mary queen of scots
What do you do with a historical drama that lacks history and drama?
Led by strong performances by Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, the film’s script and directoral leadership prevented it from becoming the definitive epic it wanted to become. Beginning by showing us the moments leading up to Mary’s beheading, the stakes of the conflicts depicted never reached a level of import that would necessitate that death.
Perhaps in 2018 it is important to develop the idea of what might happen should a Catholic take the English throne, because the divide between the two queens never reached beyond the ideological.
The scripts contained many lines that were never followed with action that might reflect their accuracy. For all of the discussion of the power of the women, they never acted powerfully. They were frequently pawns of the men around them. After asking her new husband if he is afraid as they ride into battle, his negative response evokes a line that, as paraphrased, says, “Good. Our swords are meant to be used.” They are never used.
The result is a film full of talk and little actual action. Much has been and will be said about the historical accuracy. As this is not within my realm of knowledge, I will let others sort that out. What I will say is that the film could have been far more than it is if the script were stronger and the action allowed to build on screen.
It is pretty - and far better, to me, than The Favourite - but, if you are looking for a queen movie, allow me to suggest Bohemian Rhapsody.
Well, I really wanted to love this film. I tried. Boasting Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, a character listed on IMDB.com as “wanking man,” and a trailer laden with dark wit, what more was I asking for?
As it turns out, I needed more than witty performances, beautiful photographic direction by Robbie Ryan, and detailed production design by Fiona Crombie.
I needed a plot that went somewhere. The Favourite forgot it needed a destination. In a film that made a point of calling out act changes with title screens, one might think that the final act might not be shortchanged. One would be mistaken.
I had a sneaking suspicion as time dragged on with fewer and fewer moments landing that the ending might not be earned, which is a pet peeve. Instead, it seemed entirely omitted, with the camera cutting to black before there was any resolution at all. It was utterly unsatisfactory. I don’t need a neatly tied bow at the end of the story, and I even rather like ambiguous or unhappy endings. This, however, seemed to not have a point to the abrupt end and left virtually every character in flux.
Additionally - and this is a very minor point, but it betrayed a lack of care - there were a number of lingering close-ups of Stone that seemed to highlight, rather than hide or camouflage, her very contemporary second ear piercing. Fixes are readily available with a little thought, and the lack of that consideration is bothersome. The fact that I was so distracted by this issue illustrates how little was landing as the plot continued.
Wednesday I spent 117 minutes in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and left wishing it had been twice as long. Today I spend 2 more minutes in The Favourite and wished I had just stuck with the trailer.
Spiderman: Into the spiderverse
My film-loving students left me with one request for the winter break: go see Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. I had seen the trailer and was intrigued, so this was not a huge ask.
The question now is: will I only see it once?
From its opening credits, this film’s complexity was articulated with detail and humor. The 3D work is well worth making that choice, and the animation is beautiful, though really unlike anything I might compare it to. The film relies heavily on comic book framing, but the animation - while using the stylized pointilism of a comic book - goes beyond that in artistry. The storyline is quintessential “origin story,” but the fact that the central character Miles (voiced brilliantly by Shameik Moore) interacts with so many other Spider-Folk takes that origin story out of its usual parameters by providing inside support and mentorship. Much of the comedy is provided by moments that tip the hat to comic tropes while, simultaneously, violating them. There are plenty of self-aware meta moments. I did not find them too plentiful, but I kinda love that stuff. Additionally, there are a number of twists, turns, and surprises as Miles tries out his new skills with mixed results.
Basically, every element of this film clicks into place as a result of specific choices by a brilliant creative team and voice performances the quality of which is no shock when you see names like Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, and Kimiko Glenn. It was a ride I didn’t want to end, so sticking around for the post-credits scene was a given.
Here’s hoping Marvel sees the potential of this angle, though breaking even in the US would certainly help...so GO SEE IT!
Okay, okay. Let’s own the obvious first. This movie gets LOTS and LOTS of bonus points for star Jason Momoa’s physical appearance. LOTS.
I also think it benefits in two other very specific ways from Momoa’s presence. I happened to see him on a convention panel soon after the casting was announced. He refused to talk about it because he didn’t want to screw things up before they even started. He was giddy and nervous. I think that this respect for what he was doing with the show drove a desire to make it succeed. Additionally, there was a lot of the Jason Momoa I saw at that con on the screen today as Aquaman. It seems that the writers kept the script within Momoa’s wheelhouse in a lot of ways, not the least of which being playing on his natural sense of humor and charm.
