The Favourite

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* * * *

Here’s what The Favourite is not: it is not two hours of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz burping, spewing, pissing and farting while covered in sores, leeches, scabs and lesions. It isn’t ribald, outrageous or scatalogical. And it isn’t riddled with deliberate anachronisms; comparisons to Marie Antoinette are misguided.

Rather, let’s pitch it thus: Barry Lyndon meets All About Eve. Yorgos Lanthimos has absolutely and deliberately based his aesthetic for this compelling, intriguing and extremely funny film upon the former (just as he absolutely channelled The Shining for his last film The Killing of a Sacred Deer) while the latter, at least to my mind, informs the plot.

Emma Stone plays a young fallen woman, Abigail, who arrives, by luck of a minor family relationship, at the Court of Queen Anne. Given a job in the kitchen, she quickly figures out that the path to power (the Queen, played by Colman) requires the displacement of her best friend, Lady Sarah (Weisz). While the Court is involved with war with France, Abigail and Sarah wage war with each other for the Queen’s affection.

The dialogue is supremely witty, the design glorious, and the acting sublime. Colman, despite having such a distinctive look and vocal quality, is utterly convincing as every character she plays, and her Anne is one of her finest creations. This Queen is complicated, contradictory, confounding: childish at times, wracked with gout and sadness, she seems utterly malleable, yet the question of just how much she is aware of the intrigue around her is one of the film’s most compelling tensions. Colman owns the role; it’s a triumph for her.

Weisz and Stone play off each other (and Colman) beautifully; they are so dissimilar in every way – Weisz mature, court-savvy, restrained yet savage when necessary, Stone young, naïve (initially), and possessed of nothing but guile – but always on the same artistic page. Both Sarah and Abigail are fascinating, multi-faceted women; there is much more to both of them than might initially seem, and their actions, and our sympathies, move in surprising and disconcerting directions.

Lanthimos stages all this with a complex palette of tone and style; while the film is undeniably funny, he imbues it with levels of sadness, tragedy and horror. In particular, his use of an astonishingly wide lens, big fluid camera movement and multiple whip-pans complements his use of a musical palette steeped both in classicism and the kind of monotonous plunking that made Killing of a Sacred Deer so unnerving. These courtiers may all be playing a game, but the consequences are bloody serious.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

* * *

Melancholic, indeed dour, with a colour palette of (too much) brown and grey, Marielle Heller’s real-life tale of small(ish) time literary fraud is resolutely one-note, as is Melissa McCarthy’s central performance as Lee Israel, a biographical author who, jobless and desperate in early-90s Manhattan, began a small(ish) life of literary crime. Luckily, the film has a few joltingly interesting twists and turns, and Richard E. Grant, who is, has been and always will be joltingly interesting.

Heller’s direction is uninspired. She uses four montage sequences, each of which could have been replaced with a single, inventive scene. Voice-over narration has often been given a critical cold shoulder, but surely montage sequences are cinema’s ultimate lazy storytelling device. Here, they may as well signify potential toilet breaks.

But the story, small as it is, is intriguing, and Grant, big as he is, is super watchable. He’s playing a very to-type role – sad and flamboyant – but that’s his stock in trade and he owns it. Also, the period set design – Manhattan in winter – is superb; the story evolves mostly in pubs, bookstores, libraries and antique shops, and all ring both true and poetically evocative. I lived in Manhattan then, and I’ve been in those places, with their cramped, wooden, dusty romance. That spirit is present, and helps the film stay alive amidst its strident sadness.

Succession

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HBO’s Succession, now airing (and available for full-season download) on Foxtel, is not only the best season of television of the year, it is one of the best debut seasons of television I’ve ever seen, up there with the first seasons of Deadwood, Spiral and The Wire. It’s entertainment on a grand scale, what you may call Shakespearean, dealing, as he did, with humanity’s foibles through the prism of the very rich and powerful. It is also incredibly funny, which may not be apparent from its signifiers: it’s an hour-long show, it’s got a cast of actors mainly known for dramatic roles, and it looks, from stills and trailers, like a drama. But its pedigree is not only very much comedic, its golden.

