Monday, December 31, 2018

MY 10 FAVORITE IMAGES FROM FILMS IN 2018



 It’s that time at The Establishing Shot to once again pick the 10 images that were my favorites from the year’s films. Here they are, my friends and followers. As always, there are spoilers contained in my descriptions so tread carefully if you have yet to see all of my picks.

BLACKKKLANSMAN
My favorite image of the year is based upon an event that actually happened in real life and was recreated in Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN. Undercover detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was investigating Ku Klux Klan activity in Boulder, CO in the late 1970s when he was inexplicably assigned to guard Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) during his visit to the city. Duke had no idea that Stallworth was the man talking to him on the phone weekly, pretending to be a white nationalist as well, so when it came time for a photo op, Duke hesitated to stand next to the black man. Sensing the ultimate irony of it all, as well as having a cheeky sense of humor, Stallworth put his arms around Duke and his crony just as the camera clicked. His delight, and their horror, became a fitting memento to his investigation. 


CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Weddings are always romantic and moving, but few on film have equaled the over-the-top glamour and emotions that occurred in the middle of director John M. Chu’s adaptation of CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick (Henry Golding) are in love and have traveled to Singapore for the wedding of Nick’s best friend. Rachel is having trouble fitting in with Nick's wealthy family, but right before the bride (Sonoya Mizuno) starts her way down the aisle, the pathway floods with water for an ethereal walkway. A wedding singer croons the song "Can't Help Falling in Love" and the lyric “Like a river flows, surely to the sea, darling, so it goes, some things are meant to be” could not be any more meaningful to Rachel and Nick. As they gaze into each others' eyes, they realize that their bond is unbreakable. It made for the most breathtakingly passionate and loving scenes in 2018.  


THE FAVOURITE
In director Yorgos Lanthimos’ searing dark comedy, two attendants of Queen Anne’s royal court in 1708 England battle to be THE FAVOURITE of hers while attempting to vanquish the other. Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) has had the ear of Anne (Olivia Colman) for years, but upstart Abigail (Emma Stone) is assertively performing a palace coup. During a round of game shooting outside, Abigail takes out a bird and ribbons of its blood splatter across the face of her competitor. Metaphors don’t come any cheekier than this one. Indeed, not only will blood be spilled in their battle, but Sarah’s pristine visage will be one of the casualties as this scene foreshadows. 


IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
My fourth choice is another beautiful face in close-up, only this one is untarnished. Tish (Kiki Layne) and her boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) are young and in love in Barry Jenkins’ nuanced adaptation of James Baldwin’s famous novel IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Their early 70’s romance will go through the wringer once he’s arrested for a crime that he didn’t commit. Yet every time Fonny gazes at Tish, the world is a beautiful place. Cinematographer James Laxton repeats the head-on motif time and time again, even when Fonny talks to his girlfriend through prison glass. It puts us directly in his shoes and shows us how he sees hope in the world every time he gazes upon her sweet and loving visage.


ROMA
Alfonso Cuaron’s autobiographical film ROMA finds him wearing many hats: director, screenwriter, producer, and cinematographer. Image upon image is stunning, including the very first one in the movie. Off-camera, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) scrubs the driveway of the family she serves as their housekeeper in 1970’s Mexico City. The water cascading across the tile outdoors show the grace and poetry in her work. Then we glimpse a plane flying overhead, reflected in the upper corner of the pool. That transport is taking people to far off worlds, something that Cleo will never know. It's a brilliant commentary on the haves versus the have-nots. Still, Cleo's life in many ways is its own adventure, one that the film will soon show is full of challenges and risk even while she stays stuck in her job and town.


EIGHTH GRADE
Filmmaker Bo Burnham made one auspicious debut with his character study of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a timid junior high student trying to be cool and popular. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, she is forced to attend the pool party of a well-off classmate, and her insecurity almost swallows her whole. As she ventures out to the pool area, Elsie slouches while she ambles, fearing that all eyes will be upon her. (She’s not helped by her god-awful, green one-piece.) Yet as she lumbers to the water, not a soul is even paying attention. Worse than unwanted attention for the young girl? Not being noticed at all. It’s hilarious, and more than a little heartbreaking, just like this superior coming-of-age film.


FIRST REFORMED
One of the bravest and boldest films of the year was Paul Schrader’s FIRST REFORMED. In it, the world is taking a toll on Father Toller (Ethan Hawke). He’s losing faith after the suicide of a parishioner, and he sees an irredeemable populace unwilling to save its deteriorating planet. In the end, he gives up and drinks drain cleaner only to imagine, in his dying moments, salvation in the arms of the parishioner's widow (Amanda Seyfried). It’s a devastating end to a pointed and political film, with Schrader suggesting that there may have been some salvation for him, but tragically, that chance has passed.  


RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
YouTube wouldn’t allow the animated comedy RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET to spoof it. Instead, the film creates a parody of it called "BuzzTube." Disney, however, was cool enough to let the movie bite the hand that feeds it by allowing the film to lampoon its princess preoccupation. In the story, young Vanellope visits the Disney site and makes friends with all of the princesses there. Each is parodied, and it's hard to believe the mega-entertainment company would let this movie take the piss out of it so. But then, the girls all chill and have a pajama party, and their knowing banter about the limits of princes and happy endings turns into the humorous highpoint of the film. If only YouTube were as willing to have fun with its own image.


