Mary Queen of Scots (2019)

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“Orf with their heads”. This Queen of Hearts decree is an violent literary line and an unpleasant truth for real life figure, Mary Stuart. The lucid hijinks of Lewis Carroll’s creation may not be there but the duelling nature of power and the cartoon characters’ behaviour based on Mary’s temperament most certainly is.

After returning home to Scotland in 1561, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) takes over royal duties from her half-brother. Due to her blood line she has rightful claim to the throne in England, but that is taken by Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). As the years pass by, the arguments of men tip the balance between the sisters and an heir borne by Mary could help her claim what she believes is rightfully hers.

Josie Rourke takes charge of this period drama and her theatre background is evident. She has been artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse since 2012 and her stage know-how helps give the film a theatrical buzz, something akin to that sensation you get when watching a live show. The shifting powers within the story are ones you could easily picture being acted out on stage, though for a film, there are times that the theatrical element feels like it’s a movie just ticking off each historical chapter like a scene in a play.

Rourke does show she has a great handle on the back and forth dramas of this politically laden period piece but at a few spots it feels like the director’s reins are slipping ever so slightly, as if the film is slowing down too much. Adding to Rourke’s confident handle on drama and actor management are some stunning visuals from John Mathieson; his work reflects the royal production value, with both England and Scotland looking gorgeous on screen. All in all, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is a glorious film to look at.

The costume and make up deserve our endless curtsies. The detail to be seen throughout this film is incredible, from jewellery to ruffled accessories, dresses, armour and hair pieces, the film is a marvel of fashion and 16th century period vision. It isn’t only the look of the people that stirs a pleasing response, the see-sawing political alignments between Protestant and Catholic, Scotland and England and Mary and Elizabeth are fascinating to watch on the most part. Shadowy whisperings in privy counsels are explored well, the way these men attempt to puppeteer the forces of the women they seek to serve are fleshed out nicely. On that note, this film is a tale for the ages which sits neatly within the current climate of power between women and men. Mary’s boldness is a trait we should respect and Elizabeth’s compassion and ailments are virtuous trademarks.

Ronan and Robbie are thoroughly compelling, their turns as rival women in charge are spellbinding, yet neither steals the show or feels like a person to root for over the other. It’s a film that sees them both somehow lost in a time of great heartache and civil unrest. Come their one and only scene together you can’t help but be truly lost in their performances, which makes their meeting amongst some hanging linen that much more resoundingly effective.

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ knows how to swirl together conspiracy, words of war and consequent bloodshed. If its story isn’t altogether cinematic and solidly formed you can rely on the talents of the two actors to get you through a turbulent time in history.

7/10

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Beautiful Boy (2019)

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Based on two memoirs; one from a father and the other from the son, this biographical film focuses on the uncertainty and pain of raising a child who has become severely dependent on drugs. If you consider the powerful content you’ll quickly realise how lacking ‘Beautiful Boy’ is, in terms of emotional heft.

All through their lives, David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his son Nic (Timothee Chalamet) have had a great father-son bond but with Nic now in his teens and putting off college, David’s worst fears are realised when he comes to understand Nic is taking a cocktail of different drugs to get through life and has become increasingly addicted to crystal meth. David hopes to learn more about the effects of meth and regain his son’s affections but he could end up losing Nic completely.

Felix Van Groeningen, in his first English feature as director, manages to capture some better moments in an otherwise disengaging film, these stem from the strains of family drama and the times we see Nic by himself, struggling to keep his face straight and wishing to escape a life he sees as black and grey. On the most part though this is a movie that doesn’t grip you at all and is far to carefully put together. The sheen of it all is not what a movie concerning this drug fuelled subject matter should possess.

Oh boy, there are some beautiful shots in this film but whereas they’d normally be a good quality for a feature, they become a glistening distraction from a story that needs to look and feel much grittier. Who would be standing out in the mist on a bend in the road under some perfectly crooked trees, what mum would be situated neatly in front of an oval gap on a balcony overlooking a neat skyline when discussing the tragic downward spiral of their son. It all looks to pristine, as if the film doesn’t know how to make itself grimier and more alarming to sit up and pay attention to.

‘Beautiful Boy’ is extremely lacking in emotional substance, call me cold-hearted but I just never found the film struck a chord with me. Usually a film with this sort of content would make me tear up, if not at least get misty eyed but instead without warning my eyelids wanted to rest and there was utterly no gut-wrenching impact from it. I doubt it’s my stony nature because I weep at more and more things, it’s likely because this film is a saccharine trip of melodrama with songs appearing almost every 5 minutes doing little to connect and more to guffaw at the attempt to elicit a sad response.

Chalamet is the biggest positive within the movie. It’s like only he knows the mood of the piece he’s involved in and he plays this troubled figure with a captivating touch. The trauma of addiction is felt every time he turns up on screen whereas the likes of Carell, Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney just can’t quite to reach the power of their young cohort.

