rawlings (Emma Thompson). Thompson delivers every line and fixes every stare with the tart awareness that reduces the men in Bridget’s life from masters of the universe to emperors with no clothes.

Bridget Jones’s Baby is directed by Sharon Maguire—who also directed the first Jones film, Bridget Jones’s Diary—and the latest entry is a welcome improvement on 2004’s inane Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. But the film has little of the light touch and keen observation that made Bridget Jones’s Diary a refreshing romantic comedy back in 2001.

This latest installment doesn’t break any new ground for romcoms. The satire is easy, toothless and, somehow, already dated. But this marks a comfortable return for Bridget Jones. She’s hard to root against even in bad times. Maybe it’s unfair to grade on a curve, but we’ve seen Jones much worse off than this. It’s hard not to crack a smile when she’s on top.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 





Quintessentially Disney

 

by George Wolf

 

The God of Irony must be smiling on Saving Mr. Banks, the “Disneyfied” account of a legendary author afraid the film version of her greatest work would get… Disneyfied.

Leave it to a pair of reliably great actors, and the memories of one of Disney’s most treasured classics, to make sure the whole affair turns out much better than a black fly in your Chardonnay.

Emma Thompson brings wit and humanity to the role of P.L. Travers, who for years rebuffed all offers from Walt Disney himself to turn her Mary Poppins stories into a movie. Tom Hanks plays Mr. Disney with the charming twinkle you’d expect, and from their first scenes together, he and Thompson exhibit a playful, unmistakeable chemistry that buoys the film.

The fact that Saving Mr. Banks is as enjoyable as it is feels like an underdog snatching victory from sure defeat.

The script, from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, takes (according to numerous accounts) many “feel good” liberties with the story of how Mary Poppins came to fruition. Even worse, the director is John Lee  Hancock, the man behind The Blind Side, a downright criminal piece of whitewashing if ever there was one.

Together they fill the backstory of Travers’ troubled childhood with force-fed melodrama, attempting to pull every manipulative heartstring available. Though given less screen time, the treatment of heartbreak in Walt Disney’s own past is equally subtle.

But, in addition to the sublime lead performances and a strong supporting cast, Saving Mr. Banks has a powerful trump card:  Poppins!

Each time the music and writing team (Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford and B.J. Novak-all stellar) show Travers a proposed storyboard or play her a new song, you can’t help but smile. Finish up with classic footage from the 1964 film and still pics from the actual premiere, and it’s pretty hard not to surrender to the guilty pleasures.

Those without an affinity for the source material may not get the same warm feelings, but adding schmaltz to their own story of schmaltz-adding is perverted Disney genius. That, along with the well-played nostalgia for one of their greatest achievements, just might make Saving Mr. Banks the quintessential Disney film.

 

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars