Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite'

Movie reviews: 'The Favourite' is strange, beautiful and wickedly nasty 

Published Friday, December 7, 2018 7:57AM EST

Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse reviews four movies opening in cinemas across Canada "The Favourite," "Anna and the Apocalypse," "Henchmen" and "Almost Almost Famous."

Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite' Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite.' (Atsushi Nishijima / Fox Searchlight)

THE FAVOURITE: 4 ½ STARS

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if you want to test a person's character, give them power. That maxim is fully on display in "The Favourite," an Oscar hopeful starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, as two women vie for the attention of Anne, Queen of Great Britain.  

Set in the early 18th century, "The Favourite" begins as England, under the rule of Queen Anne (Colman), is at war with France. A clueless and vain monarch stricken with gout from gorging on chocolate and cheese, the Queen is haughty in the style of, "Look at me! How dare you look at me!" 

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in 'The Favourite' Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in 'The Favourite.' (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

The real power behind the throne is the Queen's close friend and confidant Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz). She's a stern figure equally at home pampering the Queen or ordering a maid to be whipped for any minor transgression.

Life at the castle is a decadent push-and-pull for favour between those who want the Queen to end the war, like Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult), and those who feel the battle must continue. The battle for power becomes more intense when Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), Lady Marlborough's cousin and fallen gentry whose father gambled her away in a card game, arrives looking for a job. Put to work as a maid she quickly moves up the ranks, befriending the Queen and aggressively pushing Lady Marlborough to the fringes.

Emma Stone and Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite' Emma Stone and Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite.' (Yorgos Lanthimos / Fox Searchlight)
Emma Stone in 'The Favourite' Emma Stone in 'The Favourite.'

"As it turns out I am capable of much unpleasantness," Abigail snorts.

Broken into chapters like "What An Outfit" and "A Minor Hitch," the film is a wickedly nasty look at the inner workings of a personal coup d'etat. Smartly written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, it brims with court gossip, quotable lines — "If you do not get out I will start kicking you and I will not stop," sneers Marlborough. — and enough machinations to make Machiavelli green with envy.

Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite.' Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite..' (Atsushi Nishijima / Fox Searchlight Films via AP)

Bringing the intrigue to vivid life are the three leads.

At the top of the pyramid is Coleman as Queen Anne. Insecurity and imperiousness are the toxic ingredients that fuel her childlike behaviour. Whether she is stuffing her face to the point of vomiting, faking a seizure at Parliament or indulging in her secret desires, she is unpredictable, ridiculous and, ultimately,  a sad character. Coleman embraces it all, delivering a beautiful, unsubtle performance. 

As Lady Marlborough Weisz is cunning and kind, a power player who knows when to hold ‘em, knows when to fold ‘em. She's icy hot, calm and collected but quick to temper when threatened. Weisz has rarely been this collected on screen, delivering complex dialogue with panache. 

As a woman who admits, "I'm on my side, always," Stone has the greatest range. From scullery maid to titled Lady her character travels the furthest distance and is capable of the greatest villainy. 

Emma Stone at the Venice Film Festival Emma Stone at the Venice Film Festival with 'The Favourite,' on Aug. 30, 2018. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)
'The Favourite' actor Joe Alwyn 'The Favourite' actor Joe Alwyn during the London Film Festival, on Oct. 18, 2018. (Joel C Ryan / Invision / AP)
'The Favourite' director Yorgos Lanthimos Director Yorgos Lanthimos at the premiere of 'The Favourite' in London, on Oct. 18, 2018. (Joel C Ryan / Invision / AP)
Rachel Weisz at 'The Favourite' premiere in London Rachel Weisz at 'The Favourite' premiere in London, on Oct. 18, 2018. (Joel C Ryan / Invision / AP)
'The Favourite' director Yorgos Lanthimos Director Yorgos Lanthimos at the premiere of 'The Favourite' in London, on Oct. 18, 2018. (Joel C Ryan / Invision / AP)

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a strange and beautiful movie, one that has the twilight zone feel of his other films "The Lobster" and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer."

They all feel like real life, but tilted by 180 degrees. With "The Favourite" he has made a revisionist history that comments not only on personal politics but also how political power is open to the whims of who holds it. 

This image released by Netflix shows Yalitza Aparicio, center, in a scene from the film "Roma," by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. (Carlos Somonte/Netflix via AP) ROMA

ROMA: 4 ½ STARS

All the trademarks of Alfonso Cuarón's most popular work is carried over to his latest film "Roma" there's long uninterrupted takes and stylish, innovative visual style. The movie's most remarkable feature, however, the thing you'll remember long after viewing, is its humanity.

Set in the Roma section of Mexico City of Cuarón's youth, this semi-auto-biographical slice of life plays like a sense memory, a dream. Although based on his early childhood Cuarón focuses the story on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), maid to a middle-class family. She raises the kids, cooks and cleans up after the dog who cannot seem to stop pooping. Dutiful, she loves the family as if they were her own, a feeling that is mutual despite their occasional dismissiveness.

