On the run after killing his dad, Bradley Cooper wanders mutely into a carnival needing work and food and gets shown around by Willem Dafoe. Ron Perlman is there of course, typecast as a strongman. Cooper’s talents are gradually put to use until he runs off (openly, not in secret) with Rooney Mara to run their own upscale act stolen from mentalist Toni Collette and her late partner David Strathairn.

A couple years later in the plotty, less compelling back half of the movie, the spook act impresses Mary Steenburgen and he’s set up with haunted and dangerous Richard Jenkins. Psychologist Cate Blanchett gives him inside dirt on Jenkins then swindles him, Rooney dislikes his turn to crime-laced trickery, and after it all goes wrong he leaves town in a chicken car, wounded, with nothing and nobody, and comes crawling to new circus master Tim Blake Nelson.

It’s convenient when you’re a circus psychic that everyone in the 1940’s had the same backstory. The movie is as obvious as I’d guessed from the trailer, but the actors and the look of the thing make it completely worthwhile.

Does it become a horror movie when the parents show up, or was it always one? Toni Collette kinda launches the whole thing into outer space. My own parents would’ve ditched before this point – very confused by the coworker who said she’s watching this with her whole family. Seeing all your own paintings and poetry as plagiarized, hmmmm. Buckley hard to get a handle on, Collette and David Thewlis leaping through different times of their lives/ages. This would be worth watching again now that I’ve read the theory that the school janitor is Plemons imagining his own past, real and fantasized. I know Buckley from Wild Rose, and I’ll always think of Plemons as the young master from The Master.

This is how to do remakes – start with a disreputable movie, cast a good lead and a hammy villain, and have as much fun as possible. Add a couple twists (vampire needs to be invited to come inside, but there’s nothing stopping him from setting your house on fire to drive you out) and some real dodgy digi effects, you’re done. I don’t feel strongly about it either way.

I guess this guy stars in Kick-Ass:

Anton Yelchin is our guy, with mom Toni Collette, girl Imogen Poots, and nerdy childhood friend who has grown apart Chris Mintz-Plasse. When new neighbor Colin Farrell vampires the latter two, Anton escalates to the world’s foremost authority on the dark arts, Vegas magician David Tennant. Oh wait, the screenshots are confusing on this matter, maybe he doesn’t get Poots, or he does get her then they turn her back – either way, the magician will have none of this nonsense, then steps up when convinced of the reality.

We held a miniature Jane Austen film festival at home the week all the movie theaters closed and first-release films started coming out to (expensively) stream… tried one of those, plus three standard-def classics.

Persuasion (1995, Roger Michell)

Better of the two Persuasions. Anne is an old maid (by classic brit-lit standards) who rarely smiles. When her dad and snob-ass sisters retreat to Bath, Anne encounters old flame Captain Wentworth, whom she turned down before he became rich and acclaimed. She follows like a mouse while he’s aggressively courted by a neighboring family with ridiculous daughters, then when a “rich” (not at all rich) cousin shows interest in Anne, Wentworth reveals that he still likes her, and all is settled nicely.

Amanda Root followed up with a Jane Eyre, Ciaran Hinds with Cold Lazarus. The fluffy-haired, not-rich-after-all cousin is Samuel West (Dr. Frankenstein in that jacked-up Van Helsing). Complainy sister Mary is Sophie Thompson of the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma. Susan Fleetwood, Anne’s substitute mom who wears great hats, died of cancer the year this came out.

Emma (2020, Autumn de Wilde)

Radiant looking movie, with high color and production design, and I do love Anya Taylor-Joy and Bill Nighy. Unfortunately the editing was all over the place. It turns out we watched the two Emmas in the wrong order – you’re supposed to watch the one that makes dramatic sense first, then the one that’s super stylized. Persuasion followed Anne, who was persuaded to reject her love, and now we follow Emma, who persuades her friend Mia Goth (of Suspiria Remake) to reject her farmer suitor. Both girls end up with their rightful guys in the end.

Persuasion (2007, Adrian Shergold)

Oh wow, somebody got a digital HD camera and is very excited about it. Sally Hawkins is a more naturally emotive Anne, at least, and we enjoyed that Giles plays her dad. Shergold had previously filmed Dennis Potter’s Christabel and a Timothy Spall hangman movie.

Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

A proper version of the story, and highly enjoyable, with the title character as played by Gwyneth Paltrow seeming more foolish and less cruel. Toni Collette played the Mia Goth role, Alan Cumming as the minister who Emma tries to hook up with Toni, and Jeremy Northam as the man both Harriet and Emma fall for, before Harriet goes back to her farmer. Ewan McGregor is briefly a love interest before it’s revealed that he’s secretly marrying Emma’s rival. The music beat Randy Newman and Hans Zimmer at the oscars, and The English Patient beat this for costumes. Confusingly, between the two versions of Persuasion, Paltrow and Northam and Jennifer Ehle starred in a non-Austen movie called Possession.

Another well-made, scary horror movie that oughtta make everyone’s decade-in-horror lists. Great cast led by Toni Collette and her son Alex Wolff (he played The Rock in flashback in a Jumanji sequel), with Gabriel Byrne as the only family member with one foot in reality, Milly Shapiro as the creepy daughter, and Ann Dowd (The Leftovers) as Toni’s grief counseling buddy.

I can’t complain about a well-acted horror that ends with the apocalyptic rise of a demon cult – that is one of my very favorite things – but it seemed while watching that the movie’s themes/intentions didn’t come together. Toni’s dollhouse models and the way Aster shoots the proper house as if it were a model are cool… and the ghosts/seances angle is neat… and Toni’s love/hate thing with her own children is fascinating… then Alex is set up to host his little sister’s spirit and/or the spirit of an ancient king, per the cult which Toni’s late mom and Ann Dowd were in together. Presumably the cult left the signs and words scratched onto walls and posts, but there’s no way the cult arranged the little sister’s complicated death (Alex swerves to avoid a dead thing in the road just as she sticks her head out the window, gasping for air because of an allergic reaction, and is beheaded by a telephone pole), and the cult’s final assault on the family makes Toni’s sleepwalk-firestarting and miscarriage attempts and other psychological eccentricities feel like false leads. I’m not extremely clear how the title factors in, since each of the family women seems to have her own unique set of problems, unless they’ve “inherited” the attention from the late gramma’s cult. I turned to letterboxd for answers and instead found Mike D’Angelo calling it “frustratingly muddled,” so we’ll call it a solid debut with script problems.

Besides the dollhouses (actually they are Important Art Projects) and the phone pole, there’s the daughter scissoring the head off a dead bird, Byrne burning, dead relatives who are not dead, nudity and dug-up corpses in the attic, ants, Alex slamming his own face into his school desk Nightmare on Elm Street-style, and most horribly, a possessed Toni floating up in a corner merrily garroting herself to death. I thought someone on twitter saying this movie is derivative of Kill List would be a spoiler – it was not, but the shot in the trailer and promo stills of Toni watching a burning family member sure was.

Dollhouse season 1 (2009)

Whedon’s project before Cabin in the Woods.
I love this show.
Ends with a motherfucker of a leap into the future.

Echo (Eliza Dushku, Arnold and Jamie Lee’s teenage daughter in True Lies) is lead doll, alongside exotic-looking Sierra (Dichen Lachman from Nepal of a recent nuclear submarine drama series) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj, billed below Harry Dean Stanton in The Avengers – side note: Harry Dean Stanton was in The Avengers?!).

DeWitt (Olivia Williams, Rosemary Cross in Rushmore) runs the place with techie Topher (Fran Kranz, great in Cabin in the Woods), security guy Dominic (sinister-looking, eyes-too-close-together Reed Diamond of Homicide: Life on the Street) and Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker, in the Cabin in the Woods control room), later revealed to be a doll. Harry Lennix (of Titus) is a major part of the early episodes, later takes over Dominic’s job.

Meanwhile, clueless pawn but sweetly determined FBI man Ballard (square-jawed canadian Tahmoh Penikett, Stanley Kubrick in Trapped Ashes) tries to expose the place and protect his too-perfect neighbor Miracle Laurie who is, of course, a doll. Bonus baddie: Alpha (Alan Tudyk, pilot of the Serenity and voice of King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph)

The staff writers moved on to Spartacus: War of the Damned, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Agents of Shield and Undercovers. Directors include Tim Minear (Firefly), Dwight Little (Halloween 4), Elodie Keene (The Wire season 2), Felix Alcala (Criminal Minds), James Contner (Buffy/Angel, TV movies She Woke Up Pregnant and Hitler’s Daughter), David Straiton (Hemlock Grove), Allan Kroeker (three different Star Trek series), Rod Hardy (the David Hasselhoff Nick Fury movie), David Solomon (Buffy) and Joss Whedon (Buffy/Angel/Firefly)

Veep season 1 (2012)

The Thick of It in the USA, wonderful. Veep Julia Louis-Dreyfus is ably assisted by blonde Amy (Anna Chlumsky, star of My Girl), red haired Mike (Matt Walsh of Upright Citizens Brigade), Tony “Buster” Hale and dark handsome careerist Dan Egan (My Boys).

