Tag Archives: B+

THE FAVOURITE

Producer: Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday and Yorgos Lanthimos
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
Stars: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Mark Gatiss and Jenny Rainsford
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

B+

As many reviewers have noted, “The Favourite,” the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) is like “All About Eve” retold as a battle between two ambitious women at the court of Britain’s Queen Anne (1702-1714). There is a major difference between the two stories, however: in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic, Bette Davis’ Margo Channing and Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington were vying for accolades from the public; here the two protagonists are playing to an audience of one. This is a tale of political infighting that’s perfectly suited to an authoritarian, or post-democratic, age, like that we currently seem to be slipping into.

But like “Eve,” Lanthimos’ film is deliciously bitchy. The central conflict between Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz at her steely best), the Duchess of Marlborough, and her younger cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone, managing a smooth transition from demure to demanding) for influence over the physically and emotionally fragile monarch (the remarkable Olivia Colman) is historically based, but Lanthimos and scripters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara aren’t terribly interested in accuracy, or even informed speculation. Instead they offer an acidic send-up of the whole Masterpiece Theatre genre, shattering its veneer of decorum with icy wit and some utterly scurrilous invention, all in a style mingling flamboyance and surrealism. And in the process they make some not-so-subtle points about the realities of behind-the-scenes politicking.

The film begins by introducing Anne, commandingly played by Colman, as a woman suffering from a variety of maladies, veering between pathetic fear and outbursts of fury, taking political direction—except when pure personal pique erupts—from Lady Sarah, who prods her, in collaboration with her Whig allies led by Lord Godolphin (James Smith), to continue an aggressive policy against the French in the War of Spanish Succession. Churchill has a familial interest in the matter, since her husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatliss) is the head of the English forces and she wants him to get the resources to continue the fight to a glorious victory.

When Abigail arrives on the scene, it’s as a suppliant. Penniless and filthy after being thrown from a carriage into the mud, she begs her distant relative for a position at court—and winds up as a scullery maid. Poor but crafty, she works her way into the queen’s notice by preparing a poultice for the sores on her legs, and Sarah takes her on as her private maid, a position in which she can insinuate herself further into Anne’s lonely orbit—even commiserating with the queen over the seventeen pet rabbits that represent the children to whom she gave birth, only to see them all die.

Abigail also captures the attention of the wily Earl of Oxford, Lord Harley (gleefully portrayed by Nicholas Hoult as a manipulative fop), the head of the anti-war Tories, who forces her to become his spy, as well as the eye of handsome courtier Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), with whom she will eventually enter a marriage of convenience.

But that is not enough for Abigail. She intends to supplant Sarah, and when the latter responds to the challenge by attempting to undermine her rival’s growing influence, Abigail pulls out all the stops. A chastened Sarah will find that Abigail has won, and both she and her husband, along with their allies, will suffer as a result.

Lanthimos and his visual team—production designer Fiona Crombie and costumer Sandy Powell—set the stage so beautifully that you might initially believe that you’re going to be treated to a Masterpiece Theatre-style entertainment, decorous and discreet, but even in the early stages there are tweaks in Robbie Ryan’s cinematography—the occasional use of fish-eye lenses, for instance—that undercut convention. And by the time a ballroom scene arrives and Sarah and Samuel indulge in a dance (to music by Handel, no less) that quickly shifts into wacky, anachronistically modern moves, it’s apparent that a complete subversion of expectations is afoot.

That becomes increasingly clear as “The Favourite” progresses, especially in terms of the portrayal of the aristocratic lifestyle represented, for example, by Harley’s household, where some very peculiar forms of entertainment take place, and the suggestion that the relationships among the women in the palace exceeded any platonic norm. Lanthimos presents a take on the eighteenth century no less acerbic than the one Kubrick offered in “Barry Lyndon,” though in rhythmic terms his film, edited by Yorgos Mavropsaridis, opts more for the raucous raunchiness of Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones” than Kubrickian stateliness.

As was true of “Lyndon,” reactions toward “The Favourite” are likely to be widely divergent. Love it or hate it, however, no viewer will be able to deny that it represents a singular vision, brilliantly executed. In other words, it’s Lanthimos.

WILDLIFE

Producer: Alex Saks, Paul Dano, Oren Moverman, Ann Ruark, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker
Director: Paul Dano
Writer: Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Zoe Margaret Colletti and Darryl Cox
Studio: IFC Films

B+

A period portrait of the disintegration of a marriage as observed by the couple’s teenaged son, “Wildlife” represents actor Paul Dano’s debut as a director, and while visually it’s somewhat affected, despite a chilly surface it’s also emotionally affecting.