This image released by Netflix shows filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, left, and actress Yalitza Aparicio on the set of "Roma." (Carlos Somonte/Netflix via AP) Cuaron Aparicio

The family is like many others, rambunctious kids barely kept in line by Cleo and her boss Sofia (Marina de Tavira). The father, a doctor who always seems to be away at a medical convention — a cover for his philandering — is mostly absent. Cuarón lovingly details Cleo's daily routine at the house and even spends time on her off hours as she goes to the movies with her intense boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).

A scene from the film 'Roma' A scene from the film 'Roma,' by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. (Netflix via AP)

It's a slice of life, not plot driven. It feels like a recollection of the long-ago time brought to life. When crisis comes both for Cleo and Sofia the power of their humanity and family solidarity comes to the fore.

Shot in beautiful black and white this Spanish language film is a tribute to Cuarón‘s second mother, the maid who he dedicates the film to. 

A scene from the film 'Roma' A scene from the film 'Roma.' (Alfonso Cuaron / Netflix via AP)
Yalitza Aparicio, from left, Marina de Tavira and Nancy Garcvia 'Roma' stars, Yalitza Aparicio, from left, Marina de Tavira and Nancy Garcia in Mexico City, on Nov. 21, 2018. (Berenice Bautista / AP)

It may put you in the mind of other movies like "Amarcord," films that could be described as intimately epic, telling stories about people set against a backdrop of wide societal change. It is picturesque but occasionally horrific, naturalistic yet heightened, a film as a snapshot of a place and time and its people.

It drips with empathy and affection for its characters, particularly Cleo, played by first time actor Aparicio. She grounds the movie with a performance that is both warm and stoic, never once betraying her character's fundamental sense of decency and humanity.

Movies like "Roma" don't come around often anymore. Daring in its simplicity and lack of sentimentality it has the power to devastate and uplift, sometimes in the same scene.

Read another take: 'Roma' review on CTVNews.ca

Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming in 'Anna and the Apocalypse'

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE: 3 ½ STARS

Zombies are hot right now. Recently the movies have given us funny zombies, undeadly serious zombies, Nazi zombies and even romantic zombies. "Anna and the Apocalpyse," starring Ella Hunt in the title role, goes one further. It's the first zombie Christmas musical. 

Set in a small town high school "Anna and the Apocalypse" begins like many teen movies before it. We meet Anna, a high school senior whose best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is not so secretly in love with her. Anna has recently split with Nick (Ben Wiggins), a bully with a devil-may-care attitude. Then there's film nerd Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and his girlfriend, the theatrical Lisa (Marli Siu). At the school newspaper is muckraking wannabe journalist Steph (Sarah Swire) whose work puts her at odds with the school's tyrannical head master Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye).

The day after the annual Christmas pageant—and Lisa's controversial performance of a Christmas tune that put the X in Xmas—Anna and John go to school, headphones on and turned up, oblivious to the massive zombie apocalypse that happened over night. "Justin Bieber is a zombie!" says one of Anna's classmates excitedly after checking the singer's Instagram.

Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming in 'Anna and the Apocalypse' Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming in a scene from the film 'Anna and the Apocalypse.' (Orion Pictures via AP)
Ella Hunt in 'Anna and the Apocalypse' Ella Hunt in a scene from the film 'Anna and the Apocalypse.' (Duncan McCallum / Orion Pictures via AP)

Will they survive long enough to be reunited with their friends and family? Are there any friends and family left to be reunited with?

Part "High School Musical," part "Shaun of the Dead," "Anna and the Apocalypse" succeeds mainly through its audacity. Power pop ballads and full-blown dance numbers collide with zombie headshots, creating a weird marriage of glitter and gore. 

The charming cast sells the heck out of the tunes and fun dance numbers helps keep things moving, but this is essentially a one-joke premise that bogs down in the last half hour. Luckily, at ninety tight minutes, it is daring enough, smart enough—"We deserve to go extinct," says John when he spies the Instagram hash-tag #evacselfie—and blood soaked enough to entertain.

'Henchmen' movie A scene from the movie 'Henchmen.' (BRON Animaiton)

HENCHMEN: 1 STAR

I take no joy in this. 

Every now and again when I'm at the movies a deep-rooted feeling of ennui sneals up me. That, "What the heck am I doing wasting my time watching ‘insert title here?' It has only swept over me a handful of times, usually in what I call Seatbelt Movies, films so uninspired I need a seatbelt to keep me from fleeing the theatre.

That familiar creeping feeling came over me during a recent screening of "Henchmen," a new superhero animated film starring the voices of James Marsden, Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina, Jane Krakowski and Rob Riggle. I stayed, trapped by professional duty to make it to the end credits, but it tested my patience in ways few other movies have. 

