Movie Review ~ The Lost Daughter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A professor’s seaside vacation takes a dark turn when her obsession with a young mother forces her to confront secrets from her past.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: There’s something to be said for investing in a two-hour movie with a central character that’s hard to like.  We’ve had to root for anti-heroes in a number of films in theaters and television over the years and it takes a certain type of character (and actor) to be able to pull of that fine tight-rope act of leaning into the unlikability of a persona but not overstep so far that you lose the audience.  It’s the ultimate trust-fall test to bet the house that viewers will turn up to be attentive to (and even eventually root for) an individual that we might otherwise recoil from.  Oscar-winner Olivia Colman has played brittle before and her success as Queen Elizabeth on The Crown has largely come from her ability to “staunch” like the best of them…so we already know she can win us over.  What do you do when the movie as a whole is hard to like, though?

While I haven’t read the source novel on which The Lost Daughter was adapted from, it’s not very hard to see the literary bones and stumbling blocks in the structure of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s version.  The actress, making her feature film directing debut as well as logging her first screenplay, takes Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel (which was translated from its original 2006 Italian version) and brings the psychological drama off the page with a fine cast of actors who struggle through a serpentine plot that gets more turned around on itself the longer it plays.  Each time you feel momentum is gaining on plot or performance, a new element is introduced to distract and take you out of the energy the film was building.  It creates a strong discord over time, eventually alienating the viewer almost entirely, giving a full pardon to us to let our minds wander.  It’s a pity too, because the movie is chock full of dynamic actors dutifully delivering in their assigned roles.

Gyllenhaal (Batman Begins) opens The Lost Daughter with one of my least favorite plot devices: the flash forward/backward. (Ugh!) We see a brief glimpse of a time other than when most of the action takes place.  Maybe it’s before, maybe it’s after but we’re soon with Leda (Colman, The Mitchells vs. The Machines) as she arrives at a Greek seaside village for a quiet holiday on her own.  Single and with two adult children, she’s free to do as she pleases and at first it looks like that will be keeping her own schedule on the tranquil beach and flirting (badly) with the sea-salty landlord (Ed Harris, The Abyss) she meets on her first night.

The serenity doesn’t last long.  Another family joins her at the beach, a large group that boisterously descends, or rather invades, the space and overtakes the area.  Determined to keep her holiday on her terms and able to tune them out for the most part, it’s only when she refuses to relinquish her space to them that their orbits truly collide.  It’s also when she notices Nina (Dakota Johnson, Our Friend), a young mother of a toddler that never gives her a moment of peace.  Seeing this woman struggle to find some second to gather her thoughts acts as a trigger for Leda, drudging up memories of her own past when she was young (played by Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) and hoping to balance motherhood and her own dreams of status in the educated world.

It’s here that Gyllenhaal creates a fork in the road for viewers as well as a gap that continues to widen for the rest of the film.  On the left is the older Leda who is there when Nina’s young daughter disappears briefly only to discover something else has been taken when she returns.  A greater mystery is then uncovered, creating a creeping sense of dread that Leda’s safety is at risk from Nina, her shady husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Bly Manor), and their extended family…or is it the other way around and does Leda harbor a dark side that’s ready to swallow all of them up? 

The second and, sadly, far less interesting fork is the one we’re continually pulled back to…that of the younger Leda’s life with her children who need their mother but are so clingy they begin to drive her away.  Her need for attention turns into desire for validation and, not finding that at home, she looks to a more mature colleague (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) who provides that outlet for her.  This section is meant to show why the older Leda acts the way she does but never fleshes out the history enough for us to have that full picture etched for us, or even halfway shaded in.  Brief conversations in both timelines hint at Leda’s mother playing a part in her feeling unwanted and that transference easily passing through her to her children. Gyllenhaal never explores that, and it feels like a missed opportunity…for us and for the actresses who are more than capable of taking on those tricky corners of the heart.

