Thursday, March 5, 2020

Reviewing Jane: It's Such A Happiness When Good People Get Together

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2020
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

"Do we need another adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma?" cried the dozens of people who even heard this movie was coming out. Even though it's a title that hasn't really been dusted off this decade (even by the Austen-hungry Hallmark crew), I understand the perceived fatigue. The triple punch of adaptations that started with Amy Heckerling's Clueless, followed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale's turns at bat, sprinted across screens in a span of just 16 months between 1995 and 1996. That's a whole lot of Emma.

But Autumn de Wilde's Emma. has come along anyway, to prove that the answer to that question is a vigorous yes.

I didn't even need the movie to prove this to me, because the Gwyneth and Kate adaptations SUCKED, so we've never had a straight period adaptation of the story that's remotely worthwhile. But I respect Autumn De Wilde's flex regardless.

If you missed the 90's, here's the gist of the plot. Handsome, rich, and spoiled Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives in luxurious solitude with her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy). She strokes her ego by matchmaking her friends about town, and when a young rube of unknown birth named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) she seizes upon the opportunity to make her into a fine young gentlewoman and foist her on any man that's around, blithely unaware that the men would generally rather eat dirt than marry her.

All throughout a variety of romantic misadventures that involve a revolving door of alabaster British character actors I can't be bothered to tell apart (sorry Callum Turner and Josh O'Connor), Emma is admonished by old family friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), the only person who ever seems to find fault with her. Naturally they fall in love.

Trust me when I say that her marrying someone who literally held her as a baby is one of the least creepy romantic matches in the Jane Austen universe.

I have a lot of very nice things to say about Emma. but I should probably start with what you can tell from the screenshots I've already used. This movie is gorgeous, darling. Every second of this film looks like a watercolor that could be hung in a museum, with luscious pastels smeared across every flat surface, outfits, and even the sky. It's like an Easter candle melted all over Regency England's tablecloth. It takes the fussy diorama sets of your run-of-the-mill Masterpiece adaptations and pushes them to the extreme, filling every corner of the frame with delicately piled pastries, colorful gewgaws, and the like.

Bear witness.

But all of this doesn't mean that Emma. is stiff and emotionally unavailable; far from it. The rigid grandeur of the sets serves as a vicious juxtaposition to the ridiculous antics of the rich fools contained within them. De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton have strung up a marvelous high wire act of tone here, delivering a sketch of messy humanity despite its extreme, almost cartoonish stylization. And in the process, they've captured Austen's tone better than any other period adaptation.  Her stories are emotionally resonant, sure, but the characters that populate them are daffy satirical caricatures of the upper classes.

These filmmakers get it, and I'm so thankful somebody finally has. They have stacked layers and layers upon the script here, bringing the novel to life perhaps even more than the novel itself was capable of. The first layer they start with is one I don't think I've ever seen in a period-set Austen adaptation: rich people fucking suck. They enforce a class system that limits the prospects of other people, just because they get to be at the top. They employ and ignore a veritable army of servants (this film, more than any other, depicts the sheer, overwhelming mass of staff required to make these people's lives possible). And they're used to getting everything they want, which is why it's so hard for Emma when the matches she tries to force keep falling through.

Starting in a place that acknowledges the fact that the characters (including the protagonist and her father) are grotesque and despicable allows for the film to mine the material for every ounce of acid-tongued, sour sarcasm it can produce. They aren't here to make Emma likable. That was the whole point of the novel: Austen set out to "take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," because it's way more interesting to watch a heroine overcome a massive flaw and earn her true love rather than some pure, milquetoast waif suffering until she's rewarded with a handsome prince.

