FILM REVIEW: Yorkos Lanthimos’s ‘The Favourite’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Fasten your corsets, it’s going to be a bumpy night. Yorkos Lanthimos’s costume romp ‘The Favourite’ is a cartoonish depiction of the fiery relationships between 18th century Queen Anne, her best friend and senior courtier Sarah Churchill, and a young woman who seeks to replace Sarah in the monarch’s affection. Call it ‘All About Abigail’.

Olivia Colman, as the flighty, ailing Queen; Rachel Weisz (top left with Colman and below) as the beautiful and intelligent but wilful Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as the seemingly guileless but devious and determined newcomer Abigail Hill  (below) are all in top form. There is a great deal to enjoy with lots of intrigue, sex and filthy language even if director Lanthimos (‘The Lobster’, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’), fails to match the deft touch that Armando Iannucci brought to his wickedly funny ‘The Death of Stalin’.

It is a crowd-pleaser so there was little surprise when it was named best film at this year’s British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs). It succeeds as a raucous romp without any real historical context aside from references to military conflict with France and the monarch’s squabbles with parliament. All the men are foppish and unthreatening twerps, the peasants and servants are as revolting as the landed gentry and aristocrats, and the ending is bathetic, but historical accuracy is not its aim.

The film takes for granted Sarah’s disputed allegation following the queen’s death in 1714 that Abigail’s affair with the monarch included lesbian relations and, to fit the bawdy narrative, insists that Sarah’s did too. Abigail arrives at court to plead for a job after a rough life following the loss of of her family’s aristocratic position. (In truth, her cousin Sarah invited her). She soon proves helpful to the Queen who is plagued not only by explosive mood swings but also very painful gout. Abigail’s agreeable nature, eagerness to please and home-made potions applied to Anne’s legs create an intimacy she’s only too willing to exploit. Her rivalry with Sarah escalates to the point of physical violence and attempted murder.

All three actresses are delightful and very funny. Colman and Weisz play it straight with exceptional skill and both should be in line for awards beyond their wins as best actress and best supporting actress at the BIFAs. Colman adds a human dimension to a character who could easily just be addled and amusing with occasional fits of demented rage while Weisz conveys Sarah’s brilliance, shrewdness and fierce candour but also her sympathy for the queen and vulnerability. Stone’s English accent is perfect and she does well too, playing canny and knowing while appearing to be sweet and innocent, although she does tend to wink at the camera as do many of the male members of the cast including Nicholas Hoult (below centre) as the Tory Robert Harley, Mark Gatiss as Marlborough, James Smith as the Whig Godolphin and Joe Alwyn as Abigail’s suitor Samuel Masham.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan and production designer Fiona Crombie make the most of the gorgeous Hatfield House while triple-Oscar-winner Sandy Powell’s costumes are ravishing. Works by Bach, Handel, Purcell and Vivaldi are joined on the soundtrack by pieces by such modern composers Luc Ferrari, Anna Meredith and Olivier Messiaen.

NOTE: One regret about the picture is that it probably rules out any chance of a serious movie about Sarah Churchill, who was one of the most powerful and fascinating women in British history. The script by first-time screenwriter Deborah Davis and TV writer Tony McNamara (‘Puberty Blues’, ‘Doctor Doctor’) plays fast and loose with historical facts. Sarah did pretty much rule the country during Anne’s term after succeeding William and Mary as she was a brilliant woman married to the powerful Duke of Marlborough, hero of Blenheim.

Her relationship with the queen, however, foundered more over party politics than jealousy – the Queen decided to back the anti-war Tories while Sarah and her husband were Whigs and Abigail was a Tory – and it barely addresses Anne’s deep religious feelings. The film omits entirely any mention of the Queen’s consort, George, Prince of Denmark, and treats the fact that Anne had 17 pregnancies with no survivors as bearing only on Anne’s wildly unruly mental state. In fact, had any survived to adulthood and taken the throne, then George 1 very likely would not have become the first Hanoverian monarch.

