The Favourite (2019)

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One year after his magnificently disturbing ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, Yorgos Lanthimos returns with this historical comedy/drama based on Queen Anne’s life. It’s the first ever film not to be penned by Lanthimos and it faintly shows but the context, acting and absurd re-telling of history are worthy of fanfare.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is suffering with poor health and cannot even seem to sustain interest in politics for her country. The majority of her time and interest is spent on her relationship with Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). However, when Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives and Sarah gives her a position it isn’t long until the Queen takes a liking to the new girl and thus a rivalry to be Anne’s favourite begins.

Scripted by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara, what really solidifies the engagement with this film is the sheer absurdity of it all. The fact that it is all based on real people and true actions of the time only go and make this a more interesting story to behold. If you didn’t know about the triangle of female figures between Anne, Sarah and Abigail you’d be let off for thinking this was a bonkers yet brilliant made up farce.

The Lanthimos trademark of entrancing camera work and aptitudes to building kooky and precise landscapes are utilised to great effect in this film. Robbie Ryan’s stunning English set cinematography and movements of panning cameras coupled with uses of the fisheye lens make ‘The Favourite’ a bold looking film finely textured with regal style.

It can be said that, from a Yorgos feature, this doesn’t go as dark and twisted as you’d imagine but it is instead lit up like a grand palace by touches of theatrical humour and spite. The wiles of women and their strength become a fascinating game to watch. Special mention must also go toward the costuming; the baroque draping of dresses, corsets, ruffles and wigs are positively dripping in luxurious splendour and go a long way to making this tale more pristine and attention-grabbing.

Colman takes the throne and wheelchair as a perfect choice for Queen Anne. She hilariously and alarmingly spits out when prone to raging, alongside these bursts of anger are fantastic moments where Colman shows her knack for emotion and comedic timing. Stone develops the strongest in terms of character, she showcases the most effective change from mud covered servant to lady. Weisz is a formidable performer, the icy bluntness of Sarah reigns supreme and together Stone and she light up the screen with their scheming as they vie for the attentions and affections of a scene-stealing Colman. Nicholas Hoult is note-perfect in this also, he plays an Earl named Robert with exquisite definition of the C-word and further insults.

‘The Favourite’ is an absurd delight; what with it’s incredible trio of leading ladies and the sending up of royal and political establishments, this is a film rich with smart asides. It also boasts a dance scene to perhaps rival the memorable moves from Isaac & Mizuno in ‘Ex Machina’ and the dual jiving of Thurman & John in ‘Pulp Fiction’.

7.5/10

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Roma (2018)

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Hitting select cinemas and streaming worldwide over Netflix is this black and white diamond from Alfonso Cuaron. It’s a commanding and quietly fascinating story that speaks of class, family, conflict and love.

Cleo Gutierrez (Yalitza Aparicio) is a housemaid for a well off family and her time off is spent with fellow maids and her boyfriend. However when Cleo believes she’s pregnant her partner scarpers. As she continues looking after the children and chores she tries dealing with her impending due date.

Opening and closing on a worms eye view of a gliding plane overhead, this film feels like a smooth flight. Cuaron not only directs, but produces, writes and edits this film that he’s called a semi-autobiographical take on his own bringing up. The way he captures the story is fairly exquisite, with serenely tracking camera movements being the predominant feature of how we see this world.

‘Roma’ is a film that looks grand yet is a story that is contained and beautiful. The visuals of many extras and bustling Mexican streets either through well captured protests or classes in martial arts look amazing, they retain some calm engrossing quality that show how visuals can do the talking more than bundles of dialogue do. A beach scene in the Galaxie is mesmerising and tense and ends on a cinematic shot shown in the above poster that will doubtless be an iconic image for years to come.

The story itself may be simple but it’s sold by a fantastic performance from Aparicio, who has never had any form of drama training, furthering the proof that she’s a talent to keep an eye on. The way she almost mutely goes through this story is oddly powerful and you can feel, through her ordeals and duties, a very personal mood that must emanate from Alfonso Cuaron and his childhood.

This is a film that I definitely would have loved to have witnessed up on a big screen but in a way, ignoring all the grand framings that Cuaron has mastered, it is a narrative which suits the small screen, something you can really draw up close to and appreciate. There’s a calming spirit which flows with effortless glory throughout the movie and it goes to show what a force of good storytelling lies within the soul of Cuaron.

