‘The Favourite’ is Fantastic and a Sinful Delight

The Favourite movie poster

The Favourite” is the second period film (the other being “Mary Queen of Scots”) I have seen in a week which plays around with historical facts to present us with something which could be more interesting compared to what happened in reality. Thankfully, director Yorgos Lanthimos has not besmirched the advertisements with the terms “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events” as neither are necessary and would be a severe detriment to the finished film. Instead, he uses history to explore the power dynamics of people who are eager to maintain their place in life, sometimes at the expense of others. When you lose your place in society and have to fight your way back up the social ladder, you will eventually discover you are more devious than you led yourself to believe.

“The Favourite” takes us back to 18th century Britain during the reign of Queen Anne when the British were at war with the French. Queen Anne is played by Olivia Colman, and she makes this historical figure into a wonderfully eccentric human being who finds great glee in racing geese with her friends or playing with her 17 rabbits, each one representing a child she had later lost. She is also beset by a terrible case of gout which has her moaning and wailing in extraordinary pain during the night, and it is only with the help of her many servants that she can get through the day. When it comes to governing, however, she is not really inclined to do so.

Anne’s closest confidant proves to be the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz. Sarah is more than comfortable with the knowledge that she is the one ruling over Britain as she passing on her confidences and advisements to the Queen. We also eventually learn the two are lovers who share in secret trysts together when the rest of the world isn’t watching. It makes one wonder if love is what’s keeping them together, or if the quest for power conquers everything else.

Into the picture comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin whose good name was ruined by her father due to his gambling problems which had him selling her off to a German to settle debts. Poor and desperate for work, Abigail pleads with Sarah to give her a job, and she gets what amounts to an entry level position as a maid where she does the most menial of chores. While scrubbing the floors, she endures a chemical burn which proves to be almost as bad as the one Brad Pitt gave Edward Norton in “Fight Club.”

“The Favourite” gets off to a fantastic start as it introduces the main characters with relish, and this includes Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult is fantastic), the Earl of Oxford, who is infinitely eager to get the inside coup on the Queen’s plans before they are made public. But the movie really hits its stride when Abigail begins to ingratiate herself not just with Sarah, but also with Queen Anne. It starts with Abigail finding herbs to ease the inflammation in the Queen’s legs, and from there she insinuates herself into the Queen’s life and her bed.

The scenes between Stone and Weisz in which they shoot birds for sport is sinfully delightful as they subtly test one another to see where their vulnerabilities lie. When guns are aimed in directions which threaten their existence or get blood on their faces, its to let the other know they are to be taken seriously and not be trifled with. Not once do either of them have to tell the other “don’t mess with me” or “be careful where you tread” because their actions prove to be much louder than words. Still, it doesn’t stop either from trying to get the upper hand, and they do have their own unique ways of pulling this off.

Weisz has one of her best roles to date here as Sarah as she struggles to maintain her power in spite of Abigail’s deceitful intentions. Just watching her face makes one see how much she enjoyed portraying a character who reveled in a power very few people could ever hope to have without being of royalty. Of course, when the tables turn, her face tells a different story, and I admired how subtle she was in making these painful realizations so subtle and yet deeply felt at the same time. Not once does Weisz mug for the camera or go over the top as she does just enough to show how her world is crumbling slowly but surely.

Stone could have stood out like a sore thumb here, being the sole American actor here among so many Brits. But what surprised me about her performance is how English she appeared to where it almost took me a bit to recognize her. Not only does Stone fit perfectly into this ensemble of actors with what seems like relative ease, she pulls off a remarkably effective English accent. Like Weisz, she is also subtle in the ways of showing her power, and the way she infiltrates the Queen’s home and her life is great as she makes sleeping nude with Queen look like flipping the bird to her flabbergasted opponent.

But let’s face it, “The Favourite” truly belongs to Colman who gives a tour de force performance as Queen Anne. The English actress has appeared in such movies as “Hot Fuzz,” “The Iron Lady,” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” and there is no forgetting her after watching her here. Coleman takes this character from ecstatic comedic heights to dramatic depths as she makes this Queen a basket case but also a leader who will rise to the occasion when her rule is threatened (or when Sarah or Abigail lead her to believe so). In her last scene, she makes clear who is in charge as the movie’s title is called into question.

