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Posts Tagged ‘2019’

Michael Winterbottom’s Greed does not get off to the smoothest of starts, although this is really the product of circumstances beyond the film-makers’ control: the film opens with an added-very-late-on caption dedicating it to the memory of the late TV presenter Caroline Flack, then transitions from this into a quote from E.M. Forster. I was still too busy wondering why the film-makers had felt the need to open with the dedication to really focus on the other things that were going on, but it clears up somewhat very soon: Flack is the first person on screen, appearing as herself in the opening sequence. The film includes various other examples of other celebrities doing the same thing.

The movie is clearly being positioned as very close to reality, which I would imagine has occasioned fun times for some lawyers – representatives of Greed are very clear that the film, which concerns the life of a ruthless high-street mogul vilified for his tax avoidance and use of sweatshops in the developing world, particularly after a peevish appearance in front of a British parliamentary committee, is not directly based on the life of Sir Philip Green, a ruthless high-street mogul vilified for his tax avoidance and alleged use of sweatshops in the developing world, particularly after a peevish appearance in front of a British parliamentary committee. Of course it’s not. But you would have to be completely unfamiliar with all concerned not to see a certain resemblance.

The central character of Green – sorry, Greed – is Sir Richard McCreadie, played by Winterbottom’s frequent collaborator Steve Coogan. The bulk of the film is set immediately before and during McCreadie’s sixtieth birthday party, which is taking place on the Greek island of Mykonos. McCreadie is on the defensive and looking to make a big statement following the bad publicity ensuing from his appearance in front of the MP, and a disgustingly lavish and decadent shindig is on the cards: Roman-themed, it is to feature gladiator fights as well as the traditional disco and fireworks. Present for the occasion are various family members and other hangers-on as well as employees – Isla Fisher, Sophie Cookson and Asa Butterfield play McCreadie’s ex-wife and children, Shirley Henderson his mother, while looking on with increasing horror are his official biographer (David Mitchell) and one of the party planners (Dinita Gohil), whose family history has long been entwined with that of the McCreadie business empire. Needless to say, party preparations do not go well: cheap labour to build the gladiator arena proves hard to source, the lion they’ve hired is out-of-sorts, and there is a mob of Syrian refugees on the beach spoiling the view.

Mixed in with the build-up to the party are selected highlights of McReadie’s life up to that point: starting out as basically a con man and gambler, before going into budget fashion, launching a string of shops, and hitting upon a uniquely inventive and ruthless model of doing business (the film explains this in exemplary fashion, but basically it involves buying large companies using money borrowed from the companies themselves, selling off their assets and giving the proceeds to non-dom family members). The exploitation of workers in the developing world is also key.

Greed sounds like a slightly uneasy mixture of elements – knockabout farce mixed with angry, socially-committed agitprop. One of the impressive things about it is the way that it does manage to maintain a consistent tone where these things don’t appreciably jar with one another. Coogan, it must be said, delivers another horrendous comic grotesque, the type of performance he can do without breaking a sweat, and if David Mitchell is genuinely acting it is only to give a minimal variation on his standard public persona, but there is considerably more naturalism further down the cast list, with a particularly good performance from the largely unknown Dinita Gohil. But this is a movie with a notably strong cast, even in some of the relatively minor roles.

You do get a sense in the end that the loud, audience-pleasing elements of the film are there as a delivery mechanism for the more serious ideas which Michael Winterbottom is particularly interested in putting across: the first half is lighter in tone and more comic, focusing more on how awful McReadie is – the second explores how the system facilitates his behaviour, and is notably more serious. Perhaps the film-makers are correct to suggest this isn’t just a thinly-disguised hatchet job on a distasteful public figure, but a critique of an entire ideology. In this sense the film becomes one about people who are unable or unwilling to recognise the consequences of their actions. This applies to the McReadies, of course, who are either too stupid or too morally corrupt to admit they have a personal responsibility towards any of their employers or subcontractors. But many of us who are not multi-millionaires also engage in deeply questionable acts of all kinds – buying big label fashion, eating meat, voting Conservative – and still justify it to ourselves in just the same way. Genius, according to one definition, lies in putting together apparently disparate bits of information. The film suggests there is also a kind of genius in the ability to ignore the obvious connections between closely linked facts.

That said, it does almost feel in places that the film can’t pass by an issue without wanting to take a stand on it. The reality of the fashion industry (perhaps even capitalism in general) is appalling enough without the film also having to suggest this is also a feminist issue, and there’s another subplot about the refugees that feels just a little bit over-cooked. Winterbottom even manages to squeeze in a few breezy swipes at ‘scripted reality’ TV shows – something which now feels slightly less jolly than it once did, given Caroline Flack’s prominence at the top of the movie.

I suggested to a friend that we go and see Greed (he initially wanted to watch Parasite, but I’d already seen it) and he was a bit dubious to begin with: he thought the film looked a bit on the nose, and also that he didn’t need the movie industry to tell him that sexism and capitalism were Bad Things. In the end, though, he rather enjoyed it, as did I: I imagine that most people in Greed‘s target audience will not learn anything strikingly new from the movie, but it should do a good job of making them care more about things they are already intellectually aware of.

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Cultural hegemony can take many forms, not all of them obviously malevolent: it’s there in singers affecting the accent of the hegemon rather than their own, in the hope of getting more air-play on hegemonic radio; it’s there in TV series casting foreign actors, again to improve their chances of sales in lucrative markets abroad. It’s there in the language that we use: I’m sure many British people talk casually of ‘taking the Fifth’ or ‘stepping up to the plate’ even though they have virtually no idea what these expressions originally referred to.

Doesn’t work the other way, of course: if I talked about being on a sticky wicket in Lowman, Idaho, I imagine I would just get stared at, and if I had the presumption to try and release a film about the life of John Noakes or Johnny Morris in the USA I would probably be referred for psychiatric examination. But hegemony is hegemony, which is why UK cinemas are currently screening Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. (The analogy in the middle of this paragraph almost breaks down when you consider that many stalwart British children’s TV presenters from years ago are now disgraced to the point of being outright pariahs. But I digress.)

The movie is set in 1998 and concerns Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a brilliant investigative journalist working for Esquire magazine, whose talents are increasingly failing to the mask the fact that he is contending with his own bitterness and cynicism – almost to the point of misanthropy. Lloyd doesn’t really see the problem, but his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) certainly does, especially after a trip to a family wedding goes very badly – this is probably an understatement, considering the occasion concludes with Vogel getting into a fistfight with his own father (Chris Cooper) and being thrown out.

Lloyd is less than thrilled, all things considered, to be given the assignment of writing for an issue on contemporary American heroes – especially given that he is told to go and interview Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), a children’s TV presenter based in Pittsburgh.