Though it might not be something I’d repeat watch in a rush, it’s a gorgeous piece of cinema that needs to be seen at least once.

7.5/10

Tulip Fever (2018)

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In this film there is plenty of talk about rare flowers in Amsterdam, fetching a pretty price in auctions. Well, ‘Tulip Fever’ could be a similar rarity in terms of how late it’s been to blossom. Castings and production started back in 2014 and after being pushed back on more than one occasion, the film has finally sprung but is it a marvellous bloom or a wilting weed?

In 17th century Amsterdam, an orphan is purchased by rich and elderly Cornelius Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). Sophia (Alicia Vikander) hopes to bear her husband an heir but there is no such luck. As Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan); a struggling painter comes in by the request of Cornelius to capture the married couple, a mutual attraction burns between Sophia and Loos.

It’s not just a romantic yarn as the plot would suggest. Throughout the film there is a focus on the tulip market and the wealth certain marked flowers can bring to successful bidders. It is indeed a film boiling over with a duo of fevers that would have your local doctor reaching for aspirins and telling you to get some rest. It isn’t just the hot fever that boils over between the former orphan and the artist but the sweaty atmosphere with people from all walks of life crammed in a dingy auction hall is brilliantly captured and works in creating a fever of a financial kind, a swirling frantic environment which you may not have known about if not for this film.

In regards to the more romantic elements of the film, they are brought to life and detail by director Justin Chadwick, who has a background in corset drama, and the two young leads add further credibility to a pair heavy with arousal. Even though it is all convincing it doesn’t entirely prevent these characters’ desire to come across as melodramatic and there are character choices on route which feel annoyingly pushed, like contrivances just to solely push drama into the building climax when it could have been done more organically, it’s more of the roll your eyes stuff than it should be.

Considering the fires that burn in the loins of the cheating couple, the film doesn’t feel as passionate as it could, the story feels very safe and it doesn’t help that quite a fair portion of the dialogue isn’t exactly inspired or bursting with flair. Though saying that, the tricky games that Jan and Sophia play come with a good sense of doom, putting aside a cliched use of mistaken identity, a pregnancy becomes wrapped up in high stakes and this film neatly balances tension and humour within this scheme.

Dane DeHaan has the charm and smirk of a typically wistful artist always falling for his subjects. Alicia Vikander is as beautifully talented as ever, the emotive range she possesses in her magnetic eyes alone express the entrapping situation her character has put herself in. As she hopes to escape a stale world into a steamy affair, you truly buy into Vikander’s desire which make her final choices more captivating. But it is not really Sophia’s story to be spun, Holliday Granger as Maria is in fact the one whose tale is told. The actor finely sells her plight which runs through the house like a smartly drawn portrait as you feel her life getting caught up in the mix.

So while it may not have been altogether worth the wait, it’s not a dud bud to put on the manure pile either. If some lacklustre dialogue, twirl of many subplots and sappy endings were pruned away then this could have been a much more winning flower.

6/10

Disobedience (2018)

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Love is an all consuming thing and this film goes some way in demonstrating the strength of that powerful four letter word. Anchored by two astonishing female leads, ‘Disobedience’ isn’t as resolute in the pursuit of its story and feels slightly lacking of consequence.

After a family tragedy, photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) flies from New York to London to pay her respects. The world she returns to is of the strict Orthodox Jewish community of which she’d left behind. As she stays longer, her past is unbottled and Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams) is a reason for why she was estranged and distanced from her father and his religion.

What this film has going for it, is a good sense of tenderness. Sebastian Lelio ensures that the central pairing of his stars are the focus, their developing connection one that feels soft and lovely around the edges. There are some great moments in the opening scenes of the film with the setting up of characters and Ronit’s arrival back in London comes with traces of strained family humour and a tickling sense of intrigue to these furtive looks that occur between Ronit and Esti.

On the other hand, it is this tender quality that can make the film feel somewhat wishy-washy. The burning nature of love and passion should be unmistakable and though you can tell the two ladies want each other, it’s the aftermath of their connection that never really hits like you’d expect or want. Perhaps the setting of it within the Jewish faith is why the glances and silence are all you get but a darker kick-back to what they do and what happened in the past would make this film more engrossing to watch.

