Rip Van Pickle

Seth Rogen doubles down in surprisingly sentimental satirical comedy

Pickle Day 06

An American Pickle
Starring Seth Rogen
Directed by Brandon Trost

Worlds collide in Seth Rogen’s new movie.

A fanciful tale of past meeting present, it’s a comical, century-spanning social satire in which he doubles down to play two roles—and strides confidently into new movie territory.

First, he’s Hershel Greenbaum, an immigrant worker from Eastern Europe whose American dream is cut short when he falls into a vat at a Brooklyn pickle factory. Nobody knows Hershel is inside when he’s accidentally sealed into the oversized wooden barrel just as the factory is condemned and closed, leaving poor Hershel there to marinate, with cucumbers and salt, for 100 years.

When he’s discovered in the present-day 21st century, well-brined but miraculously alive, preserved and otherwise hale and healthy, he’s is a medical miracle, a time-traveling curiosity suddenly adrift in a strange new world of the future.

That’s the setup for An American Pickle, a contemporary comedic upgrade on Washington Irving’s classic tale of Rip Van Winkle, the early American colonist who dozed off for 20 years, woke up and discovered he’d missed the whole American Revolution. You might think of Hershel as Rip Van Pickle—a whole century of life in America has gone by while he’s been hibernating in brine, and everyone he ever knew is long gone, including all his relatives…except one.

Hershel is overjoyed to learn he has a great-grandson, who happens to live nearby.

Pickle Day 10

Rogen also plays Ben Greenbaum, a single, struggling freelance software developer—who’s about the same age as his great-grandfather, just wearing much trendier threads, and living in an apartment with everything remote-controlled by Alexa.

Ben, whose parents are deceased, never thought he’d reconnect with another offshoot of his Greenbaum family tree—especially one who was born more than 130 years ago.

Though he’s appeared in other films, like the biopic Steve Jobs, Rogen is best-known for playing stoner-schlub-slacker characters in such broad, raunchy comedies as Pineapple Express, This is the End, Neighbors, Long Shot and The Night Before.

An American Pickle is a kinder, gentler comedy than any of those, as Ben offers Hershel something to drink from his fridge—macadamia milk, cashew milk, maybe pea milk. “They’re milking everything these days!” he tells his bewildered great-grand-dad. Or when Ben introduces Hershel to “oldies” music, coaxing him to clomp, horah-style, to the 1960s Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs hit “Stay.”

Ben, we learn, has been working for five long years on an idea for a product launch, an app that lets consumers check out the ethics of products and companies before they make a purchase. Hershel, not surprisingly, doesn’t understand apps—or why it’s taking Ben so long to decide on a logo color, or to submit his idea.

Hershel has what he thinks is a much better idea, about a business that he and Ben can do together—and Ben and Hershel find themselves in a real pickle, a predicament of a disagreement that quickly deepens into rift and resentment. How will these two Greenbaums, from two different cultures, different countries and different centuries, ever get along?

Everything leads to a subversively witty lampoon of business and competition, a wickedly funny satire on the dangerous double edge of fame and a timely parody about how easily someone can rise to the top, then crash and burn in America, the venerated land of opportunity.

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Rogen, who’s often been pigeonholed as an actor, does a refreshingly adept job in both roles—characters so vastly, obviously different, and yet also so alike, so irrevocably connected by their very roots. Director Branton Trost, Rogen’s comedic collaborator on several previous films, hones in on the funny, and also the tenderness, as Ben introduces Hershel to present-day New York City, his life and modern wonders—scooters, taxicabs, racial diversity, kosher hot dogs, and why on earth any human, with only two feet, would need more than 25 pairs of socks.

And the special effect, combining both characters into the same frame, is done so cleanly and seamlessly, you’ll forget you’re actually watching one actor in two roles at the same time. That, in itself, is a modern marvel.

An American Pickle is a comedy, sure, but its sentimental silliness is built on a heartwarming foundation that might surprise you—especially if you come to the film expecting the kind of guffaws you usually get from a Seth Rogen movie. This is a more mature, more grown-up comedy—one that happens to be delightfully clever, pointedly sharp and charmingly funny—with an unmistakable underpinning of (get ready now) family and faith, one that it tweaks gently with a few jokes but ultimately takes very seriously, and with much sensitivity. Hershel’s old-world Orthodox Judaism is a major part of the story, as is Ben’s lack of religious affiliation and his apparent abandonment as an adult of his Jewish heritage. (“I had a Jumanji-themed bar mitzvah,” he mumbles sheepishly to Hershel.)

And Ben’s late parents factor significantly into the story in a way you won’t learn about until near the very end.

Clearly, this pickle fable has more than just pickles—or goofball laughs—on its plate.

“It’s never too late to do things differently,” a young business prospect tells Ben. Rogen does things a bit differently with An American Pickle, double-decking genuine laughs with well-earned warmth for a wholly satisfying modern folktale about family, faith, pickles—and the power of letting things that can keep us apart instead bring us together.

Available Aug. 6, 2020, on HBO Max  

Forbidden Love

The sweet surprises of a charming little WWII British seaside romance—with a twist

Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael Wharley

Summerland
Starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay & Lucas Bond
Written and directed by Jessica Swale
PG

British actress Gemma Arterton got her big break in the movies as ill-fated “Bond girl” Strawberry Fields, an intelligence operative in Quantum of Solace (2008) opposite Daniel Craig.

