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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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I used to get a little bit exercised by people choosing inappropriate titles for their movies. I don’t just mean bad movies using good names, just titles which seem… not quite right for the movie. Back in 2011, Paddy Considine released a film called Tyrannosaur, which is a perfectly good title for a film featuring a carnivorous theropod on the rampage. Attaching it to an (admittedly very good) downbeat naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of male rage struck me as a bit of a waste, to be honest.

When I first started hearing people talking about a movie called Parasite, I was pretty sure I knew what they were on about: I have vague memories of the film in question, which was directed by low-budget maestro Charles Band, released in 1982 and features Demi Moore in an early role. Suffice to say there is a lot of icky body horror and slimy things with teeth infesting various secondary members of the cast. This is exactly what I would expect from a movie called Parasite.

Of course, we now live in a world where – as is occasionally the case with films with mononymic titles – anyone wanting to watch Demi Moore just starting out had best take care, as there is now another, rather better-known film called Parasite. Not that confusion is particularly likely, of course: the 1982 movie has an 11% rating on a solanaceous review aggregation site, and won no awards whatsover, while the new one, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is currently scoring 99%, in addition to winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes and Best Picture at the Academy Awards – the first film to win both in 65 years, and the first film made in a foreign language to win the big prize at the Oscars.

This is the kind of acclaim that often leads to impossibly high expectations, but on the other hand it does work a treat in getting a slightly arty-looking subtitled film a major release – I note that, in the UK at least, Parasite didn’t start to appear in some multiplexes until after it won the Oscar. Certainly, to begin with it bears a passing resemblance to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, another acclaimed Asian movie which didn’t get a major UK release.

To begin with, we are in the company of the Kim family, a penurious Seoul family reduced to living in a basement and folding disposable pizza boxes to scrape a living. Patriarch of this unprepossessing mob is Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), a moderately successful hammer thrower now gone to seed, his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and their children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). The Kims are living so close to the edge that their neighbour putting a password on her wifi constitutes a significant problem for them.

However, this all changes when Ki-woo’s friend Min finds him a job giving English lessons to the daughter of the wealthy Park family – Min has a mind to woo her once he gets back from a trip abroad, and has thus recommended Ki-woo as someone from such a poverty-stricken background can’t possibly be a romantic rival to him. He also gives the Kims a lucky rock, which will supposedly bring them good fortune. ‘Wow, it’s so metaphorical!’ cries a delighted Ki-woo, in one of the script’s many droll touches. Ki-woo duly passes muster with the slightly dippy mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) of the Park family.

What rapidly becomes apparent is that this is the sort of opportunity the Kims have clearly been waiting for for quite some time. With the speed and ferocity of a burrowing maggot, they waste no time in inserting themselves into the Parks’ lovely home: Ki-woo spots that his new employers’ hyperactive younger child likes drawing, and thus introduces Ki-jeong as a potential art therapist for the lad. The sacking of the family servants is ingeniously contrived, creating vacancies that the two senior Kims can fill. Soon the whole family is cheerfully soaking the Parks for whatever they can get, with their hosts blissfully unaware even of the fact they are unwittingly employing four members of the same family. The Kims begin to have dreams of a better life and a better future – because what could possibly go wrong…?

Needless to say, something goes wrong, but the volta that occurs halfway through Parasite is so startling and genuinely unpredictable that one would have to be a real cad to give more than a few hints as to what goes on in the second half of the film. Needless to say, class tensions bubble to the surface, there’s an epically unsuccessful birthday party, the issue of body odour proves unexpectedly significant to the plot and the lucky rock proves to be quite unlucky, for one character at least.

So, this isn’t really a horror movie, but if it is an art-house movie it’s only because of the subtitles (‘the one-inch-tall barrier’, as the director so aptly put it). This is really no more ‘arty’ than a film by Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick, unless by arty you mean made with tremendous imagination and skill. I didn’t see Snowpiercer (someone gave it to me on a hard drive, which then went pop before I could watch it) and my admiration for his giant pig film was qualified at best, but this is a terrific movie.

Obviously, this is a film with things to say about serious and universal themes: the awkward relationship between wealth and power, and class consciousness, most obviously (you could draw a definite thematic parallel between Parasite and The Time Machine, if you really wanted to). Not that the title is without a degree of ambiguity – it’s clear that both families need each other in order to function (so perhaps Symbiosis would be just as apt a title). You could also argue that the film takes the fact that servants and lower-class people often seem to be invisible to the rich and powerful and makes it one of the central metaphors of the movie. There is a lot going on here.

Nevertheless, the denseness of the film’s ideas never get in the way of its entertainment value, or its achievement as a piece of cinema. Almost from the start you are swept along, as the Kims put their plan into motion with a gleeful ruthlessness – they are such an agreeable bunch, and Mrs Park in particular is so useless, that you can’t help but want them to get away with it, even though what they are up to is deeply morally questionable. Towards the end of the film the comedic elements inevitably fall away, however, and the film becomes darker and more complex, but the shift is as impeccably handled as the rest of it.

Parasite has pretty much everything one could hope for from a movie, and it is fully deserving of all its praise and accollades. Hopefully the one-inch-tall barrier will not keep too many people from watching it, for this is a film which balances serious themes with superb storytelling skill and the result is a film which is compellingly watchable from start to finish. Proof that the Academy Awards do sometimes get things right.

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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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