Embracing the black comedy is a hugely important decision in making this Emma work, and it pays off in the form of the funniest straight Austen adaptation by a long shot. The actors are all game, especially Nighy, Taylor-Joy (whose clipped haughtiness is best displayed in a scene you can see in the trailer, where she opens the window of her carriage to a tiresome neighbor with a languorous flick of a finger), and Miranda Hart as the aforementioned tiresome neighbor. Hart could easily have been a one-note cartoon character, and she still would have been terrifically entertaining. But later she gets to deliver a scene of so much heartbreaking pathos that it provides the fuel for the emotional climax of the entire two hour film.

And now I finally have her name reinforced in my memory enough to stop calling her Friend from Spy!

Allowing the film to be funny and the characters to have foibles also does wonders in translating the humanity of these characters to modern day cinemagoers. These are not fossils locked in amber whose motivations and reactions can only be understood from a remove. They are messy, engaging, people who live and breathe and feel, whether they're frolicking around having fun with a pack of schoolgirls or wracked with weeping sobs over a year of terrible decisions. Even if you know nothing about the period, you know exactly what these people are feeling because they're allowed to be real.

This is well served by the film's choices about nudity and violence. Obviously it's very mild; they're not doing a gritty reboot here. But there are two scenes early on that display casual non-eroticized nudity and one scene involving a nosebleed in the climax that make the characters literally vulnerable. They're showing that underneath their endless layers of petticoats and gentility there still lies flesh, blood, and a beating heart.

One thing I especially love about the emotional capacity of this film is what it does with the character of Harriet. She's portrayed rightly as a suffering fool, but this is the first adaptation I've seen that fully allows her to be angry with Emma and the way she has toyed with her life like a bored cat. Even in the novel, Harriet's reaction to the final straw that severs their friendship is muted and elliptically delivered. But here, we get to sit in it and really dig into the chaos that Emma has sown among the people in her life. 

OK before I yammer on even more: Yes, everything in this movie is good and you should go see it as soon as you get the chance. Literally the only thing preventing me from embracing this as the best Austen I've ever seen is my overfamiliarity with the material. So allow me a couple years to sit on this and revisit, and we can reconvene during our Best of the 2020's conversation.

TL;DR: Emma. is a delightfully acerbic and beautiful adaptation that would do Jane Austen proud.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1309
Other Films Based on Emma
Clueless (Heckerling, 1995)
Emma (McGrath, 1996)
Emma (Lawrence, 1996)
Emma. (de Wilde, 2020)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Reviewing Jane: I Will Be Mistress Of Myself

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.
Year: 1995
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Emma Thompson is a force of nature, y'all. After over a decade of acting (and the occasional dabbling in TV writing) she undertook her first feature film screenplay, an adaptation of a literary giant. Although the Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility was part of the banner year that brought Jane Austen into the rabid mainstream popularity that she still enjoys today (also in 1995, the culture was buffeted by BBC's Pride and Prejudice miniseries and Amy Heckerling's Clueless), this was still a daunting undertaking.

She didn't even break a sweat, assembling a cast of future A-list superstars to breathe life into what still stands strong as one of the best Austen adaptations to date. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Let's jump back to the early 1800's for a moment, shall we?

In Sense and Sensibility, rich sisters Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet, two years before Titanic would change her life forever) live with their parents and kid sister. Unfortunately, their father passes away before either of them marry, leaving them penniless (his entire estate went to their half-brother, whose avaricious wife talks him out of supporting them). They move to a small cottage out in the country (with three bedrooms and two servants, the sheer poverty is overwhelming), where they have a variety of romantic adventures in which Elinor leads with her logic and Marianne dashes forward full force with her heart.

The men in their lives are awkward but charming brother-in-law (this is not the creepiest intra-family romance in the Austen universe, believe me) Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), the dashing but licentious John Willoughby (Greg Wise), and the older but devoted Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), who Marianne turns her nose up at without a second thought.

I mean, wouldn't you ignore Alan Rickman for the raw sensual power of that hat?

