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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

To begin at the end, just for a change:

‘Can I just mention,’ I said to the multiplex minions on the way out of the building, ‘that I saw a mouse this evening?’

‘A mouse? Where?’

‘Up in screen three.’

‘Where in screen three?’

‘Right there.’

This was turning into an old Ronnie Hilton song, and I attempted to head off this unwelcome development. ‘It was scurrying down the aisle in the middle of the movie. I don’t think it had a ticket.’ The last part probably wasn’t necessary, in hindsight.

Now, if I were running a cinema, the existence of rodents running amuck in the auditoria would be a cause of some concern for me, but the minons looked amused more than anything else, and not particularly inclined to do anything. They thanked me for raising the issue but did not look particularly inclined to break out the elephant gun, or indeed the butterfly nets.

Then again it seemed to be weird behaviour night at the Odeon, for quite apart from the staff being on the happy pills and our four-legged-friend acting like it owned the place, I distinctly saw one person sitting on top of another in the back row of the same screen we were in. God knows the seats at Odeon are not always great, but even so. It was almost enough to distract one from Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, which would have been a regrettable occurrence.

The movie is another of those based-on-a-true-story dramas which we tend to get a lot of at this time of year. In this case the story mostly takes place in Alabama, in the late eighties and early nineties. Michael B Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, an idealistic young lawyer fresh out of Harvard, who – despite the understandable misgivings of certain family members – heads down to the state to set up an agency specialising in giving legal support to prisoners who have no other access to it. It almost goes without saying that this meets with a certain degree of resistance from some of the locals (they have trouble getting office space, and so on). Assisting him in this is a dedicated local woman, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).

One of the men who Stevenson encounters is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), on death row after being convicted of the murder of a young white woman. McMillian is a bitter man who has surrendered to despair after being very ill-served by his court-appointed lawyers, but Stevenson quickly becomes convinced that McMillian’s conviction is profoundly unsound – the case for the prosecution was founded on the evidence of a felon, offered in return for a deal, while the testimony of dozens of McMillian’s friends and family providing him with an alibi was not even considered in court. Proving his innocence would seem to be a relatively straightforward matter – but there is a deep-seated resistance to re-opening the case, and institutional prejudice in the D.A.’s office and the sheriff’s department. Does justice still mean anything in this part of America?

Truth be told, I turned up to Just Mercy quite prepared to be very glib and cynical about it – I believe I may even have referred to it a little dismissively in passing as ‘a quality drama in which a young lawyer confronts racial prejudice’ and as being part of a slew of ‘social justice movies about the Black experience in contemporary America’, the subtext being that this was a fairly calculated attempt to create something that feels timely, with the right kind of political stance. And to some extent it is exactly this kind of movie, which has certainly appeared in cinemas at just the right time to potentially draw awards attention.

You can certainly sense the film trying to position itself, not least as part of a feted tradition of American movies about racial issues in the southern states: Just Mercy repeatedly namechecks To Kill a Mockingbird, and there is certainly a touch of In the Heat of the Night to the various scenes in which Jordan clashes with the local establishment. Other elements of it do feel just a little too much like studio Hollywood – Tim Blake Nelson comes on and delivers an arguably slightly overcooked performance as an eccentric felon, and Rafe Spall is a touch too weaselly as the District Attorney opposing a review of the case. Brie Larson has been issued with a somewhat unflattering hairstyle and is doing a thick accent, which are basically signs this is the sort of ‘character’ performance with the potential to get a comely young actress nominated for things.

And yet, and yet. As mentioned, I turned up fully prepared to keep my distance, decode the movie’s political anglings, keep track of the boxes it was ticking, and so on – but rather to my surprise, I very quickly found myself being thoroughly drawn into the story and actually coming to care about the characters and their situation. I have very little explanation for this other than the fact that the film falls back on traditional film-making virtues like a well-written script, strong performances, and capable direction. It also treats the viewer with intelligence, which shouldn’t be worthy of a mention but sadly is. There is not one element of the film which is openly flashy or attention-grabbing or gimmicky, but as a whole it works highly effectively: the film is powerful and moving while remaining, for the most part, understated.

