Thursday 30 November 2017

From the archive: "The Raid 2"

When The Raid dropped here in 2012, it did so as both sneak attack and surprise knockout: a nifty spot of exploitation, engineered by a Welshman operating out of Indonesia, which not only surpassed those pretty good Tony Jaa vehicles imported from Thailand in the mid-Noughties (Ong-Bak, The Warrior King), but gestured towards a grungier version of that baroque style pioneered by John Woo in The Killer and Hard-Boiled. When it punched its way into multiplexes, it seemed as though this coiled, economical urban roustabout might just have the same legs and influence as its evident touchstone Die Hard.

The Raid 2, appropriately, follows the Die Hard 2 route, leaving behind the up-down verticality of its predecessor and instead moving sideways, using its enhanced budget and duration to explore surrounding structures. Our hero Rama (Iko Uwais), so lithe first time around, has himself been pumped up, the better to pass as a street thug – his goal being to infiltrate a nearby crime syndicate. It will be a film of twisting, shifting forms: just when you think you’ve got it pinned down as one kind of actioner, it wriggles clear, jumps headlong through a window, and pegs it round the corner.

If the extra money showcases one thing, it’s that Evans’ skill extends far beyond staging fisticuffs: for one, his near-architectural laying out of story space suggests we may be dealing with the Antonioni of the action movie. Rama’s momentum has elevated him to the penthouses-and-boardrooms set: there’s much red carpet on show, which conceals the bloodstains, and a close-quarters kerfuffle in a wine cellar, which may have been more expensive to shoot than the first film in toto.

Yet this director is still every bit as assured at narrative containment: honing in on telling character details between the flying feet to the face, finding the sweet spots between pressure and release. The smartly structured first fifteen minutes turn out to be flashbacks, whizzing through the necessary exposition as our hero barricades himself in a prison toilet cubicle, girding his loins for the army of ne’er-do-wells gathering beyond the door. Everyone’s waiting for the beast to be unleashed.

Of course, if you are just here to watch limbs bent and skulls getting smashed, there’s plenty of that, too – more imaginative carnage, spread over a far greater surface area. Evans has scored a real coup in staging the first five-man fistfight in a car in the middle of a high-speed pursuit: it’s at the point in this absolute turducken of a scene where he cuts to an overhead view of Uwais lamping the two passengers in front and back simultaneously – fusing Bruce Lee with Busby Berkeley – that a very good action movie vaults into the all-time hall of fame.

Generally, the director gets in close, refuting the skipped frames and frenetic chopping by which Hollywood action movies hedge for the commercially safe PG-13 certificate. In both shotmaking and the ruthlessly clean editing, Evans commits fully to his violence; it might prove horrifying it wasn’t just as often athletic, balletic or comic. Yet even as he expands the frame of reference – working in different fighting disciplines, murderous Japanese siblings, lethal baseball – he refuses to give up on the authentic scrappiness that powered the original, and which continues to let us know exactly where we are.

Because, for all the extra dollars, The Raid 2 keeps it real: whether tracking a pitched scrum in a muddy rec yard, a dust-up in the gents’ bogs or an armed mob rampaging through a low-rent nightclub, this is still the kind of movie you’d expect a director who’s clearly seen Cardiff of a Saturday evening might make in a country with somewhat relaxed health-and-safety legislation. The Raid could have stood as a fluke, even as it announced Evans as someone to watch; the sequel, 148 minutes in which every last hit registers, affirms him as a straight-up master of the form.

(MovieMail, April 2014)

The Raid 2 screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.35am.

Sunday 26 November 2017

1,001 Films: "Diner" (1982)

Ah, memories. Diner serves as a reminder of a moment when Mickey Rourke could still play softly spoken law students with part-time beauty salon work, positioning the actor at the heart of one of those touchstone 80s ensembles: see also The Outsiders, St. Elmo's Fire and The Breakfast Club. While the young men of late Fifties Baltimore gather in the titular institution to chew over the day's events and where they are in their lives, Barry Levinson gives himself a range of personalities to write for: there's the womanising Boog (Rourke), who gets the deathless scene with the penis in the popcorn, and has an unsympathetic habit of making money off his dates; the reckless Fenwick (Kevin Bacon), whose frustration never really seems to go anywhere, save into the destruction of a church nativity scene; the married Shrevie (Daniel Stern), beginning to wonder what he and his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) actually have in common; nerdy compadres Modell (Paul Reiser) and Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), united in mutual annoyance; and the knightly Billy (Tim Daly), keenly avenging the wrongs of his schooldays while trying to do the right thing by his pregnant girl.

