Movie Review ~ Persuasion (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Living with her snobby family on the brink of bankruptcy, Anne Elliot is an unconforming woman with modern sensibilities. When Frederick Wentworth—the dashing one she let get away—crashes back into her life, Anne must choose between putting the past behind her or listening to her heart regarding second chances.
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Henry Golding, Cosmo Jarvis, Richard E. Grant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ben Bailey Smith, Izuka Hoyle, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Nia Towle
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Rated: PG
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Over the past fifty years, many a Masterpiece Theater and BBC television event has thrived using the works of Jane Austen. There’s barely a page from Austen’s bibliography that hasn’t been unturned, often more than once, and you’ll find heated debates over those favoring one Mansfield Park adaptation over another. Then you have the feature film versions and their occasional attempts at clever modern updates, mainly of the Austen Big Three: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense & Sensibility,” and “Emma.”  How these three films have influenced the plots and characters of countless other movies, plays, and TV shows only proves how lasting (and sound) a literary structure Austen created. 

The one novel that seems to fly under the radar, at least until recently, has been “Persuasion.” While it has passed through the requisite mediums over time (a spirited 1995 telling was directed by the late Roger Michell), it’s debuting on Netflix as a period-set, but winkingly contemporary, take on Austen’s romantic tale. Given a new sheen by actress/writer Alice Victoria Winslow and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ron Bass, Persuasion quickly gets its hooks into its audiences and keeps them there for the duration. Building off of solid performances and amplifying (read: tweaking) Austen’s witty dialogue for present-day crowds, it might not be the novel as Jane wrote it, but it’s novel fun all the same.

Led by Dakota Johnson, a casting announcement that drew the same amount of warbling as her role in Fifty Shades of Grey, our first look at the actress is in the arms of Cosmo Jarvis (The Shadow of Violence) on a windswept field. She’s sad, he’s sad (the single tear that falls from his eye will have anyone with a pulse feel it quicken), and we learn through her narration that she’s been forced to give him up due to his lack of rank and prospects. The middle child of a prosperous widower (a hysterically vain Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), she’s by far the most sensible but least attended to of her siblings. The eldest (Yolanda Kettle) is the father’s close confidant, can’t land a husband, and places the blame on everything she looks down her nose at, while the youngest (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is a self-absorbed mother of three who sees her children as the ultimate burden that ails her. 

Without a husband or the company of her father, Anne (Johnson) is often left to do family obligations the others prefer to shirk. That’s how Anne winds up visiting her younger sister when her sibling takes ill at the same time her father and other sister are moving out of their plush estate after losing most of their fortune. Though occasionally cheered by Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird, The Outfit), who also provides the latest gossip, Anne’s greatest company is a bottle of red wine and her pet bunny. Much of that changes once Wentworth (Jarvis) returns to the picture. Now a high-ranking officer in the fleet, rich, and about to see further improvements in both departments, Wentworth is back by chance as if fate brought them back together. Has he not married after all this time because he still loves Anne? Or does he have eyes for another? And what about Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians), a cousin and heir to Anne’s family fortune? Would he be an ideal match for Anne, or is he just protecting his investment? 

As with every Austen plot, each character introduced is given a clear backstory with little fuss or fanfare. Minor characters occasionally appear as Anne travels from the city to the country and other towns. However, they come off with a significant presence because they’ve been creatively presented or remarked upon before meeting them. That’s the difference between this and the Austen-imitators like Mr. Malcolm’s List. Respectable efforts but missing those Austen touches that genuinely bring characters to life. Then you have the talented character actors like Grant hamming it up with glee and making it that much more fun. Yes, much of the comedy from McKenna-Bruce is there on the page, but it wouldn’t be half as riotously amusing if she’d played it even a hair differently. 

It’s coming into a clear focus that Johnson is an actress that’s a force to be reckoned with. While she’s not tackling characters on the polar ends of spectrums as she moves from film to film, she’s laser-ing in on different variations of strong-minded women who aren’t afraid to stand out in the crowd. (See Cha-Cha Real Smooth for another recent example.) She’s perfect for the roster of Austen heroines and has the kind of chemistry with Jarvis that you want to see (and feel) in your swoony romances. Jarvis isn’t what you’d think of when you hear leading man, but neither was Colin Firth, and look where his performance in that lengthy television Pride & Prejudice got him. He approaches the role with a charming gait and manner of speaking; it’s unusual but nonetheless memorable. And, as I said, the tear.

Director Carrie Cracknell knows her way around a costume drama, having come from the world of British theater. For her first feature film, she’s assembled a great team. Cinematographer Joe Anderson (The Old Man & The Gun) is known for smaller, more personal endeavors but can also capture incredibly gorgeous vistas by the sea. Costume designer Marianne Agertoft’s wonderfully designed attire is on the nose but just so. The score and editing help shape Persuasion into an easy and entertaining sit, landing on a beautiful ending in true Austen style.

