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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Battle of the Sexes

Too much Bobby, not enough Billie.

RIGGS KING

* * * 1/2

This telling of the events leading up to, and including, the tennis match instigated by Bobbie Riggs versus Billie Jean King and billed as a Battle Of The Sexes is fun and extremely easy to watch. But by dividing the film’s focus 50/50 between both players, and by bending over backwards to make Riggs seem like a totally acceptable dude in his own right rather than the bad guy, we are robbed of an insightful film about Billie Jean King, who is so obviously a more interesting, and historically significant, person than Riggs.

Riggs (Steve Carell) is portrayed as “wacky” but not disturbed, incorrigible but not troubled, annoying but not disturbing, frustrating but not dangerous. He’s like a tiny insect, pesky but not powerful enough to ruin your picnic. And, often, he’s “loveable”, and way too much time is given over to scenes with his wealthy, dramatically inert wife to try and prove it. I don’t think I’d find him loveable but the movie wants us to.

The other half of the film – Billie Jean’s half – is far superior, with Emma Stone giving a perfectly modulated, low-key performance. The film’s three thematic strands are The Match, Feminism, and King’s Transition to Gayness, and all three are touched on well if not enough.

The film looks great – it even has a 70s grain, and uses camera moves of the period, such as zooms – and the match itself is brilliantly re-created and, incredibly, tense as hell. But the movie feels like a massive missed opportunity. Emma Stone’s “Billie” would have been – potentially – a far richer film.

Incidentally, the portrayal of Margaret Court – given her current newsworthiness – is fascinating. Seems she was ever thus.

La La Land

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**** (out of five)

La La Land arrives with a lot of hype. If you’re in the business of Oscar prognostication, it’s in a 50/50 race for Best Picture with the very different kettle of fish Moonlight. (Neither of these, of course, might come to pass; momentum could easily arise for such bigger fare as Sully, Arrival, Fences, Live By Night or the tiny and bleak Manchester By The Sea.)

It is Damien Chazelle’s dream project, the script he already had in his drawer when his film Whiplash was not only made, but became an Indie hit, a critical darling and a Best Picture nominee. J.K. Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Chazelle had his moment, his blank cheque, and he cashed it on his Dream Project, an old-school musical he had been developing for years with his musical collaborator (and old school chum) Justin Hurwitz. He’d originally hope to make it for less than a million dollars; ultimately, he had at least thirty times that.

It shows. The opening number, a (perhaps digitally aided) one-take wonder involving an enormous amount of singers, dancers, cars and an LA freeway, is jaw-dropping, a statement of intent that fills the viewer with trust: This is gonna be great! For much of the film that trust is constantly rewarded. Emma Stone, tasked with carrying the film emotionally, appearing in about eighty percent of the scenes, singing, dancing and stealing your heart, is sensational (she must be the Oscar Best Actress front-runner, along with Isabelle Huppert for Elle). Ryan Gosling, very much supporting her, does so with characteristic grace – and a lot of heart. They’re a terrific team.

She plays Mia, an aspiring (and perhaps talented) actress in Los Angeles; he plays Sebastian, an aspiring (and definitely very talented) jazz musician (Chazelle’s signature motif). They fall in love, manage their careers and partake in a stack of original musical numbers along the way.

It’s a true musical, in that characters break out into song and dance when they’re feeling big emotions, and when a musical number is on, anything goes: shoes can appear out of nowhere, skies can lighten or darken, walls can disappear. Certainly the lighting can get jiggy. And, in its depiction of a dame and a dude up against the bright lights of show business in Hollywood, it’s utilising tried-and-true musical formulae, constantly. What’s fascinating is that it’s totally contemporary; the style may be 1953, but the potholes in the freeway are 2015. LA has been art-directed to look magical (there aren’t that many old-school street lamps, I know it) but it’s still modern, lonely, dusty, car-cramped LA, and the casting directors suck.