That is probably the greatest strength of the film: Momoa is having a blast up there. The actor is able to meld the character’s role as heir to the throne of Atlantis and his humanity because looking like a Greek god and being a guy who likes a Guiness is who he is, naturally. It’s easy to look at those biceps and remember Baywatch and assume that the physique is all he brings to the table; however, the character benefits from the keen wit and self-awareness that Momoa brings as much as anything else.
I started to type “Beyond Jason Momoa,” but the fact is that there isn’t a film beyond Momoa. There are other elements, but they are not separate from the man playing the title role.
Perhaps that is the biggest problem with the film’s primary antagonist, King Orm (played by Patrick Wilson). The character does not exist outside of the perspective of Aquaman, so he lacks the complexity necessary to make the character interesting. We’ve seen complex, very blonde characters who hate half-bloods, so we know what that looks like. The writing falls short of approaching that mark.
Manta (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was far more interesting of a foil for the protagonist, but he was not given the screen time (in this film) to really earn that complexity or demonstrate its breadth. The actor, however, sold every second of screen time he had. The performance was all energy.
Amber Heard’s Mera had some nice twists in her script and Heard played them well. Can we talk about that wig for a moment, though? Overall, I thought that the character design was pretty spot on. I tend to think that I shouldn’t think too much about costuming or lighting or such in a film. It should all service the script. That means that if I notice a wig, it is probably a problem. This one was so terrible that I felt bad not only for the actor in it, but for the wig stylist who had to try to make that thing work. It wasn’t close to real or a good synthetic, rather appearing to be bought in a plastic bag from a Halloween store.
The rest of the supporting cast all worked well and gave the performances one would expect. Of particular note is the incredible casting of the young actors who played young Arthur/Aquaman. All of them went beyond looking enough like Momoa to adopting some clear mannerisms of the elder performer. Kekoa Kekumano, specifically, was impressively specific in his characterization of teen Arthur.
The CGI was solid, though the underwater scenes often required a bit more willing suspension of disbelief to avoid noticing human-to-CGI transitions and movement that seemed unnatural. The odd thing is that I have a sneaking suspicion that the underwater movement was probably well-researched and totally realistic. It just didn’t read as entirely realistic per audience expectation, so some variance to meet the viewers’ need might have been wise. I saw the film in 3D, and it looked pretty good, though it likely didn’t add much.
So, did I like it? YES! It was a blast! It was an origin story, so I am willing to let it grow. Also, I am a weirdo who liked Aquaman when I was little, so seeing a badass reimagining was additionally enjoyable! It was fun, well-performed, crafted specifically for this cast, and pretty. Let the rest come. The DC Universe seems to be righting itself post Zach Snyder, and Aquaman is another strong, established hero to lead the way.
Mary Poppins Returns
I. A Reflection
When I was little, it seems that there were a few shows that merited an annual viewing at my house. They were events. We popped popcorn and drank Cokes from glass bottles and I got to stay up late. The Sound of Music. The Wizard of Oz. Mary Poppins.
While my friends wished they could have the nanny as their own, I wished I was her. Eventually my dreams of flying in on an umbrella and riding the bannister up stairs faded - partially due to my family’s lack of a bannister - but the dream merely took another form.
I didn’t need to possess Mary Poppins’ magic; what I wanted was the magic of Mary Poppins. No, those are not the same.
I wanted to be mythically strange and legendarily rumored. I wanted to swoop in and do unbelievable things that those around were never quite sure were real. I wanted to be the stuff of stories told in adulthood, reminiscing with friends who also took part in those impossible things.
And in order for any of this to happen, I wanted to be wholly temporary. I wanted to leave while attention was elsewhere, adding mystery to the legend.
Basically, I wanted to be a teacher.
I have crafted my career after that. I am a force of surprise on day one. I try to keep my classroom full of the unexpected that reveals truth. I try to share the lessons of life in ways that my students can grasp them before they are expected to. And...after four years...while attention is diverted through great pomp and circumstance...I fly away to the next calling.
And, as Mary Poppins, every once in a while...when the wind is right, I return to children - now adults - who need me.
When a film chooses to return to beloved land, I am skeptical. Most remakes and sequels are entirely unnecessary. As such, they tend to disappoint and, possibly, reduce the value of the original art piece.
As you might already guess, I was not sold on Mary Poppins Returns from the start. Why now? What more? Who would we see? How could this possibly match…?
My doubt lasted approximately 10 seconds. That is because the first name I heard attached was Lin-Manuel Miranda, consummate fan and brilliant artistic mind. There are few artists I blindly trust. Lin is one, and he has yet to fail me. Today’s viewing continued that trajectory.
