Mary Queen of Scots is billed as a showdown between two hardened female monarchs, battling for title, supremacy, and future United Kingdom lineage. In truth, the film from first-time director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon (The Ides of March, House of Cards) is really only the story of the titular character, the rightful ruler of the Scottish throne, heir to the English and alleged uniter of countries and cultures. The focus centers less on the public rivalry and secret compassion shared between Mary and Queen Elizabeth I and much more on the battles Mary must fight within her inner male-dominated circle.
Adapted from John Guy’s book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart”, Mary Queen of Scots tucks into the drama of Mary Stuart’s return to Scotland as she lays claim to the throne that her cousin holds through flowery letters and reasonable compromises. Though unwavering in her birthright, Mary reveals herself as a leader willing to bargain, to forgive, and to show compassion, sometimes to her detriment. Above all, Mary Queen of Scots is a film about just how much men despise the thought of a woman holding power and the lengths they will go to to deprive them of such.
In the title role, Saoirse Ronan portrays a fiery picture of steely strength; she’s a ruler who balances fairness with forgiveness, who doesn’t give in to opposition, unlike the litany of weak men who surround her. Her determination rages, evident when she flares the dangerous whites of her eyes at those who seek to betray her trust. Her treacherous brother, who looks not unlike a scrapped first draft of Aquaman, is the worst offender, constantly playing turncoat and seemingly without recompense. He is one of the many frustrating side characters in a movie brimming with them.
Mary is depicted as a woman in open rebellion with tradition, beseeched on all sides by the treachery of jealous, sexist counsel. Though her opponents assume otherwise, her gender is her greatest strength, only a detriment so far as those who seek to curry favor, and later, whittle and steal away her power, see it as such. Those who surround Mary see her femaleness as a handicap and proceed accordingly. They plot. They backstab. They beg. But Mary does not bend or break. Her similarly-gendered rival on the other hand…
The usually breathtaking Margot Robbie is indistinguishable as Queen Elizabeth I. Robbie is robbed of her traditional beauty by a hook nose and an infestation of pox, tucked beneath a conflagration of fire-hydrant-red butterscotch tufts. Looking quite alien, slathered in a sheet cake’s worth of concealer, she is a character of limited mileage, unfortunately shy of meat on the bones. From what we’re provided, Elizabeth fancies herself more “man than woman”, refusing matrimony and either unable or unwilling to bear children of her own, but her character (and those that surround her) fail to coalesce into something greater than another vision of sniveling men tearing away at a woman ruler. By the end, not enough work has been put in to justify some major decisions that are made. Undoubtedly, Robbie is strong in the role but there’s just not quite enough to chew on to call the performance great nor run it up the flag pole for major award’s conversations.
As surefire a contender as there can be for awards when it comes to hair and makeup and costume design, the various shapes human hair is tucked and shaped and sculpted into as astonishing a power as Mary Queen of Scots possesses. Likewise, the costumery from Alexandra Bryne is an exquisite showcase of regal attire and antiquated fashion. Sitting atop its leading ladies, the film is handsome, stately.
Fans of royal dramas will find a boon to adore beyond the perfumed aesthetics of Rourke’s film with political intrigue, double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses and subtle verbal barbs, spars, and bars all flying fast and loose, the dialogue from Willimon affording no short measure of high English that so many regal fanboys and girls fancy so highly. At times, the pacing gets away from Rourke, Mary Queen of Scots moving at an inconsistent cadence that limits its ability to sink its emotional hooks in, galloping when it should canter and vice versa. As a purely intellectual exercise, the film succeeds greatly, especially in its stomach-churning parallels to our current day and age and how the trend of sexism in leadership extends to today, a simple but deplorable fact evident in the language with which the US President speaks about his many perceived female opponents. Lock her up indeed.
CONCLUSION: “Mary Queen of Scots” boasts a tremendous performance from Saoirse Ronan and laudable costume, hair, and makeup but the regal drama comes up short connecting all the dots, failing to convince audiences that this story wouldn’t have worked better served as a mini-series on some prestige TV network.
Vying for the sole affection of Queen Anne – and all the status that comes with it – two cousins from different stations stoke a bitter rivalry in Yorgos Lanthimos exquisitely-mounted The Favourite. Scrumptiously rancorous, Lanthimos’ foray into costume drama is a series of verbal death matches, its characters clawing at one another’s reputation, the performances from its perfectly-cast stars provide each and every syllable of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s wonderfully cutting script a searing eclipse of clever-wit, cunning undercuts and good-humor that never second-guesses going straight for the jugular.
