Monday 31 December 2018

My Top 20 Films of 2018

(All films released in UK cinemas between January 1 and December 31, 2018; click on individual titles, should you require further persuasion.)

20. Erase and Forget
I'm as fed up as anyone with films being indiscriminately labelled as "very much of the Trump era", but this singular documentary pushed deeper, and carved out its own memorably distinct space and approach, interrogating the viewer's own prejudices alongside those of its bristling yet painfully human subject.  

19. Padmaavat
2018's most lavish, possibly overwhelming spectacle. I respectfully take the points about the prettification of the generally ugly behaviour it depicts, but I also thought the aesthetic and star power lent cinematic heft to what was, at heart, a simple cautionary tale: don't be the kind of guy who sets women to running into bonfires.
Streaming via Amazon Prime, and available on DVD through Shemaroo.

18. The Square
By no means a total success, and far from unproblematic, but its various provocations have installed themselves in my cranium, and continue to tickle me.
Streaming via Netflix and Curzon, and available on DVD through Curzon.

17. Raazi
A genuinely taut thriller that managed to maintain suspense without sacrificing any of its sociopolitical nuance, with the kind of knockout star performance any American movie would kill for.
Streaming via Amazon Prime, and available on DVD through Big Home Video.

16. The Captain/Der Hauptmann
One of the year's big surprises. An unbuzzed WW2 drama, from the director of Flightplan and The Time Traveller's Wife, that arrived via streamer link and promptly chilled me to the bone with its unflinching diagnosis of how fascism takes hold.
Available on DVD through Signature Entertainment.

15. Wildlife
I caught it as it was slipping out of cinemas, but was bowled over by the quiet, thoughtful craft Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and a never-better Carey Mulligan brought to this adaptation of Richard Ford's novel.
Available on DVD through Icon from March 18, 2019.

14. The Eyes of Orson Welles
A worthier, livelier (and altogether more honest) tribute to Welles, his genius and his legacy than any of the fusty relics popping up on Netflix this year.
Available on DVD through Dogwoof.

13. Bad Times at the El Royale
A real movie movie, such as the Hollywood studios used to make. (And now have no idea how to market.) Hadn't realised writer-director Drew Goddard was one of the prime movers behind TV's The Good Place; yet mentally revisiting the film's gleefully expansive plotting and generosity towards its actors, it suddenly made perfect sense.
Available on DVD through Fox from February 4, 2019.

12. A Quiet Place
A brilliant conceit, worked through with consummate skill. Also made the Vue crowd shut up for ninety minutes, which was nice.
Available on DVD through Paramount.

11. Sweet Country
Immensely powerful Australian counter-history, staged with tremendous assurance by Samson & Delilah's Warwick Thornton.
Streaming through the BFI, and available on DVD through Thunderbird.

10. Widows
One shrewd choice after another. Amazed it hasn't had more awards-circuit love.
Available on DVD through Fox from March 18, 2019.

9. Summer 1993
The year's big arthouse sleeper hit, and deservedly so: an incredibly precise and affecting drama founded on two of the best directed child performances in decades.
Streaming via Curzon and the BFI, and available on DVD through Drakes Avenue.

8. Lady Bird
One of two great gestures of apology to emerge in cinemas this year (see also: #1).
Available on DVD through Universal.

7. 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Few films this year were possessed of a greater sense of life - perhaps because so many of its characters were trying to escape the shadow of death.
Streaming via Curzon, and available on DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye.

6. Custody
The year's standout thriller? A domestic stand-off that seesaws in directions you simply cannot predict. Human behaviour is like that, sometimes.
Streaming via Curzon and the BFI, and available on DVD through Spirit.

5. The Wild Pear Tree
A rare coming-of-age story to acknowledge the rottenness we need to shake off if we are to mature. The detail of a novel, secreted within the images of a master painter.
Streaming via Curzon and the BFI, and available on DVD through Drakes Avenue from February 25, 2019.

4. A Cambodian Spring
Homes under the state's hammer, and the mother courages defending them to the hilt. Stunning long-form documentary continually repays our investment; might usefully play as a double-bill with #7 on the politics of resistance.

3. First Reformed
An older, wiser filmmaker pares down his art to the essentials, while rethinking the solipsism of Taxi Driver to more powerful purposes yet. A film that tangles you up in barbed wire, while holding out fragile hope of better days ahead. Perhaps.
Available on DVD through Universal.

2. Leave No Trace
Seemed to deepen everything I only quietly admired about Winter's Bone: the sense of place, the empathetic description of hardscrabble, marginal lives, the close-up work with actors. Amazingly, it does all this without signalling anything like as much: only in the devastating closing moments do you realise what's been achieved here, the extent to which Granik has pulled us all off the beaten track.
Available on DVD through Sony.

1. Roma [above]
A predictable pick, I guess, but in terms of technical guile and visual/emotional scale, it soared head-and-shoulders above any other film I saw in 2018.
Still showing in selected London cinemas, and streaming via Netflix.