(Here, of course, we come across one of those cultural and national faultlines which almost seem invisible until they become important. Fred Rogers is virtually unknown outside of the United States: his programme, Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, was never shown over here, and prior to this movie I was only dimly aware of him, mainly because the show did a set visit to The Incredible Hulk in 1979 and that segment is up on YouTube. In short, Fred Rogers is a beloved icon to generations of Americans who remember him fondly from childhood; there isn’t really a comparable figure in British culture – only adult entertainers like Ronnie Barker or Eric Morecambe come close, I would imagine.)

Well, Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh to interview Fred, and finds himself nonplussed by the sheer sweetness, gentle kindness, and utter decency of his subject. Can this guy really be genuine? Every instinct tells him that it can’t be the case, and his mission becomes to uncover the truth about Fred Rogers. But what if the truth is what it seems to be? All this time, as well, Lloyd is still contending with his fraught relationship with his father and his feelings of resentment towards him after he walked out on the family. But the benign influence of Fred Rogers seems to be having an effect on him…

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has only secured a relatively minor release in the UK, probably because it will prove somewhat baffling to the average British viewer: the film is initially staged as an episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, as Hanks comes on, delivers the opening routine, and then introduces Lloyd and his situation as if it’s an item on the programme (one made for very young children, I should mention). If you or your children grew up watching Fred Rogers, I imagine this is terribly resonant, funny and charming; the same can be said for the way that some of the transitions in the movie are executed using models in the style of those on the show. For anyone else it is just a bit weird and slightly Charlie Kaufman-esque: like a joke you’re not quite in on. This never quite stops being an issue with the movie.

Of course, the main reason this film isn’t just playing in art-houses is that it does feature one of Hollywood’s finest actors and biggest stars in a key role. Tom Hanks, if we’re honest, doesn’t look much like Fred Rogers, even with the wig and so on he’s been issued with, and obviously my own ability to judge how well he’s captured Rogers’ demeanour is very limited. However, given that one of the premises of the movie is that Fred Rogers was – and the word is used – a kind of saint, then he is hugely successful. There is obviously a thin line between radiating the kind of decency, sincerity and compassion which Rogers apparently did and just coming across as absurdly cheesy, but Hanks mostly stays on the right side of it. (The modern world being what it is, there have been complaints that while Rogers’ achievements as a host, educator, puppeteer, and author of books such as Going to the Potty are made clear, the fact he was also a minister and a man of deep religious faith is rather understated.)

I should also say that Matthew Rhys is very good in what’s a much less showy part. His character arc for the movie is not the most original, but Rhys’ performance and a charming script do make this a very satisfying and enjoyable drama, even if you disregard the fact it is largely framed in the context of a children’s TV show you may or may not have any awareness of. Hollywood’s fondness for doing stories about people contending with father issues has become a bit of a standing joke – one wonders what this says about the pathology of the place – but this is a superior one.

The only slightly disappointing thing is that this is billed at the start as being (all together now) ‘Inspired by true events’, but at the end it is revealed that the magazine article on Fred Rogers was written by Tom Junod: it would seem that Lloyd Vogel, his family, and his story are all essentially fictitious, created for the purposes of a film about what a great man Fred Rogers was. I’ve written about this kind of thing before recently: once you start mixing ‘real’ people and fictional characters together in this way, the question of what exactly it is you’re doing becomes a pressing one. You’re either telling a true story or you’re not. I’m sure Fred Rogers was every bit as inspirational a figure as he is presented here: but if so, why not just stick to the facts? If he wasn’t, then why fictionalise the story?

But this is a more general point about the whole genre of films to which this belongs. I thought this was a very warm, charming and satisfying drama, rather more to my taste than Heller’s last film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? The performances and structure are more than good enough to make up for the fact that the film seems to be presuming a familiarity with Mr Rogers and his neighbourhood which simply won’t exist for many viewers. Certainly one of the better films of the year so far.

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As they say in Rome, ‘After a fat Pope, a thin Pope’ – another of those weeks where everyone in the film releasing business seems to be keeping their powder dry. Still, some intriguing prospects on the horizon, amongst them Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, which gets a surprisingly wide UK release this weekend (we shall return to this topic). This is one of those movies I’ve heard various positive things about, not least from Ex-Next Desk Colleague (all things must pass). ‘You’ll love it,’ was his confident assertion. Well, that’s possibly putting it a bit too strong, but I am certainly very impressed.

The film takes place almost entirely on a remote and barren island, somewhere off the New England coast, many years ago. Posted here to maintain and operate the lighthouse are two men: one of them (Robert Pattinson) is on his first tour of duty as a lighthouse keeper – he is intense, quiet, eager to prove himself. The other man (Willem Dafoe) is much older and more experienced; he is also garrulous, demanding, and often crude. There is friction between the duo almost at once, not least because the old man will not allow his younger colleague into the lamp room, although he refuses to reveal why.

The time passes slowly. The younger man finds a carving of a mermaid left by one of the previous keepers. He also begins to have odd visions, amongst them ones of the older man getting up to very strange things in the lamp room after dark. As the days add up and the weather gets worse and worse, isolation takes its toll. But is it all in his head or is there some grotesque inhuman force really at work on the island?

It’s honestly very difficult to give a proper impression of what The Lighthouse is really like to watch. The glib thing to say, which I’m not sure I didn’t read somewhere else, is that it is rather like how Steptoe and Son might have turned out, had the series been written by H. P. Lovecraft: it has two men of different generations trapped together in a toxic, co-dependent relationship, but also an insidiously creepy atmosphere and the suggestion of something fishy going on between people and, well, fish (or other forms of marine life). I mean this as a compliment, by the way, but when you take two such distinctive flavours and blend them together, you’re inevitably going to end up with something, um, distinctively distinctive.

Eggers, who wrote and directed the piece, doesn’t seem at all cowed by this, and doing something a bit different seems to have been part of his intention. The movie is as stark and austere as only black-and-white can be – on top of this, the director has opted to use a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, giving it even more the look of a film from the earliest years of cinema. All of this would normally scream art-house darling, and I am honestly surprised it has managed to land a significant release in mainstream cinemas – but then again, I am probably underestimating the box-office clout of Robert Pattinson.

As with Kristen Stewart, I would suggest that the statute of limitations has expired and we should accept that Pattinson is actually a very able actor and an impressive screen presence, regardless of how he started his career. Certainly he also seems happy to take on challenging projects – whatever else you think about it, the ickily pretentious sci-fi movie High Life from last year was hardly a commercial choice, and you could say the same about this one, too. Every genre movie that Pattinson signs on for seems to mutate into something unexpected and disturbing. Which inevitably leads one to wonder, now that Pattinson (or at least his chin) has signed up to play Batman: how on Earth is that going to work out?

This, of course, is a question for another day. Underneath the period trappings and strange stylistic quirks, The Lighthouse is at heart a horror movie, although saying much more about it is a little tricky. Certainly the most striking moments in it come from the suggestion that something genuinely unnatural and perhaps even mythic is going on: this is one of those movies where not a great deal is explained, but it does seem to be loaded with moments alluding to Greek myth and classic literature. Pattinson has visions of a mermaid, for one thing, while those looking to make the Lovecraft connection will find the appearance of tentacles in unlikely places to be of great significance.

