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Movie Review

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is not another remake of the Victor Hugo novel, nor does it have anything to do with the musical blockbuster or its clumsy cinematic version. In fact, it only nods to the original source in slight but ultimately important ways.  

This Les Misérables is set in the French commune of Montfermeil in 2018. In the novel, Montfermeil is where Jean Valjean rescues the abused child Cosette. In addition, the title has been translated as The Miserables, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, The Victims and The Dispossessed. Any of these would apply to the denizens of the contemporary Montfermeil.  (Contrary to various sites, Hugo did not write Les Misérables in Montfermeil, but rather when he was in exile, living in Guernsey.)  

The film opens in Paris, just after the French victory at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It is a scene of celebration and harmony, where people of all ethnicities joyously connect. This is the sole moment of unity to be seen in the next ninety minutes.

Quickly, the action shifts to Les Bosquets, Montfermeil’s most notorious and crime-ridden social estate. Police officer Stéphane Ruiz, an emotional and moral core as played in a brooding, heartfelt performance by Damien Bonnard, has arrived for his first day, having been transferred from Paris, to join the anti-crime brigade. He is placed with the high-strung, abusive, and sadistic Chris (Alexis Manenti, dangerously mercurial) and the more laid-back Gwada (understated but wholly engaging Djebril Zonga), who grew up in the neighborhood. 

Chris and Gwada have been working this area for the past decade. At one point, the hairpin-triggered Chris states,“I am the law.” It is horrifyingly comic and twistingly reflective of how this community functions. It is just as skewed as Hugo’s wrongheaded but self-righteous policeman Javert.  (However, it should be noted, Javert is many things but crooked is not one of them.)

The plot centers around a teenager, Issa (a piercing Issa Perica), who has stolen a lion cub from a Roma circus and posted a picture on Instagram. This causes great unrest in the already volatile zone, divided by race and religion.  

Stéphane, Chris, and Gwada attempt to locate and return the cub, revealing the corrupt and cruel underpinnings of the area, ruled over by a mayor (played with a sly, controlled charm by Steve Tientcheu), an arch and accomplished manipulator. 

Confrontations ensue with the citizens of both African and Arab decent; the Muslim Brotherhood, run by former felon Salah (the subtlety dimensional Almamy Kanoute); drug dealers; and hordes of almost feral teenagers.  

Even after they locate Issa, it is an act of violence — revealed to be not as accidental as it first seems — that drives the latter part of the film. From then on, it is a race between the police officers and the various residents to track down the video from Buzz (wide-eyed and fearful Al-Hassan Ly), the boy whose drone recorded the incident. It all builds to a showdown that is both a literal and figurative conflagration.

The film depicts a wide range of abuses against poor citizens. To label them all as victims is to oversimplify and to take away the social and fiscal complexity of the issues. Many of them are held back by conditions beyond their control; but their reactions are often brutal and disproportionate, fueled by a distrust and deep-seeded anger.  

This is a world of temporary alliances but no allegiances. Amongst themselves there is hierarchy but no respite or solace. It is a constant struggle for survival through power and dominance and unflinching brutality. And, at the bottom, there are the disenfranchised teenagers of various ethnicities, portraits of seething unrest.

The film quotes Hugo: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” It is a reminder that this actions are the consequences of societally-made circumstances.  

Ladj Ly has directed this film with a relentless anxiety. Every moment is tension-filled; even in stillness, it holds its breath. The clock is always ticking and the countdown is to another moment of destruction in a sphere that is wracked by crime and poverty.  

One thing this Les Misérables shares with the original is its look at the law — not in black and white but in shades of terrible grays. But this is to be expected in a universe where an eye-for-an-eye can become literal. If you were looking for a film with clear good and bad and right and wrong, this is not it.  But if you want to be challenged, Les Misérables will resonate with a unique and unsettling power.

The final moment is the perfect metaphor: a Molotov cocktail burning down. Where it lands, remains to be seen.

In French with English subtitles, Les Misérables (Rated R) is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios


Eleanor Tomlinson and Sam Claflin in a scene from the film. Photo by Riccardo Ghilardi/Netflix

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In these dark and often challenging times, it is nice to know there are movies and television shows that can take us out of ourselves for an hour or two. It is a welcome opportunity to jump into a rom-com world that is delightful and whimsical and wholly engaging. Netflix’s offering, Love Wedding Repeat, is not that.

With beautiful scenery, a glorious sunshine filled-day, and elegance in everything from the lavish dress to the flawless table settings, it takes a great deal of effort to be this consistently abrasive and charmless. There is a difference between trying very hard and just being very trying. Four Weddings and a Funeral it’s not. Well, maybe just the funeral.

