“CAMILLE” (1936) Review

“CAMILLE” (1936) Review

I am about to confess to something many might regard as sacrilegious. I have never regarded Greta Garbo as one of my favorite actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I had nothing against her . . . personally. But I realized that I could barely recall any of her movies that were personal favorites of mine. Because of this, I was very reluctant to do a re-watch of one of Garbo’s most famous films, “CAMILLE”.

Produced by Irving Thalberg and directed by George Cukor, “CAMILLE” is based upon the 1848 novel and 1852 play “La Dame aux Camélias” (“The Lady with the Camellias”) by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The movie told the story of Marguerite Gautier, a woman of low-class birth who rose to become one of Paris’ top courtesans. Debt-ridden from helping friends and suffering from tuberculosis, Marguerite hopes to attract the attention of an aristocrat named Baron de Varville as her next “client” at the opera. However, just as she manages to attract the Baron’s attention, Marguerite meets a young member of the bourgeois gentry named Armand Duval and instant attraction flares up between them. The attraction eventually develops into love. But external influences – including Marguerite’s debts – threatens their potential for happiness.

I have not seen “CAMILLE” in a long time. A long time. There is a good chance I have not seen it since I was in my early twenties. But something . . . I have no idea what . . . led me to watch this film after so many years. In the end, the only regret that I managed to feel was that I had ignored this movie for so long.

Did I have any problems with “CAMILLE”? Perhaps a few. I noticed that the movie’s narrative began in 1847 and ended roughly a year later. I think. But considering the story’s setting, I found it surprising that the narrative never touched upon the political upheavals that swept throughout Europe between early 1848 and early 1849. In France, the upheaval was known as the French Revolution of 1848. During this event, the French king Louis Philippe I was overthrown in February 1848. Four months later, many Parisian workers had unsuccessfully risen in insurrection against the conservative Second Republic government. I realize that “CAMILLE” is not a political movie. But considering the film’s setting and the fact that one character had plans for a diplomatic career (Armand Duval) and another was a wealthy aristocrat (Baron de Varville), I found odd that the political upheaval was never touched upon.

I also had mixed feelings about the costumes created by legendary Hollywood designer, Adrian. I realize that the man had a reputation for creating some of Hollywood’s most memorable and famous costumes. But . . . I do not know. Oh, yes I do. I think Adrian should have stuck to modern day costumes. His period costumes were not bad. Some of them have actually impressed me. A good example would be this particular costume from “CAMILLE” – namely Marguerite’s dark velvet riding habit:

I also admired how Adrian managed to re-capture the fashion for men during the 1840s:

On the other hands, I had problems with gowns the ones worn by Greta Garbo in the images below:

 

I was inclined to complain about the sequins featured in the costumes, but I discovered that they had been worn as part of fashion for thousands of years – including the 19th century. But I have other problems with the above costumes. One, they looked as if they came from some cheap costume warehouse. And two, Garbo looked as if she was about to be consumed by the voluminous amount of material used to create those gowns. Or could it be that Garbo lacked the figure for the fashions of the mid 19th-century? No . . . I do not believe that is a good excuse. I am certain that Western women of the 1840s came in different shapes and sizes as they do today. It is possible that Adrian had simply failed to design Garbo’s costumes in a way that would fit her perfectly. As a high-priced courtesan, Marguerite Gautier had the funds to purchase a wardrobe filled with clothes tailored to fit her. I do not think that Adrian took the time to fit Garbo’s costumes. Or perhaps she did not give him the time.

Otherwise, I cannot think of any other complaints about “CAMILLE”. If I must be brutally honest, I think it is one of the best motion picture love stories I have ever seen, hands down. Ever. I was surprised that Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the man who had written classics such as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”, had written “La Dame aux Camélias” when he was roughly 23 years old. And screenwriters James Hilton, Zoë Akins and Frances Marion did a superb job in adapting Dumas’ story.

“CAMILLE” could have easily developed into one of those sappy love stories that in which only external forces stood in the lovers’ way. And yes, Dumas’ tale featured those “forces” that stood in the way of Marguerite and Armand’s relationship – Baron Varville, Marguerite’s bank account, her friends and Armand’s father. But there were other forces in play. Namely, Marguerite and Armand. Between her passive aggressive personality, her penchant for evading the truth and her inability to handle her finances; Marguerite had put herself into a situation that made it nearly impossible to have a genuine romance with Armand, let alone anyone. And poor Armand. I could say that he was completely faultless in this romance. Yes, he was naive. Armand was also hot-tempered, rash and a bit too stubborn and proud for his own good. Considering the state of her health, I do not believe Marguerite’s romance with Armand was destined to last very long. However, I feel that it were not for their personal flaws, the pair could have enjoyed more time together than they actually had.

Many still regard Greta Garbo’s performance as Marguerite Gautier as her finest performance. As I had hinted earlier in this review, I have only seen less than a handful of Garbo’s movies. But I cannot deny that she gave a brilliant performance as the cynical, yet warm-hearted courtesan. Although Garbo was a healthy looking woman most of her life, I do admire how she utilized body language and facial expressions to convey Marguerite’s questionable health and languid lifestyle. I have always suspected that Robert Taylor was one of the underrated actors in Hollywood history. He had been in Hollywood for two years by the time he shot “CAMILLE”. Many critics tend to focus on Garbo’s performance when discussing the movie. As I had pointed out, she gave a superb performance. But so did Taylor, as Armand. He did an excellent job in conveying Armand’s character from a very naive young man to someone who is a bit more cynical and mature. And yet, Taylor made sure to retain Armand’s temper and stubbornness.

