Mary, Queen of Scots

December 17, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden
Directed by: Josie Rourke (debut)
Written by: Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”)

Like “The Favourite,” “Mary, Queen of Scots” features its own interesting archrivalry between two women scheming for a monarchical power grab. As a historical biography, “MQOS” is much more conventional than Yorgos Lanthimos’ aforementioned film, but its sprawling storytelling about women in authoritative positions gives the picture its own sense of 16th-century political wokeness, which is notable in any era.

Helmed by first-time feature film director Josie Rourke, whose background is largely in theater, “MQOS” tells the story of Mary Stuart (three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) who arrives in Scotland to reclaim her throne after the death of her husband, the King of France. She is met with masked contempt by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Oscar nominee Margot Robbie), who rules over both England and Scotland and isn’t about to relinquish authority to anyone.

Political maneuvering involving Mary and Elizabeth begins as they attempt to decipher what angle the other is playing to get what she wants. With her sovereignty in jeopardy, Elizabeth pushes back when she sees her cousin gain standing, especially since Mary is able to give birth to an heir and Elizabeth is not. The dynamic is a fiery one, even though Ronan and Robbie don’t share the screen until the film’s final act.

There is a lot of history to unpack in “MQOS” and these details are being questioned by historians. Some argue the queens were never on friendly terms, as depicted in the film. Others point out that Mary didn’t have an Irish accent like Ronan’s natural one. And the meeting the rulers have at the climax of the film? It never happened, although it does make for compelling theater.

It’s easier for a period piece like “The Favourite” to call itself a farce and get away with taking more creative license. For “MQOS,” there seems to be less leeway for purists who had problems in the past with films like 1971’s “Mary, Queen of Scots” or 2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” If you can overlook some of the historical inaccuracies and the occasionally sluggish narrative, “MQOS” has a lot to say about the rise of women in a male-dominated world.

The Seagull

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Annette Bening
Directed by: Michael Mayer (“Flicka”)
Written by: Stephen Karam (“Speech & Debate”)

During her decade-long career, three-time Academy Award nominated actress Saoirse Ronan has been a champion of independent cinema. While some of those films have reached incredible heights like “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Ronan has hit a small rough patch with her last two less-than-stellar outings – “On Chesil Beach” and her most recent, “The Seagull.”

Adapted from a late 19th-century play of the same name by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “The Seagull” is a narrative that is probably fine as a stage production, but when put on film feels inelegant and amateurish. Many of the film’s problems lie at the feet of director Michael Mayer (“Flicka”), whose career successes have come mostly from his work on Broadway, where he won a Tony Award for the musical adaptation of 2006’s “Spring Awakening.” Sadly, Mayer is unable to create much of a pace or focus during what is, thankfully, a fleeting 98-minute stopover with a cast of particularly grating characters.

Set in a country estate not far from Moscow, the film stars Ronan as Nina, a love-struck young woman who lives nearby and comes for frequent visits to see Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright who views the modern theater as “trite and riddled with clichés.” He lives there with his uncle Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and the estate’s manager Ilya (Glenn Fleshler), his unhappy wife Polina (Mare Winningham) and their even unhappier, vodka-drinking daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who is also in love with Konstantin.

Family dynamics are thrown into disarray when Sorin’s sister and Konstantin’s mother Irina (Annette Bening), an aging stage actress, comes for a visit after learning that Sorin has fallen ill. In tow with Irina is her lover Boris (Corey Stoll), a celebrated writer Konstantin grows jealous of, and who begins to get closer to the impressionable Nina as she hurls compliments his way.

If all those elements sound like a classic setup for a melodramatic tragicomedy — where all the characters mope around wishing that somebody who didn’t love them loved them and complaining about the misfortune of making art — then “The Seagull” has found its audience. For others, “The Seagull” is a pity party that can’t be salvaged by the couple of scenes where Bening’s Irina, who is disappointed in her son for wasting his time making pretentious plays, is able to really show off her character’s cruel and critical nature.

Aside from Bening — and a few of Masha’s one-liners (“I’m in mourning, for my life,” she says when asked why she always wears black) — there’s not much that makes “The Seagull” notable. It’s a film about tiresome characters telling tiresome stories. Everything else is lost between all the pouting.

On Chesil Beach

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson
Directed by: Dominic Cooke (debut)
Written by: Ian McEwan (“The Innocent”)

A fledgling marriage comes to a major crossroad before it begins in “On Chesil Beach,” a period drama adapted by English author/screenwriter Ian McEwan (“The Innocent”) from his bestselling 2007 novel of the same name.

Set in 1962 England, “On Chesil Beach” introduces Florence (three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), newlyweds who decide to spend their wedding night in a hotel on the seashore. Florence and Edward come from different backgrounds and don’t share the same interests. Edward likes American rock ’n’ roll while Florence prefers classical music. He enjoys history and birdwatching while her only extracurricular activity is playing the violin in a string ensemble.