This is the first Yorgos Lanthimos directed movie I have seen. I was hoping to watch “The Lobster” one night with my family, but no one could decide on what to watch other than the opening sequence of “Spectre.” Lanthimos has done a skillful job of making this far more than the average stuffy period movie to where his inclusion of an Elton John song over the end credits doesn’t feel out of place in the slightest. Being a comedy drama, the balance could have easily been uneven, but that’s not the case here as this movie feels perfectly realized. If there any flaws to be found, they probably won’t come up until long after you have walked out of the theater.

I saw “The Favourite” with my parents, and they found it to be a bit weird. True, it’s ending is abrupt as it dissolves into a collage of images to where you wonder what exactly is being said. But I loved watching the power plays between the characters who are rendered not as caricatures, but as human beings driven to extremes for one reason or another. It makes me wonder why certain people can become so selfish to the point where the needs and feelings of others do not matter in the slightest. However, I reminded of a lyric from the Peter Gabriel song “Family Snapshot:”

“If you don’t get given you learn to take, and I will take you.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Features Unforgettable Performances From its Female Leads

Mary Queen of Scots poster

Many people, particularly on the movie’s IMDB page, have been bashing “Mary Queen of Scots” for failing to be historically accurate. But like many motion pictures which say or imply they are “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” this is another one which is not obliged to be restricted in its storytelling by mere facts. Indeed, this movie has been listed by the filmmakers as historical fiction which I am perfectly fine with as deals with two queens from centuries ago who had a respect for each other, but were also frightened by the other’s ability to wield power, and both had a lot of power at their disposal.

Based on the biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, this movie starts off by showing Mary’s eventual fate, something we really didn’t need to see right away. Not that it spoils anything, but it is so brief to where its brief inclusion feels unnecessary.

From there, we see Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), Queen of France, arriving in her native land of Scotland intent on reclaiming her throne there. But in this period of strife between Scotland and England, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) holds powerful reign over both countries and is not in a hurry to surrender her power to anyone. Mary, however, sees herself more than a ruler by name, and she asserts herself in a way which threatens Elizabeth’s sovereignty and brings about a hot cauldron of rebellion and betrayal. Both women have a defiant appearance about them, but they will eventually find it difficult to keep their heads held high as treachery undoes their legacies in a way which will never be easy to repair.

“Mary Queen of Scots” gets off to a very slow start, and I found myself almost falling asleep. It is as though director Josie Rourke, the first woman ever appointed Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, worked too hard to keep things from peaking at the story’s start. But once Ronan and Robbie make their presences known to us, this movie really hits its stride as both actresses inhabit their characters in ways both fearless and stunning as each proves they are more than ready to govern a country in a way Theresa May only thinks she can.

Ronan is exhilarating to watch throughout as she makes Mary Stuart into a bold ruler who will not suffer fools in the slightest, and seeing her stare down her most loyal servants, male and female, is truly a sight to behold. It’s like her eyes are spitting out daggers to where she has to say nothing in getting her point across. Just watch her scenes with Jack Lowden who plays Mary’s second husband, Lord Damley, who woos her in a way which would have earned this movie an NC-17 just a few years ago. But just as Lord Damley thinks he is the one in power, Mary emasculates him to where he is of little use other than impregnating her and giving an heir to the throne. Ronan stares Lowden down with what seems like little effort, and you have to give Lowden credit for playing a man who is so out of his depth in the monarchy.

Robbie came out of nowhere like a firebolt with her breakthrough performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she continues to wow us with one great performance after another in movies like “I, Tonya.” In this movie, she has an especially big challenge as Queen Elizabeth I is a historical character who has been played by many actresses over the years in various movies. We could spend our time comparing her performance to those given by Cate Blanchet and Dame Judi Dench among others, but n the end she more than makes this role her own. Even as she shows the power Elizabeth has all those around her, the actress is unafraid to show us this queen’s vulnerabilities which do not end with an almost deadly bout with smallpox. Seeing all those pox marks on her face succeeded in bringing back a lot of bad memories for me, and I have to give the makeup artists high praise as a result.

In real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face, but the thought of them in a room together is highly intriguing. What would they talk about? Can’t they relate to one another in a way they cannot with others? The ideas abound, and what results here is a riveting scene between Ronan and Robbie as their characters strive to assert a power they see as being given to them without question. These two actresses do some of their best work yet here, and seeing them face off and hold their own results in one of the strongest pieces of acting I have seen in a 2018 movie.