Another excellent performance came from Henry Daniell, who portrayed Marguerite’s “client”, Baron Varville. Daniell not only skillfully conveyed Varville’s cool and arrogant nature, but also the character’s slight infatuation with Marguerite, but also the latter’s pain in facing the reality of Marguerite’s true feelings for him. Laura Hope Crewes, famous for her role in the 1939 Best Picture winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, gave a very entertaining performance as one of Marguerite’s closest friends, a veteran courtesan named Prudence Duvernoy. It is a shame that Crewes never earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. Her Prudence is a skillful mixture of friendly warmth and a mercenary nature. “CAMILLE” also featured first-rate performances from the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Rex O’Malley, Leonore Ulric, Jessie Ralph and Elizabeth Allan.

I was astounded to learn that “CAMILLE” had earned only one Academy Award nomination – Greta Garbo for Best Actress. And she lost to Luise Rainer’s performance in “THE GREAT ZIEGFELD” . . . much to the surprise of the Hollywood community. Hell, I am not only shocked that “THE GREAT ZIEGFELD” had also won Best Picture, I am flabbergasted that “CAMILLE” did not even earn a Best Picture nomination, along with nominations for the leading actor, a screenplay nomination or a Best Direction nod for George Cukor. How did this travesty happen? A superb movie like “CAMILLE”?

The discovery of the limited amount of acclaim that “CAMILLE” had earned back in late 1936/1937, this only convinces me how irrelevant that the Academy Awards truly are. Thankfully, movie fans still have the movie to enjoy for years to come, thanks to George Cukor’s superb direction; a great screenplay by the likes of James Hilton, Zoë Akins and the legendary Frances Marion; and a superb cast led by the iconic Greta Garbo and the excellent Robert Taylor.

 

 

“THE LAST TYCOON” (2016-2017) Episodes Ranking

Below is my ranking of the episodes from “THE LAST TYCOON”, Amazon Studios’ 2016-2017 loose adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1941 unfinished novel that was published posthumously. Developed by Billy Ray, the limited series starred Matt Bomer as Monroe Stahr:

 

“THE LAST TYCOON” (2016-2017) EPISODES RANKING

 

1. (1.08) “An Enemy Among Us” – While production chief Monroe Stahr commence upon a campaign to secure Brady-American Pictures first Oscar nominations, studio chief Pat Brady seeks for a solution to balance the studio’s account books and get the Board of Directors off his back. Meanwhile, starlet-to-be Kathleen Moore plots to escape from her dangerous deception.

 

2. (1.03) “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” – Brady proves his worth as studio chief as he plans to woo film star Margo Taft to sign up with Brady-American. Due to the loan he had given Brady, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer tries to interfere in the studio’s projects. Brady’s daughter Celia forms a connection with office boy Max Miner. And Monroe’s relationship with Kathleen blossoms.

 

3. (1.09) “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar” – In this season finale that focuses on the Academy Awards ceremony, Brady makes a decision that causes a rift between him and Monroe and Celia. Monroe and Kathleen grapple with the emotional fallout of her deception.

 

4. (1.06) “A Brady-American Christmas” – During the Christmas holiday, Stahr encourages Kathleen to join Fritz Lang’s secluded rehearsal, leaving him alone on Christmas Eve. Brady schemes to boost ticket sales for “Angels on the Avenue”. Celia and Max are brought closer by tragedy.

 

5. (1.01) “Pilot” – The series premiere and pilot introduces Monroe as Brady-American Pictures’ production chief, who constantly clashes with Brady over the content of the studio’s films, fends of Celia’s infatuation with him and falls in love with Kathleen, whose nationality reminds him of his late wife, Minna Davis.

 

6. (1.06) “Eine Kleine Reichmusik” – Stahr orchestrates an extravagant Hollywood party that masks a secret agenda involving Austrian-Jewish musicians. Brady continues to courts Margo Taft to become Brady-American’s permanent leading lady. And Celia becomes aware of director Fritz Lang’s provocative private life.

 

7. (1.04) “Burying the Boy Genius” – The death of MGM production chief Irving Thalberg sends shock waves throughout the Hollywood industry and leaves Brady pondering over Monroe’s shaky health. Meanwhile, the latter risks his budding relationship with Kathleen to save a movie and Brady American.

 

8. (1.07) “A More Perfect Union” – Brady hatches a bold business ploy that has sweeping consequences for the studio’s employees and forces Monroe to contain the repercussions. Kathleen struggles to manage her tangled web of half-truths.

 

9. (1.02) “Nobody Recasts Like Monroe” – Monroe continues his pursuit of Kathleen, who rejects the idea of being a replacement for Minna. Pat Brady’s pet project has a devastating debut, forcing him to accept Monroe’s help. Celia gets cozy in her role as producer, so Hackett takes it upon himself to give her an education.

Tarte Tatin aux Pommes

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Below is a small article about the French dessert known as Tarte Tatin aux Pommes:

TARTE TATIN AUX POMMES

I love Apple Pie. I love it more than any other dessert on Earth . . . well, aside from donuts. I thought there was only one kind of apple pie. Which goes to show how limiting my thinking could be. And I eventually discovered when I learned about the French dessert, Tarte Tatin aux Pommes.

The Tarte Tatin aux Pommes is a pastry that consists of fruit, usually apples, is caramelized in butter and sugar before it is baked as a tart. The apples originally used for the dessert came from two regional varieties – Reine des Reinettes (Queen of the Pippins), and Calville. Over the years, other apple varieties have been used, including Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji and Gala. When choosing apples for a Tarte Tatin aux Pommes, it is important to pick a type that will hold their shape while cooking, and not melt into apple sauce. In North America, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, or Jonathan have proven to be popular choices. The Tarte Tatin can also be made with pears, quinces, peaches, pineapple, and tomatoes. Other fruit and vegetables like an onion can also be used. The Tarte Tatin aux Pommes should be made with puff or shortcrust pastry.