In fact, the film doesn’t totally sell us on the build up to their elicit rendezvous, there’s just a smidge enough to know there’s something going on but it doesn’t feel like the movie has enough gusto to sell us on the fact and suddenly what happens, happens. It’s the softly softly approach which makes for good detailed performances but doesn’t help the screenplay feel sparkling, in fact the film quickly loses dynamics and come the end, it feels vaguely like a quiet soap opera.

Weisz is superb and you can see it in her face and the way she fiddles with her hair or scarf that she’s juggling feelings of grief, annoyance and love. McAdams is just as sensational as her counterpart, if not more so. The complicated state of her marriage, the possible lack of love in her life and the reappearance of Ronit are all carefully balanced by the American actor, she is captivating to watch and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her up for an Oscar in 2019.

‘Disobedience’ has some nice qualities and the background of the Jewish community feels well handled, Weisz and McAdams are the perfect lovers. If only the film didn’t disobey it’s own powerful rules on love, when it should have instead, committed to a more vivid and less unsatisfying flow of tension in the relationship.

6/10

Wildlife (2018)

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‘Wildlife’ marks the directorial debut for actor Paul Dano and what an assured, quality debut it is. Dano and his partner; fellow actor and screenwriter Zoe Kazan, have joined as a force of talent to script this film, which delves into a family through beautiful crisis.

In Montana of 1960, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has to find a new job and gets one working away from home, to control the fires in some mountains. Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) finds work of her own and it’s during this time when their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) has to become the man of the house and witness a shift in his parent’s relationship.

Paul Dano had stated that he always knew he wanted to make films about families and this is a look at one that disintegrates whilst you helplessly watch. Based on a 1990 novel of the same name, his screenplay was looked over by ‘Ruby Sparks’ writer and playwright Zoe Kazan who then helped as joint screenwriter and, together the pair have really nailed down on the personal, unflinching state of separation, explored through the 14 year old eyes of Joe, yet blisteringly sold by Mulligan’s performance.

It isn’t long until the strains of Jerry and Jeannette’s marriage take hold and once this happens the cracks can do little but get larger and larger. Through this slow-motion descent, Carey Mulligan trembles, spills tears and explodes with her affecting portrayal of a mother always asking what her son thinks and slowly taking her own route at whatever cost. She provides a fantastically haunting, mesmerising performance.

The cinematography from Diego Garcia is similarly mesmerising in a haunted, stunning way. Just from the opening shot, which sets the scene for it being a movie about house and home and the dysfunction that can happen within. Then you see the lovely bliss of this town and its peaked background reflecting the story of their apparently blissful marriage clouding over like the fire and smoke which is raging close by.

Dano and Kazan have ensured there’s a quiet burning which runs through the narrative, carrying a simmer of unease. You never truly know if something will boil over and on the occasion it might, the atmosphere slams with such a ferocity of family heartbreak, none more powerful than the silent and final image of this film. Paul Dano himself has seamlessly carried his remarkable magnetic talent from in front of the camera and neatly placed that skill behind it, ensuring there’s no need for showy tension to make a weighty drama and that’s what makes this film all the more important and brilliant.

‘Wildlife‘ is a carefully written work of art with its power buried from the inside out. As it slowly leaks out, the audience are in for a film that feels like theatre, this scenario of a family breakdown gorgeously acted by Mulligan and Gyllenhaal and wonderfully sold from Oxenbould’s Joe, as he and we too, can’t help but face this happen.

8/10

 

Juliet, Naked (2018)

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‘Juliet, Naked’ premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it couldn’t be more of a Sundance flick; the charming aspects and the unlikely romance are right in the wheelhouse of indie darlings and on the most part, this Jesse Peretz feature works thanks to the effortless matching of its lead actors.

Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) is stuck in a seaside town thanks to boyfriend Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), some of her resentment is due to her job but some boils down to Duncan’s love of a rock star named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), whose music Annie finds intolerable. One day she receives an email from the mysterious musician himself and they begin a 100/1 relationship.

Throughout this darling song of a movie there are a rare couple of comedic moments and though it’s not as outright funny as certain scenes had room to be, what works much better are the dramatic notes that are lyrically added to the appealing narrative. This is a film, almost like a melodic tale of love and regrets, parenting and loneliness and these themes are handled in a great heart-felt manner.