Both Mary and Elizabeth respected and were frightened by one another. It’s tragic they could not become better friends as they were one and the same; female leaders who ruled in a time when the thought of a woman commanding such a power was something were too easily frightened by. The level of testosterone surrounding them did not stop them in their tracks, but it is clear how one queen fared better than the other.

“Mary Queen of Scots” thrives on the performances of Ronan and Robbie. The story is at times a bit hard to follow as the politics of the time are not always made clear, but things do improve as the movie goes on. Rourke does a strong job of bringing you right back to the year 1569, and there’s an excellent film score composed by Max Richter which heightens the visceral emotions on display. It’s also great to see actors like Guy Pearce and David Tennant sink so deep into their roles to where they almost completely unrecognizable. Of course, a lot of that is due to an abundance of hair they have on their bodies. What results is not quite a masterpiece, but a powerful motion picture which showcases the amazing talents of its two female leads even as takes liberties with history.

It’s sad to see things have not changed over time. Even now, female politicians still get done in by innuendos (a.k.a. fake news) about their records and accomplishments. But coming out of this movie, I’m fairly certain neither Mary or Elizabeth would have made the mistake of using a private email server in the same way Ivanka Trump did. Again, a lot of that is due to Ronan’s and Robbie’s powerful work.

* * * out of * * * *

Mike Leigh Transports Us to Another Time in ‘Mr. Turner’

Mike Leigh on set of Mr. Turner

English filmmaker Mike Leigh, the man behind such masterpieces as “Secrets & Lies” and “Naked,” takes a stroll back in time with “Mr. Turner.” It stars Timothy Spall who gives one of the very best performances of 2014 as J. M. W. Turner, the landscape painter who became famous for his work in the 1800’s during the Romantic period. But as brilliant an artist as Turner was, he was also a controversial figure due to his eccentric behavior. He was full of great passion and could be very generous, but he was also quite selfish and anarchic. Leigh’s movie looks at the different aspects of Turner’s personality and how it came to inform the paintings which he became remembered for.

One of the things which really struck me about “Mr. Turner” was how fully Leigh sucked us into the time period of the 1800’s to where it felt like we were really there. From start to finish, it never felt like I was watching a movie but experiencing something very unique. Now there have been many period movies in the past few years but watching “Mr. Turner” made me realize how artificial many of them have been. They take you back in time, but there’s something very modern about their presentation which reminds you that you’re just watching a movie. This made me wonder how Leigh had succeeded in taking us back in time so effectively with this film.

Mr. Turner movie poster

I got the chance to ask Leigh about that while he was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. In describing how he perfectly captured the period “Mr. Turner” takes place in, he pointed out why authenticity is missing in so many other movies these days.

Mike Leigh: Well to be honest with you, apart from anything else, this is a function of strong views I have about period films. You get any number of period films where they say, let’s not have period language. The audience can’t deal with that. Let’s make it contemporary then the audience can access it. Let’s not make the women wear corsets because it’s not sexy, etc., etc., etc. Now the principle here with this film and with “Topsy-Turvy” and with “Vera Drake” which was also period but here not least is we said okay, let’s do everything we can in every aspect from the performance to the language to the frocks, to the props, to the places, to everything and to make it really possible for the audience to feel they have got into a time machine and have gone back and experienced it. Okay, there’ll be things people say that’s strange and you don’t quite get (what they’re saying), but that doesn’t stop people getting what that means. In fact, that smell of antiquity in some way makes it all the more plausible. I can imagine Hollywood executives being pretty twitchy about the pig’s head being eaten, but that’s what they did.

I keep thinking about “L.A. Confidential” which took place 1950’s Los Angeles but of how its director, Curtis Hanson, didn’t let the actors be governed by the period it took place in. Granted, the contemporary feel didn’t take away from that movie, but that’s the exception. With “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh shows us we don’t have to give every period movie a contemporary feel, and this is what makes it such a brilliantly vivid movie to watch. You come out of it feeling like you lived through part of the 19th century, and very few filmmakers can pull off such a feat these days even with the biggest of budgets.

