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The Second Conditional Blues

There are doubtless many distinguished people who won their first Oscar at the second attempt (it’s just that search engine technology isn’t quite at the point of being able to identify them as easily as all that, and I’m too lazy to do the research). Barry Jenkins’ last movie, however, holds the unique distinction of winning an Oscar at the second attempt within the same ceremony – I speak, of course, of Moonlight, which was famously the subject of a stewards’ enquiry at the 2017 Academy Awards, eventually triumphing over La La Land.

I was one of those people who thought that while there was nothing wrong with Moonlight, and the film did indeed have much to commend and distinguish it, it was still a less worthy and magical winner than Damien Chazelle’s extraordinary reinvention of the musical would have been. But here we are two years on, and the boot is well and truly for the gander, as I now find myself marvelling that Jenkins’ new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, will not be more acclaimed by the Academy than looks likely to be the case, for this is one of the exceptional films of the year so far.

This is one of those films that tells its story largely out of chronological sequence, which if nothing else makes it hard to figure out what is and isn’t a spoiler in it. Hey ho. At its heart is the relationship between two young African-American people, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). They have grown up together and basically been lifelong sweethearts. One night Tish is hassled by a white stranger, and in defending her Fonny finds he has antagonised a racist street cop. Shortly after he is arrested for a crime it would have been impossible for him to commit.

Both families start to work towards getting him released, but then there is more news: Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child. This only serves to exacerbate existing tensions between the families, and a drinks party organised to celebrate the good news ends up concluding spectacularly badly, largely due to the inflexible religious beliefs of Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis, who manages to make a big impression in her single scene). The struggle to clear Fonny’s name continues regardless, with everyone involved finding themselves pushed to their limits by the innate injustice of the system.

Written down like that there is perhaps something of the soap opera about the central premise of If Beale Street Could Talk – there is, as I have suggested, that one big meaty scene of in-laws coming together and really not getting on, which is the sort of thing the writers of EastEnders or whatever really love to include. Certainly the film features many fine actors, most of them not very well known, really getting their teeth into good parts.

However, what the film is about is suggested by the title, which is so obliquely allusive that they have to include a caption explaining what it means. Beale Street, apparently, is a famous street in Memphis, Tennessee, noted as a centre of African-American culture: Louis Armstrong was apparently born there. The film suggests Beale Street is a metonym for the entirety of black experience in the United States.

‘Hmmm, sounds a bit heavy,’ you may be thinking, and I could not in all good conscience argue that this is not to some extent the case. The film does not shy away from unpleasant realities, and its theme is essentially that an entire section of American society is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation, criminality, and despair. Yet this is subtly and intelligently achieved – there’s an off-hand observation that black men in their twenties are ‘already running out of familiar faces’, and the lightness of touch just adds to the impact when one pauses to consider it.

This is not a strikingly angry film – although one could certainly argue that it has every right to be, being concerned from start to finish with the most terrible injustice – possibly because Jenkins is intelligent enough to appreciate that unfiltered rage can be very alienating to audiences. Rather, he just presents his story, and trusts that the intelligence and empathy of the audience. Certainly it seems to me that no civilised person could watch this film without being profoundly angered.

And yet much of the film’s power comes not from anger but from its presentation of the love between Fonny, Tish, and her family, which is if anything even more central to the story. The scenes of them together are the ones which really stay with you; it is hard to overstate how gorgeously tender and delicate these moments are, superb performances accompanied by Nicholas Britell’s wonderful score. The music is exceptional – the piece accompanying the scene of their first consummation of their love begins hesitantly and softly, with twitching, nervous strings, but then blooms in confidence, richness and power as it reflects what is occurring between the charracters. This film contains some of the most romantic moments I have seen at the cinema in a long time, but it never forgets that part of the power of beauty is that it is ultimately ephemeral.

As I mentioned, the film is filled with fine actors doing good work, and I would imagine that it was quite difficult for the people who decide about awards and suchlike to single any of them out as being especially worthy of praise. It initially looks like the film’s big turn is going to be Aunjanue Ellis’ monster of pious inflexibility, but she really is in the film quite briefly, and the quality of the work done by the leads and other performers like Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris is also allowed to shine. In the end the Oscar nod has gone to Regina King, playing Fonny’s mother; whether she wins the award or not I don’t know, but it might be worth a flutter – it would be good to see this film get some kind of recognition, and I am genuinely bemused that it has really been shut out of most of the major categories.

It seems like nearly every year there is one big quality production that has clearly been intended to have a shot at the major awards, and that I really like, but which ends up under-performing. A couple of years ago it was Silence, and this year it is If Beale Street Could Talk. It may not sound like it from the description, but this really is a serious, beautiful and uplifting film that deserves to be seen as widely as possible.