While a beautiful name, those with knowledge of Greek mythology will pick up on the scholarly burden that comes with the name Leda who was the wife of a King when a most famous God took a liking to her.  An unwilling bedmate (i.e. by force) to Zeus who masqueraded as a swan, the story goes that she wound up laying two eggs that hatched into children.  It’s a thinly veiled metaphor for what the older Leda goes through, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find she gave herself that name – she often acts like such a martyr it would feel in line with the character. 

Of course, it’s not Colman’s doing that she’s tasked with a most difficult through line to play and if anything works best about the movie, it’s her.  Displaying her usual bravado in making risky choices that pay off, she isn’t afraid to go to awkward places in her acting or let uncomfortable silences linger longer than they have to.  The scenes with Colman and Johnson are first rate, as is one scene early on between Colman and Dagmara Domińczyk (The Assistant), Nina’s cousin who has the initial run-in with Leda and attempts to make peace. 

There’s a lot of buzz around Gyllenhaal’s screenplay and it’s a bit of a puzzlement for me.  Any juggling of timelines is always looked on with favor but aside from a few admittedly knock-out scenes that appear to be building to something but amount to little more than a puff of smoke, there isn’t anything remarkable about the assemblage of The Lost Daughter.  It’s the performances that stand out far more than the script or the direction, both of which are serviceable.  This includes everything right up to the ending which could have been punctuated better to close out Gyllenhaal’s debut by finally finding its footing.  Instead, it literally trips and falls without much fanfare. 

Movie Review ~ The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: The extraordinary true story of eccentric British artist Louis Wain, whose playful, sometimes even psychedelic pictures helped to transform the public’s perception of cats forever.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Stacy Martin, Sharon Rooney, Hayley Squires, Aimee Lou Wood, Adeel Akhtar, Julian Barratt, Asim Chaudhry, Indica Watson, Sophia Di Martino, Taika Waititi, Olivia Colman

Director: Will Sharpe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: As has often been the cast for the past several years, actor Benedict Cumberbatch has two movies that are arriving near the end of 2021 that are playing at a number of film festivals.  One film is a bit elusive and hard to see unless you are attending one of the most prestigious events.  The other one is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  One film is getting the actor much acclaim and buzz about another Oscar nomination after his stoic turn in 2014’s The Imitation Game.  The other movie is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  Available at quite a number of film festivals over the past several months, you can see Amazon Studios and its other producers fighting a losing battle to get some traction on The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the secondary Cumberbatch movie. However, with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog readying for release on Netflix, it’s lights out for this twee bit of falderal that sparks early only to be undone by it’s overreliance on puffy artistry on the back end.

Look, before I saw this biographical drama, I had no clue the English artist Louis Wain played such an integral role in helping the domestic cat gain such popularity in Europe through his artwork.  As a dedicated cat lover (an animal that has a box for its own litter which it also covers for you, keeps it distance when it’s not in the mood to be bothered, and can tell when bad weather is approaching is A-OK in my book!) I am ever in his debt for normalizing the attitude toward cats in his country because many of those feelings became popularized the world over.  I was unfamiliar with his art before a viewing of director Will Sharpe’s film and the recreation of his style and technique through the screenplay Sharpe co-wrote with Simon Stephenson (Paddington 2) were fascinating bits of mechanics to watch – it’s everything else that surrounded it that became so befuddling.

Perhaps it’s the feeling that Sharpe was grasping for a style and tone that didn’t completely make sense all the time.  The opening stretch and final hour are flighty bits of quirkiness that feel curated and calculated, like what someone attempting to be irreverent with the life of a colorful character would put on screen.  By all accounts, the mental health issues that plagued Wain and various members of his family were present for a long while but only presented themselves rarely over the years until they became more serious in his older days.  It was during his romance of the family governess (Claire Foy, Breathe) when Wain found his true happiness and it’s also when Sharpe’s movie gets into its best and most easily accessible mode.

