Love & Friendship


Kate Beckinsale machinates.

Kate Beckinsale machinates.

(2016) Period Romance (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jordan Waller, Ross Mac Mahon, Frank Prendergast, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave. Directed by Whit Stillman

Woman Power

The role of women has evolved over the centuries, but it still has a long way to go. One woman who has helped it evolve is the author Jane Austen, who wrote about strong female heroines in a period when women were not just second class citizens, but third or even fourth class. It is something of a shame that Austen heroines are to this day still more of an exception than a rule.

Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a widow with scarcely a penny to her name. In the Regency era, that is a dire situation indeed. Having married into the upper class, she is used to a certain lifestyle that she can no longer afford. Having a scandalous reputation as a temptress (one that has been well-earned to be sure) hasn’t helped her cause. With few options, she goes to her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Greenwell) and her good-natured husband Charles (Edwards) to stay with.

Things are tense between the two women, mainly because Susan had opposed the marriage and had done her best to quash it – unsuccessfully. Now the appearance of Susan’s daughter Frederica (Clark) has complicated matters. Susan has been trying to get Frederica married to the extremely wealthy, moderately handsome, sweet-natured but utterly dim Sir James Martin (Bennett) whom she doesn’t love and has been resisting. Susan herself has been courting the charms of Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Samuel), much to the amusement of Susan’s American friend Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny).

However all of Lady Susan’s plots and schemes may come crashing down about her head. There are people who just plain don’t like her and disapprove of her. It will take all of her wits and intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone else and succeed in making sure both she and her daughter are able to live in comfort and privilege.

Director Whit Stillman is one of those guys who is well-respected within the film community. He has some really terrific films to his credit, including Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, both must-sees for any film buff. He seems tailor-made for the works of Jane Austen and true to expectations he nails it with his first foray into the grand dame’s work.

And that turns out to be the case. Stillman gets the essence of the language, making it flow without making it too incomprehensible to modern ears, which is often the case with Regency-era adaptations. He also knows how to bring the best in Beckinsale, who starred for him in Last Days of Disco. She is absolutely superb here, self-confident, manipulative, venal and absolutely seductive. This is the kind of performance that serves notice that you’re not just a B-movie actress, as she has already shown in several other indie films.

There are a couple of other great performances here as well, including Sevigny’s acerbic turn as Mrs. Johnson. Sevigny is an actress who is criminally underused by both Hollywood and the independent film scene. Her appearances are always much anticipated and appreciated by this critic, and she gives one of her best performances here in years. Bennett is also tip-top as the incredibly dense Sir James. He is delightfully funny and provides a fine counterpoint to the very intelligent Susan.

The only quibble I have is that so many of the other roles are played in an almost stilted fashion. That does make Beckinsale’s work stand out but I think it detracts from the rest of the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more personality in some of the other actors.

This is also a lush-looking film, with beautiful locations and sumptuous costumes and wigs. The period is recalled evocatively but in many ways you don’t feel you’re looking at the actual era so much as an idealized version of it. As is often the case in Austen’s work we rarely see beyond the walls of the upper classes – the savage poverty that was also a hallmark of the era. It exists only as a big bad boogieman to terrify those of the upper class who are teetering on the edge of it.

Jane Austen isn’t for everybody. Most audiences find her dull and slow, but there is a lyricism about her work – even the filmed versions of it – that I have found oddly moving and appealing throughout my life, from reading her actual words to the adaptations of those words. I think that she continues to teach us about the reality of who women are – or can be. She has created dozens of role models who can STILL be role models nearly 200 years after the fact. If there is anything more impressive than that, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale gives a marvelous performance and Bennett is inspired comic relief. Gorgeous costumes and settings. A fine adaptation of a lesser-known Austen work.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too mannered for some. A few of the supporting performances are too colorless to stand up.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are a bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan, but had to drop out and Beckinsale was cast in her place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dark

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The Boss


A smile only a dentist could love.

A smile only a dentist could love.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong, Mary Sohn, Kristen Schaal, Eva Peterson, Timothy Simons, Aleandra Newcomb, Annie Mumolo, Presley Coley, Ben Falcone, Margo Martindale, Michael McDonald, Robert Pralgo, Larry Dorf, Cedric Yarbrough, Mark Oliver, Rico Ball, Carla Fisher. Directed by Ben Falcone

Woman Power

The bigger they are, the harder they fall or so goes the old saying. These days, the super-wealthy are the biggest they are. It is rare for one of them to fall, but when they do it leaves a crater that could swallow a number of European nations.

Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is the 47th richest woman in the world. Orphaned at a very young age and never able to latch onto a foster family (she would be taken by some but always returned shortly afterwards), she has grown up believing that family is more than a hindrance to success than a help. Her self-help empire is largely run by her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell). One of her longtime business rivals (and former lovers), the crafty Renault (Dinklage) has leaked information to law enforcement that Michelle has been indulging in insider trading. As a result she is jailed for six months and her assets seized.

When she gets out of jail she has nothing and nowhere to go, and despite Claire’s misgivings, she invites Michelle to stay with her at the behest of Claire’s daughter Rachel (Anderson). At first Michelle is morose, defeated but as she gets involved with Rachel’s Bluebird group (think Girl Scouts), she hits upon a scheme to make her fortune again using Claire’s delicious brownies.

This ignites a turf war with rival Bluebirds and attracts the attention of Renault who wants to squash Michelle like a bug. With the help of Claire, Rachel, the Bluebird troupe and Claire’s new boyfriend Mike (Labine), Renault and the competing Bluebirds don’t stand a chance as Michelle will stop at nothing to get back on top – but will it be at the cost of her new family?

There are many who believe that McCarthy is the most gifted comic actress working today and there is certainly good reason to support that. She is certainly the most popular. When McCarthy is at the top of her game, she can be devastatingly funny, but with the wrong script the laughs come at her rather than with her. This is somewhere in between those two extremes.

The script isn’t the best one McCarthy has had to work with and in this regard she has nobody to blame but herself since she co-wrote it along with her husband (and the film’s director Ben Falcone) and fellow Groundling Steve Mallory. The plot is wafer-thin and doesn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. Darnell is supposed to be a cross between Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley, but with a heart of gold deep down. Sadly, she just comes off as a bitter woman who largely deserves the indignities that come her way. I had almost zero sympathy for the character and that makes it really hard to root for her during the climactic scenes.

That’s not to say that elements didn’t work. McCarthy, as I’ve mentioned, is as talented as they come and her relationship with Bell works well. The two women make an excellent team. Some of the comic bits are extremely funny, although the best one involving a sofa bed is in the trailer. However, there are a lot of bits that fall flat including one involving Michelle and Claire comparing boobs, which an excerpt from also appears in the trailer. I guess that’s equal opportunity publicity.

There is kind of a mean tone to the movie that I found slightly disturbing. I get that the condescending attitude of the 1% for the rest of us is supposed to be getting grilled here, but McCarthy should have used a little less lighter fluid. The flame is burning the meat and there is quite enough meanness in the world without adding to it. Still, there are enough funny moments to make a look-see at the film worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Bell have some fine chemistry. Some fairly funny slapstick moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is dumb as a rock and is completely implausible throughout. The overall mean tone was really disconcerting at times.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is considerably salty, and there is plenty of sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: WWE wrestler Dave Bautista made a cameo in the film, but his part was eventually cut out. It appears in the trailer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Hard
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Love & Friendship

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2


Hopa!

Hopa!

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Elena Kampouris, Alex Wolff, Louis Mandylor, Bess Meisler, Bruce Gray, Fiona Reid, Ian Gomez, Jayne Eastwood, Rob Riggle, Mark Margolis, Rita Wilson, John Stamos, Jeanie Calleja. Directed by Kirk Jones

Woman Power

Like many others, I was a victim of the charm of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I won’t say that I fell in love with the movie, but it did blindside me a little bit and I regard it fondly, even though it was fairly flawed. Some movies will do that to you.

And now most of the original cast is back. Toula (Vardalos) has been married more than a decade to Ian (Corbett) who is now a principal at the local high school. Her travel agency went out of business and she is back working at the family restaurant and has proven herself an adept business woman. Her family is still around her like the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner. She lives in a block of four houses on a quiet suburban Chicago street that all belong to members of her family.

That family includes patriarch Gus (Constantine) who believes himself to be descended from Alexander the Great and that everything useful or wonderful in the world came directly or otherwise from Greece, often with the flimsiest of evidence to back him up. His long-suffering wife Maria (Kazan) wants nothing more than to lead a semi-normal life, but with sisters like Voula (Martin) who never met a bodily condition too gross to discuss with anyone, that is quite the challenge.

Throw an angsty teenage daughter (Carides) into the mix and you get all the flavors of Greece in one soup. But even that is not enough when the discovery is made that due to a clerical error, Gus and Maria were never actually married. While Gus is eager just to rectify the error and go on with his life, Maria wants a big fat Greek wedding, the one she never got in the old country. It falls upon Toula to arrange everything and balance the family business, her husband’s frustration that the two of them have not been intimate for awhile, and her daughter’s collegiate choice that may take her away from Chicago and of course with her maniac relatives interfering in every way possible, this is a dance that even Zorba couldn’t manage.

All the elements of the first movie are here in the second, but as is usually the case, lightning doesn’t get captured in the bottle quite so easily. While Vardalos remains one of those rare actresses who simply is irresistible and cute onscreen, so much so that you want to take her home with you, for some reason this movie doesn’t work as well as the first. Perhaps it’s just a case of the first existing because it set a high bar for the second. But there are flaws here that can be explained.

For one thing, it feels sometimes that Vardalos who as in the first movie wrote the script was trying too hard to make her family eccentric. I think we got the point and a little more restraint would have been just as effective. I love Andrea Martin as a comedienne and she steals a lot of scenes here and Constantine who hasn’t made a full length feature film since the first big fat Greek wedding 14 years ago (yipes!) also dominates the screen whenever he’s on it.

The Nikki subplot really didn’t interface as well with the rest of the material. I can kinda see what Vardalos was trying to do – show that Toula was becoming exactly like her mother – and while that is an admirable and salient point, it wasn’t made as well as it could have been, particularly since the comedy is a little bit over-the-top. Again, restraint would have been welcome.

The movie is curiously flat when it comes to onscreen energy, which is normally the purview of the editor and the director. I’m not sure if that is the case here, but certainly the movie doesn’t have the same vibrant feel of the first. Perhaps there is the stigma of repetition, in that most sequels rarely capture the same magic as the original, but it could also have been that much too long has passed since we last visited this Greek comedy and that had its effect on our perception of the finished product as well.

I am a fan of Nia Vardalos and I was rooting for this movie to be better than it was. It will likely make it to cable earlier than intended and then fade away into obscurity but I am strangely glad that it got made anyway. I can’t really recommend it (hence the score) but I still have a soft spot for it anyway. If you were as charmed by the first movie as I was, you will likely be disappointed in the second, but you may very well find a soft spot for it as well. So please don’t mind if I get a second helping of spanikopita and enjoy a movie that should have been better.

REASONS TO GO: Occasionally shows the charm of the original. Vardalos remains sweet and charismatic in the lead role.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks energy. Occasionally the material becomes overbearing. The plot is wafer-thin.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in Toronto, substituting for the Chicago location of the original.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Boss