A Cleaner Sweep

Nothing lasts forever. Netflix has risen to ubiquity in the last few years due to an effective two-pronged strategy: lavishly-produced brand new material you can’t see anywhere else, and licensed old favourites from many other places you’d really like to watch again. The enormous success of this approach has taken traditional media providers by surprise, catching them flat-footed, but state of affairs will not endure. Disney are due to launch their own streaming service within the year, which means a sizeable tranche of movies and TV shows will vanish from Netflix and move onto the rival (this will include all the Marvel and stellar conflict movies); other providers will likely follow suit, taking their own archive content with them.

So it is very likely that Netflix will become increasingly dependent on its self-generated content in order to stay successful. Here the service’s ‘here and nowhere else’ policy may actually count against it, especially when it comes to less-commercial movies. Your typical arthouse or quality movie release is often dependent on reviews and awards success in order to find or attract an audience, and most awards-giving bodies have been very clear that a Netflix-only release does not qualify a film for the big name prizes – it has to play in actual cinemas if it wants to get nominated.

For a long time Netflix held the line and refused to compromise when it came to putting their original movies into cinemas – to do so would be to defeat the whole point of being a streaming-only site. However, recently they seem to have cracked, putting Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on at film festivals and into actual movie theatres. This appears to have paid off in spades, for in addition to most likely being the best-performing subtitled movie in years (Netflix is coy about these things), Roma has managed to displace The Favourite as the favourite for this year’s most prestigious awards.

The film is mostly set in Mexico City, nearly fifty years ago, and concerns the life of a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who is the live-in cleaner, child-minder and general domestic help for a wealthy family in the wealthy suburb of Colonia Roma.  The couple are experiencing marital difficulties; their four children are loud, demanding, and (I found) rather annoying. Cleo has a lot on her plate nearly all the time.

For a while this looks like it’s going to be one of those slice-of-life movies where nothing much actually happens worth mentioning, but then Cleo discovers that her new boyfriend, the martial-arts-obsessed Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), has managed to get her pregnant. His response when told of this is to vanish from the scene quicker than you can say ‘Come home, Speedy Gonzales!’ Meanwhile, her employers’ marriage disintegrates, the husband moving out and leaving his wife (Marina de Tavira) to cope alone, while trying to keep the truth from the children.

You know me, I’m not especially cynical (quiet at the back!), but while watching Roma it did occur to me that if you wanted to make a movie that was custom-built to become a critical darling and Oscar bait, the end result might very well end up looking rather like this one.

For one thing, it is made in pristine, luminous black and white, which is a choice that directors make for one of two reasons: either as a sort of visual shorthand to indicate that a film is set way back in the past, or because they’re interested in the aesthetics of a film, rather than its narrative qualities. This movie is not set so long ago that black and white feels like the natural way to go (indeed at one point the characters go and see the colour movie Marooned – perhaps a playful tip of the hat, coming from the director of Gravity), so I’m guessing it is at least partly a visual thing. Certainly the film always looks beautiful even when the things appearing on the screen probably shouldn’t.

Also stirred into the mix for this spicy favour-currying curry is the fact that despite the cinematic artifice of the film’s presentation, the story it depicts is resolutely naturalistic and down to earth. There’s inevitably a whiff of socially-aware film-making going on here, which is of course a long and estimable tradition within ‘serious’ film-making. The lives of the different strata of Mexican society are presented, and the various injustices and issues within that society are obliquely addressed.

Although it has to be said that this is not a film which feels especially inclined to dive in and get its hands dirty, or anything like that. Roma is not one of those movies where the director’s art vanishes behind the story – Cuaron is clearly at work throughout. Quite apart from the choice of the film’s aesthetic, he opts for quite a formal approach, with many scenes composed of very long takes, mostly in long shot, with the camera panning or tracking to follow a particular character as they move about. The very-long-take seems to be in fashion at the moment as a way for directors to show off (there’s a particularly ostentatious example near the start of Outlaw King, another Netflix movie), but it does manage to feel less contrived here, even when the logistics of achieving some of the shots make them undeniably impressive.

You may be sensing that I am less swooningly in love with Roma than many proper film critics – well, it’s a fair cop, guv’nor, I have to say that this is true. For the most part I did not find the story particularly immersive or especially engaging. The film is so self-consciously and obviously crafted as a work of art that the characters and their story almost feel secondary to anything else – it looks beautiful, of course, but this is the beauty of a painting or sculpture, intended to be viewed holistically, rather than that of a really great narrative.

