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The Favourite

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.          Starring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult, and James Smith.

The first time I watched The Favourite, around thirty minutes into it, I gasped and turned to the friends I was watching it with, unable to believe what I was hearing and seeing. The compiled score had begun employing an organ piece, one that I knew and loved: “Jesus Accepts His Suffering” from La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen.

At this point in the plot, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) had decided to attempt suicide, because her sufferings were beyond endurance since her favourite lady in waiting, the Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), had left her alone for too long to run the state.

I cannot think of a more perfect musical commentary on the vanity, shallowness, and manipulative character of the Queen as portrayed here. It was at that moment that I knew I was going to love this film.

Given my past experiences with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, my love for The Favourite is surprising. Dogtooth remains one of the five worst films I’ve ever seen; I hated it so much I resolved to skip The Lobster until two friends said it was their favorite film of 2015. After hating that, I was going to skip The Killing of a Sacred Deer until I acquired a screener by chance, so I watched it, and while it was the first time that I thought Lanthimos allowed his absurdism to be a little bit playful, I still found the overarching misanthropy tiring.

However, The Favourite is different. For one thing the outside influences of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara mitigates Lanthimos’ tendency to bludgeon his morbid jokes to a point well beyond death. The historical setting also makes this much easier to swallow as a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity and envy as depicted through the corruption of the early eighteenth-century British court.

The vanity of Queen Anne makes her a Lear-like figure, wanting to be loved but mistaking flattery for love. Her tragic arc mirrors his in a totally expected way. I even described this to a friend as King Lear retold as a dark comedy from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan. Here, those two characters are Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone).

The defining characteristic of envy, as distinct from jealousy, is the inability to be happy for another’s good fortune. As the two ladies in waiting vie for the favouritism of the Queen, they become obsessed with their own success to the point that the other becomes a threat who must be eliminated. It’s a backstabbing story that Rachel Weisz has fittingly compared to All About Eve.

Instead of being set in a dog-eat-dog world of show business, The Favourite ruthlessly critiques the political world of Queen Anne’s court for being the same. The historical basis for the film is the transfer of power in Parliament from the Whigs to the Tories toward the end of her reign. England’s two-party system emerged during Queen Anne’s reign, and the inevitable reality of a two-party political system is that one side’s success means the other’s misfortune. The envy between the two women plays out on a less personal and more political level between the leader of the Whigs, Lord Godolphin (James Smith), and the leader of the Tories, Mister Harley (Nicholas Hoult), as both Sarah and Abigail form alliances to their advantages.

The reality of two women manipulating a power system designed by and for men is that they must work behind the scenes while letting the men think themselves still in charge. It takes a toll on the female characters, which can be seen by the absence of any Cordelia-like character in this twist on King Lear, since this sort of world has no place for such kindness, as Sarah warns Abigail in an early scene. The cost of navigating such a world comes to a climax when the results of Abigail’s nastiest act are crosscut with a debauched party among the foppish men of the court.

Naturally, sexuality features prominently into the attempts to control and use other people. In a world where the wisest choice is first and foremost staying on your own side, using people as sexual objects to get ahead makes perfect sense. Both Abigail and Sarah exploit the loneliness of Queen Anne through intimacy, compounding their envy. Abigail’s desperate state began because she was sold into an abusive marriage by her drunken father, and she reverses that fate through a second marriage which culminates in an hilariously loveless wedding night.

However, as caustic as the humor is throughout the film, there is real sympathy for all three women and their misfortunes. Queen Anne lost seventeen children, and Olivia Colman achieves incredible pathos in her portrayal of the monarch in the midst of the absurdity of the court. When Sarah is forced to reckon with the consequences of her envy, Rachel Weisz brilliantly depicts an unrepentant woman who has lost the only life she has known. As Emma Stone’s Abigail absorbs the manipulative mentality of the court, she transitions from wishing to better herself to harming others in a way that evokes pity for the other two women who grew up in such an environment.

