Stan & Ollie

Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones

Director: Jon S. Baird

Writer: Jeff Pope


‘Iconic’ is a word that gets overused these days but I think it really does apply when talking about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They were a vaudeville double act that peaked in the 1920s and 30s and it’s fair to say that most people my age have probably never seen their slapstick classics Sons of the Desert and Way Out West, never mind know the history of their lives and partnership (I know that I didn’t). And yet everybody knows who they are the same way they know who Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein are. That’s how famous they are and how strongly their legacy endures. The image of the hulking, overweight Hardy and the short, lean Laurel standing side-by-side donning their bowler hats while one leans over to the other to lament “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into” is as iconic as that of Charles Foster Kane uttering his dying word or Don Lockwood singing in the rain. If you’ve watched The Simpsons, Monty Python or literally any comedy double act ever, then you’ve seen their legacy. Stan & Ollie is a love letter that pays tribute to the duo with both humour and affection.

When we first meet Laurel and Hardy (played by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly respectively, both of them perfect), it’s at the prime of their lives in 1937 when they were the two biggest names in comedy. They are comfortably at the top of their game and are filming what is sure to be another hit movie for them, but Laurel isn’t satisfied with the lack of creative freedom or the pay. He meets with their producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), the man responsible for bringing the two comedians together, and threatens to walk out unless changes are made to the contracts. Hal refuses and Stan leaves for Fox, certain that his partner will join him in solidarity. “You can’t have Hardy without Laurel”, he states defiantly. Cut to sixteen years later and we see that things didn’t work out quite how Stan planned. Ollie stayed with Hal Roach productions, made a movie without Laurel, and the rift that emerged in their partnership has never quite gone away even as they’ve continued to perform together in the years since. Now, as they embark on a UK tour performing their old act in half-empty music halls, they’re both in the autumn years of their lives and it’s becoming ever clearer that they’re not the Hollywood titans they used to be. “I thought you’d retired”, says one clerk at the low-rent inn they’re lodged in and so, it seems, did everyone else.

The tour is modestly successful and the pair appear to be getting on famously, performing bits and trading jabs anywhere and anytime they can and sharing ideas for a new screenplay Laurel is working on. There is however an definite tension between the two old hats that both are determined to leave unspoken. And that’s how it goes until until their wives, Ida Lauren (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), fly out to show their support. The interplay between the four is where the drama really comes out as they talk about old times (Ida is always quick to remind everyone that she was once an actor who worked with Preston Sturges) and allude to the elephants in the rooms that still inspire feelings of hurt, resentment and betrayal after all these years. There’s never a sense that this is conflict for the sake of conflict nor do the wives exist as plot devices to stir the pot. Far from it, Ida and Shirley both prove themselves wholeheartedly devoted to their spouses and, while that does lead to treat each other rather spikily where their husbands are concerned, it turns that they both somewhat sympathise with one another as they both experience and endure the toll that show business takes on marriages. There’s a wonderful irony to the way that the film opens with Stan and Ollie coolly recounting their previous divorces and yet ends up with them in a place where both have faithful, dedicated wives and it’s their own relationship that’s subject to doubt.

It wouldn’t be a Laurel and Hardy picture if it wasn’t funny though and the film delivers on that front as well. Not only is the likeness there, thanks in no small part to the work done by the prosthetics and make up teams, but the timing and body language is there as well. Hardy, who looked like a big, lumbering figure, performed his comedy with the surprising poise and delicacy of a ballet dancer and Reilly gets it exactly right while Coogan brings that same silent comedy star expressiveness that Laurel had right down to the eyebrows. The routines they perform together are not only able to score laughs by being well-acted routines in and off themselves, but also because they are done with the kind of familiarity that comes with two partners who know each others lines and steps inside and out. Greater emotional weight is placed on these routines by the constant way the film blurs the line between Stan and Ollie’s real and comedic personas. As two showbiz legends, the two doubtless feel like there’s an expectation for them to always be ‘on’, which is why they’re always ready to perform skits anytime there’s cameras or a crowd to perform for. Even when they’re alone together, slapstick just inevitably seems to happen as when Stan trips over his suitcase while checking into the hotel or when they accidentally drop a trunk down a flight of stairs at the train station.

When Stan declares that you can’t have Hardy without Laurel, it’s shown to be an ironic statement that ends up spelling their doom. It is also however a statement that this film believes unreservedly. Stan & Ollie is a celebration of two iconic comedians and the immortal comedy they made together. While bittersweet, it is ultimately a feel-good movie which is why it stops short of following through on some of its darker moments, makes light of some of the less flattering aspects of their lives such as Stan’s alcoholism and doesn’t hit on some of the harsher truths that get shared and revealed quite as hard as they could have. Laurel and Hardy themselves were specialists at delivering light-hearted comedy and so perhaps it’s fitting that the film should follow suit, but it also feels a little sterile as a result. It is doubtless a delight to watch and it does all the same succeed in showcasing what exactly made Laurel and Hardy such a great team and the bond that they shared. There were feelings of bitterness and resentment between the pair and working together wasn’t always easy but, when it cam down to it, they respected each other, they loved each other and, above all, they needed each other. There’s a post-script at the end which drives the film’s bittersweet tone home; a revelation about the last few years of Laurel’s life that is both beautiful and tragic. This is a film made with true affection and reverence for the two men that inspired it.

★★★★

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Colette

Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough, Aiysha Hart

Director: Wash Westmoreland

Writers: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland


One of the great pleasures of going to see a new film is when you go in expecting it to be a retread of tropes and stories that you’ve seen before and it turns out to be something quite new. In the case of Colette, I was more or less expecting a 19th century remake of Big Eyes; the story of a woman with an extraordinary talent whose husband takes credit for her work while keeping her confined and silent. While that is pretty much the overall plot of Colette, the film has larger ideas on its mind and a more engaging way of going about them. Almost as soon as the film has established its master-slave dynamic between the main couple, the story promptly moves on from there to the part of the story it’s really interested in: the leading lady’s liberation. In a much broader sense, this is a film about challenging traditional gender roles and breaking free from the patriarchal constraints designed to ensure that women conform to the roles imposed upon them. The film is unapologetically feminist and relishes in telling its story through an unmistakably modern lens. It is a story of transformation and empowerment told with wit, ornate detail and terrific performances.

Directed by Wash Westmoreland and based on a script he wrote with Richard Glatzer, Westmoreland’s late husband and writing partner for such films as Still Alice, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Colette tells the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), one of the most popular French writers of her day. As the film begins in 1892, we are at first led to believe that the teenaged Colette is little more than a simple, virginal country girl living a tranquil life with her parents (Robert Pugh and Fiona Shaw) in their picturesque, rural cottage in Burgundy. When famed Parisian writer Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), also known by his pen name Willy, vaults in with his wealth, charm and a respectably cordial proposal of marriage, the parents are readily impressed and eagerly approve of the union, completely unaware their daughter and her fiancé have been holding secret meetings in the barn for quite a while. They rendezvous later that day for another one of their trysts and we see that Colette is a little more worldly and independent than either we or her parents had taken her to be. She and her beau are soon married and off they go to Paris to enjoy a life of debonair fashion, fine art and saucy parties amongst the clique of French high society.

