the_favouriteTwo period dramas in a week? Well, I guess so.

Following on from Mary Queen of Scots, this effort from Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth) is a far more entertaining affair. There’s a scattering of supporting characters and a decent wealth of talent, but essentially this is a three-hander. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone is Abigail Hill, a cousin to the Duchess.

Sarah’s relationship with the Queen is an odd one. She’s an adviser and a confident and a secret lover and in a lot of ways, due to the Queen’s physical and mental health issues, she’s essentially pulling all the strings that run the country. Abigail arrives to court recently impoverished when her husband died in a fire and looking for a favor from her cousin. She’s sent to work in the scullery where she is mocked and bullied by the other servants. It isn’t long before she proves herself to Sarah and makes her way upstairs and then she discovers the special relationship between Sarah and the Queen and begins to plot her ascent back to nobility.

This is all against a backdrop of a war with the French that requires funding, which in turn requires an increase in land taxes that the common people are apt to revolt against. Sarah’s husband, Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), is the strategic mastermind at the front, and so it comes as no surprise that Sarah backs the tax hike and she has the Queen’s ear, as well as other parts of her body, so the Opposition party try their best to use Abigail against these plans. Abigail, though, has plans of her own.

For a movie with so many twists and turns, deals and double-crosses, and where our own allegiances to these characters is fleeting, it’s remarkably easy to keep up with everything that’s going on, which is of course down to the performances, but also a sharp, crisp, and witty script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. The excesses of the time are stark as ducks and lobster are literally raced around rooms, the Queen gets lost in her own house, a naked man is pelted with fruit for no apparent reason other than why not. All the while, a war is being fought.

The Favourite is the kind of movie that tends to do well come Awards Season, and I’d be amazed if it doesn’t pick up a few nominations and prizes. The set design and costumes are exquisite, but the real issue is going to be who gets Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress, as we’re going to have to perm two out of three and I found it really difficult to separate Colman, Stone, and Weisz. I’ve always had a soft spot for Olivia Colman, but in all honesty, it could go either way. My only complaint is the font they use in the titles made my eyes sore. Oh, and the guy in front of us laughed two seconds too late at each gag. That’s all I’ve got.

A triumph.

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71D1305E-5963-4766-A591-BAA4A9270687To my shame, I walked into Mary Queen of Scots with my wife wondering how historically accurate it would be, and I had to admit that I wouldn’t really know one way or another. Aside from the whole Catholic / Protestant thing and the fact that she gets her head chopped off, I confess to not knowing a huge amount about this part of my homeland’s history.

Mary, played by Saoirse Ronan, has returned from France to reclaim her throne from her half-brother and has ideas to replace Elizabeth I’s rather shaky arse on the English equivalent, thus uniting the nation and putting an end to all this squabbling and killing. Elizabeth I, played by Margot Robbie, and her court, understandably, aren’t too keen on the idea. And so begins a to and fro of ambassadorial visits to try and come to some mutually beneficial agreement. Liz hasn’t taken a husband and Mary is only willing to do so for the right reasons but if she were to sire an heir then her position as ruler of the two nations would gain power. I’m not sure why, but enough people say it so it must be true.

It’s a beautifully acted piece that is basically a drama of manners and protocol, of people saying one thing and meaning another, of men politicking with the two women mere collateral pawns in the game. The costumes are as gorgeous as the scenery. Where the piece fails is in the story. The story is pretty boring. Watching an ambassador traipse up and down across the border with offer and counteroffer as Mary and Elizabeth try to find a way to co-exist gets dull pretty quick. It’s like an Elizabethan version of The Thick of It but with no swearing and no jokes.

We’re also expected to believe that Mary is, like, totally woke. She doesn’t care that her minstrel/adviser is homosexual, or that he slept with her husband on her wedding night. Nor does she give two hoots if you’re a Protestant or a Catholic, so long as we can all get along. And one gets the impression that Mary and her entourage of gentlewomen attendees sit up all night, talking about boys, and doing each other’s hair. Plus, everything about this Elizabeth goes against my admittedly restricted knowledge of her through history lessons, but she’s painted with a far more sympathetic brush than I’ve been led to believe and seems far more reluctant to deal with Mary in any permanent way than I’d have assumed.

