Movie Review ~ See How They Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: When world-weary Inspector Stoppard and eager rookie Constable Stalker take on a case of murder in London’s West End, the two find themselves thrown into a puzzling whodunit within the glamorously sordid theater underground, investigating the mysterious homicide at their peril
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Director:  Tom George
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Never underestimate the power of a good puzzle. During the past two years, puzzle sales have increased dramatically, leveling off as more restrictions were lifted, and the world again gathered as groups. While we were all cooped up, there was fun to be had at the organization and completion of a tricky jigsaw. It certainly made the time fly by. I have a stack of puzzles in my closet that can attest to the popularity of this resurgent pastime. 

The same pull to find a solution to this game draws viewers into the mystery and thriller genre, which also was in declining output in recent years. This phenomenon is primarily due to the mid-range budgeting involved and fewer opportunities for studios to franchise future installments. It’s hard to sequel-ize a movie where the characters might not all make it to the final act. Then a film like Knives Out comes around along with streaming material like Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, and the genre feels revitalized. Before you know it remakes of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile are getting greenlit. Rather than blood, guts, and gore found in slasher films with an unknown killer, these more prestige releases represent the classic whodunit.

As audiences await the upcoming release of the third season of Hulu’s hit show and the upcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, 20th Century Studios’ See How They Run is sprinting to beat the rush, and the timing couldn’t be better. It’s a breath of fresh air, though it often plays like Only Knives Out in the Theater, just with less crisp creativity for twists in the plot. What you see is what you get in director Tom George’s period mystery that plays with real elements of history, but with a production that has a zest for the era and natty performances you want to see more of, it easily laps the lesser fare we’ve been just getting by on.

It’s 1953, and the hot ticket in London’s West End is Agatha Christie’s original play, The Mousetrap. As it celebrates its 100th performance, the film rights have recently been sold, and dodgy film director Leo Köpernick (Adrian Brody, Clean) has arrived from America to attend the festivities. While the reclusive authoress herself doesn’t make the party, plenty of the who’s who do, along with a killer that strikes before the night is over. 

The keen Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, Little Women) and the jaded Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell) are sent in to investigate. One brings an eagerness to solve the crime quickly, while the more seasoned detective knows not to trust everything you see. As they go down the list of suspects: a penny-pinching producer (Ruth Wilson, Saving Mr. Banks), a snooty screenwriter (David Oyelowo, The Water Man), and even the show’s star Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, Where the Crawdads Sing), they’ll find out there’s more to the murder (and the killer) that meets the eye. 

More than anything, See How They Run showcases Ronan’s ease doing droll comedy as the dutiful constable with a penchant for cringe-y one-liners. She makes a nice counterpart(ner) for Rockwell’s boozy Inspector. The two can efficiently work independently but strike the best chords playing off one another. A great cast is assembled in the ensemble, but it’s a shame Mark Chappell’s script doesn’t afford them more to do throughout. I was often left wondering why particular characters had greater pull than others. It helps to level the playing field as to who might be the next victim but when you have a company this game, let them play. If anything, See How They Run screams to be played out over several hour-long episodes instead of the brisk 98 minutes.

Due to the fact it is so straightforward, you may be tempted to concoct numerous solutions in your head before you get to the final reveal. I wouldn’t put too much time into working things out because the answer to the film’s riddle isn’t as complex as you think (hope?) it is. That doesn’t speak to lessen the quality of the film; it just goes to the plot’s inherent weakness for curveballs that could have been tweaked. It’s still marvelously witty at times and catty at others. I’d stroll to See How They Run in theaters if you’re dying for a drawing room-style murder mystery but do keep it high on your list to catch eventually. This talented team is too delicious to pass up.