Handsome as hell, The Favourite is an exquisitely-mounted piece of film to behold. Filming in Hertfordshire’s Hatfield House, the film’s decadent setting make one feel as if they’re stepped into a 18th-century English castle because they actually have, resurrected by resplendent detail-work and production design. The vast expanses of these Hatfield House seek to draw out the hollowness of the characters dwelling within them, as they disappear into the expansive rooms that quarter them; living ghosts that haunt their royal chambers. Per Lanthimos, “”From the beginning, I had this image of these lonely characters in huge spaces” and he often uses a fish-eye lens to emphasis the vastness yawning out of every space. And none are lonelier than Queen Anne. Performed with career-best verve by Olivia Colman, Anne is a tortured character, suffering physical and emotional tolls, gout and melancholia hampering her every activity. She’s no self-confidence, evident especially in court as she navigates the Spanish Succession and a land war with France. Members of the Whig and opposition party (including Nicholas Hoult’s ill-tempered Harley) seek her ear by route of her favor.
Everyone has something to gain by positioning themselves closer to the queen but none so much as confidante, friend, and secret-lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), whose husband heads the Queen’s army. Cluttering up the status quo, Emma Stone’s Abigail arrives, caked in mud and literal poo, a lowly cleaner with high aspirations, and an assassin’s smile. Abigail quickly vaults her way up the ladder by winning Queen Anne’s affections, much to her reputable cousin Sarah’s chagrin and so erupts a cantankerous, envious triangle between Queen Anne, Abigail, and Sarah.
All three leading women are outstanding. Colman sells Anne’s insecurities, her need to be coddled, her pestilence and explosiveness, her frazzled, dazed unsureness, and her (somewhat rare) good heart. She is royalty desperate for love, physical touch, and appreciation, unsure which poisons fester in which relationship and where true loyalties lie. Weisz gives Sarah the iron will of a battle-tested general, bitter but cunning, seasoned in her strategies. As Abigail, Stone works through a range of faces – the innocent pleaser, the bruising seductress, the stealthy courtier. Even among such thespian excellence, she’s transcendent. The later two have already earned their keep (and fully earn another bout in the Academy’s ring), the former more than deserving of her overdue day in the sun.
Although Lanthimos did not pen The Favourite (as he has with all his other features), it still feels indistinguishably his. Cankerous and otherworldly, the film is loaded with bite, booby-trapped with snap; directed with an almost alien tilt and slyly hysterical throughout, from its oddly-named chapters to its wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing doublespeak. The acerbic dialogue snaps, crackles, and pops, leaving me in a near-constant state of giddy glee. As the characters finger through the weapons in their arsenal – love, sex, adoration, honestly, power – a war of words unleash that’s impossible to not be overtaken by like a powerful current. I could watch these women undercut each other all day, every day.
Without a doubt, The Favourite is not the biopic one is accustomed to, its black sheep take on nonfiction storytelling vaulting it into a historical drama stratosphere all its own. The mischievous flavors here are simply divine; the writing a creation of snappy sardonic poison; the acting absolute perfection down the board; the technical elements (sets, costumes, score, production design, etc.) a collision of awe-inspiring brilliance. As its characters outmaneuver and game each other, the film builds its hand, amounting to nothing less than a winning royal flush.
CONCLUSION: Let them eat cake, ‘The Favourite’ declares, offering a sickly sweet delight decorated with a quartet of brilliant performances (Stone, Weisz, Colman, Hoult) that teether this satirical slice of historical fiction to a sense of skewed, psychosexual royal quirk. A real wonder to look at, this deliriously spellbinding costume drama is one that only the perplexing Yorgos Lanthimos could construct. Stunning.
The Cold War didn’t officially end until the early-90s with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and in that 40-odd years of looming nuclear holocaust, many a film has used this intercontentional tension to deliver quality motion pictures – see Dr. Strangelove, The Hunt for Red October, and The Lives of Others. And – of course – Rocky IV. In light of Trump’s presidential-defining ties to Russian interference and a newly ignited political rivalry with Putin’s Russia, the idea of a Creed sequel that played off USA/Russian relations seemed not only narratively apt but also incredibly timely; a fine point of entry for any inevitable sequel and one that could have more on its mind than a couple of meatheads whacking at each other for two-ish hours. Instead the movie is just a couple of meatheads whacking at each other for two-ish hours.