Compared to that Bond blockbuster, Summerland is a much smaller, much more genteel film, but it certainly provides Arterton a far bigger role—and it’s a project that obviously means more to her personally, as she’s one of its executive producers.

She stars as Alice Lamb, a reclusive writer holed up in her seaside cottage in Sussex, England, comfortably distanced from the ravages of World War II across the Channel. Alice is content—even though the locals think she’s a bit of a reclusive, prickly oddball, and prankish children whisper that she might be a Nazi spy, or even a witch—as she tends her garden and pours herself into her latest literary project, researching the connections between folklore, mythology and science.

And she certainly isn’t all-aboard when a young moppet boy, Frank (Lucas Bond), shows up one day, literally at her doorstep—he’s a refugee from London, about an hour away, which is being bombed in nightly air raids by the Germans. As part of the English war effort, as many children as possible are being evacuated and temporarily resettled with host families in safer havens, like Alice’s coastal hamlet.

Alice protests that Frank will interrupt her routine and her work. “We’ve all got to do our bit,” the local schoolmaster (veteran British actor Tom Courtenay) tells her.

Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael Wharley

As Alice and Frank gradually warm to each other, Summerland gradually widens and deepens. Conversations about Alice’s writing and research lead to discussions with Frank about afterlife, and how Alice doesn’t believe in heaven. “It was just made up by the Christians,” she says. “People want to have something to believe in—like magic, or God. Hokum, all of it.” Pre-Christian pagans, she says, had a concept of Summerland, a layer of “restless souls” that ancient mariners had stories of seeing as an island floating above the water.

Alice is convinced there’s a basis in science, or fact, or some real-life experience, for the legends of Summerland—or just about anything. “Stories have to come from somewhere,” she says.

And Alice has her own story, one she’s kept hidden from almost everyone—a love story that’s at the very heart of Summerland. We see it in unfolding in flashbacks, and when she finally reveals it to Frank, it’s both glowingly beautiful and wrenchingly sad.

“Would you think it was strange,” she asks him, tentatively, “if a woman loved another woman?”

The other woman is Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Apple TV+’s The Morning Show), and the “forbidden” same-sex relationship between her and Alice, back in the 1920s, was made even more forbidden because of the brown color of Vera’s skin. Their breakup—and the reason why—devastated Alice.

Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael WharleyFrank tells Alice he doesn’t understand why anyone would think it’s strange for two women to fall in love, and Alice sheds a tear for his innocence—and for the harshness of the world he has yet to encounter.

The movie doesn’t dwell on the era’s resistance to the sapphic relationship between Alice and Vera. But the message is clear—especially to women who know what it feels like to live in a world—in any era, under any circumstances—that wants to box them in, box them up, box them out or simply classify them as “a temptress or a virgin,” as Alice says, “bound to get blamed for something.”

In one flashback scene, when Alice gets a door slammed in her face, cutting her off from Vera and her family, the sound will ring like a painful slap to women, anywhere, everywhere, who’ve ever felt the sting of rejection and dismissal, of being made to feel invisible, unwanted or unnecessary.

Penelope Walden (Isabel Crawley on Downton Abbey) plays “present-day” Alice, and young Dixie Egerickx is Edie, Frank’s tomboyish schoolmate, who—like Alice—doesn’t quite “conform to the feminine ideal.”

Summerland is the feature debut for writer-director Jessica Swale, an award-winning playwright now making the transition to film; both Arterton and Mbatha-Raw have starred in her stage productions. Proudly fem-centric—with women as the surging creative force of its substance and the focus of its story—this “little” independent film has a lot of big things on its mind: female independence, imagination and intellect; life, death and the power of love; and the beauty of all loving relationships.

Stories have to come from somewhere, but they have to go somewhere, too—and where Summerville goes will likely surprise you, wrapping up World War II, model airplanes, Viking funerals, floating islands, the clackety-clack of a typewriter and a span of many decades into the warm hug of a cozy conclusion.

It’s certainly not James Bond, but it is a great piece of romantic escapism for anyone who wants a well-mannered British drama with a huge heart, good humor, lovely ocean-side chalk hills scenery and a feel-good message that reverberates across time, as powerful and as potent as ever.

Available Friday, July 31, on digital and cable

Watch Out

Dave Franco’s directorial debut is a cautionary tale of sicko high-tech horrors

The Rental
Starring Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, Jeremy Allen White & Sheila Vand
Directed & co-written by Dave Franco
R

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Dan Stevens and Alison Brie star in ‘The Rental.’

Who’s watching you?

In this day and age, the answer is more likely than ever to be anyone, with surveillance cameras, drones, doorbell cams and every other kind of doodad capable of peeping into our personal spaces. Spy gadgets are a booming industry. That guy’s ink pen—it’s got a tiny camera in it. So does that smoke alarm, those sunglasses and that clock.

This terrifically tangled little nerve rattler of a horror movie takes that thoroughly modern idea and melds it to some sturdy, old-fashioned ‘80s slasher vibes as it zooms in on two young city couples who decide to haul out of town for a fun weekend getaway.

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Charlie (Dan Stevens), Mina (Sheila Van) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White) on the edge of a taking a bad decision and making it even worse.

Snatching up a sweet deal on a lovely seaside vacation cottage rental, Charlie (Dan Stevens) books it for a weekend with his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), and his little brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and his girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand).

But right off the bat, there are signs of trouble, beginning when they arrive and meet the creepy property owner (Toby Huss, recognizable to Reno 911! fans as Big Mike) who gives off racist vibes that unsettle Mina, whose brown skin makes her stand out from her whiter friends.