The film suggests falsely that Anne gifted Sarah with Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, when it actually was a reward to her husband for his victories in the War of the Spanish Succession. It’s true that the queen withdrew funds for its building and banished the Marlboroughs from court but they returned upon her death and were re-established in the highest echelons of what during Anne’s 12-year reign had become Great Britain. The Duke of Marlborough died in 1722 and Abigail, who became Baroness Masham, died in 1734 aged 64. Sarah completed Blenheim Palace and died in 1744 aged 84 as one of the richest women in Europe.

Released: UK: Jan. 1 2019 / US: Nov. 23 2018 (Fox Searchlight); Cast: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, James Smith, Joe Alwyn; Director: Yorgos Lanthimos; Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara; Director of Photography: Robbie Ryan; Production designer: Fiona Crombie; Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis; Costumes: Sandy Powell; Producers: Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos, Lee Magiday; Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Deborah Davis, Ken Kao, Andrew Lowe, Tony McNamara, Josh Rosenbaum; Production: Element Pictures; Scarlet Films; Film4; Waypoint Entertainment; Rating: UK:15 / US: R; running time: 119 minutes

Posted in Film, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TV REVIEW: The Coen Bros’ ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The Coen Brothers have taken Netflix for a ride with their anthology production ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. It’s a western ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ in which they have dusted off some mostly hoary old story ideas and spent a lot of money on a great cast and crew and wonderful locations. Sadly, only one of the yarns reaches the level expected from the Coens and the others probably would never have seen the light of day without the streaming service’s desperate need for big names. 

No doubt the Coens were happy to take all that money for old rope and what seems most evident in the six short films that make up the production is that everyone appears to have had a great time. The opening sequence, which gives the film its title, is the only one worth seeing as it displays the brothers’ wit and whimsy and taste for fantasy and offbeat violence. Tim Blake Nelson (above) plays Buster, a singing cowboy who narrates his own fable and is gradually revealed to be a fatalistic psychotic killer who seeks only the next gunfight. It’s wickedly funny.

That cannot be said of the five other predictable yarns introduced by the flickering pages of an old book of western stories. James Franco plays a hapless bank robber in one sequence, Liam Neeson is a frontier impresario who reconsiders his meal ticket in another, and Tom Waits (above) is a resourceful miner in the fourth. The fifth is a longer piece about a young woman (Zoe Kazan, with Bill Heck below) facing peril on a wagon train and the last is about a stagecoach ride to nowhere on a theme treated more brilliantly in the Monty Python sketch in which ‘to serve salmon with botulism at a dinner party is social death’.

All the actors are just fine, Blake Nelson especially, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Jess Gonchor make the most of the splendid locations in Sioux County and Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, and near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Carter Burwell’s music ups the IQ of the lesser sequences with his usual flare.

All the stories dwell on mostly forlorn hopes but the biting wit of the first story is sadly missing from the others. If the Coens want to find terrific source material for a truly colourful and accurate depiction of the Old West, they should look no further than the great Texas writer Larry McMurtry’s wonderful collection, ‘The Berrybender Narratives’. Now they are ballads worth singing about.

Screened in London; Streamed on Netflix: Nov. 9; Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Clancy Brown, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Bill Heck, Jiji Hise, Grainger Hines; Directors, writers, editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen; Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel; Production designer: Jess Gonchor; Music: Carter Burwell; Costume designer: Mary Zophres; Producers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle; Production: Annapurna Pictures, Annapurna Television, Mike Zoss Productions; running time 131 minutes.

Posted in Reviews, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FILM REVIEW: Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy ‘Some Like It Hot’, which is running in selected theatres in the United Kingdom ahead of its 60th anniversary, is the funniest comedy you’ll see this year, or any year. Restored in 4K by MGM, Park Circus and the Criterion Collection, its black-and-white cinematography is stunning.

Acclaimed in many polls as the greatest film comedy of all time, it remains a masterpiece with clever plotting, terrific dialogue, wonderful slapstick, good music and extraordinary performances. If you don’t know, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play journeyman musicians who witness a mob killing in Chicago and to save their own skins dress in drag as Josephine and Daphne to join an all-female jazz band, with voluptuous and vulnerable Marilyn Monroe as the band’s singer, on a three-week gig in Florida. Hilarity ensues.

