Directed by: Josie Rourke
Written by: Beau Willimon
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce
Released: January 17, 2019
Grade: C+

Mary Queen of Scots

The idea of female leadership and empowerment will be seen, by some at least, as a movement that has taken shape over the past few decades.  Margaret Thatcher became the first British Prime Minister in 1979.  Julia Gillard achieved the same honour here in Australia in 2010.  In the United States, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981 and Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State in 1997.  There are many more examples I could list.

Mary Queen of Scots takes us back to an oft forgotten time in the 16th Century when two women were arguably the most powerful people in the United Kingdom (as it is known today).  At the age of just 25, Queen Elizabeth I (Robbie) ascended to the thrones of England and Ireland in 1558 following the death of her half-sister.  Three years later, 18-year-old Mary I (Ronan) returned from France to take up her rightful pace as Queen of Scotland.  The pair were actually first cousins once removed.

Josie Rourke’s film tries to balance up the respective storylines of these two famed characters but as the title suggests, it’s skewed towards the narrative of Mary.  That makes it the opposite of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the 2007 release from director Shekhar Kapur which starred Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Samantha Morton as Mary.  Kapur’s film is superior if you’re looking to know more about this fascinating piece of British history.

Mary Queen of Scots feels like two hours of pointless power games.  Mary has her eyes on the English crown but Elizabeth is quick to rouse her supporters and prevent an uprising.  The film’s problem is that we don’t know what either side is about, aside from differing religious views, and so it’s hard to work out who to cheer for.  They both come across as power-hungry zealots (particularly Mary) who care very little about the people around them and the broader population.  It’s villain versus villain and therefore, I was struggled to invest in their fate.

A tricky part to the real-life story is the fact that while Elizabeth and Mary exchanged numerous letters, they never met face-to-face.  Borrowing from the technique used effectively by Michael Mann in Heat, screenwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards) tries to builds early tension and then brings the two lead characters together for a pivotal, albeit fictional, scene.  It doesn’t work.  It’s an anti-climactic moment that becomes borderline laughable as the stumble around using the protection of see-through curtains.

It’s not all bad news.  The film does a commendable job exploring the challenges of being a female monarch in a male-dominated era.  Both Elizabeth and Mary have qualms about their not-so-loyal advisers and it’s apparent that many want to use the queens as their puppets as opposed to their leaders.  Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird, Brooklyn) also deserves praise for her performance as the strong-willed yet flawed Mary.  It’s hard to be too enamoured with Margot Robbie’s (I, Tonya) performance given her character goes missing after the opening act.

If you’re looking to see a great period piece about power games and British royalty… The Favourite is still in Australian cinemas.

Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Written by: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kit Harrington, T.J. Miller, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, F. Murray Abraham
Released: January 3, 2019
Grade: B+

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

It’s been a strong, successful run for the How to Train Your Dragon franchise.  Both the original and follow-up sequel earned Academy Award nominations for best animated feature – a feat only matched by Shrek and Kung Fu Panda since the category was created back in 2001.  Money talks too.  The two films pulled in a combined $1.1 billion USD at the world-wide box-office which all but guaranteed another sequel.

As a quick recap, the first How to Train Your Dragon, released in 2010, was the tale of a young boy who captured and then assisted a cheeky young dragon named ‘Toothless’.  He was able to prove to his father and other Viking elders that dragons were their friends as opposed to their enemies.  The 2014 sequel took a more action-packed approach as the Vikings and dragons defended their home against the exploits of a sinister dragon hunter.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World begins with a discussion topic that has been doing the rounds, rightly or wrongly, in Australian politics – overpopulation.  The colourful city of Berk has become the “world’s first dragon-Viking utopia” but there’s a limited amount of space and questions are being asked about its long-term sustainability.  There’s an old mariner’s myth about a hidden world where dragons originated and so our illustrious hero, Hiccup (Baruchel), flips through a few maps and goes in search of its location.  The end goal is to find somewhere for the dragons to live in peace without the risk of further attacks.

A villain is required and this is where Grimmel the Grisly (Abraham) enters the picture.  His view of the world is that humans are the dominant species and all other creatures are superfluous.  He hunts dragons purely for the sport and across his lifetime, he and his henchmen have killed many winged creatures.  Hiccup is warned that Grimmel is not to be underestimated and that’s especially so given that Toothless is his latest target.