And all the “bro” jokes and joshing between Charlie and Josh can’t mask the fact that Charlie thinks his little brother—who got kicked out of college and spent time in jail—is a first-class screw-up. Josh, meanwhile, confides to Michelle that he’s just a little bit jealous of all the time her husband spends with Mina; she’s Josh’s girlfriend, but also Charlie’s business partner.

Add a steamy hot tub, some Ecstasy and a couple of flirty indiscretions, and suddenly this friendly little weekend frolic feels like it could be doomed for disaster.

Especially, after one of those indiscretions, they find a hidden camera in the shower—and a dead body ends in the bathtub.

As the movie heads into its super-serious scares, it’s in the capable hands of Dave Franco, who builds on his years of acting experience to now hop behind the camera for this most impressive debut as a director. Franco is probably best known for his comedic film roles in Neighbors and its sequel; the 21 Jump Street franchise; and three Now You See Me flicks, in which he played magician Jack Wilder, a master of misdirection.

He certainly pulls off another misdirecting act in The Rental, taking a story about four more-or-less normal, imperfect but somewhat sensible people, putting them in a not-so-unusual situation, slowly torqueing up the tension—and then ratcheting everything into a full-blown horror show, with a real sicko jaw-dropper at the end.

I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s got a bit of Psycho as well as Friday the 13th coursing through its nasty-fun, fright-night veins, and it not only wants to make you jump, it wants to make you think—about mistrust, how bad decisions lead to more bad decisions, and particularly about the scariness of this modern world, and who might be watching everything you do, anytime, anywhere.

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Alison Brie

The small ensemble cast has a great pedigree. It’s terrific to see Brie, from TV’s GLOW and Community, get to stretch out in a movie. Stevens further expands his growing resume beyond Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast and the television series Legion. Shameless fans will recognize White as that show’s wastrel son, Lip Gallagher. And Vand’s most recent role is night-car passenger Zarah Ferani on TV’s Snowpiercer.

Franco—who’s been married to Brie since 2017—and his actors create a situation in which we can relate, mostly, to these characters, their flaws and their reactions to something that becomes a perfect storm of isolation, paranoia, lies, frustration and fear—of someone who sees them, but they won’t see until…well, you’ll have to wait, and see for yourselves.

Franco wants us to “see” that people aren’t always who they seem to be, that none of us may be who we want others to think we are, and that perhaps we can’t always trust…well, almost anything.

Especially the showerhead in a vacation rental.

The characters talk, a couple of times, about “peeping toms.” It’s almost a running joke, who’s watching who. Who’s watching you? I guarantee, after sitting through the final minutes of the The Rental, and the very final scene—which may very well leave you breathless—you won’t think it’s so much of a joke.

At select drive-ins and theaters, and On Demand July 24, 2020

 

High Hopes & Hoop Dreams

Basketball drama gives Ben Affleck his most personal role yet

THE WAY BACK

The Way Back
Starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins & Janina Gavankar
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
R
In theaters Friday, March 6, 2020

In this hoop-dreams underdog tale, a washed-up former high-school basketball star comes back to his old alma mater to coach its ragtag team. Can he turn these losers into winners—and shake off the ghosts of his own troubled past?

OK, ok, ok—you’ve seen this movie before, right? But you really haven’t.

The Way Back sounds like a sports cliché. And it is, in a way that’s pretty unavoidable—especially for any movie that dares to step into the long shadow cast by the iconic Hoosiers (1986). But it’s actually structured around something else, a stirring human drama that transcends its basketball story.

Ben Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, whom we meet on his dead-end construction job in Los Angeles. The first thing we learn about Jack is that he drinks—a lot. He sips during his lunch break. He pops a top in his pickup for the drive home. He gets hammered at a local back-alley pub with his buddies every night. He drinks in the shower as he scrubs off the grime of his job.

We learn that Jack’s sister (Michaela Watkins, who plays Delia on TV’s The Unicorn, and Ali on Get Shorty) is worried about him, his isolation and his excessive drinking; so is his ex-wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar, from The Morning Show).

Then we learn what a hotshot basketball player Jack used to be, back in the 1990s, when he played for a local Catholic high school and took them all the way to the state championship. That’s why he gets a phone call from the parish priest (John Aylward—remember him as Dr. Donald Anspaugh from TV’s ER?) asking him to come back as coach when an emergency leaves the school in a lurch just days before their first game.

TORRANCEJack doesn’t really want to take the gig; he tries to talk himself out of it in half a dozen ways one evening before running out of excuses (and beer), then showing up, somewhat reluctantly, the next morning for the job. That sets the movie’s wheels in motion, and we meet the capable, likeable assistant coach (comedian/actor Al Madrigal), and the team’s chaplain, Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin), who’s soon fighting a losing battle trying to reign in Jack’s salty language and his intensely competitive courtside behavior.

The team is a mixed bag, with barely just enough players to fill out the bench. Kenny (Will Ropp) is a smooth ladies’ man with the cheerleaders; the cocky Marcus (Melvin Gregg, from TV’s Snowfall) has chops, but an attitude that gets him in trouble; Brandon (Brandon Wilson) is held back by a situation at home that affects his performance on the court.

Where this is all headed won’t be surprising to anyone who’s ever watched any sports-themed movie. But again, this movie is about more than basketball. It’s about how Jack finds something—well, himself—on a journey that takes him back to a place where he started, which happens to be his old high school and its basketball court.

TORRANCE

Janina Gavankar plays Jack’s ex-wife, Angela.

