Best Picture Countdown #1: The Favourite

“I have sent for some lobsters. I thought we could race them and then eat them.”Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018)

Of all eight films nominated for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, Yorgos Lanthimos’s semi-ridiculous period dramedy The Favourite impressed me the most. A thrilling combination of absurd comedy, stellar dialogue, and engaging, unique characters, The Favorite “re-imagines” authentic historical figures and events from the early 18th century, exploring the complex relationship between lifelong friends Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill and the unexpected arrival of a distant cousin who challenges Churchill’s place as the queen’s “favourite.”

MV5BOTA1MTY0MDYxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY5MTk2NjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_The Favourite also features a dramatic duck race and a group of men hurling oranges at a naked dude. So, that’s the type of film it is. Yorgos Lanthimos’s visionary directorial style and the wry black humor of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – or, in this case, their cup of bowel-inflaming hot cocoa – but I found this enchantingly-bizarre film utterly riveting from start to finish. The dialogue in particular is a highlight, with historical speech patterns and trends interspersed with and influenced by current, more modern humor. It’s a jarring combination at first, but gives the film a comedic edge and a unique flair that sets it apart from the other nominees, especially because The Favourite also digs into the emotional, giving depth and motivation to the individual characters, and making their interactions all the more compelling, especially as the rivalry between Sarah and Abigail builds and tensions ignite to life-ruining proportions.

The film’s cast is led by a trio of prolific actresses – Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Lady of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as Abigail Hill – and their performances are a roaring success, considering each earned an acting nomination. Regina King seems to be the one to beat in the Supporting Actress category for her turn in If Beale Street Could Talk, but my personal choice is Weisz. Her sharp performance as Lady Marlborough, rife with cutting wit, simmering rage, and festering envy mixed with careful aloofness to mask buried pain blazes against Stone’s desperate, calculated Abigail Hill who seeks to do whatever it takes to reclaim her lost status. Stone is excellent as well, in a role very unlike her usual fare, but I think cast-mate Weisz just edges her out.

Colman dominates the screen as the often-hysterical, but oddly-lovable Queen Anne. Her performance as the troubled monarch, who led a life “stalked by tragedy,” is defined by a scene where she sits on the cusp of a party, all dressed up in finery yet confined to a wheelchair, and watches as her guests and courtesans dance and engage without her as the music swells through the room. That scene alone made her my favorite for the Best Actress race, as well as the scene of her explaining her “children” to Abigail. Nicholas Hoult also deserves a shout-out for his performance as Harley, where he is nearly unrecognizable in a powdered wig and full makeup. His interactions with Weisz and Stone are a major comedic plus.

This film, like many fellow Best Picture nominees, is “based on true events,” and much of it cannot be proven as accurate. However, The Favourite does not present itself as a “blow-by-blow” representation of history, nor does it market itself as a faithful representation. I don’t even think it says “based on true events” on any of the posters or taglines I’ve seen for the film, so I doubt it’s part of the marketing strategy. The people depicted in the film are real, as are several of the events surrounding it, but it never tries to convince the audience that any of it is true. And that is the best kind of historical adaptation. One that tells its own narrative influenced by reality without carelessly inserting potential defamation or pushing any sort of underlying agenda, and it makes the audience more interested in what the “truth” really is. Despite his masterful vision, director Yorgos Lanthimos is a bit of a dark horse in the Oscar race, but when it comes to a film this weird, anything can happen.

On the surface – which does matter when it comes to film – The Favourite is an all-around outstanding production. It’s gorgeous to look at; beautifully shot. The set design, the costumes, the lighting… in a scene where Stone’s character is covered in mud, I felt as though I could smell the stinking sludge on her clothes, or the beef slab being slapped onto Queen Anne’s ailing leg, or the scent of smoke when Weisz is practicing her aim. The footsteps tapping through the halls as the characters move about create both a sense of foreboding and anticipation. And the music is great, including several famous baroque and classical composers and what I believe to be a snippet from one of my favorite Camille Saint-Saëns symphonies, also prominently featured in Babe (1995). You know – the talking pig movie. Anyway…

The Favourite has earned glowing praise from critics and audiences, but when it comes to the ultimate battle on Oscar night, it faces brutal competition. Roma certainly seems poised to win, which would be a much-deserved victory. But for this viewer, The Favourite has emerged as top film for the Best Picture race, and even if it does not take home that treasured honor, I am predicting it will go 4 for 10 on the night, though I won’t protest to a couple more.