Movie Review ~ Fresh

The Facts:

Synopsis: The horrors of modern dating seen through one young woman’s defiant battle to survive her new boyfriend’s unusual appetites.
Stars: Sebastian Stan, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Jojo T. Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon, Andrea Bang, Dayo Okeniyi
Director: Mimi Cave
Rated: R
Running Length: 114 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Right away, the woman should be wary of the man she meets at a 24-hour supermarket. Yes, he’s good-looking and charming as all get out, but no one is ever that excited about Cotton Candy grapes. To me, that would be a big reg flag, but Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is just relieved Steve (Sebastian Stan, I, Tonya) isn’t as creepy as the last dozen or so men she’s been swiping through on her dating app. This initial miscalculation is a costly error the audience is aware of because we’ve signed on to stream Fresh through Hulu, but unfortunately, it takes Noa much longer than that to wise up and see this plastic surgeon with the winning smile for what he truly is.

What is Steve? Well, I’m not sure I want to tell you that. It would most surely kill some of the thrills of Lauryn Kahn’s screenplay, which takes the pains of dating in this fast-paced tech-heavy climate and gives it a sinister twist. Directed by Mimi Cave, the opening thirty minutes of the movie goes through the familiar motions of a woman wading through a lousy date, relaying her hopelessness to her friend, and eventually finding the mysterious Mr. Right, who whisks her away for a weekend retreat. Borrowing a page out of Oscar nominee Drive My Car, the half-hour mark is also when the opening credits run. It’s no coincidence this is when the director finally cracks a frustrating mold of wry rom-com sameness and unleashes a creative edge.

It’s hard to tiptoe around Fresh’s second and third act details without spoiling the main twist but let’s say the weekend stay for Noa at Steve’s impressive complex gets extended for an indeterminate amount of time. Without any family to wonder at her whereabouts, it’s up to ride-or-die best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs, in an inspired performance) to pick up on the clues her bestie is in danger and follow digitized breadcrumbs to locate the wolf that has taken Noa back to his lair. Meanwhile, as Mollie searches, Noa and Steve have more time to get to know one another. Kahn’s script allows an intriguing mix of the interplay between two strong-willing individuals grappling for the upper hand.

If it had to be so long, I’m glad we spent our time with this small core of actors. Stan is better than he’s been in any of the Marvel movies and is allowed to explore a side with more gears, giving him opportunities to make shifts into more exciting areas of his acting. After her star-making showing in Hulu’s incredibly intimate Normal People, this type of dark material must have felt like a welcome change of pace for Edgar-Jones. She fronts the cast quite nicely and creates believable friendship history with Gibbs, not to mention chemistry at the outset with Stan. As mentioned before, Gibbs is the real find here, and you’ll be glad they have more to do as the film progresses.

Eventually, Cave can’t quite justify such a long run time, and Fresh gives way to repetition that can’t be saved by any amount of shocking violence or gore. A severe finale that may satisfy some feels like an elevated overcorrection rather than the earth-bound landing point toward which the otherwise intelligent script had been leading. It’s not exactly a first date kind of movie, but if you and your significant other enjoy something that’s a little on the wild side aiming for achievement at a higher level, Fresh is pound for pound a steal of a deal.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Antlers

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: In an isolated Oregon town, a high school teacher and her police officer brother become convinced one of her students is harboring a deadly supernatural secret.

Stars: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan, Cody Davis

Director: Scott Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I have to admit that I’m still a little anxious when I get ready to head into a movie theater.  I’m all vaxxed up, masked, and ready for the theatrical experience but my heart beats a little faster when it’s time to venture in.  And I know what it’s like for others too who go through the same range of emotions after being used to watching their movies in the comfort of their own home for so long.  There’s a period of adjustment that’s needed before we can all feel like its natural to just head to the movies at the drop of a hat (or a mask, maybe).  The first few times I was back in the theater, I found it hard to relax and be comfortable but I’m getting there.

Understanding that is helpful at the start of my review for Antlers, especially when it comes right before I tell you that seeing this one in the theaters is well worth it.  I’d been looking forward to this Guillermo del Toro-produced horror film for nearly two years by the time I finally saw it and I’m so glad that Searchlight Pictures held it back from a streaming release until now.  That way, audiences can truly focus on the ambiance and environment created by director Scott Cooper and his crew, bringing viewers into an isolated community where a ancient legend lives and grows hungrier.

