Film Review: The Favourite (2018)

When I took a break from blogging, I hoped to spend some time watching films and reading. Unfortunately, a bout of severe Flu has meant no reading, but I have managed to watch a few films on DVD. This is the first one I am reviewing.

(Historical characters, so spoilers do not apply)

This film has won so many awards that I won’t list them here. Suffice to say it was adored by most critics, though I have read mixed reviews from my blogging friends online. It is an historical drama, with real characters from the early 18th century in England, including Queen Anne, and the Duchess of Marlborough. Importantly, it is also a film where the three leads are all female, and played by outstanding actresses.

Set toward the end of the Queen’s life, we find her unwell as a consequence of disease. She is troubled too, as despite seventeen pregnancies before the death of her husband, not one child lived past the age of eleven. Saddened by becoming a widow, she lives in her palace surrounded by bickering courtiers and grabbing politicians, each and every one of them hoping to benefit from their association with the queen. Foremost of these is Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Her husband the Duke of Marlborough is the head of the Army, which is embroiled in the war of The Austrian Succession being fought in Europe.

Meanwhile, his wife controls not only the queen, but also parliament, and the royal funds. She is very much ‘The Favourite’ of the title. The film shows a long-term lesbian relationship between Sarah Churchill and the queen that was alluded to at the time, but has since been discounted by many learned historians. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that Queen Anne did indeed love women, and slept in her bed with them. But like many things that happened hundreds of years ago, you will have to make up your own mind about how factual this is.

Along comes Abigail, a relative of Sarah Churchill; a young woman down on her luck, and seeking employment. At first she is relegated to chores in the kitchens, and it takes all of her guile to come to the attention of the queen. When she finds favour, her situation changes, much to the obvious annoyance of Sarah. The rivalry between these two women for the affection and influence of the queen is the mainstay of the story.

This film is simply breathtaking to behold. Even on my 40-inch TV it looked wonderful, and made me wish I had seen it on the biggest cinema screen available. The unusual use of extreme wide-angle and fisheye distortion lenses draws the viewer into the scene, and long tracking shots give some idea of the vast interconnnecting corridors in palaces so big, the queen could get herself lost in them. Costume and set design is nothing less than flawless, and no cost was spared recreating sumptuous period detail, including filming in locations like Hampton Court Palace and Hatfield House.

Olivia Colman rarely delivers a bad performance, and her Queen Anne is completely believable. Emma Stone as Abigail shows her cunning and contrivance well, and plays the part of a young woman prepared to go to any lengths to rise in society. But Rachel Weisz stole the film for me as the arrogant and confident Duchess, Sarah Churchill. Faced with loss of power and favour, she goes all out to recapture her influence. Every cast member is on top form, however small their role. From the cook, to the haughty soldiers there is not one that fails to convince. Nicholas Hoult shines as the politician, Harley. In a ridiculous wig, and covered in make-up, he still manages to seem ruthless and determined.

I have to make it clear that I loved this film, and didn’t want it to end. I could have watched it for another two hours without blinking, and in my opinion it deserved every award it received, and more. To my blogging friends who didn’t feel the same, I respect your opinions.

But for me, it was a cinematic delight!

Just Been Watching…(126)

Hereditary. (2018)

I watched this film on Netflix, and I don’t know if it is available elsewhere.
***No spoilers***

You know that feeling when you are looking forward to a film? Everyone has given it great reviews, the cast is solid, and all over the Internet people are saying how good it is. You pick the right time, settle down uninterrupted, and concentrate on the film from start to finish.

You really want to like it. You want to reply to all those reviews saying you agree with them, and it’s a great film.

And then you don’t actually like it that much.

This American horror film follows the trials and tribulations of a family following the death of the elderly grandmother. She was a rather spooky lady, who we don’t get to know that much about at the start.

Things go badly wrong, and I mean badly. The pace picks up, there are some genuinely unsettling moments, and everyone involved lookes suitably distressed, scared, and anguished when they are supposed to.

But ultimately, it is an old-school devil worship/demon/occult film, with some aspects borrowed from other films, and the performances becoming overblown to the point of hysteria as we reach the (unsurprising) climax.

