The Favourite is an … odd comedy

The Favourite is not for everyone. In a theater of roughly 12, at a New Year’s Eve matinee, three checked out early — two just as Emma Stone, playing Abigail, performed a blasé hand job on Joe Alwyn while brainstorming aloud how to get rid of her rival Rachel Weisz, playing Lady Sarah, to usurp her as Queen Anne’s “favourite.” It’s not a movie for weak stomachs nor for audiences seeking a cookie-cutter comedy or, inversely, a historical drama to take seriously. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It can mean it’s just something different. It’s filthy. It’s over the top. Ridiculous. Silly. Stone and Alwyn tangle in the woods in one of the few airier scenes to explain this silliness. Alwyn’s diving all over the place, like a linebacker, chasing Stone and whiffing. The times he’s able to take her down, Stone’s playfully rolling around with him in heaps of leaves one second and whipping him across the face with an open-faced right hand the next. It’s just total hysteria.

The problem in me reviewing one of Emma’s movies is I can never be wholly unbiased. That said, here, I believe, she’s genuinely charming and a real crack-up. In light of Lady Sarah dismissing Abigail as her maid, Stone whacks herself senseless with a book until she draws blood and then she’s whiny-baby crying, her legs spread and shoulders hunched over, on the floor outside of the Queen’s room. The two act more like the Queen’s whiny children (for which she has none but 17 rabbits) — Weisz the snooty elder sibling, Stone the cunning younger one — than her maids, confidants and other things. The queen, too, played by Olivia Coleman, is anything but stable. Coleman’s a whole lot of a fabulous mess, in one of those sticks-with-you performances stashed for when we’ll be talking about awards. It’s all a little sloppy and out there, at times displeasing, but there’s also something so satisfying about watching a couple independent women, scheming, treating each other like shit, shooting down birds for target practice, and stepping all over men in their path to getting where they want to go. Being “The Favourite,” is being in the queen’s ear whatever way you can. It’s being in charge.

The Favourite: ★★ 1/2

With Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins indeed Returns

Unlike Julie Andrews, whose career blasted into orbit from virtual unknown to Academy Award-winner with 1964’s Mary Poppins, this winter’s sequel, Mary Poppins Returns could not have been helmed by a nobody. It needed an actress with a spoonful of pre-earned status because its legendary main character, in the half-century since her big-screen debut, has achieved a reputation set in stone. Emily Blunt may well be the best actress for movie musicals that we have. But something more than her lengthy CV (that’s versatile, but includes Into the Woods of the same genre) and English accent made her seem the perfect suitor to play Mary Poppins — and it shows up in the movie. Blunt rekindles Poppins’ energy and charisma for an audience of a new generation. She’s modernized Poppins’ personality, in a way: baffled, she is, when asked about her weight, aghast at the utter assumption that she’s aged. But what’s special is that Blunt, in getting to portray Poppins, is enjoying herself. She’s having fun! Blunt has as much appreciation for the role as you or I and it shows. Poppins, ever bashful about it, certainly feels blessed by her magic, which is not lost on Blunt in her portrayal of her. Blunt is thrilled by it, in that, in one example, when the camera cuts to Poppins during a complicated dance number of the town’s lamplighters (including the universally-likable Lin Manuel Miranda), Blunt, behind the Poppins façade, looks up at the dancers on the lamp posts admiringly — amazed — almost as if thinking, “I can’t believe I’m a part of this,” or, “I’m so happy to be a part of this.”

Poppins’ presence and impact on the story, to no fault of Blunt’s, fades as the film approaches its end. She’s once again come to save papa Banks, though this time it’s Michael all grown up, widowed, with three kids. The magic is lesser then, and the story proves less impacting than the original. Grown-up Jane (Emily Mortimer) is tons of fun, but as I was just sitting through the film’s final musical number, I was wondering why it couldn’t be Mary’s — more over, wishing it was.

