Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Favourite

The Favourite -- review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

This is the third Yorgos Lanthimos film we have seen, and at this point part of the thrill is enjoying the crazy stuff he pulls off.  The first was The Lobster, a black comedy we liked less than the critical mass did, finding his insistence on having his actors deliver their lines without affect or inflection both distracting and self-indulgent.  We did appreciate its absurd originality, though.  The second was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an update of the story of Agamemnon, the legendary Greek king who accidentally kills a deer belonging to the goddess Artemis.  In retribution, he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.  Lanthimos' interpretation was riveting, though uneven.

Those films were written as well as directed by the auteur.  Not so with The Favourite, the first Lanthimos film not written by him, and this might be the magic solution because it reined in his propensity toward excess.  Screenwriter Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara penned this one, and either they are perfectly attuned to Lanthimos or he to them. This is easily his best film; a period piece with a touch of madness, nastiness, and absurdity.  As a bonus, he lost the signature flat delivery of his characters and allowed his excellent, charismatic cast outlets for their talents.

It's the early 18th Century, and England is pitted against France in the War of Spanish Succession. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is ditzy, depressed, and distracted--in other words, uninterested in governing.  Thank goodness her childhood friend Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is around to handle the affairs of state (and other affairs) whila Anne fusses over the 17 rabbits she keeps in her stateroom.  Steely and blunt, Sarah is the match for any man, including Tory opposition leader, Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who opposes Sarah's intention to keep the war going and her husband, Lord Marlborough (Mark Gattis) at its head of the army.  (Fear not, The Favourite is about as interested in the war as is Queen Anne; it is merely backdrop to inspire court intrigue.)

Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a victim of circumstance--her father lost everything, including her, to gambling.  She introduces herself to her cousin Sarah and begs for a job at Kensington Palace.  Sarah takes pity and employs her as a scullery maid, but as we soon learn, Abigail is not the ingenue she appears.  She soon maneuvers herself into the Queen's good graces, setting up a rivalry with Sarah to become the titular "favourite."  Abigail also caught the eye of Masham (Joe Alwyn), Harley's best friend, and the Tory leader sees opportunity.  Frustrated by his inability to win against Sarah in head-on confrontation, he believes he can manipulate Abigail though Masham.  Thus sets up the most devious, humorous, and scandalous merry-go-round of period drama intrigue since 2016's Love and Friendship.

The Favourite pulls off any number of things a lesser film could not.  Cinematographer Robbie Ryan often employs wide angle fish-eye shots, production designer costume designer Sandy Powell elected to use only two colors--Oxford blue and white--for the dresses of all of the ladies of the court, the only differences among them being the patterns.  The film is a comedy, and Lanthimos--or the screenwriters, or both--walk the tightrope of what we can accept.  Their eccentricities bring a delightful originality to the period piece: champion racing ducks, pelting a naked man with pomegranates, a ballroom scene with dancers voguing, and a sprinkling of contemporary termiology, like "OK."  The pitched rivalry between Abigail and Sarah is hilarious, reminiscent of 1989's War of the Roses in its inventive nastiness, but Weisz and Stone sell the underlying pain and desperation each woman feels.  It is Colman, though, who grounds the film.  Though her behavior is at times farcical, her insecurity and the sadness at her failing health bring depth, and when we learn the reason for her devotion to her rabbits, it is heartbreaking.   We beieve this is a major awards player, destined for 8-10 Oscar nominations, and perhaps the best film of the year.
9.5 oiut of 10

Free Solo * Can You Ever Forgive Me? * Fantastic Beasts

Free Solo -- review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Most rock climbers believed the sheer rock face of El Capitan's Dawn Wall was the ultimate challenge.  To attempt the sheer, nearly vertical climb at all seemed attainable by only a few of the very few experts, to do so without ropes or any safety equipment seemed folly.  And yet that is the goal of  Alex Honnold in this National Geographic documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and Jimmy Chin.  This film shows the minute details that go into planning a climb in which one false move means certain death, but its focus in on the man himself, even though it provides precious few insights into what drives Hannold's particular passion.  Perhaps it is simply in the study of his brain, which shows his amygdala--the part of the brain that detects fear and responds to it--seems "dead" to normal stimuli.  Some hints could also be derived from Hannold's upbringing in a family almost pathologically bereft of affection (attachment issues?).  His educator mother expects nothing less than perfection, and his father, who may have had Asperger's Syndrome left the family and died within a year of his departure.  Wherever the answers may lie, Hannold is a quiet, inward individual who leads an ascetic life (he lives out of a van and eats chili out of a can with a spatula as his utensil) and whose sole raison d'etre is to free solo ever more challenging rock precipices.

