After transitioning his work from his native language to English, madcap Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has been making waves in the industry with his auteuristic style. His latest comedy The Favourite is a period drama which follows the trials and tribulations of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in the early 18th century. Suffering from gout, she becomes heavily reliant on her advisor Sarah (Rachel Weisz) to manage her affairs. When Sarah’s estranged cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace as a scullery maid, the Queen’s attention is soon divided, and a family feud ensues for her affection.
In 1973, Billie Jean King fought for equality in tennis, leading a group of female players to boycott a major tournament and subsequently start their own tour. This later became known as the Women’s Tennis Association. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Davis bring their retelling of the events to the big screen with Battle of the Sexes which pits Emma Stone in the leading role. During the tour, King embarks on an affair with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) and is challenged to an exhibition match by Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a former Wimbledon champion whose gambling addiction was leading to the breakdown of his marriage.
Writer and director Damien Chazelle sweeps us up in classic Hollywood homage with his latest feature La La Land, a musical romance set in modern-day Los Angeles. The story follows aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) who is at the end of her tether after a run of bad auditions. At a particular low point, she spots Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a down-trodden jazz pianist who performs at a restaurant where nobody cares about him or the music he plays. They are contemporary starving artists pursuing old-fashioned dreams, and when fate strikes they bond over their shared passion and ambitions to get a break in the ‘city of stars’. Seb shrugs off his failure to succeed, saying ‘I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired’, but can the pair hit back at life or are they destined for never-ending rejection?
Paranoia, the ‘struggling artist’, adultery, death and the thought of committing the perfect crime are all commonplace within the creative ground that writer and director Woody Allen has explored throughout his extensive filmography. Keeping up his remarkable one-film-per-year tally, his latest project ‘Irrational Man’ revisits past themes through philosophy professor protagonist Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who experiences an existential crisis. With rumours of his questionable lifestyle circulating round the college campus and a hip flask of ‘vintage’ malt in his back pocket, he befriends his straight A student Jill (Emma Stone) who is in awe of his knowledge and intelligence, much to the dismay of her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). When eavesdropping on a conversation in a diner, Abe sees an opportunity to give his life a sense of meaning, but at what costs?
The mystery plot is Hitchcockian in its absurdity, and Abe Lucas is used as the ideal vehicle to drop philosophical quotes from Kant and Dostoyevsky into the script, as well as delivering Allenisms such as ‘I couldn’t remember the reason for living, and when I did it wasn’t convincing’. It is gluttonous, self-indulgent filmmaking from the director who refuses to change his style, and Khondji’s neat cinematography is accompanied by a typically jazz-infused soundtrack that frequently repeats. No matter how familiar it may feel, it is comical, clever and wickedly dark. Phoenix plays the lead unlike the past few central characters in Woody’s films in that he is not a copycat version of his creator. His performance is enjoyable and works well with Allen’s most recent muse Emma Stone, who is a natural at handling his delectable dialogue. Rising British actor Jamie Blackley also impresses and is one to watch out for, but his role here is a little underused.
‘Irrational Man’ is the most fun I’ve had with a Woody Allen film since the turn of the decade, and though he is guilty of trudging through his usual narrative motions, he is doing so very entertainingly with flair and his trademark wit. Phoenix and Stone are a joy to watch as they revel in the brilliantly farcical material, both well suited to his ad lib approach. A key scene unfolds at an amusement park when characters wander into a house of mirrors, a method often implemented in cinema to convey a sense of trickery or bemusement, and previously by Allen himself. While the tricks up his sleeve, on which he wears his many influences, are tried and tested, sometimes the old ones are the best.
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In the arts, fame can be incredibly brittle as many hit the heights of stardom to then fade away quickly, never to be spoken of again. Artistic merit and validation is therefore vitally important for those that ply their trade in the creative industries whether it be film, music or theatre. Black comedy drama ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu explores this theme through fictional actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who makes a publicised comeback in adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway production, writing, producing and directing for the stage. Best known for his role as Birdman in a blockbuster superhero series, Thomson hopes to shed the mainstream association for theatrical credibility. Assisted by his loyal lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his dysfunctional daughter Sam (Emma Stone), will his change of direction leave a lasting legacy or is he destined to be nothing more than a flash-in-the-pan?
A shaky cam follows Riggan around for a lot of the film, giving the impression of one continuous tracking shot. This helps create a fantastically frenetic energy that flows throughout, accompanied by a drums-laden soundtrack that never misses a beat. The script is spiking and satirical, and very often hilarious, giving a sharp social commentary on the pomposity of the industry and the people that inhabit it. As the show gets underway onstage, the character studies deepen off of it following the introduction of method actor Mike Shiner who clashes with Riggan. Scenes involving the two are among the film’s strongest moments as their dialogue bounces off one another with brilliant rhythm. Shiner’s friendship with Sam also serves as an effective subplot as they take to the theatre roof to philosophise on the highs and lows of showbiz.
The style of the film can at times be a lot to take in due to the chaotic cinematography and editing, as well as the wistful fantasy tangents. The strength of the acting keeps the aims and concepts grounded even with the characters aren’t. Michael Keaton is perfectly cast as Riggan, due to the obvious comparisons to his own career – he is arguably most associated with his nineties portrayal of Batman. The schizophrenic nature of the performance is handled tremendously as he is haunted by hallucinations of his most famous incarnation. Whilst Norton and Stone almost steal the show completely with their excellent screen relationship, stellar support also comes in the way of Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough, completing a cast that really do their bit to fit the bill.
‘Birdman’ is rightfully tipped for awards success and we may see life imitating art come the ceremonies. Iñárritu goes against the grain of trends and reboots, intelligently telling a story which surrounds the oldest traditions of performance art but which is laced with digital media and pop culture references. In doing so, he has created something which feels very unique and original, in both its visual style and subject matter. For me, it fully deserves the credit it will receive and could ironically reignite the career of its leading man.