It’s not a dreadful movie by any manner or means, but the screenplay and overly long running time do let down the talent and the effort that’s gone into recreating an otherwise believable 16th century world.

C22A7815-B2B1-4A34-A86C-3D6F9CF1EF21From the people who brought you The Big Short. And it really is. It’s from all the people who brought you The Big Short. Every single last one of them. Stick Margot Robbie in a tub and we’d have the whole gang together. So while thematically, this is very much a different story, this is something of a spiritual sequel and you should expect to be feeling pretty angry by the time the end credits roll.

So if The Big Short asked you to get angry about the financial system that brought about the global crisis of 2008, what are you supposed to get your knickers in a twist about this time? In short, Dick Cheney. A more complicated explanation might ask you to shake a fist at a system that allowed Dick Cheney to have the unchecked power he did, but at the end of the day, take it out on Dick.

The transformation of Christian Bale into various versions of Cheney through the years really is an absolute joy, and Bale being Bale, he has the mannerisms down pat. We begin with a young Cheney being pulled over drunk in rural Wyoming in the 60s, perhaps not for the first time. Thrown out of Yale, he’s working as a lineman when his wife Lynne, again a superb depiction from Amy Adams, has to bail him out and she gives him an ultimatum; she’s seen enough women in her family get sucked into abusive relationships, so either he turns his game around or she’s out of there. He promises never to disappoint her again. He goes back to college and finds himself an internship to a young Donald Rumsfeld, played brilliantly by Steve Carell. And so begins his path to the history books and being booed throwing the opening pitch of a Nationals game.

Whether his moment of clarity was as stark as this is anyone’s guess. As the introductory titles remind us, Cheney is a hugely secretive character, but what we have here is the best guess of what happened.

Director and writer, Adam McKay, plays around with the chronology to tell his story but we cover all the major points, touching in on them at several places through the piece. It’s not until he’s approached by George W. Bush to be his running mate in 2000 and then the events the following year that we really see the machinations truly start to bear fruit. We also employ some neat techniques to tell the tale. There’s a Shakespearean heart to heart between Mr and Mrs Cheney that was hilarious, and having a seemingly unattached character narrate affairs was an interesting touch.

Despite these great performances — and I haven’t even mentioned how great Tyler Perry was as Colin Powell or LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, or how Sam Rockwell might as well be Dubya — and despite these inventive frames through which to tell the story, including the faux end credits halfway through, few of the punches landed come anywhere close to those in The Big Short. 

Why is that? Well, I think for me it’s just a better known story, especially post 9/11. There were still surprises, but they were fewer. I had an opinion of the man before going into the movie and I was fairly sure of the basis of that opinion. Maybe I was a little firmer in my belief by the end. Plus, there already is a perfect movie that deals with the manic positioning in the post 9/11 world and that movie is In The Loop, so this was always going to fall a little short.

But not a big short. And it’s still a stark and frank reminder of how a handful of people in the world control the destiny of so many millions, and how it’s always the little guy who picks up the tab in the end.

 

A1761C81-DE3D-4FC0-AEEB-07053EE725F9Are we starting at this late stage to mimic sequel titles after Halloween movies? Should we expect The Revenge of Mary Poppins at some point in the future? Mary Poppins Resurrection? Perhaps we should let Rob Zombie loose with it.

Well, if any of that did materialize, at least it would likely be a bit more innovative and surprising than what’s on offer here, which is, by and large, a not-anywhere-as-good rehash of the original. We swap chimney-sweeps for lamplighters, Step In Time with Trip the Light Fantastic, trouble at the bank with trouble at the bank, funny wee animated sequences with slightly different funny wee animated sequences.

Michael Banks is all grown up and now has the voice of Paddington Bear and a caterpillar taped to his upper lip. He’s angry quite a lot of the time because his wife is dead and the bank where he works is about to foreclose on a loan he took out with them, his three kids keep falling over in mud or losing the youngest sibling, and no one keeps off the bloody grass. Jane, played by Emily Mortimer, hasn’t married and has remained close to her brother, and struggles to find a point for being there. Julie Walters turns up thinking she’s in another Paddington movie. Michael’s only hope is finding a lost share certificate of his father’s that will prove he is a share holder in the bank and will allow him to pay off his loan.

