Review – Embracing Your Darker Side (“Emily the Criminal”)

This movie offers a simple question: when you’ve been forced to the bottom of the barrel and you’ve got nowhere to go, what will you do to climb, scratch, and claw your way back out? Will you even do something illegal or immoral?

Her name is Emily Bennetto (Aubrey Plaza) and she is having a very bad day. Not only does she have a 70K school loan debt weighing her down, but her dead-end catering job isn’t helping, and all her job interviews end in disaster. Oh sure, she has a cool friend named Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) who’s a magazine model and might get her a job–maybe–but that’s not gonna help her in the here and now. Then she meets Youcef (Theo Rossi), an easy-going, low-level criminal who deals in credit card fraud and promises cash up-front. . . IF you don’t get caught, that is. After Emily scores an easy $200, she tries her hand at a more dangerous $2000 job and succeeds, but barely.

Lured at the prospect of easy, quick, turn-around cash and Youcef teaching her the biz, Emily soon becomes proficient at her newfound trade and is making bank, much to the surprise of Youcef and his less-than-happy brother, Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). The more that Emily dives deeper into this new “job” of hers, the more she gains confidence in herself, which comes in handy when menacing bad guys come a’callin’. Finally, Liz’s promise of a super-cool job comes through at her modeling agency, but will Emily leave her high-paying, albeit very illegal side gig, for something legit and boring?

Then act three rolls around for a surprise showdown between Youcef and his brother that doesn’t end the way you’d expect. This is John Patton Ford’s debut as both a theatrical screenwriter & director, as he’s only done one other short film before. His writing is on point, but still needs a bit more polish in some respects. The entire subplot of Liz is totally unnecessary and could have been cut from the script without any difference to the storyline. Plus, as good as this film is (and it is very good), Ford needed to crank it up a few notches. I’m guessing for his feature film debut he was playing it safe, which is a shame as the material lent itself to some really terrific action scenes that could have taken place.

While the finale isn’t a shocker, it is consistent with the movie as a whole, which plays out very real and almost voyeuristic. Aubrey Plaza, who you probably know as the deadpan April on TV’s Parks & Recreation, gets a choice starring role in this Sundance film festival indie movie and nails her part with aplomb. She is so natural that she never ‘acts’, which I find refreshing. And the chemistry between her and Rossi is wonderful, as Rossi isn’t the evil, twisted, criminal mastermind you’d expect to see in these kinds of movies; another great change of pace I enjoyed seeing.

And just for a quick cameo, watch for Gina Gershon as Liz’s acidic boss who gives Emily an interview. It’s a short scene (and one they show in some trailers), but it’s just delicious to watch Gershon and Plaza verbally spare with each other. Most of Ford’s writing is like this; deliberate, conversational, and true. Nothing fancy or written like a 14-year-old doing internet fan-fiction. I’d like to see more from Ford in the future!   

**Now showing only in theaters

Baby Face (1933)

Even though it was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola waaaay back in 1933 and before the widespread film code enforcement took effect in 1934, this powerfully feminist and empowering movie was banned, censored, and labeled as immoral & objectionable.

It’s a tough, pathetic life for ambitious Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) in prohibition-era Pennsylvania, especially when your loser father (Robert Barrat) tries to sell you into sex slavery. Fortunately, Lily’s daddy gets blown up by his homemade still and that gives her the chance to move out and up, thanks to the force-fed words of local cobbler, Mr. Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), who demands she “use men to her advantage,” as it says in Nietzsche. Armed with this knowledge (and her looks/body) she and her Black buddy, Chico (Theresa Harris), go to NYC to kick-start her career.

Lily sets her sights on the powerful Gotham Bank & Trust and slowly, carefully, manipulates & cons her way into a filing position there. But not long after, she is shamelessly flirting with Jimmy McCoy, jr (a very young John Wayne!), then his boss, Mr. Brody (Douglass Dumbrille) who gets caught and fired by an executive, Ned Stevens (Donald Cook). But instead of being let go, Lily goes after Ned, successfully becoming his powerful secretary and ruining his future marriage. After that, Lily zeroes in on Vice President J. P. Carter (Henry Kolker) and plays him like a fiddle. However insanely jealous Ned goes nuts and kills J. P. and himself over Lily! Yikes!

With the bank in turmoil, the Board of Directors hires Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), a notorious playboy, as the bank’s new president. His first order? Ship the scandalous Lily off to their Paris, France branch to avoid any further controversy. As much as she tries, Lily finds Courtland immune to her charms and manipulations. . . until it doesn’t. Yeah, he falls and falls hard; so hard, in fact, that he neglects his own job, leading to criminal indictments back home in NYC! The original bleak ending was re-written to give it a happier ending and show that Lily wasn’t the callous, wicked, unfeeling bitch that she was.

For 1933 audiences it was appalling, daring, and pulled from screens in many cities for being too risque! Yes, all the “sex scenes” were all done off-screen or behind closed doors, but people’s imaginations went wild. The screenplay is, for the most part, pretty silly as far as dialogue is concerned, but for 1933 it was on point. The fact that a woman could ever do this was never spoken about out loud, so to see portrayed on the screen was shocking and Stanwyck nailed the role with ease. She never overplays Lily and her performance is Oscar caliber. And it’s made better with the capable camera work of director Alfred E. Green, whose impressive lifetime of work spans from his 1916 silent films to 1953’s The Eddie Cantor Story.

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