The stars of the film are Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, who play Jeanette and Jerry Brinson, but the glue that holds it together is Ed Oxenbould, who plays their fourteen-year old son Joe. It’s 1960, and the family lives in a plain rental house in Great Falls, Montana, where Jerry has s job as a groundskeeper at the local golf club; Jeanette is a stay-at-home mom and Joe an awkward, lonely kid who’s joined the school football team at Jerry’s insistence but sits on the bench at practice.

Still, all seems to be going reasonably well until Jerry is abruptly fired while he and Joe are working on the club’s green, supposedly for being overly familiar with the customers. He takes his dismissal hard, dampening his anger over what he considers unfair treatment with increased intakes of beer; his search for a new job is desultory at best, and when his former employer asks him to return, he brusquely refuses, saying he’ll never work again for people who’ve treated him badly. Jeanette and Joe are concerned, of course, but Jerry’s dour, snappish responses to their questions create further rifts in the domestic situation.

Up to this point, there has been a consistent background hum about a wildfire raging some miles away, whose smoke is imperceptibly affecting the air in Great Falls. Now Jerry impulsively decides to join the local teams fighting it despite having no particular training. His absence leads to a major shift in Jeanette’s personality. She’d already begun looking for work, but now she takes up with a wealthy, and it turns out womanizing, widower, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), the owner of a car dealership whom she’s met on the one job she could find—giving swimming lessons. Before long they’re not-so-secretly involved, and she’s become highly extroverted—looking for a good time and drinking heavily herself.

We witness her transformation through Joe’s anxious eyes, both in an extended sequence when he and his mother join Miller for dinner at his home, and later when Warren spends the night at the Brinson house. Dano and cinematographer Diego Garcia stage these episodes in oblique terms, offering only imperfect glimpses of what’s going on behind half-closed doors as the boy strains to see, and achieving a sinister undercurrent in longer sequences, like the conversation Joe has with Warren while Jeanette has gone off to powder her nose at his place (Miller even offers him his first taste of wine).

Of course, when Jerry finally returns, he will find his wife much changed and unwilling to go back to her old life of circumspect subservience. He will discover that his son is different too, having given up football to become increasingly devoted to his part-time job with Clarence Snow (Darryl Cox), a local photographer who eventually puts him in charge of portraits. He’s also struck up a sort-of friendship with gregarious classmate Ruth-Ann (Zoe Margaret Colletti). In some respects he’s become more mature than his father, who reacts to the new domestic reality in an act that demonstrates juvenile recklessness. A coda incisively sketches the new family dynamic that results from the crisis the narrative has depicted.

Dano shows himself a skilled filmmaker in this directorial debut. He and his partner Zoe Kazan, with whom he collaborated on her charming romantic comedy “Ruby Sparks” (2012), have crafted a subtle, revealing script from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, and his work with Garcia is precise and expressive, even though at times the images, with their steady focus and an inclination to place people and things on the edge of the frame, can seem a bit too artfully composed. An important element in the visual department is the careful deployment of period detail by production designer Akin McKenzie and costumer Amanda Ford; the mostly Oklahoma locations stand in effectively for Montana.

Dano also elicits superb performances from his cast, giving the film a strong dramatic pulse despite the measured pace of the editing of Matthew Hannam and Louise Ford. Gyllenhaal uses his ability to switch on a dime from apparent affability to simmering depression, his dark-shaded eyes glaring with rage, to best advantage, but it’s Mulligan who dominates, morphing from timorous housewife to unrestrained pleasure-seeker, and from doting mother to dismissive free spirit, in virtuoso fashion. Camp, too, offers an incisive portrait of a quietly libidinous older man.

The real centerpiece of the film, however, is Joe, and Oxenbould invests him with an aching vulnerability that conveys both the boy’s confusion about the forces swirling around him and his inability to control them. In its combination of fear, fortitude and resilience, it’s reminiscent to Dano’s own breakthrough performance in Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E.” (2001), which is high praise indeed. Joe’s perspective is also that of the viewer, and if Oxenbould failed to hold our interest, neither would the film. Under Dano’s hand, he does.

With “Wildfire” one of the most remarkable of young American actors reveals a distinctive and compelling filmmaking voice. His initial feature is an exquisitely rendered chamber drama, a tale of domestic discord that’s probing, perceptive and intriguingly allusive.