A SIMPLE FAVOR
Paul Feig’s attempt at a sexy thriller with farcical overtones wasn’t a complete success, but he did manage to bring to the screen one of the most interesting villains of the year. In A SIMPLE FAVOR, he introduces the seductive and brazen Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) with an entrance so over-the-top, it earns one of the bigger laughs in the piece. During a pouring rainstorm, Emily gets out of her car to retrieve her child from elementary school, and the outfit she's wearing is so trendy and expensive, she might as well be an alien at the modest school. The first shot of her designer shoe splattering into the rain suggests a woman to whom money and responsibility are themselves items to be ridiculed. If she ruined her shoes, so what, she has hundreds of others. And soon, she'd wreck lives in the story as easily as those pricey pumps.


SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
Here's the last shot, and it's another gem from an animated film. In SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, teen Milo Morales not only has trouble figuring out how to be the new Spider-man, but he’s having difficulty keeping track of all the different Spidey’s that a hole in the galaxy has unleashed. He knows too that if it’s too much for him to handle, it’ll be too much for his classmate as well. As the student enters the dorm room, they all leap to the ceiling and cling together using their sticky powers. Then, when the boy turns his head, the group of “spiders” moves across the surface in highly comic style. It’s one of the funnier visuals in this visually splendid film and that highlight concludes my list of favorite images onscreen in 2018.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

THE DARK COMEDY IN “VICE” ISN’T AS DARK AS ITS CENTRAL CHARACTER DICK CHENEY




Filmmaker Adam McKay won an Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay for his 2015 film THE BIG SHORT by mining the financial crisis of 2008 for darkly comic laughs. He’s back with the new dark comedy VICE, a withering critique of Dick Cheney and all the Machiavellian damage he did in his eight years as Vice-President under George W. Bush. It portrays Cheney as a man who was one of the most calculating and manipulative politicians to ever serve in Washington. His hubris took the tragedy of 9/11 and used it to launch a misguided war on Iraq even though that sovereign nation had nothing to do with the attack. He also oversaw the new program of illegal torture created to combat terror, as well as supervised all kinds of destructive policies that destroyed America’s reputation at home and abroad, and he did most of it without proper government oversight. Yet, even while showing all that, McKay doesn’t do enough to paint a portrait of the man as terrifying as it should be.

McKay has given interviews where he’s stated that he thinks Cheney was far worse for America than Donald Trump, but then why doesn’t the former Veep come off in the movie more horribly?  Is it because the film is a dark comedy, one that wants us to laugh?  It’s hard to find even ironic humor in Cheney’s legacy of thousands of lives lost in the phony war of Iraq, the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame after her husband publicly questioned Cheney’s insistence upon WMD’s in Iraq, and the Bush administration's over-spending on that war that helped trigger the economic collapse in 2008. These are all utterly tragic events that, unfortunately,  McKay presents far too glibly.  

McKay knows how to set up and joke and make it land, but so much of what’s he presenting here shouldn't be given punchlines.  Cheney should come off as continually chilling but instead seems to be more of a loutish, fat, grumpy uncle type. Cheney also was always a rock ridge conservative, one who felt strongly about his values throughout his decades in Washington, but McKay starts him off as a rudderless opportunist. Even if there was some waffling here and there, it lets him off too easy early on. It also doesn’t help that Christian Bale plays Cheney with far too much of a charming gleam in his eye. While physically essaying the portly man and imitating his voice perfectly, Bale doesn’t make the figure nearly threatening enough.  

Similar problems mar Steve Carrell’s take on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. McKay writes him, and Carrell follows suit in playing the man, like a cackling jokester without a core political agenda either. Rumsfeld was always a hardcore hawk, a ruthless and strident man who many characterized as one of the worst SOB's ever to walk the halls of Congress. Where is that character?  Remember, this was a man who justified the hours forcing detainees to stand as torture because he bragged about standing at his desk without pain. Carrell is also far too likable an actor, and he almost makes Rumsfeld cuddly.

Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney starts off strong, pushing the ne’er-do-well Cheney around when they were courting and suggesting a Lady Macbeth steeliness, but her character is given short shrift as the film goes on, disappearing for virtually the entire last hour. And while Sam Rockwell looks and sounds a lot like W, his portrayal is too cartoonish to be useful in such a scathing critique as this. His W is too much Will Ferrell and not enough of the calculating religious wingnut willing to cut his vacation short to help Congress keep Terry Schiavo on life support in Florida, a state matter that the POTUS had no business getting involved in. Where’s that cunning and passionate zealot in this movie?   

To put it simply, as well made as a lot of this movie is, with strong period production values, deft editing, and punchy sound design that keeps it all crackling, Cheney devastated the nation far too significantly to justify such a flippant approach to the material. If Cheney was the “Dark Lord” that so many described him as then the film should’ve made his horrifying malevolence far more apparent, as well as the fallout from his egregious actions. When he blithely instructs Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk) to out Plame’s husband, the film never shows how it devastated her. With that vengeful act, Cheney ended her career, put her life at risk, and exposed the hundreds of other CIA spies she worked undercover with for decades and put them in harm's way too. Why didn't McKay present that?

So many of Cheney’s horrible actions had awful real-world consequences, but the film would rather spend moments laughing at silly moments like when the Vice-President carelessly shot his fellow hunter in the face. A shrewder and more judicious take would've excised that scene and included more about Plame.  Someday a filmmaker will tell the tale about Cheney and all his victims, and it will make Darth Vader seem like a teenager with a chip on his shoulder. Such a film should make audiences' blood run cold. Unfortunately, this movie is having far too much fun making fun of people and events that just weren’t funny.  

