THE FAVOURITE***** A Definite Favourite


Finally. What a year this has been for women in the cinema, in movies bad and good, we’ve engaged with Women as women, not appendages. They were strong. In charge. Un-beholden to the men, wherever they were (lost somewhere flexing faux superhero muscles). Powerful. Clever. Sexy. The list goes on. They weren’t the supporting cast, the doting eye candy. These were movies, often written by women, and directed by them, about fundamental issues of power, identity, Independence etc with women at the centre.

And they made money.

Here’s a list of movie feminism circa 2018: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside…), Saoirse Ronan (as Ladybird and Mary Queen of Scots), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya and Mary, Queen of Scots), Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Annihilation), Gabrielle Union (Breaking In), Sandra Bullock (Oceans Eight, Bird Box), Julia Roberts (Homecoming), Sacha Parkinson (Apostasy), Emma Thompson (The Children Act), Glenn Close (The Wife), Viola Davis (Widows), Carey Mulligan (Wildlife), Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience), Rachel Weisz, again, with Emma Stone and Olivia Coleman (The Favourite), Keira Knightly (Collette), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins), Yalitza Aparazio (Roma). Even Captain Marvel’s gender has be reassigned.

But I digress.

The Favourite is a delicious, wildly entertaining, hugely satisfying Court romp about power, politics and (devious) ways of persuasion. The story centres on the toxic ménage a trois of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), who ruled Britain between 1702 – 1714, her confidant, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) – yes, that Churchill- wife of Lord Marlborough, the Queen’s Captain-General and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), a disgraced ingenue from the country, with an eye for advancement.

It’s a tale of sex, seduction, cross-dressing, deceit and intrigue.

And it all begins when Abigail is unceremoniously dumped in the mud outside the Queen’s palace. She has come in the hope that cousin Sarah can find her a place in the palace. This cousin Sarah reluctantly does. She’s given the post of scullery maid, beholden to an abusive kitchen hand, one notch above her in the pecking order. Abigail becomes, albeit briefly, the defenceless victim to the exercise of -abusive- power at its most basic.

She’s an attractive young thing, and pretty soon catches the eye of one of the lords of the court. When he barges into her chamber one night, she questions whether he’s there to seduce her or rape her. He answers that he’s a gentleman. So, it’s rape then, she replies.

Thus does director lay out the idea that drives his story: the symbiotic knit of sex and power…the power of position and status to demand sex and the power of sex to achieve position and -favoured- status. At one point in the story, we find ourselves in a bordello. It’s a brilliant, if not too subtle expression of the transactional nature of sex. Open your legs and here’s your reward : a job, an army, a sinecure, a better room, a palace, a position of authority forever.

In other words, the present British aristocracy

At the head of the pecking order is of course the Queen, who, when we meet her, is a depressed, infantilised, petulant woman whose seventeen pregnancies have all failed to bear fruit. She keeps rabbits, one for each departed child. And she is entirely dependent for any emotional succour on Sarah, her counsel, puppet master and lover. Sarah is the cunning conduit between the Prime Minister and the Queen.

England is in a state of war; life and death decisions of the most far-reaching consequence are made through the whispers in dark corridors and silk bed sheets.

Abigail’s arrival quickly upsets this status quo. Her farmer’s know-how about herbs and natural poultices soon endears her to the gout ridden queen (Oh England, thou art sick). And having conveniently fallen asleep on the Royal bed, her lithe naked body quickly endears her to the Queen even more. And thus begins the duel for power between the dark, older Sarah and the fair, younger Abigail. Each is aligned with opposing political power bases: Tory v Whig; hawk v dove. One moment you’re in favour; the next you’re not.

Whisper, whisper.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ directing, along with his wonderful production and Costume designers, Fiona Crombie and Sandie Powell, present us with an absurdist, vulgar, grotesque world. It is as grotesque as the idea of divine, God given, Royal power. It is a world of effete men in their effeminate wigs and powdered, pomaded faces and crack shot women dressed like buccaneers.

The actions unfold on two stages: an indoor stage of dark tapestries and hidden corridors that barely obscure the serial seductions and stealth within; and an outdoors world of violence…birds are slaughtered, a woman is thrown from her horse and pulled for miles, another is chased like prey by her hunter lover.

Indoors or out, you’re either the hunter with power of the hunted without. In this world, there are only winners and losers.