The one exception to this is a sequence towards the end of the film involving a hospital visit, which is genuinely tough-to-watch, emotionally wrenching stuff – not just because of what happens, but also because of the general sense of the viewpoint character being treated with a total lack of empathy or consideration. Perhaps this is what the film is about, at its heart: Cleo and her employers live together, and all have their own personal problems to deal with, and while to their credit they do seem to have some concern for her, she is not quite a member of the family – if anything, she is treated like a much-loved pet, and most of the time they remain preoccupied with their own concerns.

As I say, though, if there is a particular message that Alfonso Cuaron would like Roma to deliver, then it does not feel like the film’s only, or even primary concern. This is a beautiful film, skilfully crafted, with solidly naturalistic performances, and a deeply humane sensibility. It feels precision crafted to be an awards contender, and perhaps that’s the problem with it: it feels perhaps just a little bit too calculated. Nevertheless, I expect it will continue to do very well for the remainder of the awards season – I’m not sure it would get my vote, though.

And the Oscar for Least-Flattering Poster Depicting the Subject of a Documentary goes to… Betsy West and Julie Cohen for RBG! (Crowd goes wild.) If they make one movie about you under your real name, it’s normally a sign that you’ve arrived; if they do two, you really are becoming a significant figure in the world. So what are we to make of the fact that this is one of three films to feature the American lawyer and judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg to appear in British cinemas in a matter of weeks? (Soon to arrive is the conventional biopic On the Basis of Sex, with Felicity Jones as Ginsberg, while she also has a slightly weird cameo as a minifigure in Lego Movie 2 – probably more a comment on the weirdness of some recent Lego sets than anything else.) Certainly she is well-known enough for the ticketeer not to be too confused when I got a bit confused on the way in to this movie and ended up asking for tickets to The BFG.

I would suggest that there is no shame attached to not actually knowing who Ruth Bader Ginsberg is, certainly if you live outside the United States. The film sort of takes it for granted, naturally: for the last quarter-century or so, Ginsberg has sat on the Supreme Court of the USA. We don’t really have an equivalent body over here; the American Supreme Court is technically a legal body, but its decisions carry enormous political weight – it has been argued that of all the damage done decisions made by Trump, the most significant and enduring could be that he may get to nominate three or more extremely conservative judges to the Supreme Court, shifting the centre of gravity in contentious cases for a generation or more (Supreme Court Justice can be a job for life, if that’s how you want to roll).

There’s a thin line between a nicely upbeat, celebratory film portrait of someone, and an actual work of hagiography – with RBG it is often a near thing, but it basically ends up the former. After a brief montage establishing the importance of Ginsberg as a public figure, the film follows the usual route and goes back to look at her birth, circumstances while growing up, education, and so on. Ginsberg is well-known these days as a tiny, birdlike old lady, and one of the film’s revelations is that she was indeed something of a looker in her youth – Felicity Jones is actually a pretty good match for the justice as a young woman.

Ginsberg owes much of her celebrity to her role in fighting for gender equality in the American legal system – her grand-daughter (also a lawyer) observes that her own class at Harvard Law School was the first in history to have an equal balance of the genders: when RBG started there, she was one of nine women in a class of well over five hundred. Several of the cases are examined in detail, before the film moves on to cover the justice’s time on the appeals court and then finally as a Supreme Court Justice. This has been marked by Ginsberg’s rise as something of an iconic pop-culture figure, especially with the ‘Notorious RBG’ meme of recent years. 

Whatever you think of Ginsberg’s politics – and the film does make it clear that she is a divisive figure – there is something genuinely quite endearing about someone who has achieved this kind of status late in life (Ginsberg is 86 this year) having quite so much obvious fun with it. We are shown a speech in which Ginsberg says, absolutely straight-faced, that she feels the parallels with the Notorious B.I.G. are entirely appropriate ‘as we have such a lot in common’. She gets to participate in an opera, an art-form she is passionate about; the film-makers also show her some of Kate McKinnon’s typically off-the-leash impersonations of her on Saturday Night Live – Ginsberg finds them amusing but not remotely accurate, which if you ask me is pretty much the point.

It’s all cheery, inspirational stuff, as it was clearly intended to be – however, we have seen so many great documentaries in recent years that it takes something a bit special to really stand out as a piece of film-making, and RBG is not actually that movie. It follows the route-one formula pretty much throughout, and while it does open with voice-overs of various critics decrying her as an un-patriotic menace to American society, almost the most serious criticism that anyone makes in the body of the film is that Ginsberg is an awful cook.

Almost, but not quite: it touches on an incident in 2016, when Ginsberg was openly critical of Donald Trump during the last presidential election campaign. Various minor imps and under-demons from the right-wing media duly pop up to protest that this was grossly inappropriate coming from someone in Ginsberg’s position, and she did indeed apologise for making the intervention.

