Emma Stone

The Favourite

01/01/19

Since 2015’s The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established a reputation for quirky and enigmatic films that approach their subject matters from completely unexpected directions. Take The Favourite for instance. This sumptuously dressed costume drama offers us a story that seems as mad as a box of frogs – but it only takes a cursory Google search to establish that most of what happens here cleaves fairly close to established historical truth – proof if ever it were needed that fact can be a lot stranger than fiction. That said, Lanthimos finds ways of amping up the oddness to the max.

We are in the early 18th century, in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a troubled monarch plagued by recurring bouts of gout, who wanders about the place like a sulky teenager. She is totally under the control of the manipulative Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who – as well as being Anne’s secret lover – also uses her to further her strong political ambitions. Into the court comes Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), whose family have fallen on hard times and who is now looking for gainful employment. Sarah grudgingly takes her in as a servant, but Abigail soon tires of a life of drudgery, and decides instead to insinuate herself into the Queen’s good graces, something she proves to be rather adept at.  It isn’t long before a powerful rivalry is ignited between Sarah and Abigail and it’s clear that both women are prepared to do whatever it takes to gain the upper hand.

Lanthimos manages to convey an atmosphere of cold suspicion beautifully and his regular use of a fish eye lens amplifies the claustrophobic ambiance of this troubled court. The film is built around three superb performances from the female leads, with Colman already nominated for a best actress Oscar, and Stone and Weisz for best supporting actress. Indeed, the three of them dominate the film to such a degree that few of the male characters get much of a look in, though I do enjoy Nicholas Hoult’s sardonic turn as Harley, leader of the Tories, who forms a sneaky alliance with Abigail in order to oust his political opponents from power. Those of a prudish persuasion should note that the film is rumbustious enough to fully earn its 15 certificate – some of the scenes here are a bit saucy, to say the very least.

With a running time of just under two hours, The Favourite positively gallops along, making me laugh out loud and, occasionally, gasp in surprise. It would be very hard to think of a more enjoyable way to begin a new year’s viewing.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Battle of the Sexes

 

20/11/17

It’s the early 1970s and rising tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is fighting to establish equal pay for female players. Why is it, she reasonably asks, that the men are being paid eight times as much as the women? American Lawn Tennis president Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), tells her that it’s simply because the men are just ‘more interesting to watch.’ King’s answer is to pull all women players out of Kramer’s organisation and to help them to form their own, seeking sponsorship wherever they can find it. It’s mostly because of her unprecedented efforts that such appalling sexism in the sport was challenged and soundly defeated, even though it meant getting involved with some strange partners. A scene where Billie Jean’s agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman) urges the players to smoke cigarettes because they are being sponsored by Philip Morris is a particular delight.

This fascinating film, scripted by The Full Monty’s Simon Beaufoy, is based around a real event in 1973, when King was goaded into playing a match against ex-champion player, Bobby Riggs (engagingly played here by Steve Carell), whose vociferous claim that no woman could ever beat a man at tennis, still resonates today – people are forever trying to push Andy Murray and Serena Williams into playing against each other. Beaufoy’s script cleverly displays the levels of inherent sexism that existed at the time – most of the remarks and attitudes of the commentators of the period now seem positively prehistoric. The film is aided by the fact that Stone and Carell look so convincing as their characters that genuine footage of the original match is used in long shot with the actors effortlessly spliced in for close-ups. Weirdly, although I already know the outcome of the game, the footage still somehow manages to generate considerable levels of suspense. For my money, this is perhaps the best attempt thus far to put my favourite sport up on the big screen.

The film is about more than just tennis, though. Riggs is struggling with personal demons – a powerful addiction to gambling is pushing his marriage to his socialite wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) onto the rocks – while King, married to the incredibly supportive Larry (Austin Stowells), finds herself irresistibly drawn to hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their burgeoning romance is sensitively handled by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who never fall into the trap of sensationalising it.

But perhaps what the film does best of all is to display the unbelievable levels of all-American razzmatazz that accompanied the contest, right down to Riggs being sponsored by a lollipop company called… wait for it… ‘Sugar Daddy.’ (And if you think the filmmakers have exaggerated for comic effect, you only need to glance at footage of the real event  to see that it has been reproduced with extraordinary attention to detail.)

It would be all too easy to paint Riggs as the villain of this piece, but he actually emerges as a likeable clown, whose outrageous comments are mostly done to generate interest (and large amounts of money) for the match. It’s the everyday, ingrained sexism of characters like Jack Kramer where the real problem lies – and it’s particularly satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance.

Do you need to be a tennis fan to enjoy this film? Well it certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s essential. Its powerful message about equal rights for everyone, regardless of their sexuality, rings out loud and clear. In tennis terms, this one serves an ace.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

La La Land

08/01/17

Remember movie musicals? You know, the big sweeping MGM-style pictures, the kind they really don’t make any more? Well, clearly nobody told director Damien Chazelle, because, apart from a few subtle nods to the modern age, that’s pretty much what he gives us here. Apparently this is a long-cherished project for him, one that predates Whiplash, the picture that first propelled him into the public eye. Essentially, La La Land is a great big glittering love letter to LA and the creative industries that serve it.

The opening sequence pretty much sets out Chazelle’s stall. There’s a freeway full of gridlocked traffic. A girl in  a car begins to sing a song. She gets out of the car and dances a few steps and then the guy in the next car steps out and joins her. Pretty soon, hundreds of people are following their example, offering a brilliantly choreographed routine that is as audacious as it is delightful. It’s a wonderful start.

Soon we meet our protagonists and wouldn’t you know it, at first they hate each other on sight. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a musician, a jazz obsessive who dreams of opening his own club. Mia (Emma Stone) is a would-be actress, a barista by day, who slogs hopefully through an endless series of auditions for roles she appears to have no real chance of attaining. After their initial conflict, the two start to strike sparks off each other. And before too long, of course, they’re hoofing up a storm and singing most of their dialogue.

And if there’s a bit of this film that isn’t fully realised, it’s the songs. Don’t get me wrong, the jazz-inflected score is strong, yes, but the so-called big numbers aren’t exactly memorable. It says a lot when the tune you come out humming is the Flock of Seagulls song, that’s only there as an example of ‘bad pop’ by the cover band in which Sebastian is forced to play in order to pay his rent. And while you might be able to recall one of the film’s original melodies, chances are that the lyrics will escape you. But look, that seems an almost churlish observation in the midst of so much invention, so much undoubted chutzpah.The cinematography is ravishing and the film simply bristles with invention.

There are echoes here of some of the great movie musicals: A Star Is Born, An American in Paris… and then there are other scenes that are refreshingly original. Stone is particularly good, especially in an early scene where she auditions for a character receiving bad news over the phone and you feel like shouting at the casting directors who aren’t taking enough notice of her!

Of course, these kind of movies traditionally have a happy ending and I have to applaud Chazelle for resisting that temptation, even if the alternative he offers may be a cleverly devised way of him having his cake and eating it.

But what a cake! Delicious, delightful and ultimately satisfying. If you miss those old-time musicals, this one is undoubtedly for you.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney