Why Deborah Davis’s The Favourite should give courage to all aspiring writers

The plot of The Favourite doesn’t sound like a laugh-a-minute comedy. Just look at it:

In 18th century England, the close relationship between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is threatened by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). The resulting bitter rivalry between the two cousins impacts their lives and their relationship to the Queen, who is manipulated by both in the midst of a turbulent time in England’s political landscape.

It may not sound promising, but it doesn’t take long to realise that this isn’t your standard period drama. It’s a sharp script and a twisting plot, delivered to perfection by the three lead women. That this is Deborah Davis’s first ever script makes it even more remarkable.

Davis gave some insight into the writing process when she spoke to Awards Daily in November 2018. “I wrote the first draft in 1998 and I had no experience in scriptwriting. I took myself to night school to learn. I was accepted into the University of East Anglia to do a scriptwriting course and I was helped and influenced by my tutor who was really interested in The Balance of Power as it was then called. [Ceci Dempsey (of Scarlett Films) has] never ever wavered in her support and passion for this project.”

The phenomenal journey should be an inspiration to all aspiring writers around the world. Sure, it’s a twenty year process in this case, but Davis believed in her own capabilities and surrounded herself with others who were equally supportive of her work.

The success of the film is unquestionable. It continues to bring in audiences across the globe, building momentum through word of mouth and positive press responses. Now a Golden Globe winner (Olivia Colman for Best Actress), it has also been nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the BAFTAs. The team will undoubtedly be hoping for yet more success at the Academy Awards when the nominations are announced next week.

Of course, it isn’t all Davis’s work. Yorgos Lanthimos is well known for quirky comedy dramas that find hard to stay away from the surreal, which certainly shines through in a bizarre dance sequence that couldn’t possibly have been scripted. Equally, Colman’s hysterics when a young doorman may or may not have looked at her is played to perfection by both actors. That it’s all set in a traditional English country house (Hatfield House in Hertfordshire) with the expected pompous outfits just adds to the unnerving effect.

But it’s all hung on this brilliant script that mixes the most bizarre of comedies with a power struggle akin to a game of chess. Indeed, the women’s costumes, created especially for the film by Sandy Powell, were designed exclusively in blacks and whites to emanate the pieces of a chess board.

One of the most effective results of the writing is the subtle way the audience is drawn in to care for Abigail (Stone). We go on an emotional journey with her, seeing her at rock bottom as she rises through the ranks within the palace. The moment she gains power by marrying Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), her character completely changes and we realise that she’s as horrible as we feared. It’s a tough pill to swallow for an audience who think they’ve found a character to root for, but the best film-makers know just when to pull the rug from under the feet of its viewers. Emma Stone said of the script: “It feels amazing when the script is right and the director is right and you are like, ‘Now I can go and have fun and trust the process.'” And it shows. All the actors on screen look like they’re completely at ease with what they’re doing and saying.

It’s just a great piece of cinema.

For anyone out there sat on the next homemade cinematic masterpiece script, The Favourite is the perfect catalyst for you to get it finished and get it out there.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs v The Future of Independent Cinema in the UK

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the latest feature film from the frequently-brilliant Coen Brothers, continuing their display of love towards the American Western genre. It is also their first for streaming platform Netflix, in a move that is becoming more and more common in the modern age of cinema.

The move to streaming platforms may feel progressive, but it isn’t great news for independent cinemas in the UK.

The film – more hit than miss

Watching ‘Buster Scruggs’, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a Netflix series that has been mashed into a single film, perhaps to allow it to be considered as an Oscar contender. If this is the case, it’s a shame, though it is understandable.

It is, as is often the case with vignette films, a little hit and miss. The opening titular short is a high point, with a hilariously-positive character singing his way through a killing spree. Tim Blake Nelson is a joy to watch and his interactions with the locals is shot to perfection (pun not initially intended). Both ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’ are memorable and very much work in their own right, making me long for more of an expanded narrative.