The Hidden World is a little too chaotic in places but there’s more than enough heart and sentimentality, particularly during the finale, to win over audiences.  It finds the right balance between action and story.  There are also a few good laughs highlighted by a great scene involving the chatty, over-stimulated Ruffnut in a jail cell (hilariously played by Kristen Wiig).  If there’s a weakness, it’s with the bad guy.  Grimmel is a one-dimensional, stereotypical villain who keeps gaining the upper hand and throwing it away for silly reasons. 

The franchise is starting to show signs of repetition and perhaps that’s part of the reason why The Hidden World has been marketed as the final instalment.  Kids will enjoy another chance to see these fun characters and it provides a nice culmination to the series but for me, the original How to Train Your Dragon remains the best.

You can read by interview with star Jay Baruchel by clicking here.

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring: Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss
Released: December 26, 2018
Grade: A

The Favourite
If you’ve seen a movie from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, you’re likely to have remembered it.  Dogtooth was the tale of two parents who had raised their children in a locked compound and kept them “safe” from the outside world.  The Lobster was set in a dystopian world where adults who don’t fall in love are turned into the animal of their choosing.  The Killing of a Sacred Deer was about a surgeon stalked by a creepy teenager.  My simple plot descriptions mask the dark, complex undertones that will shock and surprise first-time viewers.

The Favourite marks a departure for Lanthimos in that it’s the first time he hasn’t directed his own screenplay.  That credit belongs to two writers who never actually worked together.  British historian Deborah Davis came up with a first draft back in 1998 after attending night school classes to help learn the art of screenwriting.  When Lanthimos became attacked to the project in 2010, he gave the script to Australian Tony McNamara (The Rage in Placid Lake) and asked him to transform it into a “different kind of period movie”.  Based on the offbeat tone, sexual references, and number of “c-bombs”, it’s clear that McNamara has delivered on that vision.

There’s a lot to admire about The Favourite but the most riveting element is the interplay between the three leading characters.  Set in 1708, Queen Anne (Coleman) sits on the British throne and lays down the laws of the land.  She’s such a multifaceted person.  Anne is an incompetent leader with a short attention span, deteriorating health, and a limited knowledge of world issues.  She’s not naïve though.  She relishes her control and takes great delight in wielding it.  On one hand, she can humorously hurl insults without ramification but on the other hand, she can show a softer side and use her authority to shape her country for the better.

For many years, Anne has been guided by the words and wisdom of Sarah Churchill (Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough.  She’s also a fascinating character in that you’re never quite sure how much she’s driven by love and how much she’s driven by power.  There’s a key subplot involving a respected politician (Hoult) who seeks an appointment with the Queen to protest proposed tax hikes.  Sarah prevents the meeting from taking place but is her rationale to protect the insecure, vulnerable Queen or because she is more interested in pushing her own political agenda?

Sarah’s comfortable spot inside the Queen’s household is upended by the arrival of Abigail Hill (Stone), her young, poor cousin who seeks employment.  The book smart Abigail starts out as a lowly scullery maid but it’s not long before she’s using a few tricks and a few fingers to gain the Queen’s attention and trust.  What follows is a dangerous game with both Sarah and Abigail tossing their morals aside (assuming they had them in the first place) in pursuit of the power and status that comes with being Queen Anne’s “favourite”.

Based on actual events, The Favourite is a rich, dark comedy filled with great one-liners and unexpected twists.  From the Queen’s bipolar nature to Sarah’s tell-it-like-it-is persona (“you look like a badger”), there’s so much room for humour.  The eyebrow-raising sex scenes only add to the laughs as exemplified by a bedroom scene involving Abigail and her new husband (Alwyn).  It’s very much the opposite of a Jane Austen period piece.

Lanthimos adds further spice to the material by using a mix of classical and modern-day composers to create an unsettling, violin-laden music score.  Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake) also impresses with the use of unconventional camera movements and wide lenses.  All of that said, it’s the performances that are likely to resonate most strongly with audiences.  Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are at their very best and all three are on track to earn Academy Award nominations next month.  Deservedly so.

You can read by interview with Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara by clicking here.

Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep
Released: January 1, 2019
Grade: A-

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins was a stunning success both critically and financially.  It was the third highest grossing film of 1964 in the United States (behind My Fair Lady and Goldfinger) and it won 5 Academy Awards including best actress for star Julie Andrews.  It’s taken more than 54 years but we finally have a second instalment for those wanting more from this famed character.  In terms of a live action movie, that’s the longest ever gap between an original and sequel (excluding direct-to-DVD stuff) in the history of cinema.

The reasons for the delay have been well documented.  The author of the books, P.L. Travers, was one of the rare few who detested the original Mary Poppins.  This was humorously explored in the 2013 comedy Saving Mr. Banks which starred Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.  Travers had been approached many times about a sequel but she refused to give up the rights unless she had full creative control over the story, settings and characters – a concession that Walt Disney Studios wasn’t prepared to give.

Travers passed away in 1999 and the copyright of Mary Poppins was vested in her estate.  Its trustees were a little more receptive to the idea of a sequel and Oscar-nominated director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) was able to make a successful pitch.  His idea was to tap into the storylines of other Mary Poppins books that Travers had written (there were 8 in total between 1934 and 1988) and come up with a script that retains the essence of her writing and the soul of her characters.

Mary Poppins Returns is set roughly 25 years after the original and the two Banks children have grown up.  Michael (Whishaw) is a widowed father of three who is struggling to make ends meet and his sister, Jane (Mortimer), is doing her best to help.  When a greedy, sinister bank manager (Firth) demands their house be repossessed to pay an outstanding debt, the family have less than a week to locate a missing bank share certificate which they can use as collateral.

The time has come for Mary Poppins (Blunt) to make an appearance and just as she did in the earlier movie, she gracefully floats down with the help of a talking umbrella.  She takes Michael’s three kids on a few magical adventures while he has time to search for the share certificate.  Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical Hairspray, provide the light, easy-to-follow soundtrack.

I can see why some have been critical of this follow-up but I was lured in by the songs and its nostalgic feel.  Mary Poppins was one of my favourite movies growing up and it’s nice to see a family-oriented musical in cinemas once again.  They don’t come along very often these days.  From the creativity of “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” sequence to the craziness of the “Turning Turtle” cameo with Meryl Streep, there are a lot of memorable moments.  My mouth was sore from smiling so much.

There’s not a lot of nuance to the character but Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) is still wonderfully good in the title role.  Mary Poppins is 100% in control of every situation and it’s so much fun to watch her confuse the children with riddles and lure adults under her spell.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creative vision behind the successful musical Hamilton, also charms as a young lamplighter with his thick cockney accent.  There’s no sign of Julie Andrews (she didn’t want to detract from Blunt) but Dick Van Dyke makes a well-timed appearance by reprising a character he created back in 1964.

Making the most of 21st century technology when it comes to special effects and cinematography, Rob Marshall hasn’t improved on the original but he’s created something worthy to sit alongside.

Directed by: Bob Persichetii, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber, Brian Tyree Henry
Released: December 13, 2018
Grade: A-

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
He’s one of the most popular superheroes to be created by Marvel and over the past 16 years, we’ve had 6 films dedicated to the adventures of Spider-Man with 3 different actors stepping into his skin-tight suit – Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland.  If you think that’s heavy, wait until you see what’s in store over the next few years.

For starters, we haven’t seen the last of Tom Holland who rebooted the franchise in 2017 with Spider-Man: Homecoming.  We’ll see him again in 2019 with Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home and there’s likely to be more given Holland is contracted to make six Marvel Universe movies in total.  It’s also possible that we’ll see the character (with a different actor) appear in Sony’s new superhero universe which kicked off profitably back in October with the release of Venom.

If that’s not enough, we now have a new animated flick that features not just one but rather, several iterations of Spider-Man!  The villainous Kingpin (Schreiber) has opened up a portal into other dimensions which feature alternate versions of Spider-Man.  They all end up in the same location and it’s a recipe for laughs and creativity.  Just went you think you’ve seen it all within the genre, along comes a movie with six different Spider “men” trying to save the world.  I don’t want to give too much away but the animation team have done a sensational job in giving each character a distinct look and feel.