On the other hand, it could just all be a symptom of creeping madness brought on by a combination of factors: isolation, stress, perhaps also guilt. I have to reiterate just how atmospheric The Lighthouse is: a foghorn bleats repetitively on the soundtrack, adding to the sounds of the elements, while you are left with no doubts as to just how bleak and unpleasant the island the keepers are on is. Apparently the cast and crew had a fairly wretched time just making the movie there – I suspect there was not a lot of acting required for many of the scenes.

When the acting is required, however, both Pattinson and Defoe certainly do the business. I suppose we can say that both of them deliver bold, vanity-free performances. Pattinson is playing the point-of-identification character, to begin with at least, but as the film goes on introduces elements of mania into his character quite cleverly and subtly: he goes from being sympathetic to rather alarming almost seamlessly. It initially looks like Defoe has been given quite a ripe old character part, complete with beard and thick accent, but the actor manages to find depth and reality as well, while retaining the edge of ambiguity that the film really requires in order to work. And work it does.

Of course, the thing about The Lighthouse, being a film about madness (and often violent madness at that) is that it does end up being an unreliable narrative. The story comes unglued just as the characters do, and in the end it’s left up to the viewer to work out just what has really been going on in front of them. But the film is impressive and memorable enough for this to be a welcome challenge rather than a chore. This is a movie with some extreme moments, and it certainly won’t be to all tastes, but I found its ambition and focus to be highly laudable. A good omen for the year’s horror movies.

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Crikey, you feel the pressure at moments like these: the characters in Cats are all queueing up for their moment in the spotlight, and in rather the same way the great and the good of criticdom all seem to be competing to deliver the most crushing dismissal of Tom Hooper’s movie. ‘Battlefield Earth with whiskers,’ was the coup de grace of one assessment; ‘a dreadful hairball of woe’ was another; ‘it’s just not finished‘ was the despairing cry of one professional viewer – one of a number of critics who made comments to the effect that there are some sights the human eye simply should not see, and Cats may well be one of them. How am I supposed to compete with that kind of thing? Of course, it is never a good look to spend one’s time feeling sorry for oneself – the charitable thing to do is to spend one’s time feeling sorry for Cats.

Things look about as bad as bad can be for Cats, as the story has become not that there is a new big-budget movie musical, but that there is a new big-budget movie musical which is really terrible.  That said, the film hasn’t exactly helped itself – Robert Wise always used to say that no movie in history ever came as close to not being ready in time for its release than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I think that record has been broken. Three days into its release, a new version of the movie is replacing the one that was initially distributed, in an attempt to address issues with the special effects. Various comments including words like ‘sticking plaster’, ‘on’, and ‘a shark bite’ do creep into my mind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The movie is set in a garish 50s version of London, from which people seem essentially absent, leaving the streets populated by bizarre human-animal hybrids (mostly cat-people, as you might expect from the title). A hideous tinny clanging presages the onset of the music, which honestly does sound out of tune in places, and we get the opening number, entitled ‘Jellicle songs for jellicle cats’. The lyrics of the song seem to largely consist of the word ‘jellicle’, which seems to me to be a bit of a cheat as TS Eliot (author of the book of light verse which has gone through various transformations before reaching the screen in this unlikely form) made it up: it doesn’t really seem to mean anything, but it seems to be a useful all-purpose lyrical filler even though there aren’t many obvious rhymes for it (‘petrochemical’, maybe, and ‘Ecumenical’; one might even suggest ‘genital’, but all of the cats in the film have had theirs digitally erased).

Well, anyway. By this point we have met the main character (or as close as the film gets), Victoria Cat (Francesca Hayward) and a bunch of other cats. Following a quick rendition of Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’ (performed without music and possibly the best bit of the film), the nature of the thing heaves into view: it’s a special night for the cats, as their matriarch Old Deuteronomy Cat (Judi Dench) will be listening to them all sing songs about their lives, with the cat she names the winner being sent off to the Heaviside Layer (the E region of the ionosphere, long used to reflect MW radio transmissions) to be reincarnated. There is something very English and drolly quirky about this, which apparently was derived from Eliot’s writing, but it is still mostly gibberish.

What it basically does is facilitate a structure where a bunch of different cats come on and sing one song each about themselves, in a number of different styles (there aren’t many musical references more up to date than the late 1970s, which is when these songs were written). In technical terms, it’s all ‘I Am’ and not much ‘I Want’; what plot there is concerns a scheme by Macavity Cat (Idris Elba), an evil cat with magical powers, to rig the competition for his own benefit. So, basically, it goes: Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. The songs don’t really refer to each other, nor do they tell a story; this is why turning collections of poetry into musicals is one of the more niche creative disciplines.

Whatever the problems are with the narrative structure the film has inherited from the musical, they are nothing compared to the consequences of the sheer visual impact of the thing. You can kind of see why they’ve got themselves into such a mess here, but the fact remains that the fatal problem with the film is that it does not appreciate the difference between presentational and representational modes of performance, particularly when it comes to cinematic and theatrical contexts. (And, yes, I did write that myself.) Or, to put it another way, in a stage show with a live audience, someone coming on dressed as a cat can be a magical and moving experience. However, Rebel Wilson with cat ears CGI’d onto her head, eating CGI cockroach people, is simply the stuff of nightmares. The characters in this film are obviously not cats. But neither are they people. So what are they? It’s just all kinds of freaky, and not a little confusing. Faced with Victoria Cat, I wasn’t sure whether to give her a piece of fish, or – well, look, I’m not a cat person, but if they all looked as Francesca Hayward does here, I could well be persuaded.

Cats is such a thoroughly weird experience that for a long time I was genuinely unsure if this is a bad movie or not. As a sort of surreal, hallucinogenic Arabesque fantasy, it has a certain kind of colour and energy, and the cast do seem to be trying hard. In the end it does largely boil down to extremely peculiar stagings of light verse put to music, though. It is telling that ‘Memory’, the big show-stopper of Cats, is only very loosely drawn from TS Eliot, and is not from the same source as most of the rest of the songs. Under optimal conditions it is a very pleasant and possibly even affecting little number – here, however, it is given to Jennifer Hudson, who gives it maximum Streep and maximum volume. The results made me want to hide under my seat, I’m afraid.

In the end I am going to stick with my gut instinct and agree with the consensus: Cats is a very bad movie, not because it is poorly made, but because it is fundamentally flawed. I can imagine that a fully animated version of the show might have done reasonably well, and almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted such eviscerating notices. You can certainly admire the skill, talent and nerve that has clearly gone into making such a bold and unusual film. But the film itself is a freakish mutant, and only really worth seeing because things so remarkably misconceived so rarely make it into cinemas.