The early marketing materials and trailers I saw of the movie suggested the Foy/Cumberbatch relationship was going to be far more rambunctious, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Yet it turned out to be my favorite parts of the movie.  The two have such a natural ease of working together and I can’t help but think that it’s Foy that consistently brings out the best in her male costars, melting some icy actors down and letting audiences see the softer sides.  She absolutely lets us see another side of Cumberbatch, a far more tender one that finds himself caring for another when he previously felt like that part of his life would never come to pass.  These are the meat the film feasts on…but the meal can’t last forever and before too long it’s back to the same old ticks and tricks once more.

I’m all for biographies that color outside of the lines (and The Courier’s Suzie Davies production design along with Paddington’s Erik Alexander Wilson’s cinematography are never lacking for bold color choices) but it has to circle back to a point – something The Electrical Life of Louis Wain takes an awful long time to get to.  Along the way Sharpe stops to create several beautiful moments (a shot of Foy and Cumberbatch sitting in a meadow is gorgeous) but it’s balanced with far too many repetitive scenes of Wain fighting with one or more of his disapproving sisters.

Controversially, I’m not as sold on Cumberbatch as most are.  I loved him for Sherlock but have since found him to be decidedly hit or miss with his work, feeling that perhaps he’s more limited in his range than we’d care to admit.  He’s not bad in this new film but he’s been better in others that are about far less important people and ideas.  Fans of his will want to check out The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, all others should save their Cumberbatch Cinema of 2021 for The Power of the Dog.   

Movie Review ~ The Mitchells vs The Machines

1

The Facts:  

Synopsis: A quirky, dysfunctional family’s road trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse and suddenly become humanity’s unlikeliest last hope. 

Stars: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Blake Griffin, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Conan O’Brien, Sasheer Zamata, Elle Mills, Jay Pharoah, Alex Hirsch, Griffin McElroy 

Directors: Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe 

Rated: PG 

Running Length: 113 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review: Were this a time when we were back seeing movies in theaters, a film like The Mitchells vs The Machines (which was originally set to be released in 2020) would have been one that made me glad for stadium seating that allows me a nice distance between the screen and my seat.  There’s so much going on in the movie that it often becomes an overwhelming mash of color, ideas, and sound.  As a child, it would have served to stimulate a number of my senses in just the way the animators at Sony meant to but as I get older, I find that these mile-a-minute delirium exercises put a serious crimp in the overall way I absorb the story.  That means the performances land with a little less oomph and the sweetness at the heart of the screenplay from writer/directors Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe can’t quite get its hands in a firm enough grasp at your heartstrings to tug away whenever it wants to. 

It’s definitely not for lack of trying, don’t get me wrong.  Rianda & Rowe are willing to go to great lengths and expend copious amounts of energy and animation to send home the message about the importance of family and, more pointedly, family time.  In this ever-expanding world of technology when it can be easy for us to self-isolate, families spend less quality time together than ever before and it becomes an effort to get everyone (parents included) out of their “screens” and involved with one another.  In Rianda & Rowe’s brightly hued world, a service known as PAL (voiced on the mainframe by Olivia Colman, The Father) is installed on nearly every phone and also into many of the machines the country uses on a daily basis.  Think of it as Alexa from Amazon, just with a wider net and a much more sensitive skin that’s easily rankled. 

Katie Mitchell has a number of PAL powered devices and for good reason, she’s a budding filmmaker that’s been at work since she was a small child making movies involving her family and dog.  As she has grown older, she feels like she doesn’t fit into the small-town life and craves a creative community of like-minded individuals (note the rainbow-pin on her jacket and later references to her relationship with Jade) that speak her language.  More than anything, her once inseparable bond with her dad Rick (Danny McBride, Sausage Party) has frayed and father and daughter barely know each other anymore, much to the dismay of mom Linda (Maya Rudolph, The Way Way Back). 

