Tag: emma thompson

Howards End

Howards End (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

Handsome-looking every step of the way, “Howards End,” based upon the novel by E.M. Forster and adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a film to be admired from a sensory point of view but, for most, including myself, not one to invest emotionally despite first-class performances. Yet it is worth seeing at least once because there are numerous fresh choices here that modern dramas, particularly of the mainstream variety, that can learn from. More importantly, how these choices are utilized in order to make a rather old-fashioned plot feel new and engaging.

One of these choices is in the use of transition between scenes. The plot revolves around a wealthy family who owns various estates in England whose patriarch, Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), strict in maintaining his wealth, reputation, and privilege, chooses to ignore his wife’s dying wish (Vanessa Redgrave) of the titular estate being passed on to Margaret (Emma Thompson), a middle-class unmarried woman who lives with her siblings (Helena Bonham Carter, Adrian Ross Magenty). Because the story unfolds in different houses, certainly of varying prestige, it is critical that the transitions do not come across as sudden or jarring. An interesting choice is employing seemingly random images like a group of horses clip-clopping their way down the street, a person reading out loud the words of the novel he is immersed in, or the camera moving away from the focal point of the action and toward a nondescript object that just so happen to be in the same room.

It is such a clever way to denote a movement in location, to highlight a passage of time, to underscore emotions felt but not expressed. A deep level of poetry can be found in these images which is most appropriate because Margaret and her siblings are the type of people who take pleasure in appreciating art, reading and discussing literature, listening to music and form theories about them. Thus, the artistic choice of making each transition special puts us into the mindset or lifestyle of Margaret’s family—which also serves as a contrast against the Wilcox clan: how they tend to value money and what people say about them over everything else. If there were love in the Wilcox’ household, it would be found in their bank accounts.

Another interesting approach is minimizing the drama—which may sound odd because the material is dramatic by nature. For instance, revelations about certain characters, especially their pasts, are almost treated as afterthoughts. We suspect that certain secrets will be a big deal when revealed, but more often there are no screaming matches, no yelling, no tears. There is, however, compartmentalization. Although it did not always work for me because I found that certain characters a not fully fleshed out, particularly in establishing thoroughly convincing relationships, especially the romantic variety, there is great drama in not expressing. Consummate performers like Thompson and Hopkins thrive in being quiet and letting us know how knowledge of certain things affect their characters. And that is enough to make us feel for them. After all, we have all been situations where we find ourselves at a loss for words, sometimes on purpose in order to maintain a level of control, even though coming across such information bothers us to the core.

To elaborate further, I felt that the relationship between Margaret and Henry is curious but lacking detail—that certain crucial elements are lost between novel and film. For example, I found no compelling reason for someone like Margaret to want to have anything to do with Henry. Did she enjoy the man’s attention because she herself is getting older yet she remains unmarried? Was she interested in his money? Being the central character, her motivation must be clear. Instead, the possible romantic connection felt rushed. Another example is the change in Margaret and Helen’s relationship. Again, it is hastily handled which felt contrived and unconvincing about half the time.

So, you see, I admired the film for its craft but not necessarily the human connections. Another example: The cinematography, the rural outdoors being juxtaposed against the metropolitan London, offers great beauty in different ways. Perhaps the intention then is to create contrasting impressions. It does, after all, tackle the subject of contrasting worlds.

Watching the work is like looking at a seemingly ordinary painting of a house sitting in a field but as you look more closely, its world opens up and speaks to you. It was a strange feeling and I urge others to see if they would have that experience, too.

Men in Black: International

Men in Black: International (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

F. Gary Gray’s “Men in Black: International” is a tolerable but forgettable reboot that does not take enough risks because the studio is afraid to provide a work so different that fans of the franchise may find it unpleasant, off-putting, or unrecognizable. But guess what? The last entry was released seven years ago. The more appropriate move, one may argue, is to overhaul the series completely, turn it toward a different direction, and let it rip. It may or may not have worked. But at least it would have been memorable, a fearless experiment. Instead, however, we are handed this reluctant reboot, too safe to become anything more than a movie to be forgotten about once the end credits appear. A losing strategy was chosen.