I suppose there are some who will feel that Willy should have been depicted in a more villainous light. It doesn’t take Colette long to learn that he is a plagiarist whose bibliography is actually the work of a team of writers on his payroll, he is a serial adulterer, a reckless spendthrift, a spotlight hog and he eventually proves himself to be an emotionally abusive husband. It would have been all too easy to portray him as an irredeemable monster and, at his core, maybe that is what he is but to frame him in that simplistic way undercuts the complicated relationship he shares with Colette and the role he played in creating the radical phenomenon that she would become. The film allows West to play Willy with all the wit and magnetism of a fashionable socialite whose every deed, utterance and gesture is a performance unto itself of a character, or a ‘brand’, that the man has created. For all of his many vices, it is Willy first sees something special in his wife and provides her with both a means of expression and a source of stimulation. That said, it is certainly more out of convenience for him than it is belief in her that he turns to Colette at all and it is very much his intention to remain in control of the whole enterprise, taking the credit for Colette’s work and forcing her (even going so far as to lock her in a room at one point) to continue writing after her work becomes a sensation.

There is love and genuine affection in their relationship, but there’s also jealousy, betrayal and conflict and all of it serves as fuel for the development of Colette’s literary voice. What started as an inequitable arrangement designed to keep her in captivity and subservient to her husband instead becomes the first step in Colette’s journey towards emancipation. When she becomes frustrated with her husband’s stifling dominance and constant paranoia that his far more talented wife is set on undermining him, Colette finds satisfaction elsewhere. Following her hypocritical husband’s cues, Colette begins sleeping with other woman, first the Louisiana belle Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and later the nonconformist cross-dressing noblewoman Missy (Denise Gough). Even today in this modern ‘liberated Hollywood’ climate, it is astonishing how frankly and casually the film deals with its heroine’s blossoming queerness. While other films are tiresomely repressive or chaste in their depictions of LGBT romance and sex, Colette revels in the openness and looseness of the titular character’s sexual exploration. There isn’t even really a coming out moment for her; Colette’s proclivity for women is simply an extension of her character, a broadening of the enlightened, liberated manner that allowed her to become such a great writer.

Carrying it all the way through is Knightley in a career-best performance as a remarkable, revolutionary woman defiantly making her mark and asserting her identity and autonomy. It is in the film’s second half where she truly shines as Colette moves on from her life with Willy and carves out a passage for herself in whatever daring and provocative way she pleases. Knightley is both gritty and glamorous in the role; the film neither idealises nor fetishizes her nor does she ever come across as a passive force in her own story. The film can sometimes be a little too modern in its sensibilities which has the effect of simplifying some of the barriers that Colette had to overcome and smoothing the journey she had to make. There are enough bumps in the road to keep things interesting and it also helps that the film boasts some beautifully sumptuous sets and costumes and an evocative score accompanying it all. Westmoreland succeeds at telling the story he wans to tell, that of a woman who found her freedom and lived a fulfilling life on her own terms as much as any woman could possibly have done in 19th century France, and he does so very well. However it seems to me like there was a richer and more complex story to be told about a real-life figure who had much more to say.

★★★★

The Favourite

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara


Here in the UK, we love costume dramas. From the sweeping romance of Pride and Prejudice to the majestic grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia to the picturesque elegance of A Room with a View to the refined theatricality of Olivier’s Henry V, historical period dramas have long been a staple of British cinema and television. They remain as popular as ever with such recent hits as Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and Poldark finding tremendous success on the small screen. Audiences continue to be drawn in by these films and programmes for the resplendent sets and lavish costumes, the melodramatic stories and illustrious characters, and also for their nostalgic idealisation of the past. I bring this up because Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite breaks just about every convention a costume drama is supposed to follow. The film doesn’t look beautiful or vibrant; it looks murky and ugly. The characters aren’t noble and graceful; they’re nasty and unseemly. And the story definitely isn’t romantic or nostalgic; it’s surreal, tragic and completely contemporary. The Favourite is everything that a costume drama isn’t supposed to be and it is one of the best films of 2018.

The film is set in 18th century England during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last of the Stuarts and one of Britain’s lesser-known monarchs. The country is at war with France but the ruler leading them isn’t the exemplar of strength and wisdom that a queen is supposed to be, she is an overgrown child plagued by gout and depression. As her courtiers exasperatingly compete for her attention, it becomes clear that the only person who has the queen’s ear is her favourite Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah is cunning, ruthless and steadfastly loyal and dedicated to her queen (and lover) to the point that she refuses to indulge her with flattery or delusion. Anne appears in one scene having made herself up for an important meeting and Lady Sarah tells her bluntly and tactlessly that the make up makes her look like a badger. For the most part Queen Anne has no contact with the outside world which means that her decisions, and in turn the fate of the thousands of people under her domain, are determined by whims which depend largely on whoever is allowed to speak to her and who she happens to feel partial towards. As the arbiter of who is and isn’t allowed to speak to the Queen, Lady Sarah is basically the country’s de facto ruler and she uses her influence to ensure that the war against France as led by her husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss) is allowed to continue.

Following the example set by Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (who in real life wouldn’t rule for another half century), Colman deliver a tour-de-force performance as an outrageously erratic ruler, playing her as both a subject of hilarious ridicule and heartbreaking pathos. We get the sense that Anne doesn’t have any real understanding of the affairs of the state and tends to be rather petulant when called upon to actually fulfil her duties to the crown: “It’s my state” she declares when Lady Sarah’s attentions are drawn to matters of national concern, “I am the business of state!” She is both the most and the least essential person in her own government; she is completely irrelevant when it comes to understanding and resolving the country’s many problems yet the fates of every man, woman and child who will be affected by these policies are entirely in her hands. It is when she is at her most insecure that she feels compelled to assert her status and this can happen at the most random times, such as in her response to Lady Sarah’s dismissal of her badger-like make up where she orders a passing page to look at her only to hysterically rebuke him for doing so. Yet, for all her power and malice, Anne is ultimately a wretched, pitiable figure; one who is trapped in a role she never chose and is grieving the loss of 17 children.

Yet the film isn’t just interested in exploring the warped emotional psyche of a queen who is apt to eat cake until she vomits, but also in the ways her subjects try to indulge, please and control their ruler. Winning the war against France depends on more than raising taxes, securing resources and planning strategies, it also depends on befriending the 17 rabbits that the Queen keeps as surrogates for her children. This is the political landscape that Abigail (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah’s distant cousin, enters as she stumbles off her carriage and falls face first into the mud. A scullery maid whose own father gambled her away, Abigail seeks out her cousin in search of employment and finds it in the palace kitchens, but what she really wants above all else is to escape her poverty and ascend to the status she has always desired. Thus she sets her sights on the Queen and worms her way into Anne’s confidence (and bed) by offering her comfort and honey where Lady Sarah would only offer harshness and bile. This isn’t to say that Abigail is kind and earnest where Lady Sarah is cruel and unfeeling though, far from it. Abigail soon proves that she has the same knack for deceit, guile and malice as her cousin, but that she can mask it all with the artifice of a pretty face and large, bright, blue eyes.

In a sense The Favourite is less about Queen Anne than it about the competition between Abigail and Lady Sarah to win her affection and their bitter rivalry is as deliciously vicious as anything in All About Eve or Dangerous Liaisons. Much of this is about power and there is a clear difference between what the two women vie for with their ambitions; Lady Sarah has a cause she is trying to serve (or claims to anyway) for the betterment of her Queen, country and people whereas Abigail is looking out only for herself and cares not who she has to destroy to secure her status. Love comes into it as well as one mistress loves her Queen in the way she wants to be loved whilst the other loves her in the way she feels she needs to be loved. In this triumvirate’s love triangle the film presents the Queen with a choice between the comfort and sweetness of flattery and compliance or the surety and authenticity of candour and tough love, neither of which will give her the unconditional, pure, childlike adoration that she has always craved. The film is brutal in its depiction of how lonely these characters all are in their own ways and allows us to appreciate that feeling all the more by filming the scenes through a fish-eye lens, which has the effect of enhancing the inhospitable voids that overwhelm the spaces that these small characters occupy.