When tensions rise the night before Katie is set to leave for college, Rick makes a terrible error in judgement and decides to make up for it by gathering the family (including always-worried brother Aaron) and road-tripping his only daughter off to school instead of having Katie fly out there on her own.  A bad idea at first, it proves to be a stroke of genius because the family is together when a new model of PAL is released, causing the previous version to erupt in a jealous rage.  Using a virus to take over her replacements, she begins to enslave the humans in a giant prison. However there’s one family that won’t go down without a fight, one that’s rediscovered their strength as a team when put through a series of high-stakes battles with bots.

It’s never quite clear to me what endgame PAL was after but it doesn’t really matter in the end. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is about watching a family that has drifted apart find their way back to one another when put into a perilous situation.  I may question how young children would react to some frightening situations of appliances coming to life and attacking them and just the overall thought of electronic world domination, but it’s delivered wrapped in such a buoyant bow it’s hard to fault anyone involved too much. (I’m easily swayed, clearly.)  Running long at nearly two hours, there’s a lot of story packed in that wound up feeling repetitive and padded for time…that might be good for a theatrical release but when you’re at home I’m always in favor of a shorter sit for the family-oriented flicks.

Despite the presence of a talented comedian like Rudolph and someone that likely had a ball making this like Colman, the voice work is strangely muted here.  There’s so much in motion around everyone that it’s odd for there not to be any standout among the voices heard.  Even two rogue robots voiced by Beck Bennett (Zoolander 2) and Conan O’Brien (The Lego Batman Movie) that wind up working with the Mitchells sound interchangeable throughout.  I kept waiting for some spark to be lit, and while Colman comes close and Rudolph finds it late in the film when her character hilariously finds her inner warrior the movie comes to a close with barely any embers glowing.

For Netflix families that haven’t subscribed to Disney+ or Apple,+ which have had several impressive animated films over the past few months, there is now a viable option for entertainment in The Mitchells vs The Machines.  It’s fast, loud, and firmly a movie of today, but it will surely catch not just the eye of your kids but probably yours as well.  Not only are there positive lessons to be taken away from the sweet-natured heart of the film but its animation is stunning.

Movie Review ~ The Father

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Ayesha Dharker

Director: Florian Zeller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Throughout film, there have been movies and performances that have tackled the subject of Alzheimer’s and dementia or shown us the effects of the disease in striking detail.  You can go all the way back to 1981’s On Golden Pond for an example and find titles like The Notebook, Away from Her, Robot & Frank, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Still Alice, and 2020’s Relic in the years since.  Each had it’s own approach to illustrate the impact to the person as an outside observer but none have been able to walk audiences through the actual experience of what it’s like from the inside out. Diving down deep below the surface of a debilitating condition of the mind, The Father aims to show audiences what it’s like to be inside this head of someone suffering from a disease which robs one of their memories.  It’s a cinematic trick achieved with no special effects or CGI assistance, relying instead on masterful writing and the kind of acting that comes along once in a blue moon.

Hard to watch but almost impossible to look away from, director and screenwriter Florian Zeller leads us down a twist-filled path where nothing is what it appears to be.  He adapts his own play (with original translator Christopher Hampton) and while I have yet to see this onstage it sounds like nothing was lost in the transition from stage to screen.  That Zeller and Hampton were able to capture the same magic that earned the theatrical piece rave reviews across the globe is something in and of itself due to the complexities inherent in the storytelling and overall production, but this is a property that lends itself well for a film adaptation.

Anne (Olivia Colman, The Favourite) has arrived at her father’s flat after he’s scared off another caretaker with suspicions of stealing.  He’s misplaced his favorite watch and Anthony (Hopkins, Thor) is convinced the woman Anne hired to keep an eye on him pocketed it when he wasn’t looking.  This isn’t the first time he’s “lost” his watch or leveled accusations of this sort and Anne is worried – she’s set to move to Paris with her new boyfriend and wants to be certain her father is taken care of when she moves a greater distance away.  The issue is left unresolved, at least for that day.