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Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker is another one of those documentaries taking advantage of the lull in mainstream releases which regularly happens around this time of year. Greenfield herself is not one of those directors who is constantly popping up in the corner of the frame or butting in on the soundtrack, on this occasion at least. She is quite content to let her subject dominate the film. Her subject is also quite content to dominate the film, for she is Imelda Trinidad Romualdez Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines and poster girl for obscene corruption and bad-taste excess.

The film first finds Mrs Marcos cruising around Manila in her usual stately fashion. When the car stops at a junction, a breathless cry of ‘It’s Imelda!’ goes up amongst the street children hanging around there, for they know they have had a stroke of luck. A forest of small open hands fills the window of Mrs Marcos’ car, and she serenely scatters money in their direction. ‘For the children! For the children!’ declares Mrs Marcos, as a number of short adults attempt to muscle in on her beneficience. ‘Those who have received money, move along!’ barks a stern voice out of frame. It is an edifying spectacle.

Mrs Marcos continues her progress, reflecting on the fact that, actually, being First Lady of the Philippines wasn’t all that much fun at the time. ‘The presidential palace, it was a very uncomfortable place to live,’ she recalls, sadly. She does not appear to notice that, even as she is speaking, the car is passing compatriots of hers who are living in bins and under bits of cardboard, which are possibly even less comfortable residences than the presidential palace (as well as presenting far fewer opportunities for lucrative graft).

She eventually arrives at a clinic for children suffering from cancer. Prior to this point, Mrs Marcos’ eyes have resembled two chips of coal shot into a side of ham, but now she wells up with emotion and responds in the empathetic and humble way that only someone with her common touch can. ‘Quick,’ she whispers to an aide, ‘give me some money to hand out.’ All across the city, poor families scrimp and save to get their youngest started on full-strength cigarettes just so they can be in the cancer ward the next time Mrs Marcos makes a visit.

The film is only a few minutes old but already questions are piling up like diamante slingbacks in Mrs Marcos’ famous shoe collection. Is all this just being staged for the camera? Has Imelda Marcos really got no idea of just how she is coming across? Is it possible for anyone to have such little grasp of reality? The director is smart enough to recognise this, but also to realise that the best response is to just let Mrs Marcos speak. All duly becomes clear.

A former beauty queen who became the wife of the Filipino president and sometime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, it is clear that Mrs Marcos took to politics like a particularly resplendent duck to water. One of her roles was to travel the world as a sort of proxy president (a slide-show of horrors ensues, showing her meetings with Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Prince Charles and a pre-politics Donald Trump), although the exact reason for this is disputed. One school of thought has it that Marcos himself was afraid that if he left the country he would instantly be overthrown, so he sent the wife instead. Another suggests that her foreign missions were basically a pretext for Ferdy to get her out of the way so he could sleep around with other women.

Nevertheless, Mrs Marcos still regards herself as mother of her nation (possibly the world), bringer of world peace, ender of the cold war, and so on. Brain-meltingly tasteless artworks scattered around the Marcos home commemorate her various achievements, although not her role in embezzling hundreds of billions of dollars from the Filipino people. In a way she is an ideal subject for this kind of film: she is perfectly happy to talk at length about her life, and seemingly almost completely oblivious to her own public image or the impression she is making. All Lauren Greenfield needs to do is occasionally intercut a contribution from another interviewee with more of a grip on reality (which is to say, any kind of grip on reality). One of the topics the film keeps returning to is Mrs Marcos’ typically unhinged scheme to start a safari park in the Philippines, complete with imported zebras and giraffes. ‘We found a place with no people and put the animals there,’ she informs the audience, solemnly. On comes a villager to relate how she and her family were forcibly uprooted to make way for this particular folie de grandeur. ‘I hate giraffes,’ adds the woman, sadly.

Initially it all seems like a black comedy mixed up with a reminder of the perverse politics of the cold war period – a time when many US policy makers subscribed to the palpably foolish idea that the only way to preserve democracy was by propping up dictators. Inevitably, though, it all came crashing down, although Mrs Marcos seems assured of her innocence: ‘I was too kind to him,’ she says of Benigno Aquino, an opposition leader who was assassinated, while later, we finally get a reference to that famous shoe collection – ‘When they searched my closet, they did not find skeletons, only beautiful shoes,’ she smirks.

It’s a half-decent line, and Mrs Marcos seems quite happy to trade on her shoe-loving reputation, but it neglects the fact that there are genuine skeletons in the closet where her family is concerned. The way in which the film shifts gear and tone to incorporate testimonies from some of those who were incarcerated, tortured and abused during the eight-year period of martial law instituted by Marcos is impressively done, but is part of a more general change as the film continues.

You might consider Imelda Marcos to be a grotesque joke from history, her family irretrievably disgraced. You would be wrong. This movie is called The Kingmaker for a reason, for it increasingly concerns Mrs Marcos’ attempts to get her son Bongbong into power, not least so he can restore the family reputation. Bongbong is running for vice-president of the Philippines, but the family history seems to be causing him a few issues. If I were the president of the Philippines, this would probably be a source of relief, for I would really not want my heartbeat to be the one keeping a Marcos from genuine power. However, the actual president is a man called Duterte, another of those populist strongmen the world is currently plagued by, and it transpires some of those Marcos billions played a part in getting him elected. By the end of the film, it is clear there are forces in play who are not about to let a simple thing like democracy stand between Bongbong and his rightful place.

It is a sombre, ominous conclusion, and turns what at one point felt like a somewhat gonzo piece of historical biography, with inconvenient facts pinging off Imelda Marcos’ gargantuan self-regard like pea-shooter pellets off a zeppelin, into a genuinely disturbing cautionary tale. God knows that we in the west have no right to criticise citizens of other countries for being conned by grotesque egotists whose sense of entitlement is matched only by their flexible attitude to the truth, but if a mob like the Marcos family can make a comeback then we really are in trouble as a species. However, that’s hardly Lauren Greenfield’s fault: she has made an outstanding documentary, funny, powerful, moving, infuriating and disturbing. This is possibly a very important film: it is a shame most people will be barely aware of it.

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One thing I have noticed in recent years is that early to mid December has quietly become a very good time to find a decent documentary at the local cinema, often enjoying a wider release than you might expect. When you think about it, the reason for this is obvious: hardly anybody wants their movie to only be on release for a single week (this does happen, but only when a movie tanks fairly spectacularly), but at the same time everyone in the industry is fully cognisant of the fact that come the end of the month, the Mouse House will have exerted its usual leverage and the latest stellar conflict movie will be playing seventeen times a day, filling up nearly every screen in town. So nobody wants to release their movies the week before such a major release, opening up a gap in the schedule which documentary makers happily fill.