‘Beautiful Boy’ is a film that is too clean for a worrying account on drug addiction. It is also one trying to be emotionally manipulative but when it cannot even manipulate to feel any emotion, that can never be good.

5/10

 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

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A Bandersnatch is a character cooked up by Lewis Carroll and is never explicitly detailed but it is meant to be a ferocious creature with snapping jaws. This Black Mirror film definitely reflects those fierce jaws with a snappy interactive feature carefully woven into the disturbing tapestry, of which you come to expect from Charlie Brooker’s dark look at technology.

July 1984 and Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is desperately hoping to program a video game based around a choose your own adventure book which he owns. He calls his creation ‘Bandersnatch’ and it’s modelled after the many different paths the user can take in building their own story through the game. As he works, Stefan has to deal with anxiety, past trauma, a deadline and the inescapable feeling that he’s not in control.

The ‘Black Mirror’ series is a crackling anthology; one with little in the way of weaknesses, only to be found in the later seasons. This is the first full length film to come out of the world mastered by Brooker. This time around he’s upped the anti and taken inspiration from those choose your adventure stories and during this movie you are presented with 2 options, what you pick could determine Stefan’s fate. It’s a movie with so many directions that your chosen film experience could last 40-90 minutes, as there are around 150 minutes of footage that could be selected depending on your choices.

This easily could have been a cheap gimmick with no substance but this built-in interactive design works because the 80’s set story is interesting enough to sustain interest. Granted it does take a while to get into the film and with choices being fired at you quite quickly it can feel a little bit longer to get going but in the latter stages, of course depending on where your story goes, it gets twisted and fuelled with worrying paranoia.

As a film it doesn’t quite work, there’s something missing because of the choices offered up. You can’t quite get lost in the plot, the immersion factor is lost because you have those stressful 10 seconds to mull over what you want the character to say/do. In terms of a psychological test though it is exceptional. The complicity of us an audience is greatly utilised; our participation in Stefan’s life becomes a game and it isn’t long until you could be gleefully making deadly actions occur. The films talk of free will and the paths you can go down in life is greatly scripted, so either from choosing a cereal or whether to fight your therapist, this interactive design greatly says more about its user than the film.

Though there are times when the film shuttles backwards because a decision you made leaves you with no option but to revisit the past. This kind of works because it happens in choose your own adventure books but after a while of being presented with just one option, because your earlier choice was wrong, it starts making you lose interest.

So whilst ‘Bandersnatch’ may not be the most smooth running narrative to get lost in, there’s enough bleak humour and game-inspired tricks to choose from and re-choose again.

7/10

Stan and Ollie (2019)

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Double acts are a common thing to come by but not many of them have become as instantly recognisable in the same way that Laurel & Hardy did. Just from their bowler hats alone, you’d have to be living under a rock not to know who is underneath the famous head wear, so it’s surprising it’s taken this long to get a biopic about them but it’s worth the wait.

In 1937, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) were at the top of their game, a pairing known the planet over but this film follows them 16 years later, as they hope to shoot a feature in England but in the meantime they tour small venues across the UK, hoping to retain their sparkle and put aside past differences.

This comedy/drama is directed by Jon S. Baird and it’s definitely a departure from other works he’s been behind. Swept away are the ruder and more adult examples like ‘Filth’ and TV series ‘Babylon’ and bouncing forward is this clean and family friendly film. Baird really captures the sheen of their career highs, managing to present the current UK dreariness of tired music halls and strained tensions as a great opposite to the golden years. That isn’t to say that the director is stating that their later years were less special, if anything, it is more delightful to watch them as they tour, appear for press snapshots and witter away with one another.

‘Stan & Ollie’ may be somewhat gentile and doesn’t completely immerse you at all points; it possesses  that generic TV movie atmosphere but the magical partnership between the lead actors does more than enough to warrant it’s big screen outing. It’s not a story bursting to life and breaking the biopic mould, you know what beats will be hit and when they will happen but a tried and tested model isn’t broken so why fix it, especially when a predictable yet fantastic final showcase does its job in making you well up slightly.

It’s certainly a film that mirrors the charm of Laurel & Hardy; from a sublime tracking shot in the open which initiates the audience into the Hollywood studio lot and the cinematic world of which the comedy duo are so at home in to a good couple of skits which are tame yet visually pleasing to tickle the funny bone and show off their unmistakable chemistry.

John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan are a joy to watch, hitting the highs and lows of their friendship and work-life to glorious effect. The movements and mannerisms they’ve honed not just in dance routines and theatrical set pieces but off stage also, are expertly done and really help you feel like you’re watching the real deal. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are marvellous too, as a back-up double act to their husbands showing their adoration in different ways through emotion and well scripted squabbling.

One word can sum up this film: delightful.