Naturally we assume the man (Paul Gatniss, Christopher Robin) sitting in Anthony’s flat the next morning is Anne’s new boyfriend but no, it’s more complicated than that.  For Anthony and for the audience.  Anthony has woken up in his flat but it’s really Anne’s.  And it’s not the Anne we/he knows, but a different Anne (Olivia Williams, Anna Karenina) who isn’t moving to Paris.  When Anthony gets upset over the new people in “his” flat, Anne offers to go out for groceries, but returns as Colman’s different Anne with a new caretaker (Imogen Poots, Vivarium) and, later, a different boyfriend (Rufus Sewell, Judy).  This rapidly changing cast, not to mention an apartment with walls and furnishings that are rarely in the same position twice, are meant to confuse and disorient the viewer as they do our titular character.

At the center of it all in nearly every scene is Hopkins, giving the performance of his career.  Rocketing to worldwide acclaim in middle-age with his Oscar-winning role in The Silence of the Lambs after an already healthy career, Hopkins has spent the last thirty years in a wide variety of roles.  Some of those roles have paid the bills while others have filled his cup for artistic expression, and I can imagine The Father likely filled his cup to overflowing.  The performance put on film here is surely one that will be remembered forever, indelibly linked with the actor and not for reasons that have to do with his recent Oscar win over another actor.  The fact of the matter is that Hopkins presented the best performance by any actor in any movie (male, female, or other) in any film in any language in 2020 so his award was well deserved.

It’s not just Hopkins that gives the Oscar-winning Zeller and Hampton screenplay steadfast support.  I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Colman overtake Glenn Close’s work in Hillbilly Elegy for Best Supporting Actress for her compassionate contribution to the film.  While both women lost to the towering work from Yuh-jung Youn in Minari, Colman had a definite shot and the win would have been warranted for the way she balanced the sleight of hand required of the role.  Sharing one of the best scenes of the film (it’s hard to choose just one) with Hopkins, Poots holds her own as the young caretaker charmed by her new charge who lets her guard down when she should be more responsible with her feelings.  While he’s made a nice career out of playing rakish characters, Sewell finds new nasty nooks to explore here and the underrated Williams also is afforded several rich moments alongside Hopkins.  The wealth is spread evenly but the treasure is ultimately held by Hopkins.

An exquisite film in every aspect from the costumes to production design, The Father is a movie that will definitely sneak up on you.  Much more than your standard tearjerker, it’s a brilliant exploration of degeneration that avoids sinking too far into morose sentimentality.  The emotions it does evoke are strong and will hit you like a ton of bricks.  Don’t expect to shake this one easily after seeing it because it will linger in the back of your mind for weeks after, mainly as you recall the enormity of the performance Hopkins has given.

Movie Review ~ Them That Follow


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, a pastor’s daughter holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.

Stars: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan

Director: Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I admit it, at my age I’ve become one of those fair weather church-goers who only venture into a pew for the holidays or for special events.  Even then, I often find myself contemplating thoughts of the coffee hour after rather than what hymn in next in my book.  I’m not going to get into a religious discussion here but I have my own communion with a higher power and don’t necessarily need the building to have that bond.  I do respect how helpful the act of “going to church” is for people, though, and have seen first-hand how it’s a lifeline for those in need of support or comfort.

I speak on religion first in this review of Them That Follow because I want to be clear that I’m no expert on the practices displayed within or pass no judgement on the churchgoing folk the film centers on.  Lately I’ve been stepping back from my Midwestern safety bubble and taking into consideration the cultures of other walks of life and using the films I see as a way to open up new doors for me to explore.  I tell you, it’s helped greatly in finding a take-away in even the most middle of the road movies I’ve seen.  Such is the case with Them That Follow, a short wanting to be a full-length movie that only simmers when it should be boiling over.

A congregation of Pentecostals in rural Appalachia are presided over by Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight) who preaches of the devil’s trickery and the need to cleanse oneself from wicked sin.  To rid oneself of sin, his congregants show their devotion to God in the handling of venomous snakes. If the snake strikes, the parishioners are left to fend off the venom on their own.  If they survive, it is Gods will and they are forgiven.  As the film opens, the church is under the watch of the local authorities investigating the death of a person that perished under these extreme circumstances.

