Royal rewards and reviews
By: Matt Brunson
The Favourite (three and a half out of four stars) is basically All About Eve with corsets, with Rachel Weisz starring as Bette Davis’ Margo Channing, Emma Stone cast as Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington, and Olivia Colman appearing as the Sarah Siddons Award.
Set during the kickoff of the 18th century, this historical seriocomedy unfolds in the court of Queen Anne (Colman), a sickly ruler who would rather spend time with her pet rabbits than deal with pesky politics or the fog of war that envelops England’s ongoing battle with France. For such matters of state, Anne relies on Sarah Churchill (Weisz), who’s not only the ruler’s confidante but also her lover. But there’s a palace uprising of sorts with the arrival of Abigail Hill (Stone), a former lady of high society who, through no fault of her own, has now fallen on hard times. Abigail appears to be all sunshine and light as she joins the royal staff as a maid, but it’s not long before Sarah becomes aware of her Machiavellian maneuverings.
Those expecting a staid and stuffy period drama will be taken aback by the outrageousness that The Favourite displays not only in word but in deed. With all manner of shady characters flitting around in the background (Nicholas Hoult, the young Beast in the X-Men films, is a hoot as the supercilious landowner Robert Harley), the picture isn’t lacking for intrigue, and the exceptional screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is filled with dialogue that cuts like daggers. Colman is aptly pathetic as the grasping queen, Stone uses her kewpie-doll mannerisms to chilling advantage, and Weisz is typically superb as she embraces all sides of her richly textured character. Indeed, it’s Weisz’s Sarah who ultimately reveals that The Favourite is as much of a poignant love story as it is a historical drama or acerbic comedy.
Could the ending be stronger? Certainly. In fact, this seems to be a recurring problem with director Yorgos Lanthimos and the English-language films he helms (previously, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer). I do suspect that repeated viewings might allow its abruptness to feel more in line with the rest of the swerves found in this dazzling drama — at any rate, 120 seconds hardly erase the splendors of the other 120 minutes. The Favourite is one of the best films of 2018, and it’s a sure favorite — excuse me, favourite — as we head further into award season.
The moldy adage “You won’t believe your eyes” takes on new life in the wake of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (three out of four stars), which is pretty good as a superhero saga but absolutely phenomenal as an animated feature.
Employing animation in ways not usually found on the big screen – but definitely found inside the margins of an actual comic book – this latest Marvel adventure comes on the heels of the live-action hit Spider-Man: Homecoming and, like that film, assists in erasing the memories of those disappointing Spider-Hipster films starring Andrew Garfield as a GQ-approved web-slinger. Of course, it doesn’t erase memories of Sam Raimi’s trilogy starring Tobey Maguire – but how could it, when several moments are direct homages to events that occurred in those pictures?
The tributes don’t end there, as even the popular T.V. toon series from the late 1960s gets a shout-out. And the late Stan Lee? Yup, he’s here, too, and let’s honor what might be (depending on Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel rumors) his final appearance in a superhero flick.
The principal Spider-Man in this film is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), but he’s not the only web-slinger on display. Peter Parker (Chris Pine) also shows up, at least until he’s killed by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) as the latter dabbles with a machine that opens up portals to other dimensions. It’s through this device that Morales’ world is flooded with other Spidey variations. Chief among them is another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) — this one older, more cynical, and sporting a pot belly — but also joining the fray are Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), the 1930s-era Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her mechanical SP//dr, and the diminutive Peter Porker / Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Together, they must pool their resources to combat not only the Kingpin but also Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hahn) and other colorfully garbed villains.
To say that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is packed with incident is an understatement, but scripters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman do a fine job of delineating all the overlapping universes and shared storylines and allowing every character at least one moment to stand out (Johnson’s alternate Parker is an especially vivid character). The personal drama is more boilerplate than the humorous interludes, but, at any rate, the story here isn’t the real story here. Instead, it’s the look of the film, which meshes together all sorts of styles: comic book paneling (including thought bubbles), anime, intentional pixilation, black and white, even Looney Tunes riffs (“Wait, is he allowed to say that?”).
Ample praise was rightly directed at the unique visual slant of the likes of The Incredibles and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, but the phantasmagoric look of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will doubtless ensnare more than just filmgoers. It’s the sort of cutting-edge graphics that will inspire aspiring animators ready to produce something they hope will similarly be deemed amazing.
The title might be borrowed from Shakespeare, but the aesthetic is pure Miyazaki.
Based on the first in a series of Young Adult novels by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines (two and a half out of four stars) is yet another film set in a post-apocalyptic future wherein food and water are scarce, the strong prey on the weak, and Mennen Speed Sticks and other hygienic niceties have doubtless long ceased to exist. The largest cities have been placed on wheels and roam the wastelands, devouring smaller towns (i.e., integrating the citizenry into their own but stealing all of their resources). London is the largest of such burgs practicing what is known as “Municipal Darwinism,” and its chief architect is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who of course is soon revealed to be a murderous opportunist. It’s up to the bitter Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and the naïve Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) to bring him down, although they have plenty of allies — chief among them is a rebel leader known as Anna Fang (singer Jihae) and Valentine’s own daughter (Leila George).
The plot is both daft and derivative (there’s even a Vader-friendly “No, I am your father” moment), and the commonplace young adult elements end up overtaking the welcome “WTF” moments by the end. But because this comes from Peter Jackson (here in producing and scripting modes) and many other folks involved with The Lord of the Rings, the world-building is spectacular and almost makes this worth the price of admission. Steampunk is the driving style here, and this might be the first live-action movie to successfully mimic the design of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated epics. Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky loom large, and while there’s no catbus co-opted from My Neighbor Totoro, there is a camouflaged vehicle that scurries along like a metallic caterpillar.
Like its setting, Mortal Engines ultimately becomes too cluttered for its own good, and the final showdown feels endless. But there are some compensations among the characters. Tom makes for a bland protagonist, but Hester’s backstory provides her with some interesting shadings. And then there’s Shrike (Stephen Lang), an intriguing figure who is two parts Terminator, one part Grinch. Like the good Arnie T-800, he’s Hester’s former protector. Like the bad Arnie T-800, he becomes her hunter. And like the Dr. Seuss grouch, he’s noticeably lacking a heart. Of course, there’s eventually a scene where his non-existent heart somehow ends up growing “three sizes that day.”
To quote from another Shakespearean work, “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” But since it’s a movie being played upon a screen, I merely take such nonsense in stride.