Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 11 – A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story would seem to be a more appropriate movie for my December round of the series than the November round what with its yuletide theme, and it is, but I’m hoping to do something a bit more epic for the final round so the Christmas movie will have to be looked at a month early.  This is also a little different from the other movies that have populated this review series in that it’s not really a Spielberg influenced blockbuster attempt and also because it was more of a cult hit that would become more famous long after the 80s were over. That isn’t to say that it was a bomb when it came out in 1983, it made twenty million dollars on a three million dollar budget and that’s a decent return, but it didn’t exactly take the world by storm.  The film’s rise to fame was actually not dissimilar from that of The Shawshank Redemption in that it sort of came and went in theaters but really became famous when for whatever reason basic cable got its hands on it and people started catching on.  Actually TV programers seem to have had a lot of influence over what movies become “holiday classics,” a similar thing happened to It’s a Wonderful Life as it was adopted as cheap Christmas programing on PBS stations.  According to A Christmas Story’s Wikipedia page (which has a rather detailed account of the film’s broadcast history), the Turner networks didn’t really get their hands on the movie until the mid-90s when I would have been about eight and neither I nor my parents must have been privy its increasing audience because it never became a Christmas tradition in my house, which is part of why I never gave it a shot until now.

Another part of why I hadn’t really seen the movie up to now is that I kind of hate Christmas movies… which is probably an extension of the fact that I think Christmas as a holiday is a load of humbug.  It’s a holiday that’s fun when you’re a kid and you need your parents to get you the coolest toys but once you’re old enough to buy your own shit it immediately becomes a complete waste of time.  The fact that Christmas has become this three month marketing extravaganza with its own music and movies dedicated to it becomes more and more annoying to me every year.  I don’t get it.  Fortunately this movie doesn’t seem wildly invested in the season’s cornier aspects either.  It seems to realize that kids are only really interested in Christmas for the most materialistic of reasons, that it’s often a complete pain in the ass for their parents, and that mall Santas are often just cranky old minimum wage earning slobs.  So there’s certainly an attitude here I can vibe with, but I wasn’t so into was the film’s sense of humor.  The film is in many ways the creation of a guy named Jean Shepherd, who has been described as a “storyteller” and radio personality who made a career of telling mildly funny stories about his childhood… so he was basically the David Sedaris of the 80s.  Shepherd’s appeal seems to be in his folksy observations about his hometown and family and yet the film keeps leaning towards some oddly broad gags like the father’s strange pride in a novelty sexy lamp, which I find more weird than funny.

Ultimately what fuels A Christmas Story is probably nostalgia, although it is somewhat curious that it’s a nostalgia for a time period that was pretty far back.  The usual expectation is that nostalgia is supposed to exist on a 20 year cycle.  The 1970s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 50s (American Graffiti) and the 1990s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 70s (Dazed and Confused), but the 1980s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 60s but this is set in the early 1940s.  People who were Ralphie’s age during the time this was set would have been in their 50s in 1983, and people in their 50s generally aren’t the target market for Hollywood films.  However, even audiences that don’t remember Little Orphan Annie decoder rings and Red Ryder air rifles they probably do remember the disappointment of having bought some other ripoff or some other toy they absolutely had to have.  The movie doesn’t necessarily hit this nostalgia wave in an overly profound or critical way, and at times it just kind of feels like a series of sketches, but I do more or less see the appeal.  I don’t know that I’ll be returning to this in any future Christmases, but it’s pretty alright.

To the Scorecard:

Does this movie live up to the hype?  Not exactly, or at least I certainly don’t see much of a reason that this thing deserves to have ever been broadcast for 24 hours straight by a cable network when other Christmas movies of similar quality are readily available.  That said, the movie is cute and entertaining for the most part and I get why people would mostly like it.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?(11/11/2018)