Mary Poppins Returns: ★★★

This Ralph is even funnier than the first

Vanellope, the firecracker gear head of the Wreck It Ralph franchise, is the only animated character Sarah Silverman lends her voice to on the big screen. That’s a big deal. That alone makes the recently-released sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, independently and imposingly entertaining. Silverman, who is not always everyone’s favorite person at the movies, is a uniquely-gifted voice actor in that hers is a defining voice. It’s 90 percent of what makes this Last Week Tonight with John Oliver skit such a knockout. Hers is a central feature, a pillar to the overall characterization, in defining who Vanellope is. Little Vanellope von Schweetz is largely that voice. You wouldn’t say the same for her co-star John C. Reilly, who plays Ralph. (It’s probably his size, his strength. In this movie, it’s also his heaping insecurity.) That this the animated film Silverman features in makes it singularly significant and delightful.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is better than its predecessor. It has more feeling. It has more fun. It has more laughs. Partly, this is because, like the RPGs Vanellope dreams of breaking into, it has fewer boundaries. In building the world for this movie inside of a wireless router, it’s making a commentary on the internet and its users that’s equally as nostalgic as it is self-deprecating. It turns out it’s fun to laugh at the way we use the internet (or, sometimes, the way the internet uses us), to see a search engine imagined as a antsy, suggestive librarian and eBay as aisles of independent auctions happening in a large convention center (and, moreover, to see the two main characters get so entertained by the thrill of virtual bidding that they start essentially bidding against themselves). Oh, and Disney princesses. It invents an entire virtual world where bitmojis of ourselves are zipping around in bubbles. The imagination is palpable. It’s vibrant and colorful. It’s boundless and extremely entertaining.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: ★★★ 1/2

At its best, Bohemian Rhapsody celebrates the music

One could say this Queen movie could’ve been made in the time it takes any other to be, had the Freddie Mercury movie not taken eight years. Bohemian Rhapsody is both things.

Given the mythic-like stature of the band’s legendary lead singer in popular culture, there was immense pressure not to get the casting of Mercury wrong — an inverse to the alternative (getting it right), purposely written here. On top of that, there was significant skepticism about telling the right story of him; after all, there were many parts to the icon. Mercury, who died of AIDS in 1991, is universally regarded as one of the greatest singers in the history of popular music; however, he was also the subject of intense media prying focused on his sexual orientation and rumored wild, if irresponsible, private life.

Originally, actor Sacha Baron Cohen was tabbed for the role and a different filmmaker was picked to direct, though neither lasted the course. Rumors put it that those two creatives had one idea about a darker, more risqué Mercury-centric biopic, which Bohemian Rhapsody still somewhat is, while band members Brian May and Roger Taylor and long-time manager Jim Beach, overseeing it as executive directors and rights holders, had broader visions of the film. Their version was Queen’s story, and it’s what this film ultimately becomes once Cohen and the first director were ousted. Sure, those who intimately knew Mercury* had emotional investment into how the story was framed, but it’s not as if they demanded Mercury’s private life (and its influence on him publicly) be ignored.

(*Makes you wonder if Mary Austin had any input or, if not, what she thought of the film.)

Bohemian Rhapsody follows Queen’s assent* all the way to Live Aid in 1985 — Mercury’s final live show, and his most renowned.

(*Outside of Mercury’s raging parties, it doesn’t very clearly illustrate how famous the band had become to someone who doesn’t already know.)

Mercury’s private life told therein is a bit cringeworthy. It’s comes off kind of as an alternative personality to the man and in moments of mistreating people and selfishness, it makes your teeth grind. It’s enough to capture the divisiveness of that side of him. I wouldn’t wish for a two-hour movie all about it, as it was originally written to be (or so it sounds like), because while it’s not enough to make you totally hate him, it’s enough to reasonably assess that he was not an easy person to be around. Even if that’s accurate, it’s not what I want out of the movie.