Scripted by the director and I.A.L. Diamond from a story suggested by veteran screenwriters Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, it covers a lot of ground very smartly with a forward-looking attitude to social mores, sex, and cross-dressing. Marilyn Monroe is unutterably gorgeous and sympathetic with unerring comic timing no matter how long it took Wilder to get her to nail a scene. Curtis does a very funny impression of Cary Grant and Lemmon (below with Joe E. Brown) is simply hilarious. It remains a crime that he didn’t win the Academy Award that year against the wooden Charlton Heston in ‘Ben-Hur’.

Adolph Deutsch’s vigorous and witty music comments amusingly on not only Marilyn’s way of walking and the boys’ attempts to appear like women but also the gangster threat from Spats Columbo and his gang and the comic chaos during the finale. Director of photography Charles Lang, who was nominated for the Oscar 18 times and won for ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (1932), captures it all in shimmering chiaroscuro. Much of it was filmed at the splendid Hotel del Coronado in southern California (Richard Rush also shot his wonderful ‘The Stunt Man’ there in 1980) and that adds to the fun.

Harry Wilson, left, George Raft, centre, Mike Mazurki and Pat O’Brien

One of other really pleasing things is the array of fabulous mugs that Wilder cast in the picture including George Raft as Spats Columbo, Nehemiah Persoff as his rival, Little Bonaparte, and Pat O’Brien as the cop on their trail but also much-missed character actors such as Harry Wilson, Mike Mazurki and the irrepressible Joe E. Brown, as millionaire Osgood Fielding III, whose passion for Jack Lemmon’s Daphne will brook no obstacle because, as he says, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. 

Posted in Film, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Recalling … giggling over lunch with the great Cleo Laine

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – It was lunchtime at the Hotel Pontchartrain  in Detroit and things were getting a bit silly. Cleo Laine was talking about Kurt Weill and the Berliner Ensemble when someone mentioned Monty Python and soon she was giggling over her Dover Sole. We swapped favourite lines and it took a while before we got back to talking about the reason she was on tour in the United States.

It was one day in January in 1976 and I was at lunch with the singer, her husband jazzman John Dankworth and comedian Jimmy Edwards. Although they were household names in the United Kingdom, they had never met before so I suggested the meeting. Edwards was appearing in the farce ‘Big Bad Mouse’ at the Fisher Theatre with Eric Sykes, who would have joined us but for a bad cold. 

Edwards died in 1988, Dankworth in 2010 and Sykes in 2012. Dame Cleo Laine turns 91 today. She and Dankworth had performed in Detroit several times and they always found time for lunch. That time with Edwards was notable not least because Edwards added a comic touch to proceedings but because Laine was making her long overdue American theatre debut in the Brecht-Weill musical ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’.

The laughter at lunch was a perfect example of the lady’s free-wheeling taste, which allowed her to record an album of Schoenburg songs at the same time as she’s singing a Spike Milligan bit about a man with two many tonsils. She first sang in the U.S. in 1971 and instantly won a cult following. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called her ‘the greatest all-round singer in the world’. She started singing as a child and sang with the Dankworth band until they married in 1958 when she thought it wiser not to continue. 

Dankworth continued as one of Britain’s most successful jazz musicians and composers with many movie scores such as ‘The Knack; ‘Modesty Blaise’ and ‘The Knack’. Cleo went on to great success as a recording artist, not least with the 1976 album ‘Porgy & Bess’ with Ray Charles. She performed internationally and did a lot of work in the theatre including an acclaimed production of ‘Show Boat’. I asked why it had taken her so long to do a musical in the U.S.

