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Austen, Greed, Fire and Feral Unicorns in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Austen, Greed, Fire and Feral  Unicorns in TheatersPhoto via IMDb
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Why would Pixar put out a film in the family film off-season? Can Jane Austen still charm and entertain? Why did it take so long for the spectacular Portrait of a Lady on Fire to get to Columbus? We will answer some of those questions, but at least one is rhetorical.

Onward

by Hope Madden

Dan Scanlon’s been kicking around Pixar for a while. He’s been part of the “Senior Creative Team” for some of the greatest animated films of the last decade: Toy Story 4, Coco, Inside Out.

He also wrote and directed Monsters University—his only w/d credits with the animation giant—and that movie is one of Pixar’s rare missteps. Can he right his footing with a fraternal quest, a hero’s journey, a nerdy road trip?

Not quite.

Onward, Scanlon’s first directing effort since that monstrous 2013 Revenge of the Nerds riff, opens where many a hero’s journey begins: a birthday. Shy elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is turning 16. He’s a little awkward, and maybe even slightly embarrassed by his magic and folklore obsessed older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt).

Ian never met his dad, but his mom’s been saving a gift for just this occasion. It will set a series of actions in motion that will show the town how cool (and destructive) magic can be. But will it turn meek Ian into a hero?

Scanlon sets up a funny if slight near-satire of the mythical hero’s quest, and the most enjoyable sight gags in the film come from his eye for other (better) films in this vein: all things Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Indiana Jones. There’s even a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy (which feels a little too on-the-nose) and maybe just a touch of Weekend at Bernie’s.

Plus feral unicorns.

I will be honest, he had me at feral unicorns. And it is these little flourishes that Onward gets right, but that’s just not enough to carry the film.

Pratt and especially Holland – who continues a run of solid voice work (even if no one saw Dolittle or Spies in Disguise) – both find a rapport that feels honest enough to give the emotional climax a little punch.

But there’s just nothing particularly magical about this movie. The core story is paint-by-numbers obvious and the nods to other epic adventures become so frequent and so brazen that it’s hard to find a single inspired or original thought in the entire film.

It’s nice. It garners an amused chuckle or too, maybe even a sniffle, but you’ll be hard pressed to remember anything about it besides those unicorns, and there was no real point to those.

Grade: C

Emma

by Cat McAlpine

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition…had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

So begins Jane Austen’s final novel, and so too starts Emma, with text across the screen that almost seems to smirk. We find Emma as she is described: beautiful, put together, and just mischievous enough. She is also vain, childish, and compulsive in a way that mysteriously endears you to her. Anya Taylor-Joy (The VVitch, Thoroughbreds) delivers a masterful performance that is always on the verge of a laugh or a tear, depending on which way the day goes.

Well matched in chemistry and in his ability to show an astonishing depth beneath the veneer of decorum is Johnny Flynn as George Knightley. I have loved Flynn since Lovesick was titled Scrotal Recall (yes, really), and his performance in Emma is earnest and authentic as always.

The character growth, across the cast, but most importantly for Emma and Knightley, is masterfully done and makes this one of my most favorite period pieces. There are no nonsensical professions of love, you can see every spark light and burn – even in the slightest nods and prolonged bits of eye contact. Josh O’Connor so well telegraphs his nervous and misplaced intentions as Mr. Elton, that it’s even funnier that Emma is in the dark ’til the end.

Supporting the hilarious, heartfelt journey is a cast of wild and weird characters with impeccable timing, namely Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse, Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, and Miranda Hart as the unfathomably lovable Miss Bates. In fact, it is the background of Emma’s tapestry that makes the story so vibrant. So rarely do the wealthy find themselves truly alone, and director Autumn de Wilde capitalizes on the presence of society members and household staff alike—often out of focus but still on screen—to mine even more comedic opportunities.

In her first full-length feature, de Wilde deftly uses the camera to double down on subtext and deepen the most important moments. Her use of camera emphasizes the screen as its own type of narration and honors the story’s origin as a novel. Eleanor Catton’s debut screenplay expertly weaves the multitude of characters and circumstances. Neither de Wilde nor Catton is afraid to slow down and strike a vignette, but the pacing is only occasionally labored, as the gorgeous cinematography and costume design alike provide plenty to gawk at.

Finally, I would be remiss to leave out the score, which has its own humor and cagey attitude to support the litany of other masterful elements. The entire production has a beautiful, rhythmic choreography to which all things, movement, people, and intentions, inevitably adhere.

I often both benefit and suffer from being sporadically read. As George Knightly muses, “Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old.” Me too, bud. I’ve never read Emma, or seen an adaptation, so I can’t tell you how well this holds up to the source material. Based on the reactions of the mostly middle-aged female audience in my showing, it holds up marvelously. Based on my own viewing, this is a charming, funny, and soon-to-be-classic viewing experience for anyone.

Grade: A-

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

by Hope Madden

Celine Sciamma follows up the vitally of-the-moment indie Girlhood with this breathy, painterly period romance, only to clarify that she is a filmmaker with no identifiable bounds. In the 1790s on a forbidding island in Brittany, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrives to paint the wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), but since Heloise is not marrying voluntarily, she will not sit for a painter. So, a ruse is developed: Marianne pretends to be simply a companion as she steals glances then sketches from memory into the night.

What develops, along with the startlingly beautiful intimacy between the women, is a thoughtful rumination on memory and on art, on the melancholic but no less romantic notion that the memory, though lonesome, is permanent and perfect.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a tenderly romantic film of self-discovery that asks a lot of questions.

What would life be like with no men at all, the film seems to ask. Unseen, nameless men (because we see very few) may rule the world, and the existence of one casts a pall over the events of the film. But, at least until Mother (Valeria Golino) returns, this is a community of women.

