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Posts Tagged ‘Emma Stone’

‘What -‘

‘It’s a thriller.’

‘Oh, good.’

In 2006, Lithuania entered the Eurovision Song Contest with a catchy, up-beat, rather tongue-in-cheek number entitled ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision‘ – in the end this proved to be rather optimistic as the song eventually came sixth. So it goes sometimes, but while ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision’ did not eventually win Eurovision, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite has managed to become the buzzy film of the moment and, quite possibly, The Favourite for the awards season which is just about getting under way. Considering that most people know Lanthimos from The Lobster, likely only to win an award for ‘Weirdest Film to Feature a Crustacean’, this is a fairly noteworthy achievement.

The Favourite is not, in fact, a thriller (this was just a cunning ploy I used to get Olinka to come and see it), but is instead… hmmm, well. A very cursory glance at the trailer might lead one to assume this is a grand costume drama in the traditional style – certainly, the setting and characters are the stuff of many a lavish, perhaps slightly staid drama (the film concerns the royal court of England in the early 18th century). However, something much more peculiar is on the cards here.

Ostensibly on the throne is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), but the monarch is temperamental, self-obsessed, stricken with gout and obsessed with her large collection of rabbits. Much of the de facto power rests with her confidante and the keeper of the Privy Purse, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is happy to manipulate the queen, supposedly in the national interest.

Into this situation comes the Duchess’ cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a young noblewoman fallen on hard times. The Duchess is not overly moved to help her and Abigail initially finds herself working in the kitchens. However, her knowledge of herbal medicine proves to be her ticket into the queen’s good books and she finds herself moving in more elevated circles, eventually winning the approval of Anne herself.

Needless to say the appearance of a rival is met with steely hostility from the Duchess, and a superficially well-mannered but actually deeply brutal struggle for ascendancy soon breaks out. Who will eventually become the queen’s favourite? And is the queen herself quite as oblivious to what is going on around her as it appears?

The Favourite is one of those films which has been made from a script which has being kicking around film companies for nearly twenty years, with the early response usually being something along the lines of ‘We like it, but…’ – the main problem usually having something to do with the fact that all three of the main characters are women, thus making the film difficult to market according to industry logic (Nicholas Hoult appears as the scheming politician Robert Harley and Joe Alwyn as one of his dimmer lieutenants, but these are both relatively minor roles). However, as I suspect we are likely to see across the coming weeks, in the wake of the Unique Moment there are a number of high-quality female-dominated movies jostling for attention, and there are few films more female-dominated than this one.

As I say, it may look like a traditional costume drama, but this is something really much more idiosyncratic – we were treated to some surly chuntering from a prominent right-wing writer in the weekend’s Mail on Sunday, grumbling about the film’s wild divergence from historical fact and (supposed) obsession with lesbianism, and if you turn up to The Favourite actually expecting to see a conventional film about the court of Queen Anne then I expect you will be sorely disappointed. Certainly it all looks ravishing, with sumptuous costumes and wigs (all the men look like Brian May, the women are generally more restrained), and many scenes shot solely by candle-light. This inevitably puts one in mind of Barry Lyndon, 15-18 foot lamberts and all, and there is a certain resemblance, but only up to a point. I don’t do that invidious ‘this film is X meets Y’ thing, but if I were, then I would say that, feminine dominance notwithstanding, The Favourite is almost like a cross between Barry Lyndon and The League of Gentlemen TV show – indeed, Mark Gatiss appears in a supporting role, and seems to be very much at home.

By this I mean that The Favourite contains a great deal more (mostly implied) sex and (explicit) vomiting than is generally found in a costume drama, and the whole thing has a twisted, blackly comic sensibility. This is probably the source of all the grumbling about the film’s supposed departures from strict historicity – it is apparently ‘considered unlikely’ that Queen Anne was actually a lesbian, and in any case I doubt that casual conversation around the court was quite as profanity-laden as it is depicted here – but Lanthimos makes it fairly clear from very early on that the cabinet of grotesqueries he has assembled is not intended to be taken at face value. The film keeps wandering off and focusing on oddities – the Prime Minister is obsessed with his prize-winning pet duck, a formal court dance quickly develops into something that looks more like break-dancing, and so on. The choice to use distorting lenses in the camera to give a warped, fish-eye view of events at court at certain points is also something of a giveaway.

