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Non-Review Review: The Favourite

If the stock comparison to The Killing of a Sacred Deer is The Shining, then the obvious comparison to The Favourite is Barry Lyndon.

It is a stock comparison, bordering on facile. After all, there is a world of difference between Yorgos Lanthimos’ story of two women competing for the attention of Queen Anne and Stanley Kubrick’s story of the rise and fall of a roguish Irish gentleman. However, the similarities are striking. Both are eighteenth century period pieces that boldly eschew the conventions of period dramas. Both The Favourite and Barry Lyndon rely heavily on natural light and repeatedly draw the audience’s attention to the nature of the narrative of constructed.

You Only Live Weisz.

However, the most striking point of comparison might be thematic and philosophical rather than simply literal or textual. Just as The Killing of a Sacred Deer explored the collapse of a family unit through the prism of decaying masculinity in a manner that recalled The Shining, the world of The Favourite is defined by its study of power, pettiness and pomposity. As in Barry Lyndon, the fickleness of comfort and the arbitrary nature of security are a recurring fascination for The Favourite, which meditates repeatedly on how precarious such positions can be.

The Favourite is a story of cruelty, both human and natural.

A Stone-Cold Schemer.

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Maniac (Review)

Maniac is Inception meets Cloud Atlas, filtered through a prism of eighties retrofuturism.

That is to say that Maniac will not be for everybody. Indeed, there will be very many people for whom Maniac will simply not work, seeming too weird, too strange and too esoteric. Indeed, it often seems like Maniac is being weird for the sake of being weird, often populating even fairly standard character- or dialogue- driven scenes with small uncanny elements like a foul-mouthed purple robotic koala or a mostly-unseen alien ambassador with a “beautiful blue exoskeleton.” These elements often exist for their own sake. Even when they serve as symbolism, they are often deliberately obtuse.

No Stone unturned.

However, the surreal and contradictory imagery that populates Maniac is a large part of what makes the series so interesting. The bizarre dream-like imagery is very much at the core of Maniac, a bizarre fantasia where everything might possibly be a stand-in for something else or might simply have been plucked half-formed from the imagination with no deeper meaning. Maybe the beautiful alluring alien represents the hawk that a young boy took into his room; maybe the alien represents the predator brother that a young man wants to protect. Maybe sometimes a beautiful blue alien is just a beautiful blue alien.

Maniac is sure to be a polarising experience. Marmite for the television era. Indeed, based on early reviews, it already is. However, it is also a brilliant piece of work; inventive, demented, committed, affecting. This kooky cocktail won’t click with every viewer, but it’ll resonate deeply with those drawn in.

Taking the matter in hand.

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Non-Review Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is a well-produced and well-performed feel-good historical drama, one elevated by a strong sense of timeliness.

Battle of the Sexes is structurally a classic “historical buddy film”, a subgenre of the biopic that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The idea is to take a big historical event involving two important and opposed figures, and to build a narrative about that singular event following both characters on their collision course. Ron Howard is something of an expert with this particular biographical subgenre, having directed both Frost/Nixon and Rush, two very fine examples of the form.

Riggsed game.

Of course, there are plenty of films that still adopt the classic biopic format of documenting an extended portion of a single life. Recent films like The Founder or American Made come to mind, very traditional sweeping narratives that tended to pop up in awards nominations during the eighties and nineties. However, there is something to be said for the format of a tightly-focused two-hander, of a narrative built around two adversarial forces locked in some existential combat. It might look like sport, but it is always something more serious.

Battle of the Sexes is built around the historic tennis match played between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs, but it is obviously about more than just a tennis match between a man and a woman. It evolves into a story about the symbolic weight of this match, of the culture that warps around it, of the dogma that it threatens to reinforce. Battle of the Sexes resonates surprisingly clearly, even more than thirty three years removed from its original context.

Causing quite a racket.