It probably helped that it was a dark and stormy afternoon that I saw the film because most of the movie takes place in a wet and rainy small town in Oregon which has suffered due to a local mining company closing and the opioid epidemic running rampant within the Northwestern communities.  As the film opens, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy Thomas) is waiting for his dad Frank (Scott Haze, Venom) and a buddy to finish clearing out their makeshift meth lab set-up in an old mineshaft.  The dark and dank locale is perfect for hiding their illegal operation and turns out, for an unseen creature to stalk them in the film’s first nerve jangling sequence of suspense.

Several weeks later, Lucas is in school but looks worse for wear but isn’t all that different from a number of the vacant eyed children that Julie Meadows (Keri Russell, Austenland) teaches.  A former townie that left because of deep-rooted family trouble, she’s living in her childhood home with a police officer brother (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) and a lot of bad memories she’d just as soon forget.  In line at the store, she glances at bottles of alcohol long enough for us to understand loud and clear that screenwriters C. Henry Chaisson and Nic Antosca (who wrote the original short story) want us to be sure to note that Julie has struggled with unhealthy coping mechanisms.  Back at school, recognizing signs of abuse in the boy’s drawings and behavior, Lucas catches Julie’s eye and makes the boy her mission in rescuing him from what she thinks is mistreatment. She’ll learn it is far more dangerous. Not before a whole bunch of people die, though.

I wouldn’t dream of spoiling how the second act of Antlers develops, only to say that even if it does dip slightly into some overtly conventional territory, it never sways from being completely entertaining.  Cooper (Out of the Furnace) excels at this type of small-town filmmaking and while the cast is made up of movie stars, they all seem to fit this Oregon lifestyle in unassuming ways.  While Russell and Plemons might not be the first choice to play siblings, they work well with one another and thank heavens there are no fussy romantic entanglements for either to get involved with that would slow things down.  Thomas is the star of the show, and the rest of the cast seems to understand that, allowing themselves to blend more into the background while he impresses front and center.  It’s a bear of a role to ask a child to play but, as we’ll come to see in several movies yet to release in 2021, the kids are coming to take over Hollywood.

It’s not easy to be consistent with a mood for any length of time, especially in horror films, but there’s this sense of dread that hangs over Antlers from the start that never lets up.  Beginning with the opening lines taken from the words of an indigenous First Nations myth to the tingly epilogue, Cooper might not wrangle every idea introduced down to be completely explained by the finale, but he at least makes the film interesting throughout.  You want a return on your investment of time and travel for going to the movies and you don’t always get it…Antlers sends you home fully vested.

Movie Review ~ The Night House

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Reeling from the unexpected death of her husband, a widow is left alone in the lakeside home he built for her and begins to uncover his disturbing secrets.

Stars: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Evan Jonigkeit, Stacy Martin

Director: David Bruckner

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  When it came time to review The Night House, I did something I rarely, if ever, do.  I watched it again.  We don’t always get this luxury as critics to just fire up a film once more on our own schedule but for this particular film I had it at my disposal and was interested enough after the first watch to give it another look.  This was partly due to my love for all things spooky, set in upstate New York, at/on a lake, and, like the titular dwelling, has more to it than you think at first glance.  And it shouldn’t have come as a great surprise anyway, because it stars Rebecca Hall from The Awakening, one of the best ghost stories of the last decade and it’s directed by David Bruckner who took audiences to The Ritual, a creepy forest-set nightmare that viewers continue to discover on Netflix.

We meet the house before we meet Beth.  It’s a modern designed feast for the eyes, not overly flashy but not exactly modest either.  Hand built and designed by her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit, Together Together) and overlooking a serene lake, it was meant to be their dream home…and was until he committed suicide shortly before the film begins.  A teacher, Beth (Hall, Holmes & Watson) is adjusting to her new normal, but not easily.  It doesn’t help that she is awoken at night by strange noises and has picked up Owen’s old habit for sleepwalking, either.  Her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg, The Dark Knight Rises) is encouraging and tries to be hands-off in Beth’s healing process but isn’t above saying the wrong thing by mistake and feeling guilty about it after. 