Toni Collette does her best as the distraught mother, though Gabriel Byrne looks half asleep through most of the film.

It’s not a bad film, but it didn’t impress me as much as it did everyone else.
I must be getting harder to please.

But you might like it.

Just Been Watching…(119)

Den Of Thieves (2018)

Do you ever start watching a film and think, ‘hang on, this is a rip-off’? Almost as soon as this film started, I was wondering if it was a shady remake of ‘Heat’ (1995) which was itself a remake of ‘LA Takedown’ (1989), albeit by the same director.

‘Den of Thieves’ begins with an exciting scene where a very professional gang attack an armoured security truck, with things going wrong when one gang member kills a guard, leading to the rest of the guards having to be shot too. And it is set in Los Angeles County.
(Yes, the same as in ‘Heat’)

The cop who arrives to investigate is a hard-drinking, no-nonsene leader of an elite squad of gang-busting cops. He has little time for his superiors, and no time for the FBI at all. He puts pressure on suspects, and follows them around, actually confronting them face-to-face.
(Sound familiar?)

He is always at work or out with his team, and rarely gets home. So his wife leaves him.
(Yes,’Heat’ again)

When the police team are keeping watch on the criminal gang, they are also being watched by them in turn. As the police compile a list of suspects, the gang leader makes a list of the police team opposing him, and profiles the top cop. One of the criminals is an electronics wizard, who is also good with explosives.
(I know, ‘Heat’ again!)

I was seriously thinking of reaching for the off-switch when things took a different turn, and it stopped just parroting ‘Heat’.

Beginning with a tense hostage taking in a bank, and leading to a cleverly executed climax of the well-planned robbery of the impregnable Federal Reserve Bank, the second half gives this film its own identity. And there is a twist too!

With the police now in pursuit of the escaping robbers, it all ends not in a car chase, but in a very well choreographed shoot-out sequence in a traffic jam, of all things. So it seems to all be over. But wait. There’s another twist! And that second twist is a real goodie!

With Gerard Butler as Nick, leading the police team, and Pablo Schrieber as Merriman, the tough ex-marine criminal, I didn’t recognise any of the rest of the cast. Though one of them is ex-rapper, 50-Cent. They all did well though, and were convincing enough. Car chases were kept to a minimum, and despite the often groan-inducing similarities with earlier films, I ended up liking this film much more than I thought I would.

Here’s a trailer.

Just Been Watching…(110)

Outlaw King (2018)
***Historical events, so spoilers do not apply***

I watched this film on Netflix. I believe it is only available there.

Another hot afternoon saw me with windows open and curtains closed, deciding to watch a film to take my mind off the uncomfortable humidity.

This is an historical drama set in 14th century Scotland, showing the struggle of Robert Bruce to become the King of Scotland, and to unify his country against the occupying English army of Edward The First. It begins with the surrender of the Scottish lords to Edward, and shows the bickering between the clans and nobles of Scotland over who should be regarded as the highest family in the land. They eventually agree to pledge themselves to Edward, and to pay his taxes. In return, some are granted lands, and Robert is given a pretty English wife, the daughter of a brave knight.

But the peace is shaky at best, and when news arrives of the capture and execution of William Wallace, (think ‘Braveheart’, sort-of) Bruce decides to try to unify the Scots against England once again, and to proclaim himself King of Scotland. When the young prince Edward is sent with a large English army, things don’t go well for Bruce, and he is forced to escape and seek refuge in the islands, accompanied by a small bad of loyal soldiers. His wife is captured and held prisoner in London, and more clan rivalries surface, with some Scots refusing to join him in any more battles against the English.

But if you know your history, then you know that he tried, and tried again, eventually raising a large army. With Edward I dying in the north on the way to confront Bruce, his headstrong son takes charge of the massive army, and he heads into Scotland determined to defeat the Scots once and for all. After the English have raped and pillaged all over Scotland, Bruce gathers more followers, and he picks an ideal spot to confront his enemies near Loudon Hill, in 1307. After a huge victory for the Scots under Bruce, the young Edward II is forced to retreat, and never again manages to conquer Scotland.