The creator is Jesse Armstrong, a very English comic author whose crowning work, before Succession, was fifteen episodes of The Thick of It and the screenplay for the movie that accompanied that incredible series, In The Loop (co-written with Thick of It co-conspirators Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche and Simon Blackwell). If you know those, you’ll recognise that Armstrong (along with his collaborative team) is a spectacular creator of character-based, intelligent humour, spectacular dialogue, and an uncanny knowledge of the workings of power. All those combine magnificently in this season of television, this magnum opus.

The writing is sweeping, kaleidoscopic, vibrant, sharp and all kinds of outrageous, as well as being remarkably empathetic given the base-line venality of the characters. That’s the thing about Succession that you really need to know in order to take the plunge, and ride out the first few episodes which are very important to building this incredible world’s foundations: even though you may hate these characters, you’re going to weirdly end up loving each and every one of them, because they may not be good human beings, but they’re ludicrously good characters.

From the top down, the acting bench is uncommonly deep. Brian Cox, as a Murdoch-styled patriarch, lords over the action in the role his entire illustrious career has prepared him for. Australia’s own Sarah Snook is fascinatingly complicated as his only daughter, Kieran Culkin weird, funny and tragic as his cheeky, woefully unfocused youngest son. Jeremy Strong, who worked with episode one director and series executive producer Adam McKay on The Big Short, is quite brilliant as Kendall, the son who is meant to inherit the empire but keeps screwing it up; it’s an ensemble show but at the end of the day – and season one – it’s Kendall’s story and Strong is the lead, his relatively “unknown” status as an actor contributing effectively to Kendall’s mercurial, slippery, unknowable nature: is he dumb as an ox, smart as a whip, spoiled, ruined, traumatised, or just a brat? He’s all; they’re all all; the writing is encyclopaedic and the playing fully committed.

Then there’s Matthew Macfadyen, an outsider playing an outsider, the love interest to Sarah Snook, a sycophant to Brian Cox’s Logan Roy, giving the funniest performance of the year. Strong may carry the show’s weightiest dramatic burdens but Macfadyen is given the responsibility of delivering some of the best lines Armstrong’s ever written, and he’s written a lot. If you know Macfadyen as the tall, incredibly British lead from Spooks or Pride and Prejudice then his wicked performance is all the funnier. It’s masterly work, worthy of a multiple awards. (Weirdly, the only Golden Globe nomination for this undeniably accomplished series is for Culkin, who is the only “American star” in the cast, which makes the Globes once again guilty of star-f***ing, of which the people in this series would probably approve).

What else can I say? That the season concludes so perfectly that I was shaking my head with wonder at Armstrong’s plotting genius? That Nicholas Britell’s magisterial score had me replaying the opening credits over and over? That we haven’t even mentioned “Cousin Greg?” This is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Don’t miss it.

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Roma

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* * * * *

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a masterpiece, operating at the highest possible levels of artistry of storytelling and technique. Let me join the global chorus of critics urging you to see it at the cinema as it enjoys a “special theatrical run” before landing on Netflix, where it will remain brilliant, but lose its grandeur. This is a milestone of a movie, an epic, an event.

Cuarón is one of the world’s great visual directors: just witness Gravity and Children of Men, both of which were shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzki, who is, I understand, considered by many cinematographers to be their finest living peer. On Roma, Cuarón is his own cinematographer, and his work in this department is astonishing. Formally constructed in black and white widescreen, most sequences in the film begin with or prominently feature substantial tracking shots filled to the brim with action on multiple planes, all contributing to a portrait of the film’s central setting, Mexico City in 1970, as vibrant and energetic and often chaotic and wild. Incredibly intriguing details – a human cannonball, relentless aircraft, marching bands – constantly fill in the greater depths of the frame, cascading upon each other and providing us with multiple layers of meaning, for the film we are watching is both minutely autobiographical and intensely poetic. Everything we see is from Cuarón’s own childhood, but poured into the richest two hours and thirteen minutes of the year; if events, at times, seem almost too dramatic to be true, that’s because we’ve made the deal to witness them as a movie, and Cuarón’s agreed to condense them.

