The Favourite Review: Royal Court Drama Gets The Lobster Treatment

Armed with Lanthimos’ trademark weirdness and three great lead performances, The Favourite is a truly unique spin on the typical royal court drama.

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has been making sardonic, idiosyncratic, and otherwise, well, strange movies since the early 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2015’s dystopian “love story” The Lobster that he became a proper awards season contender. Lanthimos is back in the Oscar race this year with The Favourite, a film that takes a very awards season-friendly genre (the royal court drama) and gives it a decidedly Lanthimosian makeover, for lack of a better description. The movie has already been honored with the top prizes at events like the Venice International Film Festival and is poised to keep its winning streak going from here… and with fair reason. Armed with Lanthimos’ trademark weirdness and three great lead performances, The Favourite is a truly unique spin on the typical royal court drama.

The Favourite goes back in time to the early 18th century, where England is at war with France and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the throne. Anne, who is incredibly frail both physically and mentally, relies heavily on her confidant Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough, to essentially run the country and oversee the war effort, even as members of her court – namely, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer – attempt to undermine Sarah’s rulings. Enter Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin who lost her noble stature years ago due to her father’s gambling, and has made her way to Anne’s palace, in the hope of securing a position.

After some early stumbles, Abigail manages to impress Sarah and her standing (and living conditions) improve significantly for it. Abigail thereafter begins to make a bid to win the Queen’s favor, especially after she learns just how intimate Sarah and Anne’s relationship really is. However, this also puts her in direct conflict with Sarah’s interests – and when Sarah becomes wise to Abigail’s scheming, the pair find themselves in a fierce competition to become the Queen’s true favorite… one that definitely won’t end happily for the loser.

The Favourite cowriter Deborah Davis set to work on the film’s screenplay as far back as the late 1990s, before producer Ceci Dempsey (who also worked on The Lobster), screenwriter Tony McNarma (Ashby), and Lanthimos got involved. In its final movie form, the project makes for a fascinating combination of bleak (and occasionally downright bizarre) comedy and political satire, with its exploration of the intrigues and machinations of Queen Anne’s royal court. At the heart of all the madness is the love triangle between Anne, Sarah, and Abigail – a dynamic that’s equal parts funny, peculiar, and surprisingly touching in its own ways. Indeed, by examining their relationship under a microscope, The Favourite is able to offer a study of the politics of sex and love that thematically compliments Lanthimos’ work on The Lobster and its own observations about power dynamics and how twisted human relationships can seem, from a certain point of view.

Lanthimos’ films certainly tell their stories “from a certain point of view” and that comes through loud and clear in The Favourite. The movie is as beautifully off-kilter visually as it is narratively, thanks to the cinematography by DP Robbie Ryan (The Meyerowitz Stories) and its heavy use of unsettling fisheye lenses, dancing tracking shots, and equally skewed, yet stylish, wide-angle shot compositions. As a result, The Favourite simply looks as unhinged and quirky at it story feels, even when nothing particularly unusual is happening… which, to be fair, isn’t very often. Even if Lanthimos hadn’t shot the film in this fashion, The Favourite would still be gorgeous to look at, thanks to the exquisitely detailed sets and production design by Fiona Crombie (who did equally great work on 2015’s Macbeth retelling), and the evocative royal garbs by costume designer Sandy Powell (who, between this and Mary Poppins Returns, has really outdone herself this year alone). Still, the unconventional photography adds the right touch of curiosity to the proceedings.

Admittedly, though, The Favourite might have come off as all brains and style with no heart were it not for the terrific work by Colman, Weisz, and Stone. While the former two have collaborated with Lanthimos before (namely, on The Lobster), this film gives them a chance to shine in new ways as Anne and Sarah – characters who can go from petulant, vicious, and cruel to playful, sincere, and/or vulnerable within the blink of an eye – and the pair very much rise to the occasion. The same goes for Stone, who’s excelled at balancing comedy and drama before, but has never gotten to play a character who’s quite as darkly funny, guileful, and on the whole messy as Abigail. The Favourite is Colman, Weisz, and Stone’s show above all else, but Hoult still manages to leave his mark as the slippery Earl Harley; a character who would gladly stab you in the back, if he felt it served his purposes. The same goes for Joe Alwyn in his scenes as Samuel Masham, a member of Anne’s court who gets in way over his head when he decides to pursue Abigail.