It seems like this may have had an influence on the making of this film, for while Ginsberg is frequently lauded within it as a principled voice for the progressive consensus and a defender of hard-won rights, an iconic dissenter, the documentary is curiously coy about what it is she is actually dissenting or defending against. There is no explicit criticism of Trump or any members of his circus. It’s taken for granted that the viewer is familiar with the resurgence of the American right, and also that they are probably opposed to it.

The film really needs more dissenting voices in order to feel balanced and reveal just why Ginsberg is the crucially necessary figure she still remains today. As it is, RBG is engaging and informative about someone who has clearly led an extraordinary life of public service, but it’s still an embedded part of the culture wars in America rather than any kind of objective record of them. As such, whether it’s worth watching is really a question of your own personal politics, or at least your willingness to have them challenged. This film is most likely just preaching to the choir, but it still does so with charm and energy.

Bard in the Garden

Tommy Wiseau, perhaps infamously, paid for The Room to run in a Los Angeles cinema for two full weeks, simply (or so the story has it) so it would qualify as a potential nominee for the Academy Awards. Well, you can’t argue with optimism, can you; needless to say The Room did not overly trouble the Oscars that year. Other films also pitch their release with an eye on the awards season, perhaps with better reason, and yet still struggle to make an impact. This brings us to Kenneth Branagh’s All is True, starring – and this may not come as a surprise to you – Kenneth Branagh.

Branagh is known as one of the great cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare of our time (as well as the fellow in charge of the first Thor; the one with the crazy moustache in that film on the train; and the guy in charge of the giant mechanical tarantula in Wild Wild West – this is what you call an eclectic CV), but on this occasion he turns his attention to the man behind the plays. The film opens in 1613 with Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theatre just having burned down when the special effects turned out to be a bit too special. Now he returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon and a wife (Judi Dench) and two daughters to whom he is essentially a stranger.

Shakespeare decides to create a garden in memory of the son who he still has such fond memories of, despite his dying of the plague nearly twenty years earlier. Elsewhere, scandal threatens to engulf the family on a couple of occasions, there is a brief visit from his former patron the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), and scenes depicting Shakespeare’s continuing concerns about his legacy, both financially and artistically.

Perhaps the key thing you need to understand about All is True (NB: title is almost certainly not accurate) is that it is the work of Ben Elton, not a man especially associated with the traditional style of costume drama. Elton’s own place in posterity has long been assured simply by his work on the various iterations of Blackadder (and some musicals, if you insist); most recently, though, his highest-profile offering in the UK has been the sitcom Upstart Crow, a comedic take on the life of… William Shakespeare.

I haven’t been able to find much out about the origins of All is True (the film was virtually made in secret) but it’s impossible to believe that Elton’s research for the comedy show hasn’t informed and possibly inspired elements of this film. However, one does get a sense of the writer being hyper-alert to people drawing comparisons between the two, or perhaps with Shakespeare in Love (is it twenty years already? Mercy), and this being the reason why All is True seems to go out of its way to not be remotely funny practically all the way through.

This is the main problem with the film: almost totally bereft of lightness and largely shot in drab, naturalistic colours, with Branagh making much use of long, static shots, it feels like very hard work. Maybe the director was going for a theatrical feel – but instead it just feels inert and mannered, lacking in vibrancy or interest. This is really compounded by the material that Elton has to work with. We still know relatively little about Shakespeare the man – this is one of the reasons why the debates about the authorship of his plays have creaked on into their third century – and what we do know is relatively quotidian. The film makes the point of the fact that Shakespeare led a very ordinary life considering his status as one of the greatest artists in history – here, he is obsessed by his social standing, worried about money and his reputation, and so on. There’s only one really interesting part to the whole of Shakespeare’s life, namely the death of his son Hamnet (five years or so before the writing of Hamlet), and virtually every piece of fiction concerning his later life includes this as a key point; All is True is no exception. As usual, the film smoothly obfuscates the difference between the generally-established historical facts concerning Hamnet Shakespeare and his relationship with his father, and the dramatically fictionalised version of the story Ben Elton has dreamed up.

Oh well. The least you can say about the film is that it looks good (it’s a British costume drama, so no real surprises there) and there are certainly some good performances. There’s nothing wrong at all with Branagh as Shakespeare, even though he is saddled with some slightly iffy prosthetics so he more resembles our image of the great man. Judi Dench is solid in support, while contributing a typically classy cameo is Ian McKellen, who I have to say slightly resembles Vincent Price in Witchfinder General on this occasion. It does seem to me that the film is stretching a bit to cast big names in these supporting roles – Mrs Shakespeare was a bit older than her husband, it is true, but not by the twenty-plus years that separate Branagh and Dench – was there not a slightly younger actress with a bit of gravitas they could have employed? (I’m tempted to suggest Anne Hathaway might have been a good choice.) When it comes to McKellen as the Earl… well, the movie adopts the theory that there was indeed something going on between Shakespeare and Southampton, and that the nobleman was indeed the ‘fair youth’ mentioned in the sonnets. Fair enough, but on what planet would Kenneth Branagh ever refer to Ian McKellen as a youth of any kind? He’s old enough to be his father, whereas the historical Earl was nearly a decade younger. The film awkwardly tries to negotiate its way around this by having McKellen declare ‘I grew old’ but it really doesn’t fix this problem.