 

Oscar Nominations: 10
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actress (Colman)
Best Supporting Actress (Stone & Weisz)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Film Editing 

 

 

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Best Picture Countdown #3: Roma

“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”Marina de Tavira as Sofía in Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical drama Roma has become the Awards season darling over the last few months, racking up heaps of praise from critics and audiences alike – though many viewers never had the chance to see it on the big screen. Despite a limited theatrical run, Roma, currently streaming on Netflix, has dominated the awards circuit and steamrolled over films once considered favorites for Oscar night. Though, as someone who had to watch it in her living room, perhaps a film that is so personal and evocative is best seen in a more intimate setting.

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Roma is a film that looks simple on the surface – following the life of a housekeeper and her interactions with the family she works for in Mexico from 1970 to 1971 – but, as it unfurls onscreen, develops into a deeply nuanced film with a multi-tiered message that audiences are free to interpret how they see fit. Some might relate to Cleo’s struggles, some to Sofía and her troubled marriage, some to Teresa as a concerned spectator in the lives of loved ones, some as the children who are unaware, yet so intrinsically involved in events they have no control over.

The only reason this film doesn’t rank higher for me personally is that I found parts of the narrative to be aimless – naked hotel-room martial arts included. I mean, I’m all for films that don’t follow a standard story structure, as it allows for a more thorough exploration for the viewer, but this film didn’t hit quite as hard for me as other Best Picture nominees. Still, after the credits rolled, I fund my mind dissecting and rolling over the events of the film, trying to piece together moments I might have missed, and lining up motivations that perhaps evaded my notice, so, even if it wasn’t my favorite, Roma lingered in my mind in a profound manner. So much of this film is revealed through subtleties and in what is left unsaid. The screenplay’s universality, crafted with love and precision by Cuarón drawing on events from his own childhood, makes it a front-runner for the Best Original Screenplay award.

Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo is a triumph, as she exudes an earnestness that makes the character both sympathetic and relatable. Keeping the character grounded gives her an honest quality, one that makes her compelling to watch, and invests the viewer in her journey. However, facing Gaga, Colman, and Close will be a tough battle to win, though Aparicio, if she walks away with the gold on Oscar night, is 100% deserving. Same goes for de Tavira, who gives an understated performance as the suffering matriarch who aims to keep her family together as she feels her life falling apart.

However, since I interpreted the writing as one of the strongest facets of this film, I also found myself connecting more with the “behind the scenes” efforts. The cinematography is excellent, as is the production design, and I won’t be surprised if it nabs trophies for both. It might sound superficial, but a film that is already beautiful in its writing and performances is often buoyed even more when it looks beautiful, too, and Roma is no exception to that. And Cuarón, the favorite for Best Director, wholly deserves to take home that honor for the extensive work he put in to make this project what it is.

Whether or not it takes home the Best Picture gold – and I’m pretty sure it will – Roma is basically a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language Film, and is virtually guaranteed to score multiple awards on Oscar night. Seeing a project that Cuarón put so much effort into earn so many accolades is rewarding in itself, especially because he is a filmmaker who comes across as someone who connects deeply with, and is steadfastly dedicated to his craft. And the fact that this film was made for Netflix count have a big impact on the way films made for streaming are treated by the Academy. As it currently stands, I believe this stunning film will go 5 for 10, but I won’t be surprised if it takes home even more.

Oscar Nominations: 10
Best Picture
Best Director (Cuarón)
Best Actress (Aparicio)
Best Supporting Actress (de Tavira)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

Best Picture Countdown #8: Bohemian Rhapsody

This is when the operatic section comes in.” – Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Bringing up the rear in my Best Picture countdown is the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by *redacted* and Dexter Fletcher. It’s earned a boatload of money all over the world and is both a visual and auditory spectacle, but when stacked against the other nominees in this category, this film strikes a bit of a sour note.

Of course, the major highlight of this film is Rami Malek’s eclectic and electric performance as Mercury. It’s clear in every nuanced look, flamboyant movement, and subtle – or not so subtle – gesture that Malek poured his heart and soul into this role, and his Oscar nomination is no great surprise. At this point, it seems to be a two-horse race between Malek and Christian Bale, with dark horse Bradley Cooper not far behind. It’s only a shame that the overall film – despite excellent supporting performances and brilliant editing, and, I’m sure, no thanks to production issues – does not quite elevate itself to the same level.

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a bad film – but, it’s not what I’d call great. While Queen’s music and Freddie Mercury’s legacy have endured for decades, this film is, by contrast, almost forgettable. It doesn’t even play like a biopic because it glosses over and adds a saccharine, almost stereotypical sheen to several of the depicted events, which makes it feel fictional and disingenuous. There are times where the film feels raw, and intense – the Live Aid performance in particular, which is also an astounding accomplishment in editing – but at other points, it feels… fake. Fudging dates and swapping facts might come across to some as taking creative license, but, it can also read more as an attempt to revise history, and inject needless drama into what is already a compelling story.