Always reeling the focus back into Queen and their music is what’s best for the film*, and that’s when it’s at its absolute best. This is a great concert movie, a must-see from inside the big, surround sound cineplexes in your town, the most entertained I’ve been at the theater in a while.

(*I now have a newly discovered appreciation for their hit, “Seven Seas of Rhye,” because of this movie. Specifically, the effect that happens at the 1:08 mark of the song.)

Possibly Cohen was too focused on portraying darker, private aspects of Mercury that it perturbed the observant producers, but not Rami Malek, who ended up with the role. With him, there’s an almost-scientific interest in stage performance — to portray that part of the singer that made him beloved. That, combined with reaching into Mercury’s emotional psyche, maybe earns Malek some award-season nominations later this year. It’d be warranted.

But no matter if it’s on stage or one of the many scenes inside the studio, Bohemian Rhapsody taps into Queen’s genius — Mercury’s keen ear to mix tracks, May inventing stadium anthems, Taylor’s high notes on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” bassist Joe Deacon fighting for “Another One Bites the Dust,” and much more.

The film presents the Live Aid gig almost in full and its brilliant. The sound reverberates within you, like you’re watching it live. If you go watch the real thing, this portrayal cares for every details, down to how Freddie interacts plays with the cameraman on stage. What it adds is little checks — over to Taylor, to May, to Deacon, to see them practically watching Mercury in awe while their muscle memory keeps the beat of what they’re supposed to be doing with their instrument. And at the end of the set, they go to the front of the stage to bow, knowing, in that moment, it’s probably the last time any of them will every do that with their lead singer, and that packs an emotional punch. But just being a witness to his greatness, to their greatness, is just what the doctor ordered. Don’t overthink it.

Bohemian Rhapsody: ★★★

For fans of franchise, latest Halloween is perfect

Set exclusively in the universe of Halloween (1978) comes the latest spin on the what-happened-next timeline to John Carpenter’s horror franchise. Of course titled Halloween, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s vision is at least an explicit contradiction to Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and potentially even Halloween II, the two other films in the franchise, before this one and after the first to feature Jamie Lee Curtis’ “Laurie Strode.” Here, 40 years later, Michael Myers is an old man* who has been locked up in Smith’s Grove since that first Halloween night, while Laurie Strode has devoted her life to building a fortress to capture and training herself to kill Michael if, and more likely when, he escapes. In keeping to the franchise’s traditional tropes, he does.

(*Quick math puts him at 61 years old.) 

Naturally, this installment has its modern influences from the current culture. Our obsession with true crime podcasts, procedurals and documentaries, for example, is what motivates two reporters to visit Smith’s Grove and Haddonfield in an attempt to tell the Myers-Strode story. That general cultural influence also seems to effect the movie in making it, maybe, not as scary — though that can be debated. It’s not clear whether Green and McBride intentionally made it so, or that our exposure to the other installments in the franchise, or even just that this Halloween is quite a bit funnier at times than I can remember others ever being, has dulled or redirected our senses.

Michael is a little different than before. He’s not the inhuman killing machine he was made out to be in other remakes, but I’m not a cardholding member of the group who thinks he should be. He’s unmasked for a much more significant amount of time in the movie and his knife feels less present at times, if even it’s the weapon he’s using at the time — this Michael is actually quite proficient in disfiguring the faces of his victims in several of his kills.

Regardless, it’s not at all disabling or disappointing. In fact, this version sticks to many of the traditions we love, which feeds to our thirst for it — not just in wanting to watch re-runs of the old ones but in our longing for fresh, modern versions.

Of course the look of Michael is a tradition bridging every installment of this franchise — the significance of his mask, the consistency of his attire (even how he attains it), his weapon of choice. But always worth a glowing commendation is how rewrites religiously stick to the same trope of an ending. This one, which I really* don’t want to say much of, seems to make a nod to Jamie Lloyd** while also casting doubt upon its own definitive ending with a classic shot of seemingly nothing from inside the place in which it happens.