If anyone is unfamiliar with the British history that forms the basic plot points of the story, the fantastic compiled score hints at the eventual outcome. Didascalies, a minimalist work by Luc Ferrari consisting of only two pitches occurs at two crucial moments, linking the characters who most deserve one another. Messiaen’s La Nativité features prominently whenever Queen Anne makes a decision that changes her relationship with her two ladies in waiting, usually because she believes she is the center of the universe. As a means of suggesting the one character who is gradually falling out of favour, three increasingly ominous organ pieces by J. S. Bach, who is notably different from the other composers, serve as underscoring for significant events affecting her.

There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and The Favourite walks both sides of it, acknowledging the absurdism of the decadent British court and its cruelty while not shying away from the destruction wrought by both.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Several sex scenes (mostly out of frame), nudity, harsh obscenities, gruesome aftermath of an injury, animal cruelty, and abusive behavior throughout.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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2018 Favorite Films

Someone on Twitter quipped (I do not remember who, otherwise I would credit them) that 2017 had a small handful of great films which were better than anything released this year. However, considering films just a small step below that tier, 2018 had a much larger pool to choose from. I found that to be the case myself, with over twenty films I could easily have included in my top ten. This was actually one of the hardest yearend lists I have ever put together, given the lengthy list of very good movies I had to narrow down.

An overused quote by Graham Greene states that films should depict the world both as it is and as it should be. Almost all the films below feature a world broken in one way or another whether by pollution, absent fathers, PTSD from the Iraq War, mental illness, or child abuse. At the same time most of those movies feature some form of beauty and hope, whether it be the bond between a boy and his dog, a girl and her father, or a son singing pop songs with his mom.

I think I made a better effort this year than usual to catch up with as many titles as possible, but some things inevitably slipped through the cracks (Cold War and Blindspotting). If a film is not included, I either didn’t see it or didn’t care for it as much as the thirty-five here.

Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):

A Quiet Place, Black Panther, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Lean on Pete, Thoroughbreds, The Rider, Minding the Gap, Roma, Shoplifters, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Death of Stalin, Chosen: Custody of the Eyes, 22 July, Shirkers

Honorable Mentions:

20. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) – Jenkins’ third feature film is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same title. Alternating between flashbacks of an innocent childhood friendship blossoming into a touching romance and the harsher present day realities of being black in America, Baldwin’s story through Jenkins’ camera is both a witness to injustice and a celebration of love and family.

19. Annihilation (Alex Garland) – Deeply indebted to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Garland’s intoxicatingly beautiful sci-fi film about survival and the quest for the perfect organism takes equally awe-inspiring and terrifying turns as its scientist protagonists confront the alien world of the Shimmer.

18. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami) – Kiarostami’s final film, this beautiful recreation of twenty-four paintings and photographs invites reflection on what happens just outside of the frame, asking us to look beyond what we see in front of us and imagine the stories behind each work of art.

17. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) – A love letter to Fred Rogers, a man who saw everyone as his neighbor and used television as a means of living out his Christian faith with as wide an audience as possible.

16. I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni) – A debut feature from Nyoni, she poignantly captures the injustice spurred by fear and bigotry when a young African girl named Shula is accused of being a witch and forced to live in a state-sanctioned witch camp. A fantastic performance from Maggie Mulubwa as Shula reminds us of the freedom and joy a child should have in life and the tragedy of that being taken away.

Runners-up:

15. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller) – The “true story” of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a down and out author who takes her agent’s advice to find a new career a little too literally and begins forging letters from deceased celebrities and then selling them to make ends meet. Marielle Heller’s comedy walks the fine line between sympathizing with its unethical protagonists without ever romanticizing or rationalizing their behavior. More pointedly, the film strongly criticizes the greed and superficiality of a society which gives Lee an outlet to use her talents in a criminal way, while acknowledging what a waste of a vocation that is.

14. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee) – The second comedic telling of a true story on this list, Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘70’s provides not only a brutally hilarious mockery of KKK, but a celebration of Stallworth’s victory over one racist segment of society. At the same time, Lee does not let us forget that racism is still alive and well with deep roots in decades of white entertainment that have been subconsciously absorbed for over a century. Drawing powerful parallels to the current climate, the comedic arc of the film reminds us that racism has been overcome before, and with effort can hopefully be overcome again. (full review)

13. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Ol Parker) – Quite possibly the biggest surprise of the year, and unquestionably one of the most joyful and fun films of the year, this sequel and prequel to the 2008 musical is not only better than its predecessor but a great standalone film in its own right. My friend Jeffrey Overstreet, in his own top ten write-up, extensively draws from my favorite film of last year, asking what each of his favorite movies loves and pays attention to. The answer for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is: families, forgiveness and reconciliation, friendships, babies, mothers, grandmothers, courageous independent women, exposing and ridiculing sexism, Greece, Cher, singing, dancing, and of course, the music of ABBA. (full review)

12. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) – Another labor of love, the meticulous detail and craftsmanship from Wes Anderson reveals a love of canines, Japan, the films of Kurosawa, and haiku. It also shows a love of justice and compassion through its fable-like story about how we treat refugees, the sick, and the outcast. For a film which takes place in a world overrun with pollution, in this stop motion world of Wes Anderson, beauty and goodness abound in more ways than imaginable. A haiku:

Garbage everywhere;
We need outcasts to survive.
Green tea and puppies. (full review)

11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, & Rodney Rotham) – The most inventive and enjoyable superhero film since at least The Dark Knight, and possibly The Incredibles, the multi-verse approach to a Spider-man origin story provides kids of all backgrounds with a superhero they can look up to. Focusing primarily on Miles Morales and his journey to become New York’s only Spider-man, the world building introduces some of the most delightful surprises of any film this year, and the animations pop off the screen recreating the effect of watching moving comic book pages. To borrow a quote from another great animated film: not everyone can be Spider-man, but Spider-man can come from anywhere.

The Top Ten

10. The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – After we witness a shocking and brutal murder right as the film opens, it seems like the trial which hangs over most of The Third Murder should be foregone conclusion, especially since this is the culprit’s second murder and he comes across as anything but repentant. However, the truth is far more complicated than it initially appears, as Kore-eda examines the corruption of the Japanese legal system where lawyers care more about an easy explanation than a true one. The title’s meaning isn’t revealed until the film’s end, when it provides a sobering commentary on the destruction of human life, whether it be by a criminal or by the state.

9. The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois) – Like Cuarón’s impressive Roma, The Guardians tells a story of fatherless children in a world torn apart by violence. In this case the violence is WWI, and Beauvois focuses on the ways that life at home away from the front changes as each character does what they believe necessary for survival. That naturally reveals the best of some characters and the worst of others as prejudices are either confirmed or altered. The film’s similarities with Beauvois’ previous feature Of Gods and Men becomes apparent as a more noble path is celebrated by the protagonist’s refusal to return evil for evil, even as the war and its hatred moves closer to her and those she loves.

8. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker) – One of the most brilliant films of the year, Madeline’s Madeline is an unnerving case of life imitating art imitating life. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a typical rebellious teenager seeking her own identity as she works after school with an experimental acting troupe in NYC. Idolizing her fellow actors and reviling her mom, Madeline is naturally vulnerable to being exploited and lashes out at others while trying to pursue her acting vocation. The film’s hypnotic editing underscores the value Madeline rightly places on her work while simultaneously emphasizing she may not be the best judge of who is looking out for her well being. The film makes the importance of vocation clear, while also showing the dangers of putting anything ahead of people as it reminds us that “creating art” is not an excuse for objectifying human beings.

7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen) – A film that puts the gallows in gallows humor—in one scene quite literally—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comprises six vignettes on the subject of death in the old West. There’s a logical progression to each of the vignettes, from gunslinger to bank robber to traveling showman to prospector to pioneer to bounty hunter. Moving from outlaws to “more respectable” characters, the Coens make clear the one thing that connects everyone is death, as they satirize Western tropes in delightfully and wickedly funny deconstructions. The subversive storytelling invites us to reflect on the nature of our stories while simultaneously reminding us how those stories originated in the first place.