On the island, women gather at a bonfire, passing time, singing and seeking each other’s guidance. In the austere mansion, Heloise, Marianne and servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami) look after one another. In a more intimate chamber, two women become friends and then lovers and then, likely, the most important relationship the other will ever have.

A master class in visual storytelling, Sciamma relies far less on words than images, ending conversations or omitting them entirely, able instead to deliver meaning with a glance, a gesture, a flame or an ocean wave.

And with art. What Sciamma is able to convey about love, struggle, empowerment and art by virtue of the changing canvas on which Marianna must commit Heloise’s portrait is truly extraordinary.

Sciamam’s film has a painterly quality, frame after frame worthy of museum wall space. And yet, Portrait lacks artifice. Thomas Grezaud’s set design, Dorothee Guiraud’s costumes and, in particular, Claire Mathon’s cinematography blend together to create a costume drama worthy of the historical and art period in question.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is breathtakingly gorgeous. But, like Heloise’s portrait in the film, that’s not enough to make it a masterpiece. There’s an authenticity to the intimacy—perhaps partly born of the fact that Haenel and Sciamma are a real life couple—that’s inescapable, and it drives the period piece.

Like Marianna’s final portrait, Sciamma’s film offers truth, and it’s astonishing.

Grade: A

Greed

by George Wolf

Greed is a film with a big, timely target and a handful of well-groomed darts. But as much as it consistently lands shots on the board, it never gets close to the bullseye.

To be fair, landing a knockout satire is no easy trick. That writer/director Michael Winterbottom can’t manage it is one problem, but you’re never quite sure he’s fully committed to trying, which is the bigger issue.

He did land a stellar cast, starting right at the top with Steve Coogan, who plays retail fashion mogul Sir Richard McCready to pompous perfection.

McCready, Britain’s “Monet of Money,” is ready to celebrate his 60th birthday with a huge, Gladiator-themed blowout on the coast of Greece, complete with a recreated Coliseum, a live lion, and entertainment from Elton and Coldplay.

Those Syrian refugees camped out on the public beach, though? Yeah, they’re ruining the view, so they’ll have to go.

While McCready’s mother (Shirley Henderson), his ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher), their son (Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield, all grown up!) and various employees and hangers-on dodge his frequent outbursts, official biographer Nick (David Mitchell) is trying to make sense of it all.

Winterbottom, writer and/or director for all of Coogan’s The Trip franchise, uses Nick’s fact-finding as the catalyst for plenty of time hopping. From a ruthless young McCready (Jamie Blackley) building his empire, to a well-scripted episode of “reality” television filming alongside the party planning, Greed unveils a surface-level social consciousness in search of a clear direction.

There’s absurdity, clever amusements and some outright laughs (especially McCready haggling over the prices for big-ticket entertainers and a financial writer explaining the illusion of money), but Winterbottom doesn’t seem to trust himself – or his audience- enough to get off the pulpit and commit to satire.

The unveiling of shady business deals, the folly of the “self-made man” and the distance between wealth and consequence is all valid terrain, but Greed is content with paths less challenging and more obvious.

And on one occasion, the film’s timing works against it, because as great as this cast is at dry humor and glossy obnoxiousness, hearing someone label McCready a “parasite” only underscores how vital this class warfare theme can be with more inspired execution.

Grade: C

The Times of Bill Cunningham

by Brandon Thomas

In 1994, rookie producer Mark Bozek sat down with New York Times fashion and street photographer, Bill Cunningham. The casual chat about an award Cunningham was receiving was supposed to only be a quick 10-minute in and out.

The interview didn’t end until the tape in Bozek’s camera ran out.

Twenty-five years after conducting this interview, Bozek makes his feature documentary debut with The Times of Bill Cunningham. Less a look or critique of the New York fashion scene, Bozek’s interest is sharply focused on the unassuming Cunningham. 

Bozek uses the ample footage at his disposal to let Cunningham share his thoughts and insights about his life and career. Cunningham’s almost child-like zeal for his work comes across as both disarming and curious all at once. From his beyond-modest “apartment” in the old Carnegie Hall Studios building, to his uniquely un-chic wardrobe consisting mainly of hand-me-downs, Cunningham wasn’t your typical New York fashion figure. 

As the layers peel back more and more, Bezok is able to capture and celebrate Cunningham’s genuine kindness — whether that be his enthusiasm for catching people “as they are” on the street, or the financial support he showed a friend who was fighting a losing battle with the AIDS virus. 

Peppered throughout the film are many of Cunningham’s photos. The juxtaposition of these wonderful photographs with his animated interview makes for an appreciative experience. Many of these photos were splashed across Cunningham’s weekly spread in the New York Times. A few gems, however, were never published during Cunningham’s storied career. 

Sparse narration by Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) provides needed connective tissue and context. It’s one thing to take Cunningham’s word for it, but highlighting his accomplishments in the broader fashion world is a poignant statement on how important he was to the fashion industry and to New York City itself. 

Documentaries focused on one individual aren’t new. Specific filmmakers, politicians, and athletes have all received this treatment. What’s so different, and enthralling about The Times of Bill Cunningham is how much Cunningham gets to speak for himself. It’s an honest, unfiltered look at a man that did what he loved — and did it well. 

Grade: B+

Also opening in Columbus:
Baaghi 3 (NR)
The Banker (PG13)
Beneath Us (R)
The Dark Red (NR)
I Was Home, But… (NR)
Ordinary Love (R)
Premature (R)
The Way Back (R)
Zombi Child (NR)

Read more from Hope and George at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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