“Mr. Turner” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi on ‘In Dubious Battle’

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James Franco steps behind the camera once again for his directorial effort, and adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “In Dubious Battle.” This movie takes us back to the 1930’s when a group of migratory workers rose up and began a strike against landowners who informed them their pay was being cut from $3 to $1 a day for their work. In addition to directing, Franco also stars as one of strike’s key leaders, Jim Nolan, who struggles to stay true to his idealism of having the courage never to submit or yield. Also, it features a fantastic cast of actors which include Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bryan Cranston, Ed Harris, Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez, Sam Shepard, Zach Braff and Josh Hutcherson.

I got to speak with the producers of “In Dubious Battle,” Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi, recently at the Redbury Hotel in Hollywood, California. Iervolino is considered one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in the movie business as he has financed and distributed over 50 films since he was 16 years old. Bacardi is an entrepreneur as well and a successful businesswoman, patron of the arts, philanthropist, and humanitarian. Together, they founded the AMBI Group, a multi-national consortium of vertically integrated film development, production, finance and distribution companies.

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Ben Kenber: I thought the movie was really good, and it was surprising to learn that this was one of John Steinbeck’s lesser-known books because, in today’s world, it is so timeless. Is that what really attracted you to producing this movie?

Andrea Iervolino: You know, two years ago, when we decided to produce this movie, we didn’t expect what is now happening in the United States.

Lady Monika Bacardi: A lot of the demonstrations that have happened after the release of the movie. The demonstrations in the film and people fighting for their rights, and now history is repeating itself.

AI: We decided to do this movie because, first of all, we’re big fans of John Steinbeck. He is the best author in American culture, and of course, we love James Franco. When we read the script, me and Monika, we were in two different countries; I was in New York and she was in Monte Carlo. We received the script and we talked for six hours about it.

LMB: And then we decided (to do the movie). It was very fast.

AI: Super-fast. And then we tried to do the maximum we can to promote the movie, and we also went to the Venice Film Festival where it received two awards (for James Franco and Andrea Iervolino). We went to the Toronto Film Festival, the Vail Film Festival, in Capri, etc. So everywhere we went, he received awards for the movie. So, we are proud of the quality in this movie is timeless. We believe today that in 10 years when you watch the movie, for sure a revolution will happen again. A protest will happen again for many individuals so you can think this can be me.

LMB: Yes. When people fight for their rights and they gather together, it’s the hope that they can help them because in their time there were a lot of revolutions that changed things and help the workers get the rights they deserved. So, it’s a message of hope.

BK: It’s interesting how you talk about history repeating itself because it’s a sad fact we can’t seem to escape.

LMB: Yes, it’s sad because we should be learning from history, and the same mistakes should not be made again. There must always be a positive revolution, but unfortunately, we see over and over again that history doesn’t change we make the same mistakes. It repeats itself.

BK: Yes, and that’s why it’s great this movie is being released now. Also, it feels like a miracle this movie got made in today’s world of superhero movies. Was it hard to get the financing for it?

AI: If you do a movie at the right budget, you can do every type of movie you want. The toughest ones to market are the most commercial ones. We believe this movie was made for the right budget and had the right cast, and we believe this movie respects the audience it was meant for.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot this movie in?

AI: The movie was shot in around five weeks.

BK: That sounds like a longer schedule than you like this tend to get these days. Also, it has quite the cast. Was it difficult getting all those actors together?

LMB: James Franco actually has a lot of friends, and he loves John Steinbeck. As a director, he called his friends, and for that reason, this is why he has all the stars together here. He’s a great director and a great actor.

BK: You can tell this is a film people got involved in because of their love and belief in the material, and it really shines through here. Also, you to have been working in the movie business for a while now. How would you say movies have evolved during your time in the business?

AI: You know, I did my first movie was when I was 15, so 14 years ago, I was doing a movie in digital. So, I was the first one in Italy to do a movie in digital because they don’t pay you a lot of money to make your first movie. I financed it by going door to door in my town to collect money, so I was forced to do my movie in digital. But then a few years later I became more powerful because I was the first one with the experience in digital, and I also started to make a movie in Italy with the same technology and distribution point of view, and that was when I was 21. Basically, in my point of view, in the way you can produce a movie there is change, but today I think there are more independent people, young people, with opportunities to produce their movies because the key is that the distribution system has changed. Before you can monetize your movie, you have to go to a local agent to bring your movie to a local cinema or in the local store to someone who can print your DVD, and then you need the agent to go speak with a company. So today, you can run content by yourself. You can do one deal worldwide, and you can add your movie directly to the internet platform. For big managers today, this is a problem because the distribution power is going down, down, down because if you do have good content, you can go for direct distribution, so from who produces and who watches the movie, it is only one step. Before it was 10 or 20 steps which is what managers took advantage of.

