The Favourite is bizarre and quite extraordinary. From the exquisite central performances to the unsettling score to the rich production design and cinematography that is both alienating and involving, director Yorgis Lanthimos works the rich and pungent script of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara into something that is simultaneously alluring and discomfiting. The film focuses on the mentally and physically afflicted Queen Anne, played with utter fearlessness by Olivia Colman, at the time of writing Golden Globe winner and BAFTA and Oscar-nominated. Anne’s life is one of difficulty and pain, made bearable by her close companion Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who effectively runs the kingdom by virtue of having the Queen’s ear. Into this hermetically sealed environment comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), who inveigles her way first into Sarah’s confidence and from there into Anne’s. Meanwhile, political machinations abound as rival political leaders Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) and Robert Harley (Nicolas Hoult) attempt to curry favour with the Queen through her shifting favourites. The courtly dramas and in-fighting vary from the vicious to the absurd, and Lanthimoss’ camera does not so much capture what takes place as peer quizzically at it. DOP Robbie Ryan’s frequent use of a fishbowl lens adds to the sense of peculiarity, as do a number of strange dissolves between scenes that highlight the interpretation of personal, political, sexual, economic and social agendas, not to mention rabbits. The Favourite is a seriously odd film, and a deliciously intriguing one as a result.
The climax of Bryan Singer / Dexter Fletcher’s Bohemian Rhapsody is a real time reconstruction of Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985. The sequence exemplifies what works and fails in this uneven biopic of Freddie Mercury, a towering figure of flamboyance and creativity, both of which are on display in Rami Malek’s electrifying performance. The sequence is thrilling and enrapturing, conveying a sense of the atmosphere at Live Aid which is a cultural touchstone for many music fans, and Queen fans could ask for little more. However, what does the film offer for non-Queen fans? Singer and Fletcher, working from Anthony McCarten’s script, display adoration for the music and the creative minds behind it, including Freddie himself, Bryan May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello). The scenes of creativity are some of the film’s most entertaining, especially the composition of ‘We Will Rock You’. By drawing the whole band in some detail, Bohemian Rhapsody does express the tension between friendship and creativity. The downside is that there is little dramatic weight behind these scenes. This lack of gravity is despite Freddie’s various personal dramas, such as his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his realization and embrace of his true sexuality, and his diagnosis of AIDS. These topics are progressed through rather than struggled with, lacking the emotional heft and stylistic flair of the concert sequences. The most striking moment of the film is an aerial tracking shot over the Live Aid audience, which gives a sense not only of the scale of the event but also briefly expresses the enthralling experience. Beyond the concert sequences, however, Bohemian Rhapsody maintains a frustrating distance from its subject, presenting a rhapsodic life without expressing it.
Bumblebee is a film based on two central elements, and the viewer’s engagement will likely rest largely on their response to these elements. The first is nostalgia: nostalgia for 80s music and fashion, not to mention the movies, and the original Transformers, officially branded as Generation One. This emphasis upon nostalgia connects Bumblebee with the recent Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse as well as Mary Poppins Returns, since all three films trade heavily on nostalgia but also feature their own innovations. For a certain generation (to which this writer belongs), Transformers: Generation One was a big part of childhood, and when the live action films arrived in 2007, it seemed like the culmination of a twenty-year wait. Michael Bay (who serves in a producer capacity here) delivered a certain type of movie, inflected with a ‘lad’ mentality that could be entertaining while also being deeply problematic. Director Travis Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson (the first female screenwriter in this franchise) explore issues of loss and grief, finding family and the restorative power of love. This leads to a more innocent Transformers story, without crass sexualisation but instead a touching central friendship that owes more to The Extra-Terrestrial than Age of Extinction. Teenage protagonist Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) struggles to connect with her family, but bonds with the transforming Volkswagen Beetle that she ‘adopts’. This conceit of connection offers something for audiences with no existing connection to the brand. Knight also incorporates a touching teen romance that echoes those of John Hughes while playing second fiddle to the central friendship, and it is heart-warming to see this young woman embracing the large yellow robot. Nor does the film skimp on the action, as Knight delivers several brilliant set pieces that both echo the 80s cartoon and declare this film’s distinct identity. Those raised on Bay’s movies may be surprised by an extended long shot of two robots fighting and an ironically human heart to this combat, as well as a healthy mistrust of the military-industrial complex. With its winning combination of freshness and familiarity, action and emotion, Bumblebee is a great film for all the family. You could even say it has the Touch.