6. First Reformed (Paul Schrader) – This dark night of the soul story has been the darling of most Christian and secular critics for 2018, and the acclaim is richly deserved. A modernized version of Bergman’s Winter Light, with strong influences from Diary of a Country Priest, The Sacrifice, and Taxi Driver, First Reformed is a challenging examination of a crisis of faith. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller, pastor of a dwindling First Reformed church in upstate New York, pointedly and literally asks, “Can God forgive us,” after being confronted with the catastrophic damage done to the planet by humanmade global warming and the silence of many Christian leaders in response. Despite the scathing critique of a capitalist Church more concerned about prosperity than souls, Schrader is not interested in tolling the death knell for American Christianity, but instead champions the ways which Christian faith can make a difference in the world by standing with the outcast and caring for the least of these, while acknowledging the pain of watching many Christians do the opposite.

5. Paddington 2 (Paul King) – “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it!” That line from Mr. Brown summarizes the winsome charm of both the titular bear and this sequel to his 2014 cinematic adventure. This entry improves on the original in every way with its homages to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, one of the best production numbers of the year, glorious storybook-like production design, and outstanding supporting performances from the entire cast, with especially fabulous work by Hugh Grant. Embodying his Aunt Lucy’s mantra, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” Paddington celebrates joy and love wherever they’re found, from the care of his adoptive family to touching the souls of hardened criminals.

4. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay) – There’s a shot fairly early in You Were Never Really Here when Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD Iraq War veteran who now works as an efficient hitman, is worried a kid saw him as he collected his next assignment. After being reassured he’s fine, there’s a shot of the empty doorframe after he leaves. It summarizes both the importance of invisibility in his line of work and his depression telling him it would make no difference in the world if he wasn’t here. A chance to rescue a young girl from a child prostitution ring provides an opportunity for Joe to make the proverbial difference, but depression, trauma, and violence do not wash away that easily, especially in a line of work which feeds upon all three. A sliver of hope is present throughout the film, however, as the relationships between Joe and his mother and the young girl form a contrast to a bleak world.

3. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis) – Given my amicable indifference to most of Denis’ past work, my love for this is as surprising to me as anybody. Featuring a phenomenal performance from Juliette Binoche as an artist desperately searching for a meaningful relationship, often with some of the most toxic men she meets, Denis structures a clear progression to the same place where the film began. Functioning almost as an inversion of the traditional romantic comedy arc, the film reveals the shallowness of genre clichés as it gives all the agency to Binoche’s artist as she learns happiness comes from acceptance and not making some grandiose development or progression.

2. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) – I described this to a friend as King Lear from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan, retold as a vicious dark comedy. That description is overly simplistic, but it underscores the fine line between comedy and tragedy that The Favourite walks so brilliantly. A speculative, yet not implausible, version of events that led to the shift of power in parliament toward the end of Queen Anne’s reign, games of political intrigue have rarely been portrayed as darkly or caustically as the manipulation and backstabbing here. With Olivia Colman as the monarch, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the ladies competing for her favour, the trio of actresses all give fantastic performances, and the ruthless portrayal of the court’s corruption provides the perfect backdrop to expose the price of vanity and envy. (full review)

1. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) – The one film that has stayed with me more than anything else I’ve seen this year is this heart-wrenching tale of survival of a father and a daughter living in the Oregon woods as a means of the father coping with his PTSD from serving in the Iraq War. The inevitable conclusion hangs over the entire film, bookended in the first and last shots. Each time the protagonists depart another home, the pain of broken connections and relationships becomes greater and greater until the final separation demonstrates that humans are meant to leave a trace. Completely devoid of villains, the film is anything but an exercise in tragedy, as it instead celebrates the generosity and compassion of people from diverse walks of life who all want to do their best to help, even as it acknowledges the reality that that help is not always possible.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (uncredited).             Starring Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Lucy Boynton, and Mike Myers.

bohemian-rhapsody-3

Considering Bohemian Rhapsody unexpectedly and undeservedly won the Golden Globe award for best picture—drama last Sunday, I thought now would be a good to share my thoughts on it.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that does exactly what you expect it will do. It shoehorns Freddie Mercury’s life into a formulaic biopic, and it also showcases enjoyable covers of Queen’s greatest hits in what is basically an extended music video.

In other words, if one enjoys this movie at all, that enjoyment will be directly proportionate to how much they enjoy the music of Queen. And for the record, I’m a pretty big fan of Queen.