“I think you must be the squarest person in all of Western civilization,” Edward tells his wife after she describes Chuck Berry as “bouncy.” But her taste in music isn’t going to be their undoing. It’s impossible to talk about “On Chesil Beach” without revealing exactly why Florence and Edward are such a bad fit. So, we’ll just say it: Florence is revolted by sex and has no desire to ever consummate their marriage, a small detail Edward probably would’ve liked to have known before they tied the knot.

It becomes apparent in the first half of the film that McEwan’s critically acclaimed novel has translation issues on the silver screen. The most evident is the time spent on the awkward scenes inside the hotel room where Florence and Edward fumble with zippers and avoid intimacy by nervously bantering back and forth. It’s easy to see how these details could be read as emotionally tragic, but seeing it play out cinematically feels disconnected.

Also weak are the numerous flashbacks in the screenplay that McEwan and first-time director Dominic Cooke attempt to use to mold the two leads into realistic characters who would resonate with audiences. Besides an ambiguous scene where it’s hinted that Florence might have been sexually abused as a child, not much from these nonlinear sections of the film give any insight into who these individuals are. Even a secondary storyline about Edward’s mentally ill mother forces the narrative into melodramatic pitfalls.

Ronan’s and Howle’s onscreen chemistry, too, is nonexistent. Even when they’re not acting like the most pitiful virgins in movie history since Jason Biggs humped pastry in “American Pie,” the characters are stunted. Without the same authority that filmmaker Todd Haynes used to confront issues of sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s in his films “Far from Heaven” and “Carol,” Cooke’s “On Chesil Beach” is a missed opportunity to add to that conversation.

Lady Bird

November 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts
Directed by: Gerta Gerwig (debut)
Written by: Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”)

It may not push past all the tropes of coming-of-age films that came before it, but “Lady Bird,” the directorial debut of indie-darling actress Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”), is a wonderful testament on how not everything has to be exceptionally groundbreaking to be an intelligent and insightful contribution to a subgenre. With “Lady Bird,” Gerwig has created a tender, engaging and clever script that any first-time filmmaker would love to claim as his or her introduction to the cinematic world from behind the camera. Gerwig has a distinctive voice – although there are hints of directors like Noam Baumbach, Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers sprinkled into it – that should be interesting to watch as she grows into her own.

In “Lady Bird,” two-time Academy Award nominated actress Saoirse Ronan stars as the title character, a teenager living unhappily in Sacramento with her sympathetic father (Tracy Letts) and overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf) and attending a Catholic high school with her best friend Jules (Beanie Feldstein). As a somewhat autobiographical take on her own life, Gerwig maneuvers through the narrative with compassion and humor as Lady Bird plans her escape from her hometown and hopes to attend college in New York City, although her grades are mediocre and her family can only afford community college.

Lady Bird’s teenage angst takes over most of the picture, but Gerwig doesn’t allow her main character to ever become unlikeable. Sure, she’s a bit of a spoiled brat with her mom, but her overall personality makes up for it and audiences are able to root for her as she tries to “find herself” and find a way out. The film mostly hinges on the tempestuous relationship between Lady Bird and her mother. The multifaceted dynamic between the two is deep, and Ronan and Metcalf are sharp when they share the screen.

While the storytelling is fairly ordinary, there is life behind the universal themes Gerwig explores with her own sense of satisfaction, frustration and wide-eyed wonderment. This definitely feels like a “first film,” but not all first films feel this rich with potential.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

If filmmaker Wes Anderson simply isn’t your quirky cup of tea – the handmade look and feel of his sets, the subtle and oftentimes dry humor, the eccentric overall nature of his characters – not much is going to change your mind with his latest opus, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” For fans of his authentic and whimsical work who really don’t understand what everyone else is missing, a trip with Anderson to the fictional Republic of Zubrowka (because in Anderson’s world Hungary would be just too square) is like an inclusive tour of his 10-year-long career. From his 1994 film “Bottle Rocket” to his prior art-house success, 2012’s Oscar-nominated “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson seems to have taken elements from his past work to fashion together another satisfying creation. It doesn’t top some personal favorites (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), but even Anderson’s middle-of-the-road entries should never be described as such.

In “Grand Budapest,” Anderson uses an assortment of flashbacks cutting from the 1980s to the 60s and again to the 30s to tell the story of how Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s aging owner, came to take possession of his fine establishment after working as a lobby boy there decades ago. Under the tutelage of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes in a role unlike anything he’s ever done), a faithful concierge employed during the hotel’s glory days in the 30s, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) gets mixed up in family affair when Madame D (Tilda Swinton), one of the wealthy female hotel guests Gustave takes special care of (wink), dies and bequeaths to him a priceless painting much to the chagrin of her extremely serious family (Adrien Brody plays her irate son). When Gustave is accused of actually murdering Madame D, he and Zero set out on a mission to prove his innocence, which includes evading an evil assassin (Willem Dafoe) and the local police (Edward Norton plays Inspector Henckles). It also features an outrageous jail break that could only be invented in Anderson’s head.