So if The Favourite isn’t actually about the rivalries at the court of Queen Anne, what is it about? Well, I suppose on one level it’s a character piece, especially with regard to Emma Stone’s character: the story of how a (relatively) innocent young woman learns to survive in the snake-pit of court politics, eventually becoming just as ruthless and deceitful as everyone around her. Stone is very good and manages to hold her own against Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, who are both operating on full power throughout – Colman gives the bigger performance, of course, but Weisz has the least obvious character arc and perhaps gets the most nuances to play with.

Beyond issues of gender and sex and history, though, the film is basically about power: what it means to have it, what it means to use it, what people will sacrifice for it, and the other effects it has on them. If the film ultimately has a particular message to impart, it is not immediately clear: it has an oblique, slightly cryptic ending (Olinka thought it was ‘very sad’) – it may be about the isolating effects of power and its tendency to kill anything resembling a genuine relationship.

In the end, though, The Favourite does a very good job of not resembling a particularly serious film, and it really does function as a quirky black comedy-drama powered along by some fine performances. It’s certainly a striking film, but I suspect it may be just a little too off-the-wall to become more than a critical darling. Fun and thought-provoking, though.

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There may well have been papers written on the curious nature of the sports-cinema interface. As I have noted in the past, there’s really only one-way traffic when it comes to this sort of thing – making a film about a famous athlete or sporting event seems logical in a way that reenacting the plot of, say, Logan’s Run during a football match does not – but even beyond this it seems to be the case that some sports lend themselves to having movies made about them much more readily than other.

Take football (so-ker, as I believe it is known in former colonial lands) – probably the most popular sport in the world today, but genuinely good movies about it are about as frequent as Gary Lineker getting a red card (oh, yes, I can do topical jokes). When I think of football movies, the first one springing to mind is Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine leads a team of footballing PoWs (including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and Pele, with Sylvester Stallone in goal) to a 5-4 win over a side of Nazi all-stars. (I imagine in a few years people will be inclined to dismiss the very existence of Escape to Victory as some sort of mass hallucination. Hear me, children of posterity: this film really does exist.)

Where were we? Oh yes, sports films, specifically good ones. It may be due to the nature of storytelling, but the true-life sports film in particular seems to be more successful when it deals with the individual disciplines, like athletics or boxing. Or, indeed, tennis, which is why we’ve had two tennis-themed dramas this autumn – the first being Borg Vs McEnroe, the second Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

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The film is set in the early 1970s (the temptation to go overboard with the crazy seventies styles is thankfully resisted), and opens with US tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) leading a breakaway group of women players after the disparity in prize money between them and their male counterparts simply becomes too great to be tolerable. The formation of the WTA results, a politically-charged step given the atmosphere of the day and the appearance of the Women’s Liberation movement.

Amongst those reacting to this is middle-aged former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a pathological gambler and tennis hustler who sees the opportunity to potentially score a big payday and attract some serious publicity by challenging and then defeating one of the top female players. But King is reluctant to participate, rightly suspecting that what Riggs has in mind is a circus rather than a sporting event. But then events conspire to force her to change her mind…

I’m not sure how well remembered the Battle of the Sexes match would be were it not for the fact that this is the second movie to come out about it in the space of a few years (a documentary, also called Battle of the Sexes, appeared in 2013). You can see why the makers of this film might consider it rather fortuitous that it’s coming out at this particular time: we are having a bit of a cultural moment when it comes to the notion of gender relations, with Hollywood engaged in some uncomfortably public house-clearing that is bound to leave it more inclined to honour films with an ostensibly feminist theme next awards season.

Then, of course, there are the ongoing aftershocks from a non-tennis-related battle of the sexes which was concluded in November last year. In the movie, at least, Riggs is presented as an outrageous man-baby with a narcissistic streak a mile wide, prone to making the most outrageous public pronouncements, enthusiastically adopted by an establishment mostly comprised of middle-aged white men. The prominence of a subplot about King’s burgeoning romance with her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough), not to mention the presence of a character, played by Alan Cumming, who basically represents the Spirit of Gayness, might also lead one to suspect that this is intended as an on-the-nose piece of agitprop about America today rather than in 1973.

