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It was Friday night, and the lights were low (as you would expect, in a cinema). There were people everywhere – a sense of expectation hanging in the air. My impatience was slowly creeping up my spine and growing strong. Sitting there no-one could harm me. They just stared at me and wondered why.

As regular readers will be able to confirm, I can keep this sort of thing up indefinitely, but I expect you are more interested in hearing about Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again than in clumsily repurposed pop song lyrics, so let’s crack on with that. As it seems like the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of everything except shortages, cinema tickets are not quite big enough to accommodate that title in full, and so the ones we ended up with were apparently for a film entitled Mamma Mia! HWGA. By a strange coincidence, when I asked Next Desk Colleague if he wanted to come and see the film, his was response actually was ‘Hwga!’, or at least a very similar sound. The same was true of nearly all my male co-workers when I broached the possibility with them – although there was one guy whose response of ‘I have a serious issue with the intrinsically non-diegetic nature of the musical as a cinematic form’ rather impressed me. Nearly all the distaff members of the office hurled themselves at the chance, though.

So I eventually rocked up to the new film in the company of a bevy of women of various ages and nationalities, all rather excited and wont to emit vowel sounds at unexpected moments as proceedings got underway. Fortunately my Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant had also agreed to come, so I wasn’t the only possessor of a Y chromosome in the party and didn’t feel quite so much of a stranger in a strange land. (I was still a bit worried I might end up spending two hours doing the Peter Rabbit face, though.)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in case you have recently arrived from Neptune, is a sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, an alarmingly successful contraption based around creatively-cast performers doing unorthodox cover versions of songs by Abba, one of the greatest pop groups in the history of the planet. This recipe ended up making $615 million, somehow, and so inevitably a sequel has arrived.

The first thing we should say is – now, does this constitute a spoiler? It’s a plot point that’s introduced virtually at the start, so I’d usually say no, but at the same time it’s deliberately obfuscated in the trailer, so… Oh, what the hell (spoiler alert). So – some time has passed since the first film, and central figure Donna (Meryl Streep) has carked it in the meantime, though whether this was a creative decision or just the result of Streep not really wanting to do the movie I’m not sure; suffice to say that despite her prominence in the publicity, her actual involvement is minimal.

This opens up the film to employ a structure which will probably be familiar to fans of The Godfather Part 2, although quite how big the crossover audience between The Godfather and Mamma Mia! is I’m not sure. Basically, we have one storyline which is a prequel to the original film, in which a young Donna (Lily James, whose publicity material will probably now contain the words ‘has been compared to Meryl Streep’ in perpetuity) leaves Oxford University, goes travelling in Europe, and embarks on the regimen of random promiscuity which will eventually leave her a single parent in charge of a rather cruddy Greek hotel.

The other plot strand concerns Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is struggling to reopen the same hotel thirty years later, with the help of her mother’s friends and widower (Pierce Brosnan). It soon becomes clear that Brosnan is basically being kept locked in a shed, well away from any sheet music, in case he attempts to sing again. (We will return to this.) Also helping out is a new character played by Andy Garcia, named Fernando (which if you ask me is tantamount to cheating). Will the reopening of the hotel be a big success? Will Sophie’s other two possible-fathers (Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth) make it to the island in time? Will anyone get the chance to sing ‘King Kong Song’?

I am tempted to say that if you’re the kind of person who found The Greatest Showman just a bit too gritty and hard-hitting, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will probably be right up your alley, filled as it is with appealing young actors, some of the broadest comedy turns imaginable, and – of course – a selection of indestructibly great pop classics.

That said, of course, I suspected this film might face what I call the More Abba Gold problem. Permit me to explain – Abba Gold is pretty much an essential album for anyone interested in pop music, being literally all killer, no filler: perfect hooks and choruses, emotional resonance, immaculate production, and so on. Every song on it is deservedly famous. More Abba Gold? Not so much. I mean, it’s still got songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Summer Night City’ on it, which are quite well known, but also things like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘So Long’ which I doubt I’ve ever heard. The question is this: are there enough first-rank Abba songs left to fill up another two hour movie?

Well… they kind of try to dodge this issue, mainly by reprising some of the songs from the first time round. There’s another go at ‘Mamma Mia’ itself, a reprise of ‘Dancing Queen’, and a moment when one of the characters, in a French restaurant with a bust of Napoleon, finds himself reaching for a metaphor for defeat, leading to the inevitable production number (this was probably the first moment at which I found myself with my head between my knees in the cinema). But some of the songs are more obscure this time around – the first big tune, bizarrely, is ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, which at least occasions a truly mind-boggling solo from Celia Imrie, while also popping up are things like ‘Andante Andante’, ‘Kisses of Fire’, and ‘Why Did It Have to Be Me?’ The film’s big climax comes when Cher swoops in, basically playing herself, and sings ‘Fernando’ to Garcia (though I have to wonder what Garcia’s character was doing carrying a rifle across the Rio Grande in 1959, when he would have been about twelve). (The soundtrack album features Meryl Streep’s version of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which I must warn you does not appear at any point in the film. Not that you shouldn’t stay till the end of the credits, though.)