Dean Craig has directed his own screenplay based on the 2012 French film Plan de Table.  In the prologue, British Jack (Sam Claflin) attempts to kiss American Dina (Olivia Munn), the roommate of his sister Haley (Eleanor Tomlinson). They are interrupted by a boorish friend of Jack’s and there goes the kiss. Jump three years forward to Hayley’s Roman wedding to Roberto (Tiziano Caputo). Once again, Jack has the opportunity to connect with journalist Dina. The film spends the next hour and a half keeping them apart.

The thin conceit hangs on two things:  the name cards at the English table and a misappropriated sedative. The film’s gimmick is that it plays out one scenario with a brutally unhappy ending (truly ugly) and a second with a cheerier resolution. Separating the two is an interlude in fast-forward during which half a dozen possibilities are played out around the table. 

The film’s structure is not the film’s problem.  Instead, it is as if someone emptied the cliché bag of every wedding movie. “Nothing could spoil this day …” followed by the arrival of the coked-up ex-boyfriend (scenery chewing Jack Farthing). Who could see that coming? 

There is the old man who insists on kissing everyone on the mouth. A not Scottish guy in a kilt (Tim Key) — oh, those hilarious kilt jokes — whose inability to talk to women is the source of so much amusement. Of course, given the nature of the film, in the second part, he learns that it all comes down to “just listening.”  

A pretentious film director (Paolo Mazzarelli), caricatured right down to the pony tail, is being stalked by the maid of honor, Bryan (Joel Fry). To add further chaos, Bryan has only just learned that he has to give a speech. Don’t forget the obnoxious friend (Aisling Bea) who says everything she thinks but, deep down, just wants to be loved. Don’t worry: She ends up with someone who sees her for who she is, deep down. Freida Pinto is saddled with the thankless role of Jack’s ex, a gorgeous harridan who is tormenting her current boyfriend (Allan Mustafa, who must play a rather unsavory obsession).  

There are some truly gross moments that are somehow meant to be funny. There is both the expected and extraneous sex jokes. What’s less than single entendre? The whose-taken-the-sedative-and-is-falling-asleep gag seems interminable and inescapable. These “hijinks” are played out against a great deal of talk about “grabbing choices” and “finding love.” Pick a lane, please.

In theory, it is a clever idea to show two different views of the same day and the matrimonial  setting is an ideal choice. But the contrast between the two parts is not strong enough nor are the characters likable enough to root for.

Claflin has a certain warmth but the material doesn’t give him enough variety or backbone. Munn is smart as the object of his affection but seems to be suffering much of the time. Tomlinson, a true English Rose, is handed an unforgivable transgression given the context. Key tries his best to make the supportive friend less of a trope and more of a human being. It comes down to the fact that this is a talented cast who are not served by the writing’s grinding machinations and the often less-than-pleasant characters.

The moral of Love Wedding Repeat is it all depends on where you sit. I guess that’s true. I wish I hadn’t sat in front of the television.  

Rated TV-MA for mature audiences only, Love Wedding Repeat is now streaming on Netflix.

Hilary Swank and Betty Gilpin in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

“Whether they’re smart pretending to be idiots or idiots pretending to be smart …”  

The Hunt follows “elitist snowflakes” stalking “deplorables” on a sprawling compound in Croatia. In this film, both groups have earned the quotes in one way or another. The rich are insufferable and entitled on a whole new level; the rednecks behave in the way they are most often caricatured. It is hard to label the film: satire, horror, action thriller, or political commentary. All are relevant but not one fully encompasses the frenzied whole. It is also hyperviolent, bloody, frequently sadistic, but, more often than not, engaging.  

Co-written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof and directed by Craig Zobel, The Hunt’s release was scheduled for September 2019 but was postponed because of mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. It was finally released in theaters in early March; when the theaters were closed, it was quickly offered on pay-per-view sites.

This is not the first movie to follow humans hunting humans. Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game was first adapted for film in 1932. It has been seen in about a dozen incarnations over the years. The Hunt’s strong political thread separates it from many of its predecessors.

A group of captives from various parts of the United States are dropped into a forest where, upon their release, the majority are slaughtered in a scene reminiscent of The Hunger Games:  bullets, landmines, arrows, a pit with spikes, etc. Those who escape are then hunted down in various ways throughout the next hour.  Playing in the background is the discussion of Manorgate, a conspiracy theory that seems to be coming true for these targets: the left-wing rich tracking the poor for sport.

The film spends little time developing character but is more concerned with the broad strokes, moving swiftly through a range of vicious encounters. Late in the film, a flashback explains but in no way attempts to justify the actions of the privileged. Centering on a leaked text introduced in the beginning, it is the impetus for the events, leading to the question of motivation versus wish fulfillment. This is part of the all-over and over-the-top nature of the entire story.