One influence has to have been the wildly successful American Graffiti - the film that dropped the flag for the 1980s to rerun the Fifties; Daly pre-empts Back to the Future's "Johnny B. Goode" revival upon taking to a stripjoint's piano - though this talk is altogether less tainted by the easy nostalgia generated by Lucas's selective, PG-rated mindset. Levinson's thesis - his gamble - is that what men were talking about in 1959 was what men were talking about in 1982, and most probably what they're still talking about today, namely sex, sports, rock music (Stern's Shrevie practically invents the anal alphabetising of one's record collection) and, behind these, vague grumbles that suggest they're not entirely happy with their lot. What Diner opened up was a routemap for those turn-of-the-Nineties indie jawfests where conversation became a means of exploring a particular milieu: Levinson lucked out in having his film backed by an adventurous studio, where Richard Linklater, Whit Stillman and Kevin Smith had to scrimp and save to get Slacker, Metropolitan and Clerks put together.

In Levinson's case, admittedly, the backdrop is the boomer-friendly one of the dawn of rock 'n' roll, live TV and Ingmar Bergman movies (perhaps only a brash American artefact would deign to show Steve Guttenberg making the wanker gesture when confronted with The Seventh Seal); though he writes good scenes for the women, including a stripper who seems to anticipate script meetings in responding to Daly's claim he's told his gal how much he loves her with a curt "Told her? Why haven't you shown her?", the focus is mostly on a bunch of guys communicating on broadly the same wavelength. Like many of the best bits of US pop culture, it's essentially ephemeral: nothing is resolved, and there's the suspicion all this jabber is being used to divert us away from exploring the issues raised in any real depth. The film's true subject is hanging out, the timekilling we all go through before we get round to doing whatever society demands of us. As such, it's a fine advert for friendship, good conversation and hearty food - even if you do come away from it convinced the twentysomething males of this Baltimore were doomed to clog their own arteries, and those of their city, in such a way as to make The Wire possible some four decades later.

Diner is available on DVD through Warner Home Video. 

Saturday 25 November 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 17-19, 2017:

1 (new) Justice League (12A)

2 (1) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
3 (2) Murder on the Orient Express (12A)
4 (3) Thor: Ragnarok (12A) ***
5 (4) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
6 (new) Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (12A) ****
7 (6) The Death of Stalin (15) *****
8 (5) Jigsaw (18)
9 (8) The Florida Project (15) ****
10 (new) The Exterminating Angel: Met Opera (12A)


My top five: 
1. In a Lonely Place [above]

2. The Silence of the Lambs
3. The Big Heat
4. Beach Rats
5. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) Despicable Me 3 (U)
2 (new) Cars 3 (U)
3 (new) Baby Driver (15) **
4 (6) Paddington (PG) ****
5 (5) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
6 (2) Transformers: the Last Knight (12)
7 (8) Moana (PG) ****
8 (4) Fast & Furious 8 (12)
9 (new) Mrs. Brown's Boys: Christmas Treats (15)
10 (3) The Mummy (15)


My top five: 
1. The Ornithologist

2. War for the Planet of the Apes
3. The Beguiled
4. The Big Sick
5. The Death of Louis XIV

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Raid 2 (Thursday, C4, 1.35am)
2. Good Kill (Sunday, C4, 12.10am)
3. Total Recall (Friday, ITV1, 11.15pm)
4. The Day After Tomorrow (Saturday, C4, 6.45pm)
5. Lone Survivor (Saturday, C4, 11.05pm)

From the archive: "Lone Survivor"

The Zero Dark Thirty controversy has apparently done nothing to quell American cinema’s love affair with the country’s armed forces, but Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is at least wholly committed in its love. Here, hardware, personnel and jargon are combined to give a punishing approximation of a real combat scenario; the film may stand as the most technically sophisticated game of soldier the movies have as yet set running before us.

What’s interesting is that this expensive kit has been put towards re-enacting a military failure: the 2005 reconnaissance mission that saw four Navy SEALs flown out to a village near the Afghan-Pakistan border to identify a Taliban leader, only – as flagged by that title – for one to return. One late image, of Mark Wahlberg picking shrapnel from his stricken, suppurating form, might be read as emblematic of America’s military pride after the misadventures in the Middle East; if this is meant as a recruiting film, it doesn’t always look so pretty.

The movie in the Berg filmography Lone Survivor most closely resembles, in fact, isn’t his previous Gulf incursion (2007’s The Kingdom) or the ludicrous Battleship, but 2005’s measured small-town football drama Friday Night Lights. Both films mark out, physically and atmospherically, the tight spots their characters find themselves in; the SEALs gain a few yards and identify their target, before being forced to retreat, scrambling between a rock and a hard place to rally whatever resources they have remaining.

Of course, making martyrs and heroes of fictional high-school footballers is an ideologically simpler business than doing the same for real-life servicemen, and there are points in Lone Survivor where you see corners being cut so that it might better play to multiplexes in the heartland. Berg is altogether selective in his subtitling of Pashtun, and it’s regrettable he chooses to crosscut so unambiguously between the SEALs being primed in the rules of engagement and their Taliban opposites taking machetes to civilians’ necks.

Still, even at its most questionable, the film manages to compel and grip you. Berg, a sometime Michael Mann protégé, is a gifted director of physical action, and – as on the football field – he knows how to make us feel what it is to take a hit, whether these troops are being strafed by gunfire, sent tumbling headfirst down a stony mountain, or – once it’s clear there’s no way back – obliged to jump off a promontory, in an image the film seriously intends to be as iconic as the Iwo Jima flagraising.

It’s started to seem as though our pricier movies are being programmed to function as simulation machines for sensation-hungry audiences: Lone Survivor’s middle act certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to generating the fear, adrenalin and nausea that must come as standard with a military career, thereby allowing viewers to experience something of what their friends and loved ones shipped out for.

Whether or not it makes you want to sign up (to avenge these losses) or run a half-mile in the opposite direction will be a matter of personal sensibility, and maybe the one element here over which Berg holds comparatively little control. Yet Lone Survivor stands as a professionally mounted shrine to fallen brothers-in-arms – no matter that it hardly deigns to think too long or hard about why exactly they fell.

(MovieMail, January 2014)

Lone Survivor screens on Channel 4 tonight at 11.05pm.

On DVD: "The Death of Louis XIV"

The Sun King goes down. Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV arrives bearing both the title and the look of some 18th century canvas reproducing historical events; within these frames, we bear witness to the final hours of the French monarch, presented by candlelight in what often feels like real time. Here, then, is Louis (Jean-Pierre Léaud), confined to his bed in the Palace of Versailles, weighed down as much by his tremendous regal frightwig atop his head as by the gangrene eating into his legs, a ghost of his former glories, attended to, watched over, apparently loved. Although the King clearly exists in an increasing painful state - waking up in a sweat, crying out for water, yelping if anyone so much as approaches his lower extremities - there is a wider kingdom that needs running, a continuity to be found, which is why a pair of engineers end up among the physicians at the foot of the royal bed, soliciting an official thumbs-up for the bridge-building project they've been engaged with. (Their scenes have the look of history's loftiest episode of Dragon's Den.)

This Louis is dressed like a king, proclaims like a king, and remains possessed of a great constitutional power; the issue of Serra's film, however, is this man's physical power, and the question how long he can keep going. A good deal of this curio's grip derives from the fact that at the centre of its every shot there sits Léaud, installed as a living, breathing index of cinema history the minute Truffaut freeze-framed on his then-teenage face at the conclusion of 1959's The 400 Blows. Truffaut watched Léaud grow to maturity in a run of films that took them both up to 1979's Love on the Run, then cut the actor loose, and in recent decades we've watched this performer searching for a great valedictory role: I have unhappy memories of him as the title character of Bertrand Bonello's The Pornographer in 2001, furrowing his brow and wringing his hands at the sorry state of the world. Bonello forced Léaud into a position of abject despair; Serra, by contrast, gives him the royal treatment.