Still, even an obscure Abba song is most likely a masterpiece of composition and production, and overall the music passes muster. But I have to say that much of the charm, if that’s the right word, of the original film is that it’s basically about a bunch of randy middle-aged people on an island together launching unprovoked assaults on the highlights of the Abba back catalogue. The focus here is much more on randy young people, and despite winning performances from many of the cast (and I have to say that if Josh Dylan, who plays the young Skarsgard, ever visits my workplace he will be beating women off with a stick, based on the reactions of my colleagues), it is somehow less mesmerically weird and exciting and funny than the original film.

We’re practically into the home straight by the time all the original characters reconvene on the island, and I have to say I can’t help feeling some of them are a little underserved. I didn’t go to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to listen to Lily James singing; I went there to listen to Pierce Brosnan not singing (and to watch Colin Firth not dancing, for that matter). Brosnan is permitted a brief reprise of his legendary version of ‘S.O.S’ but is otherwise restricted to doing choruses alongside other people, which if you ask me is just not fair.

Still, everyone was singing along with the choruses during the film, and we all emerged with big smiles upon our faces, so I suppose Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really does the job as a piece of entertainment. It isn’t as riotously silly as the first film, but it’s still a case of a deeply spurious non-plot being deployed to facilitate as many wonderful tunes as they can possibly get away with, topped off with a lot of knockabout humour and even a few quite touching emotional moments. I expect it will end up doing very well for itself. It’s simple and it’s plain – why should I complain?

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The Fairly Fantastic Four

Here comes the first big catch-up release following the cessation of footballing hostilities for another couple of years – Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2. The first Incredibles came out in 2004, a geological age ago in cinematic terms. In that year, Marvel released Spider-Man 2, which was rather good, and also the Thomas Jane-starring version of The Punisher and the third Wesley Snipes Blade movie, which were not; meanwhile DC brought out the Halle Berry Catwoman, proving that they didn’t need Zach Snyder on the payroll to make terrible movies, and there was also Hellboy, possibly one of the best of the bunch but maybe a bit too quirky to really bust blocks. Along with The Incredibles, that makes six films in the genre in the year, only a couple less than in 2018. People complain nowadays about superhero fatigue but the fact is that these films have made up a big chunk of the landscape for a long time.

Fourteen years is a long gap between films (it would have been even longer, had the production period on Incredibles 2 not been unexpectedly cut by a year), and with it comes a significant level of expectation. In this case, the expectation seems to have been that it will contain some kind of commentary on either the superhero genre or our current fascination with it – it’s a Pixar movie, after all, and this studio does have a reputation for making very, very clever films.

The action picks up pretty much where the first film ended, with the Parr family of superheroes – consisting of mighty brick Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), invisible girl Violet (Sarah Vowell), and speedster Dash (Huck Milner) – taking on the villainous Underminer, despite the fact that overtly superheroic activity has been banned for many years. That their encounter with the Underminer does not go entirely to plan, does not help the situation much, and leaves the family in somewhat dire straits financially.

However, it’s not all bad news, for the senior Parrs, along with their friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson), are contacted by the Deavours, a wealthy brother and sister who are desirous of having the superhero ban lifted. The Deavours’ plan is to get superheroes some good press, for once, and their first step in doing so is to relaunch Elastigirl, mainly because she is likely to cause rather less property damage than her husband. But can the family cope with this change in their dynamic, as Elastigirl heads off to fight crime and Mr Incredible stays home to look after the kids, each one perhaps doubting the abilities of the other…

This is, as noted, a Pixar movie, so it almost goes without saying that it is almost supernaturally beautiful to look at and inspired in its design, retaining the retro sixties-style aesthetic of the first. It also handles the various tropes of superhero fiction with confident deftness, introducing a number of new characters and staging some brilliant set pieces and action sequences. From an aesthetic point of view, this film is another huge achievement for Pixar’s artists and animators.

However, that said – anyone looking for a subversive new take on the superhero formula (such as it is) will not find much meat to chew on. The film retains the same resemblance to Marvel’s Fantastic Four that caused the makers of the 2005 FF movie so many headaches (the two families of superheroes have largely the same power set), while the idea of the superhero ban (surely derived from Watchmen) is also central to the tale. But it doesn’t really do anything new in this respect, perhaps because Pixar and Marvel Studios are both ultimately subsidiaries of Disney, who – one would guess – don’t want to risk appearing to diss a genre which has earned them billions of dollars just this year.

Instead, the film’s central idea is basically the one of gender role reversal – Elastigirl goes off to fight crime, and finds herself caught up in the machinations of a supervillain called the Screenslaver, while Mr Incredible has to contend with various domestic crises, including the baby of the family unexpectedly developing his own superpowers. And, you know, as concepts go it’s okay, although it’s a bit less radical than you might reasonably hope for – early on there’s an interesting scene touching on some quite topical issues, such as how much you should accept the various injustices of the world, and the correct response to unfair laws, but none of this is really developed. Instead we get the Elastigirl-as-a-solo-heroine storyline, which is quite engaging and contains some stunning sequences, and the sitcom stuff with the rest of the family, which is consistently fairly amusing.