We follow Molly (Tessa Thompson), dubbed Agent M by Agent O (Emma Thompson), lead of Men in Black’s New York branch, during her probationary period in London. Smart, observant, and highly enthusiastic to learn more about the secret organization, Agent M recognizes that Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) is one of the top suits within the London branch, and so she finds a way for the two of them to work on a case. The screenwriters, Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, make the correct decision to establish the protagonist before the banters and the effects-heavy action sequences. Because we get a sense of her quick wit, resourcefulness, and determination, we do not question her qualifications. If only the rest of the picture functioned on this level.

Exchanges between H and M are hit-or-miss. While Hemsworth and Thompson share some chemistry, it is never fiery or crackling. Perhaps it is in the way the characters are written when together. They have different personalities but they are not opposites. And because they are not opposites, they rarely clash. And because they rarely clash, drama fails to reach a zenith.

It is apparent the duo are meant to be liked, together and apart. They are played with cool and gusto by the attractive leads, but this approach comes across as boring at times. The humor is like a gentle tap on the shoulder when there are instances where we crave for a playful punch in the gut. Furthermore, it oozes political correctness when it comes to gender and I found it to be both distracting and patronizing. The casting itself is already daring. Why not go all the way?

I enjoyed the curious creatures that populate this universe. There are nudges to previous “Men in Black” films but these are rarely ostentatious. I smiled at the small moments when the camera would linger for an extra second or two to admire an an extraterrestrial’s body shape, skin texture, tentacles, number of heads, humanoid eyes. They need not talk, or grunt, or do anything to have a personality. It gives the impression that the filmmakers are proud of the special and visual effects outside of the action scenes even though these effects do not always blend seamlessly into the environment.

Speaking of action scenes, they are tired and generic. There is nothing special about toy-looking guns shooting colorful lasers. Cue the swooshing sound effects and CGI explosions. To me, these are mere punctuations to the adventures Agents M and H must go through to forge a formidable partnership. After all, the point is to revive a nearly dead franchise. If this core wasn’t strong—and it isn’t about half the time—then the movie would have been an exercise in futility.

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Ivory’s subtle but powerful “The Remains of the Day,” based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, tasks the viewer to read between the lines. On the surface, it can be argued that nothing much happens as we observe men of certain pedigree enter and exit the palatial Darlington Hall. But look closely and listen intently at how people—both the men of titles and the servants whose job is to ensure that every little thing during such posh gatherings goes swimmingly—carry themselves and the content of the various exchanges. There is a wealth of information to be had that touches upon duty—to one’s country, fellowmen, career, personal needs, and conscience. Here is a film for those willing to fall under its hypnosis.

The story begins and ends in 1958 post-war Britain, but the majority of its content unfolds throughout the 1930s. Anthony Hopkins plays the butler of Darlington Hall, Mr. Stevens, and he is in charge of every minute detail, from making astute hiring decisions to carefully evaluating whether certain jobs are being performed well, that goes on within the residence. The later timeline involves the butler meeting with the former housekeeper, Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson), who decided to leave Darlington Hall so she could get married, while the earlier timeline shows the many years the two have worked together and how their professional relationship and a sort-of friendship change over time.

Tension is ever-present when these veteran performers exchange dialogue. Their characters utilize their words either as shields or weapons, to attack or to disarm, sometimes to attempt to embrace, in a place where feelings, certainly romantic ones, are encouraged to be repressed because not doing so would not only serve as distraction, it would be considered unprofessional. Their struggle is a deliciously ironic, especially through the scope of nobility and decorum, because the owner of Darlington Hall (James Fox) eventually finds himself willing to make a deal with Adolf Hitler in order to prevent Britain from engaging in war. A number of wealthy diplomats, many of them so detached from what their citizens want, frequent the place and we assess their questionable intentions in a place of great beauty, from its internal architectures and sculptures to figurines and artworks hung on walls.