Why does Jack drink? What dark, almost bottomless emotional hole is he trying to fill? Why did he and Angie divorce? Why did Jack turn down a lucrative, full-ride basketball scholarship, walking away from the game that he once loved?

You’ll find out, eventually. And what you find out will probably dig deeper, and pull harder, on your heartstrings than you’ll likely see coming.

Director Gavin O’Connor worked previously with Affleck for The Accountant (2016), and he found the tender soul of the gritty martial-arts brother-vs.-brother boxing drama Warrior (2011), with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. And he directed the rousing Miracle (2004), about the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team victory over the seemingly invincible Soviets. Here he has a feel not only for basketball—the scenes of high school games look raggedly authentic and genuine, instead of staged and overly dramatic—but also for the bigger, more personal, much more somber drama surrounding it. His early shots of Los Angeles depict a hazy, sprawling, faceless metroplex, which reflects the fog of Jack’s solitude and his booze-saturated apathy.

This is a very personal movie, as it turns out, for Affleck, who has been very forthcoming about his own struggles with alcohol and recovery over the past three years. He was in rehab, in fact, when the film was in pre-production. To say his performance feels authentic, honest, sometimes painful and lived-in is an understatement.

“We can’t change the past, Jack,” a counselor tells him. “What we can do is change how we move forward.”

The Way Back feels like an old-fashioned sports movie, a step back in a way, but also a step forward for a widely accomplished actor—who’s already won two Oscars, for directing (Argo), and screenwriting (Good Will Hunting)—with a statement about who he is, where he is now, and the kind of grownup, emotionally nuanced movies he’s interested in making.

It’s a movie that reminds us that life—like a basketball game—is almost always moving, sometimes very fast, that small decisions can often be the difference between losing and winning, and that little things matter greatly. Jack spurs his team—usually from behind—by telling them to keep up the pressure, that every little thing adds up, and to always be chipping away, chipping away.

“You worked hard to be here,” Jack tells the players at one point, just before a big game. “You earned this.” So has Ben Affleck, and it shows, perhaps in his most personal—and most personal-feeling—movie, and movie role, ever.

The #MeToo Monster

Elisabeth Moss Puts a Timely Gender Flip on Classic Bogeyman Tale

nullThe Invisible Man
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge & Storm Reid
Directed by Leigh Whannell
R
In theaters Feb. 28, 2020

Now you see him, now you don’t.

That’s how it is with The Invisible Man, a tale that’s been floating around for more than 120 years, ever since British novelist H.G. Wells originally published his sci-fi yarn about a scientist who figured out how to make himself “disappear.”

The invisible man from Wells’ novel reappeared, so to speak, in the classic 1933 “horror” movie and its 1940 sequel, and then numerous times over the decades in other film and TV adaptations. Kevin Bacon put a sinister twist on the see-through saga in the 2000 movie Hollow Man.

In director Leigh Whannell’s chilling new mind-bending update of The Invisible Man, a woman escapes from her abusive, perversely controlling boyfriend one dark and stormy night. But then she begins to be menaced by something she cannot see—and she’s convinced it’s his “invisible” presence.

But, wait now—everyone knows he just committed suicide just a couple of weeks ago, right? Right???

The woman is Cecilia, played by Elisabeth Moss in a powerful, gut-punch performance that reminds you why she received an Emmy for The Handmaid’s Tale, provided such a pivotal role as Peggy Olson on the acclaimed Mad Men, and received raves for her edgy, elemental performances in films like That Smell, The Kitchen and The Square.

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Aldis Hodge

Hiding out in the house of a cop friend, James (Aldis Hodge, from TV’s Leverage), and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid), the frightened Cecilia also reaches out to her estranged sister (Harriet Dryer) and tries to get on with her life. But odd, disturbing, spooky, creepy things keep happening. Things that rattle Cecilia, things that mess with her, hurt her, manipulate her—just like her boyfriend used to do.

Cecilia’s senses tell her that somehow, it’s still her boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). “He’s not dead,” she says. “I just can’t see him.”

“Aid will haunt you if you let him,” James tries to reassure her. “Don’t let him.”

In a timely gender shift of how things typically focus in mad-scientist movies, Cecilia—not Adrian, the tech-billionaire founder of a groundbreaking optics company—is the cog at the very center of this one, the nexus of its story. And Moss makes you feel every flayed ounce of her frustration, brokenness and pain, especially when no one will believe that Adrian can still be stalking her, sight unseen.

After all, there’s an urn containing his ashes in the office of his loathsome lawyer brother (Michael Dorman).

It’s no spoiler to say that things go from bad to worse, as the “invisible man” makes Cecilia’s life unbearable, pushing her to the breaking point—and Whannell ratchets up the tension scene by scene, showing off the chops he fine-tuned collaborating with horror maestro James Wan on the Saw and Insidious franchises, and then directing Upgrade (2018), an under-appreciated, futuristic sci-fi action thriller.

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And I won’t reveal any of the straight-up shocker-surprises and twists, but there are a couple of doozies, especially as Cecelia learns she’s going to have to take matters into her own hands, and then does. It’s a monster movie for the #MeToo movement, a creep show about toxic masculinity and how abused women are often told they’re crazy—and to blame for their own scars, both inside and out. It’s a fine-tuned freak-out with a timely twist, gender-flipped in perfect synch and step with the real-world parade of women who are just now, finally, getting their day in court—and their vindication—with disgraced movie magnate Harvey Weinstein.

Pay close attention to everything you see on screen, because it all pays off in the end.