The creation of the Tarte Tatin aux Pommes proved to be an accident. The dessert was created at a hotel called Hôtel Tatin, located in the commune of Lamotte-Beuvron, 200 miles south of Paris, France. The Hotel Tatin was owned by two sisters named Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin during the 1880s. The most common tale about the dessert’s origin is that Stéphanie, who did most of the hotel’s cooking, had started to make a traditional apple pie. But feeling overworked, she left the apples cooking in butter and sugar too long. Realizing that the apples and butter might be in danger of burning, Stéphanie tried to rescue the dish by putting the pastry base on top of the pan of apples, quickly finishing the cooking by putting the whole pan in the oven. After turning out the upside down tart, she was surprised to find how much the hotel guests appreciated the dessert. There is another origin tale for the dessert. In it, Stéphanie had baked a caramelized apple tart upside-down by mistake. She went ahead and served the hotel’s guests the unusual dish. Whatever the veracity of either story, the concept of the upside down tart was new in the 1880s. For instance, patissier Antonin Carême had mentioned glazed gâteaux renversés adorned with apples from Rouen or other fruit in his 1841 book, “Pâtissier Royal Parisien”.

The tarte eventually became a signature dish of the Hôtel Tatin. Many historians and gourmets have argued whether it is a genuine creation of the Tatin sisters or the branding of an improved version of the “Tarte Solognote”, a traditional dish named after the Sologne region which surrounds Lamotte-Beuvron. Research suggests that, while the Tarte Tatin aux Pommes became a specialty of the Hôtel Tatin, the sisters did not set out to create a “signature dish”. They had never written a cookbook or published their recipe. The sisters never even called it Tarte Tatin aux Pommes. That recognition was bestowed upon them after their deaths by Curnonsky, famous French author and epicure, as well as the Parisian restaurant Maxim’s.

Below is a classic recipe for Tarte Tatin aux Pommes from the Epicurious website:

Tarte Tatin aux Pommes

Ingredients

*Frozen puff pastry sheet (from a 17 1/4-ounce package)
*1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
*1/2 cup sugar
*7 to 9 Gala apples (3 to 4 pounds), peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cored

Special Equipment

*A well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Roll pastry sheet into a 101/2-inch square on a floured work surface with a floured rolling pin. Brush off excess flour and cut out a 10-inch round with a sharp knife, using a plate as a guide. Transfer round to a baking sheet and chill.

Spread butter thickly on bottom and side of skillet and pour sugar evenly over bottom. Arrange as many apples as will fit vertically on sugar, packing them tightly in concentric circles. Apples will stick up above rim of skillet.

Cook apples over moderately high heat, undisturbed, until juices are deep golden and bubbling, 18 to 25 minutes. (Don’t worry if juices color unevenly.)

Put skillet in middle of oven over a piece of foil to catch any drips. Bake 20 minutes (apples will settle slightly), then remove from oven and lay pastry round over apples.
Bake tart until pastry is browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer skillet to a rack and cool at least 10 minutes.

Just before serving, invert a platter with lip over skillet and, using potholders to hold skillet and plate tightly together, invert tart onto platter. Replace any apples that stick to skillet. (Don’t worry if there are black spots; they won’t affect the flavor of the tart.) Brush any excess caramel from skillet over apples. Serve immediately.

Cooks’ note:

*Tart can cool in skillet up to 30 minutes. It can also stand, uncovered, up to 5 hours, then be heated over moderately low heat 1 to 2 minutes to loosen caramel. Shake skillet gently to loosen tart before inverting.

“AN IDEAL HUSBAND” (1999) Review

“AN IDEAL WOMAN” (1999) Review

I have a confession. I have not seen that many adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays and novels. And it has been quite a while since I viewed my last adaptation, namely the 1999 film, “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. I was surprised to discover that this 1999 movie was not the first adaptation of Wilde’s 1895 stage play. There have been other adaptations – including four other films and several radio productions. But this is the only adaptation I have ever seen.

Written and directed by Oliver Parker, “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” opens with a ball held at the home of British government minister Sir Robert Chiltern and his wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern. Among those attending the ball are:

*Arthur, Viscount Goring, a close friend of the Chilterns
*Mrs. Laura Cheveley, a former British socialite and Lady Gertrude’s former schoolmate
*Miss Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert’s younger sister
*Earl of Caversham, Lord Arthur’s father
*Lady Markby, a friend of Mrs. Cheveley
*Tommy Trafford, Sir Robert’s aide and potential suitor for Mabel
*Sir Edward, a newspaper baron

During the ball, Mrs. Cheveley approaches Sir Robert with a request to help support a fraudulent scheme she is financing to build a canal in Argentina. Mrs. Cheveley’s request is tainted with blackmail. If Sir Robert does not agree to her request, she plans to reveal that he had sold a Cabinet secret to her late mentor and lover, Baron Arnheim, which enabled the latter to buy shares in the Suez Canal Company three days before the British government announced its purchase of the company. Arnheim’s payoff was the basis of Sir Robert’s fortune and Mrs. Cheveley has Robert’s letter to Arnheim as proof of the latter’s crime. In desperation, Robert turns to his friend, Arthur Goring, to help him deal with the blackmailing socialite, who was a former lover of Arthur.