The cast makes the most of the chaos. The dark humor surfaces in unexpected times, including Amy Madigan and Reed Birney’s argument over an issues of political correctness as they clean-up and store bodies. It is either hilarious or horrifying, depending on the point-of-view. Perhaps, it is both.

Most of the characters are either given first names or simple monikers. For example, Emma Roberts is billed as “Yoga Pants.” Her quick dispatch is enough reason not to go further into her character. Justin Hartley (Kevin of television’s This Is Us) also disappears early on.  People do come and go very quickly here and all in unpleasant circumstances.

The stand-out is Betty Gilpin as Crystal Creasey, one of the pursued, who proves to be a match for her assailants at every step and turn. Gilpin (best known as Debbie “Liberty Bell” Eagan on the Neflix series GLOW) is extraordinary. She makes Crystal quirky and mannered, yet entirely believable. In the most powerful and disturbing moment, she retells the story of the tortoise and the hare with a brutal and unexpected outcome. Her delivery is both painful and chilling. It also comes full circle at the end.

The climax is a showdown between Crystal and the driving force behind the Hunt, Athena Stone (an unbridled Hilary Swank). It could be an example of female empowerment or could easily just be plain exploitation. Either way, it is an all-out brawl of epic proportions.

“Whether they’re smart pretending to be idiots or idiots pretending to be smart …” states Crystal. As to who are the heroes and who are the villains, this is left in a strange ambivalence. Certainly, many will see the film as a portrait of the underlying divide between the left and the right. Others will see it as a blood-drenched spectacle. With its extreme violence and twisted politics, ultimately, The Hunt is an equal opportunity offender.

Rated R, The Hunt is now streaming on demand.

A scene from 'Harriet'

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery but escaped to the North where she became the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. With unfathomable bravery, Tubman repeatedly risked her life to bring her family and other plantation slaves to safety. An extraordinary individual, she became a leading abolitionist prior to the Civil War; during the war, she worked directly with Union Army as a spy among other roles. Beyond the war, she worked with freed slaves as well as campaigning for women’s suffrage. 

Directed by Kasi Lemmons, who collaborated with Gregory Allen Howard on the screenplay, Harriet is a powerful and important biopic that focuses on the strength and perseverance of this exceptional person.

A scene from ‘Harriet’

The film opens in 1849 and shows the twenty-something Harriet (born Araminta Harriet Ross, nicknamed “Minty” by her parents) newly married to John Tubman. While she is still a slave to the Brodess family, John is a freedman. Harriet lives on a farm in Dorchester, Maryland, with her mother and sister, her other sisters having been sold South.  

It is revealed that the Brodess’s have denied the family’s freedom that was promised in the great-grandfather’s will. When confronted with a letter from a lawyer, the plantation owner rips it up and dismisses the claim. In private, Harriet prays for God to take him — this witnessed by the adult son, Gideon. When the father dies suddenly, Gideon decides to sell Harriet as punishment.  Realizing this, she flees and begins the nearly impossible journey one hundred miles to the Pennsylvania border.

Harriet had been struck in the head as a child and, because of this, has seizures in which she receives visions that she believes are the guidance of God.  Throughout, these flashes help her make difficult decisions and they become pivotal in her choices.

Once acclimated in Philadelphia, Harriet plans to return south for her husband. John, believing she was dead, has remarried and his wife is pregnant. While distraught from this discovery, she decides to bring her family to freedom. This she does along with bringing several other slaves to the North. 

Thus begins Harriet’s life’s work, returning time after time to bring more slaves to freedom. Legend grows around this mysterious figure dubbed “Moses” and incites the wrath of the plantation owners. Harriet remains undaunted and continues her work, even after the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, allowing escaped slaves in free states to be returned to their bondage.

The film builds to a confrontation between Harriet and Gideon. After this, there is a small epilogue that suggests her work with the Union Army, in particular leading black soldiers who free hundreds of slaves.

It is a compelling film that tells the story with great clarity and doesn’t shy from the brutality of its topic. Lemmons finds the flow of the story and rich detail. There is an occasional lack of tension because Harriet sometime seems a bit too invincible. This undermines the danger and risk that were clearly apparent in her every action and choice. It is a minor cavil but surprising given the life-and-death stakes.  

Cynthia Erivo delivers a gripping performance as Harriet Tubman.

Both the center and the heart of the film is Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet.  Erivo shows the struggle, pain, and triumph. Her transition from “Minty” Ross to Harriet Tubman is done with poignancy and a raw honesty that inspires every moment of the story. Joe Alwyn does his best to avoid the clichés as the spoiled and vicious Gideon. His scenes with Erivo are some of the strongest in the film.  