The film is beautiful. There are enough call-backs to the original film without seeming to apologize for the present one. I was delighted to hear an actual overture to introduce the music that would come, several pieces of which will likely enter karaoke territory for viewers immediately. The titular role as embodied by Emily Blunt is practically perfect. Her voice is, of course, lovely, but her ability to be just enough like Julie Andrews without seeming mimicky is a fine line that she managed to navigate with seeming ease. Miranda’s Jack as her London-bound, lamp-lighting long-time friend is delightful and childlike while offering a knowing grin that acknowledges his history with Mary’s whimsy. The children were all three delightful - and I often find children in comedies a bit...ummm...not delightful. I am a fan of Emily Mortimer, so I enjoyed her Jane immensely.
I laughed. I cried. And my face is a bit sore from smiling. I can’t really think of anything off the top of my head that didn’t ring true. And I’m going to be humming “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” forever.
An immediate check of IMDB.com proves my sneaking suspicion that not just Wilkins, but Gooding and Frye are double cast with animated co-parts, and I love that overlap between the animated sequence and reality. Meryl Streep...sigh. I am willing to overlook how useless that scene is in the same way I was willing to overlook its original counterpart. It is fun, though I honestly think it could have gone farther with the upside-down-ness. *shrug* I thoroughly enjoy that Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury are originally credited with anagrams. I know that Julie Andrews turned down a cameo as to graciously not step on Blunt’s upward pointed shoes, but the presence of Van Dyke proved this to be wholly unneeded. He did not steal any spotlight form the main cast and central plot. His inclusion was a nod to the parents in the crowd, but not a distraction.
And Lin got to rap.
What more could I want?
The nutcracker and the four realms
Even as I watched The Nutcracker and the Four Realms I was confused about what to write. On paper the film ticks every box. It is stunning, visually, with 3D work that considers all aspects of depth and truly works to benefit the film. Mackenzie Foy and Keira Knightly are perfection together as they build the reality of the Realms. Walking in I didn’t know that Misty Copeland would be dancing the ballet, and that was a beautiful surprise. The integration of tidbits of the ballet was whimsical and witty, and the Rat King was honestly the most grotesque thing I could imagine, so kudos to that designer.
I think the film went wrong in two ways. First, there was a LOT of exposition to wedge in with a show that was not terribly long. Clara’s family and loss of mother. Her relationship to Drosselmeyer. The cultural norms of Christmas in that period. The tinkering. The ballet. The gifts. The Realms. The War. The Rat King. The Guards. Whew. I’m exhausted, and that barely gets us into the main world of the movie! It felt like the film was chasing a runaway train of backstory until its very final moments. Another ten minutes, even, might have allowed for more natural discovery that would have left me with less desire for a program note.
I would have minded the exposition derby less - heck, I might not have noticed - had the second problem not been so constant. Someone forgot to add the show’s heart. Characters acknowledged each other, but they rarely cared for or invested in each other. Clara’s backstory was addressed as a plot feature, rather than as a source of empathy, development, or growth. As a result, the audience is able to watch the film, but not to get involved in it. It was a nice 109 minutes. Pretty. Now what?
It was disappointing to enjoy so many elements of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms only to be unable to enjoy the film because the warmth of Clara’s story was missing from its very soul. More careful scripting and either of the two directors keeping an eye on its spirit would have yielded something special, rather than the pretty-though-forgettable movie they have released.
sSeriously. I watched one episode, and I can’t really answer that.
The IMDB.com entry describes the show as “part cooking show, part sitcom in the vein of the Addams Family and the Muppet Show,” but I can’t say that The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell succeeds on any of those fronts.
There are, indeed, puppets. There is a reanimated raccoon, a cat that was once worshiped in Egypt, and a werewolf who arrives as their guest. Oh...and an octopus who lives in the refrigerators, but she hasn’t any lines, yet. They are all painfully snarky, but not in a fun or joyful way. They just seem to hate each other and just about everything else than eating.
The Addams Family? I grew up on that kitschy masterpiece, and this show is nothing like that. The strength of the Addamses was that they saw their lives as completely normal and the humor came from the fact that they were joyously odd and “normal” people would react badly and then go on to learn some greater truth from Uncle Fester or something. There is no joy in this house. The raccoon honestly wants to kill people. They know they are weird, and they lash out because of it.
And the cooking part….well, that fails, as well. I think perhaps all of the other bells and whistles were deemed necessary because while Christine McConnell makes foods that are incredible to look at, her personality in front of the camera is - well - flat. Maybe that is an act, but it is entirely impossible to tell. Additionally, episode 1 saw two foods made. First, she made pretzel-based bones with so much white chocolate coating that the pretzel and peanut butter had to get lost in the mix. Then, after the werewolf arrived (lest you forget the crazy in which we are operating), McConnell makes a cake shaped like their Victorian home for his welcome party. Given, the cake is lovely, but we get to see very little of it made as the entire structure is formed when the segment begins.