Keeping all that in mind, though, it’s worth mentioning that (at the end of the day) The Favourite is very much a Lanthimos film is ways both good and, well, less so. As impressive as the movie’s craftsmanship and performances are, its director’s approach to storytelling and morose sense of humor aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea – and because his methods serve The Favourite quite well as a whole, it makes the moments where his approach doesn’t work stand out all the more, by comparison. This film is arguably one of Lanthimos’ more accessible offerings to date (certainly more so than, say, last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer), but it’s also in keeping with his previous efforts behind the camera and may leave some moviegoers feeling understandably cold and frustrated for it (even those who are fascinated by the story at the heart of the film). For these reasons, it’s difficult to recommend The Favourite to everyone, without some caveats.

Those who loved Lanthimos’ previous films, on the other hand, will definitely want to give The Favourite a look in theaters (no asterisks necessary), as will those who want to keep up with year’s awards season frontrunners. Likewise, those who have been waiting for an Oscar-friendly period piece that really puts its leading ladies at the forefront – and/or isn’t afraid of messing with the genre’s formula in weird and comically off-putting ways – may find what they’ve been searching for here. Either way you cut it, The Favourite really is unlike anything else that’s playing in theaters right now (or will be arriving before 2018 draws to a close).

TRAILER

The Favourite is now playing in select U.S. theaters and will expand to additional markets over the forthcoming weeks. It is 121 minutes long and is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!



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2018-12-03 03:12:08

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Review: A Dark, Visually Stunning Adaptation

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a darker adaptation of Kipling’s stories, with stunning visual feats from director Andy Serkis and an impactful story.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book – a collection of stories published in 1894 about the animals that inhabit a jungle in India – has become the basis for many adaptations over the years. Perhaps the most famous is Disney’s animated The Jungle Book released in 1967. More recently, the studio reimagined its own animated movie to live-action. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book blended live-action elements with CGI, hitting theaters in 2016 and becoming a critical and box office hit. At the same time Disney was producing their live-action Jungle Book, motion capture visionary Andy Serkis was working on his own adaptation of the original stories, titled Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. This other Jungle Book adaptation is heading to Netflix more than a year and a half after Disney’s own movie hit theaters. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a darker adaptation of Kipling’s stories, with stunning visual feats from director Andy Serkis and an impactful story.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle follows the young man-cub Mowgli (Rohan Chand) who was raised by wolves and protected by the pack from the vicious tiger, Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), that killed Mowgli’s parents when he was a baby. Though Nisha (Naomie Harris) made sure to raise Mowgli as another one of her wolf children, he’s aware that he’s unlike his brothers. With the help of the panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and the bear Baloo (Andy Serkis), Mowgli trains for the running, a rite of passage in which the young wolves run from Bagheera and must avoid being caught before being officially accepted into the pack. All Mowgli wants is to prove himself to the wolves and become a part of the pack.

However, with the wolf pack’s leader Akela (Peter Mullan) growing older, Shere Khan senses weakness and begins killing the cattle of the local man village in order to sow discord among the pack and the jungle at large. Bagheera fears for Mowgli, who is no longer safe within the jungle where he was raised. Still, Mowgli struggles with his identity, having been raised as a wolf but knowing in his heart he is a man. After seeking out answers about his future from the ancient python known as Kaa (Cate Blanchett), Mowgli eventually ventures into the man village, where he’s taken in by the hunter John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), who’s come to the jungle to kill Shere Khan. Ultimately, though, it’s unclear if Mowgli will be able to become the bridge between the jungle and the world of man, allowing the two disparate worlds to live alongside each other peacefully.