Someone needs to take the lead and that responsibility falls upon Miles Morales (Moore), a New York City based teenager who takes on superhero qualities after being bitten by a spider (his reaction wins big laughs).  The character will be new to some cinemagoers but he’s been appearing in comic books since 2011 and has featured in the Ultimate Spider-Man animated television series.  Miles is also a step in the right direction in terms of diverse role models given his father his African American and is mother is Puerto Rican.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the funniest superhero movies that we’ve seen over the past decades.  It feels like it’s tapping into the success of Deadpool in that it’s very self-aware and broadly mocks the genre.  It makes references to past Spider-Man productions and even the old TV theme from the 1960s gets a run.  Another cute touch are the words that flash up on screen as characters get hit (again, another fun homage).  The fact that it’s an animated movie, which we don’t often see within this genre, has allowed the writers and directors to push boundaries in terms of visuals and originality.

There’s an added poignancy to the film in that it marks the first Marvel themed flick to be released following the death of Stan Lee who passed away last month at the ripe old age of 95.  This is recognised during the closing credits but more importantly, there’s another great Stan Lee cameo part way through the movie that audiences will enjoy.  If you’re paying really close attention, you’ll spot Lee in the background of several shots – a fitting Easter egg provided by the three-man directing team.

Likely to earn an Oscar nomination for best animated feature (it already has a Golden Globe nod), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes chances and is rewarded in a big way.

Directed by: Adam McKay
Written by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill
Released: December 26, 2018
Grade: B+

Surveys vary but the general consensus is that Americans have grown increasingly distrustful of politicians and sceptical of the political process over the past few decades.  The same can be said of many other countries around the world including here in Australia.  Many factors are to blame but if you’re looking to point the finger at one group in particular, politicians have done themselves no favours.  Too many are driven by self-interest as opposed to doing what is best for society as a whole.

Vice is a damning portrayal of Dick Cheney (Bale), the man who served as U.S. Vice President from 2000 to 2008.  It’s almost too hard to believe.  It would have us think he used President George W. Bush like a puppet, had unlimited power thanks to the help of crafty lawyers, and it all began thanks to some inspiring words from his wife, Lynne (Adams).  He’d give a few Bond villains a run for their money.

So how much is true, how much is embellished, and how much is creative fiction?  We’ll never know for sure.  A humorous opening scene suggests it was hard to put together a complete picture of Cheney given he was one of the “most secretive leaders in history” (although that trait doesn’t come through during the movie as he interacts with a LOT of people).  The film, in my subjective opinion, does over-state Cheney’s influence in places but on the whole, its broad themes about the manipulation and corruption that exist within political circles are accurate.

There’s no arguing that, despite a myriad of health issues, Cheney has lived a long, successful and interesting life.  His career took shape in the late 1960s when he landed a job in the office of Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Carell) and was given three tips – keep your mouth shut, do as your told, and be loyal.  He followed those instructions and by 1975, he’d become the youngest person in history to be appointed White House Chief of Staff (at the age of just 34).  That was only the beginning.

Writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) has struggled with the breadth of material on Cheney.  There’s a 2-minute subplot which strongly implies Lynne’s mother was murdered by her father.  There’s another quick sequence where Cheney shoots a Texas attorney while out hunting.  These are serious moments which could be a movie in their own right but McKay doesn’t have time to explore the truth or characters’ motivations.  Before these events have had a chance to soak in, we’ve raced onto something else.

The final third of movie, which focuses on Cheney’s time as Vice President, is the strongest part and it’s likely to generate the biggest audience reaction.  We see Cheney’s views on topics such as tax reform, privacy and torture and the way he was able to sell his ideas to the American people through the use of secret focus groups.  Most shocking is the lead up to the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

Christian Bale (The Fighter) delivers another career-defining performance in the lead role.  It’s one thing to mimic Cheney’s speech and mannerisms but Bale goes much further in creating an intriguing anti-hero.  Amy Adams (Arrival) goes missing during the film’s second half but she’s just as good as Cheney’s passionately loyal wife.  Both are in line for Academy Award nominations next month.  I was less impressed with Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell who come across as over-the-top caricatures as opposed to nuanced, real-life people.

McKay has stuck with the same directorial style that worked successfully for The Big Short.  The film breaks through the fourth wall (thanks to a curious narrator), there’s a bunch of Hollywood cameos (the Alfred Molina one works best), and there’s plenty of offbeat comedy (such as a mid-film credits sequence) to make sure the material doesn’t get too heavy.  He’s taking the subject matter of politics, which people tend to avoid in movie theatres, and getting his message across by making it simple and sexy.  It’s not a bad approach.

Vice won’t please everyone but it’ll entertain its fair share.