More-than-honourable mention: Tamara Jenkins' Private Life, which - if it had received the cursory theatrical release afforded to stablemates Roma, Mowgli and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - would easily have placed Top 3 on this list. As it is, it'll have to settle for being the year's best straight-to-Netflix proposition. Changing times.

Saturday 29 December 2018

On TV: "Happy New Year, Colin Burstead"

"It's like fucking Downton!," gasps one guest of the sizeable country pile hired for the family New Year's Eve gathering that occupies Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Shot under the genius title Colin, You Anus, Ben Wheatley's latest dispatch proceeds from the scarcely less inspired conceit of hiring the kind of location typically reserved for big- and small-screen period drama, then overrunning it with people who couldn't be any less like moneyed blue bloods. Of the oh-so-2018 clan gathering for this altogether turbulent affair, some (mum and dad Doon Mackichan and Bill Paterson, black sheep Sam Riley, crossdressing uncle Charles Dance) could perhaps lay claim to being aspirationally middle class; their offspring, who've inherited their folks' evident money worries, are not quite there, however, interacting altogether brusquely with one another, and with the world around them. (Son Peter Ferdinando's response to the venue - "Can you believe this place? Size of the cunt!" - is not untypical.) Plying them all with seasonal sangaritas - part-sangria, part-margarita - is probably not the smartest of ideas. Soon it's all, in a very real sense, kicking off.

The eponymous Colin - played by Neil Maskell as the kind of basically useless bloke you could well imagine someone calling an anus - first presents to us as a stout pillar of normality, but he'd rather set up the disco than address the party's mounting tensions (not least the concerns of a wife who's found out he once dated the caterer); he goes to the extreme of locking a crying woman in the wine cellar in a bid to keep up familial appearances, and insistently tamps down his rage until it comes spilling out at entirely the wrong target. It is, then, another of Wheatley's droll studies of dysfunctional Englishness - but one lent a greater urgency by recent real-world events. "I'm good Brexit - Tony Benn Brexit," Ferdinando's chancer declares to a sceptical younger Burstead; faced with an aggrieved sister (Hayley Squires), Colin issues a starkly topical order: "No more Remoaning." There's so much fraction and division - Wheatley's own editing doing heroic work in crosscutting between the awkwardness and open warfare unfolding in the house's different wings - that you can't help but feel the Bursteads are meant to stand for Britain in its entirety, or at least for those swathes of the population who don't generally spend their evenings holed up in well-staffed country retreats.

Unlike Wheatley's recent film-sketches, Happy New Year develops into a genuine picture or portrait - perhaps a post-austerity equivalent of that snapshot Kubrick zoomed into at the end of The Shining. It's visibly a group portrait, and there's a return to the excellent methods of this director's TV breakthrough Ideal: everyone who crosses this threshold brings new notes - of despair, passive-aggression, discordance - to the party. You can tell that Asim Chaudhry - People Just Do Nothing's totemic Chabuddy G - won the onset improv wars just from the number of scenes that lean amusingly in his (supporting character's) direction, but I, Daniel Blake's Squires holds her ground as the conscience of the piece, and Paterson gets to be notably less cuddly than usual as a rather sad and desperate paterfamilias, obliged to beg his own sons for pocket money. (Where there has typically been a twinkle in the Scot's eyes, here it's replaced by a newly uncertain look, one that asks: has it really come to this?) As for Maskell, he remains the most compelling - doubtless because least typical - leading man British cinema has produced in a generation, his shrugging solidity closer to a James Gandolfini than a Cumberbatch or Hiddleston: romantic leads may not easily come his way, but I can think of no performer better suited to playing a man found crying over his kebab of a Friday night because his wife's just walked out on him.

There are elements that remain very Wheatley and some will call caveats, not least a Clint Mansell score that, in veering from weirdo folk to pounding house, goes out of its way to drive you up the wall at some point; the film opens relatively calmly and gets louder and lairier as it proceeds before arriving at a strangely (ironically?) emollient ending, complete with apparent homage to Paths of Glory. (Happy Christmas: war is at least temporarily over.) Some of that strangeness should subside upon learning that this story isn't yet done with: the BBC have commissioned a series intended to describe the further misadventures of the Bursteads as they stumble, bullheaded or hungover, into the Year of Brexit™. So this is a feature, but also a bustling, bristling pilot: Wheatley, of that generation of creatives who (perhaps for reasons of regular employment) make no distinction between and see no hierarchy in screen sizes, clearly means this project as a rolling state-of-the-nation address. Over the past few years of crisis, British cinema and television has done its usual spotty job of reflecting who we are and where we're headed: the hope, of course, is that we're like the Browns of Paddington, sensible, tolerant liberal-centrists with the capacity to hug out any differences. Truth is, as of now, we may be closer to the Bursteads: divided, splenetic, so busy arguing among ourselves that we've failed to notice the negative impact we're having on those around us. One thing's for sure: this isn't like fucking Downton.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead screens on BBC2 tomorrow night at 10.30pm, and is available to view on iPlayer here.