After a brief exterior prologue, Léaud is tucked up in bed, where he has boiled eggs served to him at regular intervals, enjoying the attention of both the king's courtiers and Serra's camera, the privilege of having an entire film composed around him at the grand old age of 72. The set-up, in other words, is simple - one boudoir, captured at a particular, pivotal point - yet Serra slowly comes to expand the film's scope. On a visual level, drawing us deep into these darkened chambers makes the one glimpse Louis gets of the world beyond his barred window count double: this was surely the final look this King got of the France he'd ruled over for (the serendipity!) 72 years. And Serra digs a lot out of those hushed, tentative conversations going on at bedside: the doctors disagreeing over the correct course of treatment, the philosophers gathering to consider the elevating nature of pain, Louis's own counsel to his toddling male heir, steering him towards making peace, not war. The effect is twofold: to evoke a very specific historical episode, but also to show us the passing of a man, one who - for all his material wealth - proved to be finite, fragile flesh-and-blood like any other. Death, here as elsewhere, is seized upon as the great leveller. 

One caveat: this process is very slow, although - as we know the endpoint the second Serra's title appears on screen - there is an obvious value to clinging onto every last moment. (The reward is a contender for the most profound final line spoken inside a cinema this year, uttered not by Louis, but one of his entourage.) The upshot is a film that is serious about such serious matters as history and mortality - where a callow multiplex-filler like Dunkirk is merely sombre at best, oddly evasive at worst - and a truly poignant performance from Léaud, working wonders within that narrow passage wherein the body stops functioning and the light disappears from the eyes, replaced (one would hope) by something like enlightenment. Such transcendent illumination naturally lends itself to the inside of a cinema, or any other darkened room; as The Death of Louis XIV has also been made available on streaming platforms, and now on DVD, however, it can equally be watched while lying on or in bed, in a gesture of fraternity - though you'll have to provide your own boiled eggs, of course.

The Death of Louis XIV is available on DVD through Drakes Avenue Pictures.

Friday 24 November 2017

From the archive: "Boyhood"

One of the more unusual and enjoyable aspects of 2003’s broadly conventional School of Rock was Richard Linklater’s direction of his child performers: rather than seeking to set these emergent, inchoate personalities in stone, it instead cleared space around the plot so that they could express themselves as individuals. By the time of 2004’s Before Sunset, a question had apparently set itself in the filmmaker’s mind: what if you kept going back to these kids, to see them growing up, and the world around them being renewed?

There were precedents: Michael Apted’s Up docs, Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel fictions. Yet Linklater’s Boyhood, filmed over twelve years, emerges as closer to the exhaustive naturalism of last year’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. It watches dreamy all-American boy Mason (Eller Coltrane) grow from moptopped ‘tweener to college-aged longhair, while logging a populist history of this century’s first, turbulent years; it whips us from a moment when kids were into The Hives and reliant on lingerie catalogues for their jollies to a point a decade later when it was all Gotye and smartphones. As Mason grows, so we do.

This boy lives with his precocious sister (Lorelei Linklater, a credit to her father) and their self-improving single mother (Patricia Arquette), busy working through her own issues. From time to time, her musician ex, played by Ethan Hawke, will drive by, and anybody unaware of the film’s production history will surely be shocked by how youthful Hawke looks in his first scene: the furrowed brow on show throughout Before Midnight was, around the millennium, but a sporadically concerned ripple.

This is Boyhood’s foremost pleasure: as it shows these people getting heavier, broodier and greasier, freighted with on- and off-screen baggage, it forms an acknowledgement this process happens to us all, even those preserved in the movies. Linklater refuses the usual “two years later” nudges, and has no need for the latex by which performers are traditionally aged; instead, discreet shifts in hairstyle or puppy fat come to indicate plot lacunae.