So, Melissa McCarthy is still around.  I must say I didn’t think too much of McCarthy when she broke onto the scene in Bridesmaids, or perhaps more specifically I didn’t see what the big deal was but then again I didn’t quite grasp what the big deal was with that whole movie.  Still, a lot of people liked it and the performance somehow managed to get a damn Oscar nomination.  She’s stuck around too even though she’s made all sorts of crap like Identity Thief, The Boss, and The Happytime Murders, but that hasn’t hurt her because the simple fact is that most mainstream comedy film stars mostly make crap these days.  Whether you’re Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, or Kevin Heart the dirty little secret about being a mainstream comedy film star is that, like being a baseball player, you can strike out in two thirds of you’re at bats and still be a star.  And remain a star she has even though The Heat and Spy are probably the only unambiguous commercial and critical hits of her post-Bridesmaids career.   And now right on time McCarthy has taken the next important step in a screen comedian’s career: taking a more serious role, which she’s done in the new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a writer who achieved some moderate success in the 70s and 80s writing magazine articles and celebrity biographies but who has fallen on hard times by the late 90s when the film begins.  She’s just lost her job at a publication for surly behavior and the public has lost a lot of interest in the literary showbiz figures she used to write about.  She now lives out of a cheap New York apartment she probably can’t afford with only a beloved cat and she clearly has a drinking problem.  After being told by her agent (Jane Curtain) that there’s basically no way she’s going to be given an advance for her proposed biography of an obscure vaudeville comedienne Israel finds herself unsure if she’s going to even be able to pay her bills.  Desperate, she decides to sell a letter she got from one of her celebrity subjects to a local book store, and in doing so she starts to wonder if maybe she could manufacture more such letters.  Soon she and her more streetwise friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) are running something of a two person forgery ring which may or may not catch up with her.

I don’t think my review of this movie is going to be overly long simply because it doesn’t elicit a whole lot to talk about despite having very little wrong with it and it generally being the very definition of a movie that’s “fine.”  The film largely operates as a character stud of Lee Israel and her misanthropic lifestyle.  Israel lives alone and seems to be largely content with this, claiming to like her cat more than most people.  It’s not entirely clear if she truly believes that or if it’s more of a defense mechanism, more than likely it’s a combination of the two.  Her friendship with Jack appears to be a bit of a bright spot, one born of their mutual outsider statuses.  Her criminal activity is by contrast a bit of a secondary element.  Her forging is somewhat interesting but her operation is interesting and impressive but not exactly the stuff of legend.  Ultimately the forging is less interesting in and of itself than it is for how it sort of gives her life purpose.  In this sense she’s sort of a low stakes non-violent Walter White, an ordinary person who enters into a life of crime partly out of financial necessity and partly as a sort of midlife crisis.

Melissa McCarthy is quite good at potraying this character and making her sympathetic.  If look up pictures of the real Lee Israel you find that McCarthy doesn’t really look that much like her but this doesn’t really matter too much because she certainly seems to understand the character type she’s working with and manages to give the character enough levity to keep her lifestyle from seeming rather depressing.  Beyond that this mostly just strikes me as a rather serviceable drama.  The film certainly looks good and evokes early 90s New York fairly well, but it’s not doing anything particularly bold visually, not that it needs to.  I also wouldn’t say that the drama here, I guess there are ultimately limits to how interesting I find this character and this story, but for what it sets out to do the film acquits itself fairly well and I don’t have much to complain about.

*** out of Five

Suspiria(11/3/2018)

The fall of 2018 has been notable for a lot of reasons to a lot of people.  One of the things it might be remembered for a bit less than others is that it was the year when two remakes/reboots of classic horror movies from the late 70s went head to head against each other.  One, Halloween (2018) was a remake of an American slasher classic that had become a household name after several sequels and numerous imitators.  That reboot (technically sequel) was made with the backing of horror super producer Jason Blum and has now made more a hundred and fifty million dollars at the box office.   The other film I’m thinking of is a bit of a different beast.  That film would be the movie Suspiria, a remake of the 1977 Italian film of the same name.  The original Suspiria is very well known among horror aficionados but to most average movie goers it’s a pretty deep cut and even if it was more well-known I’m not sure that Luca Guadagnino’s new interpretation of it is probably not made for the masses, which is probably part of why it’s looking like it will leave theaters without so much as making two million dollars.  For film/horror fans Guadagino’s film may be the bigger must-see of the two films given that it’s coming hot off the heels of Guadagino’s Call Me By Your Name and it seems to be doing some pretty radical and interesting things with Dario Argento’s original film.