Leslie Odom Jr. charms as William Still, the Philadelphia abolitionist who connects Harriet with the Underground Railroad.  Janelle Monáe’s Marie Buchanon offers the right strength as the free-born owner of a boarding house in Philadelphia where Harriet stays; there is a sensitivity in   the growing friendship and mutual respect between them.

Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway, as Harriet’s parents, both find dimension in their limited screen time. Omar Dorsey is terrifying as Bigger Long, a brutal slave-catcher. Henry Hunter Hall is a bit whimsical as Walter, a black slave tracker who switches to Harriet’s side. Jennifer Nettles is appropriately brittle as Eliza Brodess, Gideon’s mother.

The rest of the cast does the best it can but many of the parts including most of Harriet’s family are not full developed. The exception is Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde, as Rachel Ross, Harriet’s sister; in one brief scene she shows monumental struggle and fear.

In 2016, it was announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill; this was to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Last year, this well-deserved honor was postponed until 2028 (or beyond).  While Harriet Tubman might not grace American currency anytime soon, Harriet is a sensitive and honest reminder of this unique and remarkable human being.

Rated PG-13, Harriet is now streaming on demand.

Photos courtesy of Focus Features

Elisabeth Moss (Cecilia) in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

H.G. Wells’ 1897 science fiction novel The Invisible Man is the story of Griffin, a former doctor, who has invented chemicals that changes a body’s optics and renders the individual invisible. Whether from the process itself or the inability to reverse it, Griffin becomes unhinged and homicidal. 

Over the years, there have been various adaptations, most notably the 1933 film starring Claude Rains, which most closely followed its source. Sequels, spinoffs, and spoofs have traded on the concept with varying success.

Harriet Dyer (Emily) and Elisabeth Moss (Cecilia) in a scene from the film.

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, the current version of The Invisible Man focuses on abused wife Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), married to Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a world leader in the field of optics.  

The film opens with Cecilia narrowly escaping her violent husband and taking shelter with her sister Emily’s (Harriet Dyer) ex-husband James (Aldis Hodge), a San Francisco police detective. Two weeks later, Cecilia is informed that Adrian has committed suicide and left her a trust of five million dollars. 

Clearly, Adrian is not dead but has found a way to make himself invisible and Cecilia’s life begins to unravel. She knows this but, of course, no one will believe her. Adrian had warned her that “wherever I went, he would find me … that he would walk right up to me and I wouldn’t be able to see him … but he would leave me a sign so that I’d know he was there.”

The film is a traditional thriller, with all of the tropes, including the Kass house which is part tech laboratory, part museum, mostly glass, and all horror movie. Every movement is accented with an ominous chord; every sound — whether the flipping of a light switch or the gush of a faucet — is amplified. The camera slowly pans on vacant rooms and holds on empty corners. There are no surprises in its “surprises.”

Elisabeth Moss and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Adrian) in a scene from the film.

But what makes the engine go is Elisabeth Moss, an always watchable actor, with just the right mix of classic Scream Queen and self-actualized modern woman. For the first twenty minutes, her character isn’t given much more to do but look around her, behind her, and over her shoulder. But somehow she endows it all with enough manic energy to make it believable. 

Like all horror movie heroines, at first Cecilia thinks she is going crazy (as do all of the people around her). When she realizes what is happening, it all falls into place and she goes on the offensive. As Adrian destroys Cecilia’s life, including framing her for murder, the stronger and more self-reliant she becomes. A life-altering revelation furthers her resolve. 

The majority of the film moves along as a psychological thriller and doesn’t resort to mild gore and special effects until well into the second half. This is a smart choice as floating objects, no matter how well executed, have a certain humor about them.

There are some nice touches that suggest Adrian’s presence: an exhaled breath in the cold night air, a dent in a chair cushion, a bloody fingerprint on a medicine bottle. These small strokes make up for many of the plot holes that are often found in horror movies. The climax is a predictable showdown but the denouement is satisfying enough.

While the film is practically a one-person vehicle, the supporting cast do the best they can. Hodge is likable as the friend. Dyer is relatable as the sister. Michael Dorman is given the unenviable task of Adrian’s sleazy jellyfish of a brother, Tom, who also served as his lawyer. Jackson-Cohen as the sociopathic Adrian barely has any screen time and is reduced to a few disembodied lines.

The Invisible Man will never be considered a great movie, and, for many, not even a good one. Even as a genre film, it doesn’t touch some of the contemporary classics like Halloween, Carrie, Get Out, The Babadook, and Let the Right One In. But for a star performance and a well-paced two hours, The Invisible Man entertains.