As we learned from this year's Oscars, where Parasite won Best Picture, sometimes the Academy gets it right. And they certainly did when they awarded Emma Thompson for Best Adapted Screenplay. The whole point of this project is weighing the way different people adapt Austen's work, and as Thompson's mighty act of rendering the original 1811 novel as a feature film is beyond compare. 

To start off, she does what I have been begging these screen adaptations to do from the very beginning, retaining the acidic sarcasm of Austen's original texts. The Austen novels have always been funny in a hyper-modern snarky way; you just have to crack open the period dialogue to get to that candy center. And this is an extraordinarily funny film, especially given the standards of your average Hollywood period piece costume drama. MVP goes to Imelda Staunton as a chatty, ditzy woman with a husband who visibly despises spending time with her, but the entire cast is expert at delivering Thompson's wickedly sharp dialogue, which sometimes directly draws out the best passages from the novel, and largely synthesizes the source text's themes and moods into new delicious combinations.

The reason the humor works especially well is because Thompson has done the legwork of making the period and the characters within it come to life, humanizing conflicts and interactions that might normally seem distant and outdated to a modern audience member. One trick I especially appreciate her using is the way she overlaps dialogue. Even in scenes when our main characters aren't speaking, there is boisterous conversation floating in through windows or from other rooms, bringing the world to messy, vibrant life instead of embalming it in stuffy, fussy costumes and sets that seem hermetically sealed from the real world.

Also it helps that they cast at least one movie star-handsome romantic lead, something the previous BBC adaptations perpetually failed to do.

All you need to stand out among the crowd of these Austen adaptations is a sharp script and actors who know how to deliver the material, which Sense and Sensibility confidently provides (Thompson, especially when she gets her big Oscar-worthy monologue, is reliably terrific on top of everything else). Unfortunately, there is something that doesn't quite connect emotionally, at least for this reviewer.

It doesn't help that Sense and Sensibility is mostly about the relationship between two sisters, and their interactions as they long for men from afar. Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are necessarily forced offscreen for longer than one might like if we're meant to feel heaving romantic paroxysms. And while both Thompson and Winslet are delivering the material well, it's challenging to buy their sisterly relationship when the former is visibly 16 years older than the latter. While this casting choice at least visually highlights the way that Elinor is more capable and mature than her younger sister, it leaves a gaping crack in the foundation of the relationship that is meant to propel the emotional core of the movie. 

And frankly, of Ang Lee's mainstream, well-regarded works, this is the entry in which I find the least to be impressed with. While Thompson does all the legwork in bringing the characters to life, I find that Lee and his creative vision gets lost in the period detail rather than bringing the camera to life for more than a couple sweeping vistas.

But all that said, Sense and Sensibility is a terrific accomplishment that stands head and shoulders above most of the material I've covered in this marathon, especially among the adaptations that are actually set in the period. It was rightfully nominated for Best Picture, and while it should have lost to Babe, it shouldn't have lost to Braveheart, and we would all do well to remember that.

TL;DR: Sense and Sensibility is an adaptation that does great wonders in bringing Austen's humor and characters to life, even if it doesn't do the same with her passion.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1005
Other Films Based on Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995)
From Prada to Nada (Gracia, 2011)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Etruscan Raiders

Year: 1982
Director: Sergio Martino
Cast: Elvire Audray, Paolo Malco, Claudio Cassinelli
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

The Italian giallo genre was in pretty dire straits by the time the Americans picked up the reins of hacking and slashing in the early 80's. While the countrymen still had some juice left in them (we were still five years off from Michele Soavi's delightful StageFright: Aquarius), post-Friday the 13th Italy had mostly produced forgotten dreck from clean-up hitters like Gianni Martucci's Trhauma and Riccardo Freda's Murder Syndrome, or unrepentantly nasty permutations from more well known shlock directors like Ovidio G. Assonitis' Madhouse and Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper.