At just over two hours in length, Bohemian Rhapsody almost evenly splits its runtime between depicting a fictitious, streamlined creation process behind Queen’s most famous songs and performances of those songs as well as depicting a simplified and highly fabricated summary of Freddie Mercury’s life, focusing on his rise to stardom, his relationship with Mary Austin, his homosexual affairs (but not his heterosexual ones), and his role as a member of Queen.

The half that is essentially a lengthy music video of Queen’s greatest hits is a lot of fun, and it’s almost enough to carry the movie. The half which attempts to provide some portrait of Mercury’s life is a total train wreck.

Rami Malek gives a commanding performance showcasing some impressive vocals, and when singing, he almost sounds like he could be Mercury. The movie makes a big deal about his very noticeable prosthetic teeth, far more noticeable than Mercury’s, and that becomes a tiring distraction when he’s not performing. As the other members of the band, I thought Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, and Joe Mazzello played off Malek passably well, and as trite as the lines about a band being a family are, the dynamics among the four actors are enjoyable enough that it didn’t matter too much that they were all taking a backseat to Malek’s Mercury.

The first big problem is that there is no driving force beyond enjoyment of Queen. The second big problem is that for the extreme liberties the film takes with Mercury’s life, those liberties form a dull, clichéd story about a lower class nobody rising to fame, the fame going to his head, fighting with his friends, then reconciling in the nick of time for a big concert. Most of that never happened. While Mercury (and other members of Queen) recorded some solo albums, the band never broke up, and the Live Aid Concert was not a last-minute plan after a hurried reunion, and I seriously doubt Mercury ever became this insufferable.

The other big problem with the movie is how massively unlikeable Mercury becomes while under the influence of his abusive, manipulative boyfriend Paul (Allen Leech), which takes up a significant portion of the film. I spent much of the film shocked that anyone would portray gay men as pejoratively as this in 2018, especially one who, in the world of the film, is a victim of abuse.

That brings us to the unavoidable issue that Bryan Singer, himself accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, directed the majority of Bohemian Rhapsody, and it seems the film’s unhealthy understanding of sexuality mirrors his own, as can be seen when the film shrugs off Mercury attempting to grope a man as an innocent drunken mistake. Admittedly Singer was fired from the film, but it seems that was because of a scheduling conflict, and he was hired with those counts of sexual assault against him well known.

The very fleeting relationship Freddie has with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) at the film’s end hardly makes an impression after the time spent on the toxic relationship between Freddie and Paul. The other major issue with the film’s depiction of Mercury’s sexuality is that it refuses to let him define it. In an early scene Freddie tells his distraught fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) that he’s bisexual, and she corrects him that he’s gay. Considering that the film never challenges her, and that it neither acknowledges that Mercury continued to identify as bisexual nor shows any of his affairs with women, calling the film an act of bi-erasure, as some critics have done, is not underserved.

At the same time, the music of Queen is incredibly powerful, having moved and inspired millions, and the film respects and acknowledges that, even as it fails to spin an engaging story around that power. Nonetheless, roughly half of the film is a decent music video with a soundtrack featuring “Killer Queen,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” “Love of My Life,” and the title song. And when the film ends with a rousing rendition of “We Are the Champions,” it makes it easy to focus on the real star of the movie: the music of Queen.

 

Personal recommendation: C+

 

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Mary Poppins Returns

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Rob Marshall.      Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, and Angela Lansbury.

Mary Poppins Returns

When Jurassic World and Star Wars: Rogue One were released a few years ago, both with scores by Michael Giacchino, I noted at the time that as talented a composer as Giacchino is, when his John Williams imitations were placed next to the original John Williams cues, the only thing he accomplished was reminding audiences that he is not John Williams.

Of all the wonderful songs that the Sherman brothers wrote for the original Mary Poppins, one of the least impressionable is probably Jane and Michael’s nanny advertisement: “If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition…” When Mary Poppins returns to the Banks’ home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, as the title of this sequel fifty-four years later promises she will, that tune plays as underscoring. Save for one scene saturated in nostalgia toward the film’s end, that brief bit of underscoring packs more of an emotional impact than anything else in this film. And as talented as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are, when clips of the Sherman brothers’ songs are placed next to their new songs here, the only thing that achieves is reminding audiences that they are not the Sherman brothers.