With a less-is-more filmmaking approach, director Whannell gets maximum jolt-age out of minimum effects, relying instead on the primal fear of the unknown—and the power of the unseen. There are some bust-up, knock-about fight scenes with the invisible assailant, including one in which he impressively dispatches an entire hall full of security guards.

James’ nickname for Cecelia is “C,” which sounds, of course, like “see.” It’s a subtle little inverted twist on what she can’t do—see what’s watching her, what’s tormenting her. And no one else can see it, either. And seeing, after all, is believing.

Cecelia and Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man make for a gripping golly-whopper psycho-thriller of a horror show, one in which a woman finally makes everyone else “see”—and believe—what’s she’s known, and felt and experienced, all along. Ain’t it the truth?

Hustles & Bustles

New version of Jane Austin classic is dizzily entertaining pre-Tinder rom-com 

E M M A .

Emma.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth & Johnny Flynn
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
PG
In theaters Friday, Feb. 21, 2020

A precocious young woman meddles in matchmaking, causing several romantic misadventures. Sound familiar?

It certainly should, especially if you’ve seen many movie rom-coms—or read any Jane Austen. The roots of this particular rom-com go back more than 200 years, to Austen’s social satire Emma, the last novel the British author published before her death in 1817.

Austin didn’t get much acclaim for her work during her lifetime, but her six main novels—including Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility—have been part of the pop-cultural mainstream for decades. Emma, which went on to become one of her most popular books, has been adapted for TV miniseries and films half a dozen times since 1948.

This latest version stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the 20-year-old Emma, the indulged, beautiful, somewhat spoiled but good-hearted mistress of Hartfield manor, where she lives with her father, the perpetually perturbed Mr. Woodhouse (veteran British actor Bill Nighy), and a host of scurrying servants. As the movie opens, Emma is preparing for the wedding of her live-in governess, a romantic match-up she’s convinced she made happen.

E M M A .

Bill Nighy

As she and her father head to the church, Mr. Woodhouse cautions Emma about continuing to meddle in others’ romantic affairs. “You must not make matches,” he tells her, “or foretell things.”

Emma barely pays him any attention. “It’s a great amusement,” she says.

It’s certainly a great amusement to watch as Emma continues to meddle and muddle things for her friends and neighbors, and herself.

First-time feature director Autumn de Wilde—whose background is mostly in still photography and music video—certainly knows about the importance of visuals. The movie is a hyper-stylized, sumptuously watchable parade of vibrant colors, ornate excess and preening, extravagant fashions and customs of Britain’s Regency era, especially as it slices into the upper-class comedy of manners of Emma and her social circle. It also takes some of the pomp out of the pomp and circumstance of the times, showing characters emerging occasionally from behind stiff, starched collars, from underneath their fluffy, puffy gowns, out of skin-tight breeches and tailcoats, or in other private moments to reveal glimpses their true selves.

And in moments like that, you realize that some things about romance—and people in general—never change, whether it’s in England centuries ago, in America today, or anywhere, everywhere, at all levels of society.

E M M A .

Johnny Flynn

It’s terrific to see Taylor-Joy—best known for the horror flicks The Witch and Split—shine in a sunnier role where she’s not fighting for her life, terrified half to death or making an unholy pact with the devil. She’s surrounded by a tapestry of colorful supporting characters. Mia Goth is Harriett, a wide-eyed student at a local boarding school whom Emma befriends and mentors; Harriett adores Emma, soaks up her advice and views her as something of a goddess on a pedestal—quite literally, at one point. There’s the handsome heartthrob neighbor Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, who played young Albert Einstein on TV’s Genius) and the ever-elusive bachelor Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), due to inherit his aunt’s vast estate, perhaps sooner rather than later. Josh O’Connor (he was Prince Charles on The Crown) is the local pastor.

Miranda Hart plays blabbery Miss Bates, the town matron who can’t seem to stop talking, especially about her talented niece (Amber Anderson).

Who’ll hook up with whom in this 19th century English-countryside version of OKCupid, this pre-Tinder tale of bonnets, bustles, pretty boys, manors and maidens?

Like the novel on which it’s based, Emma. (styled, with a period at the end) intends to satirize—not particularly glamorize—its subjects and its time period, an era in which society and people were starkly divided into haves and have-nots, and one in which a young woman’s highest aspiration often was to find a well-off husband. It’s whimsical without being campy, witty but never wacky, fluffy instead of stuffy and romantic with just enough bite to leave a mark.

Perhaps the period in the title is meant to remind us that it is, after all, a period-piece—a fanciful film based on a story set in a specific time period, about characters who look, think and act the way they do because they’re products of that time and place. The characters in this movie certainly fit that description; they’re wealthy white “landed gentry,” most of whom don’t have to worry a bit about money. In that era, in that environment, it’s easy to see how Emma could turn out to be the way she is, become who she is.

“I’ve been unpardonably vain and insufferably arrogant,” she says at one point, after thoughtlessly wounding someone with a careless comment. Love can hurt, and the carriage ride to romance can be bumpy, leaving you shivering alone in the winter snow or slobbering in the summer sun with a bloody nose. Even good-intentioned matchmaking can sometimes make a real mess of things.

But it all works out—and gets sorted out, with laughter as well as tears—in the end. It has for years, across time and through all the other versions of Jane Austen’s well-worn tale, and it does once again in this delightfully snazzy, dizzily entertaining, snappy-looking period-piece rom-com.