(*Maybe later?)

(**Lloyd, despite that she would not exist in this universe’s timeline.) 

The continuity of those tropes is what makes this installment satisfying, but some of the modernism takes it from satisfying to uniquely entertaining, like that it’s, in fact, almost laugh-out-loud funny sometimes, or that while Laurie Strode is the playbill’s main character because we know her, it’s, I think, the characters of her daughter (played by Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) that are the film’s primary vehicles for action and, ultimately, the best parts of it, or that there’s a wicked twist and that that twist initiates the most immersive and tense scene in the movie.

It’s the right kind of spin to jump forward in the timeline of the original film. It isn’t drunk on the legend of Michael created by the success of the franchise, making him out to be something he’s not. It references the good that came before and adds on to make it feel like it belongs to right now.

Halloween: ★★★★, a.k.a. Gonna be Re-watching It Forever

Crazy Rich Asians gets sweeter on big screen

Reading the book before seeing the movie was a new pursuit for me, but with Crazy Rich Asians I really wanted to do it. So, on Saturday morning, with a little extra push from my wife, I sat down and read for about six straight hours, knocking out the remaining 250-ish pages* of Kevin Kwan’s first novel, through a Notre Dame football game and all, and then we bought our tickets to the 7 o’clock show.

(*Please don’t do an efficiency conversion on that.)

It was unlike any viewing experience I’ve had. I knew the characters,* I knew what happens to them in the end,** but I hadn’t ever had that perspective beforehand. So, when snippets of conversations from the book were placed in different scenes in the movie, it was, at first, strange, and then enlightening.

(*Astrid was my favorite from the book.)

(**It’s not as neatly tied up in the book as it was in the movie.)

This was a 500-page novel adapted into a two-hour movie. That much content doesn’t fit into that allotted time, so it’s important to invent new ways to relocate a factoid here or there in the story to bring the kind of perspective the audience can really only get a full understanding of by reading the book, like me. For example, the screenwriters had to create a scene in which Nick Young’s mother, Eleanor, directly revealed her deep-rooted disapproval for her son’s girlfriend, Rachel Chu, because it couldn’t have possibly had time to follow Eleanor through all of her investigative missions she takes in the book. This is also the reason why some characters like “Francesca Shaw” get dropped, while others like “Amanda Ling” take on some of that character’s contributions or why the novel’s fully-developed side story for Astrid gets trimmed up and changed in the movie. It’s also why two separate parties in the book get smashed into one for the movie. Frankly, I was fascinated by the filmmakers’ little maneuvers to bring this story to the big screen.

Nothing changed effected the story negatively. The two biggest differences, Astrid’s storyline and the movie’s ending, were positive, in my estimation. What the writers did with Astrid portrayed a stronger, independent person than the direction she was heading at the end of the book. And while I won’t say anything specific about the movie’s ending, I’ll say this: it created a few very sweet moments and brought some finality to the story. It was every bit the enjoyable romantic comedy I’d hoped it to be.

Constance Wu plays the lead character, Rachel Chu, very well, every bit the sweet, innocent girl from a reasonable American upbringing Rachel was in the books, but Constance also has the moxie to really bring it when the character is asked to play the game, so to speak, to give right back all the attitude she’s getting from all those jealous Singapore socialites and exude the kind of unwavering confidence that makes that Mahjong scene* a real zinger towards the end of the movie.

(*Not in the book. But, again, a great addition.)

There’s Henry Golding as the strapping boyfriend Nick, Sonoya Mizuno as super-bubbly bride-to-be Araminta, Jimmy O. Yang as batshit crazy-as-hell Bernard. They all play their characters well.