The thing is that it never quite sings, with the two plotlines continuing in parallel and not really informing one another much; obviously the stuff about a working mum (and a superheroine to boot) chimes quite well with the Unique Moment, but one has to remember that the long lead times on films like this mean that this is most likely a piece of serendipity more than anything else. It certainly doesn’t feel like a film making a big statement about feminism, or indeed anything else.

As I say, the production process on Incredibles 2 was cut short by a whole year when the film’s release date was brought forward to allow more time for work on Toy Story 4 – I can’t help wondering how much it has suffered as a result. It is, as I say, an incredibly beautiful and well-made film, but it does feel very saggy around the middle, possibly overlong, and it never really engages the emotions in the way that Pixar’s best work does – the supporting film, another wonderful little short called Bao, is much more successful in this respect.

Once again we find ourselves considering the extent to which a film studio can become a victim of its own success – Incredibles 2 is, by any objective standards, a very good film in many ways – often funny, well-played, with a brilliant aesthetic and strong opening and closing sequences. But as a Pixar movie, and especially as a sequel to The Incredibles, it’s just not quite up to the standard that I was expecting. A very good film, but not really a great one, and anything less than great coming out of Pixar really is slightly disappointing.

Well, thank heavens for that: the football is over at last, meaning the ever-cautious film studios are willing to release some properly sizable films once more. (Although I note that the first two really big releases are movies aimed either at a family audience, or the more feminine echelon of the cinema-going public.) Amongst this number we should probably include Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper, which naturally concerns a sturdy, towering edifice, or Dwayne Johnson, as he prefers to be known.

This time around genial Dwayne plays Will Sawyer, an ex-Marine, ex-FBI agent security consultant, who as the story proper gets going is in Hong Kong with his family – his wife (Neve Campbell) being an ex-military doctor who happened to steal Dwayne’s heart, round about the same time she was also amputating his leg (sometimes a hostage rescue goes a bit sideways – we shall return to the curious issue of genial Dwayne Johnson’s artificial leg later on). Why are the Sawyers there? Well, tycoon Zhao (Chin Han, who has been playing sleekly powerful Chinese dudes in Hollywood movies for a good ten years now) is just finishing up his latest project, the tallest building in the history of tallness, and needs someone to do a security and safety assessment so he can get it insured. And Dwayne’s the man for the job!

Of course, this may just be because genial Dwayne has been set up as a patsy by a gang of international mercenaries, led by the irredeemable Botha (Roland Moller, O with a line through it), who has a nefarious plan to break into the tower and set fire to it for reasons which are initially just a little bit obscure. Of course, what the bad guys have not reckoned on is the fact that, even if he only has one leg, Dwayne is still a very handy fellow. Faced with the news that his family are trapped at the top of a burning skyscraper with only a gang of gun-toting villains for company, he does not hesitate, but springs into action in the time-honoured fashion…

It’s not all that long since genial Dwayne’s last vehicle, the rather jolly (if somewhat weird) Rampage, was in theatres worldwide, so you could certainly argue that the big lad is risking overexposure by releasing another movie quite so soon – especially when there is nothing especially distinctive or remarkable about the movie. I mean, there’s very little that’s actually wrong with Skyscraper, it’s competently plotted, scripted, written, directed and played, and you can see where every penny of the budget went (the clue is in the title). It’s just that the whole enterprise feels very soulless and calculated.

As long-term readers know, I generally feel those lazy ‘this film is X meets Y’ descriptions are the work of Satan, but in this case it’s almost impossible to write about Skyscraper in any detail without saying that this is basically a remake of Die Hard with a hefty dollop of The Towering Inferno thrown into the mix, right down to the European villain (though it goes without saying that Moller (O with a line through it) is not even playing the same game as Alan Rickman, let alone appearing in the same ballpark). Many of the other decisions seem to have been influenced solely by the desire to make the film as profitable as possible – it’s very common now for sensible would-be blockbusters to attempt to crack the ultra-lucrative Asian market by including actors and locations from that neck of the woods, and this is doubtless the reason for the film to be set in Hong Kong and have a largely-Chinese supporting cast. The film’s credentials as a proper action thriller are meanwhile undermined by a distinctly discernible attempt to make this another family-oriented film: there’s a lot of attention paid to Dwayne’s plucky wife and adorable kids, and while there’s still a degree of our hero hitting people with axes, throwing them out of burning buildings, and generally putting the beat-down on the deserving wicked, the emphasis is always on how much he loves his wife and kids and just what he’ll put himself through in order to protect them. Which is, you know, a perfectly commendable sentiment, but it just feels like it’s here to tick a box.

This is that sort of script: it feels like it was written by software, or at least using some sort of spreadsheet, with all the key exposition inserted in precisely plotted locations, and key plot points appearing exactly where screenwriting dogma dictates – once again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it feels like everything remotely quirky or distinctive about Skyscraper has been ruthlessly winnowed out in case the Average Cinema-goer doesn’t like it. The only thing which is a little bit odd about the film is all the business with Dwayne Johnson’s prosthetic leg.