Beneath the flashy costumes, legendary music, and Malek’s incredible performance, this tale of a band’s turbulent rise to stardom fails to dig as deep as it should. Historical inaccuracies and director controversy aside, I will be stunned if it takes home the gold on the 24th. A win for Malek, though, would be well-deserved. All in all, I’m predicting Bohemian Rhapsody won’t go home empty-handed, and will go 1/5 on the night.

Oscar Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Malek)
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Film Editing

Film Review: Chappaquiddick (2018)

Dir: John Curran
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, etc.
Runtime: 1hr 41min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light

Chappaquiddick is based on the true story of the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, in which a car accident involving senator Ted Kennedy (Clark) resulted in the death of political campaign secretary Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara). As controversy erupts regarding his level of involvement in Kopechne’s death, the senator must decide which is more important – the legacy and reputation of his family, or the truth.

Chappaquiddick_(film)Chappaquiddick presents a compelling and relevant commentary on the perceived moral infallibility of politicians and public figures versus the truth of their glaring flaws and inherent humanity. The film lingers on the word “integrity” more than once, and it seems that is the idea that haunts Kennedy as the events of that night on Chappaquiddick consume his life and threaten his career. As the senator smooths his hair and adjusts his appearance in mirrors and ensures that he looks good for the cameras, he is the picture of integrity, the image of an upstanding man of high moral character – and yet, so often, his words and actions behind closed doors contradict that. The outside fails to reflect the inside, though the outside is all that the public sees.

Clarke’s portrayal is gripping and nuanced as the last Kennedy son, living in the engulfing shadow of Robert and Jack, a man slowly breaking beneath the burdensome reputation of his celebrated family, struggling to appease the rigid demands of his wheelchair-bound, yet intimidating father (Dern), and the truth surrounding a young woman who met her death, cold and alone, in the depths of a lake. Early in the film, a wet, defeated Ted Kennedy tells his cousin Joe Gargan (Helms) “I’m not going to be president,” and that statement encompasses the truth of who Kennedy is, in this film. A man who will never escape the shadows that eclipse him.

Though Clarke’s performance easily dominates the screen, the supporting roles in this film are superb, especially Mara as Mary Jo, as she is, essentially, the ghost that trails Kennedy throughout this film, resonating long after that car plummets into the water, a presence that cannot merely be relegated to a footnote in someone else’s history. Helms also delivers a solid performance as Gargan, torn between his loyalty and familial ties to the Kennedy family, and the struggle to do what is right. Andria Blackman as Ted’s wife Joan Kennedy gets the film’s lone F-bomb, and it’s my personal favorite line in the entire film. Dern is powerful as Kennedy family patriarch, and, though the senior Kennedy was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from the effects of a stroke that left his movement and speech impaired, Dern’s portrayal makes him a dominant force to be reckoned with, with a glare that could freeze anyone in place.

One major strength of the film is how it subtly presents different “sides,” or compares viewpoints and situations. In the film, the problems swarming Kennedy are juxtaposed against the efforts of the Space Race – a fitting contrast, as Ted Kennedy’s political career and social life plunge into purgatory while Neil Armstrong takes his first victorious steps on the surface of the moon. One giant leap for mankind, and one massive misstep for Ted Kennedy. It’s a nice touch, aiding the tone of the film, and makes Ted’s mistakes all the more apparent. Another contrast is the way Mary Jo is treated, often referred to as “the girl,” by the Kennedy’s collection of black suits, but referred to by name by Gargan and those close to her, even by Kennedy himself. The core of this film is the way it shows ideas butting heads with each other – most prominently, the weight of a family’s reputation against the importance of truth and honesty, and politics versus morality and how they often fail to intersect.

What truly happened on the night of July 18th, 1969 at a bridge on Chappaquiddick island, might never be fully explained or revealed, and many of the details have remained unclear. The film does a fair job of keeping this relatively ambiguous tone, as the true nature of the relationship between Ted and Mary Jo is left to interpretation, and Ted appears conflicted enough about his choices that the film avoids entering character assassination territory. Viewers can form their own opinion of him – I’ve never held the Kennedy family on a golden, untouchable pedestal, so I found the portrayal to be well-balanced. Sharp editing and writing assist in making Chappaquiddick a partially completed puzzle that offers enough of a clear picture to satisfy audiences and answer pesky questions, while leaving enough blurred ideas and “what ifs?” and “might haves” to avoid straying too far into slanderous artistic liberty pitfalls that plague so many films based on “true” events. However, those with a rosy perception of the Kennedy dynasty might think otherwise.