Of course, it isn’t always a terribly big gap, which is why Max Lewkowicz’s Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is only showing once a day, usually at lunchtimes, in Oxford’s leading purveyor of snack foods and occasional screener of the odd film. Normally I am slightly relieved to find myself the sole punter at the showing of a movie – it means the standard of behaviour in the auditorium has a better chance of being acceptable, if nothing else – but on this occasion I was just a little saddened to find myself the only person present, if only because it indicated that not enough people near where I live love Fiddler on the Roof.

I mean, it seems very straightforward to me – if you have a functional soul and set of emotions, and you don’t love Fiddler on the Roof, then it basically means you must not be familiar with it yet. It’s that sort of show. As the title might suggest, the makers of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles are on more or less the same page as me (the fact that one of the contributors to the film has previously produced a book called Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof further suggests that people’s minds tend to run along the same sorts of lines when it comes to thinking up names for these things). They are here to first and foremost celebrate the show, not critique it.

I wrote about the 1971 movie version of Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago. The show is one of the great musicals, massively and enduringly popular – one of the many fascinating factoids the documentary serves up is that, since it originally opened in 1964, there has been at least one performance of the show somewhere in the world every single day.  It concerns the various travails of Tevye, a Jewish milkman blessed with more daughters than he really knows what to do with, living in a shtetl in Russia at some point near the start of the 20th century. There’s a bit more to it than just being a musical about anti-Semitic prejudice, but this is still a fundamental element of this beautiful, bittersweet show.

The documentary, naturally, assumes the audience will already be familiar with this, and focuses on the story behind the story. It initially looks like there’s been some kind of miscommunication, as the film opens with a series of aerial shots of Manhattan, which inevitably put one in mind of how the movie of West Side Story begins. Before things get too confusing, the camera closes in on the roof of one apartment building, upon which sits – you guessed it – a man with a violin. Soon enough he is picking out the opening phrases of the show’s score. Whether you think opening a film about Fiddler on the Roof with a sequence with an actual fiddler on an actual roof is witty or cheesy is probably a question of personal taste, but it’s a reasonable opening for a film which ends up digressing down some unexpected byways over the course of its 97 minutes.

One of the things that does become apparent is that Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story have a good deal in common – obviously, both are products of the New York musical theatre culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and both were originally directed by Jerome Robbins. Any documentary about his work basically says the same thing about Robbins: he was a difficult, conflicted man, and yes, he was brilliant, but yes, he could also be horrible to everyone around him. This film doesn’t really have much time to dig deeper than that, mainly because it has so many other things it wants to cover.

To be honest, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles has so much on its to-do list it ends up feeling a bit rushed and disjointed. There’s the story of how the original production reached the stage, then a little bit on the making of the movie, and it touches on a few other distinguished revivals and productions too. Actors reflect on what the show means to them. There is some insight into the life of Sholem Aleichem, writer of the original stories, and the historical setting of the piece. The film’s credentials as a piece of emancipatory feminist theatre are discussed. And so on, and so on.

It doesn’t feel like there’s any real structure, just a grab-bag of material – if they had to raid the show’s lyrics for a title, ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ would have been equally appropriate – but the film stays very watchable simply because the interviewees are engaging, the stories they tell are enlightening and funny, and the film-makers have found some fascinating clips to include: in addition to bits of performances from various productions (from Broadway, the Chichester Festival Theatre, Tokyo – in Japanese – and a university show in Thailand, amongst others), they find the Temptations doing a very funky cover of ‘If I Were A Rich Man’, a hardcore punk version of the same song by the band Yidcore, Topol and Danny Kaye singing together in Hebrew on US TV in the 1960s, and home video of Lin-Manuel Miranda leading a production number from the show at his own wedding reception. (This has done more to make me understand why he has become such a big star than any of his other movies or performances, but it does leave one with the impression that Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of those people who believes they are always on stage, even when they are not actually on stage.)

You do get a very strong sense of just how universal the appeal of this show is, along with its capacity to grab and move an audience. (Personally I think that, in terms of the movies at least, West Side Story has a tiny edge when it comes to the brilliance of the songs and staging, but Fiddler on the Roof is the one that will really break your heart.) What’s also notable is that it’s impossible to change the setting and context of the story in more than the most superficial of ways – it may look very weird to see a Japanese actor in a fake beard and a prayer shawl biddy-biddy-bumming away on stage, but this most widely-loved of shows is also intensely specific. The film does not address this apparent contradiction, but this is probably quite a wise thing to do – the paradox of how the personal becomes the universal is one of the mysteries of great art, and isn’t something you can quickly or easily explore.

Any second-order film of this kind is basically setting itself a challenge: a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof is never going to be as satisfying to watch as Fiddler on the Roof itself, so if you’re interested in Fiddler on the Roof, why not just go direct to the source? You should certainly watch Fiddler on the Roof before you see this movie. Then again, you should watch Fiddler on the Roof even if you have no plans to see this movie. (I think a theme develops.) The documentary is very engaging, though, and warm, and offers enough information and insight to be more than worthwhile viewing. I did come out of it wanting to watch the movie again, though. And the full Japanese stage show. And the Chichester production. And if Lin-Manuel Miranda ever gets married again, I would quite like an invitation to the reception. One of the things the show suggests is that a man can always dream (daidle deedle daidle daidle dum).

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Off to the cinema, just for a change – it gets me out of the house when I’m not working, if nothing else.

‘One for Ordinary… erm… Life?’ I requested, finding myself struggling to recall the exact wording of the title.

Ordinary People,’ chimed in the cinema manager, with (as it turned out) a wholly unwarranted aura of cheerful confidence.

Ordinary Love,’ said the minion actually operating the ticket apparatus.

Well, if we could agree about one thing, it was that the film was certainly ordinary. I do wonder if the people who name films often think ahead to the possible consequences of some of their choices. There’s a good reason why no-one, to my knowledge, has released a movie called Complete Trash. Would Ordinary Love prove to be quite as unremarkable as its title suggested?

One way to find out: off up to the theatre (probably the smallest in Oxford) which remained almost entirely unoccupied and annoyingly over-illuminated for the next couple of hours (but then it was a midweek lunchtime showing). Then it was time for my theory that you can get a pretty good sense of what a movie is going to be like from the trailers running in front of it to take a bit of a kicking, as we were treated to yet another promo for the new Jumanji film (currently the recipient of the saturation publicity treatment, in the hope of prying a few viewers away from the looming stellar conflict juggernaut), a potentially-gimmicky looking film about the First World War, and no fewer than three trailers for social justice movies about the black experience in contemporary America.

None of which really had much in common with Lisa Sarros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s film, which concerns a married couple living (it would seem, not that it particularly matters) somewhere in Ulster. This is a bit of a case of big stars carrying a modest movie, as they are played by Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. They are retired (although I found myself imagining that Neeson would still occasionally pop out to deliver the odd vengeful beating to a deserving target) and live a comfortable life in every sense of the word: they are not especially demonstrative, but then there is no reason for them to be. Manville and Neeson evoke this atmosphere of relaxed, easy intimacy superbly.

