Tag: Emma Stone

The Favourite (2018)

Olivia Colman is at the centre of a complex rivalry in The Favourite

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Cast: Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Emma Stone (Abigail Hill), Rachel Weisz (Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough), Nicholas Hoult (Lord Robert Harley), Joe Alwyn (Colonel Lord Masham), Mark Gatiss (Lord Marlborough), James Smith (Lord Godolphin)

Looking around the cinema, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the audience were expecting The Favourite to be a Sunday night-style costume drama about Queen Anne. Goodness only knows what they made of this skittishly filmed, acidic, sharp-tongued, very rude drama about squabbles in the court of Queen Anne. The Crown it ain’t.

In 1708, the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is dominated completely by her head of household, chief advisor, secret lover and domineering best friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). But Sarah’s control over Queen Anne is set to be challenged by the arrival in court of seemingly charming, but in fact ruthlessly ambitious, cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a former aristocrat who has fallen on hard times. Soon Sarah and Abigail find themselves in the middle of a bitter, ruthless clash for control over Anne – who, seemingly weak-willed and disinterested in government, in fact takes an eager pleasure from the rivalry of the two women.

The Favourite is a brilliant, acerbic, very dark comedy that treats its period setting with a hilarious lack of reverence. It’s a frequently laugh-out loud comedy, with its often foul-mouthed dialogue just on the edge of being anachronistic (a trait that also comes into the hilarious non-period dancing). It takes a moment to tune up, but leans just enough on the fourth wall to work. Lanthimos’ film doubles down on the insane pressure bowl of Anne’s courts, turning the court of the 1700s into a bizarre, semi-surreal state where you have no idea what insanity you might see around the corner – from racing ducks, to rabbits roaming free, to a naked man being pelted with oranges. 

But then this is the sort of bizarreness that stems from the top, and Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is a domineering eccentric. In a film-career-making performance from Colman, her Queen Anne is part infantalised puppet, part needy insecure lover, part bitter control freak. Anne will change from scene to scene from a furious, knee-jerk rage to a weeping vulnerability. Her interest in actually ruling the kingdom has been largely beaten out of her, but she still needs to feel that she holds the power. With her body raddled with gout, Anne alternates between demanding independence and being wheeled from place to place. Colman’s performance bravely skits between temper tantrums and a desperate, panicked loneliness and sadness – it’s a terrific performance.

A woman as uncertain and unhappy in herself as Anne is basically pretty ripe for control and manipulation. History has not been kind to Sarah Churchill, who is often seen as a ruthless, power-hungry manipulator only out for what she can get, obsessed with the power her role brings her. This film takes a different, more interesting slant, thanks in part to Rachel Weisz’s superb performance. Weisz plays Churchill as a strong-minded, hard to like woman, who has a genuine bond with Anne, but honestly believes she is better suited to execute the powers of royalty than her lover. But that doesn’t stop her having feelings for her – or priding herself on refusing to lie to Anne about anything (from her appearance to her behaviour). But this doesn’t stop Sarah from ruthlessly bullying Anne or threatening her – though she’s equally happy to climb into bed with her when required.

But Sarah Churchill here is doing the things she is doing because she honestly believes that it is what is best for the kingdom and (by extension) Anne, and the moments of shared remembrance between Anne and Sarah have a genuine warmth and feeling to them. Which makes her totally different from the ruthless Abigail, played with a stunning brilliance by Emma Stone. Abigail doesn’t give a damn about anything or anyone but herself: something the rest of the servants in the household seem to recognise instinctively as soon as she arrives, but a danger Sarah doesn’t detect until too late. Abigail’s every action is to promote her own wealth and prestige, and she’ll do whatever it takes to do that, from crawling through the mud for herbs to crawling between the sheets to pleasure Anne at night. Stone’s Abigail is ruthless, self-obsessed, uncaring and on the make in another terrific performance.

The film focuses in large part on the see-sawing fortunes of these two rivals for the role of favourite – with Anne as the fulcrum in the middle. The film is split into eight chapters, each of which is opened by a quirky quote from the chapter itself. It neatly structures the film, and also gives it a slight off-the-wall quality. The film is packed with electric scenes, as the women wear the trousers in the court (often literally, in Sarah Churchill’s case), riding and shooting in their spare time and slapping down the assorted politicians and lords desperately trying to promote their interests on the edge of the court. This battle of wits and wills is a fabulous, increasingly no-holds barred, rivalry that motors the film brilliantly.

Lanthimos loves every moment of scheming and double crossing the film supplies. He shoots the film with a selection of low-angle and fisheye lenses, which make the palace settings seem as imposing, large and domineering as possible – and also distorts the world just as the feud between the two women is doing. The film looks fabulous, with its intricate design and it’s candle lit lighting. Lanthimos’ court always looks gloomy and secretive, with only a few spots of orange warmth.

Lanthimos also understands that there is very little room for sentiment or feeling here, and the flashes of it we get are never allowed time to really grow. That’s not a negative of course, as this sharp comic drama is also an arch commentary on some of the selfishness and distortion of events that lies under politics (sound familiar?), with the interests of the ordinary people of the realm raising very little interest from any side on the political divide. And Anne is such a bizarre character, so pulled between pillar and post, so desperately unhappy so much of the time, so utterly spoilt the rest, that you understand how she has become such a chew toy for court faction, and why she is happy to tacitly encourage this world where her every whim is played to for advantage.

I laughed out loud several times during The Favourite. It’s obvious to say that it feels like a film for the #metoo era – but it certainly has three fabulous, brilliant, hilarious and strangely heartfelt performances from its three female leads, three of the best actresses in the business. Wonderfully directed, beautifully written and fabulously designed, this is properly fantastic cinema.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Spider-Man retreats in full flight from the shocking explosion of this film behind him

Director: Marc Webb

Cast: Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro), Dane DeHaan (Harry Osborn/Green Goblin), Colm Feore (Donald Menken), Felicity Jones (Felicia Hardy), Paul Giamatti (Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino), Sally Field (Aunt May), Campbell Scott (Richard Parker), Embeth Davidtz (Mary Parker), Marton Csorkas (Dr Kafka), Chris Cooper (Norman Osborn)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was set to launch a Spider-Manfranchise that “would last a THOUSAND YEARS!!!”. It didn’t. In fact this bloated, poorly constructed, overlong mess killed those plans stone dead. It says a lot that a film which took $709 million worldwide is considered a flop. But the reaction to the film was so mehthat there was no desire to see any further films about this Spider-Man. On every count the film is a catastrophic failure.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is enjoying the life of a super-hero, while struggling to maintain his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) due to his guilt over her father’s death. That sentence, by the way, demonstrates how schizophrenic this film’s tone is: a hero who loves life and simultaneously is plagued with guilt? He’s also obsessed by finding out what happened to his parents (killed off in a superfluous pre-credits flashback, setting up a mystery the film loses all interest in). At the same time, he must take on obsessive loner fan Max turned supervillain Electro (Jamie Foxx), and old friend Harry Osborn turned supervillain Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan).

After a so-so remake of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, Sony seemingly decided to skip Spider-Man 2 and jump straight to a remake of the reviled Spider-Man 3. Many of that film’s disastrous mistakes are made again: romantic tension that never feels real, action sequences that feel like trailers and, worst of all, stuffing the film to the gills with villains (at least four characters can lay claim to being major primary or secondary antagonists). It also makes its own mistakes, chucking in endless references to a dull, confusing ‘mystery’ around Peter’s parents (that will never now be resolved).

On top of all that, there is something so nakedly grasping about Amazing Spider-Man 2 it’s almost impossible to love. It’s such a greedy film that almost every conversation and stray camera shot tries to set-up potential future movies (the low point being a camera pan down a room full of devices that will become the weapons of future baddies). The plot gets constantly drifts down side alleys as it frantically tries to establish enough plots for the studio to keep churning out films over the next five years. This also means it goes on forever without any real sense of impetus developing in the story.  The action is so nakedly shot with an eye on the trailer, that nearly each fight is literally shot with a crowd of people watching behind barriers, cheering events on.

Whatever happened to the trick of making a successful franchise being to make a good movie? Imagine a film focused on a single villain plotline, and played that off against a relationship drama (something like, say, Spider-Man 2). That might have been something worth seeing, that might have made you think “well I enjoyed that, I wouldn’t mind seeing another one”. But this film is little more than an extended trailer for films to come – it’s as soulless and empty as a piece of marketing puff.

Any ‘emotional’ moments are placed so blatantly as filler between the action that they carry no resonance. Does anyone give a toss if Gwen Stacy goes to London or not? Was anyone actually moved at all when she (spoiler!) dies at the end? For all of Spider-Man 3’s faults, at least when Harry Osborn went bad it resonated, as audiences had seen his and Peter’s relationship play out over two films. Here Harry is introduced, the next scene he and Peter openly say they are best friends, then they barely spend any further time together before Harry’s “shocking” volte-face. If the film can’t be bothered to spend any time earning it, why should I spend any time investing in it?

Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker has his fans, but I’ve found him (in both films) an insufferable, cocky prick. Garfield is a very good actor, but his direction to play Parker as a young buck completely fails. His wisecracking persona works as Spider-Man, but falls flat as Peter, who never seems particularly sweet, relatable or endearing in a way Tobey Maguire managed so well. The parental plotline doesn’t help here either: having spent the first film not really giving a toss about the death of Uncle Ben, here he outright obsesses over his parents in a way that just doesn’t ring true, particularly as it carries with it an implicit rejection of Aunt May. His borderline controlling/stalkerish behaviour with Gwen Stacy is also pretty hard to stomach (he spends half the film telling her what to do, the other half either following her or openly stating he will never let her go – okay weirdo…)

It’s quite damning that despite all this, Garfield (and to be fair, Emma Stone) is the best thing in this lifeless pile of stodge. Jamie Foxx is so hilariously miscast as Electro it skewers the whole movie (surely part of the reason why he is in it so little). Foxx can’t resist showing the audience all the time that he (the actor) is far smarter, cooler and popular than the character – his contempt for the role drips off the screen. DeHaan overacts wildly as Harry, bested only by Giamatti’s cartoonish overblown shouting. Field cashes her cheque with professionalism as Aunt May.

People aren’t stupid. They can tell when they are being ripped off. And they can tell when a studio flings bangs and bucks at the screen with no heart and soul behind them, when a film’s been made by people who want to fleece fanboys, rather than create something that speaks to their love of the material. It’s the problem with both of these Garfield Spider-Man films (and to a certain extent Raimi’s last one). They are soulless, dead films made by committees. They listen to all the worst cries of the fans and then try to give them everything at once. They end up giving them nothing. Which is what this film is: a big, empty pile of nothing.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Michael Keaton is haunted by his superhero alter-ego in Iñárritu’s well made but heavy handed theatre satire

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton (Riggan Thomson), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Edward Norton (Mike Shiner), Andrea Riseborough (Laura Aulburn), Amy Ryan (Sylvia Thomson), Emma Stone (Sam Thomson), Naomi Watts (Lesley Truman), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha Dickinson), Merritt Wever (Annie)

Oscar voters seem to be invariably drawn towards stories about actors and acting. Put together a decent and ambitious movie about those subjects, ideally with a sprinkling of gentle satire that pokes fun at acting but basically says at the end it is a noble profession, and you got yourself a contender. So it was with Birdman.

Riggan Thomson (a career revitalising role for Michael Keaton) is a faded movie star who hit celebrity 15 years ago with a series of films about a superhero, Birdman. Today he is trying to reclaim his artistic integrity by directing, adapting and starring in a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. At the same time he wants to rebuild a relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict. The film covers the stumbling journey towards the opening night, with Thomson dealing with a demanding and difficult enfant terrible co-star (Ed Norton), a string of disasters and the haunting presence of his Birdman alter-ego, lambasting his choices and urging him to return to blockbusters.

I’m going to lay into this film a bit. It’s harsh, because it is really trying to do something different, for which it deserves credit. So I’ll start with the good stuff. The conceit of making the film look like it was done in one take is extraordinarily well done – the camera work is inventive and extraordinary. Emmanuel Lubezki is a visual genius and the technical accomplishment is astounding, a real tour-de-force. The acting is also very good. Michael Keaton embraces the best script he had in years, giving the part such commitment and emotion you overlook it’s a fairly simple part. Emma Stone is raw and tragic as his daughter. Ed Norton gives one of his finest performances as a dickish method actor (a neat self-parody) who in quieter conversations reveals real depth – and provides more insights into the passion for creativity than virtually anything else in the film.

Okay, that’s the really good stuff. It’s got some good lines as well, and its general style never stops being entertaining. But it’s also nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It wants to be a profound study of the nature of life and art, but it never really gets to grips with these ideas or drills down into them. For art, its contrasts are simplistic verging on hectoring. It never really gets to the heart of what acting is or means. For life it boils down into a straightforward “father wants to win back love of family” plot. The film presents all this as something deep and meaningful, and uses a lot of style and razamatazz – but the basic points remain simple or under-explored.

Part of my problem with the film is that is wears its pseudo-intelligence rather too heavily, and it ends up turning into smugness. Lubezki’s camera work is extraordinary but it also has a “look-at-me” quality that really begins to distract from the viewing of the film – even second time around the content of the film passes you by a bit. Tellingly, on the DVD Iñárritu talks about being drawn to the project because he wanted to make a film that felt like it was done in one take. Fine, but perhaps it would have been better if he had been a bit more interested in, say, the content of the film itself? Everything about the film-making demands you give it your attention, from the camerawork to the insistent drumming soundtrack. These elements are not bad in themselves – but it’s showing off rather than craft servicing the film.