Overall rating: 8/10

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Dir: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zack Galifanakis, Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Levi Miller, etc.
Runtime: 1hr49min
Rating: PG
Spoiler level: Light

A Wrinkle in Time, one of the most-hyped releases of 2018, and based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle, follows uncertain teenager Meg (Reid), who, along with her younger brother, friend Calvin, and three mysterious beings known as the Mrs., must embark on a journey across the universe to rescue her scientist father from a darkness known only as “IT.”

TAWrinkleInTimeTeaser.jpghough some folks adhere to the idea that films should be judged apart from their source material, I think it is more appropriate to judge a film both as an adaptation and then as a film. Therefore, as a fan of the original novel/series, I feel it is important to say that this film is not a good adaptation of L’Engle’s work.

Though it features characters with the same names, similar worlds, and strives to teach at least part of the same lessons, the film and the book are not on the same frequency, and for die-hard fans of the classic book, this adaptation will likely be disappointing. Much of the core message of the original book is lost to a sheen of glossy special effects, nonsensical (if beautiful) costumes, and a convoluted plot that allows some of the most beautiful sentiments from the book to slip through the cracks, lost to the universe.

A Wrinkle in Time (1962) is notable for it’s seamless blending and consideration of both science and religion, and how it handled sensitive social issues and other problems plaguing children like Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin, and continue to plague children and young adults in today’s society. The film touches on this particular aspect exceptionally well – exploring Meg’s insecurities and doubts about herself, especially – but because the focus is all over the place, the impact of that message is dampened. Religion is removed entirely from the film, as is a portion of the science, to the detriment of the narrative. So much is cut from L’Engle’s original story that the movie feels disjointed, the pacing suffers, and much of the plot comes across as confusing and the explanations insufficient for those not familiar with the source material.

It seems like those behind the film were trying to bend the book’s story to fit the message they wanted to tell, instead of adapting and doing justice to L’Engle’s work. I’m generally accepting of artistic liberties when it comes to adaptations, but when Aunt Beast gets trimmed down to a 2 second cameo so the kids can go on a CGI-laden sky ride above on a plant creature, and something that was so important to the author and a vital component of the story (religion) gets removed entirely, then I get a little steamed. And I’m an atheist, so that’s not any sort of bias speaking. There’s a difference between trimming superfluous scenes from the source material in order to accommodate run-time, and straight-up butchering the intended themes and vital components of the story itself.

I will say, however, that the “IT” stuff with Charles Wallace near the end (no spoilers) was impressive, and made me recall just how much I feared “IT” as a kid when I first experienced the book. However, though it is briefly touched upon, the whole “conformity” idea as it pertains to “IT” and Camazotz does not get explored in the film with as much depth as it does in the novel.

But… that’s just my views of A Wrinkle in Time as an adaptation.

As a film, the movie is a passable adventure aimed at children and young audiences that will charm and enchant them, and hopefully inspire them to believe in their own inner-strength and be “warriors” themselves. The message this film strives to impart upon its viewers – which, though it differs in the way L’Engle’s story is told, is no less important or powerful – about embracing your perceived “flaws” and using them as your strength will hopefully resonate with kids, and maybe even older viewers as well. Some threads of the plot – such as Meg’s insecurities about her appearance and intelligence and the father/daughter bond between Meg and Alex – are a success, but because there is so much going on in other aspects of the film, the focus is fractured, and those few shining moments often get drowned by the admittedly beautiful special effects, such as the sweeping, floral-kissed landscapes and storm-tossed forests.

The acting, for the most part, is commendable – the Mrs. (Kaling, Winfrey, and Witherspoon) do what they can, though, as a die-hard fan of the book, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the way they were depicted. The children, especially Reid as Meg and Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace, give believable and occasionally heart-wrenching performances, especially at the climax of the film, and though Levi Miller’s Calvin is underdeveloped, his acting isn’t at fault for that. Pine and Mbatha-Raw also turn in excellent performances, though the spotlight shines mainly on the younger cast members.

For a film that is meant to explore the vastness and wonder of both the light and dark of the universe, the end result feels disproportionately small. An ambitious effort on the part of the visionary director and talented cast, A Wrinkle in Time falls short of greatness and might not please fans of L’Engle’s work, but even though it’s a bit of a mess, it is a beautiful mess. For an afternoon out with the kids for some popcorn and stunning visuals, this film might be worth a watch to pass a couple of hours.

But for older viewers like myself, capable of getting into R-rated movies… if you’re looking for a female-empowering/led, diverse (which A Wrinkle in Time is, don’t get me wrong) sci-fi film with excellent visuals and an exploratory, unconventional, and compelling plot, please, please, please check out Annihilation (2018) if it is playing in your area. Fair warning, it’s got some gore and horror elements, but it completely blew me away – it’s not getting nearly enough praise, and deserves much more.

Overall rating: 6/10

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