When Sergio Martino (the director of Your Vice is a Locked Room, and Only I Have the Key, which is actually almost as good as its title) jumped into the fray in 1982 with The Scorpion with the Two Tails, I hoped he would bring some of his 70's bravado to deliver something the was at least stylish and watchable.

And as usual, my hopes were gutted with a butcher knife.

The Scorpion with Two Tails begins, as so many Italian genre riffs do, in New York City, where Joan Barnard (Elvire Audray) learns of the death of her archaeologist husband Arthur (the John Saxon), who recently discovered the ruins of an Etruscan tomb in Italy. She flies to Italy to attempt to solve his murder, bringing her friend Mike (Paolo Malco of The New York Ripper) along with her.

There she gets mixed up with a variety of colorful persons, including a mysterious Contessa (Marilù Tolo) who was housing Arthur, a rival archaeologist named Paolo (Claudio Cassinelli), and a troop of mafiosos/grave robbers/nude photographers who it turns out were engaged in illegal drug trade with Joan's father. She has lots of dreams about Etruscan rituals involving the tomb, and her increasing hysteria would led us to conclude that she is most likely a reincarnation of an immortal ancient priestess.

This has almost nothing to do with the plot, but it's what we spend at least 60% of the movie focusing on, so it's probably worth mentioning.

The supernatural genre elements here are pretty, well, generic. Usually with a plot like this, the Italians have to rely on their lurid stylistic sensibility and sensational murders to goose things up a bit. Unfortunately, the one factor that makes The Scorpion with Two Tails unusual also ruins any chance it had to be interesting: it was originally produced for television (conflicting reports say either a TV movie or a miniseries that was chopped into feature length). I can't say I'm intimately familiar with the broadcast standards of Italian television in the 80's, but it seems to have been pretty comparable to the U.S., considering every ounce of the requisite blood or lurid sexuality of the giallo has been removed from this movie.

As you'll see at the bottom of this review, Scorpion has an unusually huge body count, but more than fifty percent of the kills use the exact same M.O. (twisting someone's head around backward, sometimes in a cool special effect but mostly offscreen), and the ones that don't all take place in the flurry of a two minute shootout. It's boring is what it is, and robbing a giallo of its slasher elements removes any reason to be interested in talking about it. The plot certainly doesn't step up to the plate, because it really deeply concerns itself with having the characters search for a crate of drugs they already found earlier in the movie.

All that we're left with is a heaping helping of overbaked giallo dialogue, a bunch of dreams where random things are covered in maggots, and Mike being a lecherous drag chasing after a woman so recently widowed there's still a chalk outline on the floor.

Maybe it would have been more interesting if John Saxon hadn't departed the movie after five minutes.

Warning: SPOILERS abound for the remainder of the review, not that you should watch this movie anyway. 

Our lead isn't particularly fun to spend time with either. Even though she is revealed to be an immortal Etruscan priestess, she still spends all of her time shrieking and fainting and being incapable of doing anything but wait for her narrative to be pushed forward by a man. A character this doe-eyed and helpless would be irritating under any circumstances, but especially when she's explicitly magical. Call up a swarm of rats to devour your enemies or something. Anything!

There are only two things I liked about this 94 minute gauntlet called a motion picture. First, the production design of the ancient tombs was actually pretty good, avoiding any fakey, obviously foam rocks or anything. Every chamber felt appropriately dusty, weighty, and old.

The second is that the final five minutes go absolutely batshit, with the out of the blue proposal that the true treasure of the tomb is an antimatter diamond surrounded by an antigravity force field that controls the balance of the universe, a fact which introduces no conflict whatsoever because the killer's neck is summarily snapped anyway. Oh, and also Mike was undercover for the DEA and faked his own death, but now they're in love. It's a whole thing.

If the movie had been operating at this wild telenovela register the whole time, it might have been a 10/10, but as it stands I had to sift through cubic kilometers of packing peanuts to find anything worth caring about in this empty shipping crate of a movie.