In the middle of it all is Michael B Jordan, who gives an excellent performance. Jordan has been turning up and doing good work in all manner of movies for the last few years, and here he gets to lead a big, serious film, and does so with impressive aplomb. He brings strength, dignity and nobility to the part, without overdoing any of these things; he also manages to project vulnerability and occasional naivety at the same time. As the film goes on there is a tendency for him just to be given a lot of speechifying to do, but he even handles this very well. He shows every sign of becoming a significant figure in mainstream American cinema.

In the end this is a film about racial tensions in contemporary America (although there is a convenient distancing effect provided by the fact it’s set over a quarter of a century ago), which also has things to say about the grotesqueness of capital punishment. But it works so well because it focuses on the characters as human beings, rather than openly being about a theme or having a particular message to give. By the time the film does put its cards on the table, at the very end, it has earned your attention and guaranteed you listen to what it has to say. This is still not the most original movie around on this theme at the moment, but it is still one of high quality and well worth your time.

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Film lead times being what they are, it’s only now that we are starting to see big studio movies that were greenlit in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that followed it. As the Weinstein case itself is still sub judice, or whatever the American equivalent is, studios and producers are having to look elsewhere for material for this kind of film. It’s a no-brainer that Jay Roach’s Bombshell has settled upon some particularly promising source material, which is very resonant with Weinstein’s case as well as opening up all kinds of other areas which can be usefully exploited.

Bombshell is largely set in the offices (and concerns employees) of the Fox News network. Even over here in the UK Fox News has become a byword for a certain kind of hard-right, not exactly impartial broadcasting. It is, notoriously, Donald Trump’s news outlet of choice, and the bulk of the film is set during the last American presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlise Theron) is given permission by the network’s owners, the Murdoch family, to give Trump a hard time during a TV debate, to which he responds with typical restraint, thoughtfulness, and humility (i.e., none whatsoever). Kelly is hounded as a result, with the network’s founder and head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) reluctant to fully support her.

Other plotlines run parallel to this one: Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman seeking preferment, attempts to get ahead at Fox, but finds that this involves making certain accommodations with Ailes that she was not expecting. Another woman broadcaster, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired, with no specific reason given. She has her own suspicions about this, and proceeds to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. This is the storyline that proceeds to dominate the film. Carlson assumes that she has been far from the only recipient of Ailes’ attention, but she is reliant on other women coming forward to corroborate her story. The question is, is anyone prepared to risk their careers by taking a stand against the prevailing culture at the network?

Here’s the thing about Bombshell: it’s written by Charles Randolph, most celebrated for the sterling job he did co-scripting The Big Short, and the trailer and other publicity material for this movie suggests that it’s going to be in the same kind of vein as both The Big Short and last year’s Vice – smart, fast, angry films, unafraid to be politically engaged, but also very blackly comic and with a real willingness to be formally inventive and even subversive. Bombshell is a bit like this to begin with – there is a flashback to a profoundly awkward conversation between a woman and her boss, in which he explains he will happily promote her if she’ll sleep with him, during which we are privy to her thoughts – but certainly by the end of the first act it has settled down to become a largely serious drama about a workplace culture in which sexual harassment is virtually part of the ethos.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think sexual harassment is something to be treated lightly, by any means – it’s just that Bombshell isn’t quite the film I had been hoping for. It is still distinctive in other ways, of course, not least because it is still a surprisingly political film. Standard Hollywood procedure, certainly in the current riven times, is to affect to be studiously apolitical: when the makers of one of the new stellar conflict movies jokingly drew parallels between the Trump administration and the Empire, they were quickly slapped down by Disney and various soothing press releases issued: the red cap brigade are a volatile bunch and the studios want them to turn up to movies, for their money is as good as anyone else’s. Bombshell does feature Donald Trump in archive footage, but it is set prior to his most notoriously misogynistic comments became widely known and it is not explicitly critical of the president. On the other hand, the tune being played by the mood music is very obvious, and it will be interesting to see if other films take a similar approach over the coming year.