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Roma is the story of a year in the life of Libo, Cuarón’s nanny (and one of his household’s two maids) when he was a boy. It was a dramatic year for both Libo and the household, and Cuarón has stated that he wrote the film from direct memory, then sought to re-create those memories as authentically as possible. Thus, he sourced almost all the furniture in the house in the film from relatives of his scattered around Mexico; whenever possible, scenes were shot where they actually took place; and he and his extraordinary production design team have strived to make every single moment look as close to the memory in Cuarón’s head as possible. The result is breathtaking: the performances and design are grounded in absolute realism, while the cinematography is artful and precise. This gives the film a true timeless quality; were someone to show it to you in 2028, I’d wager you’d have no real way of guessing, to the nearest ten years, when it was actually made.

The film is epic and intimate; in the seemingly simple story of Cleo (the stand-in for Libo) and her unusual year, we are driven to contemplate huge issues and major themes: class and ethnicity, the nature and dignity of work, what actually constitutes a family and parenting; what it means to love. It is a film of constant compassion and absolute humanity. It is totally, essentially personal to Cuarón, but it is also fundamentally universal. It is filmmaking of the highest order.

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Thanks to the Randwick Ritz in Sydney, where I was able to see Roma in its essential environement: the cinema.

Climax

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* * * *

Gaspar Noé May not be my favorite film director, but he is certainly the one that fascinates me the most. His singular obsessions, and the staggeringly proficient way he translates them into cinema, are endlessly intriguing. I don’t know how he does it, and I really don’t know why he does it, but I’m really glad he does, because no one else in the world makes films like he does.

Those obsessions are dominated by drug use, particularly LSD, and specifically when it goes bad. Again and again, Noé’s cinema aims to induce in the viewer the spectacularly depressed feeling of the drug downer, and it usually succeeds, at least for me. His films make me feel more intensely than those of others. It’s not a good feeling, but man, it’s a feeling, and I don’t need to actually take drugs to get it.

Climax take this obsession to its zenith, acutely rendering the experience of a really bad group LSD trip. Whether or not that’s a feeling you want is another matter; most people, obviously, will not. But if you’re interested in cinematic technique, Noé’s work here demands your attention, because the technique on display is phenomenal and his alone. He is a cinematic magician.

The film has a simple plot: a newly-formed dance troop, at the conclusion of a three-day intensive rehearsal workshop, drink LSD-spiked sangria, and react badly. That’s it. But you don’t come to Noé for the story, you come for the experience, and this one is at first spectacularly beautiful – the opening dance scenes are incredible – before becoming savage and outrageously depressing. Just like your worst ever trip.

How Noé manages to get his troupe of actors – who are all, obviously, highly trained dancers – onto his strange page is beyond me. Likewise his cinematography, his sound design and his truly subversive use of VFX are all of a singular piece that is so outside the usual understanding of filmic construction, I’m constantly amazed anyone else can figure out what he wants. But they do, and they pull off his vision, seamlessly. He must be an extraordinary communicator. Which is to say, director.

Most of the population will not see Climax, and most would hate it. But if you’ve read this far, you probably should try it. It’s the safest way you can feel this terrible.

Anna and the Apocalypse

* * *

Anna and her misfit high school friends defend themselves against zombie hordes. We’ve seen zombie comedies, the Citizen Kane being Shaun of the Dead. And we’ve seen high schoolers versus zombies. But this colourful, eager to please trifle has three original cards up its sleeve: it’s Scottish, it’s set at Christmas… and it’s a musical. A true, honest-to-goodness musical, where the cast break out into original songs that further the thematic concerns or comment on their emotional states. Good songs, too. It’s a yuletide delight.

The jokes are often very clever, but the film doesn’t strain for them. The characters are warm and appealing enough to engage us in their travails, even as we all know the whole thing is a gas and a giggle. There’s gore a-plenty, but it’s all for fun too, and often part of the excellent choreography: dance and decapitation go sweetly hand in hand.

The Christmas setting adds effectively to the cheer, as do the buoyant performances. There’s no denying it: this is the best Scottish Christmas zombie high school musical comedy I’ve ever seen.