Muddy footprints leading from a moored boat on their dock to the house are the first physical sign to Beth that something supernatural may be visiting her and the previous hardcore skeptic begins to doubt herself the more the signs point to a realized presence.  A chance glance through Owen’s phone lands on a picture of herself that she doesn’t recognize…because it’s not her.  This discovery opens Beth up to finding out more about Owen, and herself, than she could have ever imagined…increasing the intensity of the night terrors she is encountering and ramping up the danger closing in on her.

This is a well-constructed film built from solid material and I think the second watch of mine only confirmed that.  While getting nitpicky could have you asking where Beth’s relatives or extended family are during this significant life crisis or if she has any other friends that would be stopping by aside from Claire, the intimacy of the small cast make the action that happens within the running time that much more tense.  “Everyone’s got secrets.” says Claire to Beth after she shows her the picture of the woman (Stacy Martin, Archive) on Owen’s phone and often during the film you aren’t sure who is holding something back…making it hard to trust anyone.

The entirety of The Night House hinges on Hall’s ability to carry a woman already teetering on the brink of darkness through this trial of faith in her lost loved one.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Hall’s rounded performance is spot-on and, while often making the less-obvious choice, is consistently giving some kind of energy back out into the space she inhabits.  The same goes for Goldberg who takes the best friend role to a more complex place than I’ve ever seen it.  We’ve all been in a place where we struggle to express our true feelings to a friend and often that wears on us, coming out in strange ways.  Goldberg harnesses this range so believably and with such naturalism that I think I would have been as interested in a movie just about the two women taking a road trip together. Completing a triumvirate of strong female performances is Martin’s skittish other woman. I’m not all together sure that Martin is destined for lasting greatness in this biz but she’s wonderfully cast her, especially against Hall’s disbelieving wife with shell-shocked eyes.  

What makes The Night House so ultimately rewarding is the resolution and what kind of message its sending, but to go into those details I’d have to drop a spoiler or two, so we’ll hold back for now.  Just know that while the finale starts to descend into your typical scare fest (and the movie is often quite scary throughout), the true meaning of it all is contained in a picture that’s far bigger than you think.  When it’s revealed, for once it isn’t a letdown but a surprisingly touching bit of harmony between mind and spirit – and how often does that occur in genre films such as this?

Movie Review ~ Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: During the same summer as Woodstock, over 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, celebrating African American music and culture, and promoting Black pride and unity. The footage from the festival sat in a basement, unseen for over 50 years, keeping this incredible event in America’s history lost—until now.

Stars: Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, Tony Lawrence, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Abbey Lincoln, Mavis Staples, Moms Mabley, Mahalia Jackson, David Ruffin, Sly Stone, Hugh Masekela, John V. Lindsay, Max Roach, Ray Barretto, Herbie Mann, Mongo Santamaria

Director: Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson)

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I wouldn’t normally say this, but the time it’s taking you to read this review is time you are wasting that could be watching Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a fantastic new documentary from Hulu, Onyx Collective and Searchlight Pictures.  If you’ve already seen the documentary, welcome.  If you haven’t, come back when you’re finished. 

OK…now that we’re all caught up…wasn’t that amazing?

I was a true lunatic and didn’t think I would be as enthralled with director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s filmmaking debut, a documentary on The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 that took place in Mount Morris Park.  While Woodstock wound up getting most of the attention as the music festival of that summer and though a man landed on the moon during while the world watched, the amount of legendary talent that found its way onto the stage over six weeks was simply unparalleled.  And, until now, it’s gone unseen.  In my mind, I was thinking Thompson’s film was going to be more a music documentary that focused on the festival itself, but he’s opened it up to be so very much more than that. 