Guns, Gangs & Ganja

Director Guy Ritchie returns with salty, swaggering British-bad-boys comedy crime caper

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Matthew McConaughey & Michelle Dockery star in ‘The Gentlemen.’

The Gentlemen
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery & Colin Farrell
Directed by Guy Ritchie
R
In theaters Jan. 24, 2020

Movie lovers who love gangster flicks will love this British-bad-boys action comedy caper from director Guy Ritchie, returning to the hyper-stylized, street-tough London criminal underworld that kicked off his movie career in Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000).

That was before Ritchie went on to direct such mainstream, family-friendly films as Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and last year’s live-action Disney reboot of Aladdin. He seems to be having a terrific time back on his old stomping grounds, stirring up a salty, swaggering tale of vice and villainy, predators and prey and the fine, shifting lines between gentlemen and gangstas, the thin membrane separating thugs and entrepreneurs.

And he’s working with an all-star cast that certainly looks like they’re having a ball, too. The need for weed drives the story, as a group of characters coalesce around suave Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an American expat who planted the seeds for what would become his eventual marijuana empire when he was a college student at Oxford. Hugh Grant is Fletcher, a private-eye snoop trying to expose Pearson and his illegal operation for the editor of a sleazy tabloid (Eddie Marsan). An aggressively ambitious young enforcer (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians) for a Chinese drug lord, and a Jewish-American billionaire businessman (Succession’s Jeremy Strong), are competing—and maybe even conspiring—to buy him out.

You’ll probably recognize Charlie Hunnam from TV’s Sons of Anarchy (he also starred in Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword). He gets a lot of screen time as Pearson’s right-hand-man, Raymond, because much of the story unfolds as a “dialogue” between Fletcher and Raymond as the tabloid flack pitches his entire story on the marijuana mogul, framing it as a possible movie—with flashbacks, subtitles, rewinds and suggestions on how it might end.

Michelle Dockery busts out of her buttoned-up, Downton Abbey period-piece properness to play Pearson’s wife, Rosalind, “the Cockney Cleopatra to Mickey’s cowboy Caesar,” as Fletcher puts it. She’s as sharp as her stiletto heels—and just watch how she can turn a desktop “paperweight” into a lethal weapon.

Gentleman 1 (72)

Henry Golding, Charlie Hunnam, McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Dockery & Hugh Grant

And Colin Farrell rips things into a completely new comedic gear as a dapper, fashion-plate bulldog of a boxing coach who enters Pearson’s orbit to pay off a debt incurred by some of his unruly gym students. And psssst: Don’t ever try to pull a knife on him!

There’s a swirl of menacing Russian oligarchs, slum junkies, street gangs, sexy car mechanics and fight-porn rappers. There are bullets, blood spatters, big guns, little guns and bestiality blackmail (don’t worry, you don’t see it). If you haven’t already figured it out, this movie’s not for kids.

But it’s actually a lot of fun. Ritchie, who also wrote the screenplay, is clearly working in his element and back in his groove, back in “the filth and the grime and the grub in the tub,” as Raymond notes, setting up one particularly grimy, grubby scene that ends up having all the touchstones of a classic Guy Ritchie flick—terse, loaded conversation, explosive action, dark humor, a ripping street chase and gunfire.

The dialogue zings, the action pops; it’s zany and stylish and quick-witted, and often brazenly, gleefully profane and audaciously off-color. If you take out all the, ahem, c-words—which British slang employs quite broadly as terms of disparagement—the movie would probably be about 45 minutes shorter.

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Farrell and Hunnam take a look in the trunk.

And it’s sorta Tarentino-esque, especially in the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, the flashbacks and the cinephile-like salutes to other movies, including a nod to the trunk-POV scenes from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, mentions of Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather (and his 1974 conspiracy thriller, The Conversation), and even a passing shot of the movie poster of Ritchie’s own The Man From U.N.C.L.E. This is another movie for people who love movies—especially a certain kind of movie.

And this is that kind of movie, a gritty, gonzo gangster-flick parable about alpha dogs, lions, silverback gorillas and law of the jungle on the mean streets of London, where it’s high times for lowlifes, and “gentlemen” can be a relative term.

Based on how The Gentlemen wraps up, looks like a sequel might be possible. Count me in. I wouldn’t want to live there, but Guy Ritchie’s riotously raw ganja-gangland fantasy world sure is a great-escape movie getaway.

Bad Boys to Men

Will Smith & Martin Lawrence reunite and reignite buddy-cop action franchise 

Martin Lawrence, Will Smith,

Bad Boys for Life
Starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence

Directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilali Fallah
R
In theaters Jan. 17, 2020

Will Smith, you’re making us feel old.

First, in last year’s Gemini Man, his previous movie, he confronted a younger version of himself, a clone who outruns him, outguns him, outthinks him and generally reminds him just how many less miles than him he’s got on the odometer.

Now, in this sequel to a sequel—for which Smith also serves as one of the producers—the specter of advancing years again comes into play.

The Fresh Prince, after all, is now 51 years old.

In Bad Boys for Life, which comes 25 years after the original Bad Boys (1995) and 17 years after its follow-up, Bad Boys II, Smith reteams with Martin Lawrence as an inseparable Miami buddy-cop duo whose glory days—as well as their teamwork—may finally be at an end. Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is a new grandfather, counting the days to his retirement with his family. Lone-wolf Mike Lowrey (Smith) has been reassigned to a new high-tech AMMO division, a “young guns” group of millennials with whom he has little in common.