‘Things just didn’t fall together,” she said in her deep, expressive voice. ‘I could have come over but doing what? For a long time, the Beatles dominated everything and all that was happening was rock and roll. It was the wrong time for me. I could have come over and done cabaret but if you do that, what do you do next?’ The answer was ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’, which she had performed at the Edinburgh Festival, Sadlers Wells and Leeds. A 40-minute piece, it follows a devilish girl named Anna, portrayed in Detroit by dancer Mary Hinkson, who encounters temptation wherever she goes. Cleo played her conscience. ‘She wants to get out there and have all the fun and I have to tell her to stop,’ said Cleo.

Fortunately, Cleo Laine never stopped having all the fun and she has continued to make records and appear on stage for most of her long life. She starred in ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘The Merry Widow’, Dankworth’s musical ‘Colette’, on Broadway in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ and in Los Angeles in ‘Into the Woods’. In England, she and Dankworth ran a non-profit music organisation out of the converted stables at their Buckinghamshire home. ‘We call it the ‘all music’ plan,’ she said. ‘That’s sort of ambitious but it’s what we believe in. I’d hate to be stamped in one mould. I like to do all kinds of music.” 

Posted in Interviews, Memory Lane, Music | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

FILM REVIEW: Drew Goddard’s ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

By Raymond Bennett 

LONDON – A priest, a traveling salesman, and two young women walk separately into a hotel-casino on the California/Nevada border and all hell breaks loose. They aren’t who they seem to be and neither is the exotic joint where they’ve chosen to stay. Written and directed with assurance and tremendous style by Drew Goddard, ‘Bad Times at El Royale’ is a garish noir tale full of surprises, violence and no little humour. It also offers roles that a terrific cast – Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson initially and then Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman and Chris Hemsworth – get their teeth into with very satisfying results.

Goddard’s TV writing credits include ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Alias’ and ‘Lost’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2012) and scripted ‘World War Z’ (2013) and ‘The Martian’ (2015), for which he earned an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. His yarn is set in 1970 at a typically Sixties neon and glass venue that was once a playground for the Vegas pack but has now fallen on hard times due to losing its gambling licence. Its unique selling point is that the state border runs right through the centre of the place so guests may stay either in California or Nevada. In a brief prologue set 10 years earlier, a man checks in, buries something in one of the rooms and is promptly shot to death.

Now, there’s only one person on duty, a diffident young man named Miles (Pullman) who seems reluctant to check anyone in, especially the crusty priest, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) and tough cookie Emily (Johnson) are more put off by the garrulous vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan (Hamm) but they take rooms anyway. It doesn’t take long to discover some of the secrets of the motley crew, not least that the salesman is really an FBI agent and that Emily has kidnapped a younger woman, Rose (Cailee Spaeny) and snuck her into her room where she keeps her tied up. Many more mysteries will unfold and Chris Hemsworth will show up later as a charismatic but menacing cult leader. Several scenes are revisited from a different perspective as the individual motives for being there start to clash with dramatic and increasingly violent results.

Bridges, Hamm and Hemsworth bring their A-game while Erivo (who also shines in the upcoming ‘Widows’) is splendid as both actor and a cappella singer, Johnson impresses with tremendous flair and Pullman peels the onion of his character with great effect. Young Cailee Spaeny hovers as an apparently naive girl who bears watching.

It’s probably longer than it needs to be but production designer Martin Whist’s vivid set is a character in itself and Northern Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey – Oscar- and Bafta-nominated for ‘Atonement’ (2007) and ‘Anna Karenina’ (2012) – captures it all luxuriously. There are plenty of songs from the era, both on the jukebox and sung by Erivo, and Michael Giacchino ties it all together with an energetic score that captures the period, enhances the contrivances and should be in for award nominations.

Released: UK, US: Oct. 12 2018 (Twentieth Century Fox); Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman; Director and writer: Drew Goddard; Director of cinematography: Seamus McGarvey; Production designer: Martin Whist; Music: Michael Giacchino; Editor: Lisa Lassek; Costume designer: Danny Glicker; Producers: Drew Goddard, Jeremy Latchem; Executive producer: Mary McLaglen; Production: Twentieth Century Fox; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; running time: 141 minutes.