Along with watching the footage from the concert that has been skillfully edited with interviews in the present with the people and performers that were there, audiences get a history lesson on Black culture and deeper insight into why this festival in Harlem was of such importance at the time.  This speaks not just to the time and tone of the happenings of that period of history, but it helps in our understanding of how unearthing it now for modern audiences to discover is that much more significant.  Cultural experts tie performers to history-making events or demonstrations, people from the crowd speak to what it was like seeing their favorite artist live in person, and several artists watch the footage and react live with their remembrances of their contributions to the festival.

Aside from the fact that the footage has been restored to crystalline glory and the sound is clear as a bell, the performances captured often represent these legends in either their peak prime or breakthrough best.  You have Stevie Wonder transitioning to a new and more adult kind of music, daring at the time but now instantly recognizable as his sound.  The Staples Singers appear, blowing the heavenly roof off the roofless space.  Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is there, sending the spirit out into the crowd.  David Ruffin, recently separated from The Temptations, crooning ‘My Girl’ as a solo act and still making it shine.  The Fifth Dimension, in gaudy costumes that former members Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo have no choice but to laugh at, appearing not just to represent their music but to prove something to themselves.  The striking Nina Simone gets an extended segment…and with good reason.  The list goes on…

Winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival bodes well for Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and you can bet that with it being widely available on Hulu its Oscar chances are high…and well deserved.  That it even exists is reason to celebrate and be grateful, hearing what happened to the film after all the footage was shot is frustrating but not unexpected considering the era in which it occurred.  It may have taken over fifty years for it to make its way to the public at large but the wait was absolutely worth it.  Essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in music.

Movie Review ~ Nomadland

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman in her sixties embarks on a journey through the Western United States after losing everything in the Great Recession, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes

Director: Chloé Zhao

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Remember back in the day when the daydream was to leave your job and most everything behind and just travel the country, if not the entire globe?  If money was no object, you could just take the time to explore the nooks and crannies of this great land and hopefully meet others along the way who were also up for adventure.  Sleeping under the stars, waking up in one state and going to sleep in another, the possibilities were endless.  That wasn’t your dream?  Well, for a time it was mine and I know I wasn’t the only person that wished for even a glimmer of a summer to see what that life on a road with no destination would be like.  Double that now after we’ve all been cooped up inside for close to a year with little in the way of travel.

Watching Nomadland was a bit of a surreal experience because Fern (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) is, in a way, following the guide I had laid out for myself…just under different circumstances.  Displaced from her home after she literally lost her zip code, the sixty-something widow didn’t have much to begin with but was making ends meet anyway.  Now, she lives out of her unheated camper van and is working a seasonal shift at an Amazon warehouse when she decides to hit the road in search of something…more.  What that is she doesn’t know but it’s out there somewhere and all she has is time to find it, she just has a few pit stops along the way.

That’s the basic premise of Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao’s adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 novel which uncovered the rising number of past middle-aged Americans who have eschewed the trivialities of living in a brick-and-mortar dwelling for something more flexible.  They travel the country in vans, campers, etc. working odd jobs to pay for their passage before moving on to the next location.  Life is constantly in flux and they like it that way because there’s beauty in that consistency of change.  Fern finds a group of kindred spirits after attending the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a two-week event in the Arizona desert that brings together like-minded nomads to share stories, tips, and trades.  Mostly, though, this is a solo journey with its own perils to encounter and deal with along the route.

Just as this nomadic life isn’t for everyone, I can see how the film may present some challenges to viewers as well.  In my household, the final verdict on the film was decidedly divided.  I found it to be a rewarding watch that fed into my introverted self, speaking to the type of solitary journey I’d like to take at some point in my life.  For my partner, Fern’s aloofness throughout the film and her tendency to keep others so far at a distance, even those closest to her, was hard to accept.  I actually think Fern’s restlessness is one of Nomadland’s greatest strengths because, in the end, only she knows when it’s time to pull over.  Without anything to tie her down, she has control over her life whereas the last few years she had little autonomy over what her choices were.  There’s inspiration to be had in watching that journey unfold for Fern and maybe even a tinge a jealousy for viewers that she can pack it all in if she wants and be gone.