Still, at least Branagh’s scenes with McKellen serve to lift the film a bit – much of the rest of it is genuinely quite dull, not helped by the turgid directorial style Branagh has chosen to adopt and the lack of any real incident for long stretches – there’s a lot of gardening, and a slander case, and a scandal about one of Shakespeare’s sons-in-law, and some tensions about the fact that the other is a Puritan in favour of closing all the theatres – but if it was about anyone else but Shakespeare, this story would never have been filmed. I am not really surprised this film has failed to make much impression, either critically or with the wider audience, despite all the talent involved. The problem is that the reason we remember Shakespeare is not because he led a fabulously interesting life and did many interesting things, but because he lived a fairly quiet life sitting in a room writing brilliant stories. The best way to do a movie about Shakespeare is to tell one of those brilliant stories, not make up a distinctly so-so new one about the man himself. I still don’t believe the title of All is True is accurate, but even if it is, it just goes to illustrate why writers are sometimes better off making things up.

Some Blocks off a New Chip

My deceptively cherubic seven-year-old nephew has, obviously, inherited nothing from me in terms of actual genetic material, but he did receive several large containers full of Lego. I should mention that much of these are now third-generation bricks, as I got them from – I believe – one of my own uncles when I was young. Nephew is at the age where he is consumed by his passion for Lego, and I must confess it is one of the things (along with his youth, financial prospects, and interesting hair) that I am almost envious of. There was a time when 6627 Convertible or 6685 Fire Copter 1 was enough to set fire to my own imagination, and to be honest I sort of miss that.

Speaking of missing things, I also managed to let the first Lego Movie pass me by, along with the Lego Batman Movie and so on. Well, it was a computer-animated children’s movie about little plastic bricks, what could there possibly be to interest a serious, mature pretend film critic? Possibly quite a lot, judging from the glowing reviews most of these films received. So with the coming of The Lego Movie 2: the Second Part (directed by Mike Mitchell, who I feel obliged to mention also did Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, but don’t let that put you off), I felt it incumbent upon me to go and check it out. (Lord and Miller, who did the first one and are regrettably perhaps best-known these days for getting fired off the last stellar conflict movie, are still around as producers and writers.)

I had done my due diligence and so had a vague idea of the premise of these movies, which certainly helped: I imagine it might otherwise be a bit confusing for newcomers. What superficially looks like a rather frantic slapstick comedy is actually a story of startling subtlety, imagination and wit, operating on a number of levels simultaneously. On the most obvious level, it concerns the inhabitants of Apocalypseburg, a gritty, harsh settlement inhabited by tough, harsh people – all except for Emmet (Chris Pratt), who has managed to retain his innate sweetness and optimism (so far, anyway). But Apocalypseburg is periodically ravaged by cute pink invaders from the Systar system, who seem to be attracted by anything not gritty and mature. In the course of their latest attack they kidnap Emmet’s best friend Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), along with Batman (Will Arnett), Benny the spaceman (Charlie Day), and several others. The abducted group are whisked off to the Systar system where Batman is threatened with a coerced marriage to Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Can Emmet, despite his general cheery uselessness, rescue them and save the day?

However, what’s also going on – do try to keep up – is that a boy named Finn and his younger sister Bianca are squabbling over how to play with their Lego collection – Finn just wants to make cool stuff, but Bianca likes things that are cute and sparkly, which is a problem when she wants to join in with him. In the end she ends up stealing some of his Lego (including the mini-figures) and incorporating it into her own games. The main plot of the movie is actually an extended metaphor for this.

Now, it’s true that the film isn’t entirely consistent in its presentation of this idea – there are points at which the Lego characters are acting out the squabble between the children, and others when they seem to have an odd, Toy Story-esque independent existence, of which Finn and Bianca seem entirely unaware. Even so, for a film to be based on such an ambitious notion, and execute it as well as it does, is still quite noteworthy. The last thing The Lego Movie 2 is is any sort of lazy cash-in.