Odessa steps: "Polina"

Polina, a naggingly wispy footnote to our understanding of dance on film, sees directors Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj describing a young ballerina's trajectory from Russia to Paris, no more, no less. We first join Polina as a youngster (Veronika Zhovnytska) emerging from the kind of gloomy Soviet-era housing block Matt Damon found Lukas Moodyson's Lilja in at the end of The Bourne Supremacy - a location made no less gloomy with the revelation that this block backs onto a row of smoke-belching power plants. As a teen (played, from here on out, by Anastasia Shevtsova), she clashes with her glowering tutor (Aleksei Guskov) and enters the Bolshoi; thereafter, she strikes out for France, where she ends up under the tutelage of Juliette Binoche in a nice F.C. Barcelona hoodie. You expect her to suffer some career setback - perhaps the loan sharks from whom her folks borrowed her tuition fees will threaten the integrity of her ankles? - but it never arrives: our girl just keeps stretching and twirling, and your response will either be "good for her" or "where's the movie?".

The lack of narrative development is a side effect of Müller and Preljocaj's decision to prioritise movement - in the studio, across a continent - above all else. This need not necessarily have been a limitation: in places, Polina reminded me of Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden, which similarly tagged along in the wake of a creatively minded dreamer in search of a place for themselves. At just an hour and forty to that film's two-plus hours, though, crucial character detail is lost en route, and since the focus is on non-glamorous reality - the minor stumbles, the failed auditions and hook-ups, the menial labour that supports one's endeavours - you'll need far more interest in the repetitive slog of barre work (and, indeed, bar work) than this viewer could summon. It's been thoughtfully shot, granted. When our heroine mounts a hunky French contemporary in a dressing room, she does so against a backdrop of celestial white tutus that gives the impression the lovers have ascended to heaven, and matters conclude with a lavish production number you suspect may have been the raison d'être for the movie entire. Still, there was rather more drama for would-be Misty Copelands to engage with in Ballerina, the 2016 animation with a Carly Rae Jepsen theme song.

Polina is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 28 December 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of December 14-16, 2018:

 (new) Aquaman (12A)
2 (new) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
3 (2) The Grinch (U)
4 (1) Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)
5 (new) Mortal Engines (12A)
6 (3Creed II (12A)
7 (4Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A)
8 (5Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
9 (new) Free Solo (12A)
10 (new) La Traviata - Met Opera (12A)


My top five: 
1. Die Hard 

2. It's a Wonderful Life
3. The Favourite
4. BumbleBee
5. Mary Poppins Returns

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (1) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
2 (5) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (2) The Meg (12) ***
4 (4) Christopher Robin (PG) **
5 (8) The Grinch (2000 version, PG) ***
6 (3) The Equalizer 2 (15)
7 (6) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12) ***
8 (7Ant-Man and the Wasp (12)
9 (11) Elf (PG) **
10 (9) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****


My top five: 
1. BlacKkKlansman

2. Yardie
3. They Shall Not Grow Old
4. The Festival
5. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Jungle Book [above] (New Year's Day, BBC1, 3.45pm)
2. Edward Scissorhands (Sunday, C4, 3.30pm)
3. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Sunday, five, 2.40pm and New Year's Day, five, 9.15am)
4. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Sunday, five, 5pm)
5. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision (Part 1: Saturday, BBC2, 1.55am; Part 2, Sunday, 1.40am)

On demand: "Bros: After The Screaming Stops"

Looking back on the boyband Bros's brief, late Eighties prominence in the UK, you notice the chippiness of their songtitles: "When Will I Be Famous?" (calm down, mate), "I Owe You Nothing" (hang on), "Drop the Boy" (please wouldn't go amiss), "I Quit" (well, screw you, too). Unlike ingratiating "The Harder I Try" hitmakers Brother Beyond or too-cool-for-school, Andy Warhol-courting hipsters Curiosity Killed the Cat, these guys were worked up about something, and very nearly as exercised as their permanently hollering fans: you can hear it in that bizarre, hernia-inducing "ugh-oh" noise singer Matt Goss emits directly after he sings about how little he owes us, and again in some of the notes he pushed for on the group's 1988 cover of "Silent Night". ("Push" would be the title of the group's debut album: in retrospect, it fits perfectly.) After the Screaming Stops, a document of the band's 30th anniversary reunion concert in London, suggests that edge hasn't entirely vanished: within thirty seconds, we're watching Matt threatening to lamp his twin brother Luke backstage at This Morning. Luke, of course, has spent the intervening decades carving out a presumably profitable if not much feted career in genre movies (most prominently as the villain in Blade II); Matt has clung to his original musical dream, decamping to Vegas for a residency as a crooner that has made this reunion event viable. Their differences, however, may be irreconcilable: where others once screamed at them, now they scream at one another. There is, if you will, a very real cat among these pigeons.

Even if directors Joe Pearlman and David Soutar had had an inkling of the tension between the brothers, they were surely taken aback by the extent of the enmity - it's why they put that first blazing row upfront. (It announces: hold onto your denim jackets.) Very quickly, the film asserts itself as not your run-of-the-mill authorised retrospective designed to shift some Greatest Hits compilation. (We do, however, get a potted history of the brothers' heyday, with the songs sounding as tinnily captivating as they did on flexidisc in 1987.) For the longest while, the movie plays like a mocking joke at the expense of its subjects, chiefly poor, self-deluding Matt, with his Sinatra trilby and his neckerchiefs and his torturous metaphors, whose Brentesque asides to camera - on CNN ("the thinking man's reality show") and the band's original name Epitome ("which I believe is Latin for abstract") - suggests he sees the film as Phase One of some personal renaissance. Luke, as perhaps befits a drummer, drops back, coming over as comparatively modest when asking the unlucky session musicians dropped into the middle of this fraternal crossfire to be patient with him, yet he can't resist showing up his brother on camera. One's pushing too hard; the other's been away from home so long he's forgotten what it is to take orders from his younger sibling. There's a psychological aspect at play in these rehearsal spaces that makes the film an unlikely companion piece to the Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster.

Mostly, these scenes yield a steady stream of comedy highlights. Matt goes full gammon in bemoaning the fact "you can't even play conkers in Britain any more" and calls out the bodyguard who sold a photo of him napping in the bath to the tabloids (you honestly couldn't write a better punchline: "Luckily, there were bubbles"). Luke does his own bit for rockstar wankerdom by insisting "Zeppelin are my number one influence" and offhandedly namedropping "Flea from the Chilis". Put them together, and there's a near-constant butting of heads, but it's the kind of in-fighting only people with a very close connection can engage in, and it adds a mounting uncertainty to the story being told here: you wonder how on earth anyone could pull this shambles together into a major arena show. What After the Screaming Stops shows us, and why people have responded to it as they have, is that creative friction that is part of any collaborative process, but which is more commonly edited out of any public-facing product, be that an album, an interview, a concert or a concert documentary - and this one's sly indeed in revealing the reasons for the reunion late on, at a point when you might start to feel fondly towards these doofi. Bless 'em both for signing off on the finished feature: I know this is a topsy-turvy time, but who'd have thought that a band best remembered for encouraging their followers to sew Grolsch bottletops on their shoes should generate one of the rawest music docs in some while? Here's a film to make you grateful for any sliver of civility that exists between you and your own siblings; it's also the film that best explains why bassist Craig - the silent third wheel Smash Hits magazine famously rechristened "Ken" - made his excuses and left.

Bros: After the Screaming Stops is now streaming via BBC iPlayer.

Beetle drive: "BumbleBee"

As has been reported, what we're watching with BumbleBee is a franchise in the process of making a much-needed, sorely overdue three-point turn. Under the direction of Michael Bay, the Transformers movies became bywords for the long, loud and leery, deploying a set of boys' toys as prime opportunity for a form of cinematic willywaggling. These films came at us every other summer with talk of the biggest budgets and explosions, and the most extravagant waste of talent, and still people kept signing up for them; the rationale was apparently that so long as there was money in it, there was no reason not to keep going big. That trend may have exhausted itself with 2017's The Last Knight, the first entry in the series to recoup less than its mammoth budget on home soil, and so - by way of a Christmas miracle, and with a hint certain social-media hashtags have penetrated Bay HQ - the series has now been turned over to the fairer sex. BumbleBee finds screenwriter Christina Hodson coming up with a pared-down (sub-two hour) prequel, in which a solitary indie chick (Hailee Steinfeld) gains a new friend and adventures besides after taking possession of a battered mustard-yellow Beetle - the resting appearance, devotees will already know, of the heroic Autobot sent to Earth to establish a base in the fight against the Decepticons.

What follows is a very canny throwback to what our family movies were in the days before giganticism became the dominant aesthetic, and a reminder that one of the series' executive producers - and a silent partner until now - has been one Mr. S. Spielberg. Hodson sets the film in 1987 (around the time of the Transformers cartoons) and sets out a copperbottomed plot (plucky kid meets otherworldly creature) which did for everything from E.T. to Mac and Me in this decade, then chromes it with period detail. Having been restored to his former glory, a sentient BumbleBee watches The Breakfast Club in the Steinfeld family garage; that repairs montage is set to no less a tune than Steve Winwood's "Higher Love". We've been through so much with this franchise that you could easily accuse BumbleBee of a certain cynicism: hey, the film asks, would like a Transformers movie if it featured Pop Tarts and had the Smiths on the soundtrack? Somewhere in that question, you spy a certain level of pandering towards a demographic that has long grown out of these films and these toys - or who never gravitated towards the phenomenon in the first place. There may, in fact, be no evading the fact BumbleBee is still a Transformers movie, reliant for its success on an audience investing in the fate of nuts and bolts that aren't even nuts and bolts, rather an ever-shifting conglomeration of pixels. The funny thing is: this time, we do.