Unbeknownst to the Pastor, his daughter Mara (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) has gotten pregnant by Augie (Thomas Mann, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a local boy that has been exiled from the church for rejecting their teachings.  While Mara contemplates her future within the community and what this baby means in the wake of her recent betrothal to Garret, a handsome new arrival (Lewis Pullman, Bad Times at the El Royale), her faith is tested at every turn.  How long can she keep the secret from her father, the man she’s been promised to, and the man she has feelings for but can’t be with?  It all comes to a head when Augie comes to visit the church and makes an unexpected request.

The poster for Them That Follow and the trailer hint of a movie with a more sinister edge but writer/directors Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage don’t have enough plot to get around any twists and turns.  What we have is a movie I think would have worked quite nicely as a short film but, at feature-length, strains to make a case for the extra running time.  I was actually surprised to find this didn’t originate as a smaller project first because the final act especially has a few taut moments that would have worked better if the first 2/3rds were trimmed down. Another distraction adding to the feeling is a slow pace that keeps the movie from finding a rhythm within this community.  You can’t have a slow-burn if you aren’t willing to light a fire in the first place.

Those skeeved out by snakes are advised to steer clear of this one.  There are ample shots of the large reptiles slinking around the forest as well as over the bodies of the church-goers throughout the film.  Despite the threat of danger, there’s little tension to be had because the filmmakers haven’t raised the stakes high enough for audiences to be holding their breath.  While Goggins relays his usual dialed up, toothy, performance it surprisingly doesn’t reach the fever pitch of fire and brimstone that would have goosed the film in positive ways.  While Englert’s quiet moments are keenly felt, she’s a bit of a non-entity when sharing the screen with more formidable co-stars.  Strangely enough, I’ve sometimes gotten Mann and Pullman confused so it was nice to see them in the same frame to clarify once and for all they are different actors.

There are a few upsides to the film.  The location filming is quite lovely.  Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) is a nice presence as Mara’s timid friend abandoned by her mother that comes to live with the Childs family.  Harboring her own feelings for Garret, she has to watch her best friend agree to a marriage she clearly doesn’t want while the man she likes has no idea she’s interested.  Dever handles this balance nicely, never playing her role too addled or selfish in the face of her love going unrequited.  Then there’s Olivia Colman, following up her Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite playing a character named Sister Slaughter who finds herself divided between her loyalty to her community and her son, Augie.  Colman’s choices are unexpected, small, and intense…all the makings of a well-thought out performance.

In many ways, I’m glad Them That Follow didn’t devolve into some gory horror film with religious undertones.  It could easily have pivoted to something completely different but not wholly unexpected but it resisted and stayed in a safe lane.  True, there is one squirmy scene near the end but it’s largely an off-screen event so there’s little horror to be found aside from the isolation Mara feels.  While it does provide some additional interest for me to learn about these snake handling communities, there’s not much about the film as a whole that’s worth circling back on with much consideration.

Movie Review ~ The Favourite


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, Joe Alwyn

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The last two films from director Yorgos Lanthimos were definitely an acquired taste.  The absurdist comedy The Lobster was an unlikely groundswell art-house hit in 2015 and was followed by the pitch black (and deeply deeply depressing) family drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  Both films were co-scripted by Lanthimos and challenged audiences in ways that went beyond the simple pushing of taboo boundaries, penetrating under your skin and giving you a nagging itch for days after.  Thankfully, The Favourite, isn’t as emotionally draining as those previous efforts but it does retain Lanthimos’s particular affinity for seeing the world through an off-kilter gaze.