I usually give a new show the customary four episodes to win me over, but I was making deals with myself before episode I hit the 10-minute mark. I don’t hate myself enough to watch another. I have one friend who is engaged via the “so bad it’s good” mentality, but I cannot even get there.
The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell may aim to kill us with creepiness this Halloween season, but it misses the heart.
Sometimes all you need for a successful film is the right twist on a tried and true formula. Hush found an interesting take on the home invasion horror film by giving us Maddie (Kate Siegel), a deaf author, as our lead. Taking away sound gave the invader, only referred to as “The Man” and played by a usually far less creepy John Gallagher, Jr., a significant advantage.
The result is a film that offers its audience a new look at an old genre by setting them off their axis a bit by reducing the usefulness of one of their senses as they empathize with Maddie. In addition to being a cautionary tale that one should always have a charged cell phone handy, the film builds suspense through a close relationship with the protagonist and the additional creepiness of a villian who seems to just be terrible for the enjoyment of it.
The acting is spot on with an obviously minimal script. The direction allows for an audience to follow Maddie’s processes while simultaneously honoring her deafness and the audience’s need to hear something to stay involved.
It’s a fun one if you are looking for a scary movie that relies more on a building sense of danger than jump scares. I tend toward movies that play with my brain rather than just throwing around buckets of blood, and Hush was entirely satisfying.
You know that genre of space dramas with the compelling main characters and the amazing, other worldly space vistas?
Yeah, this isn’t one of those.
I feel it necessary to lead with the fact that I do not dislike the film simply because I have so many criticisms that are going to seem to secure that fate. I don’t. I think Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are about as dynamic of a team as a film could want. I think that it seemed to erase the romanticism of the space race amid the truth of vomit, fire, and pain. I think that the launch sequence is one of the best lead-up scenes in recent history. So, no, I do not dislike it.
But I certainly have some criticisms.
Kudos to the sound design and mix. Those two teams should be in Oscar consideration, for sure. It was exquisite. And the IMAX sequence was pretty, though expanding the height to show blackness at the top of the screen is...well...odd. Again, it was acted incredibly well and I cared about the narratives.
A couple random thoughts to close:
I do not really like movies that exist merely to emotionally manipulate me. I am willing to cry if a film is able to build a good enough connection through all of the Aristotelian criteria to earn the tragedy, large or small. I will be angry, however, if a movie seems to exist solely to make me cry (I’m looking at you, Forrest Gump.)
I walked into Life Itself having seen the trailer both on television and before some previously-viewed movies. I knew what I was walking into. The trailer didn’t pull any punches as to what it was going to be. It was going to be driven by high emotion. There is a reason they blitzed This Is Us with advertising for this movie. Sometimes This Is Us edges toward the cry/anger line for me. I was braced for what two hours of Fogelman might bring about.
I think it was a really good idea to knock a viewer like me off balance in the opening minutes. I wasn’t expecting to laugh that hard, and laugh I did. Laying out the theme of the film in such a comedic way did that whole Shakespearean thing of lowering my defenses with laughter so it seemed less sappy later. I am not sure that the college paper bit was needed. That was a bit heavy-handed and seemed to be a sign that the diretor, perhaps, did not trust his audience to get it without a decoder ring. I think it’s a stronger film without that bit, but I usually think that trusting the audience is a better move.
The cinematography by DP Brad Pawlak was beautiful and was very careful in guiding the audience’s eye. This was particularly important early on. The main cast for each act was ridiculously strong, giving honest performances of difficult material without seeming as if they were playing for the reaction. I am fairly certain that Oscar Isaac can do no wrong and isn’t Jean Smart having something of a big screen breakthough this year!
My main criticism comes with the movies final act. I do not feel that it was as earned. It was rushed and I didn’t really get a chance to care that everything had led to this one final truth. Due to this pacing problem, the denouement felt rushed and I was unsatisfied. In retrospect, the final turn was clearly built throughout the film, but it still was not given a chance to settle at the end.
I’m not mad at Life Itself and I don’t really understand the cold shoulder it is getting critically. It seems that, unlike my preference, many would prefer that tear-jerker films do nothing but make us cry. Leave style variations and timeline devices for the high drama flicks and just make us cry. In refusing to do so, the film gets accused of trying too hard.
I don’t want to sit through any film that isn’t trying hard. Honestly, “I’m not mad at it” is probably as high of praise as I am ever going to offer a cryer film. This isn’t inherently my type of film, but I can appreciate that it was creative and well executed. If cryers are your type of thing, give Life Itself a shot.
Educator. Reader. Writer. Lover of dogs, spreadsheets, dark red wine, and art.