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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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

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

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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So, normally I’m not a fan of rom-coms; the calculable nature of them and how cheesy the dialogue can often be, puts me off them. Surprisingly this film won me over, sure there are cheesier moments but there’s smart writing and spectacular production quality which made it a more satisfying example to come out of the genre.

Economics professor and New York resident Rachel (Constance Wu) is invited to her boyfriend’s best friends wedding. Nick (Henry Golding), the best man, hopes that his large family will love Rachel as much as he does. As the celebrations get under way in Singapore, Rachel faces difficulties living up to the high hopes of Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ brings together a massive cast of talented actors who offer comedy and emotion to a rich story adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel. This tale of romance and acceptance may have slight touches of being over-sentimental but that in no way jolts us from the dazzling charm, which the stars and story convey. The screenplay also ends down familiar territory but there’s so much to cheer on in this picture, that the predictability becomes a muted backseat passenger in a joyful experience.

This is an extremely extravagant and beautiful movie. A wedding sequence is torn straight out of a jungle and is perhaps one of the most ridiculously over the top ceremonies but it fills the heart and it’ll likely fill some eyes with tears. The many lush settings and cinematography are crackling with a luxury that will do wonders for the tourism board of Singapore.

On the flip side of the romantic coin is the comedy sparkle, which does work well throughout. It is not solely ‘Community’ alumni Ken Jeong that gifts some funny to the movie; but a gay fashionista, a snap-happy single lad and Awkwafina’s Goh Peik Lin all bring a delicious amount of humour to the table. The latter is bursting with a comic energy that lifts the film even higher than it already is.

Constance Wu is the bridge to the audience; she grounds us to the glittering, affluent world we’re stepping into. She makes her fish out of water character a heart-warming and believable figure to follow. Wu isn’t just stunning and likable but she’s headstrong and smart too which make her moments facing adversity a strong example of women standing strong and proud. Henry Golding is the handsome and charming boyfriend but isn’t the lead usual movies would stumble to. The actor is confident in playing this caring man but doesn’t ever overshadow the brilliance of his leading lady. This movie features the incredible Gemma Chan and unlike her synth days from ‘Humans’, she demonstrates a wealth of touching emotion as Astrid.

Like the dumplings that a family make within the plot, this film is a sweet and often loving romantic filling wrapped up with fluffy comedy and pinched together with a stroke of drama and judgement. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has blown the box office apart and with it’s affable cast and elegant, delightful storytelling it’s not hard to see why.

7.5/10

 

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)

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Adapted from a bestselling novel; where it spent 40 weeks in the NY Times Best Seller list, comes this Netflix feature which is an adorable romance but looking past the teen loves and dramas, there is unsurprising predictability to be found.

16 year old Lara Jean (Lana Condor) daydreams about sweeping romance from the books she reads but has never had a boyfriend. Tucked away in Lara Jean’s bedroom is a box hiding letters she’s addressed to past crushes and unluckily for her they get sent out. Peter (Noah Centineo) is one of those recipients, he and L-J begin a false relationship to both make certain people jealous.

To start with, this film feels like a slight slog to get through. The acting is unbelievable and some of the dialogue feels extremely off. On top of this is the excruciating foreseeable nature of the plot, as soon as Lara Jean and Peter sign their makeshift contract it’s blindingly obvious where the narrative will end up. Fortunately, even though the story never goes somewhere unexpected, I found myself warming up to the film and characters.

Some further annoyances almost make the film something you’d regret, such as a scene in a high school bathroom that has such terrible audio laid over making the conversation sound like something from a Bad Lip Reading video on YouTube. Lara Jean’s sister Kitty is highly precocious and somewhat annoying in places but far less soul-crushing than Charles Wallace from ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. I only bring that brat up because Kitty has the same smarter sibling characteristics of CW and this streaming movie refuses to reference Lara Jean without saying the names every time…a personal gripe I know but it’s just vexing.

Other than the major issue of it being a romance that doesn’t really try to subvert expectations, the film isn’t a weak one. The central pair are a charming delight on screen and there’s some kind of comforting vibe to felt throughout this movie. The film isn’t solely about her quest to find someone but Peter becomes just as important in the way he shakes off jock imagery as he plays pretend dating with L-J.

‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ isn’t going to break the mould and I’ll likely forget I ever saw it by the end of 2018 but for the time being it’s a satisfying, if just alright teeny-bop romantic flick.

6/10

Mary Shelley (2018)

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“It’s Alive!” Yes, Dr Frankenstein, the story of how you and your creature came to be, comes almost alive in this Irish/British/Luxembourgian joint production captained by Haifaa al-Mansour.

Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning) has a writer for a father and works in a bookshop, so it’s no surprise that she loves to read and someday she hopes to be a writer. After a trip up to Scotland where she meets poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), Mary becomes besotted with the man and he too returns those romantic affections. It isn’t long before fractures in their relationship show and these darker moments lead Mary to find her voice and write her story.

Alternatively titled ‘A Storm in the Stars’, this period drama seems to be lost in space at points. It’s a two hour run-time and a good portion of the film feels like a slow crawl. There’s no dazzling spark of a star in the story to be found, it’s almost like the movie is making her hectic late-teenage years feel more mundane than they clearly were. It definitely reached a point where I was internally begging Mary to write the damned story.

Emma Jensen has a good grasp on the poetic language and manages to weave in some nice moments between Mary and her sister Claire but amongst that are a lot of examples that come across with a pretentious tone, which I guess when you have a story featuring English Romantics is to be expected. The script itself isn’t helped further by the actors delivering their lines in a way that’s reminiscent of a stage play, as if they’re projecting their voices up into the rafters which isn’t necessary in cinema. It gives some scenes a distracting hammy quality.

Gladly, ‘Mary Shelley’ the film and the figure herself progress as we enter the stages of the second half. As a Geneva-set ghost story challenge swings into action and Mary’s keen, blossoming interest in science plays on her mind, the film gradually lifts itself out of the dragging mire and lights up a creative bulb within the title character. Haifaa al-Mansour’s previous works that feature strong women help her direct the learning curve of Mary; her troubling years with Percy gift her the experience to work on writing this bold material called ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’.

Elle Fanning is superb in this, she captures an essence of courage in a girl not quite confident to have her own distinctive voice. Yet, you believe that she’s an intelligent and brave woman and Fanning shows great emotion playing the part of a neglected soul. Douglas Booth utilises his acting chops in a genre he’s well used to by now, that dashing charm works in selling Percy as the sophisticated poet, but there’s an extra something there which he carries and ensures Mary’s beau isn’t a man that can fully be trusted. Joanne Froggatt basically becomes the Lady Tremaine of the act and performs in such a way that wouldn’t be amiss in pantomime. Tom Sturridge revels in his grandeur and mascara as Lord Byron. There’s no denying that the poet is flamboyant and smart but he’s almost a villainous chap too, the misogyny within him is fairly extreme and he has no cares for the feelings or intellect of women.

This film is by no means a terrible one, but the fantastic performance from Fanning isn’t enough to stop me thinking that the real Mary Shelley deserves better than what this story gives.

5/10