Movie Review ~ Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A seemingly ordinary British housekeeper whose dream to own a couture Christian Dior gown takes her on an extraordinary adventure to Paris.
Stars: Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs, Anna Chancellor, Lambert Wilson, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Rose Williams
Director: Anthony Fabian
Rated: PG
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: I’m a person that regrettably tends to get those dreadful summer colds, and they often can lay me out for a week or more. Knock on wood, it’s nearly mid-July, and I’ve avoided any major maladies, but there is a faux ailment I do feel as if I may be coming down with: Blockbuster-itis.  While not officially recognized, this has been known to affect all age groups and target those who frequent the theaters for the latest and greatest in popular entertainment. The trick to being dragged down into the depths of this disease is finding a remedy fast. Nothing cures fussy franchise delirium better than a slam-dunk audience pleaser & the delightful Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is the medicine I needed.

Based on the first of four books by American Paul Gallico (who also wrote the novel on which The Poseidon Adventure was based), Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris has found life before in film. First seen as a 1958 TV special, the year the book arrived on shelves, it was followed years later by a German film, I vaguely recall the 1992 TV movie headlined by Angela Lansbury, and now, thirty years later, a sumptuous feature film starring the terrific Lesley Manville. As the titular character, Manville (an Oscar nominee for 2017’s Phantom Thread) steps into a leading role with a calm charm laced with elegance that gives the hard-working cleaning lady a true heart of gold.

As the film opens, Ada Harris has finally received confirmation her husband, an airman believed lost in battle, did indeed meet his end. After years of hoping for his return, reality sets in, but life continues. She’s right back to cleaning homes for clients that don’t notice her (Christian McKay, Rush, with an endless parade of ‘nieces’), rely too much on her (Rose Williams, as an actress always late for an audition), or never seems to have her pay ready (Anna Chancellor, How I Live Now, playing a socialite with no social skills).

One day, she’s at the society lady’s flat and sees the most beautiful gown she’s ever laid eyes on…a Christian Dior frock from Paris. For 500£, she too could have a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Now, with a goal in mind, Mrs. Harris begins to save her earnings here and there and, through a series of lucky happenstance, finds herself in the City of Lights and the Dior showroom. Where she goes from there and how she gets tangled up with fussy Dior executive Claudine (Isabelle Huppert, Greta, refreshing to see in a comedy), a handsome Marquis (Lambert Wilson), and the affairs of two young residents within the House of Dior (Lucas Bravo and Alba Baptista), are for you to discover.

Director Anthony Fabian knew where to spend the production budget and doesn’t skimp on the good stuff. The classic Dior costumes that drift across the showroom floor (and our screen) are works of art and wearable, not the complicated creations meant for galleries they are today. Three-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan (a winner this year for Cruella) pulled looks and recreates these gasp-inducing styles for the film, and they are nearly worth the price of admission. The outdoor production design can be slightly askew with too much reliance on CGI, but in a way that also adds to the overall feeling that this is one big dream.

So sweetly charming only a curmudgeon would hate it, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is one of those ‘just-so’ movies with barely a hair out of place. It’s got a gossamer sheen to everything that dials each visual up several notches, elevating the fantasy aspect of the tale. This glow makes it a pleasure to watch and easier to overlook some historical anomalies, like Ada telling Claudine, “You go, girl.” (in 1957? I don’t think so.). Then there are the tweaks to culture and casting to be more inclusive, though that cultural change wouldn’t be in place quite yet. Little quips aside, it’s a divinely decadent treat to encounter, and even if it weren’t such a visual feast, it would have survived on the energy put forth by Manville’s performance alone. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, and you should see her adventure in your local movie theater.

Movie Review ~ Gone in the Night (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Kath and her boyfriend arrive at a remote cabin in the redwoods, they find a mysterious younger couple already there. After her boyfriend disappears with the young woman Kath becomes obsessed with finding an explanation.
Stars: Winona Ryder, John Gallagher Jr., Owen Teague, Brianne Tju, Dermot Mulroney
Director: Eli Horowitz
Rated: R
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: First and foremost, let’s acknowledge that Gone in the Night (called The Cow when it premiered back in March at SXSW) welcomes back Oscar-nominated actress Winona Ryder to the kind of acting work we’ve wanted to see her in for a while. Taking on the occasional supporting film role while finding success in television through Stranger Things, her performance in Eli Horowitz’s mystery is bound to go down well with fans both past and current. It’s Ryder (Beetlejuice) at her most present best, bringing a somewhat wispy character toward a fuller existence solely through her performance. For 90 fast-moving minutes, a capable crew of filmmakers offers viewers a curious puzzle of a mystery and an enjoyable one at that.

Ryder plays Kath, a woman in her late ‘40s dating the younger Max (John Gallagher, Jr., Underwater), with whom she shares little interest. Still, she’s surprised when he vanishes on their weekend away with a woman they met on their first night at a double-booked Airbnb in the woods. The more she thinks about the slight, the more upset she gets and believes she is owed an answer. She should be careful what she asks for. Tracking down the owner of the Airbnb (Dermot Mulroney, August: Osage County) leads her down a path that reveals clues to the strange couple she met once and where her ex may have run off to…if he ever truly left in the first place.