I’ve seen one review of Skyscraper suggesting that the film is in slightly bad taste for featuring a burning high-rise structure only a year or so after the Grenfell Tower fire – honestly, I’m not sure the two scenarios really have enough in common for that to be an issue. However, I do think there may be something a little bit off about casting Dwayne Johnson as an amputee – although I suppose that, if Dustin Hoffman can win awards for playing someone with autism, we shouldn’t be sniffy about letting Johnson play someone with one leg. You’re never far from a reminder of Johnson’s leg in this film, and the script is at least inventive in how it manages this. Dwayne’s first big fight sequence is made to seem less one-sided than usual (let’s face it, all of Johnson’s fights seem a bit one-sided, unless he’s taking on Vin Diesel or Jason Statham or Godzilla) when the bad guy steals his leg (Johnson is – wait for it – hopping mad). Later on the leg proves invaluable in jamming open doors and suchlike. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Prosthetic Leg would be a good subtitle for this movie.

Johnson and the rest of the cast are clearly trying hard throughout Skyscraper, and – as I have suggested – the rest of it is at least competently put together. The problem is not just that it never really rises above the level of functional competency, but that it doesn’t really want to. It will not really surprise or engage you in any but the most superficial way. Not an actually bad movie, but simply very bland.

A Game of Two Halves

You have to feel a bit sorry for the proprietors of Oxford’s premier art-house cinema, working hard to bring international movies to film-lovers in and around the city. I imagine that their hope with non-English language presentations is to lure in anyone from the same country as the film being shown, together with casual viewers who happen to be passing. And so it is quite simply the worst possible luck for their preview showing of Michael R Roskam’s Franco-Belgian thriller Racer and the Jailbird to coincide almost exactly with another, rather higher-profile Franco-Belgian get-together, of considerable local interest to boot. So it was that about three of us turned up to watch Roskam’s film while everyone else was glued to the football semi-final.

(I suppose one should be grateful the film was showing at all; the entire schedule in Screen One had been cancelled for the following evening so yet another venue could show the other semi-final match. And don’t get me started on the fact that the UK release of Ant-Man and the Wasp has been postponed until six weeks after its American debut, once again because of the bloomin’ World Cup.)

But hey ho. There we were for Racer and the Jailbird (a title which we will return to), which initially looks like it will be a familiar sort of tale in tone, if not in detail. It opens with a fragment from the youth of Gigi, a young man with a clearly troubled family background, before we meet him in adulthood. He has grown up to be that very capable Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, and has apparently become a charming and smooth businessman, even if exactly how he makes his money is a little unclear. He and his friends are visiting a racetrack when he makes the acquaintance of Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos, probably best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour), a promising young racing driver.

Well, Gigi makes a move, rather directly, Bibi is not unwelcoming to his overtures; the film in general doesn’t hang about and cuts straight from them meeting for their first proper date to the pair of them in a fairly graphic delicto-type situation. They get to know each other as people, too: would you follow me anywhere, they ask each other, do you trust me? What’s your biggest secret, Bibi asks Gigi. I’m a gangster and rob banks for a living, ha ha, he replies.

But, of course, he’s not really joking, which sets up rest of the plot, one way or another. The lovers grow closer, and realise that something serious has begun between them. But Bibi is no fool and is aware that there are parts of Gigi’s life to which she is not privy; her father (Eric De Staercke) can tell Gigi is serious about his daughter, and gives his blessing provided he either comes clean or stops doing whatever it is that’s forcing him to lie. One last big job looms, after which they can be together…

So, yes, that title. In the original French this film is called Le Fidele, which basically translates as The Faithful – something which gives you a pretty good pointer as to the general tenor of the movie. But, for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom, for its English release it has been given (as noted) the title Racer and the Jailbird, which is a horrible, totally inappropriate name for this kind of film, sounding as it does like some kind of wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper from the 1970s.

This is not a wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper in a 70s kind of style. The first half of the film is admittedly a very slick and entertaining crime drama, in what seems to be a highly-commercial style intended to appeal to international audiences (I have heard it compared to Heat). I found myself idly wondering how long it would be before the inevitably inferior American remake came out, who would be cast in the two lead roles, and just how much they would tweak the story and style (the sex scenes in this film are just a tad more explicit than you tend to find in a mainstream American film, but hey, there are French people involved). In short: thoroughly enjoyed the first half.

But then the film undergoes an abrupt and profound volta, signified by the switch of main characters from Schoenaerts to Exarchopoulos, and a huge change in tone. This is much more the kind of thing you would expect to see in Franco-Belgian art-house releases, i.e., it all becomes a bit heavy and depressing. The list of tribulations visited upon Bibi and Gigi as they struggle to sustain their love is so comprehensive and extreme it might even move Job to complain providence was laying it on a bit thick. Melodrama beckons, and the film doesn’t really manage to resist its siren song.