Sunday, December 23, 2018

“IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK” SPEAKS PROFOUNDLY OF BOTH THE PAIN AND POETRY OF THE BLACK EXPERIENCE



One of the first rules of screenwriting is, “Show, don’t tell.” However, when you’re adapting author James Baldwin’s marvelous novel IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK for the screen, an exception has to be made. Baldwin’s writing is so sublime that to ignore his way with words would rob the story of too much of what made it so special - the exquisite descriptions, the intimacy in tone, as well as his candid, political POV. Keeping the first-person narrative of the main character Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) not only keeps much of Baldwin's prose intact, but it allows us to understand the innermost feeling of this shy and reserved character who would never utter so much out loud. Additionally, Baldwin's story is presented as a memory where the past is informed by what time and distance brings to the reflection upon it. All those reasons make the adaptation by writer/director Barry Jenkins of the very best screenplays of 2018, and easily one of the year’s most compelling films.

Tish is only 19 as the film begins, but she is already in love with Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), her best friend from childhood. He is 23 and a struggling artist, working dead-end jobs to make something more of himself. The two have remained close since preschool, and now that they’re adults, they both realize that they're attracted to each other physically as well.

Throughout the scenes of their relationship, the couple is bathed in rich, warm tones to make their love affair appear utterly idyllic. Enhancing these visuals is intentional since they are Tish's memory of those early days together and she now cherishes each fleeting moment as a highlight of her life. Jenkins' cinematographer James Laxton creates one glorious shot after another portraying their loving courtship, but because it's so ideally presented, we know that soon the world will interfere with them and turn that relationship from a dream into a nightmare.

Indeed, not long after, Tish and Fonny face their first substantial obstacle - an unexpected pregnancy. Together, they realize that they want the baby, but they fear that their parents will have a far more negative reaction. As Tish enters her parents’ home to break the news, she can barely look her mom, dad, or sister in the eye. Susan and Joseph Hunt (Regina King and Colman Domingo) are surprised for sure, but their shock quickly turns into unshakable love and support. Even Tish’s politically 'woke' adult sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is thrilled about it, as she brazenly instructs her, “Unbow your head, sister!”

Just as Tish is starting to feel safe and secure in her decision to keep the child and move towards an early marriage date, Fonny’s mother (Aunajanue Ellis) comes by and has a very different reaction to the news. She’s a stern religious woman, and her negative feedback humiliates Tish, serving as the first warning to the young woman that the world will not be kind to her. Navigating the hatred, that will become the real crucible for Tish. At every turn, she will find that her idealism is challenged by racism, sexism, and even ageism as she is so young. Society doesn't cut a lot of breaks for unwed, black teen mothers either, as Tish already fears.

Soon, Tish and Fonny are battling a multitude of issues, from struggling to make ends meet, from struggling to make ends meet to the unfair housing practices in New York City. The couple manages to catch a rare break when a young Jewish realtor (David Franco) gives them a deal on an apartment because he admires young love. It will be small compensation to the rest of what they experience together. 

One day, while shopping in the marketplace, an oafish man starts flirting with Tish, and his come-on escalates into assault. Fonny wholly explodes with rage at the incident and begins beating up the creep, only to have a racist cop (Ed Skrein) enter the scene and threaten to put Fonny in jail. An interceding shop owner helps the young black man escape his potential arrest, but the policeman vows to keep on the lookout for him. 

Soon, the policeman will make good on his threat, arresting Fonny for the rape of a young Hispanic woman (Emily Rios) that he couldn't possibly have performed. He's jailed, and the young couple’s idyllic love story is irreparably shattered. As Baldwin wrote in Tish's narration, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

These are the basic story points of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, but nothing about this film is basic at all. The order of scenes fluctuates, rarely in an "A to B to C" way, with the story's narrative jumping around just as memories do. And while telling this twisting and emotional tale, Jenkins plays with form masterfully, juxtaposing shots of exquisite beauty right up against tragic ones. Such direction ensures that we never quite know what's coming next, and it keeps us off our guard throughout, just as the couple is discombobulated with every turn of their turmoil.

Even though their hardships build quickly, Tish and Fonny try to remain steadfast in their love and keep hope alive. Thankfully Tish's parents remain committed to her and Fonny, showcasing a family undeterred as they can be by grave injustices and hardship. Joseph works with Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach) to help give the couple money to keep up the battle in court, and Sharon even makes a trip to Puerto Rico, where the rape victim has returned. Sharon finds out just how the woman was told to finger Fonny, and the mother desperately tries to persuade her to come clean, but it doesn't go well. 

Such moments are devastating and imbued with cool hues of green and grey to match the awful events. But then Jenkins follows them with more idealized memories, and the changes in the cinematography are startling. He's doing so to echo the way Baldwin wrote and showcase the author's intrepid belief in humanity, no matter how ugly the world turns. Even in the face of the very worst, Tish and Fonny keep searching for the light. So did Baldwin, and so does Jenkins, and the cinematography does a superb job of representing that hope.  

Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders' editing keeps us constantly leaning forward in our seats, never sure of what we will see next, and in what order. Nicholas Britell’s moody jazz score also moves back and forth in moods, one moment being buoyant, the next melancholy. Even the costuming and production values play in the duality. The family homes are warm and cozy; the outside world is often sparse and dilapidated. Even the duality of appearance is presented as a theme, particularly in one scene where Susan debates within herself whether or not she should wear a wig to go out versus being seen with her natural look. How the black world is observed by the white world is a constant sticking point. 

Jenkins draws superb work out of his entire cast, particularly Layne and King. The director shows a masterful sense of orchestrating all the elements of his film, as assured as he was with his Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT. And in a year that's already been such a banner one for films dramatizing the American black experience (BLACKKKLANSMAN, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, THE HATE U GIVE, BLINDSPOTTING, GREEN BOOK)his exhilarating and compelling film may top them all. He uses his platform to argue for justice, humanity and keeping the faith no matter how gruesome the circumstances. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is an extraordinary film with so much to say about our past and our future and a society that hasn't learned its lessons all that well. Beale Street is telling us the truth, but will we listen?

Friday, December 21, 2018

"ROMA" IS A GORGEOUS AND HAUNTING TALE OF THE WORKING CLASS


The opening image in ROMA is one that starts off as mysterious, then turns monotonous, and finally, becomes a haunting metaphor for the plight of the working class. The image is of the outdoor tiles of a driveway being washed as buckets of water cascade across them again and again. We hear scrubbing, but the image remains stoic, locked down on those tiles. Then, after going on for a number of minutes, we catch the subtle glimpse of an airplane flying in the sky high above, reflected in the water. The upper class’s mobility, literally, is juxtaposed against the tediousness and fixed life of a housekeeper. 

The housekeeper scrubbing those tiles daily, due to the prolific feces left by the family dog, is Cleo Gutierrez (Yalitza Aparicio). She is the quiet, stoic woman working for a middle-class family living in Mexico City in the Colonia Roma neighborhood. Cleo takes care of all the tasks she’s given without complaint. It’s dirty work, the kind thrust upon the poor, and she does well and consistently, never moving too fast or becoming panicked. The job is a constant and she’s thankful for the employment, even if it is often degrading and boring.

Yet, Cleo is much more than the family’s housekeeper. Additionally, she is a nanny to the four young children, and as the film goes on, Cleo more and more is shown to be the very foundation of the home that the family can rely upon. She becomes the shoulder for the brittle mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) to cry on when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Cleo is also the constant for the children, playing with them and taking them to the movies when their dad disappears. And even when the family is rocked by political unrest, unpaid bills, and near-death experiences, Cleo remains their rock.


The character barely utters a dozen sentences in Alfonso Cuaron’s autobiographical film about his childhood in Mexico in the 1970s, but her presence constantly speaks volumes. By the nature of her job, she is almost omnipresent, suggesting a soulful guardian angel almost, one watching over everyone in the house. What does Cleo get in return? Little at first, other than steady employment. But as the story progresses, she will rely upon them to become the family that she cannot find on her own.  

Cleo hungers for love and her own family, but when she takes on a lover, it backfires. Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is not only a selfish lover, more prone to prune over his athletic body in the mirror then worship her ripe and sensual one, but he’s a man-child who shirks his responsibility when he impregnates her. He runs away, leaving Cleo high and dry, and without anywhere to go.

She’s crestfallen but perseveres nonetheless. She will clean up the mess of her own life with the same diligence as she does with the dog droppings. Cleo is nothing if not saintly, and Cuaron underlines that idea with visual wit throughout. When she tracks down Fermin who’s partaking in a martial arts class outdoors, Cleo unwittingly ends up being the only one present who is able to balance herself standing on one foot. All the students fail as Cleo inadvertently shows them up. She’s positively ethereal as she defies gravity and common human fallacy.


Cuaron, acting as his own director of photography, shoots such scenes with calm dignity and grace that borders on the religious as well. Cleo is serene through every bit of drama, sometimes suffering in silence as if she’s Christ on the cross. She quietly navigates every sling and arrow tossed her way, be it sexism, classism, crashing waves, or rushes to the doctor in the middle of city traffic.  

The director, who also wrote the screenplay, seems content to give Cleo little personality beyond her stoicism. What are her genuine opinions about the family she’s taking care of? Does she agree or disagree with the political unrest all around her? Are their revelations in her backstory that would help fill in the blanks of her personality? Cuaron never tells, letting Cleo remain too much of a cipher. It’s clearly intentional, and perhaps fitting with the memory of her from when he was a child, but still, it diminishes her. 


ROMA is the year’s most gorgeous film too, capturing people and places with stunning clarity and intimacy. The film has been color-corrected with warm hues of black and white. It’s all so handsome, even scenes of poverty are photographed with the elegance of a coffee table book. And when Cuaron moves his stoic camera, which isn’t often, it is gob-smacking. The casual drift inside a baby store towards the window framing the beginnings of a violent protest makes for a shocking juxtaposition. The horrors in the background of a childbirth scene will haunt you for a long time. Even the tracking shot of Cleo wading into the ocean's waves will take your breath away as you wonder how he filmed that without being pulled under by the tide.