“Timeline” may, in fact, be more accurate than “plot”. For while Boyhood forms a notable logistical achievement – assembling everybody in the same place every now and again in a spirit of relaxed, cordial collaboration – it’s an even greater feat of editing, and Sandra Adair deserves credit for weighting these scenes from a relatively comfortable middle-class life so as to establish a cumulative sense of something universal. However long Mason might spend staring at the sky, we’re compelled to keep watching until the clouds of adolescence – bullies, bumfluff and all – blow into view.

For all this, Boyhood struck me as an experience more pleasant than profound. The Before series gained from its proximity to characters who’d spent time out in the world, and been buffeted, even wounded by fate; it cut its romantic softness with a degree of astringent experience drawn from its writer-stars’ personal lives. Boyhood, by contrast, never stops looking at Mason fondly, just as Blue is the Warmest Colour was relentless (and, to this viewer, somewhat wearying) in its determination to probe every nook and cranny of its heroine’s existence.

Flatly comic supporting turns breach the prevailing naturalism, and notes of outright fantasy eventually creep in, as though this were any other studio-backed coming-of-ager. While Mason himself remains credibly scrawny and spotty – and it’s a stroke of colossal good fortune on Linklater’s part that Coltrane should have grown up not into Hayden Christensen, but a sensitive, responsive child of his age – it’s a pity his first love should be played by such an obvious producer-approved hottie.

Yet at a time when the American cinema has become obsessed with the young – in part to strongarm the disposable income from their pockets – Linklater has emerged as one of very few directors sincerely, sympathetically analysing their moves and motives: how they think and speak, how they get from there to here. Despite (or possibly because of) its inbuilt hugginess, I suspect Boyhood will stand as a model of big-picture humanist filmmaking, using every last precious one of its 166 minutes to frame a truth as essential as it is simple: time flies, and sometimes the only way to hold onto this stuff is to photograph it.

(MovieMail, July 2014)

Boyhood screens on Channel 4 tonight at 12.05am.

In the neighbourhood: "Suburbicon" and "Beach Rats" (Catholic Herald 22/11/17)

Suburbicon (**, 15, 105 mins) entered the autumn release schedule with the hottest roster of talent around – Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, as directed by George Clooney off a Coen brothers script – and it will likely emerge with the most lukewarm reviews of the year. Clooney’s directorial reputation has been a source of enduring disappointment for those of us who heralded 2005’s serious, engaged Good Night, and Good Luck.; since then, one period fumble (2014’s The Monuments Men) has followed another (2008’s Leatherheads). His latest, a misguided curveball, makes for a slightly more interesting failure than those dull splats in the movie centreground. Still, you watch with furrowed brow and narrowed eyes, wondering: what’s wrong with this picture?

An identity crisis, for a start. Suburbicon opens as social satire, with a whitebread post-WW2 housing development thrown into disarray by the arrival of African-Americans. (In a line presumably inserted during the 2016 election campaign, town elders promise to fence off the newcomers, and get them to pay for it.) With an abrupt lurch, however, we’re pitched into home-invasion horror, as Damon’s corporate mainstay finds himself besieged by thugs at the house he shares with his wheelchair-bound wife (Moore) and her identical twin sister (more Moore). The ensuing pile-up is observed from the perspective of Damon’s son (Noah Jupe), a cowering thing raised on War of the Worlds-style radio broadcasts – suggesting someone may even have had a lower rating than 15 in mind.

Somewhere amid this perplexing carnage, there lurks the suggestion that the Coens saw in this neighbourhood the origins of modern-day conservatism, some backstory for Trumpland’s prejudices and insecurities. Trouble is, their points come couched inside another of their resistibly arch shaggy-dog tales: they acknowledge as much by having Oscar Isaac’s beaming claims investigator state “It all boils down to coincidence.” Barrel-scraping digs at Episcopalians aside, that’s all Suburbicon has at base: hokey twists, put over by smirking stars. The result most often serves to assert rather than undermine white privilege, the work of multi-millionaires paying themselves handsomely to have way more fun than their audience.

Clooney simply never explains why he’s stuck on this trivial sub-Double Indemnity pantomime when full-on race war looks to be erupting outside, a choice that leaves the film’s black performers near-mute and ever-secondary to the leads’ blandly indifferent huffing. Suburbicon has its slicker stretches – it’s Clooney, after all – and in these one catches glimpses of a worthwhile curio along the lines of The ‘Burbs, Joe Dante’s far sharper, Reagan-era assault on homegrown conservatism. Yet the significant struggles in this universe are taking place on the other side of the picket fence, and it remains unclear whether the stellar talent drawn here has entirely grasped that reality.

