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 ~ Séance


The Facts:

Synopsis: Camille Meadows is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.

Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Seamus Patterson, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Megan Best, Stephanie Sy, Jade Michael

Director: Simon Barrett

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  What terrific fortune is this?  Two respectably good female-led slasher films released within weeks of each other?  Can it be?  After a long dry spell with a pile of duds and clunkers, an eerie wind of change is blowing and bringing with it revitalized energy to a genre that was barely standing.  Early May’s Initiation was a clever subversion of the typical college-set slice and dice thrillers that populated many cinemas throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, giving tired tropes an entertaining dust off.  Now along comes Séance with its spooky boarding school setting and Craft-ian vibes to send some chills through your screen. What both films may lack in overall budget and the benefit of a release via a larger platform, they more than make-up for in playful deference to their treasured inspirations.

I could understand some dubious feelings about Séance at first glance, because I had them too.  The original poster with pouty girls in school uniforms in front of a foreboding dormitory made it look like one of those generically terrible Redbox cheapie titles that come out of nowhere and offer little return for your overnight fee.  A closer inspection (and a better poster) unveils some pedigree behind the scenes and that was enough to get me signed up for writer/director Simon Barrett’s feature debut.  A screenwriter on respectable genre outings like You’re Next and The Guest, Barrett also penned the attempted reboot of Blair Witch in 2016 that was better than many gave it credit for.  Teaming up with Dark Castle Entertainment (the production label responsible for remakes of House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and original titles The Apparition, Ghost Ship, Gothika, and Orphan) and streaming service Shudder, Barrett was able to get this one made during the pandemic without sacrificing any of its effectiveness in the scare department. 

The exclusive Edelvine Academy for Girls is supposedly haunted by the spectre of a former student that died under mysterious circumstances.  At least that’s what the group of girls attempting to call her spirit forth late one night in a dark bathroom mirror are hoping for.  Saying her name into their reflections several times doesn’t produce the result they are expecting, but it does leave one skeptic so frightened that she winds up dead later that night.  Was it an accident, was it the spirit, or was it someone else with a razor-sharp axe to grind?  The tragedy leaves an opening for a new student, though, and Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) is the next name on the list. 

Failing to make a great first impression to the headmistress (Marina Stephenson Kerr, The Grudge, a sort of B-list Michelle Pfeiffer) after getting into a nasty fight with HBIC Alice (Inanna Sarkis) before she can even unpack her bags, Camille doesn’t fit the new girl mold in kowtowing to existing hierarchies or ways of doing business.  Instead, she asserts her dominance from the get-go and isn’t above landing or taking a punch from Alice or any of the other girls that run in her gang. (Side note: when did girl fights get so crazy? Camille refuses to move from Alice’s table and in response Alice punches her several times right in the face for her ‘crime’. Yeow!)

Camille does manage to find some people she likes; shy Helina (Ella-Rae Smith, The Commuter) was friends with the girl who recently died and Trevor (Seamus Patterson, Books of Blood) is the son of the headmistress and a handyman/boy around campus.  Through them, Camille learns more about the “accident” and other strange goings-on around the school, just in time for her detention to begin with the other girls for their opening day fight.  While they’re cleaning out and organizing a musty section of the school, they decided to press their luck and try out another séance, but this time their ceremony definitely brings something into reality…a slinky killer that begins to swiftly chop away at the girls. 

As he has with his previous scripts, Barrett makes efficient use out of his dialogue and doesn’t waste a lot of time with extraneous tangents.  It’s not Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, nor is it intended to be.  However, there is a mystery at the heart of Séance the audience is meant to figure out and clues are dropped along the way to help those paying close attention unravel in advance of the Big Reveal (one of several, I might add) near the end.  Barrett also excels at creating strong female characters that fight back, not just those that have a surge of energy when they most need it, either.  These are women that are prepared and not helpless and I like that he seems to have that in mind as he develops the story.  The idea of victimhood isn’t at the forefront of his mind and none of the women in the movie are portrayed as feeble or lacking…only in terms of perhaps coming up short in the conscience department.

There is a nice overall tone achieved and more than a few sly frights along the way. With the scary comes the silly and a dance sequence with some questionable skill level is one you’ll just have to bite your tongue through.  It’s also worth noting that it took my partner and I a full forty-five minutes to decide if this was a prep school or a college because the ages of the actresses are so varied you can’t quite tell the academic institution they are attending.  If you’re looking at Waterhouse, it should be a college.  Then you look at Madisen Beaty (To the Stars) and you’d believe it could be a boarding school for children of rich parents. 