Posted in Film, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Directors often claim full authorship of their movies in the credits but if ever someone merited that it is Alfonso Cuarón who is the writer, co-editor, cinematographer, producer and director of his dramatic masterpiece titled ‘Roma’. It is touching, funny and thrilling and it deserves every accolade and award coming its way.

The Academy Award-winning Mexican filmmaker (‘Gravity’) has created a film that is at once intimate and epic, a close-up look at ordinary folk and a sweeping tale on a grand scale. Filmed in scintillating black-and-white, the Spanish-language picture is set in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in the early 1970s. It follows a maid and nanny named Cleo, played by primary school teacher Yalitza Aparico in her first film performance, as she cleans up after a doctor’s family, does the laundry and nurtures the kids. Marina de Tavira plays Sofia, the doctor’s anxious wife who struggles to maintain the household with her mother, Teresa (Verónica Garcia), while her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) spends an increasing amount of time away.

Cuarón takes his time to show the mundane day-to-day activities of Cleo and her fellow maid Adela (Nancy García García), which involves housekeeping, baby-sitting, sweeping, bed-making, garbage clearing, wiping away tears and clearing up dog poop from the narrow car-port. Slowly, events begin to intrude as the doctor takes an unforeseen path and Cleo’s relationship with her overtly macho boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) takes a turn for the worse. The film opens up into engrossingly larger scope as Cleo, Sofia and the children go on outings to the cinema, an extraordinary big family Christmas, and the seaside. Their personal dramas escalate as politics explodes in Mexico City and they are caught up in a street riot in which the military and gang-leaders leave many dead.

Aparico’s lack of affectation makes Cleo’s growth through the film sympathetic, moving and unforgettable. Cuarón, whose film is a love-letter to his own childhood, does not shrink from making it clear that while Cleo is the foundation of the family she works for, she is still a maid. De Tavira is a professional actress but she also achieves a naturalness that informs her own character’s development. They both should be in line for awards. The kids are terrific and Veronica García, as the grandmother, and Guerrero, as the boyfriend, shine in a uniformly effective cast.

Cuarón chose not to have a score on the film apparently in order not to sway audiences but with music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein he illuminates the picture with selections from the period. As director of photography, the director has a marvellous eye for tiny detail as well as the city-, land- and seascapes he captures so thrillingly. Eugenio Caballero’s production design is enhanced with seamless CGI to recreate a thoroughly compelling depiction of what Mexico City must have been like back then. 

Netflix is to be congratulated for providing the funds for a picture that will endure as a classic and it’s to the streaming service’s credit that ‘Roma’ will be seen in some theatres in certain cities in several countries. It’s good that the film might gain an enormous audience via the internet but it’s a shame that so few will see it on the big screen where it cries out to be seen. 

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: Nov. 30 (UK: Curzon Artificial Eye / US: Netflix) Streamed by Netflix from Dec. 14; Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Nancy García García, Veronica García, Andy Cortés, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero; Director, writer, director of photography: Alfonso Cuarón; Production designer: Eugenio Caballero; Editors: Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough; Producers: Nicolás Celis, Alfonso Cuarón, Graciela Rodriguez; Executive producers: Jonathan King, David Linde, Jeff Skoll; Production: Esperanto Filmoj, Participant Media; Rating: UK: 15 / US: TBA ; running time 135 minutes.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: David Mackenzie’s ‘Outlaw/King’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Chris Pine keeps his Scots burr soft and believable in ‘Outlaw/King’, the saga of Robert the Bruce, the 14th century leader who succeeded where William (Braveheart) Wallace failed in uniting the Scottish clans to fight the English.

It’s a rousing adventure with several battles, a warm love story, and glorious settings filmed across Scotland. The title onscreen is ‘Outlaw/King’ although it’s not shown on posters or promotional material. The distinction is subtle but important as it conveys the point that Robert is not an outlaw king but a man seen by different people in different ways. He is a king and he is an outlaw. 