I understand there had been changes made to Oscar Wilde’s original plot. Since I have never read or seen the play, I will not comment on these changes. Instead, I want to discuss the movie. Overall, I thought it was an entertaining and charming tale about the slippery slopes of moral ambiguity and social hypocrisy. As I watched the movie’s narrative unfold, it occurred to me that it revolved around a good deal of hiding, deception and misconceptions – the very traits that have been a part of romantic comedies in Hollywood for years. The epitome of this kind of storytelling could be found in the sequence in which Lord Goring found himself greeting a variety of visitors inside his home during the space of one night, while he and his valet struggled to keep all or most of them hidden in separate rooms. “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” also featured some sparkling dialogue, thanks to the pens of Oscar Wilde and the movie’s screenwriter/director, Oliver Parker. Both Rupert Everett and Julianne Moore received the cream of the lines:

“Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.” – Arthur, Lord Goring

“Do you know, Gertrude, I don’t mind your talking morality a bit. Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. You dislike me, I am quite aware of that, and I have always detested you.” – Mrs. Laura Cheveley

“All I know, Gertrude, is that it takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it. And even more courage to see it in the one you love. Gertrude, you have more courage than any woman I have ever known. Do not be afraid now to use it.” – Lord Goring

As one can see, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheverley are among my two favorite characters in the story, along with young Mabel Chiltern. Most of the other characters seemed to wallow in arrogance, self-deception or priggishness. My least favorite character proved to be Sir Robert Chiltern. I found him not only priggish, but also hypocritical and dishonest. I realize that audiences are supposed to regard Mrs. Cheveley as the worst kind. And perhaps she is. But her dishonesty did not strike me as hypocritical, as Sir Robert’s.

I have two problems with the plot for “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. I also found it rather annoying that she was the only character who suffered for her dishonesty . . . unlike Sir Robert. The worst he had suffered was a scare and a wife whose disappointment in him only lasted a few days. Then again . . . Oscar Wilde was a man. I should not have been surprised that he would have allowed Sir Robert to suffer as little consequences as possible for his transgressions. Another problem I had with the movie was its last half hour. Following Laura Cheveley’s departure from London, Lord Goring finally asked Mable Chiltern for her hand in marriage. However, Sir Robert had refused to give, due to his discovery that Lord Goring and Laura Cheveley had been lovers in the past. The plot for the film’s last half hour seemed like a completely different story, aside from it being a consequence of Lord Goring’s past. I think Laura Cheveley left the story some twenty to thirty minutes too soon. This made the last half hour feel almost disjointed and unnecessary.

I have no complaints about the movie’s production and look. I really enjoyed Michael Howells’ production designs for the film. I thought he did an excellent job of re-creating late Victorian London. This was especially apparent in crowd scenes that featuring the elite riding along Hyde Park’s Rotten Row and balls and parties for the elite, including the Chiltern’s ball during the film’s first half. Howells’ work was greatly enhanced by Rod McLean’s art direction and Katie Lee’s set decorations. Yes, I have not forgotten about the costume designs created by Caroline Harris. What can I say? They were exquisite, as shown in the images below:

 

The performances featured in “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” struck me as first-rate. There was not a performance in this movie that did not failed to impress me. The movie featured solid, yet charming performances from the likes of Ben Pullen, Nikolas Grace, Peter Vaughn, Marsha Fitzlan, Simon Russell Beale and Lindsay Duncan, whom I found especially entertaining as Laura Cheveley’s witty friend, Lady Markby. Jeroen Krabbé did an excellent job in conveying the ambiguous, yet corrupt nature of Sir Robert’s mentor, Baron Arnheim. John Wood gave a slightly funny performance as Lord Goring’s stuffy father, the Earl of Caversham. Minnie Driver’s portrayal of Sir Robert’s younger sister Mabel Chiltern not only struck me as funny, witty and completely charming.

I must admit that I found the characters of Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern a bit off-putting, but I cannot deny that both Jeremy Northam and Cate Blanchett breathed life into their characters. Northam did an excellent job in capturing the hypocrisy and ambition of Sir Robert Chiltern. And Northam also ably conveyed Sir Robert’s obvious love for his wife. Blanchett gave an equally skillful performance as Lady Gertrude Chiltern. The actress did an excellent job of portraying how Gertrude’s love for Sir Robert dangerously edged toward blind idealism and the character’s emotional devastation upon learning about her husband’s past transgression. Julianne Moore earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Mrs. Laura Cheveley. And it was a well deserved nomination, as far as I am concerned. I thought she gave one of the film’s best performances as the scheming blackmailing socialite, who also possessed a talent for acute and pragmatic observations of human nature and society. The film’s other best performance came from Rupert Everett, who portrayed the superficially self-absorbed Lord Goring. And that is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Everett’s performance so much. He managed to convey the warmth and wisdom underneath the shallow playboy with style, wit and subtlety. Like Moore, Everett managed to earn a Golden Globe nomination.

I enjoyed “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. Well . . . most of it. I thought Oliver Parker did an excellent job of adapting Oscar Wilde’s play with a witty script and a first-rate cast led by Rupert Everett. It is a pity that the last act of the movie seemed almost like an afterthought. Oh well.

Ranking of “THE COLLECTION” (2016) Episodes

Below is my ranking of the episodes from the 2016 limited series, “THE COLLECTION”. Created by Oliver Goldstick, the series starred Richard Coyle and Tom Riley: 

RANKING OF “THE COLLECTION” (2016) EPISODES

1. (1.04) “The Launch” – Under pressure to create the Spring show, the Sabine family’s fashion house, The Maison, is a hive of activity. But designer Claude Sabine is not creating and a seamstress-turned-model named Nina is focused on finding her illegitimate child. American journalist Stanley Rossi returns to question Paul Sabine’s former boss and mentor, forcing Paul to punish those he loves.

2. (1.06) “The Weekend” – The inner circle of The Maison spend a weekend at investor Jules Trouvier’s chateau. There, the Sabine family is rocked by untimely revelations, surprising alliances, relationships and a betrayal that may be damaged beyond repair.

3. (1.02) “The Dress” – The new business marriage with Trouvier is only hours into its honeymoon, when he and Paul clash over how to run the house. With millions at stake, when Nina is thrust into the unlikely role of a couture model events take a darker turn during a photo shoot.

4. (1.07) “The Betrayal” – Everyone at The Maison is somber following a staffer’s road accident, and Helen’s attempts to help using her family connections, only raises troubling wartime questions for Paul. Charlotte meanwhile begins her counter attack on the business and threatens to expose Claude as the true genius behind the Paul Sabine label.