This is a shame, not least because the second half of the film is really Adele Exarchopoulos’ opportunity to shine after playing what’s initially something of a supporting role. She’s still very good, but she has to contend with some rather suspect material in a way that Schoenaerts simply doesn’t in the first half. But the two actors are good together, have chemistry, and you do kind of want to see them end up with some kind of happiness, even if the film never quite hits you with the massive rush of emotion you get from a film like (to choose another Schoenaerts-starring romance) Rust and Bone. In the end what you get is a curious ending, rather carefully ambiguous while still definitely quite downbeat. And you come away feeling mildly disappointed, both by the lack of closure and the way in which all the promise of the first part of the film was left to fizzle away.

I find it hard to be really negative about Le Fidele (or, if you really insist, Racer and the Jailbird), simply because the first half is just so strong, and even the second half is lifted by the two lead performances. But the fact remains that this resembles a peculiar welded-together hybrid of two films with wildly different styles and sensibilities, one of them much more accomplished and rewarding than the other. Worth seeing, I think, but keep your expectations under control.

A bit over ten years ago I had the great good fortune to spend a year or so living in Japan. Naturally, there are lots of unexpected things that arise out of this kind of experience, things you never would have expected: and one of the realisations which it brought to me was how rarely you hear the music of the Beatles in the course of everyday life in the UK. In Japan, if you sit down for a toasted sandwich in a cafe, there’s a very good chance you’ll be doing it to a soundtrack from Rubber Soul or The White Album – you hear their songs everywhere and anywhere. (John Lennon is virtually the only foreigner to be treated like an honorary Japanese person, for possibly-obvious reasons, while there is a chain of shops named Yellow Submarine.)

Over here, though, not so much, especially when you consider the extent to which the Beatles have written themselves into the fabric of our popular culture. Everyone knows a couple of dozen Beatles songs in some detail, but nobody under fifty can remember where that knowledge came from, I suspect: it’s a strange kind of cultural osmosis, to which each new generation is subjected. Judging from the number of parents bringing quite small kids to a 50th-anniversary revival of Yellow Submarine which I rolled up to the other day, I may have seen the process in action.

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Directed by George Dunning, Yellow Submarine, I probably don’t need to tell you, was the Fab Four’s third movie, and one with which they had fairly minimal involvement, not least because this is a full-length animation featuring a dozen or so songs from the lads. Things get underway with a vision of Pepperland, a paradise of freedom, enlightenment, and music, where all is peace and harmony – at least, until the place is heinously assaulted by the implacably negative Blue Meanies, a bunch of killjoys with a rather eccentric arsenal of apple-bonkers, anti-music missiles, snapping Turks and a terrible flying glove.

Pepperland seems certain to fall to the forces of glumness, and so the mayor packs off the crusty sailor Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival) to fetch help, putting him in command of, well, a yellow submarine, which can fly. Of course. Old Fred’s quest winds up leading him to late-sixties Liverpool, where he encounters first Ringo (voiced by Paul Angelis), and then the other three Beatles – John (John Clive), Paul (Geoffrey Hughes), and George (mostly an uncredited Peter Batten, who departed the production quite rapidly when it was discovered he was wanted for desertion from the British army). With the lads on board, the yellow submarine sets course back to Pepperland, but a strange voyage it will prove to be…

I’m really in two minds when it comes to the plot of Yellow Submarine – on the one hand, there is something absolutely sound and perhaps even mythic about the basic structure of the quest for help against invaders. But on the other, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t a musical film in the conventional sense – by which I mean, it’s not a narrative in which the songs serve to establish or develop character, and comment on the plot. Rather, it seems like a collection of songs around which a very loose storyline has been written, with animated sequences used to illustrate the tunes. Comparisons with Fantasia (another non-narrative musical anthology) seem to me to be quite apt.

It is customary to praise the film for the ceaseless psychedelic invention of its visuals, but if you think about it, what else were they supposed to do? Given the job of animating an accompaniment to the song Yellow Submarine, what would you do? You’d look at the lyrics and try to discern some underlying metaphor or subtext to the song. And I suspect you’d find that this really is just a piece of oompah-oompah silliness about some people living in an ochre-hued submersible. The same seems to be true of a lot of the other songs here – I’m reminded of a John Lennon quote, about Hey Bulldog in particular, suggesting it is ‘a good-sounding record that means nothing.’ In a similar way you could probably argue that Yellow Submarine is a visually-striking film that has no particular depth to it.

Then again, the late 60s were littered with good-looking cultural artefacts that are a bit cryptic, to say the least, at first glance – you could probably add The Prisoner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same list. And the best sequences of animation in Yellow Submarine are certainly distinctive and reasonably inventive, even if the animators seem to be struggling with the fact that some of the songs don’t really have any particular meaning. (The film’s sequence accompanying Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – and I have to say that while I like the Beatles’ rendition, it’s William Shatner’s which is truly definitive for me – shies away from actual visions of newspaper taxis and marshmallow pies in favour of rotoscoped ballroom dancing.) By the far the most effective segment of the film, if you ask me, is that accompanying Eleanor Rigby, a song which genuinely seems to be about something, and I think this is not a coincidence.