Nitpicks and a few plot holes aside, Séance is one I think horror fans can join hands and get their arms around with ease.  It’s well made and at brisk 92 minutes moves at a nice clip, dotting it’s time with the appropriate amount of momentum so that it doesn’t experience that middle sag which can drag a lesser film down.  It joins recent feminist slasher films in skewering expectations without beating audiences over the head with any agenda to do so.  Would be a great Saturday night choice or could even be enjoyed as a late afternoon watch if the clouds grow dark and the rain falls.

Movie Review ~ Pokémon Detective Pikachu

The Facts

Synopsis: When a private eye goes missing, his son is prompted to find out what happened. Aiding in the investigation is Pokémon and Harry’s former partner: Detective Pikachu.

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Ken Watanabe, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Chris Geere, Suki Waterhouse, Rita Ora

Director: Rob Letterman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: By the time Pokémon made its debut in 1995, I had graduated from being the target audience for the global franchise. Starting as video games, as so many million-dollar empires do, before expanding into books, tv shows, comics, toys, etc. the brand was revitalized in 2016 when Pokémon Go became all the rage. Finally tapping into a more adult base, this scavenger hunt game was a sensation and the subject of many issues with players traversing onto private property or into oncoming traffic to “capture” their Pokémon. During the summer of 2016, you were either playing Pokémon Go or rolling your eyes at those who were.

If there was one area left for the Pokémon to conquer, it was live-action film. Over 20 animated films were released over the past two decades but when Pokémon Go reignited interest in this country, studios looking to capitalize on the craze sought out the rights to bring the characters to new life on the big screen. Using the popular 2016 game Detective Pikachu as inspiration, four screenwriters collaborated on Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Warner Brothers locked down an A-list star to provide the voice for it’s title character. Now…would the audiences come out and play?

The relationships between humans and Pokémon have evolved at the start of Pokémon Detective Pikachu. While they still “choose” their own Pokémon who become their semi-sidekicks, humans are no longer training them to do battle against others. This is all thanks to the vision of Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy, About Time), the creator of Rhyme City where everyone co-exists in harmony. In the prologue, an experimental laboratory comes under attack and a dangerous next-gen Pokémon is released, causing mayhem and what looks like a deadly car crash.  Jumping outside of Rhyme City, we catch Tim (Justice Smith, Paper Towns) and his friend Jack (Karan Soni, Safety Not Guaranteed) trying to locate a Pokémon for Tim. Once interested in being a trainer, now Tim has his eyes set on climbing the corporate ladder for the insurance company he works for. Everything changes with the news his private detective father has died in Rhyme City, and when Tim starts to dig into the secrets his father was trying to expose it brings him face to face with his father’s Pokémon, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Life).

Usually, only the human that choses the Pokémon can understand what their little friend is saying but somehow Tim hears Pikachu loud and clear. Pikachu has lost his memory, only being able to piece together that he was also in the crash with Tim’s father. Just as invested in finding the evil Pokémon and who might be behind their actions, Pikachu teams up with Tim and they begin to sleuth around the city for answers. Along the way they encounter an eager junior reporter (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back), a gruff police detective (Ken Watanabe, Transformers: Age of Extinction), and a plethora of wacky Pokémon.  In one particularly notable bit, Pikachu and Tim have a run-in with Mr. Mime, an excellent but mischievous pantomime with an act that was a highlight of the film.

Director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) knows how to work with blending live action and the computer animated Pokémon creations and most of the visual effects are impressive. It’s not as seamless as it could be, though, and that gives the film a second-tier feeling that doesn’t befit a release from a first-rate studio. The screenplay is fairly basic and hinges on a twist that becomes rather obvious within the first thirty minutes. Smith is not that appealing as a leading man (already proven by audiences actively asking for him to be eaten in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) and the charismatic Reynolds is relegated to being merely a voice which only gets at half of what makes him so engaging. Yet, the film bounces along, working almost in spite of itself with a handful of nice gags and chuckle humor that was appealing. It’s not the raucous comedy of Long Shot but it doesn’t elicit deadly silence either. For what it’s worth, my audience absolutely roared with laughter at obvious insider Pokémon references that went right over my head. One thing is clear, the film wants you to invest in the Pokémon brand – it’s almost a feature length commercial for their line-up of characters which will equate to mass dollars being spent on products.

I can’t honestly tell you what a fan of Pokémon will think about Pokémon Detective Pikachu but as an uninitiated viewer I found the film to be sporadically funny, rarely boring, but almost instantly forgettable. The kind of ho-hum pre-summer flick that arrives before the bigger players in the hope of cashing in quickly before vanishing from screens in time to be a back-to-school gift on BluRay. There’s nothing particularly bad to report but it’s all so pedestrian and uninspired you’d think a little more effort would be put in to mask the blatant consumerism on display.