Rated R, The Invisible Man is now streaming online.

Winston Duke and Mark Wahlberg in a scene from the film. Photo by Daniel McFadden/Netflix

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Netflix began as a DVD rental source before it moved into streaming. Eventually, it began to produce its own material, including some exceptional films, series, and specials. These have included Beasts of No Nation, Roma, Mudbound, Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Stranger Things, and recently The Irishman and Marriage Story. Not everything has been this intense: Glow, Dear White People, and John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, among many other smart, amusing offerings. It is unfortunate that Netflix now offers the disappointing action comedy Spenser Confidential. 

Spenser Confidential is loosely based on Ace Atkins’ novel Wonderland, with characters created by Robert B. Parker. Here, the responsible parties are Peter Berg (director) and Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland (screenplay).

Mark Walhberg plays Boston police officer Spenser who is now being released from five years in prison for assaulting his captain (a stock villain played by Michael Gaston). While at first it seems that Spenser’s sole motivation was breaking up a domestic dispute, it is gradually revealed that there is more to it than just the captain’s mistreatment of his wife.  

On the day of Spenser’s release, the captain is murdered. The suspicion falls on a dirty cop who appears to have killed himself over it. Spenser seems to be the only one who suspects that all is not what it seems.  While all he wants to do is learn how to drive big rigs and move out to Arizona (!), he realizes that he is the only honest man in Boston and capable of seeing what no one else does. He sets out on a quest to clear the deceased officer’s disgraced memory. He teams up with his new roommate, Hawk, a gentle giant who had gone to prison for manslaughter. They are, of course, a caricature of a mismatch; while it tries, hilarity does not ensue.  

What follows is a plot that includes a host of standard tropes including a corrupt police force, white supremacists, gang violence, goons-for-hire, drug trafficking, and shady business at the soon-to-be-built casino, Wonderland. There is the obligatory “cops like doughnuts” joke and a boxing montage.  Spenser even provides lists for the camera reading “Who killed him?” and makes bold statements like, “I couldn’t let it go.” 

The tone strips its gears as it shifts between sitcom and deadly serious. A vicious dog attack is played as slapstick in this bizarre mix of real and cartoon violence. Perhaps there was an attempt to make this a common man as super hero vehicle — there are various references to Spenser as Batman — but there is no follow-through on that concept either. The jokey moments come across as precious, with glib quips often followed by an exceptionally ugly moment. It is not impossible to pull off this seemingly incongruent blend; the Dirty Harry movies did it brilliantly. Spenser Confidential doesn’t even try. It just lopes along, leaving a trail (and trial) of clichés. 

Mark Wahlberg is the star and obviously the only reason for the film being made; he appears in nearly every one of the one hundred and eleven minutes. He has a natural ease and, with a better script, he could have used his warmth to offset the character’s anger. But his Spenser (“a Boston cawp with a tempah”) seems to be a relic from television of the 70’s and his rage comes with a wink, making it all seem phony. 

As we now live in an age of complex anti-heroes — Tony Soprano, Walter White, Saul Goodman — Spenser comes across as insufferably self-righteous and squeaky clean. He is constantly spouting aphorisms about honesty and integrity and “doing the right thing.” The movie lacks subtlety and much of this can be attributed to Wahlberg’s mostly two-dimensional performance. Perhaps the character’s constant need to be liked, even when punching or being punched, is at the root of the problem. The writers failed to give Spenser any genuine emotional texture and this prevents him from engaging us.

For the most part, the supporting cast, with a few exceptions, are interchangeable.  Alan Arkin is fine if a bit low energy; he does what he usually does but there is a vague sense that he is walking through it.  

Winston Duke has a certain charm but his Hawk seems never committed to being one thing or another, floating through the story as a generic sidekick. The only thing we learn is that he likes animals; this doesn’t seem enough to flesh out a character who is basically to the second lead. 

Iliza Shlesinger is Spenser’s on-again off-again girlfriend, Cissy, a dog groomer with an attitude. She manages to make the most of what she is given, finding a few of the film’s only real laughs. Her scene with Spenser in a restaurant bathroom is particularly funny and tells us everything we need to know about their relationship.  (It should be noted that this scene, along with the violence and the language, are what would earn this an R rating.) 

Overall, the Boston accents fade in and out like the hackneyed desaturated flashbacks. At nearly two hours, it is overstuffed. Trimmed down to eighty minutes would not have solved the many problems but it would have eliminated the movie’s repetitiveness.  It is obvious from the final moments that the intention is to launch a series of films centered on Spenser and Company. Like Spenser Confidential¸ they will be for Mark Wahlberg fans only. If even them.

