A week between major studio Summer blockbusters still finds a few releases available to see both in theaters and streaming. This set of reviews includes a winning period comedy-drama, an action-packed assassin movie, an anime epic, a road trip film, a Jane Austen adaptation, and an animated sea monster movie. The following features reviews for Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris, The Gray Man, The Deer King, Don’t Make Me Go, Persuasion, and The Sea Beast.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris: 7 out of 10
The Setup: In 1950s London, a widowed cleaning lady (Lesley Manville) falls madly in love with a couture Dior dress, deciding she must have one of her own. After working to raise funds to pursue her dream, she embarks on an adventure to Paris that will change not only her own outlook — but the very future of the House of Dior.
Review: It’s not as though counter-programming is new when looking at the various options provided by the different movie studios, but Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris still feels refreshing. Along with Mr. Malcolm’s List and the most recent Downton Abbey film, having a set of PG-rated period films focused on strong female characters moving through low-stakes adventures really does do enough to satisfy. In the case of this particular film, Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel has been adapted as a fun cinematic journey, with director Anthony Fabian understanding how to lock in on balancing real emotions and wish fulfillment.
After playing opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, as his no-nonsense sister in Phantom Thread, here she is in a more disarming role on the other end of the design business. As Manville knows what she’s doing, she manages to place herself right at home in the part of Ada Harris, a strong-willed woman who ideally brings her sense of politeness and curiosity to everyone she meets. Following an opening act firmly establishing Mrs. Harris’ simple life as a cleaning lady, the arrival in Paris opens things up in delightful ways.
Yes, there are various forms of drama and at least one rude French person to deal with (Isabelle Huppert), but the film’s charm comes from how the film push through the class separation by approaching the material with warmth. It may mean the messaging can feel a bit heavy at times, but it doesn’t stop the film from entertaining. Plus, as a film about a woman searching for a fancy frock, Jenny Beavan’s costume design does plenty of good in recreating this era of couture Dior dresses. I’m no aficionado, but Mrs. Harris brings audiences on a successful trip to Paris.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Gray Man: 6 out of 10
The Setup: When the CIA’s most skilled mercenary known as Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), aka Sierra Six, accidentally uncovers dark agency secrets, he becomes a primary target and is hunted worldwide by a psychopathic freelance assassin, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans).
Review: Outside of the MCU, it’s becoming clear how these various action movie productions by Anthony and Joe Russo function. While Extraction, 21 Bridges, and now The Gray Man (which the Russo’s directed) seem to be calling back to the 90s era of action, when Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer were giving directors like Michael Bay and Tony Scott a lot of free reign to develop their style, it may more fitting to label Russo productions as video game movies not based on video games.
Now, granted, many action-based video games have mined from 90s action movies as well. The difference I’m seeing here is how much effort is put into blending digitized action concepts with quality stunt work. Similarly, the story is not any more complex than it needs to be, with Gosling delivering a stoic performance for any gamer to place themselves in his shoes.
None of this is to say The Gray Man is bad by operating on such a level, but it’s clearly not asking all that much from the audience. I only wish it could do better to justify a steep price tag (though with a cast that also includes Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Rege-Jean Page, Alfre Woodard, Billy Bob Thorton, and Tamil cinema star Dhanush, I get where the money has to go when actors don’t receive backend points for streaming titles).
As it stands, even with a simplified story, there is fun to be found in this ‘spy vs. spy’ flick. If Gosling is using this as an entry point for a franchise, he gives a sort of detached take on his character that he’s excelled at and the Russo’s clearly enjoy relying on. As a counter, Evans relishes the opportunity to play the fancy, patronizing, vicious, and just plain jerkish Lloyd. Between the two, enough set pieces are geared to allow them to sink into these roles while flexing their action chops.
The supporting cast does what they can as well, with Henwick and de Armas existing to call out the boys club environment that has caused so much damage. Meanwhile, Page may be wanted by many as the next James Bond, but he’s fine here (for now), settling for a fussy Bond villain. Between these characters and the over-directed action, for a globetrotting assassin thriller, it’s not all that complex, but it satisfies more than most actual video game movies.
Where To Watch: Now in select theaters and available to stream on Netflix starting July 22, 2022.
The Deer King: 7 out of 10
The Setup: The last survivor of a band of warriors is enslaved in a salt mine. One night, savage dogs attack, and a mysterious disease wipes out everyone at the mine. The warrior escapes with a little girl while a gifted physician looks for a cure.
Review: While it certainly has many admirable qualities, it’s pretty clear The Deer King risks sitting in the shadows of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, regarded by many as one of his greatest efforts, or at least his most epic. Of course, there should always be room for more anime epics, as I don’t see much point in wanting to deny animators and filmmakers the chance to develop detailed worlds in the form of hand-drawn animation. This may not have resulted in the quintessential anime epic, but the visuals on display, the messaging behind the story, and some genuinely exciting moments kept me interested.
The setup is great. Figuring that everything must expand from where this film starts, I appreciated seeing some smaller-scale moments to set up what one warrior is capable of. At the same time, getting this other plot supported by a character’s interest in curing a disease felt like a unique approach to a supposed rival. There’s more to this story, including political intrigue, isolated villages, and how to best understand nature. Balancing all these elements is where things become tricky, and I can’t say the film doesn’t feel like it loses its momentum at times.
However, what’s being presented on screen is just enough, considering its exceptional animation. As an American with only so much familiarity, I can understand the high bar created by Studio Ghibli, but Production I.G. and directors Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji took on a challenge where the quality is undoubtedly reflected in the final product. Perhaps adapting a two-volume Manga series meant compensating for a lot when designing one feature film. I’m not the one to say what choices should have been made, but having watched the film and seeing so much to appreciate, this Deer King leads well enough.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
Don’t Make Me Go: 5 out of 10
The Setup: A terminally ill man (John Cho) and his teenage daughter (Mia Isaac) embark on a road trip from California to New Orleans for his 20th college reunion. While there, he secretly hopes she can reunite with the mother who left them long ago.
Review: The problem with a movie like Don’t Make Me Go is how anyone that has seen it will automatically want to talk about how it ends. It really doesn’t make sense to sidestep this factor. At the same time, just providing an assessment without referencing what makes it truly stand out would feel disingenuous. If I dare put that aside, on the whole, the film is, at its best, a genuinely affecting road trip movie about a father and daughter working through troubled times.
There are some levels of deception at play. As Cho’s Max has a tumor that does not leave him many options, he chooses to hide this from his daughter. Isaac’s Wally has high school-level drama that she feels her dad won’t understand. She’s also a teenage girl who one expects to be rebellious, certainly when it comes to being dragged on a road trip with no real context. Both actors make this work.
Director Hannah Marks and writer Vera Herbert aren’t reinventing anything here. Still, their attitude toward the characters means allowing them to function as contemporary people. There’s a looseness to the dialogue that registers, as Cho, Isaac, and other characters who pop up have a sort of lived-in chemistry between each other that is ultimately a benefit. I only wish the dramatic beats that feel required could have come off better.
A confrontation between two men leads to an obvious brawl. Driving lessons for Wally mean she’s both uncomfortable at first and then relies on anger to suddenly take charge of the road (in dangerous fashion). Confessions come out at precisely the moments one expects.
Again, being a likable drama ultimately helps Don’t Make Me Go work for most of its runtime…only until it reaches a climax that I did not appreciate. There are bold choices, but there are also misguided ones. Given what’s accomplished in the character arcs by a certain point, this film wasn’t better served by its story choices, even if it is a way to break from the pack. A shame, as I was enjoying this road trip for the most part.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Prime Video.
Persuasion: 4 out of 10
The Setup: Living with her snobby family on the brink of bankruptcy, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) is a nonconforming woman with modern sensibilities. When Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) –the one she let get away–crashes back into her life, Anne must choose between putting the past behind her or listening to her heart when it comes to second chances.
Review: While there’s certainly an appeal to adapting one of the works of Jane Austen every so often, Persuasion is the sort of film that reminds one how it’s not a simple thing to do. Given the many adaptations of Austen’s work (this story has been made into two previous films and two previous miniseries), the choice to have this version stand out comes in its loose adaptation of the dialogue. Essentially – there’s a choice to rely on more modern terminology to shake up the language.
There’s certainly a way to do this. Clueless and 2020’s Emma. are on different spectrums in terms of presentation, but presented specific takes relying on ways to update the material. Unfortunately, the adaptation by Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow came up lacking in how to interlace anachronistic elements within this comic romance. From a directorial standpoint, Carrie Cracknell seems to have encouraged far too many attempts to make the film feel more knowing in its delivery.
As a result, here’s a film that wants to deliver more wit from a story already filled with such a tone. Not hurting is the casting, as Johnson may be putting in her best efforts, but her version of the free-spirited Anne only goes so far when matched against Jarvis’ stiff demeanor. Henry Golding also shows up, and while he seems to be having fun, the film never quite settles in well enough with these individuals (but sure, Richard E. Grant is a delight).
A couple of weeks ago, I fully endorsed Mr. Malcolm’s List, which clearly took inspiration from Austen in novel and film form. Now we have Netflix once again distributing an inferior version of the genuine article, this time being a lighthearted period romance. At least one can say some have learned from the past for the better, but Persuasion isn’t quite there.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Sea Beast: 8 out of 10
The Setup: In an era when terrifying beasts roamed the seas, monster hunters were celebrated heroes, and none were more beloved than the great Jacob Holland (Karl Urban). But when young Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator) stows away on his fabled ship, he’s saddled with an unexpected ally. Together they embark on an epic journey into uncharted waters and make history.
Review: I’ve had many thoughts on how the Disney company has treated their recent Pixar releases. Not quite the same thing here, but given how Lightyear wasn’t a runaway hit with audiences, it’s a shame that Netflix couldn’t swing more fanfare and a wide theatrical release for an animated film that truly delivers. Even while understanding the goal of this story and the animated films it feels similar to, The Sea Beast has a wonderfully detailed world, gigantic monsters, and a story full of humor, heart, and excitement.
Sure, having a giant sea monster battle in the middle of this film was the kind of thing that would automatically have me on board for most movies (If Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris featured one, I’d be campaigning it or Best Picture), but even outside the visceral thrills, this is an excellent feature. Director Chris Williams (Big Hero 6), having more leeway outside of the Mouse House, delivers a grand sea adventure that, sure, combines a cute kid and an adult who must reform his sea monster hunting ways, but also finds the lines as far as how serious to take things.
For all the gags and elements of comedy that inform this story and the character pairing, there are fitting intentions that dare to interrogate how certain populations use shaky foundations to believe themselves to be in the right when dealing with “an other.” It’s enough to make for a compelling story and a more daring feature as a whole. Having stunning animation on top of this only helps make a case for what Netflix can accomplish when making sound investments.
While a little long, there’s enough talent being spread to all aspects of The Sea Beast, making it a joy to watch. Not bad for a grand original sea tale full of creatures, swashbuckling, and other fun displays of fantasy.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.