And then, of course, something changes: Manville’s character, Joan, discovers a lump in one of her breasts. Quite sensibly she and Tom (Neeson’s character) decide to get it checked out. Initial tests are inconclusive, but the definitive news, when it comes, is bad (as one might expect, given that ‘woman turns out not to have cancer’ isn’t much of a premise for a movie). She is prescribed surgery, then a gruelling course of chemotherapy, and then further preventative surgery at the end of it all. It is a hard road, and one which inevitably puts a strain on what initially seems like the unshakeable bond which they share.

So, obviously, this is not exactly escapist entertainment (or, if it is, I shudder to imagine what your personal situation must be like). No matter how well made it is, one has to wonder what the point of yet another cancer movie is: God knows there have been enough of them in the past, after all. Is it just a case of this being a calculated pact between performers and film-makers? This is the kind of film where the performances attract awards attention, while such a determinedly low-key movie would probably struggle to even get noticed without stars of the calibre of Neeson and Manville raising its profile.

And there is a further point to be made, probably. One has to be fairly lucky these days, I think, not to feel the baleful touch of King Crab upon one’s own life: my own tally includes two aunts, one uncle and a cousin. But it is one of those experiences which is both near-universal and deeply personal at the same time – it is different for everyone, simply because so much depends on the personalities and relationships involved. Furthermore, many films about cancer are not cancer films, they are films about Movie Cancer – a usefully vaguely-defined disease, which usually leaves the afflicted party looking very photogenic right up until their passing becomes imminent, or they reach the hump of their treatment and then make a fairly brisk recovery. Perhaps melodrama is just the default setting for this kind of movie – making any other kind of statement is very difficult, as the more general the message you try to put across, the greater the danger of just saying something glib or facile.

Most of the time, Ordinary Love manages to dodge this particular problem, by being effectively understated and low-key and concentrating on presenting a believable relationship between the two main characters. Most of the movie is essentially a two-hander, one long conversation between Manville and Neeson: and they don’t spend the whole time talking about terminal diseases, either. They talk about brussel sprouts, and feeding their goldfish, and how much beer he’s drinking; they argue about how a Fitbit works. The fact that they don’t discuss the cancer says as much as any protracted dialogue scene could achieve. And when the strain takes its toll and they do argue with each other, you feel it all the more: it has that horrid sense of how people who love each other know the best way to hurt each other, too.

And yet the film blows it, just a little bit, by inserting a subplot about their past: it transpires they had a daughter, who died young, some years earlier. The details are left intentionally vague, but it just feels like something that’s been added to give the characters one more thing to emote about. The film ends up presenting a rather eggy scene with Liam Neeson delivering a monologue to a gravestone that feels slightly corny and rather out-of-character for the man he is playing here. It does risk tipping the film over into melodrama: living with cancer is something many people can relate to, but being hit by cancer after losing a child pushes things slightly towards Book of Job territory.

It’s a shame, because this is the only real blip in an otherwise strong movie. Its success is mostly down to the leads. You almost feel a bit sorry for Lesley Manville, for she has spent most of her career being quietly excellent in films not entirely unlike this one, and praise for her performance may well include words like ‘naturally’ and ‘characteristically’. Liam Neeson, on the other hand, has spent so much time appearing in head-banging action movies over the last decade or so that one is wont to forget just what an effective and understated serious actor he can be. (Maybe he should give Lesley Manville the phone number for Luc Besson.) Perhaps he gets a slightly showier part, but this is still solid work in an impressive movie. Ordinary Love is more than good enough to justify its own existence, and manages to make its theme simple enough to be easily communicated, but not so simple as to be worthless. A fine piece of work.

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There’s a moment towards the end of Fernando Meirelle’s The Two Popes when Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) decides there is something he really has to get off his papal chest. ‘I’m going to retire,’ he announces.

His companion, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is slow on the uptake. ‘Retire? Retire from what?’ he asks, bemused.

(Look, if you think that counts as a spoiler… well, I don’t know what to say, except that I hope that being in the coma hasn’t left you with too many long-term health issues.)

It’s one of many funny moments in the film, which is consistently much lighter on its feet than you might expect. We’re getting to that time of year, after all, when the slower, heavier, and more respectable films start to show up. The Two Popes is a Netflix production, and presumably forms part of the company’s strategy of attracting viewers by being the only place where you can see prestigious, award-winning productions. Of course, in order to win the awards, the film has to get into actual cinemas, which is why it is currently enjoying a brief theatrical run before becoming exclusively available by streaming. I find it hard to find many positive things to say about this way of doing things, but this is an undeniably solid, classy movie.

As noted, the film presents itself as a dramatisation of various events which might very well have happened in recent years. The story proper gets underway in 2005, with the death of the incumbent pontiff, John Paul II. As usual, there is a good deal of politicking about who will take his place, with the hot favourite being the previous pope’s doctrinal enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins – the thing with the papal names means that the two lead characters have multiple names across the course of the movie). Mounting an unexpectedly strong, if rather reluctant challenge, is Argentinian cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce), a man of an entirely different character.

Ratzinger is duly elected, and a somewhat disenchanted Bergoglio, anticipating the rigid conservatism of the incoming pope, returns home to Argentina to plan his retirement. Years pass, and relations between the two men do not improve. However, the problem is that Bergoglio can’t retire to a quiet life in a parish without the Pope’s permission, which Benedict is very reluctant to grant in case it is interpreted by vaticanologists as an implied criticism of his papacy. The Pope summons the cardinal to discuss the problem – and some other things he has on his mind.

What follows is essentially a two-hander between Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as the two men talk about theology, their upbringings, the role of the church, and many other issues. Mixed in with this are various flashbacks to the earlier life of Bergoglio, depicting his discovery of his vocation, and other key moments from his past (the young Bergoglio is played by Juan Minujin). It does sound like quite a dry and heavy film when you put it like that, which may be why Meirelles goes out of his way to keep things unexpectedly light: the film starts with a jokey scene with the Pope having trouble booking a plane ticket, and things begin to verge on the downright off-beat as the college of cardinals commence their ruminations on who is to be the new pope with Abba’s Dancing Queen playing majestically on the soundtrack. He manages to maintain this throughout: any film which depicts the two popes watching World Cup final together (Germany vs Argentina, of course) is clearly not likely to be accused of over-reverence towards its subjects.

That said, it’s not afraid to pause and reflect on some of the issues it raises. The difference between the two men is dramatically useful – Ratzinger is cold, inflexible, unworldly, not especially imaginative, while Bergoglio is warm, compassionate, engaged, charismatic. And, of course, they are being played by two extremely fine actors. I don’t think the film-makers need have been too concerned about the fact that this is quite a talky film – when you have performers of this calibre working with an interesting and intelligent script, long dialogue scenes become entirely engrossing.