Todd Phillips, who rose to notice making dumb comedy films before receiving critical acclaim for Joker, has said he’s stopped doing comedies because the modern world is such a minefield of potentially contentious issues that people can’t wait to get outraged about. It seems he’s not the only one, but once you get past the considerable cognitive dissonance of the director of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me making a largely serious film about sexual harassment, there are many good things about Bombshell. Certainly one of the most noticeable things about it is the extent to which various members of the cast have been slathered in prosthetic make-up to make them look more like other people. I suspect the effect may be rather lost on audiences outside of the US, for here in the UK at least the likes of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are virtually unknown: Nicole Kidman just looks like Nicole Kidman with a distractingly fake chin (I think), while Charlise Theron is bemusingly difficult to recognise. That said, there is some fun to be had when Malcolm McDowell turns up as Rupert Murdoch – McDowell certainly seems to be enjoying himself, although I am not sure his ten-minute cameo warrants his prominence in the credits.

Not wearing any prosthetics at all, on the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who does give a very good performance. The issue is that she is playing a fictional character – a composite of various real people, to be sure, but still essentially, well, fictional. I am always very wary when makers of supposedly fact-based films start doing this sort of thing – it gives the impression that the true story they’ve decided to tell needs pepping up a bit, or otherwise adjusting in order to make it more commercial – ‘like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend’, to quote someone whose name I have regrettably forgotten.  It also seems to me that there are ethical issues involved in showing a real person basically molesting a fictional character, in a movie depicting various other real people. To be fair, Bombshell takes great pains to make clear that the truth has been edited to make the movie – but it doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how.

Oh well. At least, as noted, Robbie is on form; so is Kate McKinnon, who plays another fictional character (the rather unlikely role of a closeted lesbian liberal who works at Fox News because she can’t get a job anywhere else). McKinnon is also prominent in the trailer, which may be another reason I was expecting the film to be funnier – she generally does comedies, after all, not least because she is one of those people who can’t help but find the humour in any character or scene. That said, she does find the more serious notes here with no difficulty at all, confirming that if you can do comedy, the more serious stuff is a comparative doddle.

But the performances are generally good all round, the script is solid, and the storytelling reasonably assured – after a discursive start, the film finds its focus and sticks to it. If I sound a bit lukewarm about Bombshell, it may be more because it’s not the film I expected, rather than a genuinely poor one. It treats its subject matter with respect, and if it sometimes feels like it’s a message movie rather than a piece of entertainment, that’s probably because it is – to some extent, anyway. Nevertheless, a worthy and watchable film.

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When you give your movie a name like Chaplin or Ali, there is an implicit assumption involved that your subject is so famous and significant as to need no further introduction. There are multitudes of people in the world named Ali, and quite a few with the surname Chaplin, but it’s taken for granted that people are going to know who you’re on about. With both the films mentioned above, it’s a fairly safe bet, but there really are relatively few people with the same kind of mononymic recognition factor. It helps if you have a fairly distinctive name to begin with, of course.

Which brings us to Benedict Andrews’ Seberg. The name is certainly not a common one, but on the other hand its owner – the actress Jean Seberg – is a relatively forgotten figure these days, who stopped making movies in America nearly fifty years ago. I doubt many people could even name a Jean Seberg movie: I probably know a bit more about obscure old movies than the average person, and I would have really struggled. To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about Seberg (or Seberg) before going in to see the movie; I thought Jean Seberg was French, and that I would be in for something stylish and possibly a bit pretentious about French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s.

Mais non. The film takes place about a decade later, in a milieu vaguely similar to that of Tarantino’s last movie (I would imagine; didn’t see it), primarily Hollywood in the late 1960s. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) is flying back to the States from her home in France, ostensibly to make Paint Your Wagon – but, rather to the despair of her agent, she is tired of just being decorative in dumb commercial movies and wants to use her celebrity and wealth to achieve something more worthwhile. On the plane she encounters Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a radical civil rights activist and sometime associate of the Black Panthers.

Seberg is attracted to the cause – and, not to put too fine a point on it, Jamal himself – and becomes a donor to the various programmes and other good causes he oversees. The two also begin an affair. However, Seberg’s involvement with a political radical brings her into the crosshairs of the FBI, which is in the process of implementing J Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO programme of targetting and disrupting domestic political organisations deemed to be subversive. Seberg is initially surveilled, then later finds herself persecuted by the agency, even as the agent in charge of leading the surveillance against her (Jack O’Connell) finds himself doubting the morality of the orders he is given.

