The Favourite

I am new to the films of director Yorgos Lanthimos, who has been highly praised for a number of his earlier films. I don’t know how representative of his style this movie is, but I can say there are certain things in this movie that seems to be unique to the movie and were clearly director’s choices. Most of those flourishes are at the base of my reservations about the film, so I may be hesitant to sample his other work. Between the praise and Award talk about this movie, and the highly entertaining trailer, I was expecting something a little more light and maybe traditional. There is a core to this story that I think would make a fine film in another director’s hands, but in Lanthimos grip, the movie becomes a bit “arty” and pretentious.

Deserving of high praise, regardless of what I thought of the rest of the movie are the three lead actresses. Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, but especially Olivia Colman, deliver effective performances. Stone manages to run the table from naive, open innocent to secretive and manipulative with just a little bit of alteration in her demeanor. Weisz is coiled danger and iron will from the start of the movie and even as she becomes more sympathetic, her persona does not change. Colman as Queen Anne, gets the widest range of emotions to depict from the screenplay and she manages to make us sympathize with a needy, neurotic and selfish woman who is clearly beset by emotional damage from earlier in her life. At times she is charming but can instantly turn cruel and dogmatic. Her emulation of physical pain but also physical pleasure is marvelous. Even when she is costumed and standing or being wheeled around, most of the acting work is in her facial expressions. That is an incredible accomplishment when you see how the movie is shot from low angles and wide images.

So I mentioned that I have a couple of issues with the director choices. Let me begin with one of the most obvious ones, the fish eye camera work. In many of the scenes set in the Queens bedroom or study, the initial view is a distorted image that inflates the center, reduces the edges and keeps most of the image from being focused. This is an unnecessary choice that draws attention to the film directing rather than the story. It is an indulgence that took me out of the events occurring every time it came up. A second issue with the film and the director is the use of Chapter cards to organize the story into discrete parts. Some of this may be in the script, so Lanthimos may not be entirely responsible, but they basically serve no purpose. If, like in “Pulp Fiction” the chapter stops helped organize the time sequence of the story, or if the captions emphasized a theme for a sequence, then they may have been a use for them. Sadly, this was not the case. Words and sentences from each sequence are randomly chose for the transition slides and they mean NOTHING! They neither highlight or make comment on the events we are seeing, they are simply plugged into a random spot to break up a narrative. Something that is certainly a directors choice is the use of fonts and spacing on those transition slides. Once again, it is a choice that draws attention to the director rather than the scene. Like a cinematic e.e. cummings, Lanthimos screws around with the visual image of the lettering, to make it distinctive, but also harder to read. cummings may have had a reason for his predilection, but I cannot fathom what the director was trying to accomplish here.

The movie is also filled with crass sexual references and visualizations. Certainly the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara takes the inferences from the notes of the Real Lady Sarah to heart. The story includes completely superfluous moments of Abigail manually satisfying her husband on their wedding night and Lord Harly delivering salty descriptions of women and participating in a homoerotic game of dodge-ball featuring a nude man and fruit. Given the instability of the Queen and the sexual references, I was thinking that this film felt a lot like “The Madness of King George” with porn.

Dramatically, there is a solid story to be told about how favoritism is sought, manipulated and influential in the royal court. It may be that the court had sexual intrigue and back stabbing, but all of that is presented as the surface level of interaction here, rather than a secret and subliminal process. When the words come right out of the Queen’s mouth “I like the way she puts her tongue in me”, you know that this is not a subtle form of palace intrigue. The views of men about women in the time might be backwards and reprehensible, but the film makers reinforce those ideas with the way women are depicted here. Instead of a story about female authority and power in an era dominated by male chauvinism,  “The Favourite” focuses on the very things that men might believe about women, their pettiness and emotional cruelty to one another. Those are the things that seem to be at the base of political instability, at least according to this movie. The Pyrrhic victory of one woman is a lesson in the futility of women being in charge. It is emotionally successful as a epitaph, but it is an impolitic message to convey to a contemporary audience.

 

La La Land

A couple of East Coasters, not out of school for a decade, have captured the magic of the Hollywood Dream factory in a way that has not been seen, much less heard, in an eternity. Just as “The Artist” reflected the memory of the early days of the film business before sound came along to change everything, “La La Land” pays tribute to the golden age of musicals while updating them to contemporary days. If you have not already seen this film, and you are sitting there reading these comments, what the hell?  You could use the few minutes this takes to read to stand in line and get your tickets for what is going to be one of the best movie experiences of your year. No spoilers here, this movie is terrific.