It is amazing how Hopkins is able to convey so much by wearing a rather stoic face and slow but precise body movements. A consummate actor, he is able to communicate plenty, for example, by simply touching someone else’s hand with only his fingertips and letting them rest there for three seconds. Notice the way he controls his eyes when Mr. Stevens is performing an every day task, how it is rather similar to how he regards Ms. Kenton—it is the same look. But it is the correct decision, you see, because the character’s passion lies in his job for it is his life. And so it is most appropriate that he looks at his work and the woman he deeply cares for in the same way. It is such an intelligent and insightful way of portraying a character. Thus, Mr. Stevens qualifies both an enigma and a tragic romantic figure.

Its languid pacing paves the way for viewers to become a part of Mr. Stevens’ lifestyle. Because the protagonist does not say much, especially in terms of what he feels or thinks (he claims it is his job to serve, not to share his opinion or sentiments), it is critical that we are provided a thorough understanding of how he lives. The writing and camera work engage in a steady rhythm, almost like a slow dance, so that almost every scene communicates something important or telling about the character. It is not interested in handholding or spoon-feeding us information; it is there if or when we choose to look.

Here is a melancholic film that engages the mind. It does not attempt to be profound or enlightening, it just is. It simply tells the story in a smart way and it is up to us to extract meaning based on our own education, life experiences, our hopes and fears. It is a very human story lovingly told with perspective, elegance, and grace.


Wit (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) breaks the news to her patient, Dr. Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson), a professor of seventeenth century poetry, that she has advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. It is the type of cancer that has gone undetected during its first three stages—the fourth stage being so aggressive that the patient’s only hope is so undergo eight cycles of experimental chemotherapy. There is no fifth stage. Dr. Bearing agrees to battle the cancer.

Based on the play by Margaret Edson, “Wit” is a highly intelligent, moving, and searing portrait of what cancer really is instead of what most people think it is. More specifically, what the disease and the treatment do to the body—how the process is ugly and messy, how it can manage to strip away one’s dignity. When I hear that people are brave for trying to fight or overcoming cancer, I am not sure I buy it completely. This film shows that maybe people with cancer face the disease only because they do not have a choice.

Right from the very first scene, the direction by Mike Nichols is confident and clinical. The first shot is the close-up of a doctor with bad news; the second shot is the patient absorbing the grim diagnosis—in a series of close-ups we learn how they handle themselves in a difficult situation. It engages the mind. The second scene is equally powerful: a bald woman, Dr. Bearing, in a hospital gown speaking directly to camera. We know not many details about the woman with no hair but we immediately learn of her resolve. This is no ordinary Lifetime movie about a cancer patient.

I admire movies that take their time presenting details. Here, they are not afraid to use big words, phrases, and ideas—whether it be an aspect of poetry or literature or medical terminologies. Scenes that take place in the hospital are blended with scenes that take place in a university—a portrait of dying woman and a portrait of a woman in her prime—just as art is melded with science. The contrasting elements presented on screen never come off pretentious because the rhythm of language and passions of the characters on screen are constantly on the forefront: Though ideas and concepts are alive and well just underneath the epithelium, it embodies a humanistic approach first and foremost.

Standout scenes involve interactions between tough as nails Dr. Bearing and a physician-scientist in the fellowship stage of his career named Dr. Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward). Dr. Posner—very ambitious, smart, and focused—was Dr. Bearing’s student at one point even though his major was biochemistry. His goal was to take the three most difficult classes the campus had to offer and Dr. Bearing’s class happened to be one of them. Dr. Posner, without meaning malfeasance, treats his patient like a lab rat. The former student-teacher’s scenes are so uncomfortable that even though I wanted to admire Dr. Posner for his intelligence and drive, his bedside manner is so poor, I wondered why he even bothered to choose medicine as a career.

At one point, a nurse, Susie (Audra McDoland), asks Jason why he chose to specialize in cancer. He describes the disease as “awesome,” but his reasoning as to why it is such a fascinating disease to devote one’s life to study and learn from, I was reminded of why I decided to study cancer biology. The truth is, cancer is an awesome disease. I would even go as far to say that it is a smart disease—equipped with multiple ways, many of which I am convinced are still undiscovered, to overcome various therapeutics.