Well, here we have a very ‘old-school’ historical epic, that often feels as if it could have been made in the late 1960s. But that’s not a criticism. Wonderful location shooting, magnificent scenery, and beautiful widescreen cinematography makes this film a joy to watch. Granted, it is only ‘based on’ real events, so we have to allow for some minor inaccuracies and assumptions. But period detail is nothing less than perfect throughout, and the battle scenes show the reality of the brutal style of 14th century warfare.

We get a great cast, with some outstanding British actors, and American heart-throb Chris Pine does a great job as the troubled Bruce, complete with trying a Scottish accent.

I thought it was really good, and I enjoyed it much more than the overblown antics of ‘Braveheart’.

Just Been Watching…(109)

Apostle (2018)

***No spoilers***

I saw this on Netflix, but it was widely released.

A period drama, set in 1905. Filmed in some stunning locations in Wales, and with some Welsh actors leading the cast. But it isn’t about Wales, or the Welsh. In fact, it is about a fictional religious cult, living apart from society on a remote island.

(Yes I know, you are already thinking ‘The Wicker Man’. So was I)

Troubled ex-priest Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) is tasked with travelling to join a secret cult, in the hope of rescuing his sister. She has been trapped there by the cult members, and has managed to smuggle out a letter to their father. They are demanding a ransom, but Thomas has his suspicions that they will just take it, and not free the girl. After a difficult journey, he manages to join the community, and finds it is led by the self-styled prophet, Malcolm. (Michael Sheen) In return for work, everything is provided for the cult members, as long as they adhere strictly to the teachings of the leaders, and follow all the rules.

Thomas has no intention of doing so, and is soon off investigating on his own. He finds secret tunnels, suspicious basements, and with the help of a young man he befriends, he breaks in to discover some very dark secrets. There is also trouble with the three leaders of the cult, with one hoping to take control of the island from Malcolm, and prepared to do anything to get that power. As they hunt for the possible spy inside their community, things get out of control, and the tension begins to rise to the gory climax.

With no spoilers, thats about all I can divulge. But on the way, the film-makers throw everything at the viewer. Grisly murder, lots of gore, torture machines, a soupcon of cannibalism, a spooky human ‘Goddess’, and someone resembling ‘Leatherface’ from ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. In fact the film is so derivative, it not only borrows from ‘The Wicker man’, but almost any classic Hammer Horror film you could mention. Pretty girls in peril, men deciding to combat corruption, and above all, a heroic character who will face any danger to save anyone worth saving.

Yes, it is incredibly ‘retro’, and sometimes feels as if it was made in the early 1970s.

On the plus side, it has those stunning locations, good widescreen cinematography, a few decent shocks, and a solid cast of mainly British actors. The well-known face of Lucy Boynton is thrown in too, to give us someone nice to look at. But it’s not really scary enough to be called a horror film, and not really dramatic enough to be a historical drama. It ends up not really knowing what it is trying to be, but is always pretty good to look at.

Not great, by any means. But I quite enjoyed it.

Just Been Watching… (108)

Annihilation (2018)
***No Spoilers***

I watched this on Netflix. But it was released in cinemas and is widely available.

Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh. A science fiction film set in the present day, with a top cast, and an interesting premise.

Naturally, I was going to watch this one.

An older-looking (finally) Portman plays the successful biology professor, Lena. She is still mourning the loss of her Special Forces soldier husband, Kane. (Isaac) His unit disappeared on a covert mission one year earlier, and he is presumed dead. Then one evening, he suddenly appears at the house. His memory of the past year is blurred, and his timeline skewed. He doesn’t know where he was, or how he got back. And he is also very ill.

When he collapses, his distraught wife gets an ambulance. But on the way to the hospital, they are hijacked by a black ops team, and taken to a top secret research base in a remote part of America. There, Lena discovers the secret that the government is keeping. There has been an ‘incident’, called The Shimmer. A large area has been taken over by an unseen force, inside a shimmering glow. It is growing at an alarming rate, and looks set to take over much of the region and eventually the whole of America. Everyone who has been sent in to try to find what happened has never returned.
Except for Kane, her husband.

Lena meets other women there, including the project director, Ventress. (Jason-Leigh) When she finds out that the team of female scientists is heading into the shimmer, to try to find the source of the power at an old lighthouse, she volunteers to go along.

So this is a film starring women. Isaac spends most of the film in a coma, with his role mainly played as flashbacks. The women are not chosen as eye candy, or to be dependent on male co-stars. They are all tough, intelligent, and have their own reasons for volunteering for the potentially suicidal mission. That made a refreshing change, I can tell you.

Once they enter inside The Shimmer, it is immediately apparent that something very strange is happening. Animals are familiar, yet mutated. The same goes for flowers and plants, which are out of place, yet growing abundantly. Some plants have even grown into the shape of human beings, and much of the infrastructure is being rapidly reclaimed by this ‘new version’ of Nature.

The team discovers that they have lost all sense of time. Their memories are affected, compasses and electronic equipment don’t work, and they are forced to rely on their wits to survive, as their spirits degenerate, and they begin to turn on each other. Only by getting to the lighthouse can they discover the truth about what is happening to the planet.

We are treated to a few shocks, a little gore, and a lot of intelligent concepts. We have to deal with DNA, the multiplication and duplication of cells, and how biology adapts to a given circumstance. Yet the viewer doesn’t need to have a biology degree to understand it, they just have to pay attention.

With a great cast on top form, special effects that are (mostly) very convincing, and a story that requires engagement from the viewer, I have to conclude that this was actually very good indeed.

Just been watching…(101)

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

I have to say straight away that I am not a huge fan of the British band Queen. I thought that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was an amazing song at the time, and they have some ‘anthems’ that everybody can sing and enjoy. But I was very much a fan of completely different kinds of music, and never owned a single album by this band. But this is a film review, so I will rate it as such.

I would probably never have bothered to watch this, had not the DVD turned up in the house. But once it started, I thought ‘why not’? I am not sure if die-hard fans of the band will enjoy this. In fact, I do know one man who loves the group, but hated the film. I can see it from a very neutral perspective, and have no bias either way.

The first thing I should say is that this is a film about Freddie Mercury. The rest of the band is featured of course, alongside the manager, record company executives, and Freddie’s love interests. But it is all about Freddie, and the actor playing him (Rami Malek) is rarely off screen throughout. It has a rather ‘retro’ feel, looking at the rise of the famous group in much the same way as many other music biopics have done in the past. Arguments about songs, snippets of performances, world tours, sitting in dressing rooms, travelling in buses. You know the deal.

Factually, it glosses over a lot of actual events, and introduces some supposed ‘facts’ that are just not true. No doubt this is done for dramatic effect, but even a non-fan like myself found some things irritating. Much is made of Freddie’s sexuality, drug use, heavy drinking, and apparent ‘prima-donna’ personality. He comes across as someone I don’t think I would have wanted to know.

On the plus side, (yes, there are plus sides) Malek does Mercury well, even singing the songs. He struts, preens, and poses as we might expect, and he doesn’t attempt a straight impersonation. Given how well-known Mercury was, this was a good decision. But for me, this also means that he never completely convinces in the role, and despite the huge number of awards won by the film, I was far from impressed. The rest of the casting is first rate; with the reliable Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, and an unrecognisable Mike Myers all doing well.

I didn’t feel it though, as you can probably tell. I would sooner watch the real band in concert, to be honest.

Still, what do I know? Here’s a trailer.

Just been watching…(93)

Bird Box (2018)

***No spoilers***

As I have recently gained access to Netflix, I thought I would try out some of its ‘exclusive’ films. This film has had mixed reviews, mostly bad ones, but I wanted to see for myself. It was free after all, and I could just turn it off if I didn’t like it. I started the film with limited expectations. Never a huge fan of Sandra Bullock, and I have seen almost every ‘Post-Apocalyptic’ thriller going. But John Malkovich was in it, so it had to be worth trying.

