The Silver Bullet ~ Black Widow (2020)

Synopsis: A prequel featuring Natasha Romanoff set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.

Release Date:  May 1, 2020

Thoughts: If you have yet to see Avengers: Endgame, I’m going to drop a spoiler so you may want to just watch the new trailer for Black Widow after reading my thoughts in a nutshell: this looks fun, it’s about time, what took so long?

If you’re still with me, you’re aware that Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit) sacrificed herself for the lives of her friends in Avengers: Endgame and could be wondering why she’s starring in her own movie.  Well, this long overdue movie focusing on her popular character is taken from an earlier adventure during less dire circumstances.  Fans have been wanting this movie for a while and it’s too bad we had to wait until Natasha was snuffed out to get a stand-alone film but perhaps the wait could be worth it.  Boasting fun names like Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), David Harbour (Hellboy), and rising star Florence Pugh (Midsommar), I’m hoping this is more than a tired superhero one-off.

Movie Review ~ The Favourite


The Facts
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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 ~ My Cousin Rachel (2017)

Synopsis: A young Englishman plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.

Release Date: June 9, 2017

Thoughts: You know what this critic loves?  Gothic horror and Rachel Weisz.  So you’ll understand why this first look at My Cousin Rachel hit all the right notes for The MN Movie Man.  Adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s novel written in 1951, it has been brought to the screen before in 1952 and again in a BBC miniseries from 1983.  It’s plum June release hints that Fox Searchlight has a sleeper hit on their hands or at the very least an interesting alternative to the bombastic effects driven blockbusters it will be sharing cinemas with.   With The Birds and Rebecca we’ve seen that du Maurier’s tales of horror are slow burn affairs and this looks like another tightly wound exercise in restraint.  And then there’s Weisz (Youth) who stars alongside rising star Sam Claflin (Me Before You).  It’s sometimes hard to remember she’s an Oscar winner, even though she’s often the best thing about the films she’s in.  Here’s hoping the end result is as effective as this trailer is…now I’m off to catch up on my reading.

Movie Review ~ Youth

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A retired orchestra conductor is on holiday with his daughter and his film director best friend in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday.

Stars: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Watching Youth late one night with three other people, by the time it was over I was the only one awake so right off the bat I’ll let you know that just like director Paolo Sorrentino’s previous film (2013’s The Great Beauty, an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film), his follow-up isn’t going to be for everyone.  Youth is a commitment to take in and even those concentrating hard may not walk away with much from the proceedings.  Easy to hate, hard to love…like most good movies should be.

Taking place over several days at a European health spa, Youth follows a retired conductor (Michael Caine, Interstellar) and fading director (Harvey Keitel, The Grand Budapest Hotel) making their annual pilgrimage for some rest and rejuvenation.  Caine’s character has just been asked by the Royal Palace to conduct a song he composed for his late wife, a song he hasn’t been able to approach since her death.  Keitel’s director is holed up with writers trying to figure out how to work his latest film after a series of failed flops.

Into the mix comes Caine’s daughter (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) arriving as her marriage is falling apart and a young actor (Paul Dano, Prisoners) taking a brief hiatus while preparing for his next big role.  The film is a series of overly talky scenes that tend to come off as new-agey tripe but somehow managed to continually captivate me.  The film and its characters never seem to go where you think they will, making for a curiously fascinating two-hour excursion into some out-there territory.

It’s the performances that trump Sorrentino’s considerable style (still heavily influenced by Fellini).  Caine is almost impish over the course of the film and Keitel’s shows a vulnerability he hasn’t been able to achieve in some time.  Before the last few years, Dano has always struck me as a shapeless lump on film but he’s starting to actively take form before our eyes…his character here has a transformation that’s, to put it mildly, shocking.  Weisz has a humdinger of a monologue delivered in one-take…reminding us why she’s an Oscar winner.

Speaking of Oscar winners, there’s big buzz that Jane Fonda (This is Where I Leave You) will snag a nomination for her work here, and I’m still not quite sure whether I agree with it or not.  As Keitel’s leading lady, she is onscreen for less than seven minutes but makes quite the impression in that small amount of time.  It’s either a gaudy camp excursion or an elegantly sad triumph but darn it all if I can’t decide what it ultimately is.  One thing is clear though, Fonda is lampooning her own celebrity in some way and because of that, it’s a zinger of a scene.

As in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino shows a flair for style and music…though it’s not always refined.  Some scenes are deliberately obtuse and characters pass by without explanation…but the more you try to make sense of it the less likely you are to let the movie simply exist in its form.  I loved the opening set to “You Got the Love” from Candi Stanton (performed with airy verve by The Retrosettes) and a later scene involving Keitel encountering a host of previous actresses is pretty fun.

It’s not going to be for everyone…I’m not even sure if I see it again I’d feel the same way about it.  But my first impression of Youth was that I enjoyed its fresh feeling.

Movie Review ~ Oz The Great and Powerful

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one.

Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell

Director: Sam Raimi

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  When this project was first announced I remember being both horrified and excited at the prospect of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.  The horrified part of me couldn’t imagine why a studio would want to get within ten feet of one of the most beloved films in history.  Excitement came from the rundown of talented artists that would be bringing Oz to life for Walt Disney Studios: director Raimi, composer, Danny Elfman, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, and an award winning crew of visual effects craftspeople.

So even if the final project isn’t everything some dreamed it would be, the more I think about Oz the Great and Powerful (and I have found it on my mind a lot in the week since I’ve seen it) the more I appreciated it.

Getting right down to it, this prequel to the events that take place before Dorothy drops in is really just a re-telling of that later story but with the would-be Wizard taking the place of the girl in blue gingham and ruby red slippers.  The film opens on a county fair where magician Oz (a miscast Franco…more on him later) is wowing the small town crowd with his tricks.  Not a bad magician, he has no heart so he can never be truly great…and to top it all off he’s a blowhard lacking in the charm department.

It’s not long before a twister tunnels by and sweeps Oz away in a hot air balloon to the magical land of…well…Oz.  It’s a sign!  At least that’s what naïve witch Theodora (a marginally miscast Kunis…more on HER later) thinks when she witnesses Oz fall from the sky.  Taking him to meet her sister Evanora (a perfectly cast Weisz), Oz eventually finds himself on the hunt for the Wicked Witch terrorizing the land with her flying baboons.  Along the way he’ll meet another witch or two (one of the green variety) and learn a thing or two about friendship, honesty, and finds out there’s more to his magic than meets the eye.

That’s the gist of things and fans of The Wizard of Oz (either the movie or L. Frank Baum’s library of Oz-ian tomes) need not fret that this film will sully the image of Oz…that will surely be done by 2014’s Legend’s of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.  Like the stage musical Wicked, this movie connects a few of the dots to its 1939 predecessor and those paying careful attention will see that the filmmakers have inserted a number of references to the previous film like using magical Oz-ian characters as Kansas counterparts .

Two bits of casting have received the most attention since the film was released and I can’t say that some of the gripes haven’t been justified.  Franco is simply not the man for the job here and he’s painfully miscast as Oz.  When you consider Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were the first choices for the wizard an extra pang hits you for the performance that might have been.  Kunis (Ted) isn’t as bad as the reviews say but she struggles quite a bit for at least the first 2/3 of the film.  I felt she got better as her character progressed but it never really lands like it should.

The good news is that Weisz and Williams are so good as Evanora and Glinda that you almost forget they are sharing scenes with lackluster partners.  Weisz wipes the floor with them all, though, in a cleverly coy role rife with lip smacking and glinting eyes.  She’s the one actor that doesn’t let the sumptuous effects dictate her performance.  Williams is strong too but at times it felt like she hadn’t fully shed her Marilyn Monroe persona as Glinda the Good (or is she?)  Braff and King steal their fair share of scenes in dual roles and Raimi peppers his supporting cases with journeymen actors from his stable.

Effects-wise, Oz looks incredible.  Produced by the same team that brought us the mind-crushingly awful Alice in Wonderland reboot a few years back, they’ve wisely stayed away from that super fake looking Wonderland world for a slightly more realized take on Oz.  It’s still too CGI heavy for me but there’s no denying that the movie is a true feast for the eyes.  Elfman’s score doesn’t stray too far from his norm of notes but he’s tailored it to whip up some magical moments of his own.

Very rarely do I find that 3D is really worth the upcharge but Oz is a film that really should be seen through a pair of 3D glasses.  The opening shots in glorious black and white are presented in a small aspect ratio (picture size), emulating a film from that era.  The 3D is purposely less “deep” in these shots to play in nice contrast with the added depth once we get to the Technicolor Oz.  Though prices for the 3D experience have risen, this is one film that’s more than worth it.

When the screening I saw was through, I wasn’t quite ready to make a final call on what I thought of the film but found that it was on my mind often in the following days.  No, it’s not a perfect film or the most original storyline…but it’s a visually arresting wonder that impressed me the longer it lingered in my memory.  Rumor is that plans are afoot for another sequel and based on what I saw here, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.  Would it be weird to recast Franco, though?

The Silver Bullet ~ Oz: The Great and Powerful – Trailer #2

Synopsis: How the Wizard arrived in Oz and became the ruler. A prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Release Date:  March 8, 2013

Thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of the teaser trailer for Oz: The Great and Powerful, I’m getting a strong vibe of revisionism along the lines of Tim Burton’s misguided Alice in Wonderland.  Still, the Oz books have a wealth of adventure to them and I’m interested to see what screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and whip smart playwright David Lindsay-Abaire bring forth.  The visuals certainly look stunning and never underestimate the power of Oz…though with this trailer I’m officially on the fence about the value of Franco’s contribution to the film.  He’s such a modern style actor that I’m not convinced (yet) he’s the man who would be Oz.  Thankfully, he’s backed up by a trio of dependable ladies (Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis) that should even things out.  Director Sam Raimi has worked wonders in film storytelling in the past – he might be the true man behind the curtain of the success or failure of the film.