In dredging up film boxing’s most iconic blood-match, Creed II refuses to go toe-to-toe with anything vaguely political, essentially ignoring any and all of the headlines of the past two years in what can only be described as an exhausting display of political aloofness. This is no rematch to end a new-age Cold War before it begins – it’s simply the story of a fighter’s thirst for revenge against the man (and his son) who killed his father. Plain and simple. There’s no 2018-context nor even a whiff of deeper meaning. This is a direct Creed and Rocky IV sequel that may as well have been made in a vacuum, what with its refusal to touch anything that could even be misconstrued as political savvy with a ten-foot pole.
Opting for familial melodrama and brushing political commentary to the side makes for an inoffensive, straight-and-narrow, crowd-pleasing, if wholly unchallenging watch – the film punching in a lower weight class that its predecessor while failing to evolve the sports genre in any discernible way. Not a lot more complex than a Wheaties cereal box, Creed II nonetheless accomplishes its job of hyping up an audience with its signature musical stylings (the soundtrack is definitively lit) and delivering the feel good endorphins of seeing your knock-around guy still standing as the dust settles even if it’s obnoxiously obvious that familiar movie mechanics are hard at work. Creed thrived off the raw kinetic energy of director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan and while the inner lives of the characters and relationships established therein are further illuminated here, Creed II lacks that selfsame hum, missing slightly wide with its balletic dramatic jabs, relatively untested director Steven Caple Jr. proving a permissible if uninspired replacement.
The screenplay from Sylvester Stallone and Cheo Hodari Coker (Luke Cage) takes us a few years into the future where Adonis Creed (Jordan) dominates the boxing world spotlight after winning 6-straight fights and contending for and seizing the World Heavyweight title. Flanked by his supportive girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who’s facing her own battle of being a musician on the highway to complete hearing loss, Adonis has to make some important decisions regarding his family, future, and his place in all of that. Before he can sink into the glory of his newly-won title, a distant shadow emerges from the cement factories of Ukraine in Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of the man who killed his father (Dolph Lungren) in the ring so many years ago. The story is concerned with legacy and pride and how the two threaten to become convoluted in the minds of warriors and both suffer the affliction of hubris. Creed agrees to fight Drago for all the wrong reasons – vengeful and angry and dwarfed in stature – though Rocky (Stallone) refuses to sit in his corner, his guilt over not throwing in the towel to spare the senior Creed the fatal blow still haunting him to this day. Age-old rivalries are settled in the ring and that is no exception here.
Caple Jr.’s sequel swings and connects using tried and true combos, more often than not opting for predictable pivots which soften the blow. The story is familiar, yes, but it’s also battle-tested, Creed II ultimately emerging as a crowd-pleasing blockbuster event movie that’s admittedly far from a true KO. And say what you will about celebrity workout routines and professional trainers, the muscles and bodies in this movie are beginning to look a bit more than unnatural, as is some of the action (particularly the slo-mo) which looks riddled with green screen and CGI. Jordan must have put on 40-pounds of muscle in a matter of months, transforming into a beefcakey poster child for injecting anabolic steroids and guzzling whey powder. And he’s not even the biggest guy in the room, with Munteanu’s towering physicality making for a brutally imposing hunk of Eastern villainy. His abs have abs. His biceps have biceps. He looks like he swallowed the Hulk. Pity that he’s never a ton more than an excessive slab of concrete with mommy issues. Creed II doubles down on the notion that “It’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit,” the movie going to great lengths to showcase just how much it actually sucks ass to get in the ring and get beat down by professional punch-throwers. Though the wallops have a sting of overproduction, missing the raw, feral edge of the most-interestingly directed boxing bouts, this thorough line about taking punishment and lining up like little Oliver Twist for more is hammered home hard and becomes the defining thesis of this legacy picture. It’s not about talent, mass, height, reach, training. It’s all about who can take a better ass-whopping and then turn the other cheek for seconds.