‘Meal Ticket’ has really stuck with me and I kept thinking about it many days after I saw it, with Harry Melling starring as a limbless performing artist working alongside Liam Neeson. It unravels at a depressingly effective rate, with the final scene leaving me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons. A perfect example of short film-making.

Whilst the ‘All Gold Canyon’ short is largely forgettable, it isn’t bad. It’s really a shame that the final vignette, ‘The Mortal Remains’, is such a disappointing way to finish the feature. It is neither emotionally effective nor steeped in humour, and it doesn’t really have much to say. It’s a missed opportunity to perhaps tie the previous five shorts together, at least with a thematic link. Instead it confirms the suspicions that these were six independently-realised pieces of art that function in their own right.

The Coen Brothers may deny it but it doesn’t run like a movie. The overarching theme is ‘American Western as a genre’ rather than there being a connecting emotional theme or associated character. Thankfully, it is a genre that the film-makers know how to handle and the results are more hit than miss.

The shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’

Having recently become a father, Netflix is very convenient for me, but I’d never opt to experience a film at home if there’s an option to see it at the cinema. You can’t quite appreciate the magic of the cinema when watching on a small screen at home.

My main criticism, therefore, is that it was released in an exclusive deal with Curzon cinemas in the UK. As it happens, my location means I have close access to three brilliant independent cinemas: QUAD in Derby, Phoenix in Leicester and Broadway in Nottingham. Sadly, not one of these is part of the Curzon group; my nearest Curzon is 64 miles away in Sheffield. This led to Jake Harvey (Phoenix, Leicester), Caroline Hennigan (Broadway Cinema, Nottingham), Adam J Marsh (Quad Cinema, Derby) and the owners of twelve other independent cinemas to write an open letter to Netflix to reconsider their policy.

I sit on a film discussion group panel and I know that a good number of the members do not subscribe to any online streaming service. My mother, who previously attended a Coen Brothers discussion course with me, has no means of watching ‘Buster Scruggs’ unless it’s on at a cinema. By making this exclusive to Curzon, they have excluded a large demographic of their potential audience.

‘Buster Scruggs’ follows excellent Netflix exclusives like Annihilation, Okja and Roma, all critically acclaimed and well-received by cinephiles. They even funded the completion of a posthumous release from director Orson Welles. The quality is undeniable. The problem isn’t in the quality. It’s in the lack of support to  the truly independent cinemas that have supported non-mainstream releases for so long.

As it turns out, ‘Buster Scruggs’ is the first Coen Brothers film in over a decade I haven’t watched at the cinema. For me, this is a great shame and it’s saddening to think this is where some great directors are taking their latest pictures.

Overall, this is a mostly great film that some fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy on the big screen, depending on a combination of a geographical lottery and your willingness to drive. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for the small screen and an increasing temptation to skip the bad segments, facilitating the shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’.

Film review – The Polka King (Maya Forbes, 2018)

Let me get this straight, right from the start. The Polka King is not a good film. It popped up on my Netflix feed as a recommended watch and I thought I’d give it a go. It didn’t look taxing and I’d had a long day. I had low expectations but still managed to be disappointed.

I now find myself in the embarrassing situation where I’ve never seen The Ten Commandments, Gone With The Wind, The Maltese Falcon, Boyhood, Crash, The Last of the Mohicans, The English Patient, Lawrence of Arabia, On The Waterfront, Unforgiven and Dr Zhivago but I have seen The Polka King.

For that, I should be entirely ashamed.

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Jack Black plays Jan Lewan, a real-life polka music band leader from Austria trying to make a living in the USA. He was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme (or pyramid scheme). That’s pretty much the story. There are some highs and lows.

Importantly, there are very few laughs. In fact, I didn’t laugh once. It is set up like a comedy. Everyone involved is a comedic actor (the supporting cast includes Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman and Jacki Weaver). The pacing of the script felt like it wanted to be a comedy.