Much of this will probably sail over the heads of the younger members of the audience – although perhaps not quite as much as their parents might think. That said, there were no children whatsoever at the showing we went to, just adults laughing uproariously and generally having a great time – this isn’t exclusively a children’s film, either. Kids will certainly enjoy the invention and visual spectacle of the film, along with many of the sight gags, and there is a reasonably straightforward storyline going on here too. But much of the fun of the film also comes from elements that children are almost certainly not going to get. There is a joke about Die Hard, there is a joke about Radiohead; there is a series of jokes about the absence of Green Lantern from the current DC movie series.

Of course, you have to be able to get all these references, but if you have the appropriate grounding in pop culture then this is an extremely funny film. In one of my meaner moments I would have said that playing a Lego figure was more or less the perfect role for Chris Pratt, but he reveals himself to be a notably good sport here, also featuring as a character named Rex Dangervest who is a parody of most of Pratt’s film career to date. The knowingness of the film is relentless and almost irresistible – the song playing over the closing credits is about the kind of song you generally hear playing over the closing credits of films, while the film’s most diabolical creation is a song called ‘Catchy Song’ (refrain: ‘This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head’), which is indeed quite possibly the earworm to end all earworms. (If observational comedy is more your thing, there is also the inevitable gag about how painful it is to stand on a Lego brick.)

Normally, the problem with doing this kind of knowing, self-referential humour is that is robs a movie of the ability to have any kind of genuine emotional impact (see either of the Deadpool films, for instance), and possibly the most impressive thing about The Lego Movie 2 is that this doesn’t quite happen: somewhere in the middle of the madly fizzing visual invention and relentless jokes is what’s actually quite a touching story about growing up (or not) and togetherness. There is also a hugely timely message about how being cool, gritty and dark isn’t necessarily better than being bright, cheerful and slightly daft – one can only hope that the film’s partners at Warner Brothers, makers of the DC superhero movies, continue to take this on board.

I suspect there are still some people who will be sniffy about The Lego Movie 2 simply because it is based on a toy line and is family-friendly. Well, this is their problem and not the film’s. This is a movie with a great script, great performances, great songs, great jokes, and great visuals; I thoroughly enjoyed it. If every movie aimed at an adult audience had this level of wit and intelligence and sophistication, cinema in general would be vastly improved.

Magical Cake

I hate this particular moment: ‘I can’t believe you haven’t seen…’, usually from a close friend of acquaintance, many of whom seem to be under the flattering but erroneous impression that I have somehow managed to watch every single movie ever made. This time it was Former Next Desk Colleague (a temporary office reorganisation has occurred), startled to hear that I had never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was contemplating checking out a revival simply to get me out of the house and spare me the delights of microwaved cheeseburger for lunch. No, I hadn’t seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s – I’ll come clean and admit that I’ve never seen Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, Bicycle Thieves, Gone With the Wind or Tokyo Story either. So sue me. (Everyone else has watched these films, so I don’t feel much in the way of pressure: whereas it feels like I’m the only one really taking an interest in movies like Captive Wild Woman.)

So, anyway, off to the Phoenix for Vintage Sunday it was, and I will just mention in passing that the days when you could enjoy this particular strand safe in the knowledge you wouldn’t have to sit through all the usual nonsense adverts for cars and phones seem to be over. Even though the movie is now on release, we still got clobbered with one of the promotional films for Alita: Battle Angel, with Jim Cameron wittering on about ‘scale’ and ‘heart’ – I would love to see the film Cameron thinks he’s made, it sounds fantastic.

Anyway, yes, Blake Edwards’ legendary 1961 romantic comedy, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of those films that everyone, even me, has a vague idea about even if they’ve never seen it. Things get underway in an early-morning, apparently deserted Manhattan, with Audrey Hepburn getting out of a taxi and wandering around outside the famous jeweller’s while eating pastry – i.e., Breakfast at Tiffany’s actually opens with someone having breakfast at Tiffany’s! You have to admire a movie which gets to the point with such admirable alacrity.

Hepburn is playing Holly Golightly, who is an aspiring movie starlet, a good-time girl, or something with a rather more opprobrious ring to it, depending on your point of view. She basically swans about at parties and so on, persuading wealthy (and usually much older) men to give her their cash. Despite her natural charm and wit, Holly is also a bit of a ditz and useless with money, so this isn’t quite as lucrative as it could be, so she is also being paid to visit a gangster in prison (this sounds like another quirky character bit, but eventually turns out to be a crucial plot point). Likewise financially embarrassed is up-and-coming writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard), who has just moved into the same apartment building and is basically the kept man of a wealthy older woman (Patricia Neal).