The film begins close to the end, and flashes back to how we got there. I don’t mind that construction, though you have to be alert to the words ‘Five years earlier’ appearing on screen. If you turned away as that popped up, it may initially have been a little confusing.

There has been a worldwide disastrous event. People have been ‘seeing something’ and it causes them to immediately commit suicide, in any way available. In the flashback segments (they appear early on, so are not spoilers) we see deliberate car crashes, various people jumping out of windows, and others using everything from guns to solid objects to kill themselves. Most of these are very well done, leaving the viewer shocked and surprised. There is little or no explanation as to what might be causing this phenomenon, but one constant is that people ‘see’ something, and when they do, they kill themselves by using whatever means are available.

Bullock plays the lead role of Malorie, a gifted artist, and a pregnant single mother. After the disaster makes its way to North America, she eventually finds refuge in the home of a man unaffected, discovering a mixed group of other people who are also sheltering there. From this point, the film takes the turn into a familiar ‘siege’ scenario, with the terrified group avoiding contact with outsiders, and bickering among themselves. But we are made aware that people must protect themselves by never looking outside. When they do venture out, they must all wear blindfolds, or cover their eyes. Failure to do this for even the shortest time means that they will see whatever it is people see, and kill themselves seconds later. For our benefit, the action flashes forward five years, so we get to see how Malorie is progressing later on. Then it returns to the dire situation the group finds itself in.
Without any spoilers, that’s more or less all I can say.

“Drum roll”.

I actually liked it! Despite everything I had read that put it down, this film had real tension throughout, and every cast member took it very seriously. The ‘blindfold world’ is a neat idea, and the difficulties of existing when unable to look at anything felt authentic. Set pieces were suitably dramatic, but use of CGI was limited, and that made things feel ‘real’. Deciding not to show ‘the monsters’, was a solid choice, leaving us with a sense of unease about what could actually be out there. In fact, we could make up our own ideas about the unseen force that is attacking mankind. Bullock was intense, but she always is. Malkovich was great, just being his usual villainous self, and everyone else seemed to fit in nicely. British actor Tom Hollander relished his short but very effective role, lifting the latter segment of the film completely. As Sandra is fifty years old, choosing her to play a first-time mum was a bit of a stretch, but so what.

And the Bird Box of the title? They discover that birds sense the presence of the ‘monsters’. By keeping them close, in a small box, their agitated cheeping gives early warning of impending disaster. Not unlike taking canaries down a mine. Nice touch.

The Older Bloggers Survey

Some of you may remember this survey, carried out by Rachel from New Zealand. I completed it, and I know that many of you did too.
I have finally got around to looking up the results, so here are some links to the conclusions.
Some of them surprised me, especially the relatively young age of many respondents.

One film, four versions: A Star Is Born

Some films are remade a lot more than once. In the case of this film, there are no less than four versions, as well as some thinly-disguised ‘copies’. Starting in 1937, with the original film starring Frederick March and Janet Gaynor, it was remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and again in 1976, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. A fourth version is soon to be in cinemas, starring pop sensation Lady Gaga. So, take your pick, and choose your personal favourite.

This is a rare case where I enjoyed the remakes as much as the original, though I have yet to see the latest one. I even preferred Judy Garland in her 1950s film to the rather stagey original, and really enjoyed the singing of Streisand in her one.

If you have never seen it, the story is simple enough. A female protege of a fading male star is taken under his wing, and becomes a huge success, much to the annoyance of the man involved. In the 1937 original it was about acting and film stars. In the 1954 remake, it was about a musical star, so Garland could sing. Then in 1976 Streisand is a talented unknown singer, and Kristofferson a drunken rock star. Nothing much changes in all three films, except the singing.

Here’s the original.

Now Judy, singing of course.

Here’s Barbra. What a voice.

And here’s Lady Gaga, in 2018.

If I could only choose one, I would stick with Judy Garland. That would always be my first choice to watch, from this crop of remakes. The original version lacks the music, but has plenty of acting talent, and the 1976 film has Streisand’s vocals, but feels like a messier film all round. As for Lady Gaga, I will have to let you know.