This simple, if risky, life becomes complicated when Sanni McCandless enters the picture.  They met at one of his book signings, and through sheer force of will she has become part of his life.  Despite  Hannold's protests that she is not as important as his quests, not to mention his fear that she is a distraction that could lead to his literal downfall, McCandless perseveres.  To be fair, Hannold is just as concerned about the distraction that a film crew provides, but Chin and his crew, as well as other climbers like Tommy Caldwell, do not provide the existential threat to his self-actualization that McCandless does.  For, to Hannold himself, he IS what he does, no more no less.  Sanni McCandless wants him to be more, and embace his humanity in the little pleasures that a house and buying their own furnishings can bring.  But can he respond to domestication?  We don't yet know, but just like Hannold, we really want what we came to the theater for: his free solo climb of the dawn wall, and after all of that set-up, we care very much whether or not he makes it.
8.5 out of 10

Can You Ever Forgive Me? -- review by FilmZ

Biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has fallen from the New York Times bestseller list to the bargain rack, and as her fortunes have declined so have her earnings.  With troubles deepening and no friends to turn to, the reclusive writer relies increasingly on the bottle to cope, which in turn kills her initiative to write.  Even her cat, the only creature with whom she has a connection, has fallen ill.  Desperate, she begins to sell personal possessions, including a signed celebrity letter.  Later, while  researching a biography of Fanny Brice, Lee comes upon two signed letters from the vaudevillienne. She sells them, too, and the idea strikes that a formidable career can be had by using her writing skills to dupe memorabilia collectors with forged celebrity letters.  Along her path to crime, she meets roguish Englishman Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a match made in Hell: his love of drink matches hers and his scruples are even lower.  Together, their basest natures multiply, and success leads to greed and greed to ruination.

The movie itself is not be the mad romp one might have expected, given the stars and the tone of the trailers.  Director Marielle Heller sees the morality tale at the core of Israel's autobiography, and she refuses to take the easy path, much to her credit.  Although the film has humor, Heller refuses to romaticize the crimes and unflinchingly shows how addiction greases the skid onto depravity and ruination.  And along the way, she coaxes possible Oscar nominations from McCarthy and (especially) Grant, exposes the live wire of the adapted screenplay, and makes herself a slight possibility for a directorial nomination.
8.0 out of 10

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald -- review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s follow-up to her world-wide phenomenon Harry Potter series, had big shoes to fill.  And it didn't.  That film's sequel continues the slide--not to say the ongoing story of “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is bad.  It's just that, considering the lofty standard, an ordinary fantasy no matter how dazzling to the eye, is still ordinary.  It's New York in 1926; Newt he and Ministry auror (think marshal), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), have captured dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a "pure-blood" Hitlerian wannabe.  The Crimes of Grindelwald opens with his escape, Tina in parts unknown, and Newt recruited by a younger Dumbledore (Jude Law), to bring him to justice.  Dumbledore cannot deal with Grundelwald himself, you see.  Of course, none of this could be set in motion without the machinations of interspecies lovebirds, baker-extraordinaire Muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler) and mind-reading Witch Queenie (Alison Sudol).  The action takes us from New York to London to Paris with much sturm und drang, part of which is a muddled subplot that includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) whom we learn through flashbacks held Newts heart while they were Hogwarts schoolmates.  But the slowly revealed main plot concerns the true identity of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a powerful but troubled young wizard whom some want to kill and others long to embrace.

All of the tricks and eye-candy are present in The Crimes of Grindelwald, and it valiantly tries to mke connections with the mother series: spells, portkeys, Prof McGonigle, help always available to those who ask for it, and of course magical creatures.  Director David Yates' roots go back to the original series, and we have to hope he and Rowling have a master-plan in the current five-film series that approaches the magic of the original.  But, truth be told, episode two, at 134 minutes feels too long by a half-hour, and try as it might to tie into the mythology and drive the story forward, it feels like a place-holder.
6.0 out of 10


Widows review by FilmZ

Director Steve McQueen teamed with writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to adapt the Widows screenplay from Lynda La Plante’s 1980s British TV series.  Rather than make a breezy, implausible Oceans 8-style romp, though, he crafted a dark, implausible heist film. We aren't saying Widows is implausible because women are pulling off the job. All of the male-dominated Oceans movies have been implausible, too.  Heck, most heist movies are, but some are inventive in planning and execution and don't rely on coincidence, dumb luck, or simply ignoring plot holes.  In this respect, Widows is better than Oceans 8, but not up with the genre's top films.  But then, McQueen and Flynn have bigger ideas: Black citizens taking back their communities, Chicago backroom politics, feminist agency, and Black Lives Matter.  And it is yet another example of a strong, original content film with terrific actors that underperforms at the box office.  [Listen folks, stop begging for movies like this if you're not going to go out to see them.]

Veronica (Viola Davis), a teacher's union rep, Linda (Michelle Rodriquez) a dress shop owner and mother of two, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) a physically abused wife, find themselves alone and in trouble after Veronica's husband Harry (Liam Neeson) led the husbands to their deaths in the getaway from an armed robbery.  The women are in dire circumstances because their husbands robbed $2 million from local hood Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).  Jamal visits Veronica and gives her a month to repay her husband's debt, the implicit threat insured by the reputation of his psychotic  brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya).  Jamal must present an air of respectability, though, because he hopes to become the first Black alderman of his community, unseating Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), scion of a family dynasty that includes his father and advisor Tom (Robert Duvall).