Spenser Confidential is now streaming on Netflix.

Mia Goth, left, as Harriet Smith with Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma is a sardonic comedy of manners that swirls around issues of love, marriage and social status. While perhaps not as popular as Pride and Prejudice, it has seen multiple stage, screen and television adaptations, most notably with the Emmas of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale and Alicia Silverstone (renamed Cher) in Clueless, which moved the action to 1990s California. While its mischievous wit is unmatchable, there is a real commentary about human nature that underlies its humor. 

Directed by Autumn de Wilde, from a screenplay by Eleanor Catton, Emma. has arrived, complete with a full-stop at the end of its title. (This is to indicate it is a “period” piece.) It is lush and rich and comical, with just a hint of a modern sensibility to separate it from its predecessors.  

Austen opens the novel with a description of her complicated heroine:

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.

This tongue-in-cheek portrait sets up one of the most meddling characters in all of English literature. Following closely to the book, the film opens with Emma having just succeeded at matchmaking her governess. With a taste for this endeavor, she now sets her sites on marrying off her friend Harriet Smith, a simple girl who is easily swayed by Emma’s every suggestion. What follows is a series of courtships and broken engagements, mismatches and misunderstandings, almost all due to Emma’s destructive and misplaced interferences. Like most comedic novels of this nature, it ends happily with multiple pairings, marriage being the ultimate goal.

The film’s peripatetic beginning has an almost farcical feel. The scenes are short, clipped and over-the-top. There are a good many laughs but it takes at least 20 minutes to land for more than a few moments. Ultimately, this is an intentional device. As the film progresses, this whimsical conceit shifts to an earnestness that matches Emma’s maturity. From childishly frenetic to wisely focused, the film and its protagonist grow. The true turning point comes when an off-hand barb wounds deeply. Confronted for her behavior, she realizes that it is time to look beyond herself. It is amazing that as the film begins to breathe in its journey, it picks up momentum: It slows to go quickly.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Emma’s father, who is equally afraid of drafts as he is of being alone, is played with perfect understatement by the redoubtable Bill Nighy; with the simple raise of an eyebrow, he manages to steal every scene in which he appears. Callum Turner avoids the clichés as he finds dimension in the seemingly narcistic Frank Churchill. Chloe Pirrie as Emma’s sister and Oliver Chris as her brother-in-law are one of cinema’s most hilariously unhappy couples. Myra McFayden’s chatterbox of a Mrs. Bates reveals painful dimension in her humility. Rupert Graves as the jolly if slightly flustered Mr. Weston is matched by Gemma Whelan as his self-assured wife. Mia Goth hits the right notes of naivete as Harriet Smith, the unfortunate object of Emma’s machinations. Josh O’Connor and Tanya Reynolds are amusingly vulgar as the minister and his new bride. Amber Anderson does the best she can with the underwritten Jane Fairfax. Connor Swindells’ innocent gentleman farmer infuses his few moments with genuine sweetness.  

At the center of the film is Anya Taylor-Joy, luminous and wholly engaging as Emma. Taylor-Joy manages to be both insufferable and charming at the outset and then finds a natural and touching shift to self-awareness, ultimately embracing her adulthood. Even in stillness, there is a sense of Emma’s ever whirring brain. Johnny Flynn’s George Knightley is appropriately wry and astute, the pain in his growing love for Emma becoming the film’s center.

Christopher Blauvelt’s sumptuous cinematography has made every frame a celebration of Regency England. The film is lavish and credit must be given to the design team: Kave Quinn (production design), Alice Sutton (art direction), Stella Fox (set decoration) and, especially, Alexandra Byrne (for flawless and Oscar-bait costume design).

This Emma. is wonderfully conceived and thoroughly entertaining. It is a reminder of why Jane Austen is a cinematic favorite and why her works — and insights — are still fresh 200 years later. Rated PG.

Harrison Ford and his digitally rendered best friend in a scene from the film.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Published in 1903, Jack London’s novella Call of the Wild has become a classic, read by people of all ages. Set in the Yukon during the 1890s Gold Rush, it follows the adventures of Buck, a dog stolen and sold. The book shows Buck’s gradual shift from domestication to feral, a portrait of the power and influence of nature and environment. It is a vivid and brutal story of survival, with animals given human thoughts. Film adaptations began with the 1923 silent movie with notable versions in 1935 (starring Clark Gable), 1972, 1981 and 1997.

Now Chris Sanders, in his live-action debut, has directed a script by Michael Green.  Using the book’s inciting incidents and cherry-picking elements of the story, this is a gentler, friendlier and more politically correct manifestation, dropping many of the book’s violent episodes and removing the particularly anti-Native American sections.