However, perhaps thankfully, the film itself is a rather subtler and warmer piece of work than that, much more concerned with characters than ideology. It’s quite a long time into the film before the idea of the titular clash really becomes central to the story – prior to this it is much more about the formation of the WTA and King’s relationship issues, intercut with various escapades involving Riggs – Stone plays it all straight, so to speak, but Carell is pretty much off the leash in comic scenes such as one where Riggs turns up to a meeting of Gamblers’ Anonymous and tries to organise a card school amongst the attendees.

The ingrained prejudice and sexism of the time is presented in a relatively subtle manner, for all that it’s more or less non-stop. What’s interesting, though, is that the film-makers don’t really seem interested in vilifying Riggs as the misogynist he purported to be – maybe it’s just Carell’s performance, but he does remain weirdly likeable, in a Jeremy Clarkson-ish way (NB I’m aware your Clarkson tolerance may be different to mine), and the film does imply it’s just a pose he adopts to win more publicity. The real ire of the film is reserved for the head of the US tennis association (played by Bill Pullman), who’s a thorough-going patronising chauvinist, and to some extent Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who’s depicted as some sort of religious bigot.

In the end the film’s story is resolved in the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and naturally I will not spoil the result for you (that’s Wikipedia’s job). The slightly crazed nature of the event is evoked well. The weird thing is, though, that after over ninety minutes of build-up, in a movie actually named after it, the Battle of the Sexes match actually feels quite anticlimactic, not being filmed especially imaginatively or dramatically. This is a sports movie which is not particularly adept at handling sport.

(Oh, go on, then, one spoiler, maybe: something the film doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of are various suggestions that Riggs, who was allegedly heavily in debt to the Mafia, rigged the match in order to square things with them. Then again, this is still quite controversial even today.)

Then again, Battle of the Sexes is a movie which treats tennis as the backdrop for wider issues – some of these are to do with issues of equality and freedom of personal expression, but it’s also about the people involved. It does take a while to get to the King-Riggs clash, but in general the writing and performances are more than good enough to make it extremely watchable and entertaining. Given the state of things currently, I would say this is a film with a very good chance of picking up trophies itself next spring.

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Making a bad movie is easy. Hmmm, well, now I think on it that isn’t actually true: making a bad movie is still a real achievement. Making a good movie is a hugely impressive accomplishment. Making one great movie (or any other work of art) in your life is something that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people do not do. And as for making more than one great movie back to back…

Which brings us to Damien Chazelle and his new film La La Land, the buzz about which has attained a deafening volume, helped considerably by a historic trawl at the Golden Globes the other night. Chazelle came to prominence with the brilliant Whiplash, one of my favourite films of 2015, a lean and intensely focused drama. When I found out he was following it up with a full-scale reinvention of the classic Hollywood musical, my response was essentially one of dubiety, which if nothing else only goes to show how good my radar is. So, to the question you’re no doubt dying to hear the answer to (NB: irony) – is La La Land as wonderful as all the proper critics have been shouting? Well, put it this way – this is a film it’s almost impossible not to like (and I’m tempted to say that I tried).

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Hmmm. The movie opens with a lavish statement of intent, as the drivers of cars stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam erupt into a full-scale song and dance routine of quite startling ambition and complexity. As a technical achievement it’s enormously impressive, and I understand some screenings (not mine) have had audiences spontaneously bursting into applause just for this opening number, but I have to say it didn’t really connect with me, being a bit short on the old objective correlative – they are people stuck in traffic. They have no reason to be happily singing and dancing about other than because the structure of the film demands it. (Full disclosure: when the song is reprised at the end of the film, I found myself reacting very positively to it anyway, and it is extremely hummable.)

The next song, another upbeat number about a girly night out, isn’t quite a case of more of the same, but it did put me ominously in mind of Mamma Mia! and how I usually feel while watching it: namely, as if I’ve arrived at a party much later than everyone else and am two or three drinks behind them all. Also, I feared the film-makers had slipped up badly by including familiar classics on the soundtrack (Take On Me and Tainted Love), which the new compositions would struggle to compete with. However, as the plot proceeded I found it all becoming rather more agreeable: it concerns Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a musician on a somewhat quixotic quest to save jazz music from extinction. After a couple of non-cute non-meets, they finally hit it off. He inspires her to write a play; she inspires him to begin to take his career more seriously. But even in a Hollywood musical set in Los Angeles, is a happy ending a dead cert…?