5. (1.01) “The Deal” – Rising fashion designer Paul Sabine is offered the keys to a kingdom when he resurrects his family’s fashion house. But he needs the help of his volatile brother, Claude, the true genius behind the label.

6. (1.08) “The Offer” – In the final episode, Paul fights to maintain The Maison, while his mother Yvette Sabine tries to broker relations between her sons. Nina and American photographer Billy Novak must decide where their future lies.

7. (1.05) “The Afterglow” – Paul’s glory is short-lived and instead of basking in the afterglow of a jubilant show, he is questioned about a dead body found buried on his family’s farm. Meanwhile, Claude declares he is no longer happy to stay in the shadows.

8. (1.03) “The Scent” – Tormented by personal demons, Claude goes to dry out in the country. Meanwhile, secrets from the past war begin to spill out when a dead body is found on the Sabine family’s farm and Paul becomes aware of an investigation into his former boss’ past.

“THE FAVOURITE” (2018) Review

 

“THE FAVOURITE” (2018) Review

From the moment I first saw the trailer for Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 Oscar nominated comedy-drama, “THE FAVOURITE”, I wanted to see it. Badly. Being something of a penny pincher, I had figured I would not get a chance to see the film until its release on DVD, cable television or streaming television. But my sister, who also wanted to see the film, finally convinced me to spend a few extra dollars to see the film while it was still in limited release. 

What was the reason behind my fervent desire to see “THE FAVOURITE”? One, it was a period film . . . and I am a sucker for the genre. Two, the movie was set during the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain, a period I have not personally seen on screen since my viewing of the 1969 miniseries, “THE FIRST CHURCHILLS”. And three, judging from the trailer, the movie struck me as funny, witty and very original. I love originality.

“THE FAVOURITE” is basically Lanthimos’ take on the political rivalry between two of Queen Anne’s courtiers and cousins – Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham, Baroness Masham – for her favor. The movie begins with then Abigail Hill’s arrival at Kensington Palace to serve as a scullery maid (?). Abigail, whose father had lost his fortune during a game of whist, owes her job to her cousin, Sarah Churchill. The latter is the Queen’s premiere courtier and has an emotional hold over the monarch, due to their sexual affair. However, Sarah’s powerful standing in Court begins to decline when Abigail manages to win the Queen’s favor after using her to help relieve the latter’s pain from the gout. Abigail and the Queen eventually begins an affair and former’s standing in Court not only increases, but also threatens Sarah’s.

Lanthimos’ movie had a lot going for it. Thanks to his screenplay, “THE FAVOURITE” featured political intrigue . . . well, somewhat; and three lead characters and a supporting character that proved to be fascinating. Queen Anne’s twelve-year reign proved to be volatile than I had ever surmised. To be honest, I have not given a thought about Anne’s reign since watching “THE FIRST CHURCHILLS” a long time ago. The movie did occasionally focused on the conflicts between the Tory and Whig parties. Abigail Masham, like Queen Anne and Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, favored the Tory party and Sarah Churchill favored the Whigs. The latter party supported Britain’s participation in the War of the Spanish Succession aka Queen Anne’s War, and the Churchills had benefited from John Churchill’s command of British troops during it. Due to Sarah’s emotional control over the Queen, the Whigs under Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin maintained control over Parliament. However, that changed after Abigail’s arrival at Kensington Palace due to Lord Oxford’s insistence that she spy on the Queen’s relationship with Sarah and later, her growing favor with the monarch.

The movie touched upon all . . . or, most of the political aspects surrounding Queen Anne’s Court. However Yorgos Lanthimos, along with screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, had decided to focus upon the emotional and sexual triangle that had formed between Anne, Sarah and Abigail. Watching this triangle unfurl was like being sucked into some emotional vortex – fascinating and at the same time, dangerous and volatile. Davis, McNamara and especially Lanthimos provided moviegoers with a period biopic that certainly skewered from the usual output from both the Hollywood industry and the film industry overseas. Both the best and the worst aspects of all three women and some of the supporting characters seemed to be on display. Some critics have claimed that “THE FAVOURITE” is basically a satire on period dramas. I agree, but it also struck me as a cautionary tale about the acquirement, use and abuse of power. This cautionary tale especially seemed to encompass the Abigail Masham and Lord Oxford characters, as they use Queen Anne to overcome Sarah Churchill’s control of the Court and the Whigs in Parliament. But this theme of abuse of power also touched upon Sarah Churchill and her attempts to maintain her control and the Queen herself, who becomes increasingly determined that she would be the one in control and no one else.

The production’s visuals and designs proved to be first-rate. Robbie Ryan had received both an Academy Award nomination and a BAFTA nomination for the film’s excellent photography. I thought his photography captured the beauty and color of the movie’s English locations. Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton won a well-deserved BAFTA award and earned an Oscar nomination for the movie’s production designs. Both Crombie Felton did a superb job in re-creating the look of Queen Anne’s Court of the early 18th century. And what can I say about Sandy Powell’s costume designs, which earned an Academy Award nomination and won a BAFTA? I thought she did an excellent job in re-creating . . . well, almost re-creating the fashions of early 18th century England as shown below:

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Powell’s designs are not completely historically accurate. Although she accurately shaped the costumes, Powell made them from Nigerian fabrics found in London. And the costumes’ color schemes seemed to feature white, blue, gray and black. Very original, very beautiful, but not particularly accurate.

I certainly had no complaints about the cast. Most of the supporting cast for “THE FAVOURITE” – Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Edward Aczel, and Mark Gatiss – all gave solid performances. However, I must admit that there were times when Gatiss, who portrayed the Duke of Marlborough, barely seemed visible and obviously wasted in this film. However, there was one supporting performance that really impressed and entertained me. It came from Nicolas Hoult, who portrayed English statesman and occasional sadist, Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford. Was the real Lord Oxford a sadist? I have no idea. But he did try to gain Abigail’s assistance to gain favor with Queen Anne with no scruples. Hoult managed to capture his character’s slightly sadistic, yet ambitious nature with such subtlety and skill that I found myself enjoying his performance more than any other in the film.