LMB: This distribution changed on us.

AI: Yes. And if you think about it, it is like going back. My mentor in Italy, Luciano Martino, he was doing movies in Italy in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and the 1970’s. He was telling me he was producing the movies by himself with his company, and he was going to the cinemas everywhere in Italy to position the movies, and then the movies ran the cinema for six months. So, it was one step production, and today it is again one step. So, it’s like going back. The powers coming back to the producer, not the distribution companies.

LMB: I agree with Andrea always 100%. We cannot speak at the same time, but we have the same opinions on film.

BK: With the changes in distribution, did that help “In Dubious Battle” or take away from it at all?

AI: It actually helped this movie for sure because we were going to go out with the DVD system so we will go out in the principal market, and the same time we will go out in the DVD system. A movie like this cannot make 20 million in one week; it’s too risky. But today, with this new platform, this movie can embrace this distribution concept where you can arrive to your audience and make your audience find the movie all around them without losing your investment.

BK: There is so much money put into advertising movies these days to where it costs more to promote them than to make them.

AI: Yes, sometimes more.

BK: So, it’s nice to see a movie like this can still find its audience while not having a huge budget for advertising.

LMB: Yes, absolutely.

AI: I really believe in three, four or five years, it will become more and more possible to produce a movie with a specific audience because you will know where you can find the audience that likes this movie. Before you needed to spend $10 million dollars in TV advertising in order to get to 300 million people, and in order to reach 3 million people who like your movie.

LMB: (Laughs). It’s absolutely true. Plus, the young people have a different concept that they look a lot of internet, and they go to the movies a lot less than our generation did. It depends on the country, and every country is different

BK: Was there any pressure to modernize this book at all when it came to making this movie?

LMB: We had to keep it as a true story because the message it gives is actually timeless about how history repeats itself. You have to keep it at the time and be true to the book so we cannot change it completely.

AI: Also, the love story component in the movie between Selena Gomez and Nat Wolff and the friendship story between James and Nat, these help the movie be more accessible to young people. Maybe 15, 16 or 18-year-olds, they don’t know or care about John Steinbeck.

LMB: And the love story makes it very human and very touching. It’s about the revolution, but it’s also about the human story and the human aspect.

BK: It almost would have been great to see this movie made in black and white. Was that ever a consideration?

AI: You know, it was in the beginning for about five minutes, but it was too difficult. Black-and-white in a distribution point of view can give you so many limitations. Maybe we can do a black-and-white animation movie someday.

I want to thank Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi for taking the time to talk with me. “In Dubious Battle” premieres in theaters and VOD on February 17, 2017.

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Exclusive Interview with Erin Benach on ‘Loving’

I got to speak with Costume Designer Erin Benach about her work on Jeff Nichols’ historical drama “Loving.” The movie takes us back to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s where we are introduced to Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose marriage quickly had them banished from Virginia as it violated the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. They later sued Virginia, and their civil rights case, “Loving vs. Virginia,” eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the very foundation of marriage ways and ended state laws that prohibited interracial marriage.

Benach also worked with Nichols on his other 2016 movie, “Midnight Special.” She earned a 2012 Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for her work on Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” and she reteamed with him on “The Neon Demon.” She has also worked with filmmaker Derek Cianfrance on his movies “Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and “The Light Between Oceans.” Her other credits include Brad Furman’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Andrew Niccol’s “The Host,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Sugar,” and Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut “Lost River.” You can visit her website at www.erinbenach.com.

In my conversation with Benach, she talked about having the costumes fit into the story without overwhelming it, why the costumes could not stand out too much, and of the challenges she faced in capturing the look and feel of the years “Loving” takes place in. She also talked about the differences of working with Nichols and Refn whose films are so very different from one another.

Please check out the interview above. “Loving” is now playing in Los Angeles and New York.

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