Whiplash was, of course, a film about jazz; it’s fairly clear that Chazelle has a thing for this style of music, for La La Land is a jazz musical. Or, to be more exact, it’s a completely original jazz musical, with no basis on a pre-existing show or other property. I suspect many people would have rated the chances of someone catching Bigfoot on the White House lawn as being rather higher than an original jazz musical turning out to be such a critical darling, but it just goes to show – you never can tell.

Not that it’s conspicuously jazzy all the way through – the songs that are getting all the attention (City of Stars and Audition) could probably have come out of any first-rate Broadway show. There weren’t really as many songs as I was expecting, to be honest, but this isn’t really a problem as the script is witty and engaging even when the leads aren’t singing. I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways La La Land sort of resembles a musical as written by Woody Allen (my hesitation is because when Woody Allen actually made a musical it was almost unwatchably bad) – there is some zingy dialogue and, of course, a fascination with how relationships begin and then prosper or end. There are also, obviously, elements drawn from the classic Hollywood musical of yore – a particular influence seems to have been Singin’ in the Rain, which was of course another original screen musical. There’s a bit near the end of La La Land which appears to me to be explicitly referencing the Broadway Melody segment of the Gene Kelly movie.

In the end, though, this is absolutely a reinvention of the classic musical for the smartphone age, and a film with genuine qualities all of its own. It is almost irresistibly romantic, with all the ambiguities you might associate with that, and evokes better than any other film I can recall that moment when you find yourself on the verge of falling in love, with that sense of excitement and endless, immanent possibilities. It also has a lovely wistful, bittersweet quality that gives it real heft and may explain why many people have responded to it so strongly.

Personally I usually go for musicals which aren’t afraid to deal with serious and unexpected topics through the medium of a good old fashioned song and dance routine, and I’m still not sure that La La Land quite qualifies as anything more than an extremely accomplished romantic comedy. Nevertheless, the film seems to have acquired almost unstoppable momentum heading into awards season – it’s the kind of film the Academy usually takes to its heart, and I fully expect it to demolish all opposition at the Oscars this year. And I can’t really object, for this is an almost indecently endearing film.

 

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Connoisseurs of digital projection technology not being what it cracked up to be would have enjoyed some marvellous scenes at the Phoenix in Jericho, the other day, when a system crash resulted in a large number of screenings having to be switched between the planned theatres at short notice. Now, as you might expect, moving from the small screen-with-the-slightly-inadequate-rake to the nice big screen was not a problem, but switching the other way was. Large crowds of tense filmgoers built up, all intent on bagging the prime seats in rows A, E, and F. It was of course nice to see such commitment to filmgoing, especially from an audience which was, not to put too fine a point on it, knocking on a bit.

What was the occasion for such a keen and sizable turnout? Well, believe it or not, it was a preview showing of Irrational Man, this year’s Woody Allen movie. I had no idea he still had such a dedicated following (and I’m saying that as someone who’s only missed one of his films in the last five years or so – inevitably it turned out to be the really acclaimed and successful one).

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I don’t know, the fashionable thing is to say that Woody Allen has long since been off the boil, but was he ever really that consistent? Even some of the Early, Funny films are not honestly that funny. I was writing about his work ethic recently and it really seems to me that his reputation does rest in part on the fact that he simply never stops working – if one film is bad (as they not infrequently are), well, never mind, he’s already in the middle of making the next one, with a further project at the scripting stage. His movies are cheap enough to make, attract big enough stars, and he has a big enough cult following to keep going no matter what. On the other hand, this way of working basically means he has to make a film every year, regardless of whether or not he has had a decent idea or if the script is as polished as it needs to be.

Which brings us to Irrational Man, another one of Allen’s forays into morality-based comedy-drama. It opens with a voice-over where Joaquin Phoenix muses about Kant while his character cruises along in his car drinking whiskey, so you know this is going to be a film with aspirations to profundity right from the word go. Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a maverick philosophy professor (yup, another film about a maverick philosophy professor) who is starting a new job, but has basically lost his mojo. Needless to say, however, his intensity and erudition make him irresistible to many of the women on the college campus (fellow academic Parker Posey and student Emma Stone amongst them). I know, I know – an older, intellectually-inclined man has effortless romantic success with extremely attractive young women? In a Woody Allen movie? What are the chances?!?