If I must be frank, the true backbone or backbones of “THE FAVOURITE” proved to be the three leading ladies – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. As much as I enjoyed Hoult’s performance, I realize that this movie would have been nothing without them. Many may wax lyrical over Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s Oscar nominated screenplay, Sandy Powell’s costumes or Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction. But the performances of the three actresses made this movie and all three gave superb performances. Olivia Colman won just about every (or nearly every) acting award under the sun for her portrayal of Queen Anne of Great Britain. What I admire about her performance is that she gave emotional depth to a character that was in danger by the screenplay into devolving into a caricature of an idiot savant. I could probably say the same about Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. There were times when the Sarah Churchill character seemed in danger of drifting into some stereotype of the “butch” lesbian trope. If it were not for Weisz’s excellent acting, for which she received an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress, I would have lost all interest in the character. Emma Stone was lucky that her character Sarah Hill Masham, Baroness Masham never drifted toward the edge of caricature. In a way, she had it easier than Colman and Weisz. But I admire her performance for two reasons. One, she had to master some kind of upper-class English accent without overdoing it. And two, the actress did an excellent job of revealing Abigail’s cold ambitions behind the warm and feminine facade, layer by layer.

And yet . . . despite my admiration for the cast’s performances, the film’s visual style and certain aspect of its narrative; I did not like “THE FAVOURITE”. I did not hate it like some who did. But I did not like it. The movie seemed like a cinematic version of a drama queen. The cinematic epitome of pure titillation. When it comes to historical accuracy in films and television, I seemed to have mixed views. I can tolerate it, if it works for me. I tolerated Sandy Powell’s historically incorrect costumes. I tolerated the fact that the Earl of Oxford character, as portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, was a good 15 years younger than the real Lord Oxford during the film’s setting. And I tolerated the historically inaccurate characterizations of the film’s three leading characters . . . only to a point in which I admired their performances. But the movie had crossed too many lines for my tastes.

Queen Anne kept rabbits as pets to symbolize the 17 children she had lost? Rabbits as pets? During the early 18th century? They were either regarded as food or pests over three centuries ago. What was the point of those rabbits in the first place? What did her lost children have to do with the movie’s narrative, other than reveal Abigail as some uncaring monster? Was that it? What happened to Anne’s consort, Prince George of Denmark? Her husband who was still alive when Abigail Masham née Hill first joined the Queen’s Court? Why was he kept out of the movie, but not Sarah or Abigail’s husbands? His death had proven to be one of the main reasons why the Queen and Sarah first became estranged in the first place. Anne had loved him very much and Sarah’s dismissive attitude toward Prince George’s death sparked the beginning of the two women’s estrangement. Why did the film failed to mention that Abigail was also related to Lord Oxford, as well as Sarah Churchill? And why on earth was her first position at the Queen’s Court as a scullery maid? A scullery maid? Seriously? Someone with her blood connections? Both Sarah and Lord Oxford would have found it socially embarrassing to have a cousin working as a scullery maid within the Queen’s household.

And of course, there were scenarios and scenes that left me scratching my head. One of the scenes I refer to is that ridiculous scenario in which Abigail had poisoned Sarah and had the latter dumped at some whorehouse outside of London. One, it was stupid plan that could have easily backfired. And two, what was the movie trying to say? That Abigail was familiar with places before her arrival at Court? And could someone please explain the reasoning behind the scene that featured a nude, giggling fat man being pelted by blood oranges by Lord Oxford and his cronies. What was the point of that scene? What exactly was Yorgos Lanthimos trying to say? Also, what was the point behind Samuel Masham’s line dance performance (courtesy of actor Joe Alwyn) in the film? What was that about? Or was it another scene for shock value? Honestly, scenes like Sarah in a whorehouse, the pelted naked man and Masham’s dance routine are just examples of the absolute, over-the-top nonsense that I had found in this film.

But what really pissed me off about “THE FAVOURITE” were the changes that Lanthimos, Davis and McNamara made in regard to the history between Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough and the Baroness Masham. What was the point in these changes? It seemed as if the director and the screenwriters had striped away a great deal of the historical conflict between the three women in order to convey a tale of a sexual triangle filled with ambition and passion. And nothing else. This struck me as unnecessary and frankly, a little insulting as a woman. It almost seemed as if the movie found it difficult to take the political beliefs and/or abilities of three women seriously, especially Queen Anne. The estrangement between the Queen and Sarah, along with Abigail’s ascendancy was pretty interesting in real life. Aside from showing Sarah’s political influence within the Court, the movie never really explored the political differences between the Queen and Sarah . . . or the fact that Abigail genuinely shared the former’s Tory politics. Or that Queen Anne had not only grown weary of Sarah’s bullying nature, but also resentful of the latter’s Whig politics. Instead, moviegoers were presented with a tale mainly about sexual power, with very little politics involved.

In fact, there is no real proof that Queen Anne was ever in any sexual relationship with either Sarah or Anne. I dislike the fact that Davis and McNamara’s screenplay solely blamed Abigail for the Queen and Sarah’s estrangement. In reality, Sarah was the main instigator of her own political downfall. In fact, she was also the main reason behind her own downfall within King George II’s Court, some twenty years later. I realize that Davis, McNamara and Lanthimos wanted a “Eve Harrington” figure and they saw Abigail Masham as the perfect figure for this. But if they had wanted a LGTBQ remake of “ALL ABOUT EVE” that badly, why not create original characters for this movie? Why use historical figures who were never proven to be gay in the first place? One more thing, it took me a while, but I finally realized that “THE FAVOURITE” reminded me of another movie. I am speaking of the 1989 comedy about a divorce called “THE WAR OF ROSES”. Like “THE FAVOURITE”, the 1989 movie started out as a movie filled with sharp humor and devolved into something ugly and lurid. And in the case of “THE FAVOURITE” . . . laced with exploitation.

