Tuesday, March 31, 2020

“Emma” and “Charade”: Close Encounters of the Romantic Kind

Now that I am housebound because of Covid-19 worries, I’ve been checking out a lot of feature films on my not-so-big TV screen. One I just watched was Emma, which Universal Studios was pragmatic enough – now that movie theatres are shuttered – to air on video very soon after its theatrical release. It’s not for me to comment on how the business model for Hollywood is being upended by the current pandemic. But I can record my feelings about this latest in a long line of Jane Austen adaptations for the screen. Emma, written by Austen in 1815, is a witty novel of manners about a very young woman who delights in her abilities as a matchmaker. Blessed with wealth, wit, and good looks, she takes charge of the social life of her small English village, with nearly disastrous consequences for all involved. But since Austen’s vision is a comic one, things right themselves in the end.

Emma has been filmed more than once. Gwyneth Paltrow played the title role in 1996, just after Amy Heckerling wrote and directed a delectable American adaptation called Clueless, set amongst the well-dressed teens at Beverly Hills High. The current version, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, has a welcome satiric edge, underscored by Autumn de Wilde’s witty directorial flourishes and by an offbeat score. I enjoyed it as a welcome diversion, but found little emotional reason to connect with this material. Maybe it’s a matter of timing. The characters in Emma, whatever their social station, all have their place in a tight-knit small community: there’s little chance for interaction with the outside world. But unlike those of us who are sheltering in place today, they don’t feel themselves the least bit isolated. Even ladies of leisure find so much to do. There are balls, picnics, small shopping expeditions; a young woman, like Emma, can also occupy herself with sketching, singing, playing the piano, and poking her nose into everyone else’s business. And, of course, just getting dressed and crimped and groomed (in the rather hideous sack-like fashions of the early nineteenth century) takes a fair amount of time.  No sweatpants for even the stay-at-homes.

British character actors are always worth watching, and one of the treasures of this production is the great Bill Nighy as Emma’s discombobulated father. But one question I  keep finding myself asking: why is it that today’s leading men (like Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley) seem to underscore their masculinity through their failure to brush their hair? The heroes of old movies perhaps overdid the patent-leather-hair look, but I for one am tired of all those unkempt locks.

As a change of pace from Emma, I followed up with one of Hollywood’s great Golden Age treats: 1963”s Charade. This Stanley Donen classic stars an adorable Audrey Hepburn opposite an impeccable, every-hair-in-place Cary Grant. Instead of a quaint English village, we get Paris; instead of matchmaking we get murder, though the film’s violence is so deliciously low-key that there’s nary a fear of taking the story too solemnly. Hepburn’s heroine may be far more experienced than Emma—she’s a well-heeled married lady whose husband has just been offed under mysterious circumstances—but she is almost equally naïve in the ways of the world. And Grant’s character, with his shifting names and identities, represents a tough nut she has to crack. In one respect, Charade and Emma work in parallel: both feature a sweet young thing being wooed and won by a much older man. There was a 25-year-age difference between Audrey Hepburn (at 34) and Cary Grant (at 59), but no one has ever objected. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

“Outbreak”: Monkeying Around With a Pandemic

A pal who knows my movie-watching habit suggested I take a gander at Outbreak, on which her colleague had worked as a scientific advisor. Now that we’re all in a state of panic over COVID-19, this all-star 1995 thriller certainly seems timely. The question for me was this: would a movie about a raging viral epidemic freak me out?

Fortunately for the state of my nerves, Outbreak takes a very Hollywood approach to potential real-life disaster. Yes, it deals with a mysterious and terrible illness that begins overseas (in the jungles of Zaire) and then --through a series of mounting missteps -- begins spreading through the general population of a California town. The culprit is a particularly ugly, particularly nasty monkey who turns out to be the host of the mutating virus. It’s smuggled out of a science lab by a feckless employee (Patrick Dempsey) who tries to sell it to a pet shop. But then, of course, he ultimately Gets What He Deserves.

That’s Hollywood Rule #101: people get what they deserve. The Good Guys include a dedicated team of medical researchers, led by stalwart Dustin Hoffman (lightyears away from his iconic performances as underdogs Benjamin Braddock and Ratso Rizzo). He’s got an eager young sidekick, Cuba Gooding Jr., who freaks out at first but of course will eventually rise to the occasion. He’s got an acerbic scientist-buddy, played by a red-headed Kevin Spacey, who cracks jokes but is true-blue all the way. (I suspect this character is meant to be gay, which helps explain why he’s the one Good Guy who succumbs to the disease’s ravages, while everyone else mourns his loss.) Hoffman also has an estranged wife, Rene Russo, who is a fellow scientist. At the start of the film, their marriage is ending, strained beyond endurance by their competing careers, but you just know they still love one another.

In the Bad Guy camp, there’s creepy Donald Sutherland, a Major General who has his own nefarious uses for the deadly virus. Hollywood knows full well that a force of nature doesn’t make a good on-screen villain: you also need a human bad-guy on whom to fix all blame. And Sutherland, with his white mane of hair and his icy blue eyes, fills the bill perfectly. So fixated is he on keeping to his scheme that he’s ready to bomb the citizens of Cedar Creek back to the Stone Age. Lower down on the chain of command is a Brigadier General played by Morgan Freeman, who has a warm though feisty relationship with Hoffman’s Colonel Sam Daniels. When Hoffman pushes for a strong medical response to the budding crisis, Freeman stonewalls him.  It’s not that he’s a genuine Bad Guy, but he’s under orders from Sutherland to keep the evil secrets under wraps. Still, he IS Morgan Freeman, so you know that at a critical moment he’ll Do the Right Thing.

And how, we wonder, does the epidemic end? Well, fortunately, it’s just a matter of tracking down that one host monkey and using its antibodies in a serum that instantly solves everyone’s problems (too late for poor Kevin Spacey, alas). Meanwhile, Major General Donald Sutherland is still out there with his bombs. And so a movie that purports to be about a medical crisis ends up with a big action sequence involving a whole lot of helicopters. That, of course, is Hollywood Rule #102: when in doubt, end with a chase scene

So this movie has it all: blood, guts, romance, diversity, helicopters.  Spoiler alert: they all live happily ever after.