It’s a slow and messy start and did nothing but disappoint me. Then, in a wind storm, Mary Poppins, played excellently by Emily Blunt, drifts down from the sky and I started to get interested. Her clipped diction is absolutely on point, but even with her involved, it still managed to fail to live up to expectations at every possible point. By the time we get to the deus ex machina ending, I was just praying we’d get to the credits with as few songs delaying proceedings as possible.

For the most part, I was mostly ambivalent at best about the movie. The songs were okay if a little too reliant on the motifs of the original, same can be said about the dance routines, but for some reason, every time Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack appeared on screen, I felt my blood pressure rise. I really hated the performance, the accent, the cockiness, the unbelievable optimism. I couldn’t stand the character and didn’t think much more of any of the other lamplighters.

It’s directed brightly enough by Rob Marshall who knows what he’s doing when it comes to musicals. Costumes, as well as the general look and feel, had a nostalgic glow to them. Where the movie falls flat is the storyline is nowhere near good enough and the songs do little to advance the plot or take us in any new direction. And Jack. Don’t forget Jack. Or do. I really hated him. All this said, if you’re a kid going into this with no real sense of expectations, maybe it’ll be the best thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

I’d love to see Emily Blunt reprise this role with a story fitting of the Mary Poppins name. Whether that’s Mary Poppins H20 remains to be seen.

creed2Thirty seconds.

Knowing nothing of the movie ahead of seeing it, that’s how long it took for me to become entirely immersed in Creed II. That’s how long it also took before I knew where every beat of the plot was going to land for the next couple of hours. It didn’t really matter.

That said, it was perhaps unfortunate that I was listening to the Rocky episode of the Unspooled podcast a few hours before seeing the movie. Amy Nicolson’s main critique of the first Creed movie was near the front of my mind and it’s certainly true in the sequel. We may joke that this is Rocky VIII, but Amy’s point is … it really is, because Sylvester Stallone, a co-writer of the screenplay here, won’t let it be anything else. He had a chance to kill himself off in the last movie and he flinched. So despite the title, it’s a Rocky movie, it’s not a Creed movie. You have to decide for yourself if that’s going to be a problem.

We rejoin Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed three years after losing to “Pretty” Ricky Conlan and very quickly, he defeats Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler to become the WBC Heavyweight Champion. Meanwhile, and this is what hooked me, Ivan Drago’s son is destroying opponent after opponent. It doesn’t look like life has treated Ivan very well after losing to Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV. He’s a broken man in many ways, abandoned by his country and his wife, and sees a vicarious second chance through his son, Viktor. Just the sight of an older Dolph Lungren whetted the appetite because, as any Rocky aficionado will tell you, Ivan only went and killed Adonis’ dad 33 years ago and Rocky has never forgiven himself for not throwing in the towel. Talk about awkward.

So it isn’t long before a challenge is made and accepted. Rocky doesn’t think this is a great idea so the two part, and this is just the start of Donny’s problems. You know where this is going, right? Right?

Look. It’s good. I enjoyed it very much. I was never not going to enjoy it very much. But it’s missing a bit of heart and excitement. The way Creed initially wins the title is too easy. The fight choreography isn’t quite as innovative as it was in the first movie where the audience really felt they were part of it, ducking punches, throwing counters. Director Steven Caple Jr. jumps into the shoes of Ryan Coogler, with cinematographer Kramer Mergenthau replacing Maryse Alberti behind the camera. Part of me wishes these changes hadn’t happened. Perhaps most damning, the amazing Tessa Thompson is criminally underused as Adonis’ girlfriend, but she works very well with what she’s given. And this is a complaint you could levy at any of the movies in the franchise, plus it’s really picky, but Creed doesn’t really look big enough to be a heavyweight.

Going back to the Unspooled complaint, there’s a moment where Rocky tells Adonis that this is his moment. And yet the camera holds on Rocky and we never see what Donny is experiencing. Amy, you were spot on.

