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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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As regular readers may recall, my friend Olinka’s suggestion that we go to see Hereditary did not exactly result in a glowingly successful evening, but one duff movie is not enough to dissuade her and she suggested we have another go, at a film of my choosing this time. Of the options which I offered, she plumped for Ocean’s Eight, which makes a certain kind of sense – this movie is kind of being marketed as a comedy thriller, and Olinka tends to assume any film she sees is a comedy thriller until forcibly persuaded otherwise. Well, you know, I saw the three Ocean films with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, and this one has an interesting cast, so Gary Ross’ new movie looked like a reasonable bet.

(I bet there was some serious hardball involved in deciding who got which place on this poster, especially the spots on the right hand side. It also occurs to me that someone didn’t realise that ‘pro’ has more than one meaning in colloquial English.)

Things get underway with Debbie Ocean (Sandy Bullock) attending her parole hearing, as she has apparently been in the big house for the past five years. Having been successful in getting herself let out of the slammer, she slinks off into New York wearing the evening gown in which she was apparently arrested. This sequence basically does the job in getting the narrative underway, but also raises a couple of important flags for the audience – firstly, it is established that George Clooney’s character (Bullock’s brother) has very definitely carked it, so one shouldn’t get one’s hopes up for a cameo from the big man, and secondly, it is made clear that this is the kind of film where attitude and appearance are more important than credibility or things actually making sense.

Debbie has spent the last five years working out every detail of a reasonably complicated robbery (they occasionally refer to it as a con, but it is basically just nicking other people’s property with a pinch of get-your-own-back time). To assist her in executing her scheme, she recruits her best friend (Cate Blanchett), who is also a criminal, as well as a dippy fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter), a housewife and part-time fence (Sarah Paulson – is there somebody at the door?), a skateboarding pickpocket (Awkwafina), a jeweller (Mindy Kaling), and a Rastafarian computer hacker (Rihanna). The plot revolves around stealing a $150 million necklace from the neck of a self-obsessed and rather vapid model (Anne Hathaway) at the gala night of the New York Met. And if Debbie can get her own back on the worthless ex-boyfriend who sent her to prison (Richard Armitage), then so much the better!

Well, the least you can say about Ocean’s Eight is that it has managed to avoid the tsunami of abuse which greeted the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake, despite the fact that it is essentially an All-Female Ocean’s Eleven remake – well, not really a remake, but a film with a very similar premise, featuring cameos from a couple of minor characters from the Soderbergh films. Is it just the case that insecure men on the internet have calmed down a bit in the last couple of years? Given all this chatter about raising funds for a less-feminist remake of last year’s stellar conflict movie, I kind of doubt it. It may just be that Ocean’s Eleven is less a part of people’s childhoods and they don’t feel as possessive about it. It’s certainly not because Ocean’s Eight is a better movie than the Ghostbusters remake, because it isn’t.

I mean, this is obviously what you would call a caper movie, and the pleasure point for this kind of thing comes from the cleverness of the plot, which will ideally have some kind of twist, and the fact that you are rooting for a bunch of appealing characters who have the odds apparently stacked against them. The problem with Ocean’s Eight is that the plot just isn’t that clever or surprising – there’s a lot of stuff about computer hacking and 3D printing (quite how they afford the printer, given Bullock has to go on a shoplifting spree at the start of the movie just to stay solvent, is not really gone into), but nothing to really make you go ‘Ooh that’s clever.’

There is an interesting range of performances on display from the ensemble. Blanchett, as you might expect, and Paulson, as you might not, emerge with the most credit and credibility, and Hathaway seems to be having fun in a somewhat OTT role. Most of the others are strictly functional, while Bonham Carter decides to deploy a somewhat dubious Irish accent (I was reminded of the apocryphal actor’s dictum: if you don’t think the script is funny, make sure you do a voice that is). Bullock is, well, watchable, because she’s Sandy Bullock, after all, but I was kind of reminded that a few years ago she largely stopped starring in anything other than slightly ditzy rom-coms, mainly because anything else is outside her comfort zone. As a supposedly super-cool criminal mastermind, she is, how can I put this, just a little bit inert. On the whole, in fact, if you asked me the composition of this movie, I would have to say it was about 20% Mission Impossible, 60% Sex in the City, and 20% hardboard.

Given that the plot doesn’t sparkle and the characters don’t engage, it is probably not a surprise that it’s quite hard to care about most of what happens in Ocean’s Eight, and – given they basically are just robbing a (relatively) innocent jewellery house – I couldn’t help feeling this is a film rather lacking in what you’d call a moral compass. Near the start, Bullock knocks off some makeup from a department store, and this is depicted in sufficient detail for young and impressionable audience members to very possibly have a go at doing the same thing. I’m not suggesting that we return to the days when Alec Guinness had to be led off in handcuffs at the end of The Lavender Hill Mob, for fear of sending the wrong message, but suggesting that a quotidian offence like shoplifting is somehow cool or clever is not quite in the same league as plotting a bullion heist.

Then again, I’m not exactly in the target demographic for this movie, and for some insights from someone who is I turned to Olinka at the end of the film. ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked. She shrugged. ‘Well, it was cool, and some parts of it were funny, and I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful women in their expensive dresses – so yes, I enjoyed it.’ There is, I should mention, a rather contrived sequence of nearly all the protagonists swishing out of a party in couture, even the ones who have previously been established as working in the kitchen or hiding in a van nearby.

I have to say I was slightly surprised to learn that some conspicuous consumerism and escapist glamour was all it took to sell this movie to my friend, especially given how poor a lot of the rest of it is (quite apart from the stuff I’ve mentioned, James ****ing Corden turns up near the end, and (as usual) brings to the movie all the charm and fun of a urinary tract infection). But then again, I suppose this isn’t very much different from many male-oriented summer genre movies, in which ropy plotting and duff characterisation are excusable as long as enough stuff blows up.

There’s a sense in which Ocean’s Eight is just another quite mechanical and formulaic summer genre movie, it’s just one which has been clumsily retooled so the characters can be played by women. They still kind of act like men, though, even though rather than knocking over a bank vault they are stealing some pretty jewellery (I am kind of reminded of the summer of 2004, when Spider-Man saved New York from a nuclear apocalypse, while in her own movie Catwoman had to avert the sale of some iffy make-up). I’m all for better representation of women in films, and more feminine perspectives given screen-space (well, you know, I’m still a thunderous misogynist, but apart from that), but I’m sure there must be more options than either decorative subservience or playing a clumsily rewritten male stereotype. Sylvester Stallone was greeted with incredulity and derision when he announced he was working on a distaff-oriented version of his superannuated-musclemen franchise, to be entitled The Expendabelles. But Ocean’s Eight is uncomfortably close to becoming something very similar to that. I suppose it’s not an outright bad movie, but I would struggle to find anything really positive to say about it.

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