Scottish director David Mackenzie (‘Hell or High Water’) keeps things relatively plausible with fine contributions from Stephen Dillane as Edward I, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the mad-as-hell Scottish rebel Douglas, and Florence Pugh as Robert’s at first unwanted but then beloved bride. It’s a big picture that deserves to be seen at cinemas so it’s a very good thing that Netflix has released it to theatres, at least in the U.K., via Curzon Artificial Eye, otherwise it would just be an expensive TV movie.

Wallace makes a brief appearance looking very scruffy compared to Mel Gibson’s depiction and events follow his demise with the Scottish clans typically fighting over patches of land and adherence to various faiths and myths. Pine is every bit the movie star laird of the land and both his vocal delivery and movement allow him to carry the picture with ease. Dillane makes Edward a more subtle and devious character than Patrick McGoohan’s straight-forwardly powerful king in ‘Braveheart’. 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson marauds and rages as Robert’s extremely angry and violent ally James Douglas and Florence Pugh adds another intelligent performance to her growing list of impressive roles (‘Lady Macbeth’, ‘The Little Drummer Girl’). The conflict is let down somewhat by Billy Howle, who makes the future Edward II a bit too weaselly and psychotic; the pace, which takes its time (Update: the film was cut by 20 minutes for release); and some typical historical fudging. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd captures the glorious Scottish scenery lavishly, though, and several composers contribute traditional music that sounds authentic.

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 9 (Curzon Artificial Eye); Streamed on Netflix from Nov. 9; Cast: Chris Pine, Florence Pugh, Stephen Dillane, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Howle; Director: David Mackenzie; Writers: Bathsheba Doran, David Mackenzie, James Macinnes; Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd; Production designer: Donald Graham Burt; Editor: Jake Roberts; Costume designer: Jane Petrie; Producer: Gillian Berrie; Executive producers: Richard Brown, Steve Golin, Stan Wlodkowski; Production: Sigma Films, Anonymous Content, Clockwork Sessions; Rating: UK: 18 / US: R; running time: 137 minutes at TIFF; 121 minutes on release.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Forget the shallow glitz of ‘Ocean’s 8’, the women in Steve McQueen’s full-of-surprises caper movie ‘Widow’ really mean business. The British filmmaker (‘Hunger’, ‘2 Years a Slave’) brings his serious view of the world to an escapist drama and it is all the more entertaining for that.

Oscar-winner Viola Davis (facing in the picture above) steps up to a leading role and she carries the film with aplomb in the role of Veronica, a woman whose life is turned upside down when a heist goes wrong and her husband, a professional thief, is killed along with his henchmen. Also gone is the money they were trying to steal and Veronica becomes the target of attempts by assorted villains to recover it with her life on the line. When she discovers detailed plans made by her late husband for another robbery, she rounds up the other gangster widows to pull it off.

Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki (pictured left) and Cynthia Erivo (with Davis below) play the other women and the foursome become a formidable outfit in the face of obstacles not only from criminals but also crooked cops and politicians. Drawn from a 1983 British miniseries written by Lynda La Plante (‘Prime Suspect’), with a script by Gillian Flynn (‘Gone Girl’) and McQueen, the film is a taut, suspenseful and polished drama steeped in reality with many unexpected twists and turns.

Rodriguez is somewhat underused but Debicki (‘The Night Manager’) adds steel to her seemingly flighty character and Erivo (left), as a very tough cookie, makes another strong impression following her terrific showing in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’. McQueen has cast some interesting men for them to play against including Liam Neeson as Veronica’s husband, Colin Farrell as a political chancer and Robert Duvall as his bombastic father. With the setting moved to Chicago, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and production designer Adam Stockhausen make full use of the gritty locations and composer Hans Zimmer’s score is lean and sinewy to match. 