What the movie gets right makes up for it, though. First of all, the premise is great. History repeating, a chance for revenge, generational rivalry, the decision of what you’re fighting for. The theme of fathers and sons pushes my buttons every time and I’ll happily admit that more that one tear was coaxed from the eye. Bumbling Rocky is still as sweet as ever and, if anything, I feel like I prefer the post-retirement Confucius version of the character to the pugilist from the 70s and 80s. He’s just better fun. And in the obligatory final fight, the audience, myself included, were treating it like an actual boxing match. The story may be familiar, but it’s familiar in a way that is comforting and cozy. It’s never dull.

Particular kudos go to Florian Munteanu as Viktor Drago. He has few lines but his menacing presence is palpable. While I’m at it, and an improvement over the first Creed, the montage is awesome. The cameo reprises of Brigitte Nielson as Ivan’s ex, Ludmilla (out of off of Rocky IV), and Milo Ventimiglia as Robert Balboa (out of off of Rocky Balboa) are an absolute delight.

So a slightly inferior outing than the previous, but still enormously entertaining and for the eighth entry in a franchise that started an astonishing 42 years ago, that’s pretty amazing. Should we expect to see what the offspring of Clubber Lang have been up to in a couple of years? I kinda hope so.

A_Star_is_BornMy second musical movie of the weekend. You can guess who was picking the movies in this house. Hint. It wasn’t me.

A Star Is Born is a remake of the 1937 original, which was remade in 1954, then remade again in 1976, then remade yet again Bollywood style in 2013. So we should all be familiar with the story, yes? Also, this is another movie that was stuck in development hell for years and at one point was poised to be directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Beyonce and Tom Cruise. Yeah. Phew.

Bradley Cooper, in perhaps the performance of his life, plays Jackson Mane, a famous country-rock singer whose star is on the wane and who from the off is battling his demons of alcoholism and drug abuse. After a concert and out of car booze, he pulls over at a drag bar where he sees Ally, a waitress and singer-songwriter perform La Vie en Rose. Captivated by her, they talk through the night and into the morning and they learn more about each other. He encourages (pretty much forces) her to confront her own insecurities and puts her on stage at his next concert. And so begins Ally’s ascent while Jackson’s trajectory is on a different course.

Lady Gaga is simply amazing in the role of Ally. It’s a knockout performance. When she first plucks up the courage and steps into the spotlight, I confess to having some moisture in the corner of my eyes. I absolutely felt her anxiety before she coaxed one foot in front of the other. I hope she continues down the acting path.

Scattered through we have brilliant supporting performances from Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother and manager, Bobby — because OF COURSE Sam Elliott is Bradley Cooper’s brother — and Andrew Dice Clay (what?!) as Ally’s dad. Didn’t we last see him in 1990’s The Adventures of Ford Fairlane?

There’s something universally appealing about the plot; given the number of remakes that’s a pretty obvious comment. Here, it’s freshened up by Cooper’s direction and writing, helped by Eric Roth and Will Fetters. There’s a certain mumblecore feel about a lot of the scenes and I get the sense there was plenty of improvisation here and in the first act that really helped cement the new existence Ally found herself in and the friendship she established with Jack. It felt normal. The casual mumble from Cooper where he invites Ally to be at his next concert despite her having to work and then ending up on a private jet was pitch perfect. Halfway through the second act, if I’m honest, it started to become tiresome, especially when doubled up with Jackson’s increasing deafness.

While I’m kinda complaining, Dave Chappelle was ridiculously underused. If you’re going to have Dave Chappelle in a movie, give him more to do than pick Bradley Cooper out of a bush. And the story is pretty light on story. Post-movie, you could easily describe to a friend what happened in a couple of sentences and one breath.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that this is Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and he does a pretty good job. Maybe it could be argued that he puts himself in scenes he doesn’t need to be in, but he’s helped by having a cinematographer like Matthew Libatique who has worked extensively with Darren Aronofsky and I thought the pacing was mostly spot on.

The music, I could take or leave. I preferred Lady Gaga singing the more country-rock influenced stuff over the pop music that required dance routines, but nothing was objectionable and I will probably buy the soundtrack.