Veronica comes upon Harry's notebook which includes meticulous plans for his next heist.  The notebook itself would be worth the debt she owes.  But Veronica proposes that she, Linda, and Alice finish what their husbands started with an even bigger payday.  Initially, Linda and Alice are reticent, but when Linda learns that her husband had gambled away her dress shop, and Alice's mother (Jacki Weaver) suggests that the only thing her daughter is qualified to be is an escort, desperation pushes all three women together.  The plan requires a reliable driver, though, and none of the women qualify.  Enter Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairdresser and single mom who babysits Linda's kids to make ends meet.  Now they are four.  Unbeknownst to Veronica, Jatemme has been tailing her. Meanwhile, the Alderman's race heats up, with an insiders look at politics, Chicago-style, where neither incumbent nor challenger is admirable, much less ethical.

If all of this seems cluttered and disjointed, it's really not.  Yes, one might argue that McQueen is taking on too many issues, but he and Flynn slowly leak revelations that lead to several cool-to-excellent plot twists as all characters and subplots come together.  The issues also intertwine and meld.  The Hans Zimmer score is a highlight, establishing a sense of urgency and intrigue while remaining unobtrusive.  A small complaint: for a thriller, things grind along slowly at times.  And one more.  Why hire a talent like Carrie Coon for a couple of scenes, ones in fact that any competent actress could do?  Here, she feels like little more than a plot device.  Overall, though, the film is well-cast and boasts uniformly outstanding performances   We initially thought Widows was going to be a significant Oscar player, but the disappointing box office, despite critical enthusiasm, dampens that.  Still, though, it leaves us with a really good heist film with important social commentary.
8.0 out of 10

Notes on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Girl in the Spider's Web

Notes on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Girl in the Spider's Web 
by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

If you like Coen brothers films like we do, you are always ready for the laugh you shouldn't be laughing at and the violence that comes unexpectedly, and sometimes these elements arrive at the same time.  This anthology, combining some of the best features of O Henry and Night Gallery, won the Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival.  It was originally meant to play as six stand-alone stories in a Netflix miniseries.  We watched it as a feature length film with a 2:13 runtime, its tales of the Old West transitioned by hands turning pages on a Zane Grey-style volume that introduces and closes each vignette.  Given their ouevre, the Coens love the Western genre, and they have assembled an impressive array of talent to carry it all off.

The stories are:
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Coen mainstay Tim Blake Nelson is perfectly cast in the eponymous role as a singing cowboy in the tradition of Gene Autry, but by way of Bugs Bunny.  Innocent and seemingly harmless, he proves to be a hilariously lethal gunhand in this morality tale.
Near Algodones - James Franco is a dim cowboy bank robber who runs across a lunatic bank teller (Stephen Root) and ends up firing off the best, and most literal, example of gallows humor we have seen in a long time.
Meal Ticket -  In a near silent-movie style, Liam Neeson plays a traveling sideshow huckster whose only act is an armless, legless young mand, played by Harry Melling (Harry Potter's Dudley Dursley)  who recites "Ozymandias" and Shakespeare with dramatic aplomb but to ever dwindling crowds.
All Gold Canyon - This Jack London tale features Tom Waits as a prospector who learns to watch his back.
The Gal Who Got Rattled - Inspired by SE White's short story Zoe Kazan is a young woman crossing the Great Plains in a wagon train who finds herself suddenly alone and destitute.  As she and the assistant wagon master fall in love, a lost dog brings a sudden and twist to the tale.
The Mortal Remains - A devout Christian (Tyne Daly), a crusty mountain man (Chelcie Ross), and a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) share a stagecoach with Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O'Neill, bounty hunters ferrying a cargo (a corpse) across a twilight landscape in a tale of the macabre.
The stories range from good to excellent, so let's average them out to:
8.0 out of 10

The Girl in the Spider's Web

Having read and enjoyed Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo trilogy, we didn't know what to make of David Lagercrantz's continuation of the series after the author's untimely passing.  Larsson's Lisbeth Salander story unfolded, taking surprising twists and ended in a satisfying way.  Where would Lagercrantz take it?  We didn't read his book, but the movie, while a decent story about stolen keys to a computer program that can set off unilateral nuclear destruction moves the tone from intelligent intrigue to hard-core actioner, and thus it is a letdown for fans of the series.

Claire Foy makes a good Salander (we've seen criticisms of her portrayal, and we conclude that those critics have not read the books).  She is sullen, boyish, and badass.  But while Spider's Web paints the cold, bleak Swedish setting, it doesn't capture the spirit or the body of  Millenium Trilogy.  The plot is pedestrian yet implausible, and the protagonist could be any bright woman with mad computer skills.  The vengeful feminism, integral to the character and the plots, is here just a tacked on, unrelated scene.  It also messes with her back story, and interrelationships we've come to know, most egregiously that of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) here a moon-eyed bit player rather than an integral partner, and Vicky Krieps, who needs to have a talk with her agent about the cameo role that is Erika Berger, a secondary but significant character.  New to the scene is Ed Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) American agent and computer expert in his own right who brings his own convenient and implausible skills to the party.
Stream it for a decent action movie, but see the originals.
6.5 out of 10

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