Yet, as Black phoned in his performance and went through the motions of delivering on a part he was only vaguely interested in, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to some of the great comedy releases from Red Hour Productions that include Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, Tenacious D in the Pick Of Destiny and DodgeBall, and wonder whether Ben Stiller simply wasn’t available to oversee this production.

There are some great Netflix Originals out there to be watched and enjoyed. This just isn’t one of them.

Film review – Little Evil (Eli Craig, 2017)

If the thought of a horror-comedy fills you with dread, if not for the scary monsters then more for the fact that they usually fall short of whatever they’re trying to achieve, then fear not. Little Evil may not truly be a great horror film, nor is it a hilarious comedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. For those wanting something lighthearted this Halloween there are much worse ways to spend 95 minutes.

Adam Scott stars as Gary, a real estate worker who has married Samantha (Evangeline Lilly), who comes with baggage in the form of her son Lucas (Owen Atlas), who Gary suspects may be the Antichrist. As he unravels the truth behind his new stepson, he is forced to form unlikely bonds in a race against time to save his family and the world.

There are supporting roles from the brilliant Bridgett Everett, Donald Faison, Chris D’Elia, Kyle Bornheimer and a surprising cameo by Sally Field, though this is less surprising when you learn that director Eli Craig is her son. It’s an ensemble cast that are able to provide plenty of humour to keep the wagon rolling without ever feeling like it stutters.

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The film is peppered with nods to horror greats, presumably so that fans of the genre will giddily point at the screen and say “Oh, that’s the clown from Poltergeist!” at their less-versed friends. Of course, the more likely reaction is a roll of the eyes and silence, but the references are done in good faith. Sure, giving the child a 6th birthday on 6th June is fairly obvious, but not all comedy has to be subtle to be successful.

There is a worry that the film lacks any memorable gags and also fails to produce any striking horror set-pieces, though the movement of the buried-alive scene to the start of the film provides an impactful opening.

Adam Scott is a great leading man here, producing a relatable everyman who wants to make things work despite obvious signs that something is awry. There’s an art to his delivery of disbelief that only he seems to notice that Lucas is hiding something. It’s good to see him in a more prominent role than he is usually given.

Eli Craig has produced a fine follow up to his breakthrough film Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It has found a suitable home on the VOD service Netflix, which reduces the risk of it being a flop at cinemas and will undoubtedly increase viewership in the October double-header of Friday 13th and Halloween. It is notable, however, that it has quickly vanished from the front page of the service, making foot-fall traffic a little less likely.

Incidentally, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is also available on Netflix. If you’ve seen neither, Little Evil should be the one you approach second.

Film review – Blind Date (Blake Edwards, 1987)

What do you get if you cross the director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther, one of the sexiest women of a generation, the film debut of one of the most bankable actors of all time and a soundtrack by one of the most celebrated film composers in film history?

A steaming pile of cinematic turd, that’s what.

It’s a rare occurrence to find a film with a run time of just 95 minutes that somehow feels like it drags on. But Blake Edwards has managed it with ‘Blind Date’, a turgid effort if ever you’ve seen one.

Bruce Willis does his best as an ambitious and hardworking career man named Walter Davis. Walter must attend an important dinner with his colleagues, boss and the Managing Director of an important business partner from Japan. However, Mr Yakamoto has very traditional values and Walter is advised to take a date to the meal. In desperation, he calls up his friend Ted (Phil Hartman), who recommends he takes his wife’s cousin Nadia, played by the usually irresistible Kim Basinger.

It’s unusual that a rom-com tries to put a shocking twist or genre-challenging break to the norm. Blind Date doesn’t even attempt to change this. The humour derives from the fact that Nadia can’t take her drink and Walter is advised not to let her have even a sip of alcohol. Of course, Walter forgets this and Nadia instantly becomes wild, causing absolute mayhem at the dinner and leading to Walter losing his job.

By the end of the night they are being pursued by Nadia’s maniacal ex-boyfriend and Walter ends up in prison. It feels like a spoiler but the entire plot is played out in the tag line on many of the posters. Plus it is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year so it’s hardly new news.