The three principals in this fine romp are outstanding. Olivia Coleman probably had the hardest job: her richly complex character – self indulgent, self pitying, clueless, abusive – still manages to win the audience’s favouritism when we finally realise what she must clearly have know all along, and which we see in her eyes in the closing shot: that she’s being played. Rachel Weisz’ Lady Sarah is steely and cunning, but with an honesty and genuine love for her Queen that is at times almost touching. Not so Emma Stone’s Abigail. We feel for her as she’s knocked about by men and punished by Lady Sarah. We’re seduced by her fearlessness and spunk (and impeccable English accent). And in the end we’re disgusted by her heartlessness. Stone’s brilliance is that she always allows us behind the mask to the nastiness within.

This is of course an “historical drama”. But as if to ensure that viewers don’t relegate it to ‘an event that took place in the past’, the semiotics of the film – the racy dialogue, the (break) dancing, the exaggerated foppiness of the clothes, and even the focus of the story (where the men are largely bystanders) – demand that we view the morale of this tale through the lens of our present winter of discontent.

It’s almost as though Yorgos Lanthimos is suggesting that three hundred years after her death, the nobility who rule are vainglorious fops, and the policies of their government are still shaped by favouritism, cunning whispers, and self seeking power brokers.

Madness

 

THE FAVOURITE. Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara. With: Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone. Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult. Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake). Production Designer: Fiona Crombie (Macbeth). Costume Designer: Sandy Powell (Cindarella)

 

 

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES**** Smashing


AS THEY DID so un-fussily in their earlier movie, “Little Miss Sunshine” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, along with writer and Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) tackle this heavy topic of misogyny and sexual discrimination with effortless dexterity and a light hand. These guys are masters of tone.

In this marvellously entertaining story of the famous grudge match between Bobby Riggs – a past tennis champion turned Carnival huckster and gambler – and Billy Jean King, then the world number one women’s player, Messrs. Dayton and Faris make their points without ever belabouring them.

Emma Stone is a thoroughly convincing Billy Jean (with, a remarkable physical resemblance). She plays the part against “type”. This “type” as depicted by Riggs, Jack Kramer the President of the US Lawn Tennis Association (Bill Pullman) and pretty much all the men in the movie, is really one of two cartoon archetypes in which all women are slotted. The (preferred) type is that of the woman who accepts her inferiority and knows that her real place is either in the bedroom or the kitchen. Her opposite is the upperty/feminist type: the woman as harridan (“a hairy legged feminist” as Riggs describes her), who somehow refuses to recognise or acknowledge her inferiority.

The BJK we meet is a real person, not a type. We hear about her character long before we really meet her; she’s a single-trick pony: someone so obsessed with her tennis that she’d sacrifice anything. But the (married) Billy-Jean we meet is warm, funny, engaging and, much to her surprise, smitten by another woman (resulting in the third ‘type’, still to this day despised by the venomous, fellow player, Margaret Court: the lesbian type. There is indeed a strong gay subtext in the movie. The battle is never only about recognition and equal pay; “equality” is as much about gender as it is about sexuality)

The writing is clever. Even as we’re warming to this more fragile side of her personality, we’re introduced to the steelier, courageous, “don’t fuck with me” side. The side that refuses to accept her male counterparts being paid eight times more. And the side that takes on the responsibility of defending her gender’s demand for equality by finally rising to Rigg’s misogynist Man v Woman, Strong v Weak, Superior v Inferior challenge.

The eponymous Battle of the Sexes.
So very much hung on this match!

Riggs was coming off a victory over Margaret Court; someone who’d clearly accepted the narrative of female inferiority, and yielded to it. That victory had proven Kramer’s point, and his justification for the unbalanced pay scales: that women simply didn’t have the nerve, the disposition, the emotional toughness to stand up to ‘real’ (i.e. male) tennis players.

BJK frets and worries about losing. And like the warrior she is, she prepares for battle. Riggs, as a man, assumes he’ll win.

But if BJK is a nicely rounded personality, the writers deliberately leave Riggs as a cartoon character; one as buffoonish as his patronizing and contemptuous, if popular, views on women (despite being entirely dependent on one, his long suffering wife). It’s a subtle editorial comment that.

Steve Carrell’s Riggs is as physically compelling as Stone’s BJK. And like Ms. Stone’s portrayal , it’s a nicely subtle and convincing piece of acting: appearing one dimensional…almost the pantomime villain, without it being one dimensional acting. There are only occasional flashes, and especially at the cathartic end, when Carrell allows us to see the sad, hollow man his character really is.