Also great: receptionist Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) and white house go-between Jonah (Timothy Simons of an upcoming Kevin Costner baseball movie).

Created by the great Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It) with cowriting by In The Loop collaborators Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, Time Trumpet writers Sean Gray and Will Smith, and Peep Show creator Jesse Armstrong. Directed by Iannucci, Christopher Morris (The Day Today) and Tristram Shapeero (Community).

United States of Tara season 1 (2009)

Diablo Cody’s gift for snappy, hilarious dialogue and Toni Collette’s adeptness at her multiple-personality role made this a joy. Let’s see, she plays herself (harried mom mostly cleaning up after her own messes), “T” (sex-crazed teenager), Buck (alpha-male biker), Alice (perfect housewife), and mysterious unnamed poncho-wearing monster.

Tara’s married to patient John Corbett (Northern Exposure), has sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt, title character in Rachel Getting Married) and kids Marshall (Keir Gilchrist, star of It’s Kind of a Funny Story) and Kate (Brie Larson, Scott Pilgrim‘s rocker ex-girlfriend). Also great: Nate “Rob’s brother” Corddry of Studio 60 as Kate’s boss and Patton Oswalt as Corbett’s coworker.

Directors include Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), Mark Mylod (Ali G Indahouse, The Fast Show), Brian Dannelly (Saved!), Tricia Brock (Killer Diller), Tommy O’Haver (Ella Enchanted) and John Dahl (Rounders)

Look Around You season 1 (2002)

Suppose I first looked this up because Edgar Wright plays one of the scientists. Faux-vintage science program. I kept watching since the episodes are only ten minutes each, and got more into it as the concepts and experiments grew more absurd (“Ghosts” was a highlight). Cowriter/star Peter Serafinowicz played Shaun of the Dead‘s uptight roommate, and director Tim Kirkby is working on Veep. It’s probably worth looking up The Peter Serafinowicz Show.

Jon Benjamin Has a Van season 1 (2011)

I guess this isn’t coming back… Benjamin getting his own absurd live-action comedy show was too good to last. A well-assembled self-aware sketch show that worked at least half the time.

Jon’s cowriters: Leo Allen (of Slovin & Allen), Nathan Fielder (who got his own show Nathan for You this year) and Dan Mintz (voice of Tina on Bob’s Burgers), all of whom wrote for Important Things.

Kristen Schaal: Live at the Fillmore (2013)

Weirder and more conceptual than I’d expected. Lots of sex jokes, an extended parody of The Vagina Monologues, a couple of skits. Mostly a miss, but I loved her Sally Jesse Rafael impression and her fake meltdown, repeatedly stumbling over the word “airplane” and requesting a glass of water.

Holy Flying Circus (2011, Owen Harris)

Opens with a fart joke then a sweary joke, and never gets funny, throwing out faux outrages and pained Python references in place of jokes – but it features Mark Heap wearing a beret, so that’s something. Lots of speech-impediment humor: stuttering and tourettes are hilarious. I suppose Life of Brian, which this movie is defending, scores laughs from Pontius Pilate’s lisp, though. Builds to a reenactment of an infamous talk show appearance pitting pythons against clueless religious types – since the dialogue quotes from the actual talk show, it would’ve been nice to just watch that instead.

From a writer on The Thick of It/In the Loop/Veep and a Black Mirror director. Fake Cleese was in Smack the Pony and Hippies, Fake Chapman played something called “Top Hat” in Van Helsing, and Fake Palin is Edie’s newspaper editor in Downton Abbey. I did enjoy the sword/lightsaber puppet duel.

So this is where Toni Collette came from. She plays a loser from a hopeless family in a nowhere town trying to impress her nobody friends, who moves to the city and finally (and convincingly, not all-at-once in a cheap montage) finds herself (alongside dark-haired friend Rachel Griffiths). Writer/director Hogan later made My Best Friend’s Wedding and a version of Peter Pan.