Shaiman is unquestionably a good composer, but his best work in musicals has been the raunchy, irreverent satires. While none of his songs here are bad, the style of music he writes well is so different from the simple, light-hearted sincerity of the Sherman brothers’ original songs, and his attempts to imitate that here pale in comparison. It does not help that the plot points of Mary Poppins Returns follow the original almost exactly, and the song placement occurs at the same dramatic points. “Can You Imagine That?” is emphatically not “A Spoonful of Sugar,” nor is “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” the equal of “Step In Time,” and “The Lovely London Sky” is no “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” “The Place Where the Lost Things Go” is a good song and one of the two best of the score, but once again it doesn’t hold a candle to its dramatic counterpart, “Feed the Birds.”

The one song that is debatably a better piece of music than its original equivalent is “A Cover Is Not the Book,” which Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) perform within the animated world to the delight of the children. It breaks strongly enough stylistically with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” not to be a reminder of that song, and we get to watch a top-notch vaudeville routine with Blunt and Miranda, complete with the latter rapping and decent dancing from both of them. At the same time, it really stands out musically and dramatically, feeling like it would be more at home in a darkly satiric musical such as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

That song segues into one of the few places where Mary Poppins Returns does break with the original with the introduction of a villain, both in the real world and in Mary Poppins’ magical outings. I understand the dramatic purpose of teaching the Banks’ children how to recognize whom and whom not to trust, but it noticeably darkens the tone from the rest of the film, and more problematically it leans too heavily on the over-used cliché of the surprise villain. To be fair, the audience learns of that character’s evil intentions early on, but I literally said to myself the scene before that reveal, “I really hope that character is sincere and not a villain,” knowing that would most likely not be the case.

If it is not clear by now, I absolutely love the 1964 Disney original. It was one of the few VHSs my sisters and I watched repeatedly as children, complete with our own dance routines involving some of the non-fragile living room furniture. With its painstaking care to mirror the original, Mary Poppins Returns is certainly not a bad movie, but it is one that constantly invites comparison to the original, and that is not a comparison it benefits from.

The plot here concerns adults Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), the former who is continuing her mother’s political activism, and the latter who is trying to raise his three kids despite a recently deceased wife (hurrah for another Disney cliché) and the bank threatening repossession of their home, against which he took out a loan. Michael is a disorganized wreck, and he and Jane have both forgotten the wonder and magic of their childhood time with Mary Poppins, becoming preoccupied with the hardships of daily life. (Just for once, I’d love to see a family film where a child grows up and doesn’t forget his/her magical adventures.)

As the magical nanny, Emily Blunt knows better than to imitate Julie Andrews. Her take on the character is slightly less prim and proper, but it is still plausible to call her “practically perfect in every way.” For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed Blunt’s characterization, and she once again proves her formidable singing and acting chops. Lin-Manuel Miranda is her screen equal as Jack, a next-generation Bert who accompanies her and the children on their magical adventures.

The trailers spoiled that Dick Van Dyke has a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns. While it is easy to guess who he’s playing, I won’t say here. I will say that scene is the only one I truly loved, not just for his appearance, but also for the choice of underscoring and for the lines he references from the original film. It was the one bit of nostalgia which landed perfectly.

As delightful as it was to see Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady in the final scene, the song which accompanies it, “Nowhere to Go but Up,” is such a pale retread of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” that the magic was promptly lost for me.

In a time of deconstructions and reboots that subvert their originals, one thing I am grateful for is that Mary Poppins Returns has nothing but affection for the original film, and that affection only serves to increase one’s admiration for the original, even as it reminds you that you would be better off watching the original for the hundredth something time.

 

Personal Recommendation: C+

Content advisory: Mild menace.                                             MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up

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Mary Queen of Scots

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Josie Rourke.       Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, James McArdle, Jack Lowden, and David Tennant.

Mary Queen

“Better a live rat than a dead lion.” So says a character in one of the best plays and movies about the religious convictions and subsequent conflicts instigated by the English reformation. Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) lives by the conviction “better a dead lion than a live rat.” In 1561, with tensions between Catholics and Protestants still high in Europe, that is a dangerous principle to hold, and for anyone who knows their British history, it is one that cost Mary dearly.