One of the most remarkable choices is to recolour Basinger’s hair brown and cover up her eyes with a dreadful fringe. This is one of the pin-ups of the 1980s, known for her beautiful blonde hair and striking blue eyes. Here, she loses one and has the other covered up, with no obvious reason for either choice.

Bruce Willis, here billed second to Basinger, is clearly still finding his feet as he made the transition from American sitcom Moonlighters – and that dreadful pop career – to Hollywood A-lister. It’s hard to imagine that by the time this film was released he was already filming Die Hard. Noticeably, Fox Plaza, tbe building that starred as the Nakatomi Towers in that film, can be seen half-built in the background of a scene at Walter’s office.

Remarkably, Madonna was originally cast to star as Nadia in the film. She turned it down because director Blake Edwards refused to accommodate her wish to cast Sean Penn, at the time Madonna’s husband, as Walter. Of the incident, she said, “I was supposed to have approval of… the leading man, but they didn’t tell me they’d already hired Bruce Willis.” In my opinion, this film would have been even worse had the pair been involved, and viewers need only seek out 1986’s ‘Shanghai Surprise’ for evidence of exactly how bad it could have been.

Even Henry Mancini’s score feels bland and half-hearted, which is disappointing from the man who brought us ‘The Pink Panther Theme’ and ‘Moon River’. I do note that a better film could have made me see the score differently.

Fans of The Simpsons will take great pleasure in hearing Phil Hartman produce his best Troy McClure voice when he’s describing Nadia over the phone to Walter. It’s unmistakable and one of the few positives that helped me get through the ordeal.

It’s a film that has been largely forgotten by everyone who saw it and everyone involved with the film. Forgetting it is something I’ll be trying to do too, as quickly as

Film review – Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

A well-chosen ensemble cast and a smattering of quick-witted humour makes ‘Logan Lucky’ an enjoyable ride as Steven Soderbergh returns to the heist genre that has served up some of the most-popular films of his career.

The film stars Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as the Logans, two brothers who are renowned for their lack of fortune as much as their lack of intelligence. After Jimmy (Tatum) gets laid off from his job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway track, he and brother Clyde (Driver) hatch a plan to perform a heist on the track during a race day. Enlisting Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid), the elaborate plot forms the centre piece for a smart cinematic sandwich that delivers more than it promises in the trailers.

The action on the speedway racing is kept to the minimum, which gives the racing much more appeal outside the southern areas of USA. When it does appear, it injects a bit of adrenaline without detracting from the focus of the story.

But it is the humour that really delivers the best moments for the film. Whether it’s the stupidity of the lesser-known Bang brothers, Craig unexpectedly being a great over-the-top comedian, or the slapstick visual gags involving prosthetic arms, it never fails to amuse.

It’s not all rosy. Seth MacFarlane’s performance as the pig-headed obnoxious businessman Max Chilblain does undo some of the hard work in other parts of the film. Perhaps it was hard to get past the woeful British accent, which may have been slightly off-kilter to create laughs, but it was too off-putting to set aside. I thought at times he might have been Australian. It’s frustrating when you know the man behind the moustache is one of the modern comedy greats.

Soderbergh’s previous heist films were famed for their great soundtracks but fans hoping for another great driving playlist will be sadly disappointed. For a quality soundtrack that accompanies a car-based action film, music fans will have to keep playing Baby Driver for a while longer yet.

Tatum plays the headstrong and world-weary lead excellently, but his comic abilities were almost completely untapped. I didn’t feel this was necessarily a bad thing. Soderbergh had a lot of character actors playing wildly outside their comfort zone in a manner that could have easily fallen flat. Here, it doesn’t. Adam Driver playing comedic straight man to a prosthetic arm? Yes please.

Logan Lucky won’t be as popular as Ocean’s Eleven but it doesn’t have the big money behind it to reach those peaks. Indeed, as of 21st August 2017 it is recorded as having the 25th worst opening weekend for a 3000+ cinema release film of all time.