It's clear that director Travis Knight - making an assured transition to live-action after 2016's glorious yet underseen animation Kubo and the Two Strings - has thought longer and harder than Bay as to how to make the clanking around dynamic, and how best to integrate these robots with his flesh-and-blood performers. Sometimes it's conceptual (he has fun with the idea of a Transformer inside a small suburban home); sometimes the cartoonist in him holds sway (when the Decepticons blast their human hosts, the poor sods explode like water balloons, a neat fix to a potential certification issue: there's peril without a drop of blood). Either way, BumbleBee presents as far more characterful than its predecessors. Think of all the high-grade thespian talent (from John Turturro through Frances McDormand to Jack Reynor) Bay tempted in with big paydays but otherwise failed to give a single shit about, and then warm to the zestily affectionate bond Hodson sketches between Steinfeld and mom Pamela Adlon. It makes for a funnier film, too: you instantly chuckle upon learning the Army turning their Cold War paranoia on the robots is headed up by a never more squarejawed John Cena, timing sharpened by his work on Trainwreck and Blockers. (An aptly small, connoisseurial pleasure: Cena's delivery of "oh shit" as BumbleBee squares up to him, recognition he's not the biggest thing on screen for once.)

How would Bay have filmed this story? For one thing, you suspect Steinfeld's short shorts would have been a full quarter-buttock shorter, and the camera would have toggled down to register this; there would almost certainly have been less Wang Chung and more Mötley Crüe. (In asking the above question, I realise I was asking you to imagine what Michael Bay must have been like in the 1980s, and I can only apologise for putting those images in your head.) Crucially, key story beats would have been drowned out by vast eruptions of sound and fury; Knight, by contrast, makes the pay-off to the revelation of our heroine's diving capabilities as stirring and properly mythic as anything in Kubo. Sure, you could say, it's all tinkering, like a personnel change at a branch of KwikFit: if you felt no previous need to fork out for a Transformers movie, you're unlikely to do so for this one. (The fear is that this series has turned so many folk off that BumbleBee's fate was sealed long before it pulled into an ultra-competitive Xmas marketplace.) And it wouldn't surprise me if some vulgar auteurist lurking out there argued that making a Transformers film without Bay's trumpeted frame-fucking - pushing instead for a sunny, PG-rated centreground - is to miss the point of a series founded on the crass commercialism of a Hasbro toy range. Yet give Hodson and Knight credit for going beyond the line of thought that insists audiences get what they deserve, or whatever they're willing to queue up for. What BumbleBee demonstrates above all else is how even these staggeringly corporate mega-productions can shift in new, more efficient and pleasing directions; all it takes is a change of oil and water.

BumbleBee is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

The nanny: "Mary Poppins Returns"

The first and perhaps most important thing to say about Mary Poppins Returns is that it does its 1964 predecessor no disgrace whatsoever. In late 2018, it would be more inappropriate than ever to make a huffy declaration along the lines of "Rob Marshall raped my childhood", but the film never, for a moment, allows for that possibility: it's a fine-tuned entertainment that knows it will benefit from fuzzy-headed, soft-hearted festive viewing, but - crucially - doesn't entirely rely on that seasonal goodwill. Instead, it keeps finding new, or at least newish, ways to dazzle or charm us - Sandy Powell costumes, sets that spin on their axis, smoother transitions between live-action and animation, Meryl Streep singing in a Slavic accent - and its best sequences make this process look effortlessly easy. As with most Disney productions of this century, it's more conspicuously musical than what's gone before, and if the songs (by Hairspray's Marc Shaiman) aren't instant classics, they've been compiled with wit and craft enough to ping around between your ears for some while after the end credits. Honestly, dear reader, I found myself sitting gawping and gobsmacked through long stretches: when did Marshall - the choreographer-turned-indifferent director who cut Chicago into ribbons of tinsel, and made a heavy-handed horlicks of Into the Woods - become such a safe pair of hands?

My rational brain tried to break the spell. Yes, the movie forms the latest stage in the Mouse House's fiendish 21st century masterplan to sell those childhoods back to us, school holiday by school holiday; we'll have to concede that the current generation of executives is doing far more to justify their annual bonus than those who greenlit The Second Jungle Book at the start of the millennium. It's often a matter of small, poignant echoes: the trace elements of chimney sweep Dick van Dyke singing "Supercalifragilistic..." recognisable in lamplighter Lin-Manuel Miranda inviting us to "Trip a Little Light Fantastic", or the penguins popping up throughout "A Cover is Not the Book" to remind us of an earlier, animated day at the races. And I think it matters that this isn't one of the company's live-action remakes. We haven't seen this story before, just the characters in different forms: Mary (now Emily Blunt, with a cutglass accent that grated, then grew on me) guiding the fully grown Banks offspring through difficult times. (You're amazed no-one thought to pitch a sequel back in 1965, but the world was changing, and the studio brains trust thought very differently back then.) Marshall moves them around in generally elevating, sometimes soaring ways, and delegating large parts of the material to born showmen like Shaiman and Miranda ensures the film has none of that exec-level neurosis that dogged August's Christopher Robin; the closest Mary Poppins Returns demonstrates to a hang-up is Streep swinging from a chandelier like a suggestible auntie after one sherry too many.