Bafflingly, this still doesn’t cheer Abe up, and he resorts to doing odd things like playing Russian roulette at parties to give his life some fleeting excitement. All this changes when he overhears a woman complaining about the misery her life has become as the result of the actions of a corrupt public official. He resolves to put his radical ethical theories into action by – you guessed it – planning and committing the murder of the man in question, believing it to be morally justifiable, and – perhaps more importantly – completely untraceable to him. The notion perks him up considerably, and soon he finds he is enjoying life much more…

Going to a Woody Allen movie is itself not entirely unlike playing Russian roulette – not that there’s a strong chance of you getting shot in the head (not at the kind of cinemas I generally frequent, anyway), but you really have no way of knowing whether the hammer’s going to descend on something really quite distinguished and notable, or just another so-so rehash of Allen’s usual themes, or – heaven forfend – one of those absolute stinkers the director still produces on a dismayingly regular basis. Unfortunately, while Irrational Man is not quite as bad as the worst of Allen’s recent output, it’s still not the kind of movie you’d dream of showing someone to demonstrate just why Woody Allen is a film-maker worthy of their attention.

As I say, I think the self-imposed rigours of Allen’s schedule may be partly to blame, because Irrational Man has the definite feel of being two or three drafts away from an actual, polished script. It often feels more like the work of someone applying to film-school than the work of a veteran artist making his 45th movie – theme, plot, and characters are all there, but in the most crude and obvious form, and perhaps the most startling thing about it is that it doesn’t really contain a single memorable or quotable line of dialogue. Instead, it relies heavily on voice-over from a number of characters to communicate plot and feeling (this itself is arguably a cheat, as not everyone providing a voice-over survives to the end of the story, so one has to wonder what point in time they’re narrating from). Much of the narration itself is clunky: ‘more devastating revelations were to come,’ Stone’s character informs us at one point, deadpan, while ‘finally my job running an elevator as a young man was going to pay off!’, Phoenix narrates gleefully, improbable as it might sound.

I mean, it’s never actually painful to watch, as such, and the cinematography and soundtrack are both very nice (I got a bit sick of ‘I’m In with the In-Crowd’ being endlessly recycled, though). There appear to be a couple of subtle raids on Hitchcock going on, as well, and there’s a kind of fun to be had in spotting these. It’s just that the contrived and laborious script (we’re shown that Lucas is a man in crisis by the way he constantly drinks whiskey from a hip flask – and we’re shown it in practically every single scene, to the extent that it becomes ridiculous) and the melodramatic plotting get very tiresome very quickly.

It’s also a bit unclear whether this is intended to be a straight drama (in which case it’s ridiculous), or a playful black comedy (in which case it’s just not funny enough). At one point there’s a murderous struggle between two major characters resulting in a death, and the audience I was with seemed distinctly unsure as to whether they were supposed to be laughing or not.

I honestly do like Woody Allen and will generally cut him some slack (I’m still watching his films after sitting through Whatever Works, after all), but Irrational Man is substandard fare. Not for the first time, you can make out that Allen has a sour and cynical message to deliver about morality and human nature, but he fumbles the delivery of it to the extent that you’re not entirely sure what it is, despite the best efforts of a talented cast. Better luck next year.

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Oh, lord, not another new year? Another one? Will the line stretch on to the crack of doom? …you know, I think that it will, by definition. Oh well, time to lay aside the bloated seasonal blockbusters and engage in the usual cinematic detox, although hopefully this year’s serious and worthy awards-trawling films will be a bit less utterly depressing than the crop twelve months ago. Now, more than at any other point in the calendar, we are invited to ask ourselves what constitutes a good film, genuine talent, worthwhile art.

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Which makes it a good time for Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman to be released, not least because this is a film which seems to be asking those same questions. Very little about this movie is straightforward, but the plot seems pretty straightforward, at least initially: Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor struggling for artistic credibility, but overshadowed by a stint playing a superhero in Hollywood back in the 90s. Now he is attempting to stage a (seemingly fairly dreadful) Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story he has written, directed, and is starring in himself – to make the situation even more emotionally charged, also involved in the production are his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and daughter (Emma Stone). However, when the production loses an actor, he takes on brilliant but wildly unpredictable method performer Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) – partly at the suggestion of his girlfriend (Naomi Watts) – not quite aware of what he is letting himself in for. As the pressure mounts, Thomson finds the voice of his super-powered alter-ego haunting him – but is he going mad, or is the world itself collapsing into chaos?