Stone and Carrell dominate the movie. But two other characters manage to edge into frame: Sarah Silverman is Gladys Heldman, the pushy, ballsy, bossy manager of (BJK’s) newly formed Women’s Tennis Association (disparagingly referred to as Ladies’ tennis). And, as the darker, more menacing, more threatened face of male misogynism, Bill Pullman’ is excellent (condescending, sneering, supercilious) as her counterpart as the USLTA.

Billy Jean’s courage, her victorious battle of the sexes, was the first big breakthrough in making some headway in gender pay equality. And, even back then, the WTA’s first big sponsor, Virginia Slims, said it succinctly: “We’ve Come a Long Way, Babe”. But, with the sad reality of 33 women CEO’s in the Top 500 US companies, that slogan, like the reality of equal pay would suggest that there’s a verrrry long way to go yet.

Battle of the Sexes. Dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris. With: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverstein, Alan Cumming, Andrea Riseborough (“The Death of Stalin”)  Writer: Simon Beaufoy. Cinematography: Lindys Sandgren (“American Hustle”)

 

La La LAND**** Worth all the song and dance


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AT YET ANOTHER one of her many auditions (where she’s usually ignored, interrupted or just dismissed), aspiring actor and playwright Mia (Emma Stone) is asked to “tell us a story”. So, because it’s that type of movie, she sings. She sings a story of her aunt, her inspiration, who dared to jump into the Seine, because she just wanted to. “Here’s to the ones who dream”, she sings. “…foolish as they may seem. Here’s to two hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make”

The song neatly summarizes the idea that drives this compellingly charming movie. La la land, or LA, or the city of stars, is where the action takes place. But la la land refers not to the silly escapism of people who dare to follow their dream, but to the cynical put down by people too scared to follow theirs. Perhaps at a meta dimension, it also refers to the fantasy of a director who dared produce a movie – a musical of all things – that contained both the romantic joy of singing dancing Hollywood, but also the realism that followed dreams don’t necessarily lead where you’d planned.

The story itself follows the fortunes of Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She’s the wannabe actor waiting, like her friends to be discovered; he’s a brilliant, if undiscovered, Jazz pianist. In the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals, they keep bumping into each other. “This could never be” he sings, “You’re not the type for me”. “What a waste of a lovely night”, she concludes. But with each serendipitous bump, antipathy turns into friendship and friendship turns into love. They each provide the motivation the other lacks (so it goes with love), until, one day, motivation is needed no more.

The very idea of “follow your dreams; never give in to the average, the everyday, the easy payday” is of course a tired cliché. But director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) manages the enormously difficult balance between the potential silliness of the idea and the pure magic that makes us believe; that seduces us into a la la land of fantasy, established from the get-go with an over the top dance routine right out of “Fame”…when an entire highway of drivers stuck in traffic sing about “reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights that shine”. But the silly fantasy (is it silly to dream? To reach for the stars?) is all grounded in the same kind of honesty of vision and integrity of storytelling Chazelle delivered in “Whiplash”. This mix of fantasy grounded in the real world is nicely underscored (via Justin Hurwitz’ lovely book and Mandy Moore’s choreography) through the real, and clearly unprofessional, singing and dancing of its two stars. His voice (like his acting) is pretty dull; hers is clear and glorious.

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Indeed, this is Emma Stone’s movie. Chazelle is wise (and trusting) enough to allow his camera to linger on her. Through her eyes, through the subtlest of expressions, Emma, without words, manages to communicate vast depths of complex emotions. Her character morphs from the ditzy Hollywood hopeful in awe of ‘movie stars’ to a knowing sophisticate, well experienced in the ways of love. She it is who, singlehandedly, neutralizes any trace of cliché; and who (unfortunately) diminishes Ryan Gosling’s character to that of a simplistic, if pretty, one-trick pony. Gosling has a nice sense of comic timing, but too often, there’s no “there” there. He seems to spend more time trying to look cool than expressing emotion.

The idea all falls into place near the very end, in an extended sliding doors montage that delivers a resonance way beyond the limitations of its story…as it suggests to its audience the ‘what if’s’ to all their – our – lives. What if, the story concludes by asking, the sliding doors in all of our la la lands led us into alternative lives, alternative sound tracks? Would we be all the better or worse for it? Happier or just different? Are we living the life we chose, or just living in la la land?

 

LA LA LAND. Dir/writer: Damien Chazelle. With Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemary DeWitt, J.K.Simmons. Composer: Justin Hurwitz. Choreographer: Mandy Moore. Production designer: David Wasco (“Inglorious Basterds”). Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”)