Over drinks celebrating his imminent retirement, Burnett asks Lowrey why he doesn’t think about settling down, falling in love and getting out of police work. “Mike, we’ve got more time behind us than in front,” Burnett says.

But settling down, falling in love and getting out of police work wouldn’t make for much of a movie, would it?

What would make for a movie is a ruthless young Mexican cartel mob boss (Jacob Scipio) suddenly springing into action with a bloody revenge plan that leads back to something Lowrey did years ago. Frenetic car chases, a sniper who never seems to miss, a south-of-the-border sorceress, a long-ago secret, and enough ballistic, bombastic boom-boom to shake the salt off your popcorn—now that makes a movie. Just let yourself go and let the bullets flow.

Photographer Select, Will Smith,

At least it makes this movie, a high-spirited, action-packed blowout reunion that plays to the comedic strengths of its two marquee stars while giving them plenty of room to roam, lots of things to blast or blow up and a flowing stream of bickering-buddy humor. Michael Bay, the big-budget, blockbuster director (Armageddon, the Transformers series) who steered the first two Bad Boys flicks, did not return for this one, and Belgian filmmaking collaborators Adil El Arbi and Bilali Fallah try hard to please.

But their technique often feels all over the place; they love both super slo-mo and frenetic, high-speed time-lapses. The story unfolds in a herky-jerky mix of melodrama and mirth; it’s a movie melding sitcom silliness, overwrought Spanish telenovela excess and prime-time TV-procedural connect-the-dots. And the way the camera never seems to stop moving, even in extreme closeups, made me feel like I was always free-floating through every scene, like a teeny observer in a miniature Bad Boys hot-air balloon.

Charles Melton, Photographer Select, Vanessa Hudgens, Will Smith,

Smith with Charles Melton & Vanessa Hudgens

Veteran actor Joe Pantoliano reprises his role from previous Bad Boys as harried Capt. Howard, and younger audiences will enjoy seeing a couple of familiar faces (Vanessa Hudgens, and Charles Melton, who stars as Reggie on TV’s Riverdale) in the mix. Hulking Alexander Ludwing, from Vikings, seems to have fun, playing a decidedly non-Viking role as a mild-mannered hacker.

Let’s be real, though. Nothing else really matters about this movie other than the comeback of its two stars—who, in their two previous Bad Boys pairings, helped push its franchise past the $400-million mark. Smith, once one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, and Lawrence, a standup comedian who—like Smith—successfully made the leap to TV and then movies, have undeniable chemistry and for-real movie mojo. Their banter is loose, lively and juicy with quippy, R-rated digs, disses and jive that audiences will love.

Everything tends to loosen when they’re apart, but it tightens and brightens whenever they’re together, especially when they’re roaring down streets, careening around curves or ripping up the asphalt in Lowrey’s 992-Generation Porshe, a motorcycle and sidecar or any other vehicle that’s handy. One particularly funny conversation happens in an airplane.

Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Photographer Select,And this movie has heart, especially as Lowrey and Burnett reaffirm their bond of Bad Boys brotherhood, the movie’s larger theme of family expands to something wider than you might at first imagine, and Burnett grapples—in a way that’s ultimately played for laughs—with a spiritual issue.

“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” That’s the tag to the song by the Jamaican reggae band Inner Circle, which became the theme to the movie franchise. You’ll hear it several times in this film.

And you’ll probably hear it in the next movie, Bad Boys 4, currently in the planning stages.

The “boys” of Bad Boys may be full-grown men now, but whatcha gonna do? You’re gonna want to see what high-octane hijinks Smith and Lawrence are up to this time, and probably the next time, too.

Cosmetic Comedy

Tiffany Haddish & Rose Bryne find the funny in off-color makeup romp

LIKE A BOSS

Like a Boss 
Starring Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne & Salma Hayek
Directed by Miguel Artela
R
In theaters Jan. 10, 2020

Two lifelong-bestie business partners find their friendship as well as their enterprise tested in the ribald and rollicking chick-flick comedy Like a Boss.

Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne star as Mia and Mel, two friends since kindergarten who’ve grown up to take their love of makeup from a hobby to a business. But now their storefront cosmetics shop is in major financial trouble, almost half a million dollars in the hole. Good thing a local beauty mogul, Claire Luna (Salma Hayek), wants to come to their rescue, pay off their debt and buy controlling interest in their company, right?

Hold on to your eyeliner—not so fast.

Not so fast, because this movie has to get where it’s going—and it has to touch all the bases, including stopovers for scenes of sisterhood solidarity; a steady, raunchy river of R-rated zingers; a cast of buffoonish supporting characters; and comedic interludes about an infant child inhaling smoke from a doobie, men being repeatedly stuck in their privates and a product inspired by copulating dogs.

That’s not to say it’s not sometimes very funny. Haddish is a live wire who’s quickly proving there’s almost nothing she can’t do—TV spots for Groupon, yukkin’ it up with youngsters hosting ABC’s Kids Say the Darndest Things, spewing raw hilarity on her Netflix comedy specials, and commanding just about whatever role she gets whenever she steps in front of a movie camera.

And Byrne, the Aussie actress from Bridesmaids, Spy and Neighbors, is more refined, but just as valuable in finding the funny. Often seen in second-banana roles, it’s great to watch her here, playing a character who gets to expand beyond the sidelines.

Director Miguel Artela is no slouch. His filmmaking resume dates back to the 1990s, and includes The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day and Cedar Rapids, an underrated 2011 gem starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver. Like a Boss has a certain sass, spark and spunky, feisty, grrrl-power vibe, but never quite rises out of a predictable, formulaic comedy zone and feels like it might have been written with the broad strokes of a mascara brush and highlighted in lipstick.