The story begins as the book’s did. Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch collie, lives in Santa Clara, California, with his master, Judge Miller (a nice cameo by Bradley Whitford). After being stolen and shipped north, he is sold into the service of a mail-delivering dogsled team. 

Run by two kind French Canadians (played charmingly if only slightly over the top by Omar Sy and Cara Gee), Buck finds joy and fulfillment in becoming part of the pack. He runs into trouble with the vicious pack leader, a husky named Spitz (who comes across like a ferocious Mean Girl). Buck vanquishes Spitz and takes his place. 

Buck’s growth in his new position results in several rescues, whereby he earns love, loyalty and appreciation. During his journey, he has visions of a wolf, full eyes a-blazing, evidently symbolizing his deeper connection to his ancestral roots.

When the mail route is replaced by the telegraph, Buck and his compatriots are sold to Hal (Dan Stevens practically twirling his moustache). This is the film’s most resounding false note with villains who seem to have been lifted from One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  

Buck is rescued by Jack Thornton (Harrison Ford, full on grizzle). Buck and Thornton had crossed paths earlier and now forge a deep bond. Thornton is running from his demons:  the loss of his son that led to the crumbling of his marriage and an apparent drinking problem. Buck’s companionship on a journey further north brings Thornton back to life. Harrison, who also serves as narrator, finds humor and depth throughout, and his love for his newfound friend is wholly believable.

The tone and style of this Call of the Wild harkens back to the Wonderful World of Disney of the 1970s. The sense of adventure is a wholesomeness one; its heart beat is the joys of nature with only a few and fairly minor moments of real ferocity. The film never fully embraces the question of domestication versus the savage and untamed, making the deeper animal instincts into something gently spiritual rather than instinctual.  

The main cavil is with the CGI. Buck — and all of the animals in the film, including every dog, wolf, bird, rabbit, fish and caribou — have an odd, almost cartoonish feel. It is clear that the creators have made a choice to anthropomorphize, giving the dogs in particular human-like expressions. It is a choice and one that almost works in context — certainly better than it did in the recent Lion King. And these dogs are far more honest than the humans embarrassingly cavorting in the disastrous Cats. That the dogs don’t ever fully blend into the universe is also due in part to settings that also seem primarily CGI. Often, it feels like a Yukon virtual reality ride.  

Ultimately, these complaints don’t negate the film. Call of the Wild is engaging from beginning to end. It tells its story fluidly, with a wide-eyed sincerity. It has plenty of thrills and is touching and sweet in its more pastoral scenes. And while it never truly emulates nature, the film is certainly a celebration of family entertainment. 

Rated PG, Call of the Wild is now playing in local theaters

Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox


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Will Ferrell and Julia Louise-Dreyfus in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

At the outset, the most important thing to know going into this movie is that it has been mismarketed as a black comedy. It doesn’t help that the two stars of Downhill are known for their exceptional work in the world of film and television: Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are iconic comedic actors. Their reputations are not of great help in the context of this drama of a marriage in jeopardy. Yes, there are flashes of humor but they are few and appropriately dark.  The occasional attempts at traditional comedy are intrusive. There are few of these but when they appear, they are jarring.

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, with a screenplay co-written by Faxon, Rash and Jesse Armstrong, Downhill is a remake of the 2014 Swedish comedy-drama Force Majeure.

A scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Pete and Billie Staunton (Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus) have brought their two sons (nicely understated Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) to a ski resort in the Alps. Pete is still mourning the passing of his father eight months prior; the father was a travel agent who never traveled. Clearly, Pete has inherited some of his stasis. Even before the film’s inciting event, the marriage seems frayed.

At the beginning of the vacation, while sitting in an outdoor restaurant, they are subjected to a small avalanche. Rather than protecting his children, Pete grabs his cell phone and runs. This action drives the rest of the film.  What follows is the unraveling of the marriage as Billie simmers before reaching a boiling point. In one of the stronger moments, Louis-Dreyfus recalls the experience, unleashing a torrent of anger and pain. Underneath this is the desperation of someone who no longer recognizes her partner of over two decades.

The plot is simple but Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus manage to be fully present in this couple’s emotional turmoil and are able to convey their deep inner conflicts. 

The supporting cast fares less well. Miranda Otto’s aggressive hotel hostess is an annoyingly predictable hedonist. She is a caricature, saddled with the film’s coarse jokes. It is she who sets Billie up with a sexy but understanding ski instructor (Giulio Berruti); whether he is intended to be a parody is not clear. 