Like Argento’s original film this remake is set in West Germany in 1977 and focuses in on an American teenager named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who has been accepted into a prestigious German ballet academy called the Markos Dance Academy.  As she arrives the school is in a bit of tumult because of the disappearance of a student named Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz).  As an audience we know a bit more about Hingle than Bannion does as we saw her confiding to her psychologist Josef Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup) prior to her disappearance that she has seen a whole lot of really strange things happening at this academy.  Bannion, oblivious to all this, begins trying to impress her teacher Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton).  Meanwhile, she meets other students named Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina) and Sara Simms (Mia Goth) who are suspicious about what happened to Hingle and begin looking into their teachers who we increasingly come to realize are part of a coven of witches that are in the midst of some sort of internal power struggle that their unsuspecting students are in the middle of.

When you think of the original Suspiria the first thing that will come to just about anyone’s mind is Luciano Tovoli’s gorgeous cinematography, which used a very wide frame and some rather extreme colored lighting to create a sort of dream like (or rather nightmare like) vision.  For his remake Guadagino has opted not to even try to match that look and has instead gone for more naturalistic cinematography.  He also isn’t using Goblin’s famous score and has instead tapped Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to do a distinctly different though certainly interesting in its own right score.  So we basically have a remake of a movie that is largely known for the way it looks and sounds which doesn’t retain either the look or the sound.  Instead the main thing the movie seems to retain is actually the story and concept, which is a pretty bold choice given that the script was easily the weakest element of that original film… or from another perspective it was the element most in need of improvement.

The plot of the new Suspiria is told in a more straightforward way than that of the original, which was rife with strange character motivations and at times felt like little more than an excuse to show people being murdered in elaborate ways, but it adds to the mix a certain amount of its own brand of convolution.  While watching it I found myself a bit lost as there are a lot of characters here and a lot of names that you need to attach faces to.  By the film’s finale I was pretty actively confused by what was going on in the plot, though reading the film’s summary on Wikipedia after the fact did clarify a few things.  I also found that some of the thematic additions that Guadagino added did not really add up.  Guadagino for example seems to be way more interested in the fact that this story is set in Germany than Argento was.  Guadagino goes to great lengths to point out that the film’s events were happening at the same time as the “German Autumn” in which the Baader-Meinhof group had hijacked a plane resulting in a great deal of political tumult and the film also deals with the German generational guilt over the events of the second world war through the Klemperer character… which is all plenty interesting but I haven’t the slightest clue how any of it really ties into the film’s main plot about a witches coven killing running a demonic ballet school.  In fact I’m not terribly clear why the Klemperer character is in the movie at all.  He ultimately has basically no effect on the plot and I haven’t the slightest clue why it was decided to have him be played by Tilda Swinton.

So, this new Suspiria is a rather curious piece of work.  Few people who are unfamiliar with the original movie will find themselves interested in this one, and it’s also so different from that movie that it may very well also alienate the hardcore Argento fans.  It also manages to be a too gory for the arthouse crowd and too artsy for the grindhouse crowd.  So there’s already a pretty limited audience for the thing, and even someone like me who sort of fits into that small audience still found myself kind of confounded by a lot of it so it’s sort of apparent why this thing is more or less tanking at the box office.  And yet, there’s a certain something to it.  It’s various ambitions and over-reaches make it kind of fascinating and there are certain elements of the production that are kind of amazing.  Swinton certainly does some impressive work in her triple role and if there’s any justice the movie will earn itself at least a nomination for best makeup effects at the Academy Awards.  It’s also got some really well staged set pieces like a dance/murder scene early in the film and its gory finale is an amazing piece of filmmaking even though I kind of didn’t understand what the hell was going on.  I can see this thing getting a bit of a devoted cult following in the years to come and I may well warm up to it myself over time, but for now I’m not quite ready to commit to any sort of strong support for it.