The latest cinematic telling of that history assumes that knowledge, and it opens with brilliant crosscutting between Mary processing to her execution in 1587, Elizabeth I approaching her throne, and then back to Mary’s return to Scotland from France in 1561. The imagery draws a powerful parallel between the two queens, foreshadowing the ensuing conflict with a bookend that suggests their inevitable fates. Unfortunately, it’s the only time in the film such thought is given to the editing, and the rest of the film settles into a fairly rote history lesson, highlighting the main points in the power struggle between England and Scotland, Protestants and Catholics, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.

That is not to say Mary Queen of Scots is a bad history lesson. With grandiose and austere production design, stylish costumes and makeup, a talented cast, and some beautiful cinematography of the Scottish countryside the whole film remains watchable. However, the script and pacing are too pedestrian for the film as a whole to rise to the level of its parts or themes.

This is a strongly feminist take on Mary Stuart and her desire to unify England and Scotland, which I believe is not unusual for films about her. What is unusual is something that I’ve only seen in one other film, The Girl King from 2015. Both these films about strong female monarchs who are Catholic or wish to become Catholic, which functions a rebellion against their patriarchal Protestant courts, not only link Catholicism with protagonists’ feminism but also with their liberalism and anachronistic pro-LGBTQ beliefs.

As bizarre as this may seem, especially in twenty-first century America, I think there are parallels in that comparison worth exploring. In England and Scotland in the latter half of the sixteenth century, Catholics were a persecuted minority, much the same way LGBTQ people were for nearly all of the twentieth century. If a misogynistic patriarchy is the established norm throughout most of Western history, linking that to the dominant religion of a period film’s setting is not an illogical decision—after all, religion has often been abused to rationalize power struggles. Continuing this dramatic license, if a minority religion is then linked to the ways in which a female protagonist challenges said patriarchy, I think there is a dramaturgical basis for the comparisons made here.

However, I think the ideas themselves are more interesting than the film’s handling of them. That above paragraph is probably more thought than any of the filmmakers gave to those themes, as the driving force behind most dramatic choices seems to be: Mary is a progressive rebel.

The recurring motive throughout the movie is that Mary is too independent, and her taking agency of herself like a man threatens the toxic masculinity of the Scottish and English lords. As a contrast with Mary, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) defers to her council and allows herself to be parliament’s pawn. In one of the film’s better exchanges, she tells her chief advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) that the throne has made her more of a man than anyone else, but she has just embraced the desires of the power-hungry men surrounding her. The woman who acts as an equal with the men is Mary, and she is detested for it.

This power struggle mostly plays out through the determination of the Protestant nobles to prevent England from ever having another Catholic monarch. Overlaying the sixteenth century religious conflict with a contemporary feminist angle creates a parallel between the bigotries of five hundred years ago and those of today, as can be seen in David Tennant’s frothing at the mouth, right-wing fundamentalist portrayal of John Knox.

The one performer who really stands out is Margot Robbie. Her final two scenes walk a perfect balance between Elizabeth’s compassion for her cousin and the role she has embraced in serving her council. It’s probably the best example of the film’s themes of religion and gender roles in a society dominated by men.

I am a huge fan of Ronan, and I firmly believe that she was robbed in losing awards for both Brooklyn and Lady Bird. However, her performance here, while very good, lacks the empathy those other characters had, and as fitting as her austerity is for Mary, it pales next to the range of emotions Robbie achieves in her portrayal of Elizabeth.

As a story of two queens caught between men’s games of political intrigue, the film never quite achieves the urgency and tension it should. Nonetheless, telling this chapter of history solely from their perspectives makes for a thematically fascinating subversion. Since the winners get to write history, the losers of conflicts are often reviled, sometimes rightly and other times not. Mary Queen of Scots was viciously reviled by the English and her subjects during her lifetime while Elizabeth I was beloved. The film’s modern lens invites us to consider the reasons behind that, and it is an idea I appreciated even as I wish the film did more with it.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content advisory: An off-screen rape, a bloody assassination, several consensual sex scenes—one rather violent, non-graphic wartime violence, and fleeting nudity.             MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

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