Now, I’ve enjoyed watching Jonathan Pryce ever since his performance in Brazil, but even so I would admit that he is obviously not as feted an actor as Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins does indeed seem to be reining it in and rather underplaying things as Benedict, but then he has also to contend with the fact that the film is rather making him out to be the bad pope in this relationship: a much less appealing figure than Bergoglio, certainly. The film’s partiality isn’t just limited to the present day scenes, either – we do learn a lot about how Bergoglio came into the church, and his travails under the military junta that seized power there in 1976. You initially think the film is doing Benedict XVI no favours by not exploring his past and character in anything like the same way.

But then you think about it a bit and you realise that, actually, not exploring Benedict XVI’s past is possibly one of the kindest things you could do for him in a movie, because there are many big question marks here. I don’t refer to his time in the Hitlerjugend, but the topic which inevitably surfaces in any discussion of the modern Roman Catholic Church: the child abuse scandals and the suggestions of a systematic, institutionalised cover-up. It has been suggested that Ratzinger’s involvement in this, and the damage its exposure could do to the Church, is the main reason for his retirement as pope.

Obviously the film has to address this, or at least touch on it – and it duly does so. I enjoyed this film a lot and found it to be mostly intelligent and well-made, but you could certainly argue it tries to dodge the issue here – or if not dodge, then certainly fudge. The resulting scene, where Benedict intimates to Bergoglio the extent of his knowledge of what’s been going on without going into too much detail, doesn’t just feel like a cop-out – it makes you suddenly realise the extent to which this film must be fictional, a what-if presentation of possible conversations between invented versions of the two men. Prior to this point the film has been plausible enough to win you over.

Well, it’s never a completely terrible idea to be reminded that a piece of fiction is a piece of fiction, and this at least is an interesting and often amusing one. And The Two Popes is well-enough written, played, and directed to give the impression that there may be a few grains of real truth sprinkled in amongst the invented sparkle, even if that impression may be completely unfounded. Worth seeing just for the performances, anyway.

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As previously noted, nothing which was once popular – no matter how briefly or how long ago – can ever be allowed to die a dignified death and slide quietly into oblivion any more. No, it must dragged back from the brink, propped up in front of a new audience, given a vague attempt at a new coat of paint, and forced to rake in a few more shekels. This seems to be an iron law of modern culture. I can think of no other explanation for the re-emergence of yet another new version of Charlie’s Angels.

The last couple of years have, after all, apparently brought about a complete rethink about the role and representation of women in popular media. They are no longer mere ornamental objects present only for the gratification of male viewers. Well, fair enough. But even at the time, the original Charlie’s Angels TV show was derided by critics as ‘jiggle TV’, for reasons I hope I don’t have to go into. ‘When the show was number three [in the ratings], I figured it was our acting. When it got to number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra,’ observed original star Farrah Fawcett. It was a show built around the exploitation of attractive young women.

And yet Elizabeth Banks’ new movie bloody-mindedly attempts to retool it as – according to a proper critic, in The Guardian – ‘weaponised feminism’. My head hurts. However, the new Charlie’s Angels movie is definitely aimed at independently-minded young women, which is surely the equivalent of trying to sell hamburgers to cattle. You can only be doing it for one of two reasons: you’ve radically reinvented the product, or you think your audience is very, very stupid.

In the end it’s probably the first one, I think – by which I means that if the film does treat the viewer as thick, it’s not intentional, just something that many Hollywood movies do without really thinking about it. The paradox inherent in the movie does become apparent from the first scene, which features Kristen Stewart talking a lot about her self-determination and formidable polymathic talents and so on, all the while wearing a sparkly pink mini-dress and a long blonde wig.

Soon enough the movie moves on to something a bit less intellectually demanding and some martial arts action breaks out. ‘I’m your new girlfriend!’ cries Stewart, headbutting a bad guy into insensibility. It certainly gives a whole new charm to the notion of remaining self-partnered. More importantly, Patrick Stewart wanders in, playing Bosley – the implication seems to be that he is playing the David Doyle character from the original show (Stewart is somewhat artlessly inserted into photos alongside the original TV cast and that of the early 2000s movies).

Normally Stewart wraps himself in gravitas and integrity like a cloak, but on this occasion he just twinkles a lot, which is a little wrong-footing. I think it is safe to say that his performance in this film is not quite of the same stature as all that work with the RSC or playing Sejanus, Jean-Luc Picard or Professor X, but on the other hand CGI has been used to carefully remove the dollar-signs appearing in both eyes throughout all his scenes.

On with the plot. Patrick Stewart’s Bosley retires, and is replaced by Banks herself as another Bosley – yes, the world is now so feminist that even the token man is a woman. More importantly, perhaps, over in Berlin nice young computer expert Naomi Scott discovers the revolutionary clean energy technology she is working on has dangerous potential as a deadly weapon, which bad actors are taking an interest in (I mean criminal agents, not the cast, but now you mention it…). It’s up to Banks-Bosley, Stewart, and Ella Balinska (playing another new Angel) to save the day.

This involves whizzing around Berlin, Istanbul, and various other locations, in a style which is some way sub-Mission: Impossible and even further sub-Bond. To be fair to the movie, Elizabeth Banks puts together a functional set of action sequences – chases, fights, sneakings-in-and-out-of-secure-places, and so on – but when the gunfire and revving engines fade away, all one is left with is the sound of comic banter falling flat and people expositing blandly at each other, interspersed with the occasional somewhat obtrusive you-go-girl moment.

It brings me no pleasure to report this, as Elizabeth Banks strikes me as a talented person who makes interesting creative choices: apart from this film, just this year she has appeared in Brightburn and the second Lego Movie, both of which were well worth watching. However, as Banks not only directed the film, but also wrote the final screenplay and co-produced it, it is her name which is most prominent on the charge sheet. As an actress, at least, she appears to be trying hard, and emerges from the film with as much credit as anyone else involved in this department.

However, the name of the game is Charlie’s Angels, and it really stands or falls by the quality of the central trio. Quite what philosophy was adopted by the casting team for this film seems a bit of a mystery, as there is – to put it delicately – a bit of a disparity when it comes to the profile of the stars. Whichever way you look at it, Kristen Stewart is globally famous and has done many big movies; Naomi Scott was very prominent in Aladdin earlier this year; while Ella Balinska is effectively a complete unknown. The effect of this is, again, a bit wrong-footing. However, I have to say that the film does prove again that, no matter how bad some of the later Twilight films were (and some of them were very bad indeed), Stewart does have genuine screen presence and star quality: you do find your eye drawn to her when she’s on. I’m not sure the same is true of Naomi Scott, at least not to the same extent, but I discern considerable potential for a future career playing kooky best friends here. Ella Balinska, on the other hand, can’t deliver a joke or a piece of exposition to save her life, but she is about eight feet tall, which was probably useful for the fight choreography.