There is a moment in Mary Poppins Returns when the titular magical nanny, played with sparkling brilliance by Emily Blunt, looks directly into the camera before plunging backwards into a bathtub. This look to camera is an acknowledgement of audience expectations, that manages to be completely uncynical or overly knowing. The shot is indicative of Rob Marshall’s superlative sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, as throughout Mary Poppins Returns, audience’s knowledge of Mary Poppins and the Banks children is acknowledged with postmodern awareness. Despite this acknowledgement, and quite remarkably, the film never slips into parody, or becomes too clever, or loses sight of its central, irresistible charm. Blunt is charm personified as Mary Poppins: from her cut-glass accent to her no-nonsense attitude to the neat curl of her ankles, Blunt’s performance can stand alongside Julie Andrews’ in the pantheon of great performances. Alongside her, Lin Manuel Garcia, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters and Colin Firth, as well as the younger performers Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson, all embody their characters beautifully, blending adult weariness with childlike delight. Not that every moment is happy – grief hangs heavily over the Banks household and the economic context mirrors our contemporary times. Problems of mounting debt and eviction notices are not simply dealt with by snapping fingers or singing, demonstrating the need for hard work, cooperation, compassion and a little bit of luck in the overcoming of obstacles. Nonetheless, at other points, Mary Poppins Returns launches into unadulterated and unashamed fantasy. The aforementioned bathtub scene is a highlight, as is a sequence into a bowl that blends cutting edge digital effects with classic Disney animation. This sequence also combines musical whimsy with real world concerns, rendered through a thrilling chase scene. It serves as a microcosm of the film as a whole: a magnificent amalgamation of styles, genres, themes, tones, nostalgia and innovation. In fact, one might say that it is practically perfect in every way.
After my last post’s batch of bad turkey, which certainly gave me indigestion, let’s celebrate what was great in 2018. There are only twelve slots in my (totally arbitrary and subjective) best of the year list; however, there are plenty of good entries as well as honourable mentions. Among these were some unexpected pleasures, including the grim but in places touching social realist drama Obey, and the charming comedy about family and race relations Eaten by Lions.
I caught some other British efforts at the Norwich Film Festival, including some great shorts as well as the features Waiting For You and The Isle. These films were striking in their use of evocative locations, including the south of France and the Scottish islands, as well as offering intriguing stories.
2018 was a good year for black filmmaking. Critical darling Steve McQueen returned with his fourth feature Widows, a heist thriller with sociological smarts to match its stylistic sheen, that dared to have women of colour standing up to patriarchy. Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie used music and location as an intricate and organic part of its story. A great surprise was Blindspotting, that offered thrills and laughs in equal measure, interweaving its politics with its narrative beautifully.
Even better was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a brilliant piece of work that combined a true story with period setting and gripping set pieces. BlacKkKlansman subverted genre expectations and performed a reclamation of cinema through its formal properties, delivering a powerful and contemporary message. The highest profile ‘black film’ was Black Panther. While its racial politics received criticism and there is still a long way to go in terms of equal representation, Marvel demonstrated that a mainstream blockbuster can have a serious engagement with racial politics and isolationism, and also be a huge financial success.
Marvel Studios followed Black Panther with Avengers: Infinity War, a staggeringly ambitious super-powered epic. With ten years and eighteen films behind it, Infinity War balanced its multiple storylines and characters with verve and aplomb. Amidst the colourful fun, Infinity War also performed a sober exploration of power, making it exceptional in the superhero genre and a highlight of the year.
Other superhero exploits came in animated form, as Pixar delivered Incredibles 2. Fans of the original waited fourteen years to revisit the exploits of the Parr/Incredible family, and Brad Bird and his team did not disappoint with an explosive action adventure that engaged with ideas around gender and our relationship with technology. Sony Animation maintained their hold on web-slinging property as Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse combined dazzling displays of digital dexterity as well as just the right level of postmodern knowingness, proving that universes stretch just as much as spandex.
Perhaps the year’s biggest thrills came from a mega-star rather than a superhero. After twenty-two years, five previous films and with a star approaching sixty, Mission: Impossible – Fallout was a fabulous continuation of this enduring franchise. Bathroom fights, stolen plutonium, mountain climbing/falling, helicopter chases and a halo jump led to a breathless and exhilarating experience, with genuine emotion giving the film heart to go with its heft.
Other exhilarating experiences came from Ready Player One – the second Spielberg of the year that joyously embraced new technology – and First Man, which delivered a riveting journey into outer space that focused on the rivets themselves. While these films had very different subject matters – dystopian future and the tension between fantasy and reality, historical drama about journeys into grief as well as to the Moon – both featured exquisite levels of detail, every bit as immersive and compelling as each other.
By way of contrast, Cold War was a quintessential ‘art film’ that was involving and enthralling despite its rigid formalism. Stark black and white cinematography, interpersonal and geopolitical concerns, intimate performances and a heartbreaking story united in one of the most emotional yet carefully contained films of the year. Speaking of heartbreak, A Star is Born was an equally uplifting and devastating tale of music and romance, demonstrating that Lady Gaga is a fine actor and Bradley Cooper a fine director. And in one of the year’s strangest and most striking works, Lynne Ramsey delivered You Were Never Really Here, a brilliantly immersive revenge thriller, more about mood and experience than plot and narrative.
Finally, after this preamble, it is time to announce Vincent’s View on the Top Twelve Films of 2018. Therefore, and without further ado:
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Twelve lunar landings
Ten Lady Birds
Nine Stars a-birthing
Eight Ready Players
Seven Black Panthers
Six Watery Shapes
Five Phantom Threads
Three Ebbing Billboards
Two Were Never Really Here
And a Blac-K-k-K-lansman.