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14. La La Land – This Just In (#23)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.

podcast

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Non-Review Review: Irrational Man

If Blue Jasmine could be read as an adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen continues his journey through classic cinema (and novels and plays) with Irrational Man. The core of Irrational Man is built around the basic premise of Strangers on a Train, exploring the strange intersection of lives around a seemingly motiveless murder plot. Using the plot of Strangers on a Train as a springboard, Allen staged Irrational Man as a character study (very loosely) framed discussion of ethics and moral philosophy.

Set in a small-town New England college campus, Allen strips Patricia Highsmith’s novel down to its core elements. As with a lot of late-stage Woody Allen films, there is not so much a plot as a set of complications. The story is streamlined so as to allow a depth of focus on its central characters; murder is not swapped so much as volunteered, meaning that Irrational Man only has to focus on a single murder and its impact on a single set of characters. In this case, Allen focuses on Professor Abe Lucas and his student Jill Pollard.

Murder on the mind...

Murder on the mind…

Lucas is depressed and withdrawn; he is a philosopher who has lived a long and varied life, but who seems numbed by the experience. Lucas is not necessarily suicidal, but it doesn’t seem like he’d be too upset by the prospect of his own death. As fellow faculty member Rita Richards and bright young student Jill Pollard try to pull the philosopher out of his depression, a conversation overheard in a diner lights a spark. Listening to a stranger detail the injustices inflicted upon her, Lucas decides to set about righting wrongs on her behalf.

Irrational Man builds to a decidedly academic murder plot. It is very much “Woody Allen presents How to Get Away With Murder.”

"Voila Davis always gets higher student approval ratings."

“Voila Davis always gets higher student approval ratings.”

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Non-Review Review: Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is a staggeringly cynical piece of work.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s showbusiness satire has its knives out from the opening sequence, and never puts them away. It is a movie that is relentlessly snarky and bitter about just about any facet of the artistic process. The movie seldom pulls its punches, lawing into its targets with a vengeance. There are points where it almost seems too much, where it feels like Iñárritu might be better served to pull back or ease off for a moment as the film becomes just a little bit too much.

Showtime!

Showtime!

Then again, Iñárritu turns the film’s relentlessness into a visual motif, structuring Birdman as one long unbroken take. This structure is only slightly disingenuous. While there are any number of “cheats” that allow Birdman to stitch together multiple takes, the end result is still a hugely ambitious and impressive piece of work. Even viewers as cynical as the film itself may find themselves marvelling at some of the incredibly fluid transitions and extended sequences. Birdman‘s anger might occasionally come close to suffocating, but its energy is infectious.

That is to say nothing of the performance at the centre of the film, with Michael Keaton playing a washed-up has-been celebrity desperately (and pathetically) fighting for artistic credibility after a career spent in blockbuster cinema. One of the more interesting aspects of Birdman is that it seems just as dismissive of the attempts at artistic rehabilitation as it does of the original “sell out” work. Birdman is a wry, clever and vicious piece of work. It is also a phenomenal accomplishment.

You wouldn't like him when he's angry...

You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

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Non-Review Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Attending a Woody Allen movie can often feel like playing low-stakes roulette. An extraordinarily prolific director with an incredible body of work behind him, Allen seems capable of churning out films that run the gamut from joyless and pedestrian to magical and exceptional. Woody Allen movies are like trains; if you don’t like this one, there will inevitably be another along in a year or so. However, it feels strange that his fiftieth feature should land so near the middle of the pack.

Magic in the Moonlight is an enjoyable Woody Allen comedy. It lacks a mesmerising central performance like Blue Jasmine or the sheer charm of Midnight in Paris, but it is a well-made and enjoyable excursion. There is charm and wit to it, and it never drags too heavily. However, there is very little truly exceptional about it. Magic in the Moonlight is more of a parlour trick than a how-stopping illusion; delightful and diverting, but feeling a little too unrefined to be truly memorable.

magicinthemoonlight4

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