Much has been made about seeing ROMA on the big screen, rather than on Netflix, one of the partners in its distribution. Frankly, all films should be seen in the theater, with an audience, but this film especially benefits from larger screen size. The imagery that Cuaron shot deserves such a showcase. But no matter how you come to view this one, do so as it is an essential of 2018. The film may be subtitled, and take place in another time and place, but its story is ageless, and its revelations about humanity are moving, provocative, and truly something to see.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

“MARY POPPINS RETURNS” TO DELIGHT ADULTS AND HOPEFULLY CHILDREN TOO


Back in the day, live-action Disney fare at the movie theater was guaranteed box office. No matter if it was MARY POPPINS, DARBY O’GILL & THE LITTLE PEOPLE, or THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES, children clamored to see features with Walt’s name on it. I should know - I was one of those kids. These days, the Disney company still can pull the kiddies in with their animation productions, but we shall see if their new live-action MARY POPPINS RETURNS can accomplish the same. Granted, there is plenty of animation in this movie, but its story is aimed much more at adults than kids with its theme of never growing too old to play. Nonetheless, the film is a delight and should be a big crowd-pleaser, but we’ll see if the kids bite.

It’s ironic that despite the film’s family fare marketing, and the presence of three cute kids in the story, MARY POPPINS RETURNS could be a bit lost on anyone under 18. For starters, the main character arc belongs not to one of the three Banks children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) but rather, to their beleaguered father, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw). Other elements that will be appreciated more by adults include Marc Shaiman’s effervescent score and its homage to the classic music that the Sherman Brothers wrote for the first MARY POPPINS. (The 19th Century English music hall references will be lost on the kids as well.)  Then there are dozens of British words, the European caste system at play, and the politics of the Depression that will leave younger audiences scratching their heads. 

Still, none of it may matter once a squeaking dolphin pops up out of the Banks’ bathtub and invites everyone into the water to play. From there the film will delight all ages with its mix of music, dance, and animation. That adorable mammal’s appearance comes some 20 minutes into the story, coinciding with the return of the titular nanny (Emily Blunt) who needs to get the Banks home into shape. Ostensibly, she's there to help manage the home and children, but she's really there to turn around the life of Michael who has lost his way since the death of his wife.

Mary took care of Michael as a child, along with his sister Jane, in the first movie, but that film was really about their father's woes. In both versions, Mary brings discipline to the disorganized home but is really there to return the humanity and sense of childlike hope and joy to the family patriarch. Both dads are bankers, both dads have lost the ability to laugh, and both need a lot of intervention.

Jane (Emily Mortimer), his long-suffering sister, could have her load lightened too as she is preoccupied with the rights of the working class in Britain - there’s a topic for the young ones – and spends too much of her time worrying about Michael and the kids. It's not easy, especially during a Depression that's having its way with the world in the early 1930s. 

Mary, the ever-efficient nanny, drops out of the sky, as if a gift from the heavens, and immediately takes charge in turning things around. Sure, Michael's behind in the mortgage and might lose the house to the boss at the bank where he's a teller, but you know that the greedy charlatan Wilkins (Colin Firth) doesn't stand a chance against Mary's magic. 

The children cannot resist her charms either. As soon as Mary draws a bath for the kids, she magically turns it into an animated underwater adventure where everyone plunges into the tub to bob along to the bottom of the beautiful briny sea. There, Mary and her charges swim and breathe as if they're fish and they have a grand old time. Depression? Losing homes and jobs? Bah.  

While underwater, Mary sings “Can You Imagine That?” which conveys the film's theme. The world above could use more imagination and soon the children will become true believers and help translate the message to their forlorn father. Perhaps it's a bit on-the-nose, not to mention the same moral of the first story, but it's hard to argue when you're smiling and tapping your toes right along. 

A lot of the film lines up precisely with the original MARY POPPIN. The same fantasy world exists to teach everyone lessons about how to navigate the real world. The songs virtually line up across the board with the first movie's beats and plot points. It shouldn't get lost on anyone just how similar the new film's upbeat finale “Nowhere to Go but Up” echoes “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from the first, but this isn't just a sequel, it is a return. (It's right there in the title, folks.) 

The songs are too much fun to resist, and Shaiman knows how to make them memorable and keep them moving the story along.  Blunt is a hoot also paying tribute to Julie Andrews' take on the role without impersonating her. If anything, Blunt's Mary is more acidic (blunter?) and more comical than Andrews, and there's no actress in Hollywood these days who can do a slyer side-eye than Blunt. Lin-Manuel Miranda makes for a terrific foil for here, and his glee as he cuts loose in song and dance is utterly infectious. Why the Academy hasn't called him yet to host this year's Oscars is beyond me. 

Still, as good as those two are, it is Whishaw who gives the best performance in the film. He makes his character's pain palpable while performing the second song in the movie entitled "A Conversation." There, he talks to his deceased wife while struggling to keep his house in order. His angst adds necessary gravitas to all the froth. Whishaw has had quite a year, starting in 2018 with the sleeper hit PADDINGTON 2 where he voices the bear, and continuing through to sterling turns in the TV miniseries A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL and this film. 

And even though we know that Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury pop up in the film due to the trailer, what a joy it is to see these two 93-year-old performers giving it 100%. Don't be surprised if you break out in spontaneous applause when Van Dyke jumps up on a table and does some hoofing. Perhaps he could accompany Miranda in hosting the Oscars come February. 

Writer David Magee may borrow a lot from the first film, but he gives it his own sense of wit and writes a lot of funny lines. Some of his best quips belong to Mary's wise-acre umbrella. (Voiced by veteran character actor Edward Hibbert.) I do wish he drafted the kid characters with more dimension, but at least he didn't make Firth's bad guy into a one-dimensional cad. Magee even suggests that Wilkins could be redeemed at the end.