The film’s themes themselves are, I think, also not as interesting or challenging as the film-makers believe them to be. The central idea of actors being shallow with chaotic home lives is so tired as to be a cliché: “Why don’t I have any self-respect?”/”You’re an actress, honey” summarises the sort of jokes you’ve seen before in other films.

I also felt the film’s attempts to analyse the nature of art and performance were formulaic and even rather empty. Lindsay Duncan plays a chilly theatre critic, determined to destroy the play, and Keaton delivers well Riggan’s rant to her on using labels and presenting opinions as facts. There isn’t any counterbalance to this offered, no exploration of, for example, criticism can service art or how opinion guides our reception of what we perceive as good art. A heavy handed fantasy sequence has his Birdman alter ego addressing the camera directly “Look at these people, at their eyes… they’re sparkling. They love this shit.” Yeah Alejandro we get it, we are shallow and deep down prefer action films than all this “ talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit” – hardly an original thought, and hardly framed originally though, is it? Do we really need to be whacked on the head with it? What point is this trying to make that we haven’t heard hundreds of times before?

But then is it any wonder that it wants to try and make points about cinema rather than theatre? For a film set exclusively in a theatre, I don’t really feel that its makers really understand the pressures or nature of theatre. Instead, it merely stands in here as a short hand for “cultural worthiness” – Riggan might as well be making an independent film or writing a novel, theatre is just a counterpoint used for blockbuster films (a genre Iñárritu clearly does understand and has opinions on). Nothing in the film really seems to capture a real sense of backstage in a theatre or what putting on a play is like, for example Peter Yates’ film of The Dresser. There is no sense of the collaborative nature of the medium or its immediacy as a performance art – it’s labelled as lazily as a vehicle for pretension and self loathing as criticism is for bitterness and failure.

The film also plays with the notion of Riggan’s (possibly) unhinged nature. Throughout the film we see him use superpowers – levitation, telekenesis, flight, control of fire. Along with his haunting by the Birdman character (done with a nice parody of the gravelly Christian Bale-Batman voice), it all ties into the possibility that Riggan is losing the ability to keep his real life and his career’s defining moment from merging into one another. The film’s ending builds on this, playfully suggesting some of what we have seen might have been real (though it also could be interpreted as a final dream sequence) – but I’m not sure what is gained by introducing these skills other than for visual flair. Riggan’s inner turmoil is never explored fully by the film and I don’t feel the film has the patience to explore his feelings or depression. As such, I find the open-ended ending doesn’t really add anything – it feels like it has been inserted to create debate, rather than acting as a culmination for your interpretation of the film, a la Inception say.

Phew. Birdman is by no means a bad film. It is a good one, but not a great one. It has much to admire, both on a technical and performance level, but (like Riggan) it is straining for an intellectual depth and thematic richness that simply isn’t there. It’s a showpiece, a brilliantly done one, really impressive to watch and it dazzles while it takes place – but there isn’t much to talk about afterwards. It is what it is. Compared to this year’s film-about-acting, La La Land, it’s both less charming and less profound, and has less to tell us about the compromises and struggles of real life. You can enjoy it, and it needs to be seen, but I can’t see it ageing well.

La La Land (2016)

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling literally dance the night away

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling (Sebastian Wilder), Emma Stone (Mia Dolan), John Legend (Keith), Rosemarie DeWitt (Laura Wilder), Finn Wittrock (Greg Earnest), JK Simmons (Bill) 


Okay this review will discuss the plot of the film in some detail, including the ending so if you want to avoid hearing more(and I think the film is best enjoyed as an experience if you don’t know what happens at all) don’t read on.

A sweeping camera carries us over a freeway. The drivers honk horns and impatiently stare at the gridlock. Then the camera hones in one woman who starts to sing. Then others join in. The camera never cuts as the singing and dancing spreads around the whole freeway. Through the number, it follows people back into their cars and then settles on a woman reading over her audition piece. It’s a bravura moment, an ambitious piece of cinematic daring. It tells us that we are in for a ride. We get on.

Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are early-30-somethings in Los Angeles. She is trying to make it as an actress (and this film really shows the soul-destroying nature of auditions), he dreams of opening a jazz club. Their paths cross a few times, until they meet at a party where he is performing as part of a terrible covers band. They flirt, they fall in love. But can true love survive the ups and downs of life?