'Henchmen' movie

"Silicon Valley's" Thomas Middleditch is Lester, a self-described comic book nerd and orphan. On his sixteenth birthday he auditions at the Union of Evil — "The best of the worst!" — only to be assigned Henchman Third Class. A janitor. His dream of one day making his super villain persona, "The Orphan," a reality will have to wait. He's assigned to Hank (Marsden), a disgraced former First Class henchman (he was too nice a guy to be bad), now pushing a mop. On a visit to the Vault of Villainy, Lester accidentally winds up wearing an old super villain suit. Taking advantage of Lester's newfound powers Hank sees a way to change his life. Using Lester's ray gun hands he tries to free a chip of What-ifium — a substance that can change the past — from a giant crystal block. Before he can go back in time, mega-baddie Baron Blackout (Alfred Molina), who put me in the mind of Kate McKinnon's Jeff Sessions impersonation, asserts his intention to take over Super Villain City.

Will the What-ifium save the world and make all their dreams come true?

There's more — a team of superheroes called the Friendly Force Five, and a goopy gangster called Gluttonator who wants to use radioactive cheese to bring his foes to their knees and shouts "What the feta??!!" when his plan goes south — but why prolong this any more than I have to?

'Henchmen' movie A scene from the movie 'Henchmen.' (BRON Animaiton)

Set to a soundtrack of sound-alike classic rock songs "Henchmen" is about as imaginative as you can expect from a movie where all the criminals live in a place called Super Villain City. From the uninspired voice work to animation that looks like next-wave cheapo Hanna-Barbera style animation without any of the organic charm, "Henchmen" is little more than a collection of cartoon clichés. Very small children might find distraction in the colourful design or the bullet proof underpants or the ‘Bad guys always lose' moral, but all others beware.  

I took no joy in writing this review, but then again I could find no joy in "Henchmen" either.

Ted Torres performs as Elvis Presley Ted Torres performs as Elvis Presley in a scene from 'Almost Almost Famous.'

ALMOST ALMOST FAMOUS: 2 ½ STARS

Some people turn their noses up at cover bands. One critic I read called an early Elvis Presley impersonator "heretical." 

I see it differently. I never got to see Elvis shake his hips in person, but through the magic of tribute artists I feel almost like I have. I certainly know that I've seen hundreds of happy faces in audiences, enjoying the chance to see a de facto Presley in person, and that's what's important. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but for acts like the all-female AC/DC cover band AC/DCShe, the ABBA-mimics Björn Again, or even MacSabbath, a Black Sabbath cover band in which all the members dress up as McDonald's characters — are more than flattering their inspirations, they're triggering happy, nostalgic memories and doing what live music is supposed to do: show people a good time. 

A new documentary, "Almost Almost Famous," has a look at The Class of '59, a cover band featuring rockabilly musician Lance Lipinsky as Jerry Lee Lewis, R & B singer Bobby Brooks as Jackie Wilson and the "Elvis from Orlando", Ted Torres. Set against the backdrop of the band on tour we learn about the dynamics of being on the road and discover why these artists chose the tribute act route rather than playing originals. For some it's money, for some it's for the love of being on stage and for one of them it's a surprise tribute to a person they never met. 

Bobby Brooks in 'Almost Almost Famous' Bobby Brooks prepares to perform as Jackie Wilson in a scene from 'Almost Almost Famous.'

"Almost Almost Famous" doesn't dig deep. We learn the backstories of the performers but only one of the characters, Bobby Brooks, has a history truly worthy of a feature (NO SPOILERS HERE) but director Barry Lank spends much time focussing on Lipinski, the terminally tired Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator.

Lance Lipinsky in 'Almost Almost Famous' Lance Lipinsky in a scene from 'Almost Almost Famous.'
Lance Lipinsky in 'Almost Almost Famous' Lance Lipinsky performs as Jerry Lee Lewis in a scene from 'Almost Almost Famous.'

He's framed as the villain of the piece, a tribute artist who dismissively refers to his Class of '59 gig as a day job. He's always late, misses cues and is often less than inspired on stage. A talented singer and piano player, he has bigger things on his mind than aping sixty- year-old rock ‘n roll songs for an audience who stopped buying new music sometime around the time Elvis went into the army.

Instead he wants to make neo-rockabilly for a younger crowd and it consumes his on and off stage moments. He's a self-styled provocateur who wears an oversized Trump-Pence button on his lapel in interviews. Trouble is, he comes across as a one-note, a brat, not a character you really want to spend time with.

Like the music it presents, "Almost Almost Famous" doesn't feel completely fresh but the peak behind the gold lame suits is interesting enough to keep tribute fans happy. 

'Pop Life' host Richard Crouse 'Pop Life' host Richard Crouse

Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.