Director Rob Marshall does an elegant job of keeping it all bubbling and brewing along, never rushing scenes or adding too many cuts to the musical numbers the way he did in CHICAGO. The production values are exquisite, especially Sandy Howell's costumes. Don't be surprised if she wins her fourth Oscar in February for the candy-colored, illustrative look she gives to all the wardrobe in the fantasy scenes. And it's simply wonderful to see old-fashioned, cel-style animation emerge front and center in so many of the set-pieces. Computer generated animation is terrific but too prolific in today's film world. Other styles can succeed as well if given half a chance, and the simpler illustration styles work wonders here especially with a film bathed in such old-school nostalgia. 

For all those reasons and many more, MARY POPPINS RETURNS serves as an elixir for our turbulent times. That's about as sweet a present as anyone could expect for the holidays, young or old. Let’s just hope that as many kids want to unwrap such a gift as the adults out there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

“SPIDER- MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE” DAZZLES WITH A STORY THAT STICKS


 AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and BLACK PANTHER may have gotten all the ink this year when it comes to Marvel comic book adaptations, but the new SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is worth just as much discussion. It’s a superior animated feature that has appeal for both adults and kids, and it should give ISLE OF DOGS, INCREDIBLES 2, and RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET a run for its money come Oscar time in the Best Animated Feature category. It also is the best Spider-Man film since he battled with Doc Ock back in 2004. It’s that good.

A lot has been made out of the film’s gorgeous mix of 2D and 3D filming technique, and indeed, it doesn’t look like any animated film you’ve seen before. It blends the style of comic books, Pixar-style 3D, Disney-style 2D, and the noir animated Batman films that mostly launch on iTunes these days. At times, the film even incorporates a dayglow look similar to that of Ralph Bakshi’s work from the 1970s. (It also echoes that filmmaker’s penchant for presenting the inner-city landscape as both exhilarating and terrifying.) That’s a lot of styles all rolled into one movie, but the mix works spectacularly well, demanding to be seen in a 3D presentation to fully appreciate all that’s going on in the frame.

Yet, even with all that visual dazzle, it’s the story that, ahem, sticks to the wall. Based on the Marvel comic “Miles Morales” written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Sarah Pichelli, it tells of how Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore), a high school teen of mixed racial background, is bitten by a radioactive spider himself and becomes a sort of “Spider-Man 2.0.” Miles ends up both helping and hindering Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), the original superhero who’s well into his 20’s here, as they both fight the villainous Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) causing chaos once again in the Big Apple.


It’s great to see a younger and naïve Spidey interact with an older and now wiser one. It’s both funny and dramatic, plumbing the depths of both characters and their conflicts within their worlds and with each other. Miles’s home life isn’t much sounder than Peter’s was back in the day. Miles doesn’t get along very well with his cop father (Brian Tyree Henry) and is at that age where he doesn’t want much mothering, even though his mom (Luna Lauren Velez) is kind and generous.

Miles stumbles upon Spider-man in the midst of a battle with Fisk, AKA the Kingpin, and seems to help get his idol killed. That plot point sets up Miles to get bit himself by a radioactive spider and start to try and fill the superhero’s red shoes. As the young man discovers his new powers with an awkwardness similar to accepting the changes that come with puberty, Miles is one hot mess. And as he goes through all the ruminations of becoming a functioning friendly neighborhood Spider-man, the film turns into a spoof on itself. It’s not just his origins story, it’s a hip, self-conscious vamp on all the various tropes and clichés that are ridiculously familiar to anyone with even a passing awareness of the franchise. 


The blending of animation styles gives the film a hellzapoppin’ look that never fails to impress, although the juxtaposition of satire butted right up against pathos isn’t quite as successful. The drama starts to take a back seat in favor of all the navel-gazing hilarity, but at least the movie never fails to entertain.

Soon, various other Spidey’s are joining in Miles’ fight against Fisk, including the original who didn’t perish. Amongst the multiple webbed crime fighters helping Miles get in touch with his tingling senses are love interest Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld) who moonlights as “Spider-Girl”, the Sam Spade-ish parody “Spider Noir” (voiced by a droll Nicolas Cage), and “Spider-Ham” (John Mulaney), the Porky Pig version whose alter ego is named Peter Porker.

They reference Spiderman comics that have gone before, and there may be enough laughs in this superhero outing to give both Robert Downey, Jr. and Paul Rudd pause. Each of the other Spidey’s is rendered in style from their graphic sources, so it adds even more shadings to the already varied visual ones in every scene.


Ultimately, the film careens towards a climax that is exciting, hilarious, and fulfilling, even if it takes almost two hours to get there. (Some of the younger children at my screening were tittering on edge having to sit that long in their seats.) No matter, the film is incredibly exciting, creating a gorgeous and dramatic physical world that can do more than the CGI in the live action movies. It would behoove others adapting comics to the big screen to realize that animation offers all kinds of advantages. Who knows, maybe even the Fantastic Four could be a hit in this format.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS" DWELLS ON LURIDNESS MORE THAN HISTORICAL FACTS

Original caricature by Jeff York of Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan in MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS. (copyright 2018)

The story of the rivalry between Mary Stuart, the Catholic ruler of Scotland, and Elizabeth I, the Protestant queen of England, is a complex and enthralling one concerning power, religion, and womanhood in the 16th century. When those themes show up onscreen in MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, the film feels immediate and important. Unfortunately, too much time is spent on luridness which gives this historical drama a feeling more akin to the naughty Showtime series THE TUDORS.  The movie shines when the two formidable women battle each other but falters when the material careens into sweaty pulp.