Birdman appears to suggest there is no meaningful distinction to be made here, which is surely key to making sense of a film which often seems to be on the verge of losing it itself. It’s a movie which demands the viewer to engage with it and think about its ideas, because offers very few cut and dried answers, and in places seems intentionally ambiguous. It’s pretty clear that at least some of the film is taking place entirely in Riggan’s head, but identifying what is real and what is fantasy is a challenge.

In the same way, the film itself blends fantasy and reality, at least for anyone aware of recent cinema history. Riggan Thomson, a man who reluctantly finds his career defined by a series of superhero movies he made twenty years ago, is played by Michael Keaton, best known for his stints in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Mike Shiner, a brilliant actor but a nightmare to work with, is played by Edward Norton, whose unique approach to collaborating did not exactly earn the gratitude of his colleagues on either American History X or The Incredible Hulk.

The presence in the cast of one-time avatars of Batman and the Hulk, not to mention Gwen Stacy and Jet Girl, has led at least one critic to declare that Birdman is primarily a scathing attack on Hollywood’s current fixation on making superhero movies by the dozen, instead of ‘real’ films. Certainly an early scene where Riggan tries to hire Michael Fassbender and Jeremy Renner for the play, only to discover they are too busy making X-Men and The Avengers respectively, seems to support this, along with a moment in which Robert Downey Jr is roundly mocked for making the Iron Man series.

I’m not saying there isn’t an element of this in the film, but I don’t think the film’s argument is as simplistic as mainstream art = stupid and pointless / highbrow art = worthwhile and important. For one thing, this isn’t exactly a glowing portrait of the theatrical world, either, and especially not critics. This dubious profession is represented by Lindsay Duncan, who portrays a critic out of any director’s nightmare: untroubled by the need to actually watch a play before reviewing it, she decides which productions to support or destroy based solely on her own entrenched prejudices. Not content with presenting actors as unstable basket cases and critics as vicious harpies, Inarritu goes for the hat trick by having a go at the audience too: at one point the film briefly breaks into a Marvel-style CGI battle sequence, during which Thomson’s Birdman alter-ego glares contemptuously out of the screen, snarling ‘Look at them – this is really what they want to see…’

It seems to me that Inarritu has managed the neat trick of making a film which functions as a sort of distorting mirror, which basically feeds back to you whatever strange prejudices you happen to turn up with – if you turn up with an axe to grind against mainstream superhero movies (which are, let’s not forget, often superbly entertaining and technically immaculate pieces of film-making), then you can plausibly interpret Birdman as supporting you. If, on the other hand, you just think theatre actors are all just weird and experimental theatre is a pretentious waste of time, you will probably find the film backing you up here too.

If this is the case, then it’s a film which asks questions – what is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art? Is one particular motivation for making art superior to the others? – without presenting any definitive answers. But, fortunately, the film is more than inventive and entertaining enough to make up for this. The film establishes its warped and restless mood through the conceit of seeming to be made in an almost unbroken single two-hour take, and this is achieved in a technically brilliant way (even if some of the transition points are perhaps not quite as invisible as others). But beyond this it is simply very funny, functioning as a bizarre black farce about the fragile minds and egos of actors. There is some winningly scabrous dialogue (‘I wish I had more self-respect’ ‘You’re an actress‘) and the performances are uniformly very strong.

I laughed a lot all the way through Birdman, even as I was trying to work out what the film was actually about or trying to say. It touches on a number of semi-serious topics, but manages to do so without feeling heavy or overly pretentious – although I admit it’s a near thing on this last point – and is consistently witty and engaging throughout. Perhaps the satire is just a tad too dark and vicious for this to be the kind of film that does very well when the actual awards start being handed out, but it’s still a hugely promising film to start the year with.

 

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Another week, another Colin Firth film – or should that be, another year, another Woody Allen film? As you may have surmised, Magic in the Moonlight is both. Early Autumn seems to have become established as the point in the year when Allen releases his annual project, though while the release date is steady, Allen’s choice of subject matter is as varied as ever.