With awards season now upon us, I look forward to the many offerings that 2019 will bring.
Although the cinema can offer tremendous experiences, sometimes there is a misfire. 2018 had much that delighted but also some turkeys. Thankfully, there were few serious stinkers, and it might be fair to say that no film is completely without merit so long as it is well lit, so you can see what’s going on. That said, there were some films in 2018 that had me variously shaking my head, silently shouting at the scream and coming out afterwards wondering how it all went so wrong.
As mentioned in my last post, The Little Stranger was underwhelming. Although director Lenny Abrahamson captured a very British sense of reserve, the film failed to generate much tension or societal satire. A bigger disappointment was Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the Dario Argento classic. A great power of cinema is to show rather than tell, and Suspiria told too much, was far too long and overwritten to a tedious degree. Horror maestro Eli Roth made an effort at family fare with The House with A Clock in Its Walls. Despite the winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, THWACIIW was flat and laboured, offering only passing enjoyment.
As is par for the course these days, 2018 offered various superhero films, and while some of them were brilliant (watch this space), others demonstrated the pitfalls of the genre. Venom was a wasted opportunity that lost its potential in chaotic incoherence, and while I didn’t hate Aquaman, it had a lot of soggy moments. Still, not everything can entertain to Infinity…
Computer based movies proved a less than inspiring source in 2018, as Searching took an interesting premise but stretched it beyond credibility. Documenting and dramatising lives lived through technological devices has significant potential, but Searching took the conceit too far in terms of its timeframe and reasons (or lack thereof) for the material to appear on screen. On the adaptation front, Tomb Raider was an improvement over the previous efforts, offering a more grounded approach to the adventures of Lara Croft. Nonetheless, it was still a disappointment since everything it offered had been done before and better. Speaking of which, Sicario 2: Soldado proved a poor follow-up to the 2015 original. Stefano Sollima’s overreliance on a crashing score and a lack of nihilism made this a weak and ultimately ineffective thriller, despite the promise of its genre and evocative setting.
Although there were few stinkers in 2018, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. The Equalizer 2 was a huge disappointment after the pleasant surprise of the 2014 original. When I saw it, one of my viewing companions actually fell asleep. He said he would not have dozed off if he had been less tired, but would have stayed awake if the film had been more engaging. It is easy to see his point, as the disparate storylines, vague characterisation and pedestrian direction made this a seriously unequal sequel.
The worst offering of the year though, just as it was half way through the year, was Red Sparrow. Everything about this said I would like it: a genre I love, proven directorial chops, great cast, genuine commitment to being unflinchingly brutal. Yet the result was laboured, the nastiness at times gratuitous and the film as a whole deeply boring. It was a cinematic experience that I spent waiting for the film to get good, something to kick in, give me a twist that carried dramatic weight, draw me into the scenes of torture or abuse, and it failed on pretty much all fronts. It wasn’t a total disaster, since there was some moody lighting at times, but the film proved to be more turkey than sparrow.
2018 offered plenty of pleasures, ranging from the enjoyably silly Rampage to the grimly po-faced Mile 22. It proved an especially fruitful year for horror cinema – I missed out on Hereditary, which attracted a lot of discussion, but did catch Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s adaptation of their stage show Ghost Stories, which demonstrated (after)life in the anthology drama. I wasn’t as impressed by Ghost Stories as some have been, finding it a bit too neat when what I wanted was a devastating collapse of reason and rationality (which is hardly unreasonable). More effective was A Quiet Place, which proved a brilliant thrill. It’s a weird film that, if you think about it, rapidly develops major holes but, while you watch it, is absorbing and genuinely terrifying, especially if you have an aversion to bare feet.
Other horror offerings included the underwhelming The Little Stranger and the disappointing Suspiria (on which more later). Far more impressive was the surprisingly engrossing Overlord, that delivered gruesome horror in a World War II setting. But standing masked head and shoulders in the horror genre was David Gordon Green’s Halloween, a triumphant return of this classic series that provided genuine old school tension combined with modern sensibilities and awareness.
Halloween was far from the only familiar name for, as has become standard, the box office was ruled by sequels and franchise instalments. These were of varying quality, as Deadpool 2 provided more of the same to diminished returns on the laugh front, although extra characters did swell the interest. Ant-Man and the Wasp was the third MCU entry after Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War (on which more later), and proved to be a suitably light-hearted caper, although it did suffer from an overuse of the word ‘quantum’ that failed to make the techno-babble any more comprehensible.
During the summer, Star Wars provided us with Solo: A Star Wars Story. This was perhaps not a story we needed, but it managed to be one that the fans of Han Solo deserved, breathing new life into this stalwart from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Similar rejuvenation occurred with Ocean’s 8. Rather than being a gimmicky cash-in, this gender-inverted caper offered a shine all of its own.
Perhaps the year’s most pleasant surprise was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. When Jurassic World opened in 2015, I thought the franchise should go extinct, but this latest instalment went to strange and encouraging new places, and I look forward to where the dinosaurs will go next. Therefore, while there was varying quality, all of these films did provide some enjoyment.