Adding to the film’s ultra-realism is the symbiotic collaboration between McDormand and Zhao.  Zhao created this story out of the themes from Bruder’s source novel and McDormand’s character sprung to life from there.  That’s how Fern (or is it really Fran?) actually went to work these jobs and is acting alongside nonprofessional actors that often shine brighter than their two-time Oscar-winning co-star.  Many times these experiments in using “real” people can backfire significantly but Zhao has an eye like Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams in capturing the “true America” without it ever feeling like they are acting.  Most of the time, they are just playing themselves, like Fern’s bubbly co-worker Linda May or Nomadland‘s true lightning bolt standout, Swankie.  I was so taken with this side character that came out of nowhere, I’m not sure how much of it was built off of Zhao’s script but her showcase scene with McDormand is one of the highlights of the film.

If there are stretches where Nomadland runs a bit on fumes, it’s not surprising they’re the passages when Fern isn’t on the road.  A trip to her estranged family and a visit to a friend she’s met along the way (David Strathairn, The Devil Has a Name) that may have found his forever home are nicely played but have an itch to them that Fern (and McDormand) seems eager to scratch and be done with.  There’s a tension present that I’m sure Zhao intended but could have let the air out a bit more, if only to allow McDormand to be slightly more open to her fellow actors in these scenes.  She’s so tightly wound when she feels cornered that it can be uncomfortable to watch her work through her unease.

There’s just no other actress out there like McDormand, nor could I imagine this film being made without her.  The performance is as good as you’ve heard and as complicated as you might think, taking into consideration all the prep she had to do before, during, and after living and working in these conditions while also remembering that this is acting at the same time.  That’s the thing, though, it never quite seems like McDormand is “acting” and while the actress has disappeared into roles before (like her Oscar winning part in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) in Nomadland it feels like we’re watching Fran, not Fern, take this journey.  Some may find that hard to wrap their head around and call it “just playing herself” but I found it to be a fascinating study of both the character and the actress.  It almost seems like Fern is a parallel version of McDormand, with the two sharing a number of the same qualities but diverging in several key aspects.  No matter what, count on McDormand being a leading contender for her third Best Actress Oscar this year.

Releasing in theaters and on Hulu, Nomadland explores a different side of the American experience that we should be able to say is unfamiliar but has sadly become more commonplace the longer our economy devalues the middle and lower class.  Many of the nomads that were explored in the book and inspired the movie started their movement by choice, but a large number did it as a way to survive losing their homes and other possessions.  Through Zhao’s imagined narrative, McDormand’s performance brimming with unforced realism, and a colorful supporting cast of amateur actors, a strong message on the survival of the human spirit is delivered with regal beauty.

Movie Review ~ The Personal History of David Copperfield


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it.

Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Right about the time this pandemic hit and the country shut down, I was closing on a condo my partner and I were set to take our time painting and moving into with the help of our friends and family.  Now, this new social distancing term and all that went with it meant that our friends couldn’t help us move or be with us to paint so we were on our own.  To while away the hours slapping primer and two coats on the entire place, we decided to go all literary and listen to Jane Austen’s Emma because it was a rare Austen neither of us had read.  As a reward not just for toiling away in Behr Eggshell over the course of several weeks but for getting through the novel, we movie buffs thought it a good idea to make our way through the filmed versions of Emma before watching the 2020 version that arrived this year because, well, there couldn’t be that many to get through right?  Wrong. So wrong.

Watching the various versions of Austen’s tale come to life so soon after reading the book illustrated that there were different ways to breathe energy into a novel but that it’s all based on interpretation.  There was a four-and-a-half-hour version of Emma that in some ways moved faster than the 1996 much-loved Gwyneth Paltrow version.  You also can’t forget 1995’s Clueless which we all know was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s loosely inspired modernization of the classic.  It all goes to show that you can have your Austen fancy or you can have your Austen cool but when the characters are written so well to begin with no amount of fussing around with them is going to totally ruin the heart of the piece.

