Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Favourite diabolical but convoluted

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (at the Main Art Theatre), tied for 10 Oscar nods along with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (post Jan. 22), is a strange brew of a picture. Sure, it’s dramatic, intriguing, features some of the best actresses around, and puts a diabolical combined sexual and political twist on the royal court of Britain’s Queen Anne in the early 18th century. But, just to be warned, straight history this is not. Yes, there were apparently two women in the neurotic or psychotic and physically ill monarch’s palace who may have vied for her attentions. But, any research at all about this movie will tell you that perhaps 80 per cent of it is fully made up. The director and writers are unapologetic, and I guess that’s probably fine. How many other movies take great liberties with historic facts? And when you get right down to it, who the hell really cares? From today’s perspective this is a rather obscure historical period (despite the ongoing English-French wars). Said actor Joe Alwyn (Samuel Masham) of the director, “Yorgos (The Lobster, 2015) made it quite clear early on that there wasn't going to be much consideration for historical accuracy to a degree. He wasn't too caught up with or concerned about that. He just wanted us to have fun as people and as a cast and to explore the relationships between us, which is what we did.” In reality, the film is less about history than imprinting a perhaps modern-day lesbian triangle and power struggle on three historical figures. Meanwhile, I’m surprised Olivia Colman was nominated for Best Actress since her role in the script is subsidiary to the struggle between Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Both Weisz and Stone are nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Both are excellent but I think Stone edges out Weisz. Stone burns with a ferocity in this picture. And, as an actress, the 30-year-old is coming into her own and developing the aura of a grand Hollywood dame. As for the story, well, okay, the palace intrigue is there with a vengeance. But the plot is somewhat convoluted though if you pay enough attention it’s enjoyable enough. On the plus side, great costumes, great sets (how could they not be since they were filmed at two British palaces?) and it’s hard to resist a fable combining sex and politics at the higher echelons of power, isn’t it?

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The critics are correct, Roma is a masterpiece

I had been kind of avoiding Roma, the much-acclaimed semi-autobiographical flic about director’s Alfonso Cuarón’s boyhood growing up in early 1970s Mexico City. Too much acclaim, and this film had snobbish film critic imprimatur written all over it (a 96 rating on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic). And it has garnered a truckload of awards and nominations including two Golden Globes, four Critics’ Choice awards, and now 10 nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress for the Feb. 24 Oscars…… But I broke down last night and watched it (on Netflix despite a limited late fall theatre release). At first my thought watching the film was that despite its realism (it’s also filmed in black and white), Roma was simply a nondescript narrative of life circa 1970-71. But the more I watched the more I was convinced of the film’s brilliance - like a shining orb becoming brighter and brighter - indeed conceding that this picture was entering masterpiece territory……The story is indeed rather pedestrian, about a middle class family growing up in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood but particularly centered on one of their servants, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, who had no acting experience previous to this). Roma basically is a series of meditative scenes from family life, whether dining at the breakfast table, going on vacation, furniture shopping, watching military parades or martial arts demonstrations. Mexico, to those who’ve never been there, is also shown to be remarkably similar to Canada and the United States, whether it be the then huge Fords and Chevys people drove or the same Western cultural values, from World War II films to debating whether Creedence or the Beatles was the better group or discussing the 1971 Super Bowl in which Baltimore beat Dallas. But the movie’s brilliance isn’t in the straightforward narrative but in the effortless acting (including from numerous children) and its exceeding realism – it’s transfixing the degree to which Cuarón is able to recreate the era. Everything has the look and feel of the period, from the way people dressed (platform shoes and miniskirts on the beach!) to detailed store merchandise. Usually, period films don’t capture this reality in such scope and in scene after scene after scene, large or small. Indeed, there are expansive backdrops of downtown streets where the cars, buses and trucks look like they’re digitized in from the era – they’re not – and a political rally where hundreds of students clash with police……The way to watch this film, despite any initial doubts you may have after it gets underway, is to let it continue to unfold, and get caught up in the picture's almost palpable verisimilitude.

Friday, January 18, 2019

More Coen brilliance, only slightly marred

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2018), on Netflix, is a set of six stories from the “Old West,” at once super authentic and great parodies…… The first is the story of Buster Scruggs itself, the singing cowboy (Trim Blake Nelson) who is as neat and trim and wholesome as a good cowboy can be. But be packs a deadly punch. Mocked as a featherweight Buster has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve and under his white hat and decimates his enemies to a pulp, all with an ah shucks smile on his face. The sketch is entirely hilarious..… In the second story, Near Algodones, a bad guy (James Franco) robs an isolated bank on the lonesome prairie. But he has no idea of the skills of retribution by the straight-laced teller (Stephen Root). The best line is when Franco is strung up on a gallows for a second time (having been cut down by a sympathizer earlier), turns to another thief facing his maker and quips “first time?”…..The third story Meal Ticket features a travelling impresario (Liam Neeson) and his legless performer (Harry Melling), who roll from town to town where the actor spouts soliloquies to befuddled if transfixed audiences. But the impresario runs across a technically advanced form of entertainment that will save the hassle of transporting a deformed human. Melling is especially good as the otherwise deaf and dumb performer but the story is a hackneyed treatise on capitalist mechanization…..As with the fourth story, All Gold Canyon, which is as brilliant a narrative as it is boring eco-cliché. Tom Waits is an aging prospector who enters a bucolic valley, seemingly untouched by man. The animals, living in bliss, decide to vanish and the prospector begins digging test holes, eventually locating a gold seam. He’s attacked – get it, man’s violence against man, continuing nature’s disruption? All turns out well, especially as Corrupt Man leaves and the valley returns to bliss…..The Gal Who Got Rattled, about characters on a wagon train heading to Oregon,  is the most complex and best acted of the stories and comes with a startling and unsettling ending……Finally, The Mortal Remains is the most opaque. Several characters of wildly different personalities ride a stagecoach with a ghost-like driver as they speed into darkness, with a series of arguments peppered by tall tales and outrageous witticisms…..Like the Coen’s others films, these six stories are marked by perfectionist detailing in costume and setting, and dialogues marked by the kind of formalized arcane speech common in the late 19th century. Kudos to the Coens but two of the sketches are unfortunately marred by political messages.