Well, Holly and Paul get acquainted and soon become close, as attractive young people inevitably do in this kind of film. But, with an equal degree of inevitability, the path of romance runneth not smooth for them – both of them have things from their pasts that they have to deal with, and beyond all this there is Holly’s declaration that she is a wild free spirit, incapable of being tied down, not for love or money! Well, maybe for money…

No-one could seriously argue that Breakfast at Tiffany’s has not become an iconic film, mainly for Hepburn swishing about New York being adorable and chic, and also sitting on the fire escape singing ‘Moon River’ (I’m sure there are some people with a vague notion that this is a musical). Certainly it remains a massively popular film – the Phoenix was practically sold out – and on one level it’s easy to understand why. As romantic confections go, it is hard to beat: this is New York as a playground, where even the imprisoned drug dealers are sweet old gentlemen, and the worst thing that can possibly happen to you is it raining on your new hairstyle.

Yet the film has surprising moments of pathos to it, too, although it would really be pushing it to suggest this is genuine depth. There’s something quite affecting about Buddy Ebsen’s cameo as the gentle, wounded, uncomprehending Doc, not to mention the quiet anger and frustration displayed by Paul as the film goes on – for people of my generation, George Peppard will always be that semi-deranged Vietnam veteran off the TV, but he gives a very well-pitched performance here, carrying his scenes and acting as the audience’s viewpoint, and all without threatening to drag the focus of the film away from Audrey Hepburn.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the film’s assembly of unhappy men are all ones who’ve made the mistake of getting involved with Holly Golightly. If this film didn’t quite work for me, then it’s for this reason – I’ve met people like Holly in real life, charming, vivacious, attractive, almost totally amoral. I am reminded of Fitzgerald’s quote about careless people from The Great Gatsby (and there is something quite Gatsby-ish about Breakfast at Tiffany’s in many ways) – ‘they smashed up people and things and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess.’ Possibly the most romanticised thing about Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Holly Golightly herself, as in real life she would be a self-serving nightmare. That she is not is down to Hepburn’s undeniable, extraordinary charisma and charm, which seduces you into overlooking these things, and makes an on-paper rather unlovable character rather adorable. Have cake, eat cake, still have cake: now that’s the magic of cinema.

I was about to write that in any discussion of Breakfast at Tiffany’s there’s an elephant in the room, but then this isn’t really true as it’s one of the things that everyone talks about when it comes to this film nowadays. I refer, of course, to Mickey Rooney’s performance as Holly’s neighbour Yunioshi, which is by any reasonable standard a grotesquely racist caricature. Deeply regrettable doesn’t begin to cover it: Yunioshi is peripheral to the plot, and could probably be cut out of the film without doing too much damage to its substance, but this really only makes it worse – the movie seems to be going out of its way to be offensive. Apparently it was criticised for this even on its original release, and Blake Edwards apparently came to regret his choices here – I’m not sure that Mickey Rooney’s own contribution of ‘those who didn’t like it, I forgive them’ strikes quite the right note, however.

On the other hand, when I moved to Japan for a while in the mid-2000s, one of the things which struck me was the fact that Audrey Hepburn was still a massively popular icon over there, to the point where old footage of her was being incorporated into bank adverts and so on. This seemed a bit unusual for an actress whose best-known film is arguably mildly but gratuitously racist towards Asians. There were quite a few Asian people actually attending the screening that I went to, and finding myself in the queue to get out next to a young Japanese couple I took the opportunity to ask them what they thought about the Yunioshi character. My Japanese isn’t what it used to be, and their English was not that great, but they seemed to find the character more quaint than offensive – ‘it wasn’t racist, people should just take it easy’ was the gist of their response, which strikes me as perhaps a bit too generous.

I will be honest and say that Breakfast at Tiffany’s didn’t really connect with me, but I can understand why it is still so beloved of so many people. As simple star vehicles it takes some beating, for the whole film has been contrived with the sole intention of making you fall in love with Audrey Hepburn. I still think the film is a bit too rose-tinted, and occasionally it drifts across the border from romance into sentimentality, but on the whole I can still appreciate the skill and talent involved in making it.

Touched by a Gorgon

You can’t beat a really good, really dodgy knock-off of a hit movie, especially one which is quite haphazardly thrown together in a spirit of mercenary opportunism. The various Bond pastiches of the mid sixties are the sort of thing I’m thinking of, also the Jaws rip-offs of the late seventies, not to mention the various excursions into dubious sci-fi the big studios embarked upon a couple of years later. A few years earlier, The Exorcist had gone a long way towards making the horror movie a respectable genre, something only consolidated by the success of The Omen in 1976 – to be fair, The Omen is schlock, but it’s classy, entertaining schlock.

You can’t say quite as much about Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch, which emerged in 1978 – the schlock part is certain, but the rest is highly debatable. Things get underway in a sombre London – a jumbo jet has recently crashed into a tower block, causing massive devastation, while an American space mission has also just ended in disaster. Watching all this on the telly is writer and general grumpy-boots John Morlar (Richard Burton), who seems to be expecting company in his flat. Someone does indeed turn up, but rather than share a drink with Morlar they do their best to bash his skull in.