Set in England during the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, The Favourite drops us into the mix at a time when, unbeknownst to Anne, landowners were facing an unimaginable tax increase by the monarchy to pay for the war efforts.  Sidelined by painful gout, Anne (Olivia Colman, Murder on the Orient Express) effectively handed over her political affairs to her confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) who has her own shady behind the scenes dealings.  Though she is loyal to her queen, Sarah has gotten comfortable in her role as de facto ruler, often making decisions and seemingly effecting rules based on her own interests rather than what would be the best option for the throne of England.

Arriving to disrupt this arrangement is Abigail (Emma Stone, Aloha), Sarah’s penniless and disgraced cousin.  Abigail has come to Anne’s estate to grovel at Sarah’s hem for a job but has schemes up her sleeve much like her cousin.  Quickly rising through the ranks and catching Anne’s attention, Abigail begins to pose a threat to the plum set-up Sarah has for herself.  So begins a catty fight between the two women for Anne’s affections…much to Anne’s increasing delight.  At the same time, Abigail is pursed by a rival member of Parliament (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) seeking her help in ousting Sarah from her hold on Anne and romances a baron (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) who can expedite her ascension back into respected society.

Though screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are relative unknowns, their script for The Favourite has been bouncing around in Lanthimos’s stable for nearly a decade while he waited to secure financing for the period picture.  I’m glad it took them so long to make the film because he’s assembled a remarkable gallery of players in front of the camera and behind the scenes that gives The Favourite a sumptuous sheen and elevates it from its more soap opera-y tendencies.  It’s a bawdy film with several eye popping twists and often hysterically funny with razor sharp exchanges between Abigail and Sarah – none of it would have worked unless everyone involved wasn’t totally committed to the material.

The trio of ladies that make up the leads are sublime.  Though Stone is likely the biggest star in the group and might have the strongest arc, she wound up on the lesser side of the scale for me only because it felt like she was actively trying too hard to shoehorn herself into the period setting.  Colman is a riot as Anne, showing equal parts the vulnerability of a queen balancing a painful affliction and long-standing sorrow for numerous children she’s lost with the nastiness of a monarch that knows exactly how far her power reaches and how to wield it.  The sweet balance between Stone and Colman is Weisz giving one of her all time best performances in a career that has had many great ones.  While Sarah seems at first to be going in one direction, Weisz peels back several layers to show a different lady underneath we maybe hadn’t considered…and who might still be bad but could be the lesser of two, possibly three, evils at the end of the day.

The costumes from Sandy Powell (The Wolf of Wall Street) are gorgeous, the production design by Fiona Crombie (Macbeth) is luxurious, and the cinematography courtesy of Robbie Ryan (Philomena) has all the elements of a period drama but with modern strokes that keep the eyes always interested.  All help to strike the right mood in a film Lanthimos has divided into multiple parts, like a best-selling page-turner you can’t put down.  Like Mary Queen of Scots, The Favourite isn’t quite the history lesson you think it’s going to be when you sit down but it’s an incredibly entertaining and (best of all) surprising film that’s easily one of the most accomplished films of the year.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ London Road

London-Road-Poster

Synopsis: London Road documents the events of 2006, when the quiet rural town of Ipswich was shattered by the discovery of the bodies of five women.

Release Date: US Release TBD 2015

Thoughts: Hmm…a musical about a series of murders that plagued a London town a decade ago? Rodgers and Hammerstein, this ain’t…but I’ve had my eye on this UK show ever since I saw a clip on a documentary about the National Theatre where it was originally staged. Adapted into a feature film starring Olivia Colman (Hyde Park on Hudson, The Iron Lady) and, surprisingly, Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, Lawless) in addition to several real life residents of the London suburb this appears to be a challenging piece that delights in its unconventionality. Highly doubtful this will get much exposure in the U.S. so consider keeping your eye out for this one if/when it pops up on streaming video.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Cuban Fury

cuban_fury

Synopsis: A former salsa prodigy attempts a comeback years after his career was ruined.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts:  Reminding me of a movie I may have seen in the mid 90’s when Euro comedy imports were all the rage, Cuban Fury looks as harmless as all of those other films…and just as skippable.  Though stars Nick Frost (The World’s End) and Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) will probably make this a few notches better than the rest, overall I can’t see this picture becoming the kind of sleeper hit like Strictly Ballroom or The Full Monty were back in the day.  On the other hand, never underestimate the power of a feel good picture of the underdog getting its day…if the release is timed right Cuban Fury could be the very thing audiences will respond kindly to after a season of heavy Oscar material.