Killer: Paolo (Claudio Cassinelli)
Final Girl: Joan Barnard (Elvire Audray)
Best Kill: All the kills are exactly the same, so I'm just gonna have to go with the John Saxon one for the novelty of him being Janet Leigh-ed early on in the movie.
Sign of the Times: The ancient Etruscans apparently shopped for makeup at Bonnie Tyler's local drug store.
Scariest Moment: Mike's corpse starts walking, with its head still turned around backward.
Weirdest Moment: Anti-matter diamond, motherfuckers!
Champion Dialogue: "I certainly wouldn't talk in Etruscan to you at night."
Body Count: 17; but it certainly doesn't feel like it - I included deaths that occur in dreams that are most likely flashbacks to another life.
  1. Husband has his neck snapped in a dream.
  2. Wife has her neck snapped in a dream.
  3. Woman #1 has her neck snapped in a dream.
  4. Woman #2 has her neck snapped in a dream.
  5. Arthur has his head turned around backward.
  6. Mr. Forte has his head turned around backward offscreen.
  7. Old Man has his head turned around backward offscreen.
  8. Eva has her neck snapped.
  9. Joan's Dad is shot.
  10. Contessa is shot.
  11. Security Goon #1 is shot.
  12. Security Goon #2 is shot.
  13. Mafioso #1 is shot.
  14. Mafioso #2 is hit with a falling rock.
  15. Mafioso #3 is hit with a falling rock.
  16. Anducci hangs himself.
  17. Paolo has his neck snapped.
TL;DR: The Scorpion with Two Tails is an exceptionally dull giallo that doesn't even muster the energy to compete with its American slasher counterparts.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1177

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Sex And The Single Monster

Year: 1982
Director: John Hough
Cast: John Cassavetes, John Ireland, Kerrie Keane 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I've been so deep into this slasher movie marathon for so long that I've started to recognize names that wouldn't be uttered in anybody's household from here to Timbuktu. Regardless, John Hough is the reason I was excited to pop in The Incubus, because he directed the low budget 1988 gem American Gothic, a film I've been happy to wave the banner for on many an occasion. Pair that with some cool, eerie poster artwork and you've got me on the hook.

Unfortunately, the lesson I consistently fail to learn during this project is that a poster is not a movie. Even though every single poster, alternates and all, for The Incubus is a drop dead gorgeous specimen (to the point that I could populate this entire review just with different posters - and I will), none of that visual firepower is enough to make a movie worth sitting through for 93 minutes. But more on that in a sec.

First, we must witness this poster that makes the movie look like some sort of heavy metal album cover was adapted into a paperback novel.

Observe the small town of Galen, which is being beset by a terrible tragedy. Local women are being raped so violently that their uteruses are exploding (oh, the 80's, a time when somebody thought this would be a super cool plot hook). Town doctor/autopsist/creepy old man Sam Cordell (John Cassavetes) has been working with the cops to solve the murders, but waiting for the only survivor Mandy (Mitch Martin) to regain the ability to speak is taking too long. Also he needs time to himself to reminisce about his 18-year-old second wife who died under mysterious circumstances.

Sam's daughter Jenny (Erin Flannery) keeps ignoring his orders to stay inside to visit her loser boyfriend Tim (Duncan McIntosh of the same year's Murder by Phone - stay tuned) who keeps having terrible dreams about a woman tied up in a dungeon every time there's a new attack. also on the case is intrepid reporter Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane), who strikes up a gross flirtation with Sam despite their age difference appearing to be a flat fifty years. Anyway, it's pretty clear these attacks are supernatural. 

Even though the word "incubus" isn't spoken for about 75 minutes, we the audience know the title of the fucking movie we came to see, so it's not entirely shocking that there's a penis demon wandering around town. But who is the one channeling his presence? Tim? His creepy grandmother Agatha (Helen Hughes of Visiting Hours)? Or someone else from this small town with a population huge enough to host midday concerts in packed movie houses?