That said, the film’s producer Al Brodax was quite cynical about the creative process involved: the Beatles were under contract to produce four brand new songs for the film, and ended up only giving Brodax ones which they didn’t think were particularly good, saving the better ones for other projects (or so he suggested). I have to say this does remind me of the apparent modus operandi of the Monty Python collective, who would sell any sketches that didn’t pass their own quality control process to The Two Ronnies – but then comparing the Pythons and the Beatles is something of a cliché, for all that some of the animation here looks decidedly Gilliamesque, and the surreal humour of the film also not a million miles away. (Much of the puns and wordplay in the script were apparently courtesy of an uncredited Roger McGough.)

One is tempted to suggest the whole film could almost be seen as an exercise in the meeting of contractual obligations – the band themselves turning in some rather variable tunes (It’s Only A Northern Song is about as close to forgettable as the Beatles ever produced) and only turning up in person very briefly at the end. (It has to be said that the actors do a pretty decent job of presenting the Beatles as they are, or were, popularly received – John the sarky rebel, Ringo the clown, George the mystic, Paul the nice guy of ambiguous mortality.) For all of its inventiveness, there are still moments when the film is clearly being rather thrifty – seconds go by in front of static images, while the animation for the second half of the Nowhere Man sequence is plainly pretty much that of the first half, only run in reverse.

And yet, and yet, and yet. You sit there and think this film has not aged well, and its roots as a quaint piece of pop-art psychedelia are clearly showing, and the plot is not up to much – but then you listen to the string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, or the guitar solo of Nowhere Man, or the piano part of Hey Bulldog, or the crescendo from A Day in the Life, and it lifts you up and makes you smile and reminds you of just why the music of the Beatles is woven into all of our lives so indelibly. No-one else in music has ever done so much, so quickly, so well. If ever a band was touched by genius, it was these boys, and for that I am more than happy to forgive them, and this movie, a lot.

Normally I wouldn’t dream of inflicting my attempts at fiction on the internet at large, but given all the terribly interesting political developments currently going on, I couldn’t help but feel it appropriate to share a couple of brief extracts from my very-much-not forthcoming (if there’s any sanity left in the world) dystopian satire Nigel’s Kingdom, which I knocked out for NaNoWriMo at the end of 2016.

(From Chapter 12. The story so far: The oppressive European Federation, aka the Union of 27, has decreed that its vassal state the UK must abandon the pound and adopt the Federal Eurocredit. Bright young progressive BBC executive Rose has been assigned to prepare the ground for this unpopular move, and has just learned one of her first assignments is to meet the Foreign Secretary… ) 

‘Wow,’ Rose said, impressed almost despite herself. Like most people of her set, she knew she ought to instinctively dislike Alex Bronson, for he was self-evidently a smug, self-serving, lecherous, unprincipled borderline sociopath concerned only with his own advancement, but he was such a character! You couldn’t help but laugh and warm to him. That was his unique political gift, his ability to get people onside, even though his antics in service of his own career had earned him many enemies. It was not surprising Bronson had been brought in to help the Eurocredit project in some capacity.

They arrived outside impressive double doors in a corridor where virtually every square inch of wall was covered with distinguished old paintings. It had a certain musty beauty to it, Rose thought, but it was so old-fashioned and traditional, and the 18th and 19th century politicians showed such a lack of diversity it made her very uncomfortable to look at them. An aide was waiting for them and smiled. ‘The Foreign Secretary will see you now,’ he said.

Rose and Omar went into the room, which was high and airy, and had a leather-topped table surrounded by chairs at its centre. There was no sign of anyone else in the room, and there was only one other door, a small and modest looking one. Odd little clunks and thuds drifted out from behind it.

Omar looked at Rose uncertainly and went over to the door and opened it. Blinking characteristically, beneath the famous hair which resembled a freeze frame of a detonated haystack, Alex Bronson emerged from what appeared to be a stationery cupboard.

‘Ah. Hello,’ he said, peering back and forth between them. ‘No light switch in there. No light, either… well, stands to reason, I suppose. Ho ho.’

‘What were you doing in the cupboard, Foreign Secretary?’ Omar asked.

‘Trying to get out,’ Bronson said with a hopeful smirk. ‘No, actually I was looking for the bogs. Ended up in the cupboard. Oh well – errare humanum est, that’s what I always say.’

Omar and Rose both blinked as an acrid smell wafted out of the cupboard after the Foreign Secretary, who seemed completely oblivious to it. He shambled over to the table and lugged out one of the chairs, and Rose couldn’t help smiling. What a card he was! How charmingly human!

‘Now than,’ Bronson said, as they joined him around the table. ‘You’re the wallah from BBC news, aren’t you?’ Omar looked slightly pained by his choice of words but managed to nod. ‘And you are…?’ He looked inquisitively at Rose, and she thought she could detect a glitter of interest in the Foreign Secretarial eyes.