The fish-eye lens also has the effect of wildly distorting the shape of the world in bizarre, dream-like ways which is quite fitting for a film as intense and surreal as this. Disproportionately wide views of the rooms and their warped corners don’t just emphasise the vast gulf of space that they contain, the walls look severe and imposing as if they’re confining these characters and threatening to close further and further in until you cannot breathe from the suffocation. The disconnection from the outside world feels all the more clear-cut and there is a definite sense that all of these characters are prisoners of their stations and circumstances and are living a never-ending claustrophobic nightmare. The film feels bizarre and unreal in the way that The Draughtsman’s Contract does and it feels cheekily modern in the way that Love & Friendship does. There is something wonderfully 21st century about the way that the three central women are all pared down, complex and sympathetic figures, even when they’re being funny, while the men who surround them are all flamboyantly decorated caricatures. The brilliance of The Favourite is that it employs its strange and anachronistic tone to better let us appreciate the abject, agonising humanity of its three fascinating and impeccably portrayed leading ladies.

★★★★★

Roma

Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writer: Alfonso Cuarón


Roma has been described as the Oscar-winning Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film yet and it probably is. After having proved himself a world-class, visionary director with the high-concept fantasies and spectacles of The Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Gravity, Cuarón has returned back to Earth to tell a story drawn from his own memories. Far from the otherworldly realms of magical sensation and sci-fi dystopia, this is the story of an ordinary woman and the life she lived in the Mexico of the director’s childhood. The picture Cuarón paints in a movie that he wrote, shot and edited himself, is of a life that some might regard as miniscule and minor were it not for the epic, panoramic canvas he uses in all of his work. While other directors use spectacle and phenomena to depict that which is innovative, extraordinary and larger than life, Cuarón brings scale and depth to that which is common, familiar and plain. Roma is a film that is both colossal and intimate at once; it is a captivating and profound drama told on the immense, revolutionary level of an historical epic with the affection, sensitivity and devoted attention to detail of a love letter.

The woman at the centre of it all is the household maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), based on a woman called Libo to whom the film is dedicated. She lives with and works for a wealthy family in their spacious, two-storey home in Roma (a neighbourhood in Mexico City) where it seems like nothing would ever get done without her help. Cleo is responsible for putting the four children (three boys and a girl) to bed at night and waking them up in the morning, serving their meals, washing their clothes and mopping the floors. She lives in the house along with her friend Adela (Nancy García), the household cook, with whom she shares a cramped upstairs room. Cleo and Adela are both from the same village and their conversations will often slip between Spanish and their native tongue of Mixtec as they gossip about their homes and shared acquaintances. As we become privy to Cleo’s daily routine in elongated, mostly static takes, one might notice that these shots are all deliberately situated within the parameters of the house, suggesting how seldom Cleo’s life extends beyond the walls. The very first shot, in fact, depicts an aeroplane flying overhead as seen in the murky reflection of a puddle that Cleo mops up, hinting at how the luxury and escape that such a plane might provide are infinitely far beyond her reach.

It’s a dull, monotonous existence, but it’s also a stable one. That is until a series of life-altering disasters occur that completely upend Cleo’s life and those of the family that she serves. The first of these is when the aloof family patriarch Doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who had heretofore been an almost completely absent presence in the house save a scene where he painstakingly struggles to drive his expensive Ford Galaxie onto the dog-shit-infested driveway that’s too narrow to fit it, abandons his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and their children to live with another woman. Subsequent catastrophes include an unexpected pregnancy, an earthquake, a forest fire and a mass student demonstration that erupts in violence (the film never outright states it but this is the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 that it recreates). These are all brought to breathtaking life in black and white digital photography as captured by Cuarón, whose images are truly astonishing in their clarity, composition and character. A trademark of Cuarón’s style is making extravagant use of camera movements, blocking and choreography so that the use of editing may be as minimal as possible, allowing the scenes to play out in real time and letting the viewer appreciate the spaces that each of the characters occupy. The same applies here as we follow Cleo’s movements throughout the film in such a way that by the time we reach the end, we feel like we’ve walked a thousand miles in her shoes.

Although much happens in the 135 minutes that make up the film’s runtime, Roma doesn’t really have a plot to speak of. There’s no journey to complete, no villain to defeat and no mystery to solve. The film is structured into scenes which each give us a greater, more comprehensive insight into who Cleo is and the kind of life that she lives. We learn that her upper-class employer Sofía considers her a friend (or at least likes to think that she does) and that there is a recognition of a parallel between them that almost makes them equals to one another in a very specific way, namely that both women have been cruelly betrayed and abandoned by men they mistakenly thought cared for them. However the way that Sofía will take her frustrations and despair out on Cleo in often harsh ways reminds us that there is a power dynamic and class discrepancy between them that will forever keep the pair apart. Cuarón is careful to avoid portraying Cleo’s role of servitude as being characterised by benevolence or complacency and he is sensitive to her socio-political position and anxieties, as evident in the way he consistently stages and frames the family scenes from her point of view. An example of this is when the image of the family gathered together on the sofa watching TV is juxtaposed with the image of Cleo sitting by the side on the floor with one of the children’s arms wrapped around her.

Of course the credit for the movie’s astounding portrait of Cleo doesn’t belong to Cuarón alone. It is Aparicio in her stunning debut who brings Cleo to life with a naturalistic performance worthy of a Roberto Rossellini film. That she isn’t some glamorous movie star playing an idealised version of this Mexican, working-class character is certainly significant in itself but what’s truly remarkable about her performance is the solemn weight and heavenly grace with which she handles the challenging material handed to her. Another actor might have tried for a more assertive, demonstrative performance in an attempt to really sell the anguish that Cleo suffers to the audience, but her pains and woes feel all the more powerful for how quietly tender Aparicio is in the role. The rest of the cast, few of whom were professional actors before Roma, follow Aparicio’s lead in delivering authentic, realistic performances. The family members in particular are able to create a rapport that feels so familiar and personal that it really does feel like they’ve all known each other their entire lives. The naturalism of the ensemble that the film has assembled is a crucial reason why the recreation of 1970’s Mexico City that they inhabit feels so believable and lived in. This is no small feat for a film that is trying to capture a strange, oxymoronic tone somewhere between kitchen-sink realism and Felliniesque surrealism.

For all the film’s use of natural scenery, authentic acting, and the ever present sounds of life teeming all around including the bustling street activity, the distant drone of the aeroplanes and all the other ambient noise, there is still a sense of transcendent ethereality encompassing it all. While there is no shortage of set-pieces featuring events of earth-shattering proportions from the riot that Cleo and the family grandmother Teresa (Verónica García) find themselves caught in the middle of to the poignant Tuxpan beach scene where Cleo’s despair reaches its heartbreaking zenith, the camera remains impassive through them all. There is both a strange eeriness and graceful serenity to the way in which film drifts weightlessly within and between these turbulent episodes. Cuarón hints that there may well be something intangible at play with the inclusion of a child, possibly based on himself (the central family is clearly his but it’s less obvious the extent to which Cuarón himself is present in the story) who nonchalantly recalls his past lives, recounting in one instance how he was once a sailor who drowned in a storm. It’s exactly the kind of nonsense that an imaginative child might say that most grown ups would simply dismiss with a laugh as Cleo does. The image that the child evokes however seems curiously reflective of some of the events that occur, especially when you notice the recurrence of water as a motif, and so perhaps there is something behind the boy’s memory.

