Disney’s latest update of its back catalogue sees Emma Stone bring punk rock to Sixties London in Cruella, a beautiful, stylish, but clunky affair. Like Maleficent before it, Cruella offers an origin story to a key Disney villain: Estella, as she’s named when we meet her, takes a circuitous route to her destiny as a star fashion designer, grifting with friends to make ends meet, and waging war on the leading fashionista of the day, Baroness von Hellman – played by a fabulously wicked Emma Thompson. Oh, and there are some Dalmatians involved.
We discuss the quality and intentions of Cruella’s characterisation and Stone’s performance, the conspicuously expensive soundtrack, the use of CGI animals, whether the film is as queer as some of the hype has suggested, the role of men and masculinity, and why it is that fashion movies are one of very few areas in cinema where women get to play fun villains like the Baroness. Cruella is an imperfect film, less than the sum of its parts – but at their best, those parts are worth it for their own sake.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose off-kilter thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer divided and provoked us a year ago, brings us The Favourite, a wild dramatisation of the power games surrounding Queen Anne’s bedchamber in the early 18th century. It’s his first feature on which neither he nor his usual partner Efthymis Filippou is credited as a writer, and that might account for its liveliness compared to his previous work, which tends to offer significant downtime in which the audience can ponder what it’s seeing. The Favourite moves rapidly and fluidly, the shifting dynamics between Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz’s Lady Marlborough, and Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill constantly exciting, with their plans always subject to change depending on who knows what about others. And on top of the intrigue, it’s really, really funny.
The Favourite offers us a brilliantly cast and even more brilliantly performing female trio, picking on a rare historical moment in which all the most important and influential people were women. (The men are all secondary, made physical jokes of, with their extravagant costumes and makeup outdoing the women’s.) Sex is always on the table and made to mean different things to different people: to Marlborough and Abigail it’s a tool to be used to manipulate and control the Queen, to whom it offers intimacy and emotional satisfaction she deeply craves and is allowed to feel she doesn’t deserve. The film doesn’t offer titillation, nor does it wish to shock or surprise with its depictions of sex or even the concept of the lesbian relationships. It’s actually quite remarkable how the film so casually avoids making it superficial and gratuitous.
We take our time to appreciate the cinematography, extraordinary wide-angle and occasionally fisheye shots that render characters, particularly the Queen, tiny playthings in a ludicrously ostentatious doll’s house. Mike remarks upon the way status is conferred by placing characters above and below each other and shooting at extreme angles to emphasise; José picks up on the costuming and its relationship to gender, mentioning in particular his admiration for Nicholas Hoult’s self-effacing, generous performance as Robert Harley, impressed by his willingness to make himself a feminised figure of fun.
There’s so much more we loved and we’re effusive throughout the podcast. And again. It’s a really, really, really, really, very very funny film indeed.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Magic in the Moonlight is very pretty, has a serious theme, gorgeous music and a very good cast headed by Colin Firth as Stanley, who under the professional name of Wei Ling Soo performs illusions that other people take as ‘magic’. Under his own name however, Stanley is a professional debunker of all that is not reason and science, and he can get quite stroppy about it. When George (Simon McBurney), a friend and fellow illusionist, asks him to use his knowledge to attempt to discredit a spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to have visions and talk to the dead but might just be swindling rich people, he doesn’t hesitate. Needless to say, he ends up falling in love with her.
The film is structured around an argument that has as a central matrix juxtapositions between reality versus illusion, magic versus science, reason versus feeling, the evidence of things not seen versus the simple sleight of hand. These are intertwined themes that unfold wittily if predictably during the course of the narrative. Magic also has an Agatha Christie-ish nostalgic feel to it that is quite pleasant, some laughs and more heart than Allen usually offers. But too many elements are not ‘quite’ right –think of what Preston Sturges might have made of the ukulele-playing boyfriend say — and it’s all a bit slapdash, a bit dull but not without its pleasures.
Firth is rather marvellous. He gets a great entrance as Wei Ling Soo (though the sensitive might find this a bit too close to blackface for comfort) and is then able to run the gamut of emotion in a very juicy role. He’s perhaps too restrained, not stylized enough for the period, tempo and mood that the film sets. And one can certainly argue that he doesn’t get as many laughs as he should. But his frustration, his discovery and the mixed emotions of his avowal at the end are a little triumph of acting skill and a pleasure to watch.
There are also lovely actresses doing fine work here: Eileen Atkins, Marci Gay Harding, and I particularly loved Jacki Weaver, as the rich dowager who finds happiness talking to her departed husband on the other side, her widening eyes, high creaky voice and an expression that starts as hesitant and ends as almost smug as she finds the confirmation of his love and fidelity that she seeks, a sheer joy to behold . I also loved how, in spite of Allen’s penchant for anhedonia, it seems the only happy characters are the ones with blind faith, as if in Allen’s terms, the intelligent are cursed to be unhappy. Firth, however intelligent his belief in reason, finally gives in to the idea that there might be things that are unseen and irrational that nonetheless are intensely felt and real. As an added bonus, Ute Lemper appears singing in a cabaret scene, although sadly all too briefly, like the film doesn’t quite know what she has to offer or how best to make use of it. Actors need to fend for themselves in Allen’s films and most do so deliciously here.
This is by no means top-notch Allen. But even journeyman Allen is interesting to me. He’s one of the few director of his generation who continuously plays with form, with different ways of telling stories without making a big fuss about it: Greek Choruses, different narrators, a story told by two different people in the same film; and most of his films have at least four or five good jokes. This is no exciting experiment but it does offer a few gentle laughs, actors who are allowed to thrill us with the type of magic only they can offer, beautiful scenery and gorgeous thirties music. It doesn’t knock your socks off but it does while away 90 minutes or so very pleasantly indeed.
The areal sequences at the beginning are thrilling. Sally Field is the best Aunt May ever, her feelings so close to the surface that you just want to give her a hug and let her know that she really has been a good Mom to Peter and that her world will end up alright; her scenes with Peter Parker are to me the best in the film. Andrew Garfield is a dilemma: on the one hand, he seems perfectly cast; on the other, all that neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shift of the head, ends up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. I liked Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon very much but then the actor and what an actor can bring to a role seems so effaced by the CGI when he becomes Electro that they could have gotten anyone to voice that ‘animation’. Emma Stone is rather perfect as Gwen and she and Garfield have a definite chemistry though one that could have been directed with more wit: the earnestness drags everything down. The plot is serviceable and Dane DeHaan is brilliant casting as the Green Goblin, he brings something jagged, excessive, dangerous, diseased; he spikes the story with much needed and sour malevolence. It’s all enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and makes one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.