If it fails to make its money back it will be a disaster that would tell you nothing about the quality of this picture.

Film review – Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

There aren’t many moments in cinema where you start to watch the opening scene and an uncontrollable giddy smile engulfs your face, such is the joy of what is unfolding on the screen. It needs to be a brilliant idea, executed to perfection and in a language that speaks to you.

Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s latest cinematic masterpiece, achieves just that. But the moment I knew it was a truly great film was when I realised the credits were rolling and my smile hadn’t left.

Oh, Baby!

The titular Baby is played by the young Ansel Elgort, who many will recognise as Caleb Prior from the Divergent film series. Baby is a young man who suffers with tinnitus, a whistling hum in the ear, which he got from an initially mysterious childhood incident. He works as a getaway driver for a heist masterminder named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who counts amongst his rotating team of goons a highly-strung Bats (Jamie Foxx), passionate love birds Buddy (John Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Eddy No-Nose (Flea). Lily James also stars as a waitress named Deborah.

To drown out the noise, Baby has a series of iPods to suit his moods. These are essentially soundtracking his life with a mixture of classic tunes that also serve as the soundtrack to the film, from Beck to Sam and Dave, The Commodores to The Damned.

It is these playlists that also serve as the film’s soundtrack, with sounds and visuals perfectly in sync with one another. For fans of music, and in particular soundtracks, Baby Driver is an absolute dream. The music is the backbone, catalyst and cherry on the icing, all at the same time. It’s a remarkable achievement.

If the opening sequence seems familiar, Wright used the same scenario in 2003 for the music video he directed for the track ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale. This hit the music airwaves mere months prior to his directorial breakthrough Shaun of the Dead, but watching it now you can see he probably had the idea for Baby Driver in his head as a starting point.

One of the best examples of how perfectly it works comes during the opening credits, when the first job has been completed and Baby goes to pick up some coffee from a shop near to their hideout. As Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is played through his earbuds and the backdrop becomes subtly flourished with graffiti, shop names and visual signposts, it was clear that something special was unfolding before my eyes. That this was done as a one-shot makes it all the more beautiful.

The film goes far and beyond being just a glorified music video. The car chases are breathtaking from the get-go, and there’s no let up as the story progresses. They’re believable and easy to follow, with no cheap cuts to hide poor editing and hide continuity – something of an epidemic in cinema in the 21st century.

Many of the actors are a little out of their familiarity zones with their characters, but it’s obvious that the likes of John Hamm and Jamie Foxx are taking great pleasure in being allowed to indulge their acting abilities. Kevin Spacey may be on more familiar ground, but it doesn’t make for poor viewing in the slightest.

I think her name is Debra! Or Deborah…

There’s a great use of the song ‘Debra’ by Beck in a scene that cements Baby’s relationship with Lily James’s waitress. They’re both stuck in a rut and in need of a route out, so their inevitable desire to be together is an expected story arc. Only Edgar Wright would, at this point, think it was a good time to drop in a song about a man wanting to have a threesome with two sisters. It’s a hilariously sweet moment that comes just at the right time in the film, softening up the audience before the rollercoaster second half of the story.

The fact that Elgart spends the opening thirty minutes dressed in an outfit that is very reminiscent of Han Solo shouldn’t be overlooked either. Elgart came close to being cast in Disney’s upcoming problematic Han Solo standalone film, before being overlooked in favour of Alden Ehrenreich. It’s clear that the coolness of Harrison Ford’s character is something Wright was trying to remind the audience of. However, Wright recently denied the connection in a Twitter Q&A, saying that the similarity was purely coincidental.

Similar to Han Solo? Wright is denying any links.

I just can’t be effusive of the film enough. It’s something I could watch time and time again and I’m certain I’ll be getting enjoyment out of it for years to come.

Baby Driver could well be the greatest film of Wright’s illustrious career. If you’ve not been taking notice yet, now’s the time.