‘I’m Rose Lewis, Foreign Secretary,’ she said. ‘Also on the Eurocredit introduction taskforce.’

‘Aha. Smashing. Smashing,’ said Bronson. ‘Looking forward to working with you. Both of you,’ he added quickly, glancing at Omar.

‘Thanks for giving us your time, sir,’ Omar said. ‘We know you must be busy.’

‘Actually, there’s a lot less to this Foreign Office lark than you might think,’ Bronson mused, leaning back and lacing his hands behind his head. ‘Mainly just sitting around the office and fairly regular foreign beanos. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some proper work for a change – that’s what the PM’s asked me to do, anyway.’

Word around the BBC was that the Foreign Office civil servants had been sending pleading emails to April Trace for many months, begging her to find some way of keeping Bronson occupied so their staff no longer needed to constantly monitor him and could go back to doing some actual proper diplomacy, but that was just the sort of funny story that made up the Foreign Secretary’s large and amusing hinterland, like the one about him getting stuck on the end of a bungee cord, or having a series of affairs with colleagues, or conspiring with friends to have journalists beaten up. Rose let an indulgent smile play around her mouth. He really wasn’t the sort of person one should like, but she couldn’t help herself.

(Later, from Chapter 17: hapless shoe-loving Prime Minister April Trace is in her command bunker monitoring reports of the reappearance of the dreaded arch-patriot and nemesis of the Federation, Nigel Brittain, and discussing this with the Union of 27’s representatives…) 

She was interrupted by the conference room doors clanking open and the entrance of Alex Bronson and Toby Blaine. Bronson was clearly disgruntled and she guessed that Blaine had insisted on sharing the ministerial ride over from the judicial sports centre. This was no time for their petty grievances.

‘Sorry we’re a bit late, April,’ Bronson said cheerily. ‘Stuck in a jam on the Embankment. Tempus fugit, and all that.’

‘Ah,’ the Prime Minister said. She looked at Blaine. ‘I trust Alex kept you entertained, Mr Blaine? A selection of his latest limericks, no doubt?’

Blaine’s face came close to losing its perma-smile as he nodded back to the PM. ‘Still, we’re here now,’ he said with brittle pleasantness. ‘What’s the situation?’

‘A suddenly upwelling of seditious activity, sparked by the resurfacing of this man Brittain,’ one of the Office of Political Correctness agents said, before April Trace could finish opening her mouth. She clicked the luminous perspex heel of her left shoe against the floor and pursed her lips. They weren’t even attempting to maintain the illusion that she was in charge any more.

‘Excuse me, we have a connection with a police command unit in the Thames Valley,’ one of the operators piped up. ‘They’ve got the two Standards Enforcement agents who were there when this all started happening.’

Sure enough, the two hollow-eyed, traumatised looking men appeared on the screen, still in their vests.

‘Report,’ said the lead OPC agent.

‘We were on patrol in Aylesbury town centre, in accordance with standard operating procedure,’ said one of them.

‘Seek out signs of non-metrication and subdue and humiliate with maximum prejudice,’ said the other.

‘And then he was there. Shouting and insulting and… and making people listen to him,’ said the enforcer plaintively. ‘Then all them were shouting at us. He took a crowd and turned it into an angry mob.’

‘Aylesbury town centre,’ said Alex Bronson, sagely. Beside him, Toby Blaine nodded automatically.

‘We had to run or they’d have torn us apart,’ the agent concluded his report. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it! The man has some dark power, some rhetorical genius, like nothing our training prepared us for. I don’t know -‘

‘That’s enough. Keep your head,’ said the OPC man viciously. He nodded to the operator who ended the transmission. Behind them the doors opened, presaging the entry of the tea and refreshments trolley. There were standards to be maintained, after all.

‘What kind of demographic does this man Nigel Brittain appeal to?’ asked the OPC agent, seeming genuinely baffled.

‘English people,’ said the Prime Minister, coldly.

‘That’s not helpful, Mrs Trace.’

‘All right, a specific section of society, those predisposed towards this kind of extreme reaction. Many, including my predecessor, were inclined to dismiss them as -‘

‘Nuts!’ Alex Bronson’s eyes lit up and he descended on the refreshments trolley, happily grabbing for the pistachios.

‘Foreign Secretary, please. As I said, the knee-jerk reaction is simply to say they are -‘

‘Oooh, fruitcakes!’ Toby Blaine joined Bronson at the refreshments, and started carving himself a generous slice.

April Trace sighed. ‘I mean, you might think they’re just -‘

‘One slice short of a full Swiss Roll, I see,’ Bronson sighed, looking at the woman manning the trolley, who mumbled her apologies.

‘Gentlemen, we are dealing with a crisis,’ said the OPC man, even more frostily than before.

‘Yes, I suppose so,’ muttered the Foreign Secretary, wiping crumbs from his waistcoat absently. April Trace noticed that Toby Blaine was surreptitiously eyeing up a cream horn, even so.

‘So what’s to be done?’ one of the OPC men said, slightly unexpectedly.