Writer director Damien Chazelle and his musical partner Justin Hurwitz have found the heart of a 50’s musical in 2016 Los Angeles. Starting with a throwback version of the Summit Entertainment logo and expanding the screen to Cinemascope before any footage is run, we feel like we are in for a real studio experience. The dazzling song and dance number on the Freeway overpass that starts the film is choreographed with vigor and whimsy. Angelenos have been known to leave their cars in a traffic snarl like the one shown here, but never to move rhythmically atop their own vehicles much less those of their fellow Sig-Alert victims(Non-residents will have to look that one up). When the back door of a box truck is thrown up and a latin combo playing jazz infused dance music is already in full swing, you know that this is a fantasy that takes itself with a grain of salt but also with a good deal of conviction. The fact that it is capped off by the usual L.A. driver salute to his fellow travelers just tells you that this is not a form to be locked away in the past.

 

The clever lyrics to Hurwitz’s songs are provided by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. If you listen carefully you can here both bravado and wistfulness in the same tune. The story concerns two dreamers who find one another with some difficulty in the grind that is trying to make it in the business of this company town. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a talented jazz pianist struggling to survive by playing music gigs that are far below his talent. Emma Stone is the aspiring actress who makes a living with her nose pressed right up against the window of her dream, as a barista at the coffee house on the Warner Brothers lot. That setting provides multiple opportunities for this to be both a backstage musical and a more straightforward narrative singing story. The sets sometimes mimic the locations used throughout the film. The choices of which must have been influenced by a dozen other movies with Hollywood history.

 

Angel’s Flight has not been operational for a couple of years and since it’s restoration in 1996, it has been closed down on and off a few times. Never mind that this funicular doesn’t really operate, this is a movie about lovers in Los Angeles, and we need to believe.  There is of course no way that Stone’s character Mia can run across the city from the Westside to South Pasadena to meet Sebastian at the Rialto, or that the Rialto is permanently closed, again, this is a movie where your fantasy counts more than a trivia thing like physics. The sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory plays out like the Gene Kelly envisioned ballet from “That’s Entertainment” or “An American in Paris”.  In fact at one point in the film, Gosling practically dances with a prop street light, evoking the ghost of Kelly in this film.

 

Chazelle manages the tricky feat of having his cake and eating it as well. The star crossed love affair both fails and succeeds through the magic of musical story telling. While jazz style music may not at first seem a natural fit for a Hollywood Musical, the director finds a number of ways to make it work. Interestingly enough, there is even a number that betrays Sebastian’s ideals and leaves Mia  nonplussed, while still being entertaining and valid. Just like Mia, we are not quite sure how to take the moment, but we are also swept up in it. John Legend stretches whatever acting chops he aspires to as a jazz musician that knows how to make that career work, and he wants to take Sebastian along for the ride.

 

Two years ago, I made “Whiplash” my favorite film of 2014. Chazelle wrote and directed that film as well and the whole milieu of jazz music came to life in a completely different fashion. That movie was frenetic and shot with a style that seems fitting to the music it emphasized. Even though this movie uses the same kind of music, the direction here is fluid and models the graceful dance moves of people like Kelly, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  The camera follows our two lovers slowly as they walk across “Suicide Bridge” at night. The slow pan from inside the car,across the Rialto Theater after  it has closed does a subtle but effective job of indicating an important transition in the story. The camera glides and pirouettes just as the actors do in their dance scenes with phantasmagoric images of Los Angeles swirl in the background.

No one will mistake the two leads for professional singers but their voices are pure and sincere and work wonders at achingly evoking the desire on their parts for their dreams to come true. The hundreds of dancers employed in the big numbers and the musicians that play in the clubs and on stage are all excellent. He has only a small part near the end of the film, but Tom Everett Scott reminded me of an adult version of the character that you are most likely to know him from, another jazz enthusiast at that.  The film is a love letter to movie musicals and a great movie musical in itself. It is the opposite of the line that Gosling says at one point, “It’s Los Angeles, where they worship everything and value nothing.” The movie respects but does not deitize the films of the past and it values every contribution those movies made. “La La Land” is likely to be my favorite film of the year, if you see it and experience it the way I did, I suspect your feelings will be the same.