I didn’t think I’d be typing this, but it’s definitely one of the better movies I’ve seen this year and I’m really looking forward to the 2030 remake when it comes around.

Bohemian_Rhapsody_posterIs this the real life?

It’s no secret that the biopic of Freddy Mercury and, to a lesser extent, Queen has spent a bit of time in production hell. Multiple directors, changing lead actors, problems with the script. Since its conception in 2010, it hasn’t had to look too hard for its woes, perhaps because two of the surviving members are heavily involved and want to control how they and Freddy are portrayed. Well, it’s finally been made, it’s out, and we can all cast our judgment on it.

Okay, here’s what’s good. The actors, for the most part, are great and they eek every ounce they can get from the story. It is to their credit that they get so much. The songs are wisely chosen. The capturing of an age is pinpoint in its accuracy.

That’s about it. Full disclosure, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Queen fanatic, but I have their Greatest Hits, I liked most of their singles, and I remember where I was when (spoiler alert) I found out he’d died.

I have no idea if I’m right, but I’m willing to wager one of the Royal Bank of Scotland twenty pound notes that I carry around everywhere with me that 95% of the non-musical parts of this movie never happened in the way the movie would have you believe. For example, I’m pretty sure Queen weren’t solely responsible for the success of Live Aid.

I’m all for creative license but the manner in which major events happened without pause or dramatic tension was pretty laughable, and all delivered through a script by Anthony McCarten (who can write; I’ve seen The Theory of Everything) that you can practically smell. Line after line splats as it lands, doused with the nuance and subtlety of a dog turd on a stick. It felt very much to me like if you were to approach a 14 year old kid who has their own band and a vague interest in writing, gave them the brief of writing the story of a flamboyant front man and three largely interchangeable band mates, it probably would be as good as what’s presented here.

I’m left with the impression that none of the band actually liked each other all that much, and they tolerated Freddy more than anything else. In two and a quarter hours, I know no more about them or their relationships now than I did this afternoon when I decided to go see the movie.

I’m a kid of the 70s. I grew up in the 80s. I’m not sure every gay man had a penchant for leather and was issued a textbook moustache from the leader of the biker group they were part of. The movie insists otherwise.

But, look. The music is great, plucking out the high points of a scattered back catalogue. The Live Aid section for the most part is shot for shot although songs are skipped and abridged unapologetically. In fairness, Rami Malek does an absolutely sensational job inhabiting the body and character of Freddy Mercury. Gwilym Lee is more Brian May than Brian May. Joseph Mazzello is a double for John Deacon. Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor … well, Ben Hardy has a nice blond wig, I guess. Outside the band, Lucy Boynton did a great turn as Mary, Freddy’s fiancee and lifelong friend. If that’s all you’re interested in, you’ll more than likely have a ball.

For me, I need more than that. The problem where the music is concerned is there’s no history to how these anthemic songs came into being. Freddy already has the melody for Bohemian Rhapsody. John Deacon comes to the band with the riff to Another One Bites The Dust without any notes of the inspiration. We Will Rock You seems to have come from a killing time exercise, or Step Class, while everyone waited for Freddy to arrive. Everything happens so easily. Too easily. The band records their debut album, it’s heard by an EMI A&R guy, it’s a success, they go from strength to strength and, in a particularly low lull, say city names out loud while on tour for a bit. Later, on other tours, city names fly out of the screen in threes.

Elsewhere, Mike Myers is an odd choice as EMI executive Ray Foster, and our attention is drawn, unforgivably, to this when, in assessing his thoughts on Bohemian Rhapsody, he predicts that no kids are ever going to sit in a car and nod along to this. Urgh. Tom Hollander does everything he can as the band’s lawyer/agent. And it took me an outrageously long time to twig that the band manager was Littlefinger out of off of The Game of the Thrones. By which I mean, my wife told me.

The acting chops are meaty indeed. The musical performances are fantastic. The failure of this project is entirely down to a dreadful script, questionable homosexual stereotypes, and a willingness to downplay Freddy into a bland, sad, lonely man who never understood who he really was. Queen isn’t at all interesting. Freddy Mercury is. Someone should’ve noticed that.

Is this just fantasy?