That said, you’re never really in danger of mistaking any of Allen’s recent films for the work of someone else. In fact, settling down to write about one of them one finds oneself with a comforting sense of being able to fall back on the same set of observations one always makes about recent Woody Allen movies, said observations pertaining to:

  • The comforting familiarity of the Allen graphic design (i.e., it seems like every film he’s made in the last forty years has had its titles in the same style and font)
  • The director’s fondness for a jazz soundtrack, if not a full-blown Jazz Age setting
  • His continuing ability to attract a first-rate cast to what are often fairly inconsequential films
  • A generally miserabilist, and occasionally wholly misanthropic worldview
  • The repeated trope of the May to December romance between an older, cultured man and an extremely attractive, much younger, much less erudite woman (with the corollary that one is inevitably moved to speculate about Allen’s own personal history)
  • And so on.

So I set myself the challenge of going to see Magic in the Moonlight and then writing about it without recourse to any of the easy options listed above.

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The film is set in 1928. Firth plays Stanley Crawford, an egotistical and rather insufferable stage magician who as a sort of hobby specialises in exposing fake spirit mediums (a phrase he would regard as tautologous: a committed materialist, he scorns any kind of mysticism or spirituality). His plans to visit the Galapagos Islands with his fiancee (Firth’s use of the word ‘turtle’ rather than ‘tortoise’ to describe the Islands’ most famous residents reveals that he is an Englishman being written by an American, but never mind) are disrupted when he is asked to visit the Catledges, an extremely wealthy American family sojourning in the south of France. The heir to the family fortune appears to have fallen under the sway of a young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who claims to be psychically sensitive herself. Other concerned family members would like him to debunk her and rid themselves of her influence over the family’s affairs.

Crawford agrees but finds himself rattled when Sophie appears to know things about him which she has had no way of finding out. Could she possibly be for real? As his rationality wavers and his fascination with her grows, Crawford finds himself beginning to enjoy life far more than he has in years – but can he really bring himself to put aside the habits of a lifetime and embrace the existence of the supernatural?

The thing about Woody Allen and his workrate is that he does keep on knocking them out, year after year, come what may. His films are always modestly scaled and reasonably budgeted – no big set pieces or massive special effects, just collections of actors in rooms delivering dialogue at each other. While this means he’s never going to destroy his own career with a John Carter-esque fiasco, it does mean that even the best of his films are rather lightweight, and tend to get lost in the crowd of all the others. Last year’s Blue Jasmine was given some serious heft by a heavy-duty performance from Cate Blanchett – but Magic in the Moonlight has no such distinguishing features.

The 1920s setting is nicely mounted and the film is very pleasant to look upon throughout… and… and… and… and at this point I really run out of things to say about Magic in the Moonlight that don’t contravene my self-imposed ban on falling back on the usual Allen points of reference, because they are all here. There is a deeply unlikely romance between Colin Firth and Emma Stone (he openly scorns her lack of education and promises he will help to train her brain during their future together), a soundtrack crammed with Jazz Age standards (at one point I was on the point of screaming ‘Oh God, not ‘You Do Something To Me’ again!!!’ in the cinema), and a storyline which is fundamentally about whether it’s better to be a deluded romantic fool or a realistic curmudgeon. Allen, needless to say, comes down firmly in the latter camp. The film also features quality performers like Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, and Simon McBurney.

But it really is just the usual Woody Allen components jigged about into a new arrangement, with everyone wearing ducks and funny hats and occasionally playing the ukulele. Perhaps the only addition, and this is a very slight one, is some almost philosophical discussion about whether it’s actually possible to completely disprove something’s existence, and indeed whether perfectly reproducing something through fakery automatically proves that the original must have been fake too. The rest of it has no real novelty value to it.

Does it automatically follow that Magic in the Moonlight is a bad film, then? Well, no, not necessarily – and especially not if you’re less well-versed in the Allen back catalogue than I am. It is well-mounted, and the story is pleasant and easy to follow, if perhaps a little predictable in places. The problem with it, really, is that the characterisations and dialogue are all just a bit too perfunctory – Crawford is written as such an arrogant and self-assured egotist that you just know he’s going to have his beliefs seriously challenged, and so on. The characters have no real depth or sense of a genuine internal life about them, and you always have a very good sense of which way the story is going to go.

As a result, Magic in the Moonlight has a sort of cosy familiarity to it in more ways than one. Firth and Stone give of their best, and if their coming together is less than entirely convincing then they can hardly be blamed for it. At least, for a film made by a great misanthrope, it does conclude with a testament to the redemptive power of love: another reasonably frequent theme in Allen movies, or at least those made when he is in a good mood. Perhaps this is one of the things that keeps Woody Allen’s films palatable, no matter how gloomy and formulaic they sometimes seem to be threatening to become. This isn’t an especially gloomy film, but it contains very few surprises. In the end, there’s nothing very much wrong with it, but for all of the skill with which it’s made, it’s ultimately very insubstantial.