Writer-director Eliza Hittman had a minor breakthrough in 2013 with It Felt Like Love, an authentically salty, confrontational drama about a dreamy teenage girl falling in among a pack of older, macho Brooklyn boys. Hittman, it has become clear, is a filmmaker fascinated by adolescence’s trickier aspects: the confusion, the violence, the lust. Her second feature, this week’s Beach Rats (****, 15, 98 mins), re-enters the world of her first, but with one crucial shift in perspective. Her protagonist this time is male – the rangy, athletic Frankie (Harris Dickinson) – and he’s struggling to fit in with his posse of identikit roughhousing jocks because, unbeknownst to them, he’s gay, or bisexual, or just plain undecided.

The confusion is upfront: “I don’t really know what I like,” Frankie confesses to a silver-haired hustler on the webcam site he spends his nights browsing. Lust follows close behind it. Egged on by his buds, Frankie picks up local beauty Simone (Madeline Weinstein), only to get wasted as a pre-emptive strike against further intimacy. Thereafter, Hittman sketches in some context for all this hormonal push-me-pull-you. Frankie’s household, we learn, has been left lopsided by the decline of his cancer-stricken father, leading the pop psychologists among us to ponder whether the imminent disappearance of a paternal role model explains our boy’s need to cruise for daddies online.

Evidently, we’re a long way from those merry-making American Pie movies. Hittman proposes that finding your own sexual identity is a seriously fraught business, which may be why she forsakes conventional plot, instead homing in on isolated moments – often jittery with the tension of being found out – that expose elements of Frankie’s divided personality. If her shooting style remains inobtrusive, she gives us a rich idea of her location – Coney Island as New York’s wild frontier – and time and again she alights on a telling image: Frankie catching a car-window reflection of kids at play just as his own innocence begins to recede from view, or posing for shirtless selfies with Simone, in a desperate bid to shore up a studly reputation.

Throughout, Dickinson provides an effective focal point, operating somewhere between Gosling and Redmayne, yet with a tentative sincerity all his own. A mixed-up kid is here revealed to us piece by piece, a process kept from blunt exploitation by Hittman’s sharp eye for body language: you wince at the hunched defensiveness of Frankie’s middle-aged pick-ups, or the way this dude flinches whenever someone approaches his laptop. Such fragments tesselate into uncommonly sensitive, insightful cinema: by Beach Rats’ conclusion, a nuanced collision between the straight and non-straight worlds, we have a sense of corners being turned, horizons opening up, and – in Hittman’s case – a notable career taking shape.

Suburbicon opens today in cinemas nationwide; Beach Rats opens in selected cinemas.

"The Star" (Guardian 24/11/17)

The Star **
Dir: Timothy Reckart. Animation with the voices of: Steven Yeun, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Keegan-Michael Key. 86 mins. Cert: U

Some films are fated to be no more than the sum of their production companies. This seasonal digimation is almost exactly what you might imagine from a collaboration between Sony’s evangelical offshoot Affirm Films and Narnia deliverers Walden Media: it takes an idea with the potential for irreverent fun – retelling the Nativity from the animals’ perspective – then plays everything straighter than the average Sunday-school sermon. Little donkey Boaz’s quest to escape his yoke and serve some higher purpose meets the religious brief; accompanying him through the usual series of helter-skelter setpieces, the rotely wisecracking Dave the dove swiftly puts paid to hopes of divine inspiration, while kooky sheep Abby hews so close to Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory in personality that, even from this distance, you can hear the Pixar lawyers’ phones vibrating.