So, not so much a floaty art-house thing about the French New Vague and Jean-Luc Godard as something verging on being another movie about the Plight of Black America (I get the sense there are a few of these imminent). Some of the publicity for Seberg describes it as a ‘political thriller’, which strikes me as pushing it a bit, but there are political themes here, as well as story elements which are often to be found in thrillers. That said, it’s also about Jean Seberg as an individual, and key events of her life, handled very much in the time-honoured biopic fashion.

Whatever else we say about this movie, I think the time has come for the world to stop squabbling, take a moment, and agree that Kristen Stewart is a very capable and charismatic performer. Yes, she started her career in the Twilight movies, but everyone has to take the breaks they’re given: Steve McQueen was in The Blob, Sandra Bullock was in Bionic Showdown, and Scarlett Johansson was in Home Alone 3, after all. I have been as guilty as anyone of yielding to a little internal ‘uh-oh’ moment when Stewart’s name appears near the top of a movie’s cast list, but as often as not she has turned out to be one of the best things in it. The same is true here: this is a serious and committed performance. Stewart is perhaps lucky that Seberg has really slipped from the collective memory, so she doesn’t have to go all out and attempt an actual impersonation, but this is still good work.

Better, perhaps, than the movie deserves. This is a potentially very interesting story, still quite timely and yet (I would suspect) relatively obscure. The early sections of the movie, when it resembles a thriller much more strongly, are genuinely involving and well-paced, asking all kinds of questions – not least about Seberg herself and what motivates her. Is she really trying to use her fame to further the common good, or just a restless young woman making a rather oblique cry for help? (I have to say that if there is any irony in Kristen Stewart playing a photogenic movie star who eschews mainstream work in favour of more personal projects, the movie does not really seem aware of it.) To what degree is her fascination with Jamal political rather than simply physical? The movie leaves the question open.

However, as it goes on the film becomes much more internalised and also slower – definitely more of an autobiographical drama than anything else. It handles the shift in gears moderately well, but the film becomes a lot less engaging. Throughout all this there is also the subplot about O’Connell’s decent FBI agent and his wife (Margaret Qualley), and the strains his assignment – not to mention some of his colleagues – place on their relationship. It breaks up the narrative a bit but doesn’t feel like its contributing a huge amount. I should add that the performances here are never less than perfectly fine, and occasionally rather better than that: Vince Vaughn appears as a veteran FBI agent who is also a prejudiced thug, and is completely convincing in the role – his transformation into a reliable character heavy seems to be complete.

In the end, Seberg is a film with lots of potential that is never completely realised. Perhaps it just assumes a little too much interest in and familiarity with the main character on the part of the audience – there’s something a little odd about this, given that it’s the comparatively little-known nature of the story that provides much of the movie’s appeal. As it is, it’s well-played, but not especially well-written or directed, and ends up feeling a little tonally awkward as a result. But the first half is very watchable – it just runs out of steam as it goes on.

 

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It is perhaps a sign of the magnitude of the psychic scar left by the First World War that we can’t seem to stop making movies about it, even as the events themselves slide inevitably out of the realm of living memory. It seems to me that in recent years we’ve had more films about the First World War than the Second – the centenary of the conflict may have had something to do with this, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t also to do with the way the two wars are popularly perceived: the Second World War was a ‘good’ or just war, a battle against an undeniably evil ideology. That kind of thinking feels odd in today’s deeply cynical and morally compromised world, so perhaps inevitably we are drawn to a war which is generally regarded as a futile, pointless slaughter: industrialised murder with human beings treated as raw materials, an appropriate curtain-raiser for the modern age. I could always be wrong. Regardless of all that, here to join the ranks of First World War movies is Sam Mendes’ 1917.

As you might be able to guess from the pleasingly numeric title (I say pleasing because it allowed me to walk up to the ticket desk and say ‘One fo(u)r nineteen-seventeen in two-D at two fifty in (screen) one’ with a reasonably straight face) the movie is set in 1917. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay play two young British soldiers who are selected for a special mission and dragged in front of a general (Colin Firth). The assignment is not the cushy food-collecting detail they are hoping for. A failure of intelligence (whichever way you want to look at it) means that a battalion has been tricked into thinking an enemy strategic withdrawal is actual a retreat, and is about to launch an attack on what is actually a heavily-defended stretch of the German lines. A message has to be delivered halting the advance before nearly two thousand men are sacrificed. Blake (Chapman) is younger and keener and his brother is amongst the endangered troops; he is highly motivated to succeed in the mission. Schofield (MacKay) is older, more jaded by his experiences, less inclined to take risks. But orders are orders, even if it means a hazardous crossing of no-man’s-land and a trek across territory where the Germans may still be operating…