Inside the ring, Creed battles for legacy, to define himself outside of his family name. Drago battles just for that: his name. And his family’s return to good standing with the people and government officials. While Adonist wants to define himself outside the shadow of their fathers, despite having fully adopted his surname and his dramas, Drago wants nothing more than to prove his worth to pops. A little part of Adonis that he can’t seem to quiet whispers that he’s taken the easy way to claim the Heavyweight Champion title, defeating a Goliath who had already aged out of his prime. And the only way to deafen that petulant roar is by going through Drago, not skating around him. This is a man what must be cut through. Once the swings get flying, it’s a war of attrition in the ring, Drago never having lasted more than 4 rounds in a professional fight, Creed’s technical savvy absolutely critical to overcome an obvious size imbalance. Both on the canvas and on the street, things gets clunky, familiar streets are jogged down, hoodies up, sweated caking, and montages come flying fast and loose, but man when Creed (and Creed II) gets to punching, it’s easy to get swept up in all the blood and violence and national pride and forget everything that’s actually missing.
CONCLUSION: ‘Creed II’ entirely misses the opportunity to drum up any USA/Russia subtext in its predictable second fight but great music, strong (but admittedly less standout) performances, and a tried-and-true underdog story almost eradicate its many shortcomings. Almost.
With Illumination Entertainment’s release of The Grinch, viewers can now opt to take in their favorite Christmas-cursing green grump in cartoon, live action, or computer animated form. At a meager 86 minutes, this 2018 adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s iconic storybook “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” nonetheless adds a menagerie of new material, including a subplot about Cindy Lou Who scheming to ensnare Santa and a handful of new characters including a chubby reindeer named Fred, offering an admittedly adorable – if definitely not superior – update to the classic holiday mainstay.
The nuts and bolts of Dr. Seuss’s story of a dastardly bugaboo remain largely the same. The Grinch is a lonely misanthrope, isolated on a mountaintop overlooking the valley of festive Whos below. Tired of the cheer of the holidays, he plots to steal Christmas out from under from the obnoxiously jolly residents of WhoVille, enlisting his adorable dog Max in the process and eventually learning the true meaning of Christmas along the way.
This new-bangled edition of Mr. Grinch is a sugar rush for the senses, and sure to set kids abuzz with its candy-colored aesthetics, pop/hip-hop-reduxed soundtrack, and its general sense of good spirit. The story’s underlying lesson of forgoing materialism in favor of coming together as a community is as important today as it’s ever been even if The Grinch does still present Christmas as a capitalistic delight, set in a city where bigger is most certainly better. Perhaps the biggest change to the 1966 original, which it bears reminding weighs in at a swift and exceedingly pleasant 26 minutes, is the role of its titular anti-hero.
Gone is the almost blatantly evil rendition of the Grinch, him with all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile, and his condescending mockery of the Whos below, replaced by a much more cuddly and misunderstood little monster. I, for one, miss his sheer villany – his intolerant hatred of all things merry; his unchecked distaste for all; the pure vile joy he gets from stealing Christmas and the sadness and chaos doing such will wrought. This Grinch, though despicable in action, is evil in much the same way that Illumination animated movies protagonists are evil – in as cute a way as possible. A kind of “didn’t have his coffee yet” evil. The Grinch’s original 360 transformation isn’t in line with what 2018 audiences are led to anticipate and so a few spiders are surgically removed from his brain, the loads of junk hauled off from his soul. And, for better or worse, the Grinch becomes a more sympathetic character than he ever was before.
Benedict Cumberbatch voices the Grinch with his trademark sinister intelligence, joined by a voice cast that includes Rashida Jones as overworked mother Donna Lou Who, Kenan Thompson as the indomitably joyous Bricklebaum, Angela Lansbury as the Mayor of Whoville, and newcomer Cameron Seely as little Cindy Lou Who, the girl responsible for the Grinch’s heart growing three times in size. Pharrell Williams narrates, borrowing much of Seuss’ original text.
As far as a remake goes, The Grinch follows a fairly rote recipe for success (and will score massive holiday receipts with family audiences, believe you me), producing a well-mounted, visually- and emotionally-pleasing update to Dr. Seuss’s classic, while sacrificing some of the origin’s wickedness along the way. Though some of the humor is intended solely for the youngest kiddos in the attendance (a la Illumination standards, slapstick comes in no short supply), even the adults in the audience will find much to love. Unless your heart is three sizes too small.
CONCLUSION: This 2018 update to Dr. Seuss’ holiday classic is more colorful and snappy than ever, losing a bit of The Grinch’s evil edge and termite-filled smile to deliver a more playful and sympathetic – if toothless – rendition of the green, holiday-hating grouch. Cute, if largely inessential for those without children to call their own.