7.5/10

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

Welcome to Marwen (2019)

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Inspired from a 2010 documentary, this plasticky picture has a great visual flair but feels as loosely coherent as one of the figures’ crooked joints.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a great illustrator but after a vicious hate crime, he’s lost his skill of drawing and his memory before being beaten to an inch of his life. In trying to combat his new social flaws and trauma, Mark has crafted a model village inhabited by gun-toting women and a brave WW2 pilot based on the likeness of Mark himself.

From ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ to ‘Polar Express’, director Robert Zemeckis has been behind a selection of iconic family films and this film seems to try going down that route but comes across many stumbling blocks, at least the animations aren’t as dead eyed as the festive affair of Hanks and co. The film is somewhat creepy and trying and it grates to new levels when Zemeckis tosses in movie echoes, seen in the ‘Forrest Gump’-inspired poster and a DeLorean style machine with subsequent flames, these aren’t grin worthy call backs but rather painful, self-congratulatory references.

‘Welcome to Marwen’ can never really shake the feeling that it doesn’t which lane to stay in, it’s a tonal mess; one with an alarming mixture of bumpy Nazi drama, witchy screwiness, hobbling melodrama and unusual narrative developments which could have been emotional but just take you right out of any wish of immersion. Also, the plot seems to be aspiring to be this progressive product but more often than not it tests the patience and Mark’s female-centred dream world and his interactions with neighbour Nicol (Leslie Mann) are less movingly sad but resoundingly awkward.

There are some interesting moments; the film possesses a nice shiny plastic sheen and the majority of the visuals are excellently mastered, with this comes a great level of awesome transitions between doll and human world with the town of Marwen being a lovingly detailed environment to be a part of. The film is sometimes quirky and oddball in a good way but more often, in a manner that’s all over the place with plot points to make you roll your eyes and a heavy coating of cringey dialogue lessening the engaging goal of the story.

Carell is alright to watch in this, he gets the balance between stutteringly awkward Mark and the kindness, artistic simplicity of the man. Though moments of strain and anguish where the actor screams, you can’t help but laugh as you’re reminded of a shouting Brick Tamland in the ‘Anchorman’ movies. The females of the ensemble are all well good, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monae, Mann and Eiza Gonzalez are caring characters but they never cross over the line to become interesting, they’re simply there to serve Mark’s interests and it feels too easy that they like and understand all of his Marwenian choices.

This is a strange bag, a Zemeckis movie with his effect of heavy-handed attempts of charm backfiring and getting annoyingly lost in a haze of good visuals and irritatingly ineffective sentimental fodder. This is not a doll Al would want to and box and ship to Tokyo.

5/10

Bird Box (2018)

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It has been claimed by streaming giants Netflix, that this film gained over 45 million viewers in its first week, those are some impressive figures and it isn’t too difficult to see why because ‘Bird Box’ has an interesting premise, stellar cast and flitting moments of chilling unease to draw you in.

Around the world, masses of people are committing suicide causing great hysteria for people hoping to survive. It becomes quickly clear that covering your eyes and not stepping foot outside can be helpful but stuck in a house with a mixture of personalities leads to frayed tensions. Malorie (Sandra Bullock) tries to remain calm in her situation but as the film shifts back and forth in time we see what a dangerous journey she has to make.

Based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, this is a post-apocalyptic movie with a fairly interesting plot. It definitely could have gone further with the premise, these mysterious dark influencers causing folk to kill themselves are a worrying threat but the ideas don’t ever fully reach their target, it just feels like this film is almost missing something.

What with the silence of ‘Hush’ and the quietness of ‘A Quiet Place’, sense deprivation in horror is proving to be a diving board for storytelling in strained circumstances. Unlike those two, this one doesn’t stand as strong, there are one too many moments throughout that detract from the film, either by feeling ridiculous, posing too many unanswered questions or having the characters move and therefore the film loses impact.

It is this latter issue which made the film less exciting than I hoped it’d be. A house bound portion of the film is filled to the rafters with acting talent and lets cabin fever settle in but as ‘Bird Box’ jumps forward and backwards in time, it loses tension and the river boat sequences just aren’t that good. Then after a certain point the remainder of the film feels weak, as if trying to claw on with the chilling factor but it can’t quite sustain the brilliant burst of doom witnessed in the beginning.

Sandra Bullock is great in this, her frustrations and angry eagerness to persist are note perfect as is her sarcasm. John Malkovich is bold as the man all thrillers have, in where they speak words no-one else wishes to utter, you’re meant to dislike him but in world ending moments I’d kind of agree with what he says, is that bad?! Trevante Rhodes is the heroic figure, always staying on the side of caution and kindness and he has good chemistry with Bullock. Tom Hollander pops up and once he does, the entrapping quality of the house is amplified by his magnificent performance.

Aside from an ending where a location of haven is revealed and is pretty laughable and a mixture of good and bad points swirling like a boat bashing on water, ‘Bird Box’ has chilling qualities and stock characters to make for a neat thriller if only it took flight more.

6.5/10