Maria by Callas (***) PG

The following are a few things I recently learned about the iconic operatic soprano, Maria Callas. She was the offspring of an overbearing stage mother who would have preferred a son instead of the daughter she bore. Callas was so severely nearsighted as to be nearly blind when she performed on stage. She wed a man thirty years her senior when she was only 24. In the early days of her career, her weight ballooned to well over two hundred pounds, putting a strain on both her voice as well as her five foot, eight and a half inch frame. After her weight loss, Callas’ voice dramatically changed. Her death from a heart attack at the relatively young age of 53 in September 1977 may have been the result of an inflammation of the vocal chords.

All of the above, unfortunately, I learned only after seeing the new documentary Maria by Callas. When one spends two hours with a subject as monumental as the one on display here, it’s only natural to want to know more, the problem being that the film leaves you with the impression that you aren’t quite getting the whole story. I felt as if there were gaps in the story and, as it turned out, I was correct. Why someone hasn’t made a warts and all biopic on this subject at this point boggles the mind.

Maria Callas in her prime

So, if all of the above information was never mentioned in Maria by Callas­—and surely it isn’t—then why am I giving it such a favorable review, you might ask?  Well, the reason is simple. As the only narration heard in the film is culled from the operatic icon’s own interviews and correspondence over her lifetime, it is somewhat fascinating to hear her take on certain events in her life that are covered in the film. There is mention of her strained relationship with her parents and there’s also lots of insight into her doomed romance with Aristotle Onassis. Callas also sheds insight into certain events that were cause for her to be labeled, at the very least, as difficult. And then there’s the performance footage of Callas singing her heart out, footage which is so spellbinding at times that you can’t take your eyes off of it.

The main complaint with Maria by Callas is that it assumes anyone watching this film already knows the basics about Callas’ life and that’s an incorrect assumption to make. Anyone who wants to know more about her will surely have to look further than here if they want the whole picture. Even if there is enough here of interest to keep it from completely failing in its mission, there’s much more to learn on this deserving subject. 

This film is playing at Aperture Cinema in Winston-Salem December 7-13, and in Charlotte at the Regal Ballantyne on Dec. 7.

The Favourite (***) R  

An unthinkable thing has happened with the last two films I’ve seen from director Yorgos Lanthimos. His 2017 film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and his latest, The Favourite, have done much to improve his standing in my eyes. Much to my surprise I find that I’m actually warming up to what he’s up to and that’s saying something when one takes into consideration that his 2016 film The Lobster made my year end worst list. My how things have changed. Either he’s gotten better or my cinematic taste buds are definitely moving in another direction, which of these fits the bill I’m unsure.   

The Favourite is an exquisite, fact based, period piece that fills the senses with its resplendent cinematography and carefully chosen musical interludes. The acting is first rate and the casting is spot on. The three female leads, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman, in fact, have never been better and turn in some career-best performances that most certainly will be remembered come awards time, as well they should be.     

Emma Stone & Olivia Colman in The Favourite

The setting is England in the early 1700s as England and France confront each other on the battlefields. Queen Ann (Colman), although in frail health, reigns with a mostly steady hand. The Queen is greatly aided by her constant companion, Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz), who gives in to the Queen’s constant demands regardless of how ridiculous, questionable or far-fetched they might be. They have developed a routine that serves them well until the arrival of a new face on the scene.   

Abigail Marsham (Stone), a woman who once lived in the upper echelons of society but has now seen her fortunes change through a series of unfortunate events, arrives in this universe and quickly finds employment as the new maid. This leads to a power struggle between Abigail and Sarah as they vie for the Queen’s favor, hence the film’s title. In the interim there are many serpentine plots twists and lots of quotable dialogue to keep things chugging along.   

Lantmos usually writes most of his own films but with this one he’s chosen to direct from a script penned by outside sources (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara). I think it’s a choice that serves the film well. Unfortunately, Lantmos, as usual, seems unable to stop himself from his weaker impulses and goes for the avant garde non ending to conclude this film much like his others. Beyond that transgression, The Favourite entertains and delights. Its virtues more than outweigh its weaker aspects and it’s certain to remain one of the brighter spots during this Oscar season that we are firmly in at the moment.

The Favourite opens Dec. 14 at several theaters in Charlotte.

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