Any wit disappears with the opening intertitle (“Nazareth, 9 Months B.C.”); thereafter, we’re being preached at, an approach that cues sappy John Lewis-ad assaults on carols, and a Joseph and Mary who sound like runaways from Melrose Place. Joe’s response to the Immaculate Conception – “this is a lot for me to take in right now” – begs a “tell me about it” from the missus that never materialises; here, as elsewhere, “the greatest story ever told” (to quote the end-credits disclaimer) is taken entirely at face value. The bland visuals are, in their own way, a perfect fit for the piety of the storytelling: by design, intelligent or otherwise, there’s simply nothing here to frighten the horses – or, indeed, threaten Paddington’s box-office ascendancy. Some future shelf life in seminaries seems likely, but as festive treats for kids go, it’s like asking for a selection box and being forcefed communion wafers instead. 

The Star opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Open warfare: "Battle of the Sexes"

Interest in the 1973 novelty exhibition match played by tennis stars Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was first reignited by a 2013 documentary account that played widely and won respectable reviews, but its essence has been seen everywhere in the months and years since - most prominently of all in the 2016 US Presidential face-off, but also in a series of sexual harassment and other workplace narratives that similarly pitted downtrodden yet determined and outspoken women against bluff, blustery, business-minded men. The task of making the Riggs-King clash multiplex- and awards-friendly has been assigned to the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris - a generally harmonious pairing - and the entertaining result, known simply as Battle of the Sexes, benefits from its tacit understanding it doesn't have to strain or reach too hard for contemporary parallels. 

If the result has long been on the books and inscribed into legend, Simon Beaufoy's script frames it as the culmination of a movement that no one man - especially not one as clownlike as Riggs - could conceivably halt. Here is a two-hour march towards some form of women's lib, a sight that only the most virginal, Pepe-worshipping meninist shut-in could take against. To a liberal smattering of period tunes, this King (Emma Stone) enters repeatedly into battle with Women's Tour boss Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over the matter of unequal pay, leaves her husband to take up with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) - you feel the maturing influence of new-cable shows like Masters of Sex in the comfort this PG-13-rated studio confection displays around that prospect - and even comes to serve as the vanguard of a sporting fashion revolution, modelling colour dresses, the brainchild of designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), and their own rebuke to the sport's overriding whiteness.

Steve Carell's Riggs, of course, begs to be booed as the epitome of white male privilege from the minute he's introduced sitting alone in a corporate tower block. (The TV installed in the back of his Rolls-Royce clinches that particular deal.) Beaufoy, however, senses how he needed this showcase more than his opponent: when we first join him, he's in the process of being kicked out of the marital home by exasperated wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), and installing himself on the couch of a son who's heard all his glory-days stories before. Palpably wounded pride visible beneath his huckster surface, this Riggs isn't so far removed from the can-do desperation of The Office's Michael Scott, and Carell lasers in on what's funny about the setpiece where Riggs insists his fellow losers at a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting need only to get better at what they've been doing, rather than stop; it's similarly hard to resist those scenes where, in the full media glare, he takes to the practice courts wearing a Bo Peep outfit, or wielding a frying pan for a racket. Like a faded matinee idol seeking an alternative revenue stream, this Riggs is a pantomime villain who knows it, a sideburned heel embracing the role, which takes any sting out of his eventual defeat in what the final half-hour presents as a bright, cartoon Rumble in the Jungle.

The one sophistry in Beaufoy's script is to make the distinction between this putz and a true power broker like Kramer, who wielded far greater clout than any wooden racket could generate: an acknowledgement that Billie Jean had levels of chauvinism, like rounds in a tournament, to negotiate, and that her besting an entry-level pig such as Bobby Riggs could only be considered a start. Stone seems physically smaller than King herself - sitting on her hotel bed, the actress's feet don't touch the floor - but facially, especially with those Deirdre Barlow specs on, she gets close enough to convince; more crucially, she aces the spirit that led King to come to the net in the first place. The history of this battle was written long ago by the winner, which is why the real-life King turned up on The One Show to promote the movie, and one reason why Riggs was nowhere to be seen, reduced in the wake of his death in 1995 to no more than a footnote or fossil. (In actuality, the opponents here remained great friends off-court, and King was among the last to speak to Riggs before he passed.) Yet these stories can be lively, too, as well as an education: this one's for all those La La Land fans who genuinely had no idea what their mothers and grandmothers had to go through, or just what it took for Serena and Maria to become brand ambassadors.

Battle of the Sexes opens in cinemas nationwide today.