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When is a Marvel movie not a Marvel movie? When it isn’t made by Marvel Studios itself, but by someone else who bought the rights to one of the company’s characters many years ago. It has been wisely observed that one of the things that makes Marvel Studios’ achievement in building up its world-conquering franchise-of-franchises so remarkable is that it has done so without access to Marvel Comics’ most popular characters – 20th Century Fox have the film rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, while Sony owns Spider-Man (for some reason Universal have hung on to Sub-Mariner and Lionsgate to Man-Thing despite neither seeming particularly keen to make a film about them). Marvel have built their empire with characters who are, comparatively, second-stringers.

This achievement has not gone unnoticed by the people who do own the rights to Marvel’s big-hitters, and it appears to be affecting how they make their own movies. You would have thought another decently-made instalment in the Spider-Man franchise would essentially be a licence to print money anyway, and this is basically what Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is.

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The sequel finds Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) juggling his self-appointed responsibilities as Spider-Man with his relationship with winsome girlfriend Gwen (Emma Stone). He is constantly aware of the danger he may be putting her in, having already got her dad killed in the first film. He is also still trying to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance.

More pressing issues arise when a much put-upon and overlooked electrician (Jamie Foxx) suffers a freak accident and is reborn as vengeful glob of sparky evil Electro, while the death of dubious tycoon Norman Osborn leads his son Harry (Dane DeHaan) inheriting the company. Harry also learns that this isn’t all he’s inherited from his dad: he has a terminal genetic condition, but it transpires that – would you believe it!?! – the blood of Spider-Man could provide a possible cure…

As you can probably see there is a lot going on in this film: possibly even a bit too much. Then again, one of the distinctive things about Webb’s take on Spider-Man is just how many things are turned up to eleven – the colours are brighter, the CGI more elaborate, the emotional content more overwrought, the plot more crowded. Just about the only thing that gets soft-pedalled is the humour and quirkiness, but – as with the first film – I suspect this is more born from a need to be different from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy than anything else.

That seems to be slightly less of a concern this time around. While the appearance of Electro might indicate this run of films is intent on excavating the lower reaches of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, the movie also includes a new version of the Green Goblin. They still shy away from creating their own version of J Jonah Jameson, though. And there’s an extent to which they’re on a hiding to nothing with this approach, anyway: you can’t properly do Spider-Man on film without including plotlines about his difficult lovelife, so this film inevitably recalls the Raimi ones in that respect.

On the whole it is a fun and entertaining package: what it lacks in narrative focus it makes up for in colour and incident. Garfield and Stone are engaging leads, even if I didn’t find their scenes together to be as irresistibly cute as the director clearly did. The pathos of the Electro character is a bit undermined by Foxx’s tendency to go OTT, plus the character’s origin (he is basically savaged by a shoal of electric eels) – well, it’s possibly not the silliest origin story in the history of superhero movies, but it’s definitely high on the list. Dane DeHaan (possibly cast on the strength of his performance as a supervillain-in-the-making in Chronicle) is really much better as the new Goblin.

While we’re on the subject of villains, do not be fooled by the prominence of the Rhino (played by Paul Giamatti) in the publicity: he’s barely in it. His presence is part of the only element of the film which felt to me like a real misstep: an elaborate and drawn-out coda to the main action which is mainly there to set up not just the next Spider-Man movie, but also a Sinister Six spin-off. (There are not-very-subtle indications that other projects headlining Venom and the Black Cat may also be in the producers’ minds.)

It’s very hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to replicate the success of Marvel Studios’ model of putting out at least one film a year, but whether they can do so from such a narrow base remains to be seen: especially if, as is apparently the case, on-screen crossovers with the Fantastic Four have been ruled out. This kind of film has always been made with one eye on potential sequels – but now it seems that building a franchise is starting to take priority over the quality of the actual film. That’s something that the producers of the Spider-Man series might want to bear in mind in future – for the time being, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an entertaining film that ticks all the boxes for this particular character – it’s just a little too preoccupied with Spider-Man films of the past and future to really be something special itself.

 

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