Amid all the spirited prancing, you could overlook the fact that David Magee's script barely troubles to outline a plot - or, perhaps, that it contains exactly the right amount of plot for a musical to twirl around. An institution, in this case the Banks family home, is revealed as under grave financial threat, and then everyone on screen and behind the camera has to put on a show to save it. That's it. Just as Mary P. is recalled from the heavens to correct the lopsidedness of the Banks household - providing a measure of maternal care to its youngest - so too we witness this icon called upon to correct a certain flimsiness within the material. At the eleventh hour, she nudges her charges to find the share certificate that will keep a roof over their heads, then - when this scheme looks to be at risk of failure - she enables the breathless business with ladders and bikes that permits Miranda's Jack to scale Big Ben's clockface and literally turn back time, as good a visual metaphor as any for what the film entire is doing. (Again, most viewers - young and old - will watch this sequence in a state of such childlike wide-eyed giddiness that they won't stop to question why the mortal Jack is the one risking life and limb to achieve this, while the deathless Mary - who only needs to open her umbrella to fly - is stood looking up at him.)

At points, you can catch it trying a little too hard to please. "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" would play as well without the insistent cutbacks to Miranda looking mighty pleased with himself, and as to his potted guide to Cockney rhyming slang, well, this is where those fuzzy heads and soft hearts come in. (You're reminded that Poppinsworld has always been a misty-eyed, Americanised vision of Merrie England, some of it fit only for kids.) It's pushier and more effortful than the recent Paddington revival, hoofing its way into your heart and imagination rather than politely knocking: set the shamelessness of a showstopper titled "Nowhere To Go But Up" against "Let's Go Fly a Kite"'s blithe innocence, and Poppins 2 appears recognisably the work of showbiz mums and dads. Still, it scarcely matters when the film's deus ex machina dodders on at the last, dissipating any waft of contrivance with the quickness of his feet: yup, even the guest stars get to sing and dance. Even those of us left unmoved by the live-action Lion King trailer - those of us who may be dreading the idea of Tim Burton's Dumbo - may at this point find ourselves bowing our heads before the movie's unrelenting professionalism, its persistent charm offensive: it's as good a Poppins movie as we could have expected fifty years on, and - no matter that this carries with it an air of the faintest praise - by far the best thing Rob Marshall has ever done for the movies.

Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 27 December 2018

Homecoming: "1985"

The title of Yen Tan's indie drama 1985 is as date-specific as that of this year's Spanish sleeper hit Summer 1993. Protagonist Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) is a young New York ad exec who returns to his Fort Worth home for the holidays to find his clan waiting for him, same as they ever were: nurturing mom Eileen (Virginia Madsen) proffering plates of comfort food, gruff, God-fearing mechanic pop Dale (Michael Chiklis) trailing a Reagan/Bush sticker on the rear of his truck. Around them, other signs of red state kulturkampf: remnants of a poster of Bryan Adams (of all the musicians) ripped from a bedroom wall, talk of records being torched and "God's will", underlined when dad gifts son a monogrammed Holy Book on the morning of the big day. Reagan's great new day in America starts to look like a minefield that needs to be approached with caution; Adrian has a bombshell of his own to drop, one that will come as a shock to his folks, but should be no real outrage for anybody with an inkling of the lives some young men were living in New York, as elsewhere, in the mid-1980s.

It's a familiar narrative path, yet Tan dodges both the one scene you might expect from a film of this type, and the broader day-glo nostalgia that comes as standard with any film set in the year of "Into the Groove". For starters, cinematographer Hutch shoots in grainy, high-contrast black-and-white that keeps reminding us of the indie features being patched together around the time the film is set. (Early reviewers have drawn comparisons with Parting Glances and Longtime Companion, the first artistic responses to the era's crises, and - especially in his scenes with his spotty, sleepy-headed younger brother - Smith demonstrates the chiselled uprightness of the young Matt Dillon.) 1985 displays many of the virtues of those indies: it succeeds in telling a personal story on a small scale, with heart, intelligence and whatever resources it has to hand. There are limitations - Tan can't licence the Eighties anthems that, say, BumbleBee is awash with, and one or two confessional scenes play a little like off-Broadway theatre rather than cinema - yet even these turn the focus back on the conflicted people at the centre of the story. It's been very thoughtfully cast. One look at the unsmiling Chiklis, and we see why Adrian is happier to tell him lies about a promotion than the truth of who he is; one scene with the ever-sympathetic Madsen, and we know why our boy feels he can be himself around her. (It's a lesson in how placing good actors in supporting parts helps to shape our understanding of the lead character's worldview.) Don't go expecting it to break the bank or change the world, but it's smart counterprogramming at a time of glossily feelgood studio product, and its modesty works absolutely in its favour: it's sensitively assembled, unflashily atmospheric, and finally as touching for what's left unspoken as for what gets said.