Movie Review ~ Hyde Park on Hudson

1

hyde_park_on_hudson

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of the love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley, centered around the weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of the United Kingdom visited upstate New York

Stars: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams

Director: Roger Michell

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When I was young, I used to take weekend visits to my grandparents in Preston MN and more often than not we would take what is known as a Sunday Drive.  This involved piling into some big Cadillac/Oldsmobile and just heading off in any given direction to see where the roads would take us.  A pleasant and quiet time with conversations that were soft and familiar, it wouldn’t be out of the question if you nodded off a bit.  Just as often you would perk up if something of interest flew by, your curiosity piqued.  Though you always knew the destination would lead you back to where you started, you ended up not minding that you took the time for the trip.

Hyde Park on Hudson is like those Sunday Drives of my youth.  It’s one of the thinnest slice of life tales you’re likely to come by this year, harmless and almost gone from your memory by the time you’ve reached your car.  Charting an affair between FDR (Murray) and his cousin, Daisy (Linney) around the time that the King and Queen of England made their first visit to the US, the film mostly sticks to its pre-destined path and offers little variance from its formulaic (if realistic) set-up.

The light-hearted, breezy trailer for the film belies its true dramatic thrust and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy that the film wasn’t played all for laughs.  Though the adulterous doings of the President and a family member (however distant) may cause you to wince a bit, director Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) and screenwriter Richard Nelson wisely steer clear of making that the true focus of the film.

The movie is most interesting in showing the relationships between FDR and the women in his life – Daisy, his mother (Wilson), his wife (Williams), and secretary Missy (Marvel).   These scenes work so well because Murray shows a totally different side to his acting as FDR.  I’ve long found Murray to be an aloof grump, thanks in no part to roles that only reinforce that feeling (though he was excellent in Moonrise Kingdom).  His FDR is a real career highlight and had the acting field not been so strong this year, he could have found himself with an Oscar nomination for his work.

The casting of Linney was a bit problematic – mostly because we’ve seen her do this work before in better films.  I’ve grown to like Linney less and less as the years go by, a talent that was once razor sharp feels a bit dull now and her Daisy is perhaps a bit too naïve, too forgiving for the thick skinned Linney to play convincingly.  Actually, I couldn’t get Laura Dern out of my mind when I was watching the film…she may have been a better choice.

Williams, Wilson, and especially Marvel do nice work in their supporting roles but its West and Colman as the visiting royalty that walk away with the movie.  Though they are playing characters familiar to movie goers (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter recently played them in The Kings Speech), they make their own mark on the Royals who are visiting the US in a thinly veiled plea for help with the impending war.

West and Murray share one of the best scenes of 2012 as they talk about the impairments both suffer (a stutter for the King and polio for the President) and how it affects the way the public and their wives see them.  It’s a dynamic scene that both actors play pitch perfectly with Murray delivering my favorite two lines spoken in a movie this year: “What stutter?”

I only wish there were more scenes like that in the movie.  Even at a relatively short 94 minutes, I felt the film dragged on in its own reverie a bit too much.  Cinematographer Lol Crawley does excellent work in filming what Production Designer Simon Bowles has cooked up in his period settings.  Also nice was a unique score by Jeremy Sams that captured the feel of the time and also the mood of the scenes.

Inexplicably rated R for an implied sex scene, Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t destined for the history books nor should it be.  It’s a nicely formed small bite of a film that gets its job done and nothing more.  I’d recommend it as a choice for a leisurely Sunday diversion.