December 2018


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.

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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.