***1/2 out of Five

If Beale Street Could Talk(10/27/2018)

The great writer James Baldwin died about thirty years ago but it’s not hard to see that here in the late 2010s the guy is having a bit of “a moment.”  I think this started with the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a thinker and public intellectual.  Coates, with his intellectual demeanor, roots in the literary world, and uncompromising politics in many ways felt like Baldwin’s intellectual descendant and he more or less invited the comparisons when he wrote his 2015 essay collection “Between the World and Me” as a letter to his teenage son, a literary device that was not dissimilar from one that Baldwin used in his 1963 book “The Fire Next Time.”  Baldwin’s next re-emergence happened with the release of Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was adapted from Baldwin’s final manuscript and looked at his views of the civil rights movement and of larger American culture.   That was a great documentary but it was a limited one insomuch as it was largely concerned with Baldwin’s work as an essayist and as a public intellectual and was not really focusing on his work as a novelist, which is what made him famous in the first place.  Enter Barry Jenkins, red hot from his amazing Oscar winning film Moonlight, who has decided to bring attention to that said of Baldwin’s career by making as his next film an adaptation of Bladwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Despite the tile the film actually isn’t set in Memphis and is instead set in Harlem during the early 70s.  The film is told from the perspective of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne), a nineteen year old who has fallen deeply in love with her longtime friend Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James).  Unfortunately, as the movie begins Fonny is in Rikers Island awaiting trial for an alleged rape, one that Tish knows he didn’t commit because she was with him when it was alleged to have happened, an alibi the police do not believe because of her relationship to Fonny.  Complicating matters further, Tish is apparently pregnant with Fonny’s baby.  From here we get a number of flashbacks about Tish and Fonny’s courtship and attempts at building a life interspersed with material about the family’s attempts to find a way to help get him out of jail.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” was not one of James Baldwin’s more famous novels either in its day or in modern times before Barry Jenkins decided to adapt it.  It was written after Baldwin was at the height of his fame and at a time when America was a bit weary of the topic of race, believing falsely that the Civil Rights Movement had already accomplished everything that needed to be accomplished and that everything else would just sort itself out eventually.  Baldwin’s novel certainly doesn’t labor under any delusions that that is true but it’s not a book about the macro-politics of civil rights so much as a portrait of the small and not so small indignities that interrupt black life and prevent greater prosperity for the African American family.  In particular the story looks at the effects of the criminal justice system on black life, which I think is a big part of why Jenkins believed the film would be particularly relevant today.  The story is very much designed to make you root for the couple at the center of it and to be extremely frustrated by the fact that they’re being kept apart by circumstance.  In this sense the film is a very traditional romance plot, but one where society is keeping its characters apart rather than parents or misunderstandings within the relationship.

As a case study in the criminal justice system Fonny’s is perhaps an extreme case as it seems that the police involved have gone through a lot of trouble to frame him for a fairly serious crime for rather petty reasons, something that is probably not unprecedented in the history of American policing but which remains a something of a worst case scenario.  Another character played by Brian Tyree Henry comes into the film at a certain point and tells a story about getting a rather brutal prison sentence for carrying weed on his person, which is probably a bit more representative of the kind of cases that are overfilling American prisons in a post-“War on Drugs” era than Fonny’s predicament.  There is also, in this climate, something just a little queasy about having a film center around trying to get a rape victim to recant her accusation even if that accusation appears to have been influenced by biased police officers, but the film does manage to portray that woman’s story with sensitivity as well.  Still, the bigger point here is about how disruptive arrests like this are on the black family and the ways in which they cannot count on a fair trial or treatment.

Really though, the story’s relevance to modern political debates are not what makes this movie special, what really stands out is simply how well it renders the lives of its characters.  The film certainly brings early 70s New York to life in an interesting way, endowing it with some of the romance of something like Manhattan when necessary while also showing some of the grit and hardship that living there could entail.  The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s set during a particular period, the characters seem to have appropriate hairstyles and have a habit of referring to people as “cats,” but it avoids emphasizing the kitchier elements of that decade.  Most of the music the characters listen to seems to be the jazz and blues of an earlier time rather than the chart hits of 1973 and the movie doesn’t give anyone an oversized afro or anything.  In general the movie uses a lot of the same cinematic tricks that made Moonlight such a revelation but applies them to what is structurally a very different movie that operates in very different ways.  Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have once again managed to create the perfect color scheme for the film and Nicholas Britell has contributed another fine score for this film, and the cast is absolutely killer.   KiKi Layne, who as far as I can tell from IMDB has done almost nothing onscreen except for a couple of guest starring roles on TV, manages to anchor the film perfectly and Stephan James brings just the right mix of sensitivity and masculinity to Fonny.  Regina King is also a standout as Tish’s mother, who comes to have a key sequence late in the film.