Firstly, Chazelle directs wonderfully and Gosling and Stone are radiant in these roles. Emma Stone gives the sort of performance that makes her automatically popular: Mia is warm, funny, kind but also slightly prickly and lacking in confidence about making that big break. Seb is engaging, animated, confident but also slightly distant, standoffish with an intensity behind his eyes. Both actors carry the whole film – this is almost a two hander, as virtually no other actor has more than a few minutes of screen time – and are simply brilliant, capturing that mix of Hollywood magic and real-life tension that the film mixes together throughout its running time.

Very rarely have I seen a film before that I think caught the magic of falling in love as effectively as this one did. The third of the film given to the courtship between Gosling and Stone’s characters is sweet, endearing, heart-warming and rings very true. It has exactly the right sense of tentativeness and uncertainty alongside the natural chemistry between the two leads, that sense of nervousness because you are not sure if the other person is feeling what you are feeling. This portion of the film brilliantly succeeds in getting the viewer to invest in this relationship between the two characters.

Chazelle also fills the frame at this point with some of the best Hollywood old-school musical magic: the song-and-dance routines really work here, giving visual expression to the high flung emotions of our heroes (the sequence at Griffith observatory is the obvious highlight here, but the relationship is handled so well that their first date at the cinema beforehand feels overwhelmingly sweet and real). It’s never cloying and for a film that (certainly during this section) is a real confection, that is quite some achievement.

And that’s the first point in the film where it could stop. But this is a film where Chazelle wants to combine the high concept of cinema with the difficult reality of real life. So what this film is really about is not romance but the sometimes painful truth that relationships, for a number of reasons, don’t always work out. That even the most perfect couple can, for reasons of career, ambition or due to just everyday mistakes, end up drifting apart, even if they still remain deeply emotionally attached to each other. What Chazelle does so well is that seeing these two slowly work towards breaking up isn’t traumatising or unbearably sad – it seems natural and real, something almost inevitable. In fact we can all see the mistakes happening, the ill thought out angry words, the events missed, we can see where it is going, but the underlying affection and love between the two characters is still there, so there remains the hope that they will conquer this “sticky patch” as per hundreds of films before.

Chazelle teases us – and there are several moments again where the film could stop that would leave the audience with optimism that a future reconciliation will occur, or that they will rekindle that initial spark. A possible ending is before the five year time jump that covers the final five minutes: Mia and Seb sit after her last audition. Neither of them are sure what will happen next, but both of them confess they will always love the other.

Many films would end here, and we could interpret what will happen next. Chazelle takes us forward five years for a beautifully moving bittersweet coda (heavily inspired by the end of An American in Paris), where we see both have achieved their ambitions – but not with each other. Mia is married with a young child, Seb seemingly single. Mia finds herself in Seb’s bar on opening night. Their eyes meet across the room and the whole cinema seems to crackle with the emotion – we know in seconds that they still devoted to each other, and regret consumes the room. Seb begins to play their love theme on the piano… Chazelle then gives us a masterful flashback to their first meeting and a wordless, music and dance accompanied replay of the entire film with every mistake corrected, showing them the life they could have had. It’s a beautiful tease – is this a dream? Was the film we watched a dream? Chazelle could leave us at the end of this sequence and allow us to make up our mind. Instead we return to the bar, as Mia leaves. They catch each other’s eyes and smile. It’s a smile that says love, it says happiness for the other but it also carries regret and acknowledgement that they may never see each other again. It’s a beautiful moment, profoundly true and moving and perfectly encapsulates our regret for the road not taken.

Chazelle’s La La Land was a passion project for the director, and his passion for it is clear. It’s beautifully filmed, hugely affecting, and the song and dance moments will put a smile on your face as well as being moving. Your response to it will be affected by how you respond to the mixing of Hollywood glamour with kitchen-sink reality. My wife was jarred by the fact that the film seems to promise the happy ending that old-school musicals so regularly delivered, but then inverts the concept at the end. I, however, found the ending perfect, and the bittersweet sadness of the road not taken in life (a life where other dreams and ambitions are achieved) very moving.

It’s a film that asks us to question our decisions and place values on dreams and ambitions. I’d need to see it again to decide how successfully it does this: in the real world Mia achieves her dreams and is unwilling to sacrifice them to be just a partner to Seb. In the dream sequence, Seb drops his dreams to support Mia, and the film may be suggesting that two ambitious people in a difficult world like this will struggle to be mutually successful. However, it is also clear that one of the things drives Mia away from Seb is his own drift away from immediately pursuing his dream, by signing on for years of touring with a band playing music he hates. What is the message here? Is there a message? Or is the message that life is never clean, never easy, and that having dreams in an adult world will always complicate lives? It’s a question I look forward to addressing when I watch this wonderful film again. It’s too early to say if this is a classic, but it will do until the next classic comes along.