Whatever you think of the wisdom of the film’s attempt to reinvent Charlie’s Angels for the post-Unique Moment world, or its gender politics in general, the biggest problems it has are that as a comedy it isn’t funny and as an action movie it never particularly thrills. I would be more tolerant and responsive to whatever subtext it is trying to put across if the actual text of the thing was competently done and entertaining. It is not, and perhaps the most indicative thing about it is that there is no sense of great potential being squandered: it just feels like mechanical Hollywood product, with even its big message closely calculated to appeal to the target audience. I remain convinced, though, that even a brilliantly-executed feminist take on Charlie’s Angels would be a deeply, deeply weird film.

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Disney’s current near-hegemony at the box office is always just a bit more apparent at Christmas time, where for some years now it has been very apparent that everyone else is running scared of the power of the Mouse House. One sign of this is that other studios are releasing their festive movies absurdly early: bringing anything new out at a sensible time, like actually at Christmas, risks being squashed like a bug by their latest stellar conflict brand extension or whatever.

As a result, Paul Feig’s Last Christmas has been out since about the middle of November, which is plainly a bit ridiculous, especially when you consider the grim, steely determination with which it sets about spraying the audience with yuletide cheer, like an Uzi set to fully automatic. As is not entirely unexpected for a film heavily trading on affection for George Michael and his music, it opens with a choirgirl singing ‘Heal the Pain’. This is not unpleasant to listen to, but I was almost at once distracted by the fact she is apparently singing it in a church, in – according to a caption – Yugoslavia in 1999. Did they sing pop songs in Balkan churches in 1999? Was Yugoslavia even still around in 1999?

Best not to get too tangled up in such issues, anyway. For reasons which remain obscure, the bulk of the film is set at Christmas 2017, and concerns the now-grown choirgirl, Kate (Katarina to her family), who is played by Emilia Clarke. She is an aspiring musical theatre actress, but is going through a sort of ill-defined long-term personal crisis. She is also (initially at least, though this kind of gets forgotten about) a huge fan of George Michael and Wham, and (in the name of ensuring the film’s festivity quotient is maxed out) works in a year-round Christmas shop run by Michelle Yeoh.

It is while she is working here that she meets Tom, a mysterious stranger played by Henry Golding, in a more than usually contrived cute-meet involving a bird shitting on her face. All the usual stuff blossoms between the two of them, and slowly she begins to reassess her life, be more considerate of the people around her, and generally attempt to be a bit more positive… WAKE UP!!! (Sorry. I just know the effect that this sort of thing has on me, and I imagine it’s the same for other people.)

The first thing I should mention about Last Christmas is that it is a film built around a plot twist. Nothing wrong with that; many fine films can say the same. The thing about a good plot twist is that it should come as a complete and breathtaking surprise when it actually happens in the film, but (in retrospect) seem entirely reasonable. Last Christmas‘s plot twist does not quite reach these lofty heights: unless all the bulbs in your cerebral Christmas lights have blown, you will almost certainly be able to guess the twist just from watching the trailer. Even then, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fatal problem if most people were not then moved to say ‘That’s a really cheesy/stupid/terrible idea’. But they are. Hereabouts we respect plot integrity (even in bad movies), so I will simply suggest that the film’s plot pivots around a uniquely reductionist interpretation of some George Michael lyrics. Enough said.

So: basically, what we have here is the archetypal seasonal story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, involved in a head-on smash with the Richard Curtis rom-com formula. Various often acceptable performers are scythed down by the ensuing shrapnel, and quite possibly members of the audience too. The story was thought up by Emma Thompson and her husband, and written down by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, possibly all on the same afternoon. I can’t speak about Thompson’s husband or Kimmings, but Emma herself always struck me as a fairly smart cookie, and I am surprised to see her so signally fail to figure out that these two story-patterns are just not compatible. For the Christmas Carol pattern to work, you need to have a genuinely flawed character seriously in need of redemption. Rom-com characters are also flawed, as a rule, but not to anything like the same degree: the form requires them to be cute and loveable from the get-go. Last Christmas‘ problem – one of its problems – is that it can’t get over how wonderful it thinks Emilia Clarke’s character is. We are occasionally told what an awful person she is, but that’s all: the film is almost palpably needy in its attempts to make you root for and sympathise with her. Only having watched certain selected highlights of Musical Chairs on the internet, I am not really familiar with Emilia Clarke; but even if she really is as great an actress as my friends often assure me, she would need a much better script to make this particular character work.

It probably doesn’t help that she is sharing the screen for a lot of the film with Henry Golding, who is playing – and let me just pause for a moment here while I reflect upon the mot juste – a git. Specifically, he is a rom-com git, the kind of relentlessly warm, quirky, caring, decent chap guaranteed to evoke feelings of homicidal animosity in any right-thinking viewer (cf Michael Maloney in Truly, Madly, Deeply, for instance). As the name suggests, it takes an actor of significant skill, nuance, and charisma to transcend the essential gittishness of this kind of role and turn them into someone whose appearance in a scene does not cause the heart to sink. Golding brings to bear all the experience and technique he has acquired in his long career as a presenter of TV travel shows, and yet still somehow falls short.

There does seem to be something awfully calculated and insincere about Last Christmas, and I do wonder if this doesn’t extend to the casting. One of the trends I have noticed in commercial cinema over the last few years is the tendency to stick in a couple of Asian actors, just to help flog the film in the far east, and I can’t help wondering if the inclusion of Golding and Yeoh (Anglo-Malaysian and Chinese-Malaysian respectively) isn’t just another example of this sort of thing. It does make the various jokes in the film about the proliferation of horrible commercialised Christmas tat seem rather lacking in self-awareness, given the whole movie is horrible commercial Christmas tat itself. Nevertheless, we are assured this is ‘the Christmas film of the decade!’, although without specifying which one: possibly the 1340s.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that Last Christmas is all bad, of course: there was one moment which actually made me laugh, although as it featured Peter Serafinowicz this is not really surprising. Unfortunately he is only in the film for about a minute. The rest of it is fairly consistently horrible, containing weird plot holes, mistaking quirkiness for genuine wit, and failing to realise that feel-good moments only come at a price: you have to really believe the characters have been knocked down if you’re going to rejoice when they get up again. The film’s attempts at moments of genuine emotional seriousness and pain just feel trite, though I should note that Clarke is trying hard throughout. The film’s habit of occasionally sticking in a glib and superficial political subtext with little real bearing on the plot is also rather crass, and does rather jar with Emma Thompson’s sizeable performance as a comedy Yugoslavian immigrant.

In the end, this is all surface and sentimentality, without any real sense of believeable characters or genuine emotions, with a soundtrack of George Michael songs (seemingly picked at random) trying to hold it together. I imagine that admirers of this thing (and they must be out there, for it has made $68 million to date) would say that its heart is in the right place. Given how the plot turns out, this is somewhat ironic, but it’s not true, in any case. Last Christmas‘ heart is in the right place only if you believe the right place for a heart is between the ears.

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