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 6 (Fox) / US: Nov. 16 (Fox). Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coom, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson; Director: Steve McQueen: Writers: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen based on characters created by Lynda La Plante; Director of photography: Sean Bobbit; Production designer: Adam Stockhausen; Music: Hans Zimmer; Editor: Joe Walker; Costume designer: Jenny Eagan; Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan; Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Rodrigo Cortés, Rose Garnett, Matthew Senreich, Bergen Swanson; Production: Regency Enterprises, See-Saw Films, Film4, New Regency Pictures; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; running time: 128 minutes.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF18 BRIEFS: ‘Colette’, ‘Non-Fiction’, ‘American Woman’, ‘The Front Runner’, ‘Red Joan’, ‘The Old Man and the Gun’, ‘Vita & Virginia’, ‘Destroyer’

From the Toronto International Film Festival

‘Colette’

Keira Knightley gives her most assured performance yet in the title role of Wash Westmoreland’s intelligent and engaging costume tale ‘Colette’. Set in fin de siècle Paris, it follows a young writer named Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette as she marries an older man, Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) whose publishing company churns out banal but popular books under his pseudonym ‘Willy’. When she displays genuine talent, Henri blithely publishes her writing under his own nom-de-plume. Fresh and sexy, her stories become a huge success but the true author remains a secret. Broad and vulgar, Henri encourages his young wife in frolics with men and women in Parisienne society so she can write more provocative yarns. When Colette embraces her new life she also grows into a flamboyant, witty and independent person portrayed most winningly by Knightley.

‘Non-Fiction’

Juliette Binoche is a delight among a very pleasing cast of smooth and nuanced French players in Olivier Assayas’s comedy ‘Non-Fiction’, a shrewd and witty roundelay involving a handful of Parisian literary types. She plays a TV actress married to a sophisticated publisher (Guillaume Canet) whose immediate circle includes writers, publicists and entrepreneurs as they grapple with the incursion of the digital world on traditional publishing and their assorted liaisons. (Titled ‘Double Lives’ on IMDb)

‘American Woman’

Sienna Miller (pictured above) is outstanding in Jake Scott’s portrait of a beautiful and reckless but determined working-class woman who must overcome not only her lousy taste in men but the sudden disappearance of her teenaged daughter. Great work, too, by Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan, Will Sasso and the boys who play her grandson. Brad Ingelsby’s script is insightful and agile and Adam Wiltzie’s score helps nail the place and time.

‘The Front Runner’

Jason Reitman’s account of how Senator Gary Hart managed to blow his presidential chances in 1988 by his inability to keep his pants on is really a newspaper story but it’s remarkably naive. Much of the time is spent in the newsrooms of the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the New York Times but the editors and reporters are depicted as if they’d never covered a sanctimonious, hypocritical politician before. There’s much missing from the real story, not least the way Hart’s libido and arrogance allowed him to be hoodwinked into partying on a boat called Monkey Business. Hugh Jackman (above) plays Hart as smug and intense but charming when he wants to be and Vera Farmiga makes more of her thankless role as his long-suffering wife than the script allows. Rob Simonsen’s music helps set the scene.

‘Red Joan’

Sophie Cookson (pictured above) is very impressive as idealistic young physicist Joan Stanley who gets involved with a group of intellectual communists at Cambridge just before World War II and ends up in a plot to share the secrets of the atom bomb with the Soviet Union. The story is told in flashbacks with Judi Dench as the older Joan. Theatre legend Trevor Nunn shows he knows about film too. George Fenton’s score is typically evocative.

‘The Old Man and the Gun’

Robert Redford has said that David Lowery’s ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is his final appearance as an actor and as a farewell it’s a likeable if forgettable picture. He plays a real-life professional thief named Forrest Tucker who so charmed employees at the banks he robbed that they appeared not to mind too much. Whenever he’s caught and sent to prison, he manages to soon escape and elude capture until he makes his next mistake. It rolls along harmlessly with Casey Affleck as a cop on his trail and cameos from Tom Waits and Danny Glover as fellow thieves and a scene in which Elizabeth Moss plays Tucker’s estranged daughter. Aged but still charismatic, Redford charms easily but the delight is to see the ageless Sissy Spacek in top form as a shrewd, wry and tolerant rancher he runs into while fleeing a crime. Their chemistry makes the film worth seeing.