1985 is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 22 December 2018

1,001 Films: "Vagabond/Sans Toit Ni Loi" (1985)

In 1985's Vagabonda girl lies dead in a ditch, and her corpse provides the cue for an investigation into the failures of empathy that led to her passing. The girl is Mona, played by Sandrine Bonnaire in that defiantly unprepossessing manner that had already caught the eye of Maurice Pialat, all dirt under the fingernails and leaves in the hair, a total absence of vanity or shame. Mona is homeless, and mostly contextless: who she is (or was) turns out to be far less significant in Agnès Varda's film than what she represented to the people she crossed paths with on the French agricultural lowlands. For the men, she's most commonly approached as an easy lay, a piece of ass to be picked up and discarded - so grubby even the local prostitutes complain about her stink. For the region's other women, however, themselves often trapped in unhappy living conditions, Mona appears as an avatar of liberty and free will. We might see her as a defining creation of the feminist or post-feminist cinema: independent, headstrong, sexually carefree, bored by or unsuited to routine and domesticity, and yet ultimately uncertain which way to turn - not to mention doomed.

As a viewing experience, Vagabond suffers from the centralisation of a character who, by her very nature, is perpetually hard to pin down (at various points, the girl could be known as Mona, Simone or even Sandrine, such is the level of naturalism the film is aiming for), and whom one suspects even Varda wouldn't condescend to know entirely. Yet there's something heroically dogged and unflinching in the way the camera pursues this young woman along her slow, inevitable downcurve - keeping an eye on her, as almost nobody else around cared to - and something adventurous and tirelessly inquisitive about its broader picture, venturing as it does into what looks a very lowly part of the French countryside, the kind of backwaters where huddled locals gather in gloomy, rundown bars to hear talk of yet another farmworker's suicide. Varda pushes Bonnaire into tentative, revealing encounters with pro performers and non-pros alike, and finally gleans from this cruel and unforgiving earth a handful of supremely evocative images. As the filmmaker sets a bourgeois housewife's manicured nails against the young girl's mud-splattered hands, we see one world failing to connect with the other, and the tragedy inherent in that disconnect.

Vagabond is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.

Friday 21 December 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of December 14-16, 2018:

 (new) Aquaman (12A)
2 (new) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
3 (2) The Grinch (U)
4 (1) Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)
5 (new) Mortal Engines (12A)
6 (3Creed II (12A)
7 (4Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A)
8 (5Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
9 (new) Free Solo (12A)
10 (new) La Traviata - Met Opera (12A)


My top five: 
1. Die Hard 

2. It's a Wonderful Life
3. Mary Poppins Returns
4. 1985
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (1) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
2 (6) The Meg (12) ***
3 (new) The Equalizer 2 (15)
4 (new) Christopher Robin (PG) **
5 (4) The Greatest Showman (PG)
6 (3) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12) ***
7 (2) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12)
8 (7) The Grinch (2000 version, PG) ***
9 (8) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
10 (new) They Shall Not Grow Old (15) ***


My top five: 
1. BlacKkKlansman

2. Yardie
3. They Shall Not Grow Old
4. The Festival
5. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Rear Window (Christmas Eve, C4, 3.20am)
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Boxing Day, BBC1, 1.25pm)
3. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Christmas Day, C4, 4pm)
4. Men in Black (Sunday, C4, 4.30pm)
5. Mary Poppins [above] (Christmas Eve, BBC1, 5pm)

On demand: "A Christmas Carol"

The latest version of A Christmas Carol to reach us is an adaptation of the one-man show Simon Callow has spent the past few years touring repertory theatres the length and breadth of Britain. It's clear from the opening shot - peering out at snow falling from the window of an abandoned office space that speaks to years, if not centuries, of pennypinching - that director Tom Cairns has no intention of opening out the material. Instead, he makes it more intimate, informal: this retelling is a fireside chat, with Callow - in an actor's dream - playing the roles of speaker and listener alike. We've seen this venerable performer wobbling his jowls and chewing his way through so much scenery in recent years that anybody who walks in halfway through and sees Callow capering à la Fezziwig and talking at length to himself could be forgiven for thinking the actor had finally lost it. This, you sense, is the triply spooky Christmas Carol that Callow would have performed had those rep theatres been completely empty, and had the show's failure ruined him professionally, financially, mentally; David Raedeker's camera glides around this Scrooge like another of the tale's spectres. Yet it is a ghost story, you remember - the tale of a solitary man being pushed to the brink of derangement and thus some breakthrough - and there is real, compos mentis thespian skill to be observed in the subtle shifts of body and voice by which Callow comes to differentiate between our genial, slightly gossipy narrator and a set of characters who represent a spectrum of approaches to the material world.

In the past, filmmakers have been drawn to this story for the spectacular possibilities it hands them like a shiny new sixpence, be those chuckling Muppet ghosts or a swooping CG Jim Carrey. By contrast, the effects Cairns reaches for are tangible, plastic, theatrical: a window opening itself over Callow's shoulder, a clock winding onwards to mark the start of Scrooge's long dark night of the soul. Yet clever cutting shifts us - as it shifts the protagonist - from one room, one vision to the next in a disconcerting, dreamlike way it would be hard to achieve on stage, and Cairns loads his soundtrack with connoisseurial glee, alert to how much noise Dickens' prose set ringing between our ears: the doorknocking and chainrattling, the ticking clocks and tolling bells. It presents as very much a Christmas Carol for austerity Britain: though it bears the BBC Films logo (emerging on BBC4 last weekend after a one-night engagement in cinemas earlier this month), you half-expect to see old Ebenezer himself listed among the producers, given that Cairns and Callow have really been given no more than a set of mismatched furniture and a couple of changes of lightbulbs to make merry with. Yet it knows it's working from a great story - one profoundly wise to the deathliness inherent in conservatism, and the gains to be made from embracing change - and that it's been handed to an eminently gifted raconteur. Sometimes that's all you need to warm your heart on a cold midwinter's night.