Or perhaps it's this sexy demon haunting some heroine from an 18th century gothic novel...

Full disclosure: the effects which bring the titular Incubus to life are really really good. Fuller disclosure: You get to see them for a full ten seconds in this 93 minute movie. Hope you brought your camera! I'd say a picture would last longer, but then again almost anything would. 

So what are we left with for those remaining 5,570 seconds? A pretty miserable slog, to be honest. The Incubus has all the gritty, grotesque flavor of a mid-70's grindhouse exploitation epic, but it's too demure to fully commit to its hog wild concept. Not that I want the endless rapes to be onscreen. In fact, I am tremendously glad all I had to suffer through was a little slow motion screaming, and not a relentless slew of sex crimes like Don't Answer the Phone. But the fact remains that this movie is by design a story about sex, violence, and a monster, and it features almost none of those things.

To be fair, the rest of the things it's about aren't achieved particularly well either. As a mystery with a mounting body count, The Incubus is extraordinarily messy, forgetting to show us scenes about suspects, non-Cassavetes characters, and especially victims until they suddenly are jolted awake and thrown into play way too late in the game. One victim, a docent at the town museum, we meet in the very scene where she dies with about two lines of dialogue. About twenty minutes later Cassavetes randomly drops a line about this woman being his wife's cousin. About fifteen minutes after that, we learn her name. Tell me, how am I supposed to care about following a mystery that can't even follow itself? All this builds up into a tedious double parlor room sequence that spends fifteen minutes in two locations to establish that yes, there's an incubus, and then cuts to credits before anything actually happens.

And don't even get me started on the bizarre subplot about Laura Kincaid being a doppelgänger for Sam's dead second wife, which immediately leaps out the window and is never heard from again.

This beautiful poster is just mocking me at this point.

At the very least, The Incubus makes some swings toward atmosphere that occasionally connect. The score is a creepy atmospheric blanket over the whole thing, and the decision to run the opening credits over a shot that slowly zooms out to reveal a human eye is pretty stylish. And the decision to mount a camera under a character's wheelchair as she zooms around is... odd, but at least creative. Unfortunately, the editing takes a bit of a beating, presenting events in a bizarre kaleidoscope of smash cuts. 

But with a script that's this much of a shambles, even if it was perfectly cut together it would still seem completely random and aggrieved, as if individual parts of each scene want nothing to do with one another. So the redeeming qualities available to us here are limited. I didn't hate the experience of sitting through this movie, but I could have been staring at a blank screen for an hour and a half and edified myself to the exact same degree.

Killer: The Incubus [as embodied by Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane)]
Final Girl: Sam Cordell (John Cassavetes)
Sign of the Times: Every time a character turns on a radio, out screeches hair metal so terrible that I don't even want to put it on my slasher movie music playlist, which includes some real dreadful shit.
Best Kill: In one of the only sequences that betrays its slasher roots, the shotgun-toting patriarch of a farming family follows the demon into a barn, where he is stabbed in the neck with a shovel, then blows his own foot off in shock.
Scariest Moment: John Cassavetes tells his 18-year-old daughter Jenny, "you are my queen, my morning..."
Weirdest Moment: A scene opens with a cat chilling on a porch, then the paper boy hits it square in the face with the daily news.
Champion Dialogue: "Will you get out of here? I don't have time for idiots."
Body Count: 8
  1. Roy is hit in the face with a board with a nail in it.
  2. Caroline is Incubus'd.
  3. Chip the Dog is impaled with a pitchfork.
  4. Ernie is stabbed in the neck with a shovel.
  5. Jane is Incubus'd.
  6. Jane's Sister in a Wheelchair is killed offscreen.
  7. Concert Girl is Incubus'd.
  8. [Jenny is Incubus'd.]
TL;DR: The Incubus is at least uncompromising, but is both icky and a little bit dull.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1236