In terms of adaption the book skews very close to Bladwin’s novel, to the point where it acts as an almost word for word adaptation at times, which mostly works for the movie as it encourages Jenkins to leave in little bits of character that other movies might have cut out as superfluous.  Little bits like Tish’s discomfort with her job at a department story perfume counter add a lot to the movie and easily could have been left out of a screenplay that were less reverent to the adaptation source, but this reverence can be a bit of a hindrance as well. For instance there is a lengthy scene at the beginning of the book and movie in which Tish’s family is at odds with Fonny’s self-righteous mother, which is in and of itself an excellent scene, but the conflict it establishes basically never comes up again in the movie and it feels like a bit of a dangling thread at the end.  That and another subplot about the two lovers’ fathers conspiring to raise funds for Fonny’s defense are both left unresolved in the movie, in part because of the one aspect of the novel that Jenkins chose to alter in a significant way: its ending.  I will not go into detail about this except to say that the ending of the novel is a bit abrupt and probably did need a change of some kind, his solution is to omit some of the material that would have slightly resolved the above plot threads in favor of an epilog he’s added which I don’t think fits exactly with what the rest of the film is setting up.

That was kind of an odd decision but I see what Jenkins was going for and aside from that one misstep I think this is basically another triumph for Jenkins.  I’m not sure whether or not I’d consider this to be the better movie than Moonlight, truth be told they aren’t as easy to compare side to side as you would think given that they were more or less made by the same filmmaking team.  If Beale Street Could Talk’s literary nature and general talkativeness differentiate it from Moonlight’s unique triptych narrative and enigmatic lead character, but what the two movies have in common is that they are both trying to apply a level of artistry to stories that the cinema and culture as a whole often renders as sensationalistic stereotypes.  In the eyes of society Moonlight’s Chiron is merely a drug dealer, but Jenkins managed to show him as a lot more than that, and he is similarly able to show through this movie that Tish is far more than a mere “baby mama” and he effectively both explains why her life is the way it is while also endowing it with a clear degree of dignity.  By the film’s end you feel like you’ve made a connection with its characters and that you’ve gone on something of a journey with them, which is theoretically what all movies are supposed to do but it’s kind of rare for one to really deliver on that and this one does.

****1/2 out of Five

Halloween(10/31/2018)

I’ve long been called something of a film snob, a title I somewhat resent given that I consider myself to be about as well versed in low brow genre cinema as highbrow art films.  Take the slasher movie for example, the disreputable horror sub-genre that Roger Ebert once dismissively called the “dead teenager movie.”  It’s not exactly my favorite type of cinema either but I’ve seen a whole lot of it, and of my own free will to boot.  Most notably I’ve seen every damn movie in the big three slasher franchises.  That’s all nine Nightmare on Elm Street movies, all twelve Friday the 13th movies, and most pertinently all ten Halloween movies.  Did I love all thirty of those movies?  Not at all, in fact I’d say well over half of them are outright bad movies but it was interesting watching the trajectory the three long standing series went in.  For example, the The Nightmare on Elm Street movies were pretty consistently decent but pretty much never great and the Friday the 13th movies were pretty consistently crappy though occasionally fun.  The Halloween franchise, by contrast, is all over the place in terms of quality.  The original Halloween is a stone cold classic, a way better movie than any of those other movies and almost entirely because of John Carpenter’s sheer skill behind the camera.  But the franchise also has some real oddities like Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, which ignores the series continuity entirely to tell a weird story about evil masks, as well as some real stinkers like Halloween: Resurrection in which Busta Rhymes repeatedly calls Michael Myers “Mikey.”  The franchise was last seen being rebooted in the late 2000s by Rob Zombie with generally poor results, but they are now taking another stab (no pun intended) at bringing “The Shape” back to the screen with another sequel/reboot simply titled Halloween.

This new Halloween film is not a remake is instead a new sequel, one that ignores every other film in the franchise except for that 1978 original.  It is set in the present day and alleges that shortly after the events of that first movie Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney/Nick Castle) was captured and placed into a mental asylum where he has been for the last forty years.  Myers’ surviving victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is now pushing sixty and her experiences escaping from Myers have driven her to become something of a reclusive survivalist, a fact that has estranged her from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) but she does have more of a working relationship with her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  As the film begins the story of Michael Myer’s rampage is getting brought back up again by a pair of true crime reporters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) who try rather unsuccessfully to interview Myers, who has remained mute and unresponsive after all these years.  Their visit does reveal one thing though; the state is planning to transport Myers to a different prison by bus on October 30th… that couldn’t possibly go wrong could it?