A Christmas Carol is available to stream via the BBC iPlayer.

On DVD: "Matangi/Maya/M.I.A."

The title - Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. - implies a straightforward progression: Sri Lankan birthname, Anglicised family name, stage name. The film it has been attached to, a swirling patchwork of home video and other found footage from which themes emerge and recede, is in fact several things simultaneously: a positioning tool for an artist with a new album in the pipeline; a career retrospective, detailing how a would-be documentarist who found herself too brown for Britpop wound up making her own planet-spanning beats; a complex and tricky interjection in the identity debate; and - at the last - a look at the pros and cons of being an outspoken celebrity in the age of social media. Perhaps the slashes in the title aren't meant to resemble endpoints as the fences Matangi "Maya" Anupragasam, commonly known as M.I.A., has had to straddle as a second-generation migrant, a female creative, and a globally recognised star.

Much of this footage was shot, and has now been organised - in as much as it can be said to have been organised - by director Steve Loveridge, an old friend of Maya's from their days together as art students at St. Martin's College in the early 1990s. There are immediate advantages to having an insider on this assignment. For starters, the subject is visibly relaxed around these cameras; we get a sense of what it might be like just to hang with M.I.A. as she puts a track or video together, and indeed what it was like to be backstage as she was adjudged to have violated the sanctity of the Super Bowl, as she apparently did by raising a middle finger to TV viewers during the halftime concert in 2012. What leaps most forcefully off the screen during sequences such as this is the singer's unflappable, no-fucks-given personality. Early on, we find the teenage Maya in conversation with her older sister about their father, a leading light in the Tamil resistance movement - hailed as a hero by some, damned as a terrorist by others - who stayed put while the rest of his family decamped to South London in 1985. The sister is visibly upset that her dad hasn't bothered to send so much as a birthday card in the subsequent years; Maya, very much the sunny-side-up branch of the family, flips the situation on its head by saying this absent figure (glimpsed only briefly here, whereupon he resembles less some murderous radical than a middle manager) has instead given the family the greater gift of independence.

There's an underlying toughness in that dressing-up and making-do, but in Maya's case, at least, such independence manifests itself in a playful, hands-on enthusiasm rather than the control freakery commonly associated with our pop stars: we see the young Maya assiduously stencilling the artwork for her first demo, while the narrative arc shuttles her through several eyecatching promos overseen by familiar male names (Zombieland's Ruben Fleischer, Romain Gavras) to a point where she's started to direct her own videos. The young Maya's tutors at St. Martin's would be proud. What Loveridge assembles to bolster that throughline can seem hazy. Several times, he cuts back to a 2001 trip the singer took to her strife-torn Sri Lankan homeland, but it's never entirely clear why. To anchor the subject in place? To break up the jolly japes going on back in Notting Hill? It's just possible the film is a whirlwind because its subject is a whirlwind; that organising everything around her has resulted in the turbulent, unsettled form. In conversation with a friend, M.I.A. describes herself as "unmanageable", and there's plentiful evidence to suggest this might well be the case: several sequences elicit the conspiratorial pleasures that follow from a director letting his camera run on a subject letting her mouth run. (I can't see Madonna, for one, being too thrilled with one diatribe, but that may be karmic payback for how Madge treated Kevin Costner during the filming of In Bed with Madonna.)

Some wider outside perspective might have been in order during the Super Bowl sequence, acknowledging that the overreaction of the American news media to a gesture commonly observed on the top decks of West London nightbuses prompted an equal overreaction on the singer's part ("This is worse than if I'd murdered someone!"). Watching the rough treatment meted out to the star in certain quarters - ranging from the coded racism of Fox News to Bill Maher's not untypically glib condescension - we might well understand Maya's desire for a biographical overview, delegated to a loyal and long-standing associate, which takes a kinder, gentler tack. Yet Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. continually raises worthwhile questions it keeps ducking away from, such as: is it possible for an uncompromising artist to marry a private equity heir and still retain her independence? (Her divorce from Ben Bronfman in 2012, unmentioned here, suggests possibly not.) The M.I.A. who emerges from these ninety minutes is a fascinating idea for a pop star - this listener has long felt that precisely the least fascinating thing about her is her music: overbusy hip-hop, streaked with vivid-annoying sounds and textures - but it's an idea the film never fully gets to grips with in the way one might like. Loveridge's final, generous gesture to a subject who is also plainly a pal is to let Maya dance away, unbowed, into the night.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is now available on DVD through Dogwoof.