Lastly, “Wit” touched my very core. The way Susie is not afraid to touch Dr. Bearing’s body at its most fearful and most frail reminded me of the time when my grandfather was dying of cancer. I was moved to tears because it reminded me how much I regret not looking at my grandpa in eyes more often, not hugging him more tightly, not talking to him about the details that really matter about myself. In retrospect, maybe I wasn’t mature enough at the time or that his mortality had not fully sunk in. Or maybe I was just afraid.

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the book “Mary Poppins,” is advised to close a deal with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) because she is running out of money. Though the writer realizes the difficulty of her financial situation, the story is really important to her so she cannot let go. If she does sign over her rights to Disney, it means two things: the film will be a musical and it will contain animation. She finds the idea repulsive. She believes songs and dancing penguins will take away the necessary gravity from her original work.

“Saving Mr. Banks,” written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is as light as a feather. Although Thompson and Hanks are entertaining as a pair, the picture is not an effective comedy-drama because the dramatic elements are so syrupy to the point of indigestion. The film is divided into two time points: the novelist’s visit to Los Angeles in 1961 and her childhood in 1906 when she learns her father’s addiction to alcohol (Colin Farrell). The former, the comedy, is a joy while the latter, the drama, is bereft of energy. A lopsided picture results.

Thompson finds the right tone to make an entertaining character. Though she creates a very uptight Travers, not once does she come off mean-spirited. In fact, we can understand where she is coming from because handing over what is important to us to someone else who we fear is not as passionate or invested is often difficult. Interestingly, even though she is supposed to be the main character of the movie, most of us will find ourselves on the side of Disney and his artists without realizing why. Such is the power of branding and legacy in action.

The screenplay allowing Travers to be surrounded by merry characters is a good source of comedy. Every time she criticizes a proposed direction, an accompanying reaction shot is shown at the right time. Also, it lingers just enough to showcase their frustration, shock, or embarrassment. It becomes clear quite quickly that Travers’ approach is a dictatorship rather than a partnership. And yet when the tone shifts just a little, especially during the scenes between the writer and her driver (Paul Giamatti), it feels just right. The sensitive moments are earned.

Flashbacks to Australia ’61 are a bore. The sentimentality is just too much. Put the overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson—miscast and the character underwritten), alcoholic father, and a daughter’s innocence (Annie Rose Buckley) being crushed into the mix, there is a lack of uplift within the time period to balance the sad moments. At one point, a character chooses to commit suicide. I was shocked—not in a good way. What if children who love Robert Stevenson’s “Mary Poppins” end up seeing this? How is that appropriate? In my opinion, if a serious subject like suicide is brought up, it should at least be acknowledged or explained later.

Another problem, though somewhat of a lesser degree, is that I never felt as though Disney ever liked his punctilious collaborator. His gestures to convince Travers to sign the paperwork feel hollow. I suppose deals are made in real life without people having to like each other or to meet in person, but it feels a bit off here. One gets the impression that a more realistic layer is tacked on late into script development.


Brave (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a princess whose life is planned out by her mother. Each day she is trained how to behave, speak, and express herself as lady, but most of the time her mind is occupied by thoughts of perfecting the craft of the bow and arrow. The tension between the Princess Merida and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) reaches a peak when the latter invites three clans to their kingdom and the former must choose which eldest male to marry. Enraged by her mother’s unrelenting efforts to abide by tradition, Merida runs to the woods and comes across a cottage owned by a witch. A deal is made. Merida believes that if her mother is changed somehow then Merida will be free to alter her fate.

Although entertaining on the surface because of its technical mastery, “Brave” does not have a deep enough story in order for the inevitable realizations of mother and daughter to be compelling. And since the screenplay lacks dramatic focus, in its several attempts to establish layers of complexity in the heroine’s personality and motivations, conflicting messages about independence are created instead.

I admired the look of the picture because right from its opening scenes, we immediately get a sense of community and family within the kingdom. The citizens are composed of various shapes and sizes in terms of face and body size but they do not come across as showy. But the longer we spend time looking at them, whether on the side or the background, the more we get a sense of their occupation or where they rank in the hierarchy. Moreover, the indoors and outdoors share equally detailed images, from the many bricks that make up the castle to the verdant leaves of trees just swaying along a light breeze. The people, animals, objects, and plants have a specific energy about them and the animators tend to force them to interact to create fun and exciting action sequences.