So, why all this talk about Emma in a discussion of a new view of Charles Dickens David Copperfield?  Well, it’s to address off the bat that this isn’t going to be the David Copperfield you have come to expect from your BBC adaptations or your Masterpiece Theater Sunday evening appointment television showings.  While certainly not in any way a faithful adaptation of a novel Dickens published in 1850 and was known to be his favorite, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a richly realized one that rather blithely removes the most despondent pieces and revels in the fanciful.  It also wisely knows the difference between modernization and revisionism and walks the line between the two with ease.  The result is one of the most surprising and surprisingly entertaining films of the year.

Director Armando Iannucci is likely a familiar name to those that followed the HBO series Veep.  As the creator and showrunner for the first four seasons, he helped establish that political satire and its irreverent humor so I went into this film expecting it to have that same fast style and brusque energy.  The quick interplay was there and it definitely has the energy that I’ve come to expect from Iannucci but not in that same kind of rough and hot to the touch feel it has had before.  It’s softer here and allows the story to be propelled forward by the characters and their choices, not by plot machinations.  That’s a significant achievement when you’re working within a storyline where a seemingly endless set of maladies befall our leading man throughout.

For those unfamiliar, David Copperfield is the story of a young man (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who spends the majority of his growing up years encountering one set of colorful characters after another.  At his birth, his arch aunt (Tilda Swinton, Suspiria) arrives to assist but leaves promptly when she discovers he is not a girl.  His young, widowed mother (Morfydd Clark, Crawl) marries again, this time to a wicked man with an even more wicked sister (Gwendoline Christie, Welcome to Marwen) and soon he’s living with an always in-debt landlord (Peter Capaldi, World War Z).  During a brief stay with his aunt he’s introduced to her eccentric cousin (Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland) before enrolling in a respected school where he meets lifelong friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch) and first encounters the meek but not mild Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, Little Joe).  He’s loved from afar by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) and pursues dotty Dora (also played by Clark) all the while hoping to secure his future happiness.

There’s a lot for Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell to cover in two hours and it’s a remarkable accomplishment that they managed to cram as much story in as they do.  Obviously, some of it has to go and a good chunk of the book’s latter half is missing, with several storylines either combined or excised.  What’s been removed are the sallower portions of Dickens novel, leaving the remaining moments more light-hearted and vibrant.  One could argue that the characters needed a little more strife but Iannucci and Blackwell give David and his extended family a fair amount of business to overcome.  The villains in a Dickens story are always of the scheming and grasping variety, making them perfect for the likes of icy Christie and the gleeful apathy of Whishaw.

Along with the sharp writing, Iannucci has cast the film with a spectacular amount of top-tier talent and it all starts with Patel’s nicely metered approach to the title character.  Patel is an actor that has grown on me greatly over the years and continues to get better with each new role he takes.  I also especially liked Jairaj Varsani as the young David, showing again that its possible to play precocious without losing your audience to alienation.   As usual, Swinton mines every syllable and skin cell for maximum effect, and you simply can’t end 2020 without seeing her go crazy over a persistent donkey presence on her property.   If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s so packed with welcome faces in episodic segments you don’t always feel you’ve rounded out the corners with each character before they’ve vanished for good.  That goes for the strong supporting players as well, many of whom have but a few lines/scenes to make an impression yet manage to leave an indelible on in their wake.

Purists may scoff and, honestly, I see their point in some way, but there’s an abundance of joy in these 120 minutes that have been hard to come by.  That’s something celebrate and not over-analyze.  A week after the extremely nasty and unpleasant Unhinged became the first film to re-open theaters, here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield on its heels to remind the rest of us what possibilities there are on the big screen…though it works just as well on the small one too.  I was thankfully able to screen this one from my home and would not have reviewed it otherwise.  Please, decide carefully if venturing into theaters is the right choice for you as well as anyone in your home that you may be returning to.