‘We need to know what Nigel Brittain is planning to do,’ Blaine said.

‘We need to stop him from doing it,’ Bronson nodded.

‘Oh, really!’ April Trace rolled her eyes. ‘We know what he’s planning – he’s going to come here and try to wreck everything, just like last time – when he nearly succeeded, if you hadn’t forgotten!’

‘That cannot be allowed to happen again,’ one of the OPC men hissed. They really were the Federation incarnate, April Trace thought.

(As I say, it was 2016. The rest of it will most likely never see the light of day. No need to thank me.)

The Tipping Point

You know you’re getting old, when those ‘You know you’re getting old, when…’ lists suddenly start to resonate with you. And to these let me add a new exponent – you know you’re getting old when actors who you think of as promising bright young newcomers suddenly start rocking up in roles where they’re playing the fathers of a new set of promising bright young newcomers. A case in point being Ben Foster, who I still think of as a juvenile character performer, pretty much, doing intensely committed things in indie films and prestige TV. (Though, of course, like everyone else these days he has done his time in dodgy mainstream entertainment too – he was rather underused as Angel in the third X-Men film, had a supporting role in the 2004 Punisher movie, and struggled through Warcraft just like the rest of the cast.)

Now here he is in Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, who is best known for Winter’s Bone, the film which brought Jennifer Lawrence to the attention of the world. This being the case, all eyes are really on Foster’s co-star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who (once again) is a talented young actress whose first big role this is. Could it be that in eight or nine years time, it will be Harcourt McKenzie who will be appearing in sleazy sex-thrillers and being off with Joanna Lumley at awards ceremonies? On the strength of this film, I’m not sure I would bet against it.

Foster plays Will, an ex-US Marine and single parent to his daughter Tom (Harcourt McKenzie). As the film opens the pair have been living in a national park not far outside Portland, Oregon, under conditions of extreme circumspection – they routinely hide from anyone visiting the park and Will runs regular drills testing his daughter’s ability to evade anyone searching for them. Raised under this discipline, it seems entirely normal to Tom; the film makes their genuine affection and commitment to each other clear.

But then they are found by the authorities and all the usual machinery swings into action, to ensure Tom’s welfare in particular. Told it is not right for her to be homeless, Tom is confused; she has a home – in the park, with her father. They are told this cannot continue – they must live in a more conventional fashion. This is anathema to Will, and Tom initially follows his lead automatically – but slowly she begins to realise that her needs may not be the same as her father’s…

The first and most obvious point of reference for Leave No Trace, for me at least, is Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, for both films do concern themselves with the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, specifically when it comes to what we should probably call non-standard lifestyle choices. Both films make a point of establishing that the children involved are thriving, both physically and mentally, despite (or possibly due to) being raised outside of conventional society, but the deeper question persists – to what extent do they have an informed choice in this? Is this really responsible parenting?

Of course, there are differences: Ross’ film was in some ways a slightly off-beat comedy, as well as a drama, whereas this is much more sober and thoughtful in its tone. There is also the character point that while Viggo Mortensen’s character in the Cash film was making a philosophical choice in taking his children out of society, Will is driven more by a pathological need for personal privacy – to live unseen, in a state of true independence. He is not a bad person, but he does have severe issues, and it is to the great credit of Foster that he can communicate this while still being utterly convincing as an almost completely guarded, barely expressive individual.

And this does inform the film, for it mainly concerns the rising tensions between Will and Tom as she slowly begins to perceive that, no matter how much she and her father love each other, they may have very different needs. ‘Whatever’s wrong with you, isn’t wrong with me,’ she says, in one of the film’s key moments – a moment of self-discovery and self-actualisation for Tom. These are what the film is really about, in terms of becoming an adult, taking responsibility for your own life, recognising that moment when you look after your parents at least as much as they look after you.

This is not a complex story, but it is engrossing throughout and beautifully told in its understated way. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is, as I have indicated, every bit as good as Foster in a really challenging role. Expect her to be appearing in a major superhero blockbuster within the next couple of years. That said, it is well-performed throughout; Foster is the closest thing to a well-known face in it, but it is filled with small, well-judged character turns. One of the most striking things about it is the fact that, for all that it is at heart a very personal story, it takes place in a vivid and completely convincing world on the fringes of American society. And it is an entirely compassionate and non-judgmental vision – no-one in it is perfect, but then who is, and everyone Will and Tom encounter is presented sympathetically. Homeless people, service veterans, long-distance truckers and trailer park residents normally appear in mainstream films only as figures of pity, or scorn, or fun, or menace, but here they are just shown as individuals, as capable of kindness and compassion as anyone else. It is a strikingly humane and predominantly positive film, given the times we are living through.

I must confess to watching Winter’s Bone a few years ago and finding it rather tough going, simply because of its thorough-going bleakness. Leave No Trace is a much more accessible film, made so by the general tone of the story and the strength of the two lead performances. This is the kind of film you wish had got a much higher-profile release than is the case, for it is extremely strong in every area. I doubt we will see many better dramas this year.