Or not. In the end Roma doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. It’s one of those films that seems to be about the whole world and everything in it and breaking it down into a single idea is likely to prove an exercise in futility. The idea I find myself returning to though is memory. After all, what drove Cuarón to make this film in the first place were his memories of a woman who meant a great deal to him as a young boy. Coupled with that though is this recognition that Libo was someone who lived a whole life and underwent experiences he could never hope to know and understand in their limitless entirety. This is in part because Cuarón grew up with certain privileges (of which he is aware) that will forever detach him from the world that his housemaid embodied and it is also partly because of the inherent limitations of a person’s memory. There is a definite specificity to many of the images that the film creates such as the family house, which was modelled after Cuarón’s childhood home and was designed with the kind of acquaintance and detail that only one who lived there could provide. Cuarón lets his imagination fill out the rest and the result is a fictional conception of a person’s past in a film that entreats us to consider the enormity of each individual’s life and the countless stories that each of them is living. Roma is about life; it’s about birth and death and everything that happens in between and what it captures so marvellously in all of its beauty and chaos is the eternal struggle of living.

★★★★★

Mary Poppins Returns

Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep

Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: David Magee


As far as childhood classics go, Mary Poppins isn’t one that I would rank amongst my most cherished. I certainly watched it enough times as a kid and I know it had some kind of lasting effect on me because, despite having never watched it as an adult, I can still picture it clearly in my mind and recall how most of the songs go. Maybe on some level I, like the Banks children, felt like I got what I needed from Poppins at the time when I needed it and that the next time I saw her wouldn’t be until I needed her again. Or maybe I just never got round to it because I was too busy rewatching Star Wars for the umpteenth time. In either case the long-awaited Mary Poppins sequel, which even over fifty years after the original film’s release was probably as inevitable as the Disney Company’s eventual conquest and dystopian, totalitarian dominance of all media and culture is in the near future, wasn’t something that I felt the world or I really needed. Still that’s never stopped Hollywood before so in swoops the magical nanny in the Banks family’s hour of need once again to offer her services as a caretaker, deliver some sage advice and sing a few catchy tunes.

Decades have gone by since her previous visit and Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are now adults living together in Interwar England with Michael’s three children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). The Banks family has fallen onto hard times since the death of Michael’s wife and the grieving residents of 17 Cherry Tree Lane are in danger of losing their home. Michael, unable to support his children as an artist, has had to take a job at the bank where his father worked but that alone won’t be enough unless he can find the certificate proving their ownership of the late Mr. Banks’ shares. Enter Mary Poppins (who, despite now looking like Emily Blunt, hasn’t aged a day) armed with her talking parrot umbrella and TARDIS handbag to offer her help in this desperate time. She gets to work immediately with the children and leads them on a whimsical, musical adventure as she imparts upon them such lessons as the necessity of doing their chores, the importance of good manners and, most importantly, how the death of their mother doesn’t mean that her memory and spirit are lost to them. Following them on this journey is local cockney lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Assuming the role created by P.L. Travers and made iconic by Julie Andrews, the always delightful Blunt delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Poppins. Walking that very fine line between being playful but serious, fanciful but elegant, and tender but stern, she manages to evoke and capture the very essence of the maturely childish (or childishly mature) and enchanting nanny in the vein of Andrews without imitating her. She makes the character her own, bringing this knowing smile and sly wink which never betray a thing as she maintains her graceful, dignified composure throughout, remaining at all times as unknowable and imperceptible as Willy Wonka or Totoro. Her performance is an astonishing achievement considering that the film allows her far too few opportunities to actually distinguish herself from her 1964 counterpart and carve out her own path. Nearly every plot development and diversion that occurs is so blatantly a rehash of something that happened in the first film that this purported sequel might as well be a remake. Mary leads the kids into an animated realm where musical hijinks with cartoon animals take place, heads out to meet an eccentric relative for a gravity-defying kerfuffle, and then her working class industrial sidekick launches into a lively song-and-dance number about his profession. It’s only by virtue of Blunt’s uncanny ability to elevate whatever material is handed to her that this incarnation of Poppins feels at all distinct from the one we know.

For a movie that so enthusiastically champions the wonders and possibilities of the imagination, the gratification of learning to see something from a different perspective and the delight and relief that can be found through escapism, Mary Poppins Returns is pretty unimaginative, formulaic and unadventurous. Despite all the time that’s gone by, this new movie feels like it’s trapped in the past and is desperately unable to move forward in any meaningful way, opting to instead retread familiar ground and revisit themes and ideas that the 1964 film already did an adequate job exploring. In the first film, the Banks family weren’t in any particularly sorry state but they all, the father especially, needed Mary Poppins in their lives so that they could be reminded of all the things that truly mattered. For a moment it seems like the second movie go a step further by showing how imagination and good-spiritedness can be used for more than fun and affection, they can be used as a source of comfort and healing in dark times and a means of understanding and solving our greatest worries. That would have been a great moral for the film to teach but it never follows through on that idea. Instead the movie’s lesson seems to be that if you worry less about your real world problems and seek amusement and distraction where you can, those problems will end up solving themselves.

This might not be a huge issue for me if the movie hadn’t done such a good job of establishing the woes of the Banks family and how badly they need a miracle like Mary Poppins to arrive on their doorstep. Usually when a children’s movie has an absent parental figure, it’s a cheap way of scoring some easy sympathy points while saving them the trouble of having to include an additional (usually female) character in their story. Here, the loss of the mother is a constant source of pain and despair for the family and the struggle to cope and move on together is one that the film is actually interested in exploring. There’s a very affective scene where Whishaw sits alone in the attic singing about his beloved where, even though I’m normally not a fan of non-singers being made to perform in musicals, his unpolished vulnerability is just right to get the tears flowing. With this and the additional trouble of the bank threatening to repossess their house, it seems to me that the last thing Michael and the kids need is to be distracted by cartoon musical extravaganzas and dancing lamplighters. They need solutions and fast. Having Poppins fly in to offer a few light-hearted diversions and then presenting the solution that the family needs in the form of a Deus-ex-Machina just doesn’t sit very well with me. It doesn’t feel whimsical, it just feels lazy.

Maybe this is the result of having a fantasy movie where the best scenes tend to take place in the real world. As with the original Mary Poppins this movie is jam-packed with musical sequences, yet few of the new songs that are featured are very memorable. It might not seem fair to say that when you consider that the songs from the first film such as ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ have had decades to cement their place in the public’s consciousness, but these are all songs that I remember quite well despite not having watched the film in years. In this case I can barely hum half the songs from the movie’s soundtrack. It’d be one thing for the songs to be unremarkable if their performances were at least fun to watch, but Marshall’s insistence on constantly cutting between wide shots, close ups and reaction shots without framing them in any imaginative way or letting them last long enough for the viewer to really appreciate the extravagance of the sets or the talent on display in the dance choreography puts a stop to any of that. The welcome exception is in the porcelain bowl escapade where Blunt, Miranda and their cartoon animal friends perform a vaudeville piece called ‘The Cover is Not the Book’, the catchy chorus of which does keep returning to my head. That whole sequence is a fun-filled romp where live-action and 2D animation compliment each other in all the right ways and that even manages to put Miranda’s rapping skills to the test as he goes on an elaborate tangent in his Dick Van Dyke cockney accent.

Overall, Mary Poppins Returns is little more than a mostly derivative, sometimes charming and occasionally fantastic distraction. Like half of Disney’s live-action output, it’s a movie that seeks to profit on the back of the nostalgia its title and premise inspire, but there’s a difference between reviving or reinventing a story and recycling it. There’s a way to revisit old stories and compliment, reflect and expand on them without going through the same motions all over again in such a way that it feels like nothing at all has changed and you needn’t have bothered. Disney did it before in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a sequel that followed the same basic story beats as A New Hope, but did so in order to establish a familiar continuity from which they could launch a new story with new characters and to demonstrate the way in which history repeats itself and stories and legends reverberate over time. Here it just feels like Marshall and screenwriter Magee followed the exact same story as before because they couldn’t come up with any better ideas. While it is able to recapture the wondrous past for a few fleeting moments, that it’s constantly looking backwards is the reason why it will never be a classic in its own right.

★★★

Aquaman

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman

Director: James Wan

Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall


Aquaman, the latest instalment in the DC canon, is this preposterous miracle of a movie that manages to be fantastically, stupidly ridiculous without ever seeming to laugh at itself the way so many of us used to laugh at the fish-talking hero. That’s not an easy effect to pull off and it takes more than creativity, talent and a blockbuster budget to sustain. You need an unreserved sense of sincerity and a total, wholehearted, unironic love of the material in all its campiness, weirdness and silliness. That is part of the reason why Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed where Wonder Woman and Aquaman succeeded; they were produced by a studio that was embarrassed to be making comic book superhero movies. This doesn’t mean that superhero movies can’t be serious and adult, Christopher Nolan proved that they can, but too many filmmakers (Zack Snyder in particular) mistake that gloominess and grittiness for maturity. Aquaman is a mythological opera, a Shakespearian family drama and an Arthurian fable with themes of love, duty and diplomacy and an environmental message. It also happens to have a nation of crab people, a 1,000-foot leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews, and an octopus playing the drums.

Despite having already appeared in two previous films, Aquaman is very much an origin story for Jason Momoa’s scruffy, roguish swashbuckler. We learn about the circumstances of his birth, which was brought about by a forbidden romance between stranded Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and her rescuer, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). Their union and the life of their son however are both threatened by the Atlantean forces sent out to bring their absconding queen to justice and so Atlanna is left with no choice but to return home where she is sentenced to death for the crime of birthing a half-breed son. Since then Arthur (Momoa) has had to grapple with being the outcast of two separate worlds. He grows up to become the long haired, impossibly buff, ornately tattooed aquatic superman we know from Justice League; a guy who just wants to be left on his own to drink, brood and protect endangered ships and submarines from the perils of the ocean. In his first solo movie Arthur emerges as a reluctant hero who, at the behest of the fiery-haired Atlantean idealist Mera (Amber Heard), embraces his destiny to save the nation that rejected him and killed his mother from the tyranny of his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who plans to launch an attack against the land dwellers in retaliation for all of their polluting of the sea.

Aquaman adds a bit of an Indiana Jones tweak to the traditional superhero origin formula by sending Arthur and Mera on a quest in search of the legendary lost trident of Atlan, which according to the Atlantean councillor and Arthur’s mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), will give he who wields it the authority to rule the seven seas as Ocean Master. Thus we’re treated to an adventure story that spans the globe, bringing us to the Sahara and Siciliy, with occasional interruptions, usually by the pirate mercenary David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), so that a fight scene can happen. Personally I could have used a little more of the riddle and puzzle- solving expedition because the movie can get a little tiresome and repetitive as it gets bogged down in the underwater political conflict between the armoured shark-riding and the armoured sea horse-riding (because it’s that kind of movie) tribes. When the action starts, it is awesome and silly in equal measure. There’s a delightfully childish charm to the way Wan is so ready and willing to embrace the absurdity of scuba suited Atlantean troops and their balloon-headed leader emerging on land in broad daylight to engage in some rooftop, hand-to-hand combat. Rather than shrouding them in darkness or using choppy editing to hide the kitschier elements, Wan presents the fight and chase sequence with all the barefaced glee of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers kung-fu showdown. The camera view is far-reaching and the movement free-flowing, ensuring that not a single goofy detail gets missed.

It’s interesting to consider how far superhero movies have come since the days of the first X-Men movie where they decided to adorn their characters with plain black leather rather than yellow spandex for fear that they might look too silly. This is something that the earlier DC Extended Universe movies struggled with as well when they opted for a grim, murky colour palette, presumably because they felt it would help sell the audience on a superhero cinematic universe that was altogether grittier, darker and more serious than Marvel’s. Aquaman himself was assigned a steely costume dominated by black and grey. Now he’s in a movie that adorns him with the radiantly orange and green armour he wears in the comic books, where the heroine’s hair shines in lava-red splendour and where the ocean is brought to dazzling life through sparkling shades of pale blue and aqua green and every colour in between. This movie adopts such saturated hues that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you missed a deleted scene where Arthur stumbled his way into the Technicolour world of Oz. By giving the film such a rich and diverse colour scheme, Wan makes it all the easier to appreciate the wealth of detail contained within each frame from the way that Atlantis is so luminously lit by the array of sea creatures that inhabit it to the ostentatiously varied choice of armour that sea-dwellers sport, including those that come with oversized crab and lobster claws.

As outrageous and over the top as Aquaman can get, Jason Momoa grounds it all with the confidence and charm of a star destined to have a lucrative career in the movies. He adopts a persona much like that which Dwayne Johnson has spent the last decade or so perfecting; the tough but loveable doofus who could just as soon join you for a drink and get rip-roaringly plastered as he could beat you into a bloody pulp without breaking a sweat. He can be solemn and thoughtful when he wants to be and he can be badass and funny. Supporting Momoa in his star-making turn is a cast that is devotedly committed to the movie in all of its total campiness. There’s something utterly enjoyable about watching Oscar worthy actors give themselves over to a thoroughly bonkers movie and whether it works (see Alec Guinness in Star Wars) or doesn’t (see Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons) the result is always magical. Dafoe and Kidman are such actors and watching them wield tridents and ride hammerhead sharks with such sincerity and gravitas is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Another is Wilson playing the kind of whiny, diabolical villain you just love to hate, (imagine Commodus from Gladiator and you’re not far off).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about Aquaman is what a surprisingly progressive movie it is. Despite the numerous fight scenes that occur and the thrillingly invigorating ways in which they’re shot, Aquaman proves itself more willing than your average superhero blockbuster to challenge the notion that all conflict can be resolved through violence alone. Even when modern Hollywood movies preach about the value and necessity of peace, co-existence and empathy, too often that idealism gets undermined when the hero ends up having to take up arms to defeat the baddie. This was one of the issues I had with Wonder Woman, a movie whose hero was a paragon of compassion, and Black Panther, a movie of political daring almost unheard of in Hollywood, which both had their heroes win their victories by punching and blasting their foes into submission. In the moments where it matters most, it isn’t strength and might that win the day in Aquaman but de-escalation, diplomacy and forgiveness. It’s not as subversive in its aversion to violence as, say, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it is an outstanding break in the precedent set by the nihilism of the Snyder DC movies and could mark a revolutionary step forward in the evolution of the superhero genre.

★★★★

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Cast: (voiced by) John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina, Ed O’Neill

Directors: Rich Moore, Phil Johnston

Writers: Phil Johnston, Pamela Ribon


Nowadays Disney tends to make two kinds of animated movies. One half of these films follows the fairy tale tradition that made the Disney brand, drawing from historical myths and fables and adding in music and colour to bring us the likes of Tangled, Frozen and Moana. The other half (moreso if we also include Pixar) looks more at the present in its search for inspiration in making films that depict complex systems and ideas that many children can often find difficult and scary to comprehend. Zootropolis provided an allegory for racism on a societal level and considered how decent, well-meaning people could be prejudiced in ways that they had never considered. Inside Out explored the emotional psyche of a young girl and concluded that sadness is integral to our abilities to cope with growth and change. Coco ventured into the land of the dead in its ode to the Latin American spirituality of ancestry and death. In this sequel to what is perhaps the only great video game movie in all of cinema, Disney sets its sight on their most complicated, perilous and inscrutable setting yet: the Internet.

The Internet is something that other blockbusters have struggled to depict in insightful yet kid-friendly ways, especially in terms of exploring its darker, more toxic side. Ready Player One dared go no further than to say, rather generically, that people should probably spend more time in the real world. The Emoji Movie didn’t even go that far, instead advertising the Internet as this cool, fun-filled landscape where you can enjoy all these trendy apps. This is rather concerning since so many people who use the Internet, including children, can find it to be a dangerous place where bullying, invasiveness, misinformation, illicit dealings and addiction can be allowed to run rampant. A quick Google search revealed to me that the vast majority of films about the Internet made for an adult audience, including The Social Network, Unfriended and Citizenfour, are overwhelmingly negative in their portrayals. This is why I think Ralph Breaks the Internet could be a real groundbreaker (no, I will not apologise for the pun). While the movie doesn’t hesitate in depicting the Internet as this vast, colourful, dynamic world of endless possibilities, directors Johnston and Moore are not blind to the lesser qualities of the online experience and portray them about as well as one could expect of a product of a multi-billion dollar corporate machine with a brand to advertise and a profit to make.

The set-up is a little flimsy but it does the job. Retro video game bad guy Ralph and glitchy speed car racer Vanellope have settled into a pretty comfy routine since becoming the best of friends. Day after day they continue to fulfil their prescribed roles in their respective games and, once the arcade closes, they’ll spend the whole night together drinking root beer, goofing around and chatting about anything and everything. For Ralph life couldn’t possibly be any better. Vanellope however is less satisfied. Having learnt every race track in Sugar Rush by heart and regularly beating her competitors, she’s grown bored with the monotony. In typical Disney heroine fashion, Vanellope desires something more; a larger world with greater possibilities and challenges. Ralph, eager as ever to be the hero, tries to help out by digging a new track, but things get worse when the detour inadvertently leads to the breaking of the game’s steering wheel. New parts for the arcade game are hard to come by since the company that made the game is no longer in business and it looks like Sugar Rush will be permanently shut down. A solution presents itself however when a strange device called Wi-Fi (pronounced wee-fee) is introduced to the arcade. When Ralph and Vanellope learn that a replacement part is available on the Internet, they use the Wi-Fi to transport themselves there so that they might buy it.

As soon as they get there Ralph and Vanellope are awestruck by the Internet in all its enormity and activity. The web is shown to be an endless metropolis made up of titanic skyscrapers housing such techno-industrial giants as Google and Amazon. Lively avatars representing users from around the globe whiz about in every direction from one website to the next, stopping only to be harassed and redirected by obnoxious pop-up ads and unsolicited video recommendations. One click, whether intentional or accidental, will summon a car that will instantly zoom you over to another part of the virtual world. It is a hysterically accurate representation of what using the Internet is like, one that captures exactly how somebody can log on with a specific task to accomplish only to wind up down a rabbit hole of cat videos and Twitter feeds. Amongst the characters our duo meet are KnowsMore, an enthusiastic search engine that compulsively tries to predict the users’ queries, and JP Spamley, a Gil Gunderson type of salesman desperate to make sales on outrageous clickbait ads. Yet Ralph and Vanellope soon learn that it’s all too easy to take a wrong step and find yourself overwhelmed and lost in the chaotic mess that is the world wide web. All it takes is a visit to eBay and a fundamental misunderstanding of how bidding works for Ralph and Vanellope to find themselves in a sticky situation.

Having massively overbid on the part needed to fix Vanellope’s game, she and Ralph now need to raise a lot of money in very little time. This mission ends up taking them all over the Internet to such sites as Slaughter Race, an online racing game so over-the-top in its dystopian grittiness that Mad Max looks almost tame in comparison, Oh My Disney, where you can take an online personality quiz to find out who your spirit Disney princess is (mine is Belle incidentally), and BuzzTube, a Buzzfeed/YouTube hybrid where videos can be shared and receive likes (just don’t read the comments). While Ralph works on becoming a viral star on BuzzTube with the help of Yesss, the arbiter of all that is trending, Vanellope finds herself wholly enraptured by the thrills and challenges of Slaughter Race, especially after meeting the impossibly cool racer Shank, and starts to consider the prospect of staying there rather than returning to her old life with Ralph. It’s this dilemma that allows Ralph Breaks the Internet to truly come into its own as it explores the complexities of friendship and how difficult it is to let somebody go even if that is what they need in order to grow and pursue their ambitions and desires. Through rich animation and the wonderful voicework of Silverman and Reilly, the film teaches an achingly poignant lesson about how there are changes and limitations we have to accept in our lives and that the best we can do is learn to evolve and adapt.

On a more 2018 note, the movie also provides a surprisingly astute illustration of toxic masculinity and how it is exacerbated by insecurity and negative feedback. Ralph, usually the toughest, most macho guy in the room and infinitely happier since finding respect and reverence in his friendship with Vanellope, is someone whose self-esteem depends on near-constant positive reinforcement. When he makes the fatal mistake of reading the comments to his hot-pepper-eating, goat-screaming, bee-punning videos, he finds himself feeling weaker, smaller and more vulnerable than he’s emotionally prepared to handle. Thus he lashes out in ways that threaten to wreck the friendship he and his bestest friend hold so dear. He reads Vanellope’s actions as reflections of his anxieties rather than as those of her own desires and from there his needy, self-destructive insecurities manifest themselves in monstrous ways that must be overcome if their relationship is to be saved. This is a concept that has grown only too prevalent in online culture over the last few years and it is one that Disney handles cleverly and with great sensitivity. What made Wreck-It Ralph so great compared to many of the other animated movies of that era was how endearing its characters were and how much their actions and emotions drove the story. The same is true of Ralph Breaks the Internet and the sequel is almost as great as the first.

The movie’s main issue is that sometimes it takes a while to actually get to the outstanding character-driven moments and that the quest for the steering wheel gets a little tiresome as it becomes less relevant to the central conflict. The movie tends to work better when it either focuses squarely on the characters or forgets about the plot for a while and has some fun with its depiction of the Internet and pop culture. The main highlight is Vanellope’s much-advertised stint with the Disney princesses which leads to some great laughs as they poke fun at some of the tropes Disney has so happily perpetuated from the questionable sexual politics to the easily shrugged-off traumas (“Are you guys okay, should I call the cops?” Vanellope asks as they excitedly recall being poisoned, cursed and kidnapped) and the casual absence of mothers. While the sequence does feel a little like Disney synergism at work in the form of shameless self-promotion (including their Marvel and Star Wars brands), it’s still good fun when taken at face value and it also leads to Vanellope being given her own Menken-composed Disney princess song. While Ralph Breaks the Internet can feel overlong and aimless at times, it manages to bring it all home in the end through hysterical jokes, superb animation, two complex and loveable characters and a profound and socially relevant moral.

★★★★

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp

Director: David Yates

Writer: J.K. Rowling


I don’t mind admitting that I was apprehensive about this film going in despite Harry Potter being such an integral part of my childhood and my having mostly enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts. While the previous film could be quite clumsy in terms of plotting and world building, I thought Newt Scamander made for an appealing protagonist, there were a couple of fun action scenes and some neat visuals, and the movie also had one or two interesting ideas that I thought could lead to some great pay-offs in the sequel. In the couple of years leading up to this new title however, there were a couple of red flags that gave me pause. One was the studio’s decision to keep Johnny Depp in the film following the allegations of domestic abuse made by ex-wife Amber Heard. Another was the announcement that this next film would not address Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s romantic relationship in any direct way despite it being directly relevant to the story. While one could probably argue that such objections are more moral than they are qualitative and shouldn’t have any bearing on my thoughts on the film itself, I still felt that these announcements betrayed a certain wrongheadedness behind the decision making and also a conservative (some might say medieval) mindset in their approach. I braced myself for disappointment but still hoped that I might be surprised.

I was surprised all right. Not by the movie’s regressive politics and pathological aversion to risk and chance, nor by J.K. Rowling’s lethal case of the George Lucas syndrome. No, what really surprised me about The Crimes of Grindelwald was its staggering incompetence on almost every level. Penned once again by Rowling herself, somebody whom I know knows how storytelling works at its most basic level, and directed by David Yates, his sixth film in this franchise (at least two of which are very good), it astounds me how demonstrably, exceedingly, bafflingly, amateurishly, embarrassingly bad this movie that they’ve made together is. The plot is grossly overstuffed and all but incomprehensible, the characterisation is profoundly nonsensical except when it’s utterly non-existent, and even the basic filming and editing style is so enormously inept it would make a first-year film student ashamed. The opening scene for instance, in which Grindelwald (Depp) escapes from his captivity, is a rainy scene shot in such drab darkness with such sporadic abandon it’s impossible to be sure what’s actually happening at any given second. Crucial cinematic storytelling principles such as set-up and payoff, clarity in spatial relationships and geography and an understanding of the stakes and dangers present; these are all key components in crafting an action scene and Grindelwald’s escape fails on all counts. The colours are all so dark and grey that it’s never clear what’s happening within the space of the shot and they’re all cut together so haphazardly that all the moment manages to generate for the viewer is confusion rather than suspense and excitement.

This chaotic mismatch of indistinct moments is demonstrative of the larger story that the film is trying to tell. Things only go downhill as it soon becomes clear that the blurry opening scene was the first of many steps in the movie’s effort to completely undo the ending of its previous instalment. Thus Grindelwald is free once again after spending an unseen year in between the two titles incarcerated. Next, The Crimes of Grindelwald negates one of the more poignant scenes in the first film by revealing that Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) did not die but that he instead vanished and has now resurfaced in Paris. No explanation is given as far as I can remember, all we’re told is that his power as an Obscurus has grown and he’s gone searching for his true parentage. The Ministry of Magic wants to bring him in and so they turn to the grounded magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for his help. Newt refuses because he has no interest in taking sides in a wizarding war, especially if it involves working with his Auror brother Theseus (Callum Turner). Afterwards he is approached by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who persuades Newt that he needs to find Credence and keep him safe before either the Ministry or Grindelwald can get to him. Dumbledore can’t move against Grindelwald himself for vague, heteronormative reasons.

Things get complicated fast as we learn that Newt, the Ministry and Grindelwald are not the only ones searching for Credence. American Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who is pissed of with Newt because of a romantic misunderstanding, is also hot on his trail as is a French-Senegalese wizard called Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who is on a quest to right a past wrong. Along for the ride is Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) who has pursued an illegal relationship with Muggle (or No-Maj if you prefer) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and wants to move someplace where they’ll be free to marry and live together. Jacob, incidentally, remembers all the events of the previous film, thereby undoing another affective moment. There’s also Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), Newt’s old flame and his brother’s fiancé, who is in search for some answers about her own past, and Nagini (Claudia Kim), Credence’s girlfriend cursed with an affliction through which she can transform into a snake. These characters all convolutedly end up in Paris where they spend about two-thirds of the movie trying to find each other and having rushed meetings before hurriedly departing in order to find someone somewhere else. All this is in anticipation of a meeting held by Grindelwald where they all come together to watch him deliver a fiery speech. This is one of those movies where too much is happening all at once, yet in the end little has actually happened.

Like with George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, Rowling has fallen into the trap of creating a series of movies that exist not to tell a specific story, but to answer questions that in the grand scale of things don’t really matter. Even if you’re a Potterhead who loves the Wizarding World and wants nothing more than to keep on living in it, knowing that person X is related to person Y or that Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so is going to reappear in Harry Potter and the Something of the Something doesn’t mean anything if it adds nothing to the story. If you have a series of movies that are more interested in drawing connections with a story that we already know and love than it is in telling one of its own, you get a series where the stakes are completely absent since we know that Grindelwald will be defeated round about Movie 4 or 5 and that his legacy will not have had any lasting effect by the time we reach Harry, Ron and Hermione. It also means that we don’t get any meaningful character development since the priority is simply to introduce them as these moving pieces in a world and story we’re already supposed to care about. What makes The Crimes of Grindelwald so dull to watch is that you have about a dozen or so characters scrambling around like headless chickens without the one thing that they all desperately need: motivation.

If we look at Grindelwald himself, the character whose actions are the entire driving force of the film, what makes him such a weak villain isn’t just Depp’s sleepwalking performance; it’s that the movie never makes it clear to us who he is or what he want (even in the climatic speech in which he states who he is and what he wants). We know that he wants to create a world free of the stain of humanity (i.e. Muggles), yet offers no specific grievances, he merely alludes to the Second Great War that is to come with its concentration camps and atomic bombs. If Grindelwald has a specific goal or a plan through which to achieve it, it remains a mystery by the end of the film. Contrast that with Voldemort who had a clear goal: kill Harry Potter. We learn the reason much later in the story and by then it barely even matters anymore because the conflict has become so complex and personal. All that matters is that Harry is a character we like and know well; therefore we root for Voldemort to fail. Grindelwald’s ambitions pose no threat that matters to us on an emotional level because there is nothing personal about his conflict with any of the main characters save Dumbledore (which the movie is only willing to explore on the most insubstantially Platonic level). Even as a character in his own right, Grindelwald fails to impress as this magical dictatorial predecessor to the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and… another political figure with bleach white hair and fascist tendencies largely because of Depp, a formerly daring and charismatic actor who just can’t be bothered anymore.

Newt Scamander is still likeable enough as the Hufflepuff hero whose greatest power is not strength, intelligence or charisma but rather empathy and fulfils not the role of a warrior, officer or leader but that of a healer. He is however trapped in a series in which he is progressively losing reason and direction. His goal is to try and find Credence and keep him safe, yet there is nothing personal between himself and Credence or Grindelwald compelling him on this endeavour. Even if we were to say that Newt’s motivation is simply ‘he is a good person who wants to do the right thing’, there has to be something at stake for him personally in order for us to become invested in his success. If the case is that Newt feels for Credence, empathises with him, and wants to help him for his own sake, then that’s something the film has to show us and not take for granted. Again, if we were to compare him to Rowling’s previous hero, it’s made perfectly clear to us what Harry Potter’s goal is: to defeat the man who killed his parents. It’s simple, it’s understandable, and it’s personal. The only personal conflict Newt faces in this film is his romantic misadventure with Tina, who thinks he’s engaged to Leta because a gossip magazine printed the name of the wrong Scamander brother. While the first film did hint at some kind of spark between the couple, the idea that they were ever close enough to become an item comes out of nowhere and this silly, easily resolved misunderstanding lifted straight out of an 80s sitcom feels tiringly trite and distracting.