When you have source material from Nick Hornby; novelist of High Fidelity and About a Boy and screenwriter of ‘Brooklyn’ then you know to expect a romantic tale with plenty to say and thematic weight to keep the characters going to their end goals. This adaptation from the 2009 book of the same name works in the sense that you feel a faint smile on your face appear as you watch the relationship of Tucker and Annie grow. The warming sensation of a feel-good film can’t be beaten.

Here is perhaps where I am being critically unfair but the similarly driven ‘Hearts Beat Loud’, also premiering at the same Sundance, managed to capture a great mix of light comedy, fantastic songs, romance and family emotion whereas this more recent release doesn’t quite. There’s something not entirely perfect about this film which I felt the Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons music based movie reached closer to.

Rose Byrne is utterly sensational as Annie; the emotive range is great and she really makes us like her character. She lovingly handles every beat of the journey Annie goes on and the way she performs the disappointments of her life and love for 15 years are really believable. Ethan Hawke as this apparently seminal music star, gives grit and reflective thought to a man clearly unused to the extended family he has and the role as a father he’s meant to live up to. The moments between him and Byrne, whether through email voice-over or in person are touching and yes that word again, charming.

So whilst ‘Juliet, Naked’ might not be as endearing as other rom-coms, there’s a strong character duo to watch and the bittersweet indie aspect of their connection more than make up for the likelihood of its forgettable nature.

6.5/10

A Star is Born (2018)

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From comedy star in ‘The Hangover’ to more dramatic turns in films like ‘American Sniper’, Bradley Cooper has certainly been down many avenues and now he throws his stetson behind the camera for his directorial debut; a musical romance and fourth remake of the ‘A Star is Born’ brand.

Hugely famous country star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) seriously struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. On a desperate trawl to find a bar, Maine staggers into one where waitress by day-singer by night Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing. He quickly falls for her looks and talent and they begin a whirlwind relationship that sees Ally become a singer/songwriter idol.

In the 1950’s Judy Garland headlined the first remake and the 70’s saw Barbra Streisand take the lead in a rock and roll setting, one Bollywood film later and now it’s mega popstar Lady Gaga’s turn to take the cinematic stage. There’s no doubt that she’ll be up for an Oscar nomination because her performance is sensational and she makes the film what it is. The road to success with tricky obstacles and media manipulation is ripe for the times currently in Hollywood and the music perfectly encapsulates Ally and Jackson’s rocky relationship.

This movie is like a biopic of Gaga’s career, you can just see how the films’ content of moulding someone to how the management want them to be, mirrors her Poker Face days, before her songwriting and more heartfelt tunes took flight. The pop music side of Ally’s journey and the SNL showbiz aspect are necessary attributes in showing how the industry works and really demonstrates Ally as a strong individual to stick with all these changes in the dream of being recognised for her talent. She also sticks with Maine because he saw that spark within her, their relationship may be odd and harbour some cheesy moments but it feels real and the pair work beautifully together.

At a certain point it does feel like the film stretches ever so slightly and you could almost check out of the plot but thanks to the music you get drawn back in. Also, there is a very predictable narrative to follow but there’s some stunning cinematography from Matthew Libatique which goes from a pristine bathroom to a gorgeously crimson tinged drag club and the films final shot rests on a powerful, stunning image and though it is silent it sings a thousand words. On top of the great DoP work, the musical numbers themselves are toe-tappingly heartfelt and ‘Shallow’; a song penned by Gaga and Mark Ronson is gunning for an Oscar nom as well and rightly so because it screams with drama.

Cooper, with his flushed red cheeks and slurring Western drawl embodies the stereotypical drunken cowboy singer but softens this rough edges with a clear love for his Ally rose. Gaga is incredible throughout, her voice is a God given gift that fills the heart and the speakers with power. It isn’t just her singing talents that sell the film, she makes Ally a fully rounded character and you truly buy into her rise to stardom with a difficult romance aiding the way.

‘A Star is Born’ is a country and western musical for modern times and like TV show ‘Nashville’, it hits with lyrical gems and dramatic characters to soar to the top of the charts.

7/10