Sorry To Bother You

* * * 1/2

To say Sorry To Bother You is about a group of telemarketers unionizing would be to criminally undersell it. Boots Riley’s trippy, frequently hilarious and extremely original Oakland-set fantasia is an urgent, cohesive and accessible statement on race in America masquerading as the best episode of The Twilight Zone you’ve never seen. It joins Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman as an American film released in 2018 that uses comedy to discuss America’s difficulties with racial division with anger, precision, intellectual rigor and a touch of heart.

Lee’s film was a true story humorously told; Riley’s is more of a satire. Lakeith Stanfield (Darius from Atlanta) plays Cassius Green, who discovers the secret to telemarketing success: use his “white voice” (a very clear parallel with BlacKkKlansman, which has an essentially identical trope). As he climbs the ladder at his firm, his co-workers, including his new girlfriend, are unionizing, and his choice – to join them or abandon them for success – is a superb dramatic construction compounded by myriad ethical, political and personal conundrums and contradictions.

This is an example of American Indie Cinema firing on all cylinders: it introduces a fresh, powerful new voice with an undeniably entertaining work that is also completely engaged with current American politics. It’s fresh, bold and, more than anything, it’s wild.

Widows

* * * *

British artist and art-film director Steve McQueen goes semi-mainstream with his somber take on the big cast, big city crime drama, Widows, adapted from a British television mini-series that he loved in his younger days. Very much in the style of Lumet and Pollack, with a dash of Michael Mann’s Heat, the film swings big and mainly connects; it excels in characterizations, and only stumbles when confronted with straight-up genre elements, which McQueen is either least interested in, comfortable with, or both.

Viola Davis leads a small crew of Chicago gangland widows in pulling off a heist left unfinished by her dead husband and his dead gang. They’re a diverse bunch in various stages of grief. Davis is carrying the heaviest heart, and her performance is, unfortunately, enervating and monotonous. But Elizabeth Debicki spectacularly steals the movie – and, I’ll warrant, a huge new stage of her career – with a sublime portrait of a very damaged woman finding her feet by focusing on a fun new project: a heist! I hope a Best Supporting Actress nomination comes her way at Oscar time; she deserves it.

The generous first and second acts build a complex and nefarious world, populated by difficult and complicated people. Besides the female widow crew – rounded out by Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo – there are a bunch of men, all shades of nasty, including Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, and most interestingly Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi in Atlanta) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out). This is the Lumet-type universe, where a city is sketched in by its power-playing inhabitants, and where crime and the city go hand in hand. The third act, unfortunately, which includes the heist, feels rushed and confused, and the ending left me scratching my head. Thinking back on all of McQueen’s films (I’ve seen them all), endings are not his strongest card. Perhaps he’s simply far more intrigued in examining his characters than saying goodbye to them. Indeed, the closing moments of Widows almost imply a sequel, as odd as that sounds. I’d certainly come back for more.

Spitfire

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* * *

Like its subject, Spitfire is refined, elegant and classy – if such a thing can be said of a killing machine. Certainly, the film and its interview subjects think so of the plane that “saved Europe” in World War 2. This is a hagiography of an object, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Surely, to make a cinema-release documentary about any subject, one must be, in some way, in love with it?

There are (very British) people in this film that really love the Spitfire, and in their passion there is gentle humour and charm. If they were this gushy over, say, a breed of small dog, they might come off as eccentric or even ridiculous, but the film maintains a jovial respectful tone, showing each in their best, rather than most extreme, light. At 36 minutes in, we start to hear from female group plotters of the artillery brigade, and the film becomes more revelatory. Seeing contemporaneous footage of women at war, last century, is rare and rather thrilling. Later, we see them as pilots, and it’s like a hidden door has been opened, a secret revealed.

Obviously, it’s one for the fans (of warplanes!), but they’re not a finite bunch. One of my best friends has a five year old son who is passionate about the World Wars and who will love this film. While being careful to acknowledge that the Spitfire was indeed a “killing machine”, this lovingly crafted work, deserving a big screen thanks to its splendid aerial photography, is not really about war, but about Britain and its people, and the pride they may take in an object that did indeed exemplify “the best of British.” If such things move you, you may even shed a tear.