Sexuality did play a large part in the dynamics between Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), and often throughout, director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon present that important topic with noble accuracy. Elizabeth’s struggle with smallpox is writ large, tragically marring her physical health, feminine appearance, and sense of self-worth. Mary’s porcelain beauty is dwelled upon too, particularly in how the kingdom valued such beauty far and wide. The film also delves into their sexual history and how it affected their reputations and ability to rule. At such times, MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS serves as an astute reminder that sexism and discrimination towards women have been around for centuries and echoes the struggle of women in the corridors of power today. 

Still, the film glosses over too many key historical events that would allow for a fuller picture of the two central figures and their plight as women to move up the food chain. By giving facts short-shrift, Mary’s strident insistence on serving no master, including her ‘inferior’ Elizabeth, comes off more like the whining of a petulant teen than a very righteous and shrewd claim to her birthright. Additionally, how Elizabeth herself came to the throne, and all of the controversy surrounding it, is given almost no discussion at all here. If you don’t know about how her father King Henry VIII threw all of Europe into chaos by rejecting Catholic dogma when he started his own church, then you’ll be lost in this outing. The film gives precious little context to the warring tribes of Catholics and Protestants. It’s a shame because the religious politics surrounding Mary and Elizabeth were as potent as the sexual ones. Instead, the sexuality that the film plumbs are the details of Mary’s bedroom.  

Her arranged marriage to Lord Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) that took place to curry favor with Elizabeth and the whole of Mother England plays out as a B story on a daytime soap. Rather than mine the politics of it all, the film spends oodles of time dwelling on Darnley’s sexual proclivities and peccadilloes. He introduces Mary to cunnilingus during one lengthy scene, and his adulterous affair with courtesan David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) not only makes fun of him swinging both ways but takes the time to linger luridly on both men’s backsides. You’d think that Darnley was nothing but a drunkard and ne’er-do-well from the way he’s presented here and it’s both a disservice to history and good storytelling.  

The real shame of the film is that there is more than enough inherent drama for it to explore in the history of the two women, but it chooses not to again and again. It all but ignores key facts, like the influence of living in France since childhood on Mary’s accent. Why isn’t she speaking with more of a French influence here, given her marriage to the nation’s ruler? (For that matter, if the film was going to give Mary a thick Scottish brogue why wasn’t a vocal coach more successful in steering Ronan away from her natural Irish one?)
Additionally, the film ignores the marriage of Mary to James Hepburn after Darnley’s death. It barely scratches the surface on her lengthy incarceration and fails to focus on the Ridolfi Plot and the use of published casket letters to discredit her nationwide and fall out of favor with Elizabeth.  Instead, the film would rather explore the excessive details of Mary’s menstruation and bloody childbirth. 

Despite being sold as a two-hander, Robbie’s Elizabeth gets far less screen time and remains too enigmatic throughout. We get to know her advisors William Cecil (Guy Pearce) and Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester) far better. Most of Elizabeth’s character seems to be rooted in her elaborate wigs and costumes, and at times, Robbie seems consumed by them. Ronan manages better, outside of her struggle with accents, but her Mary remains too unknown. And despite all of the feminist leanings, the core group of five ladies in waiting for Mary is barely given any dialogue or personality. Racial diversity amongst them does not substitute for well-written characters. 

The film cannot get its priorities straight, even when showcasing an important war scene. The battle looks small, with not enough extras cast, and it comes off as inert and puny. Mary’s orgasms and curiosity about the male penis get far more attention. Elizabeth’s blemishes and acne scars on view garner more focus too than any of her genuine cunning displayed as queen. Worst of all is the scene where Mary’s traitorous court men stab one of her allies to death in a scene that Eli Roth could’ve shot with its excess of blood and lingering death. Was this film sold as a GAME OF THRONES style epic, only with a real Cersi and Dany at the center? It seems so, given by how much melodrama and salaciousness is mined for two hours.  

One could quibble about the fact that the two rulers never met in real life, but if your climax is going to have them do so, don’t mar it by having them fighting the scenery as it gets in their way. As the two women circle each other, expressing both threats and fears, what looks like hung laundry distracts from their confrontation. It’s used as a ploy by Elizabeth to hide her afflictions, but it adds more nuisance than nuance. Too many of the sumptuous costumes and elaborate sets eclipse the characters throughout in a similar vein.

Following the release date of THE FAVOURITE by a few weeks is perhaps the unkindest of blows to MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS. The comparisons to a better executed period piece with similar themes will not be lost on audiences. It’s a shame because the story of Mary and Elizabeth is continually fascinating, worthy of umpteen retellings. This one should’ve been more successful, but instead, the filmmakers went for the trivial rather than giving these two historical figures the royal treatment they deserved.  

Monday, December 3, 2018

"THE FAVOURITE" VAMPS THE WORLD OF POLITICS, POWER AND FEMININE WILES

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE.
(copyright 2018)
THE FAVOURITE would be an exceptional, noteworthy film in any year. It’s whip-smart, raucous, and daring, a pungent black comedy that’s expertly produced and provides a rare showcase for three actresses at the top of their game. But in the era of Trump, Brexit, and burgeoning autocracy worldwide, it is impossible not to read THE FAVOURITE additionally as a scathing metaphor of modern leadership. At the center of its story is an insecure, out-of-their-depth ruler who is surrounded by opportunists assisting in laying waste to the kingdom. (Sound familiar?) And, like all great period pieces, this film says as much about our contemporary times as it does of yesteryears.