Will Ferrell and Julia Louise-Dreyfus in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Serving as a plot device are Pete’s co-worker (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend (Zoë Chao), a younger couple who are enjoying the freedom of an adventurous and unplanned journey across Europe. It is hard to judge if their initial pretentiousness is intentional or incidental. Discussions of what is “better than decent” and “live your best life” because “every day is all we have” swirl around the film. Like the title, the metaphors are obvious and heavy-handed. Much is made of isolation and the cold and “going solo.” It is all too on-the-nose.

The film works best in its silent moments.  The tension that plays between Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus is honest and brittle. It is when the film tries to explain itself that it falls down the slope. The mostly banal dialogue never approaches the subtlety of its two leads.

Sadly, the solution is rushed and more than a trifle facile. However, the film’s final moment is a the true resolution; it is smart, surprising, and resonant. It is a strong “aha” for a film that never fully finds its way.  

On a positive note, Danny Cohen’s cinematography is exquisite and he creates an atmosphere that is at once idyllic and melancholy. 

The film’s promise rested in its leads, playing against a breathtaking backdrop. If only they had been given less to say and more to do.

Rated R, Downhill is now playing in local theaters.

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Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell and Michael Peña in a scene from the film. Photo by Christopher Moss/Columbia Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Few who lived through the late-seventies to mid-eighties could avoid an awareness of the two cultural − and, ultimately, cult − monoliths that dominated Saturday night television: The Love Boat (nine seasons; 1977 to 1987) and Fantasy Island (seven seasons; 1977 to 1984). Both were introduced in TV movies, played on ABC, and boasted a parade of guest stars, ranging in both level of celebrity and talent.

Each episode of Fantasy Island, the darker of the pair, featured two to three separate stories. The island’s visitors all came away wiser if a bit bruised from the experience. The theme, week after week, was clearly “careful what your wish for.”

Entering the realm of iconography was the spritely Hervé Villechaize as Tattoo, and his cry of “The plane! The plane!” This was complimented by Ricardo Montalbán, suavely raising a glass with his, “My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island.”

Portia Doubleday and Lucy Hale i a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Directed by Jeff Wadlow (with a script by Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs), Fantasy Island has reached the big screen as Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island albeit a decidedly different incarnation. Blumhouse Productions gave us the cutting and insightful satire Get Out, but it also is responsible for more common fare such as Truth or Dare, Happy Death Day 2U, and others. Fantasy Island clearly falls into the latter category.

A group of disparate people believe they have won a contest and are brought to a remote island where they are each told they will received the fantasy of their choice. Gwen Olsen (Maggie Q) needs to undo what she thinks was the worst choice of her life: rejection of a marriage proposal. Former policeman Patrick Sullivan (Austin Stowell) aspires to be a soldier; his wish is wrapped up in a need to connect with his father who died saving men in his platoon. Stepbrothers and “bros” J.D. (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) want to “have it all.” Finally, Melanie Cole (Lucy Hale) desires revenge on her childhood bully (played by Portia Doubleday).

They are told at the outset by the not-so-mysterious Mr. Roarke (Michal Peña) that they must see their fantasies through to the end. The machine grinds to life.

All of this might − might − have worked had the film aimed for a modicum of subtlety. The idea of wishes always being a doubled-edged sword is not new but has great potential. Sadly, it is surprising to think that the rather kitsch television series was ultimately more sophisticated.  

From the first moments of the film, “THIS IS A HORROR MOVIE” is not so much telegraphed as it is ballistically launched. Generically ominous music, a ghoulish staff that lopes and hovers like refugees from a Halloween walk-through, and images of snakes everywhere (a nod toward the invasion of the Garden of Eden? a sale on serpent knickknacks?), there is no possibility of anything other than waiting for the limp scares. How much more interesting it would have been to let the fantasies emerge and grow before changing into nightmares. For such a dark movie, it is almost completely lacking in tension; even the jump-outs and the mild gore seem lacking in any commitment to frighten.

Instead, the movie immediately devolves into the characters running around the island, hiding and escaping and then being caught … and then hiding and escaping and then being caught. What eventually comes to the forefront is a convoluted mythology of how the island works. It is both simple and overly complicated, dampened by a lot of dripping black blood.  

It is not until late in the film that all the strands come together for a very nice “aha” moment of how the characters are actually connected. It is here that the story takes a brief up-tick with an extra twist before once again watching the characters hide and get caught and escape. For just a few clever moments, there is a glimmer of hope before it all slides back down into the mire of its own lore, winding toward a very anti-climactic dénouement. There is one humorous nod to the series in the last moments of the film but it was one of the very few shout-outs and seems a bit misplaced. 

With the move toward constant reboots, the real fear is what will come next? Joanie Loves Chachi Loves Satan? Facts of Life: Tootie’s Revenge? One can only hide in the jungle for so long.

Rated PG-13, Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island is now playing in local theaters