The element of 1917 stressed most by its initial publicity was the decision to make it as immersive as possible, by creating a film which gives the impression of being a single very long take. There’s a little bit of disingenuity and careful choosing of words going on there, not least because the story requires a very obvious break in the narrative at one point. You do find yourself looking out for the occasional moments when the two main characters pass through a pitch-black tunnel for a couple of seconds, or there’s another moment where they’re both out of sight and a sneaky digital edit could be done – in short, this isn’t even trying that hard to look like a genuinely single-take picture.

I suppose this is comparable to what’s happened to the special effects movie as a piece of cinema: advances in technology mean that doing a single-take movie (or apparently single-take movie) is much easier now than it was even a few years ago. When Hitchcock had a go, back in the 1940s, he was limited by the fact that film cameras could only shoot for ten minutes at a time, and Rope was structured accordingly (there’s an ‘invisible’ edit every ten minutes or so). Genuine ‘one take, no cuts’ feature films still tend to originate from outside the English-speaking world – the Spanish movie Victoria got a release over here a few years ago and was the longest example of the form at the time, while the Japanese spoof Don’t Stop the Camera! also fleetingly appeared in order to spoof the form in dazzling style – and even the ‘cheat’ version preferred by American film-makers is not especially common.

One wonders as to the extent to which the decision to film 1917 in this style was a creative one and how much the critical plaudits won by Birdman in 2015 (including, let’s remember, a slightly controversial Best Picture Oscar) were an influence. In the end I don’t think it really matters, because in the end it’s not about whether this genuinely is a single-take picture, but the impact it achieves by appearing to be one. And the fact is that a few minutes into 1917 I was able to sit back and relax, confident that I was watching a very fine movie indeed (something I don’t feel I get to do nearly often enough).

The performances by the two young stars are both very good – George MacKay has been doing quite big movies for a number of years now, and hopefully this will raise his profile even further – while the structure of the piece basically means a string of other actors turn up to deliver brief cameos, usually as British officers. Apart from Firth as a stern but benign general, Andrew Scott appears as a jaded lieutenant, Mark Strong as a worldly-wise captain, Richard Madden as a brother officer, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the man they’re trying to reach (I hope that’s not too big a spoiler). (It feels like I haven’t seen Mark Strong in a movie for ages, but then at one point he was turning up in five or six films a year.)

Most of these actors, fine though they are, are to some extent playing stock types, and the film has no very new ideas to offer about the First World War – but what the style of the film does is to plunge you into the hell of the trenches and the landscape around them. It is as a visceral sensory experience that 1917 really functions, and as you stumble with the characters through booby-trapped enemy positions, with rotting faces jutting from muddy ramparts and rats skittering everywhere, you get the faintest inkling of a sense of what it must have been like for the people who were really there. Did it have to be made this way? Well, probably not – there’s a school of thought that we don’t experience the world as a single take anyway; an eye blink is nature’s version of a cut – but the thing is that it does work as a movie, making you understand and care. Someone who begins as an everyman becomes truly heroic by journey’s end. Needless to say, it is often visually startling, as well as moving and technically accomplished. Not quite entertainment in the traditional sense, but still well worth watching, especially on the big screen.

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Never let it be said that you can’t do a family-friendly, acclaimed, popular movie about Nazism: the bloomin’ Sound of Music was on again the other night, sending the usual dubious message that the best way of dealing with a fascist takeover of your government is to start singing at it. But the danger of doing funny stuff about the Nazis is that the joke will end up being on you. To paraphrase the late Clive James, if Nazism was a joke, then it was a cruel joke played by history on the world, and one that we should be careful of laughing at too freely.

Quite reasonably, this sentiment seems to be fairly widespread in civilised society, which may be why the publicity material for Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has been stressing the fact that this isn’t just a black comedy about life in Nazi Germany, but a film with important things to say about understanding, tolerance, etc, etc. That doesn’t change the fact that the trailer seems designed to provoke that old Kipling line about the sheer audacity of the thing. (I should mention that this is a rare example of one of those films enjoying a staggered international release: which is to say it has only just come out in the UK, a couple of months after many other countries.)