But above all others, it’s Awkwafina who steals every scene she’s in, and that’s hard with this many characters in play. But it’s, in fact, her character, Peik Lin, who gets the greatest innovation from book to movie. The movie makes her far funnier and more eccentric than she ever came across in the books. Much of her dialogue is certified fresh. The jokes that smashed in the theater aren’t in the book. They were significantly more topical, as if they were rewritten for 2018, when the novel released in 2013. I’d guess it was because of her comedic prowess, her pace that always arrived as a welcome shakeup to the otherwise cautiously-progressing, side-eyeing vibe, spare a few sequences like the bachelor and bachelorette parties, that the writers inserted her into more scenes. For example, she doesn’t drive Rachel to nor attend that first party in the book, but that night is more fun because of it. It’s the freedom of adaptation, after all. Here are two separate parties into one, why not bring our funnest character along for the ride. If anyone could sell the audience on the excitement of this extravagance Rachel was walking into, it was Awkwafina, selfie-ing her way up the stairs.

Crazy Rich Asians: ★★★, a.k.a. Happy customer

Anna Kendrick makes you feel things in Table 19

“I think it just means she’s a good actor,” my wife tells me; meanwhile, I grapple with how Anna Kendrick can make me feel so sad for her, in her movies, as if she were one of my dearest friends, whenever she flips the compassion-getting switch.

Yes, Anna Kendrick is a great actor, but put another in her role and does that replacement yield the same emotional pull? I think not. I think Table 19 needs her for this specific purpose, as if only she can play Eloise.* I think she’s had this effect on me for years, dating at least as far back as Drinking Buddies (2013), a film she transplanted a heart into, right at the end, because of her character’s sudden emotional break.

(*A great name for a character, by the way.) 

Table 19 is about that random table at your wedding where you seat all of the guests you invited but didn’t expect to come. Eloise is at that table, though how she ended up there is a far-fetched, fallen-from-grace story. Eloise went from maid of honor to rejects’ table all because she was dumped by the best man and then was replaced by that best man’s new girlfriend, whose relationship to the bride, even as I write this, is a cold case I can’t break. Eloise is seated with a circus of characters (played by Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, Tony Revolori, Stephen Merchant and June Squibb), each, like Eloise, has problems of their own they’re working through, the most fun of which is Merchant’s character, Walter, who has just gotten out of prison.

The group sticks together. They stir up a little trouble. They have a good time, very little of which is spent at the actual reception, which is either* the longest or shortest (and discombobulated)** reception of all time. It’s funny and entertaining overall. The only detracting problem with it is that it doesn’t settle into place on how it wants the audience to feel about the best man, Teddy. The filmmakers want you to hate his guts at first but be accepting of him later, and it just doesn’t work for me.

(*I really can’t decide, guys.)

(**Eloise brags a lot, early on, about planning 90 percent of the wedding. I got married two years ago. This wedding and reception wasn’t very well-planned.) 

Eloise is quite a bit conflicted about Teddy, though the audience is almost certain in thinking this is one of those stories when the sympathetic female lead meets someone new and amazing. It isn’t, but I don’t think that’s a surprise. If you look at roles Anna Kendrick has taken in What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012) and Drinking Buddies, there are similarities in the parts. She plays someone in love, whose been wronged, pushed away, or made to feel unwanted, but who can’t help wanting who she wants.* In all three parts, when Anna Kendrick’s climactic emotional break comes, she convinces the audience that these two people are really in love, they were just being dumb, they were meant to be together.

(*That’s so real to me.)

How does she get us there? It angers me to simplify it down to her being a good crier, but she is. Her high voice complements the visual. In Table 19, she screaming through her big, heartbreaking scene and you have a visceral reaction to it. She’s great in these moments. This movie, and the others, need that moment. Because, while a lot of silly stuff happens in the interim, the times comes when Anna Kendrick reaches out and pulls you into believing in a story about two messy millennials in love that you weren’t even sure was there. And then, suddenly, it’s all very real to you.

Table 19: Happy customer ★★★*

(*Writer’s note: I’m rating on a new rewatchability scale.)