The police are soon on the scene, led by Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura), who is on an exchange visit from Paris. (The Frenchness of the character is not actually relevant to the plot, but – given this is an international co-production – highly relevant to the budget.) Morlar’s body is still in situ, but his head is hidden from the audience by a felicitously-positioned coffee table, though whether this is to spare the audience the sight of his shocking injuries or just conceal the fact that Burton has gone off on the lash and this is a different actor is another debatable point. Brunel discovers that, almost miraculously, Morlar is still alive, and he is rushed off to hospital where his head is almost entirely swathed in bandages, although not quite enough to conceal the fact that it definitely isn’t Burton in these scenes.

Brunel sets about investigating Morlar’s life, reading his journal and talking to his shrink, Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick). It turns out that Morlar was a successful writer, obsessed with the notions of power and evil, but also a man who left those who met him deeply unsettled. Various people who got on the wrong side of him ended up dead in freak accidents of different kinds. It slowly becomes clear that Morlar believed he had a form of telekinesis which caused disasters (this may not have come as a great shock to the audience, considering it’s basically explained on the poster). His parents died in a freak car accident, a schoolteacher who punished him was killed in a fire, his about-to-leave-him wife was in another car crash, and so on. Given Morlar’s proximity to so many unfortunate events, the list of people with a reason to wish him harm is lengthy, but Brunel and Zonfeld have another concern – it looks like Morlar’s power is operating to keep him alive, despite injuries that should have been fatal, but is there more to this than simple self-preservation?

The presence of Remick is only the most obvious sign of the debt that The Medusa Touch owes to The Omen; this is a film that aspires to be a classy, London-set supernatural thriller, with an A-list cast, various set-piece deaths, and a plotline about an initially-sceptical establishment figure slowly coming to believe in the powers of darkness. The climax of both films concerns an attempted execution which, on the face of it, looks like an awful act of brutality; there is also a final plot twist (although in the case of The Medusa Touch, this is almost drowned in bathos).

However, The Medusa Touch is badly hobbled by a number of factors – first of all, this is clearly not as big-budget a big-budget movie as it really needs to  be, with some of the model work (crashing jets and Bristol Cathedral falling down on people’s heads) really not up to scratch. It’s also notable how many of the distinguished actors featured in the credits only turn up for a single scene or two – it seems very unlikely that Derek Jacobi or Michael Hordern worked on the film for more than a couple of days each. Even Burton, the ostensible star, only appears in flashback once the opening scene of the movie is out of the way. This peculiar structure is also arguably a problem for the film – there are nested flashbacks, which is never a good way to go, and it means that once the film makes an awkward gear-change from being an ominous mystery to a stop-the-disaster thriller, Burton never actually appears.

This is a problem, as Richard Burton’s performance is probably the main reason to watch the film. The actor is issued with various scabrous and excoriating rants to deliver against the hypocrisy and corruption he sees all around him in modern society, and despite occasionally resembling a man waiting for the pubs to open, Burton gives most of them everything he’s got. It is a textbook case of an actor’s sheer presence and charisma lifting some rather suspect material. Practically everyone else in the movie is blasted off the screen by Burton, the only one coming close to matching him is Jeremy Brett (another of the film’s one-scene wonders).

The problems with The Medusa Touch‘s script and production are rather a shame, for this is a film with an interesting idea at its heart. If this kind of baleful telekinesis were real, and operated at least partly beyond the conscious control of the one possessing it, then the results would be nightmarish: Morlar initially suggests that the power is not something under his volition, but an instinctive thing which reflexively strikes down anyone who gets on his bad side. As the film goes on, they sort of move away from this, and the indications are that Morlar is a thorough-going misanthrope deliberately striking out at the symbols of the society he despises. It also almost seems to play with the idea that some so-called precognition is nothing of the sort – people who claim to see the future are simply just subconsciously shaping the events telekinetically (a notion which was in vogue with some psychic researchers for a while). Of course, the credibility of the film rather depends on how credible you find the notion of psychic powers; the film tries to ground itself by including footage of ‘real’ telekinetics doing their thing – no Uri Geller, but they do feature the Russian psychic Nina Kulagina interfering with compasses and so on.

In the end The Medusa Touch‘s combination of big, doomy ideas and slightly ramshackle production values means it is mostly just silly, and certainly not particularly frightening. As I say, Burton is the main reason to give it time of day, but even though it is derivative, it still has an odd originality of concept and structure – ‘odd’ in a not especially distinguished way, of course, but even undistinguished oddness can still make a film watchable. As such, The Medusa Touch just about qualifies.