Horowitz has fun with timelines and our perception of the situations we see, allowing Ryder and the other cast (Unhuman’s Brianne Tju is another stellar standout as one half of the creepy couple along with Montana Story‘s Owen Teague) to squirm in a series of uncomfortable scenes. Horowitz naturally shows a knack for these time hops and bringing overlapping lives together; he was one of the writers for Homecoming. Starting as a paranoid podcast, it became an Amazon series starring Julia Roberts in Season 1 and Janelle Monáe in Season 2. The show never got off the ground as much as it should, but it wasn’t for lack of intriguing set-ups. Horowitz brings that same impossible-to-resist urge to know more to Gone in the Night. Even if you figure out what’s happening or feel the final third doesn’t rise to the same heights as what comes before, Ryder’s performance keeps pulling you back in.

Back in March, I was pleased to report that Gone in The Night (a title so bland it can only aspire to be cardboard flavored), one of the films I was most interested in seeing at SXSW, wasn’t a disappointment. Though it was a different movie than I expected, it made the watch much more interesting to sit through. Now that I’ve seen it again, I feel it stands up nicely on a repeat viewing. Don’t let anyone spoil this one for you but trust me when I say that if you’re a Ryder ride or die…this will give you big-time happiness.

Movie Review ~ Don’t Make Me Go

The Facts:

Synopsis: After learning he has a fatal brain tumor, a single father takes his teenage daughter on a road trip to find the mother who abandoned her years before and teaches her everything she might need over the rest of her life.
Stars: John Cho, Mia Isaac, Mitchell Hope, Jemaine Clement, Stefania LaVie Owen, Kaya Scodelario
Director: Hannah Marks
Rated: R
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Make sure to go and read that synopsis for Don’t Make Me Go again before approaching this road trip dramedy because you’ll want to ensure your seat belt is securely fastened and you have enough gas in your tank before you begin.  I say that not to deter you from going on this journey and in no way meaning to spoil anything that happens along the way but to do a solid pulse check.  Emotions are at play in this film premiering on Amazon Prime, and feeling your feels is what will happen whether you like it or not.  To deny the movie targets your tear ducts when it reaches a critical juncture is forgetting where it began.

You’re not going to like how this story ends.

Spoken by Wally (Mia Isaac), the teenage narrator, as the film opens, screenwriter Vera Herbert draws a line in the sand early with this declaration.  It’s not easy to walk back the statement or the sentiment contained within, not that anyone makes that effort.  Living with her single dad Max (John Cho), and attempting to make it through her formative high school years with her sanity intact, she faces the usual Gen Z problems.  Liking a boy (Otis Dhanji, Aquaman) who hasn’t yet figured out how to make love the center of his world is frustrating, and Max won’t give her the driving lessons she needs to feel as independent as her friends.

When Max’s headaches are diagnosed as a tricky brain tumor turned into bone cancer, he faces a dilemma.  Undergo a risky surgery with a 20% survival rate or take the time he has left to fit in an express course of life lessons with his daughter, reuniting her with the mother (Jen Van Epps, No Exit) that abandoned them years earlier.  A cross-country college reunion provides the perfect excuse to get away. Without Max telling his child of his diagnosis or ultimate intentions, the two set off on a trek that empowers both to reconnect.  As they travel, Max teaches his daughter how to drive, and Wally gives Max the time he needs to live life to, well, the max.  Of course, they also get sidelined at a nude beach (prepare for an eyeful), a traffic incident, and two very different types of reunions.

Cho has been an actor that started in silly teen comedies such as American Pie and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle before graduating to more sophisticated blockbuster efforts like Star Trek and the update of Total Recall.  While the track record hasn’t been all roses (oh boy, was that reboot of The Grudge in 2020 awful!), he does have a knack for turning up in films that are easy to recommend.  In 2018’s Searching, he played another dad that didn’t connect with his daughter until it was too late, but in Don’t Make Me Go, he has a significant arc and more than just Isaac off of which to work.  I wasn’t sure at first how much we needed Kaya Scodelario (Crawl) as his occasional bedfellow, but the purpose fixes into a point as the trip progresses.

July is set to be a good month for relative newcomer Isaac.  First, she has this release, and a few weeks later comes Not Okay, a dark comedy premiering on Hulu I can’t say much about yet.  I can say that between both of these movies, Isaac’s star is most definitely going to rise quickly in Hollywood.  Wally is a role that requires tricky climbing of emotional peaks, many of which come at unexpected places.  Director Hannah Marks (an actress appearing in Daniel Isn’t Real and Banana Split) helps Isaac and Cho navigate these potential hazardous points in Herbert’s script, especially Isaac, who has a lot of vulnerability in the latter half.

I can’t say much more about Don’t Let Me Go without ruining that final stretch.  It would be like walking up to Mount Rushmore for the first time and then me jumping up in front of you, holding a gigantic panoramic picture of the famous landmark.  My advice is also to steer clear of reviews that are doing just what I described, giving too much away when a lot of its importance hinges on the ending. Do yourself a favor and remember what Wally told you at the beginning, and you shouldn’t be too surprised.  Or, like me, you just might be.