Serkis directed Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle – his second feature-length directing credit following 2017’s Breathe – from a script written by newcomer Callie Kloves, the daughter of Harry Potter movie scribe Steve Kloves. Serkis is perhaps more well known for his motion capture performances in The Lord of the Rings films and the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy. To be sure, he puts those motion capture skills to work in Mowgli, which features a great deal of impressive CGI in order to bring the animals of the jungle to life. Because Serkis is so well-versed in motion capture technology, it’s clear he thoughtfully directed the movie to both showcase and push the limits of the technology used in Mowgli. The result is somewhat of a mixed bag, with outstanding moments of masterful CGI (a scene starring many of the animals that takes place in the rain comes to mind in particular), but there are also weaker moments – such as some especially clunky CGI humans at one point early on. For the most part, though, the CGI and motion capture blends almost seamlessly in with the live-action elements.

Further helping to bring the animals of the jungle to life are the actors behind Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa and Shere Khan. Mowgli enlisted an all-star cast to lend their talents to these characters, and they undoubtedly help these creatures nearly jump off the screen with their realness. But, perhaps what’s especially compelling about the voice acting in Mowgli may not even be the performances of Bale, Serkis, Blanchett and Cumberbatch. Mowgli manages to animalize the voices of these performers – giving Cumberbatch a menacing growl as Shere Khan, Bale a near-purring lilt when Bagheera is relaxed, Blanchett a hissing undertone as Kaa and Serkis a deep rumbling as Baloo. It’s unclear how much of the animalizing of the voices was done during the actors’ performances and how much was added in post-production, but the result is a cast of animal characters that truly sound like animals – rather than very human actors lending their voices to CGI creatures. It’s a subtle audio touch that adds to the immersive feel of Mowgli.

But, of course, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle ultimately rests on the shoulders of the actor in the titular role: Chand. The young actor is a strong lead for Serkis’ movie, portraying the conflicted Mowgli in an especially compelling manner. Legend of the Jungle also dives much deeper into Mowgli’s character than other adaptations of The Jungle Book, not shying away from the darker aspects of the young boy being raised among the wolves. In this film, Mowgli has a coming-of-age storyline in which he must learn his place in both the jungle and the world of man; a storyline paralleled by that of the young albino wolf cub Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis). Chand bears the heavy load of leading the live-action cast in Mowgli well, helping to ground the CGI elements and taking viewers through the titular character’s journey with a compelling performance.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle still struggles somewhat in adapting the stories of Kipling’s The Jungle Book into a cohesive storyline, feeling a little disjointed at times, like the filmmakers didn’t know how to transition from one plot beat to the next. That said, Kloves’ script is perhaps the most linear adaptation of The Jungle Book, providing a clear throughline of Mowgli’s coming-of-age tale and how it intersects with the jungle creatures. Further, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the jungle and the titular character himself, depicting the young boy as a true son of nature – nature that can be brutal at times. There are times when that brutality, both of the jungle and of man, is taken a little far, but those moments are neither without realism nor emotional weight that serves the larger story. Altogether, the movie is a compelling adaptation of Kipling’s stories that maintains the themes of man versus nature and finding your place in the world.

Ultimately, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle does manage to set itself apart from previous Jungle Book adaptations through its darker story and the visual mastery in its CGI animals. It’s perhaps a little too scary from younger viewers (one particular sequence showcasing the brutality of man is especially horrifying, though not violent), but is undoubtedly worth checking out for viewers interested in the story or the work of Serkis. Mowgli may additionally benefit from its Netflix release (and limited theatrical release) because, though it’s different enough from Favreau’s movie to add something to the story, it still may not be quite worth a second trip to the theater in two years for a Jungle Book adaptation. The CGI and motion capture work certainly makes Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle worth seeing on a big screen – but a big TV screen will do just as well as a theater screen, in this case.

Trailer

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is now playing in select theaters and launches globally on Netflix Friday, December 7. It is 104 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence including bloody images, and some thematic elements.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!



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