The screenplay, written by Deborah Davis and Troy McNamara, is both historical document and editorial. It acutely tells the genuine truths of Queen Anne and her tempestuous reign of England in the early 18th Century. Yet, it’s also a pointed editorial, slamming the monarchy, partisan politics, and the way absolute power corrupts absolutely, even when it involves three women who should all know better. 

Queen Anne presented in the film is a fragile and fickle woman. She’s a spoiled royal who’s never known any other life and therefore has the maturity of a bratty child. Olivia Colman has a field day playing this gauche woman, ranting, raving, chomping down sweets and crashing around the palace with wild abandon. It’s a huge performance, yet still recognizable. Colman plays Anne as a hurt child, one who acts out for love and attention because no one really gives her time, love, or respect. 

Anne is often grotesque, braying like a jack-ass at the help, or plopping her ailing, gout-addled leg around as if it was a nasty dog. Yet, despite such largess, Colman does the miraculous, injecting her almost caricature with pathos and longing. She’s getting such awards chatter because she makes you feel for this monster. And when the character tears up talking about her miscarriages and loneliness, it’s palpable. Colman’s hesitancy in delivering certain lines give Anne a vulnerability that helps us invest in her even when she’s at her most garish. It’s honestly something to watch, both hilarious and moving. 

Anne thinks Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), cares for her, as she is her dearest friend from childhood and her closest advisor, but it’s mostly a ruse. Sarah is out for herself and manipulates Anne at every turn to forward her own agenda. There’s something admirable about a woman acting as ruthless as men to gain power, but it nonetheless makes the beautiful and poised Sarah look ugly and small. She’s a well-put-together Steve Bannon here, duping the boss into enacting what she deems as correct for the nation. Too smart by half, and too calculating by a country mile, Sarah revels in ruling the roost as she literally and figuratively pushes the ailing Anne around in her wheelchair forcing her to do her bidding. 

Weisz wisely underplays her Iago-esque character, subtly suggesting an evil that doesn’t need to be loud or sneering. Instead, Weisz makes sure her Sarah is always utterly composed and poised in her presentation. Sarah lies to Anne like it’s second nature, confounding her with her double talk and policy jargon she can’t possibly fathom. Weisz gives one of her best performances here, never speaking above an indoor voice and barely registering rage across her implacable face. 

But then Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) shows up and ruins Sarah’s world. Abigail is a former lady of prominence who’s fallen on harsh times, and Sarah tries to help her bereft cousin out by hiring her for work in the palace. Sarah starts in the kitchen, but in record time establishes herself as the Queen’s new favorite attendant when she helps soothe her gout with some herbs. Abigail turns out to be just as manipulative as Sarah is, feeding Anne’s fragile ego, and even going beyond what her cousin is willing to do to keep her happy. Sarah has a secret lesbian relationship with Anne that Abigail discovers, but the two barely kiss. To one-up her cousin, Abigail not only dives in with full-on kisses, but she’s willing to let her tongue, hands and nude body explore all of Anne. At one point, Anne boasts to Sarah that she likes sex with Abigail because “she likes putting her tongue in me.”  

Stone revels in playing such a desperate and conniving upstart, though she never overplays it either. Even late in the game when she’s wholly ingratiated herself to Anne and coolly considers crushing one of Anne’s many pet bunnies under her foot, Stone doesn’t overdo the reveling. Instead, she acts more amused than anything at how easy it would be to crush the poor creature, almost as quickly as Anne who’s also under her control.  

Historically, Anne did share a lesbian love triangle with Sarah and Abigail, but like is so often the case with sex, it was really about power. Both women did it to curry favor with the queen knowing that they could never serve in Parliament or have a smidgen of privilege that men had at the time. One of the better jokes in the movie is how those men with the station are all weak and ineffectual by and large, being portrayed as feckless fools or pampered fops. Nicholas Hoult gives a standout supporting performance as the egotistical and powdered pretty boy Harley. He thinks himself a master politician, manipulating Abigail to bend the queen’s ear, but it’s really the young lady who’s got his number. In “The Favourite,” the women use their wiles on everyone, including each other. The men just don’t stand a chance.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos does a sublime job of keeping all of this percolating along, deftly keeping the comedy of manners razor sharp and focused. Every outrageous set piece serves a purpose too, whether it’s a ridiculous dance routine that shows how outright silly the one-percenters are in what they think gives them savoir-faire, or in the brutal scenes when Sarah teaches Abigail how to shoot game birds. Those scenes, where they're "hunting" each other could've been heavy-handed, but both Weisz and Stone play them so drolly that they remain sophisticated even when blood and mud are splattered about to sully their characters.

Lanthimos uses wide angle lens to underline some of the comedy, as well as the fishbowl existence the three women live in. It’s a gilded cage, of course, and the production design is pitched to be accordingly garish. The music is a mix of recognizable classic pieces as well as some original compositions that lend an eerie tension to certain moments. At times, the film comes close to playing like a horror movie, but then in a world that shows an unworthy monarch allowed to run roughshod over law and reason, why shouldn’t it? THE FAVOURITE is telling us that as frightening as it must have been back then, such behavior today should be even more disturbing, if not outright terrifying.