To longtime fans of the Halloween series this “ignore all the sequels besides the original and bring back Jamie Lee Curtis” approach will be a familiar one.  The same basic thing was done in 1998 for the series’ 20th anniversary sequel Halloween H20, which had Laurie as a college professor in hiding after faking her death forced to contend once again with Myers.  That movie was better than most of the Halloween sequels but it was made in the wake of Scream and while it wasn’t overly meta or snarky like that movie was it did follow the conventions of that late 90s slasher movie wave otherwise, and those conventions have not aged well.  Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake came around about ten years later and it two is something of a product of its era.  It was clearly greenlit after the success of 70s horror remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes and it had a certain “torture porn” edge to it.  I remember having a viscerally unpleasant reaction to that movie and wrote a really nasty review of it but I must say looking back on it I think I might have over-reacted a little.  That movie had problems but there were certainly elements of it that I liked and they stand out a bit more in my memory, but I digress.

The 2018 Halloween is interesting in that unlike the last two iterations of the series (and their respective lame-ass sequels) this is not really coming out amidst a wave of other slasher movies.  The horror movies that are most in vogue right now are bad haunted house movies where ghosts jump out at the screen and go “boo!” after a few minutes of buildup, and that’s pretty far removed from the slasher genre that Michael Myers would become associated with.  As such this movie seems to have doubled down on ties to the original movie.  John Carpenter actually has some credits on it (though I’m not exactly sure how hands on he was) and they even brought back original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle back to reprise his role in a couple of scenes despite him being a 70 year old who was never a real actor to begin with.  And yet, the film oddly doesn’t really play out like the original film when it comes to the actual horror scenes.  In that first movie Michael Myers was a rather spectral presence; he would slowly stalk his victims and Carpenter would try to build maximum suspense before each kill.  Here Michael Myers is more of a blunt instrument.  He basically just walks up to random people and kills them in brutal fashion.  The film is significantly more gory the first movie and actually reminded me a lot of Rob Zombie’s take on the series.

The movie certainly has elements that work.  Seeing Jamie Lee Curtis go full Sarah Connor is interesting and Curtis certainly seems to have taken the part on with gusto.  As a whole though I wasn’t very impressed by this reboot/sequel.  Maybe I was expecting too much from it.  Between its clear interest in righting the wrongs of past sequels and it’s immense popularity I guess I was expecting something really creative and special out of the movie and instead what I got just kind of felt like another slasher movie sequel in the series which made a lot of the same mistakes as the other ones.  There may in fact prove to be no way to successfully follow up the 1978 film, which achieved a certain perfection through its simplicity and that any attempt to revisit the Michael Myers character is just going to diminish his mystique.  Still if you’re going to try to do that I feel like you’re going to need to do a little more than this movie does to recreate that magic.

**1/2 out of Five        

The Favourite(10/27/2018)

Warning: Review reveals an aspect of the movie’s premise which may be considered a spoiler.

I like to think I’m more knowledgeable about American history than most.  I have a degree in the subject after all and I do find myself reading a fair number of books about it since then.  I cannot, however, necessarily say the same thing about British history and especially not pre-20th Century British history.  I do know a little more about certain eras of interest like Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign and I guess the handful of kings that Shakespeare wrote plays about and I suppose I have a cursory knowledge of William the Conquerer and The War of the Roses and a few other events but at a certain point it becomes very hard to keep track of all the monarchs, parliaments, and reformations that have happened in that country in the last two thousand years.  I don’t exactly feel terrible about that given that it’s not a country I live in.  In theory there’s no particular reason I should know more about English history than, say, Chinese history but nonetheless I do take in a lot more popular culture from and about the United Kingdom and occasionally I feel a little more unsteady than I would when watching period pieces set in the United States.  Take the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, which is set in the early 1700s during the reign of Queen Anne.  I had probably heard the name “Queen Anne” at some point before but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much of anything about her.  So the film, titled The Favourite, is something of an education for me… or is it?