In some ways, it is refreshing that the film does not have a defined villain. The witch (Julie Walters) that Merida turns to for help is not at all evil even though the set-up is quite similar to Ariel wanting to pursue her own destiny on Ron Clements’ “The Little Mermaid.” I found the witch funny and adorable but she is not given more than ten minutes of screen time. It is a shame because her look and voice are so different from the other characters that she is immediately memorable. It would have been an interesting twist if the witch had been a sort of role model for Merida without necessarily holding her hand and pushing her to do what is right as it would need to maintain the picture’s goal of creating a strong, independent-thinking, and bow-and-arrow-wielding Disney princess.

In other ways, the film not having a defined villain is its Achilles’ heel. While Merida’s personality is as fiery as her bushy, curly red hair, there is no one for us to root against as strongly as we want Merida to come out on top. The legendary bear named Mor’du is scary especially when up close but we come to learn only very little about him. Not once is he given chance to express himself outside out of angry roars and wild thrashing. It does not help that each time the beast is threatened by a human character with a sharp weapon, I caught myself thinking whether or not the film will show physical contact as opposed to being completely enveloped by the conflict.

Younger children will be entertained by “Brave,” directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, because plenty of cute and interesting-looking things grace the screen, the music is quite catching, and there is an element of magic in its world. The rest, however, might feel like so much more could have been done to the story, especially within the context of its Scottish-inspired culture, if the writers had been a little braver to really push the envelope and really think about Merida as a character instead of her commerciality.

Men in Black 3

Men in Black 3 (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), the last of his alien species, manages to break out of a lunar prison with the help of a woman expecting to be swept off her feet. Once he arrives on Earth, he vows to rewrite history by going back in time to kill Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), the man responsible for destroying his arm and forty-year imprisonment. Agent J (Will Smith) comes to work the next day with everyone somehow convinced that Agent K has long been dead. With the help of a music shop attendant (Jeffrey Price), the determined Agent J time travels to July 1969.

“Men in Black 3,” written by Etan Cohen and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, is an exciting visual experience but certain technicalities of time travel are either ignored altogether or touched upon only superficially but far from ironed out that at times they tend to cause slight distractions from the central story.

There are plenty of instances when I wished I had the time to appreciate every alien that graces the screen, from the giant fish in Chinatown to the mod-inspired aliens posing in the MIB headquarters. With its rapid-fire dialogue, it is a challenge to pay to attention to what is being said by the characters, which contain important plot points as well as very funny one-liners, while admiring the time and effort that are put into each the creatures. Slow pacing is certainly not a criticism that holds weight against the film. If anything, it needs to be less hyperactive to make room for more meaningful exchanges, especially since the story revolves around Agent J’s love and admiration for his partner.

The action sequences are thrilling in a cartoonish way. They are not suspenseful in a sense that we feel genuine worry when our protagonists traverse dangerous grounds, whether it concerns shootouts on land or racing toward something in great heights. It’s thrilling because we are consistently kept on our toes in terms of what special and visual effects it can show us next. I was surprised that no matter how many times an alien is shot and turns to goo, it never wears its welcome. The only sequence that manages to capture genuine suspense while remaining cartoonish is when Agent J is required to jump from the Empire State Building, wait for the device to turn green at a certain height, and activate it. I even held my breath for a second or two.

Josh Brolin as the twenty-nine-year-old Agent K is a pleasure to watch. I found myself so focused as to when he would slip from his impression of Jones. There were times when I did but it really doesn’t matter because he succeeds in making Agent K his own. Instead of creating a caricature, a one-note joke, Brolin creates enough differences between the younger and older agent: welcome changes like his own brand of humor and a more easy-going personality.

What the film lacks is a stronger closing minutes. Although Agent O (Emma Thompson), the new chief of the MIB headquarters, is introduced, it is of great disappointment that she isn’t given important things to do. The picture touches upon a certain history between Agent K and Agent O. It feels off that we never hear from Agent O again after Agent K goes back in time. Instead of using a running gag as a punchline before the closing credits, is it really that much trouble to take the time to actually write a scene that’s more inspired?