‘Vita & Virginia’

The best way to watch Chanya Button’s ‘Vita & Virginia’ would be on a big screen at home with a glass of wine and the sound turned off. Actress Eileen Atkins has adapted her play based on the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, part of the early 20th-century Bloomsbury set, who had a volatile but long-lasting relationship. The Times critic said of the play, “If two orchids were to communicate across a perfumed hothouse, they would surely sound a bit like this.” The film suffers from poor lighting, clumsy editing, pretentious prattle and incongruous music. The players and costumes, however, are gorgeous. Gemma Arterton (pictured above right), as Vita, and Elizabeth Debicki, as Virginia, change outfits for every scene and they are equal to every ravishing close-up. 

‘Destroyer’

Grim, dull and clichéd, Karyn Kusama’s crime yarn ‘Destroyer’ smacks of a vanity project for Nicole Kidman (pictured above) who appears first in a state of utter dissipation as a bitter cop who reflects on a violent incident in her past when she was young and vibrant.  It’s all under-belly Los Angeles, drugs and guns, the usual stuff, with an overbearing score.

Posted in Film, Notes, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: Peter Farrelly’s ‘Green Book’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – You don’t expect gentleness and warmth from one of the Farrelly Brothers but that’s exactly what you get in Peter Farrelly’s crowd-pleasing fact-based film ‘Green Book’. Viggo Mortensen and Mahersaha Ali complement each other as fish out of water not just in each other’s company but in the places they visit.

Ali plays the real-life jazz great Don Shirley, a refined, cultured and closeted pianist of the highest rank; so high that his elegant, memento-filled New York apartment is above Carnegie Hall. When he is invited to go on tour in the Deep South, since he is black and it is the 1960s, he wisely decides to take a minder with him. The title refers to a book published at the time that listed places in southern states where African-Americans were welcome. Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, known as Tony Lip, a garrulous bouncer at the Copacabana night club who comes well-recommended for being tough, resourceful and honest. He also is a rough-at-the-edges Italian-American with all the attitudes and prejudices you might expect.

Tony is not interested at first but when the Copa closes for a lengthy period of renovation, he decides that Shirley’s offer is too generous to decline so off they set with Tony chattering away, stuffing himself full of food and smoking cigarettes at the wheel while Shirley tries to bite his lip in the rear. There’s nothing too surprising in what they encounter as the South becomes Deeper and the racism more overt but the dynamic between the two men is constantly engaging with smart incidents and clever dialogue. If there’s an element of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and a few clichés they don’t detract from a throughly enjoyable time. (No wonder the film picked up the public vote at the end of TIFF18).

Much different from his Oscar-winning turn in ‘Moonlight’, Ali is lean, smooth and endearing while Mortensen is overweight, uncouth and endearing; they make a fine odd couple and both should be in the running for awards along with the picture. One of the producers and screenwriters (along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie) is Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga and apparently both Tony and Shirley became lifelong friends, so their conflict is treated with great affection, but that’s all right. Tony’s family fit the stereotype but Linda Cardellini impresses as his wife. All the crafts are fine and Kris Bowers’s score hits the mark while music supervisor Tom Wolfe has assembled a sumptuous soundtrack of jazz and classical pieces.

Screened at Toronto International Film Festival; Release dates: US: Nov. 21 (Universal) / UK: Feb.1 (eOne); Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, P.J. Byrne, Sebastian Maniscalco, Brian Stepanek, Nick Vallelonga; Director: Peter Farrelly; Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly; Director of photography: Sean Porter; Production designer: Tim Galvin; Music: Kris Bowers; Editor: Patrick J. Don Vito; Costume designer: Betsy Heimann; Producers: Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Charles B. Wessler; Executive producers: Steven Farneth, Jonathan King, Kwame Parker, John Sloss, Octavia Spencer; Production: Participant Media, DreamWorks, Amblin Partners, Innisfree Pictures, Wessler Entertainment; Rating: US: PG-13 / UK: 12A; running time: 130 minutes

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment