Love and Friendship

Designing Women Indeed

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Love and Friendship

Whit Stillman has no equal in creating memorable characters imprisoned within the social rules of their time – whenever that time may be. With Love and Friendship, he has painted Jane Austen’s Lady Susan in colorful words and situations – some hers, some his – for our great pleasure.

In a flawless portrait, Kate Beckinsale creates Lady Susan Vernon whose deepest inner need is for control and whose way of getting it is manipulation. Newly widowed, Susan no longer has the money to live in the style she once knew. Since anything less would be unthinkable, she announces to her former in-laws that she is coming to visit.

With Susan’s arrival, writer/director Stillman introduces us to the eccentric family that generates the humor that is the bedrock of the story. The men, of course, wilt in the presence of Susan’s beauty and wit. The women are suspicious – except for one who knows one when she sees one and teams with Susan to manipulate the others. That would be Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) the visiting relative from Connecticut who describes her husband perfectly as “too old to be governable, too young to die.”

Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwalt) knows from experience that Susan has not one honest thought in her head. Predictably, Susan targets Catherine’s younger brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel), for herself, while Susan’s parents (Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet) win us quickly with their joint reading of a letter that triggers Sir James’ perfect riff on the “Twelve Commandments.”

Just to further stir the confusion, Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) arrives at the Churchill estate after being tossed out of her boarding school. Tom Bennett plays the doltish Sir James Martin with sublime density.

Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan soars throughout. Blessed with supple intelligence and thinking only of herself, she announces judgements and plans with venal sophistication. Beckinsale creates a woman whose inherent intelligence is devoted entirely to staying on top at a time when money bought all the trappings of power. Has anything changed?

A miscasting can ruin any story that’s all about words, and these actors relish the dialogue they have been given. Words are what this is all about – this comedy of intentions gone awry, the spoken phrases loaded with venom and multiple meanings. It is a magical blend of Whit Stillman and Jane Austin, and it is delicious.

Whit Stillman has brought his fascination with social rules to wildly different eras, usually with the perspective of time that allows observers of the moment to enjoy cultures of the past. Doesn’t that raise the question of whether he has considered commenting on the social layers of the ‘50s when his generation – and mine – were young and wallowing in our new post-war independence without any awareness that – for the most part – we obeyed the unspoken social rules of the moment? Sixty years have passed, plenty of time for Whit Stillman to find humor in that period of our unconscious compliance.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Love and Friendship
Word count : 495
Running time : 1:32
Rating : PG
Date : June 1, 2016



A New Psychiatric Cure?

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


Demolition is a metaphor all dressed up in its best clothes by the filmmakers who probably thought audiences wouldn’t get it unless they hammered it home relentlessly. Let’s go step by unfathomable step.

The opening scene presents Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife Julia (Heather Lind), in familiar driving and chatting mode. In one of life’s terrible moments, a truck hits them; Julia is hospitalized and dies. It’s at this point that Davis enters an altered state that will last for most of the movie. Is he racked with guilt? Or, oddly, is he unable to feel any emotion at all?

That’s where director Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriter Bryan Sipe wrap poor Davis in the metaphorical inability to feel anything. From that time forward Davis is a zombie of a fellow swamped by his creators in emptiness as they throw him into violent situations designed to ignite his emotions.

When the hospital candy machine denies him his pack of M&Ms, Davis embarks on a series of complaints to the manufacturer. His repeated letters grow in length and personal revelation until a young woman named Karen (Naomi Watts) begins to respond. That’s as close as Davis comes to expressing feeling. No such luck for his boss Phil Eastwood (Chris Cooper) who also happens to be Julia’s father. Cooper handles that tough assignment well by trying to understand his son-in-law’s odd behavior.

In that already imperfect scenario, director Valee indulges in some rotten stuff that just doesn’t belong on film in the current cultural climate. Consider: Davis taking Karen’s young son to the woods in bullet proof vests and shooting each other repeatedly with bullet balls that knock them over; or Karen’s thug of a boyfriend beating up her gay son; or Davis, still unable to feel, handing Karen’s vulnerable son a sledgehammer and inviting him to help destroy the perfect glass house where he and Julia had lived. Is our takeaway from all this that the true path to learning to feel is physical violence?

The astonishing part of this ill-conceived movie is that the actors who carry it are known by all of us to be genuinely accomplished. Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Naomi Watts are praised repeatedly for doing excellent, often inspired work. Why did none of them see the problems here? Didn’t anyone consider talking to screenwriter Bryan Sipe – at the very least – about the wisdom of highlighting a recreational man/boy loaded gun duel in the woods? And the house. No doubt it was made especially beautiful so its destruction would seem even sadder.

Isn’t this a perfect chance to ask some serious questions about the role movies play in igniting trends in the violent world that now surrounds us? Please, Mr. Sipe, don’t think you have written a metaphorical masterpiece. Your metaphors are too long, too excessive, and too obvious. You don’t need to hit your audiences with the sledgehammer you used to demolish the house.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Demolition
Word count : 498
Distributor : Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Running time : 1:41
Rating ; R