I hate to say this, but “THE FAVOURITE” proved to be a major disappointment for me. Perhaps this would teach me not to judge a film, based upon a trailer. When I first saw it, I had assumed that the film would be a satirical comedy with strong political overtones. Instead, I found myself watching a film in which the comedy became repetitive and not as funny as I had originally assumed . . . and a movie with the historical background changed drastically for the sake of shock value and sheer exploitation. Director Yorgos Lanthimos, along with screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, pretty much ruined this film for me. And not even the excellent performances of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz or Emma Stone could save it, as far as I am concerned.

 

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” (2018) Review

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“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” (2018) Review

Following the success of the 2016 movie, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, Warner Brothers Studios and author J.K. Rowling continued the adventures of former Hogwarts student, Newt Scamander with the 2018 sequel called “FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”. Starring Eddie Redmayne, the movie was directed by David Yates. 

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” began in 1927, less than a year after the events of the 2016 movie. In the film’s opening, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) is transferring the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald from their maximum security prison in New York City to London. The latter is be tried for his crimes in Europe. But with the aide of Grindelwald’s follower, MACUSA agent Abernathy, the wizard manages to escapes during the transfer. Three months after Grindelwald’s escape, magizoologist Newt Scamander appeals to the Ministry of Magic in London to restore his revoked international travel rights following his previous adventures in New York City. While at the Ministry, Newt learns that his former Hogwarts classmate, Leta Lestrange, is engaged to his brother Theseus, an auror in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. The Ministry offers to restore Newt’s travel rights if he assists Theseus in locating Credence Barebone, the American obscurial believed to have been killed in Paris. He has been detected in Paris.

Grindelwald is also searching for Credence. He believes that only the latter is powerful enough to kill his “equal”, Hogwarts Professor Albus Dumbledore. Newt declines the Ministry’s offer, but is is secretly summoned by Dumbledore, who also tries to persuade Newt to locate Credence. Dumbledore under constant Ministry surveillance for refusing to confront Grindelwald, who was a former close friend from the past. Upon his return home, he discovers that his American friends, the non-magical Jacob Kowalski and witch Queenie Goldstein had left New York. Jacob has retained memories of his past adventures with Newt and the Goldstein sisters, despite MACUSA’s citywide Obliviation order. Queenie and Jacob had followed Queenie’s sister Tina to Europe, where the latter is searching for Credence. Newt also discovers that Queenie has enchanted Jacob into eloping to Europe with her to circumvent MACUSA’s marriage ban between wizards and Muggles. After Newt lifts the charm, Jacob and Queenie quarrel about the marriage law, and the upset witch leaves to find Tina. Newt ignores the Ministry’s travel ban and with Jacob, head for Paris in search for the Goldstein sisters and Credence.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” proved to be an unpopular entry in the HARRY POTTER movie franchise. Even a year before the film’s release, many had criticized the film’s producers, including J.K. Rowling, for allowing actor Johnny Depp to take over the role of Gellert Grindelwald in the wake of his controversial divorce. Ironically, once “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” hit the movie theaters, both the critics and many moviegoers expressed other reasons for their displeasure. Either these criticisms were merely used as shields to hide their displeasure at Depp’s presence in the movie, or they genuinely did not like it. Although “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”actually managed to make a profit, it did not make as much as its 2016 predecessor. Nor did it make as much as Warner Brothers Studios had anticipated. So . . . how did I feel about the movie?

I will admit that I have some problems with “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”. I never admitted this in my review of “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, but I had noticed Rowling’s habit of creating two or more disjointed story lines and allowing them to connect near the end of the film. As much as I admired her use of this narrative structure, I must admit that there were times when I found it frustrating. To be honest, I found it more frustrating in “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, especially Newt Scamander’s search for his missing animals. But in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”, there were times when I found myself wondering why Rowling had focused so heavily on Leta Lestrange’s character arc/backstory and Queenie Goldstein’s problems with her non-magical love, Jacob Kowalski. I also had a problem with Colleen Atwood’s costumes. On one level, I found her costumes very attractive, as shown in the images below:

And yet . . . aside from the costumes and hairstyle worn by actress Katherine Waterston, I found the other costumes and hairstyles reminiscent of the early 1930s, instead of 1927, the film’s actual setting. Speaking of the timeline, could someone explain why Minerva McGonagall was a teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, when either the Harry Potter novels or the franchise’s official website made it clear that she was born in 1935, eight years after this movie’s setting. And since Dumbledore was the Transfiguration professor at Hogwarts in 1927, what was the young Professor McGonagall teaching?

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” had its flaws, like any other movie. But I enjoyed it very much. Actually . . . I enjoyed it slightly more than I did the 2016 movie. The reason why I enjoyed it more than the first film is probably the reason why many others liked it less. J.K. Rowling had written an emotionally complicated tale that reminded me that humans beings are a lot more ambiguous than many are STILL unwilling to admit. They might pay lip service to the ambiguity of humans, but I have encountered too much hostility directed at movies willing to explore the complex nature of humans and society in general . . . especially in pop culture films. Some might claim that such ambiguity has no place in pop culture films and franchises. My response to that claim is . . . why not? I see no reason why humanity’s ambiguity should only be tolerated in films being considered for the film industry’s award season.