As silly as Anderson’s past films are, “Grand Budapest,” with its crime-caper narrative, feels even more madcap than, say, a group of stop-motion mammals digging underground escape tunnels in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The “Keystone Cops”- atmosphere, however, isn’t a bad thing to see in an Anderson film. If anything, it keeps the story moving swiftly and on edge. So, along with the pastel-colored designs, the dollhouse appearance, and detailed imagery, Anderson packs his film with kooky chases and vaudevillian-esque comedy.

Finding some of his vision from the work of German American director Ernst Lubitsch, Anderson can take the most random film references and styles and build on them to mold his own cinematic flair. It might feel typical to those who can’t differentiate between Anderson’s more entertaining albeit mature storytelling, but there are plenty of new nuances in “Grand Budapest” that continue to elevate his filmmaking charm and spark more artistic inspiration.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.

For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.

The Lovely Bones

January 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Peter Jackson (“King Kong”)
Written by: Peter Jackson (“King Kong”), Fran Walsh (“King Kong”) and Philippa Boyens (“King Kong”)

Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) tries his hardest to switch gears after nine years of big-budget epics and tell a more sentimental story with “The Lovely Bones.” Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Alice Sebold, Jackson strikes quickly with an intriguing first act before any real emotional intimacy is washed away by delusions of grandeur.

In “The Lovely Bones,” actress Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) plays Susie Salmon, a sweet and intelligent 14-year-old girl with her whole life ahead of her. Not only is Susie an aspiring photographer, first love may also be on the horizon.

But when walking home from school one day, Susie’s life is brutally taken at the hands of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a reclusive and odd neighbor who lives down the road from the Salmon home. Once murdered, Susie’s soul travels into a state of limbo and settles there even long after the horrific crime.

While in the “in-between,” as her little brother so nonchalantly identifies her place in the universe, Susie watches her family including mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Mark Wahlberg) struggle with the loss of a child. She also watches Mr. Harvey as he goes on with each day trying to confine the killer instincts inside him. As months pass, Susie continues to look over them all from her visually-stunning playground, which is reminiscent of the Oscar-winning special effects of 1998’s “What Dreams May Come.”

Despite the majestic imagery poured on by Jackson during these scenes, “The Lovely Bones” is showier than it needs to be and pulls some much-needed attention from what should have been a more heartfelt narrative. Instead, the film ends up becoming something as pretty and flat as a watercolor painting.

Because of Jackson’s inability to understand more than what a graphic artist can render on a computer, the characters in “The Lovely Bones” suffer greatly. Wahlberg and Weisz are not left with much to build on besides the tragedy itself. There comes a point in the film where this terrible murder feels becomes insignificant to the story. This is because Jackson and the rest of his writing team refuse to let the audience into anyone’s head. Lingering shots of the family starring peculiarly at the home of Mr. Harvey don’t cut it.

With chaotic variations in tone throughout “The Lovely Bones,” Jackson misses an opportunity to show a more delicate side to his visionary talent. It’s disappointing that he couldn’t quite let go of his bulkier ideas to stay on the task at hand.

City of Ember

October 21, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan
Directed by: Gil Kenan (“Monster House”)
Written by: Caroline Thompson (“Corpse Bride”)

You could watch “City of Ember” and think of it as a metaphor for our current economic crisis or you could simply watch it as a human version of “Fraggle Rock.” Either way, there are some great ideas and mythology somewhere inside the story, which stay buried as deep as the city where the film is set.

After the world ends, the underground City of Ember is where the remaining population moves so that mankind can continue to live. Those who have created the city, known as “the builders,” have set a clock inside a small metal box along with the secrets of the outside world, so that after 200 years underground, the citizens would know what to do when their time below the surface of the earth was up.

But as the box changes hands over the years from mayor to mayor, it is somehow misplaced. With city continuing to get older and more fragile and their generator (the only source of electricity) on its last leg, the citizens of Ember come together to try to figure out a way to save their home before the frightening daily blackouts become permanent.

Little do the people of Ember know that a little girl named Lena Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), a descendant of a past mayor, has found the box tucked away in her senile granny’s house. Although Lena is not quite sure of the box’s history, she would like to tell someone about her discovery, but is worried that the city’s current corrupt leader, Mayor Cole (Bill Murray), could have different plans.

It’s not Murray’s finest hour as he and other talented Academy-Award winning actors like Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”) and Martin Landau (“Ed Wood”) are sorely underused. Sure, they’re only secondary characters but screenwriter Caroline Thompson doesn’t give them anything worthwhile to do. Instead, the story focuses on Lena and her friend Doon (Harry Treadaway) as they search for a way out of the city by following a map they find in the box and piece together.

While the first half of “Ember” offers some neat concepts, director Gil Kenan only skims the surface. I’m not too sure how Jeanne Duprau’s book is different, but in the film version there’s not enough magical moments inside the city and all that is left is a plodding trip to the outside world. Why leave so quickly when the most interesting things are underground? By the third act, “The City of Ember,” somehow becomes another “Journey to the Center of the Earth” with these characters moving in the opposite direction. It might be good enough for water park ride enthusiasts, but not for someone who wants a little more spirited adventure.