The film begins with a woman named Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arriving at the court of Queen Anne (Oliva Coleman) in hopes of getting some sort of job there.  Hill is of noble birth but her family has fallen because of some terrible decisions by her father and she is basically penniless.  Her hope is that her distant relative, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), will give her some sort of assistance.  The Duchess is not a person to be trifled with.  She’s wily and tough as nails and she’s also more or less become the right hand woman to the queen, who is depicted here as smart but sickly and perhaps a bit loony from her life of privilege and indulgence.  Hill does manage to get a job as a lowly palace maid but soon the duchess finds something of a kinship with Hill.  The Duchess gives her a better job in the palace and also invites Hill to join her in recreational live pigeon shooting.  Soon though, Hill comes to learn that the duchess and the queen are not merely confidants but are in fact also lesbian lovers.  Seeing an opening, Hill comes up with a plan to supplant the duchess as the queen’s favorite subject and to use that to return herself to the nobility.

Like I said, my knowledge of British history in this period is minimal, so when I finished the movie I had just assumed that this was a fictional story set in the time period.  However, when I started poking around on Wikipedia it became clear that there actually is a lot more genuine history here than I thought.  The Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Hill were real people, their circumstances were about the same as what’s depicted here, and they really did fight for the queen’s favor as well.  Where the film differs from the history record is in speculating that these three were engaging in a lesbian love triangle, which appears to have been something that was rumored at the time but for which little hard evidence exists.  The movie is also basically engaging speculation in depicting the motives of the two women who may or may not have been as power hungry in real life.  That said historical accuracy is probably a secondary concern here as Yorgos Lanthimos does not treat the film as a historical reenactment and instead injects it with a lot of modern energy.  The film’s dialogue is not distractingly anachronistic but it isn’t filled with “thees” and “thous” and “prithees” either and the screenplay does not shy away from having the characters use various vulgarities that would not make it into the history books.  The film also uses some stranger elements of life in this period are also emphasized for comedic effect like the nobility’s apparent pastime of duck racing.

This unconventional take on the period piece reminded me a bit of The Death of Stalin, which leaned even heavier into anachronistic language and was a generally broader comedy, but the Armando Iannucci project that the movie really reminded me of was his HBO series “Veep” in the way that the characters are self-interested vipers that are constantly playing chess with their adversaries.  Unlike Iannucci’s comedies, which tend to take place in worlds where anyone and everyone has their eyes on the prize, in this movie no one except for the main trio at the center really seems to stand a chance.  That’s especially true of all the men in the court who are primarily represented by a pair of groveling politicians and a conceited military officer, all of them made to look like comical fops by the ridiculous fashion of the day which involved gigantic wigs and unappealing purple jackets.  That rather feminized appearance is quite intentionally contrasted with the women in the movie, who are slightly musicalized power players that ride horses and take up target shooting in their free time.  The movie is not in denial that this was not the gender dynamic of the vast majority of people in this time and whenever any of them leave the bubble of Queen Anne’s court they start to face the same dangers that women generally faced in the wider world, but while they’re in the palace they pretty much only view each other as a threat.  Of course all of this would have a slightly different ring to it if the queen was a king and the two women were involved in a love triangle with a man, but as a lesbian triangle the monarch’s behavior feels less like exploitation and more like a game that they’re all sort of willingly entering into.

Another thing that differentiates the film from Iannucci’s work is that Yorgos Lanthimos is certainly not going to let it have the same kind of televisual “comedy first” look that Iannucci’s projects tend to have and is instead bringing his own brand of weirdness to the film.  I’ve been a little agnostic about Lanthimos’ two English language films so far, I admired their unique vision but was also alienated (mostly in a bad way) by the peculiar nature of how his characters spoke and acted.  Things are different this time around, certainly in part because he’s working with a screenplay written by others this time around but I think also because this material just works really well for him.  The characters seem to be heightened in just the right way and you feel like their quirks are specific to them rather than the whole of the film’s world and things that might otherwise just feel like Lanthimosian flights of fancy here just feel like aspects of this strange time and place.  It’s certainly his most accessible film though that is relative and I’m sure it will feel plenty strange to people who haven’t experienced The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Lobster, so I wouldn’t think of it as any kind of sell-out scenario and it won’t be for everyone.  Still, the movie is clearly an excellent twist on the conventional costume drama and one that will be starting some very interesting conversations throughout the year.

****1/2 out of Five