LIKE A BOSS

Billy Porter

It’s definitely meant for a girls’-night-out kind of audience; the testosterone content can be measured by the teaspoon. Broadway performer/singer/actor Billy Porter (from TV’s Pose and American Horror Story) hams it up as Mel and Mia’s gay assistant; Jimmy O. Yang (from Silicon Valley) and Ryan Hansen (he was Dick Casablancas on Veronica Mars, and Andy on 2 Broke Girls) play a duo of snarky cosmetics developers also hoping for Claire Luna’s sponsorship.

LIKE A BOSS

Salma Hayek

Hayek, the Mexican-American actress who became known in Hollywood in such movies as From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado and Frida (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), plays Luna as a walking, talking cartoon, a florescent gust of orange hair, gravity-defying breasts and blindingly white teeth.

Brandishing a golden golf club as a further power affectation, she tells Mia and Mel that they need to be “fiercst,” adding a “t” sound to the word in a nonsensical mangling that becomes a running joke.

Will Haddish’s Mia, who wants to earn some big bucks and live large, get the big payoff? Will Byrne’s Mel, who has for years so carefully watched the company’s bottom line, figure out a way to still come out on top? Will that bunch of hot peppers Mia accidentally eats become a barf bit—and then a diarrhea gag? Is there a surprise appearance by an instantly recognizable actress from an iconic ’90s sitcom? Will a rockin’ version of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” bring it all home?

No spoilers from me.

Like a Boss isn’t great, and sometimes isn’t even very good, but like a lot of movies in January, it suffers by comparison—to all the big, Oscar-bait films that just got unloaded into theaters in November and December. It’s like when Mel and Mia tell Claire that she doesn’t have to “worry her pretty little head” about them, and Claire replies, “Oh, my head isn’t little—it’s just that my breasts are humongous.” It’s all in the comparison, and the proximity. This little cosmetics comedy caper is no Little Women, no Bombshell, and it certainly won’t end up on anyone’s awards list for this year.

But if you and your girlfriends want some straight-up, grownup laughs with a couple of “badass babes” who get “fiercst” with a makeup-mogul takeover queen, Like a Boss can add some (off) color to your winter blues.

The Great War (Movie)

Gripping WWI drama is also a masterwork of moviemaking

Film Title: 1917

1917
Starring George MacKay & Dean-Charles Chapman
Directed by Sam Mendes
R
In theaters Dec. 25, 2019

Sure, you’ve seen war movies. But you’ve never seen one like this.

Director Sam Mendes’ astonishingly immersive World War I drama, set in one 24-hour period, is filmed in what appears to be a “single shot” as the camera follows a pair of young soldiers on a perilous mission across enemy lines.

It’s much more than a gimmick—it’s epic, grandiose, spectacular filmmaking, which matches the story it’s telling: The two British lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, who played young king Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay) are dispatched by their general to deliver a message to warn unsuspecting front-line battalions about a German ambush set for the next day. It’s practically a suicide mission—lone soldiers sent across territory occupied by the German army. But if Blake and Schofield fail, some 1,600 troops will walk into a massacre.

And Blake’s big brother will be one of them.

Film Title: 1917

The camera technique of following the doughboys makes you feel like you’re also along on their sometimes absolutely harrowing odyssey as they make their way across muddy battlefields, strewn with corpses of horses, buzzing with flies; crawling across bloated bodies of fallen soldiers; barely escaping with their lives from a booby-trapped German bunker; or dodging the crash-landing of a German Fokker, coming down in flames and headed right for them.

They never know what they’re going to find, or what’s going to find them, or even if they’re going to make it. And neither do we.

The single-shot technique is a marvel of craft, timing, coordination, prep and moviemaking (even though there are obviously a couple of editing “splices,” especially since a period of one day, then a night, then another day elapses in the space of a two-hour film). But it’s a jaw-dropping wonder to behold, and it absolutely hammers home the horrors, the terrors and the details—from maze-like, fortified foxholes to uniforms that appear totell their own battle-weary tale in their very threads and tatters—of what its characters go through. This is a war movie, yes, but also a gripping human drama, a bracing history lesson, a bruising survival saga and a blowout adventure yarn, and its production pedigree is impeccable. Mendes won an Oscar, for American Beauty, and directed two ripping James Bond movies, Spectre and Skyfall. Director of photography Roger Deakins is probably the best in the business. And Thomas Newman, who composed the original music, has been honored with 14 previous Oscar nominations, including his work on the soundtracks for Saving Mr. Banks, WALL-E, Finding Nemo and The Shawshank Redemption. In 1917, they gave out medals; for 1917, I predict Hollywood will be doling out other kinds of recognition, to honor this movie that dazzles on several fronts.

Film Title: 1917

Colin Firth

Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong have small roles. But the movie belongs to its two young stars, especially MacKay in his breakout leading part, who shows the spectrum of raw emotion—including the wrenching beauty of selfless compassion—that the theater of war can produce, as well as the terrible toll it can extract.

As Schofield and Blake banter, one of the things that comes up is Christmas, and hopes of getting home in time for the holiday. It’s a theme that connects many a wartime film. Some 40 million people never made it home for Christmas—or anything else—from the so-called Great War, and 1917 masterfully reminds us of how something that happened so long ago can, and should, still hit so crushingly, achingly, painfully, movingly close to home.