I noticed in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” that the majority of Gellert Grindelwald’s followers were not “dark wizards” or superficially evil. I must admit that the Vinda Rosier, Grindelwald’s loyal right-hand follower, seemed to be the film’s closest example of the future Deatheaters that followed Lord Voldemort aka Tom Riddle Jr. Most of Grindelwald’s other followers seemed to be typical human being who has allowed his or her emotions to indulge in the usual prejudices or make bad choices. One example is the MACUSA agent Abernathy, who had earlier supported President Seraphina Picquery in the 2016 film. But the prime example in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” proved to be Queenie Goldstein, the New York-born Legilimens (telepath), who out of her desperation to be with the non-magical Jacob Kowalski, turned to Grindelwald to help her achieve her desire. Many fans had condemned the movie for this portrayal of Queenie. And I do not understand why.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” had already hinted Queenie’s desperation to be with Jacob, when she conveyed reluctance to follow MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery’s orders to ensure the erasure of his recent memories. She broke the rules even further by paying a visit to Jacob’s new bakery in one of the film’s final scenes.More importantly, Queenie had discovered that Jacob had retained some memories of his adventures with her, Tina and Newt. This is why I am not surprised that Queenie had resorted to desperate measures in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” to make Jacob her husband. Love might lead a person to do wonderful things. But it can also lead someone to make questionable or terrible decisions. J.K. Rowling understood this. I never understood why so many people were incapable of doing so.

The ironic thing about “FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” is that the movie not only featured former protagonists like Queenie Goldstein and Agent Abernathy, who had decided to follow Grindelwald, it also featured . . . Leta Lestrange. Any fan of Potterverse will remember another character with the Lestrange name – Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Although Bellatrix had married into the Lestrange family, fans learned that her husband was another one of Voldemort’s highly murderous and faithful followers. I do recall that the 2016 film may have hinted that Leta was briefly as someone from Newt’s past who may or may not have deliberately led him into trouble and expelled from Hogwarts. Thanks to “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”, audiences learned that Leta was NOT someone who lived up to her pure-blood family’s name and who proved to be a different kettle of fish. She was not perfect. Her one crime . . . which led to years of guilt . . . stemmed from resentment toward her father’s sexist desire for a male heir. As a young girl aboard a sinking ocean liner headed for the United States, she made an ugly decision that affected both her family and Credence Barebone.

The characterizations of both Queenie Goldstein and Leta Lestrange, along with Gellert Grindelwald’s followers made J.K. Rowling’s intent to continue her ambiguous portrayal of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But instead of viewing this ambiguity from a growing child, audiences get to witness this ambiguity through the eyes of an adult. Instead of realizing that individuals we might perceive as “bad” can also possess decency within, Rowling seemed to be hinting that those whom we might originally perceive as “good or decent” can allow their emotions to make terrible choices or embrace evil. Granted, fans learned in the previous series that Albus Dumbledore had once skated on the edge of giving into some parts of his baser nature. But through characters like Queenie Goldstein and Agent Abernathy, agents get to see how originally perceived “decent” characters can allow their emotions and desires to embrace evil . . . not for any moral good, but due to their own selfishness or prejudices. It is a pity that so many are unwilling to explore this journey with Rowling.

Although I had criticized the film’s costumes for resembling the fashions of the early 1930s, instead of the late 1920s, I must admit that I found Colleen Atwood’s designs very attractive and very original. I rarely comment on a film’s editing, but I found Film Editor Mark Day’s work in the movie first-rate. I was especially impressed by his work in two particular sequences – Grindelwald’s escape in the film’s first action sequence and another one featuring a wizarding freak show in Paris. I was also impressed by Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography . . . to a certain extent. Rousselot’s photography struck me as beautiful and memorable – especially in the Parisian scenes and one particular flashback scene in the Atlantic Ocean. But I really disliked the monochromatic tones (blue, yellow or green) that seemed to dominate the movie’s photography . . . as much as I disliked the brown tones that dominated “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”. Also, production designer Stuart Craig, set designer Anna Pinnock, the art direction team led by Martin Foley and the special effects team all did an exceptional job to re-create the wizarding worlds of New York, London, Scotland and Paris.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” featured some first-rate performances. Lead actor Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Carmen Ejogo, Claudia Kim and Ezra Miller all gave excellent performances. But there were performances that I found more than first-rate. Jude Law was superb as the enigmatic and younger Professor Albus Dumbore, who seemed warm and manipulative as ever. William Nadylam gave a very complex and passionate performance as Yusuf Kama: A French-Senegalese wizard who has spent many years obsessively searching for Credence, whom he believed was responsible for the death of a family member. Callum Turner’s portrayal of Theseus Scamander, Newt’s brother, first seemed pretty solid. But his performance became more complex and interesting, thanks to Turner’s skillful acting. Alison Sudol gave an outstanding performance as the increasingly desperate Queenie Goldstein, who allowed her love for Jacob and emotions to lead to a morally questionable decision. Zoë Kravitz was equally outstanding as Newt’s former love, Leta Lestrange, who became emotionally troubled and confused over a morally questionable decision from the past. But the best performance, in my opinion, came from Johnny Depp, who portrayed the film’s main villain, Gellert Grindelwald. Depp’s Grindelwald seemed like a completely different kettle of fish from the more obvious villains of the Harry Potter novel. More subtle, subversive and manipulative. Insidious. The franchise’s Palpatine perhaps? Honestly, Depp’s Grindelwald made Tom Riddle Jr. aka Lord Voldemort seem like a rank amateur as far as villains go.

This 2018 sequel to “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” proved to be a disappointment at the box office. Between the controversy over Depp’s casting and the hostile reaction to the Queenie Goldstein character, I guess I should not be surprised. But I am disappointed that the majority of moviegoers had failed to appreciate Rowling’s story, because I thought it was first-rate, thanks to her screenplay, David Yates’ direction and the excellent cast led by Eddie Redmayne. To be honest, I personally feel that it was slightly better than its 2016 predecessor. Perhaps one day, more filmgoers will be able to appreciate it.