Roman Griffin Davis plays Johannes Betzler, a ten-year-old boy living somewhere in Germany towards the end of the Second World War. His father and sister are both gone, due to the war, and he is living alone with his mother – or so he thinks, anyway. (Johannes’ mother is played by Scarlett Johansson: it feels like there should be some sort of joke in there, but I just can’t find it.) Like many young lads, he has an imaginary friend, but what is slightly unusual in this case is that his pal is Adolf Hitler (Waititi), or at least his own slightly warped idea of what Hitler is like. As the film starts, Jojo (for so is he known) leads a fairly happy, carefree life, heedless of the advancing Allies: he and his friends go off on Hitler Youth activity weekends, have fun burning books, learn to recognise Jews, and so on.

However, things get a bit more complicated when Jojo discovers an interloper in the family home: a teenage girl who is living in the wainscotting. Her name is Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and she is a Jewish refugee given refuge by Jojo’s mother. What is a dedicated young Nazi supposed to do in a situation like this one? Things are not made any easier when it turns out that Elsa is not the vile, horned cannibal he has been led to expect, but actually seems to be quite a pleasant young woman…

Now, of course, the idea of using Nazism as the source of jokes in a bad-taste comedy is hardly a new one: Mel Brooks won an Oscar for The Producers over fifty years ago, and there’s a lot of the same provocative spirit here too – ‘It’s time to burn some books!’ cries Rebel Wilson as one of the Hitler Youth instructors (her charges cheer with delight), while Sam Rockwell initially appears to be turning in one of his more uninhibited performances as the wounded army veteran put in charge of the group. But, on the other hand, there is that storyline about Elsa hiding in Jojo’s house and their developing friendship. So which is this to be? A wild comedy of excess, made acceptable by a more thoughtful, human-interest subplot? Or an attempt at a film with genuine heart and emotion, perked up now and then by some jokes about Swastikas and comedy Gestapo agents?

I think, in the end, that Jojo Rabbit is a bit less bold and outrageous than its publicity suggests it to be – or perhaps I should say that it is not consistently provocative. There are lengthy semi-serious segments, mostly concerning Jojo’s relationships with his mother and with Elsa, which do function on a more naturalistic level and are obviously attempting to engage with the audience’s emotions – not without success, I should add. Only occasionally do Rockwell, Wilson, and the others turn up for another sketch-like interlude.

In the end I suppose we should be grateful for this, but on the other hand there is the awkward problem that the comic scenes are much more successful than the more serious ones – by which I mean they mostly get the laughs they’re aiming for, mainly due to a decent script and full-blooded performances from a cast who know what they’re doing. The more measured scenes are not actually bad, with Johansson in particular clearly working hard, but the more serious the film tries to be, the more awkward it feels – as if it’s playing a role out of obligation, rather than any real conviction. At one point there’s a sequence where stirring music plays as Jojo watches the civilian population of his home town squandering their lives in a futile attempt to hold off the advancing Allies – but it’s hard to think of any message this is supposed to be putting across that isn’t trite or facile.

Perhaps it would work better if there was more of a sense of the film being grounded in an actual historical setting, but the film is vague at best about the actual period in which it takes place. You could argue that all films set in recent history look identical, and this is an attempt to avoid that cliche (the cinematography and art directon are much brighter and less textured than you might expect) – but something about that kind of look does give a sense of verisimilitude, which is lacking here. I’m not saying the costumes or sets are wrong, but it just doesn’t feel like the 1940s, and odd details like Jojo’s home town being invaded by both Americans and Russians on the same day just add to the sense of this essentially being a cartoon even when it’s attempting to be serious.

This is by no means a terrible film with which to start the year – there are some good performances, it is frequently very funny, and its heart is certainly in the right place. But it seems to me that the comedic elements of the film just work to make it feel superficial, detracting from the more serious story which is really at its heart. Not the worst film a bunch of comedians have made about the Nazis – that honour still probably goes to The Day the Clown Cried, or at least it would if anyone was allowed to watch it – but it is rather uneven, even in its better moments.

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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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