The original songs by Hurwitz are very good and some are great (if you’ve seen it, I bet you’re humming City of Stars right now). They express the characters’ inner thoughts, they allow them to comment explicitly on their frustrations and longings, they speak of hopes and dreams and, of course, of love. They’re at times plaintive, at times bold and brassy; motifs shimmy throughout. Indeed, it’s a little jarring when Hurwitz’s compositions are supplanted by known music (a sequence at a party incorporating a swathe of famous ‘80s hits) and deliberately different-sounding music (the songs attributed to and performed by a colleague of Sebastian’s, played excellently by John Legend). Stone and Gosling both have fine pipes, Stone in particular, and something about their singing sounds authentic, as though if it were more perfect, it would be less real.

At 128 minutes, the film does feel a little long, and the story definitely slows and muddies in the second act. Because it’s a story based on a thousand others, a story that is part of our collective moviegoing DNA, we’re generally ahead of it, which contributes to the problem. But the ending – and it’s an extended one, a big, ambitious epilogue – is tremendously satisfying. I could feel the large group of critics at the screening I attended sitting on their hands, resisting the uncouth impulse to applaud.

Birdman

****1/2 (out of five)

Birdman-Movie-Poster-KeatonBirdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fantasia on celebrity, persona, art, criticism, family and, more than anything, theatre, is so kinetic and percussive that I left the cinema giddy with excitement. It’s like a roller-coaster for cinephiles: working mainly in the confined spaces of a Broadway theatre, González, in an echo of Hitchcock’s Rope, makes the film appear to be, with the exception of book-ending scenes, one, enormously long continuous shot. Rope was set in an apartment but Birdman’s theatre setting has many rooms, long corridors, and, of course, the stage, so it has tremendous dynamism; Hitchcock was confined to elegant dolly moves but González and his cinematographer, (the great) Emmanuel Lubezki, have all of Steadicam’s mobility combined with CGI faux edits. Combined with a purely drummed score and huge swathes of rapid-fire, crackling dialogue, the film is a ride.

Its big theme is career crisis and personal validation, but its big thrill is how wonderfully it gets across the realities of backstage life. The theatre where superhero movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is producing, directing and starring in a self-adapted play of a famous Raymond Carver short story, the St. James, is grimy, worn in, claustrophobic and dilapidated, and the stuff of theatre actor’s dreams. It is the biggest character in the movie and thoroughly loveable. Its beating heart is reflected in the many backstage workers always on the edges of the frame or scooting through it; some we understand what they’re doing, some we don’t, but they’re as lived in as the theatre, Broadway unionised techs and mechs with all the lingo. “Break a leg, Mr. Thomson” says one as Riggan rushes to an onstage call. In theatre, you don’t not address the star, but you do call them by their last name.

Being so hectic, the film may wear out some, and some may find its characters simply too self-involved to appeal, but anyone with a taste for the theatre, the craft of acting, or Broadway itself will be in their element. The film restricts itself so much to the interior of the St. James and the immediate buildings around it that when it even moves a couple of blocks away it feels too spacious: we become accustomed to – indeed briefly addicted to – the close quarters of the theatre and its environs, and when we’re away from them feel adrift, because we miss that heartbeat.

An ensemble cast, lead by Keaton but by no means dominated by him, are all terrific. Ed Norton has the showiest role as a toast-of-Broadway actor who is both insufferable and legitimately brilliant; Naomi Watts once again nails a really tough challenge: playing an actress who has a role just slightly beyond her abilities, she shows us that actress’s limitations – in other words, she does some really good “bad acting”. Andrea Riseborough shows huge vulnerability (and the ability to play American) and Lindsay Duncan gets a meaty slice of an appearance as the New York Times Theatre critic. But the performance that leaps off the screen the most is that of Emma Stone; playing Keaton’s daughter, she is by turns irritating, exasperating, mysteriously compelling and ultimately moving. Stone has an extraordinary look but she has never been shot so well as she is here; Lubezki has brought out her otherworldliness (those eyes!) more than any other cinematographer, and in many scenes she is a startling presence.

Rope, in keeping with its conceit of appearing to be one take, took place in real time, whereas Birdman, while borrowing the conceit, actually takes place over four or five days and nights. Some may call its methods of achieving such temporal elasticity magic realism or stylisation; I think that the film simply plays by its own rules. It is hugely ambitious, rambunctious, loud and thrilling; it takes risks at every step, and while not all pay off, most do in spades. It’s not always funny but when it is, it’s hilarious. It is also highly original – and that always deserves credit. Maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely a wonder.