That’s not the worst of the movie’s many subplots though; that honour belongs to the red herring goose chase that takes up so much focus throughout the film, only to then amount to nothing. A tale of dark deeds, tragic regrets and mistaken identities, a large portion of the movie is dedicated towards solving a mystery at the heart of all this and it turns out two-thirds of the characters involved needn’t have bothered because not only did they get it wrong, the answers that they do learn don’t even matter to the film’s ending. Yet that doesn’t stop it from taking up several scenes complete with flashbacks and a final confrontation in which two or three characters stand up in succession to say “No, here’s what really happened”. The resolution is not only laughably stupid, it doesn’t even resolve anything in and of itself because it concerns characters we either don’t know or have never met whose fates we don’t care about because it ends up not having anything to do with what’s actually happening. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is and I cannot imagine why Rowling felt that this whole diversion was necessary to her story except as a means to get a certain number of characters into a room together near the end.

I suppose there were a couple of things I liked. Jude Law turned out to be a pretty good Dumbledore with his ability to add nuance and depth to even the thinnest of material (just look at The Young Pope if you need further proof) and he played that role with the dignity, wit and dash of mischief befitting a younger version of this familiar character (although a part of me is always going to wonder what Jared Harris might have done with the role). I don’t like the way the film handled Dumbledore, especially in light of the revelation made near the end about his inaction, but I can’t fault Law’s performance. There were also a couple of magical creatures that I liked such as the Kelpie, which is like a sea horse in a very literal sense, and the Zouwu, which looks like a cross between Falcor from Neverending Story and a Chinese dragon puppet. There’s also the Niffler for those who enjoy its treasure-stealing shenanigans. But weighing these pros against the many, many cons feels like praising The Revenge of the Sith for the visuals and Ewan McGregor’s performance; they don’t even begin to make up for the film’s flaws. I haven’t even touched on the deeply disturbing romance of Queenie and Jacob, the shameful character arcs inflicted on Leta and Nagini and other details that spoiler etiquette prevents me from discussing. Suffice it to say that The Crimes of Grindelwald is a shambolic mess of a film that exists only to capitalise on the Potter brand and has none of the magic that made it special in the first place.

The Grinch

Cast: (voiced by) Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Keenan Thompson, Cameron Seely, Pharrell Williams, Angela Lansbury

Directors: Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney

Writers: Michael LeSieur, Tommy Swerdlow


The films by Pixar and Dreamworks, I like them a lot; but those of Illumination, I really do not. I hated The Grinch! I thought it great treason against Suess’ beloved ode to the Christmas season. Perhaps my head isn’t screwed on quite right or perhaps my standards are too rigid and tight but having sat through it, enduring it all, I feel all the more strongly that the film’s value is small. “We already have a Grinch film”, I snarled with a sneer, “by Karloff and Jones and it remains without peer”. This film is garish, unfunny and brain-numbing, it was everything that I had feared in the days upcoming. There is one redeeming feature, one saving grace, which is that Seuss’ creation is too great to be defaced. At the end of the day the message still comes through and the studio’s tedious releases are all set to continue.

The story is a classic, we all know it well; it’s about the mean Mr. Grinch, rotten in every cell. That actor who played Sherlock and Strange is the star despite his American accent sounding like Gruber’s in Die Hard. In a mountaintop cave he lives far, far away from those who should dare to try and brighten his day. He hates everyone and everything with gall, and as for Christmas, he hates that most of all. He hates the food, the decorations and toys and he absolutely detests the incessantly cheerful noise. It comes every year and it keeps getting worse, to the Grinch this wonderful time is nothing but a curse. So, as the Whos of Whoville makes their preparations and whatnot, the Grinch has an idea and hatches a fiendish plot. If the Whos will not stop with their goodwill and mayhem, then he’ll have to go into town and steal Christmas from them.

That’s the whole story and it took half an hour for Karloff and Jones to tell it with such wit and power. From where I stand a remake is just unnecessary (and don’t even get me started on the one with Jim Carrey). But this is a feature-length movie with a quota to meet, so it has to be longer and get more kids in the seats. Thus they pad the runtime with backstory and gags, but they don’t add anything except as tiresome lags. There’s also a sub-plot about Cindy-Lou Who whose mom has more on her plate than she knows what to do. She works a full-time job and cares for three kids by herself, so Cindy-Lou wants to capture Santa and ask for his help. The result is a movie that’s overlong and dull without a funny joke in sight or a new idea in its skull.

When it comes to kid’s movies, Illumination sets the bar low and aims mainly for toddlers whose parents have nowhere else to go. The colours are bright and the movement is fluid, but if you’re above a certain age you’ll see there’s little else to it. The jokes are all lame and made of the thinnest veneer, including those of the screaming goat and of the big, plump reindeer. The movie introduces both as if they’ll have major parts to play, but all they do is appear, perform their bits, then go away. The rest of the humour is made up of slapstick galore, and it certainly doesn’t help that the Grinch himself is a bore. Cumberbatch’s grump is a jerk but seldom is he nasty and there’s little pleasure in watching him be villainous and crafty. Instead of a monster destroying happiness where he sees it, all the Grinch wants is curl up quietly with a good book and read it. Gone is that entertainingly malevolent brute, but still I have to admit that his dog Max is quite cute.

While the cartoon had that song by Thurl Ravenscroft, a witty, animated tune still heard around Christmas oft, this movie opens with a droning rap by Tyler the Creator that contrasts with the energetic backdrop made by the animator. It’s pretty typical for a film that is so clearly calculated to make a profit today for a product that’ll soon be dated. This isn’t a movie that kids will return to again and again; this is simply the next car in Illumination’s money train. It has enough going on to keep little kids distracted and the moral is still there so at least it’s somewhat didactic. The Christmas Eve heist has a couple of highlights, what with all those gizmos and gadgets the Grinch uses that night. As cynical cashgrabs go, this one isn’t the worst even if its take on Seuss’ story has nothing on the first. Still it’s shallow, unwitty and lazy and, in my humble opinion, kids today deserve better than this from the studio that made Minions.

★★

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman

Directors: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston

Writer: Ashleigh Powell


The tale that we know as The Nutcracker originally comes from an 1816 short story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann about a young girl called Marie who helps the Nutcracker defeat the evil Mouse King and follows him to a magical kingdom populated by dolls where she sees many wondrous things. This story formed the basis for the libretto to the Tchaikovsky ballet where they enormously simplified what was already a pretty uncomplicated story in order to fit a two-act structure that could accommodate several extended dance sequences with the minimal (if any) use of plot. In the century since its composition The Nutcracker has grown into a phenomenon that continues to be performed all over the world with music that ranks among the most beloved and familiar in the entire classical canon. It has also become one of the many public domain properties that Hollywood likes to readapt and reinvent every so often. Since it’s been a little over eight years since The Nutcracker last received the cinematic treatment (which is about four decades in Hollywood years), Disney has thus revived the story once again, this time with not one, not two, not even three, but four realms.

I would have thought that if anything could serve as an example to cinema of how to create a visual spectacle and convey a story through actions, expressions and gestures rather than dialogue, it would be a ballet. Such inspiration would be invaluable to a fairy tale such as this where the audience’s investment depends on their being bewitched by a spell of cinematic majesty and whimsical feeling. Nothing kills this spell faster or more assuredly than the logic and banality that comes with conventional narrative and explanatory dialogue. Think of the silent charm of My Neighbour Totoro or the dream-like wonder of The Wizard of Oz. How much more trite and tiresome would these movies be if they relentlessly apologised for being fairy tales by explaining what everything is and how they work and adding conflict and circumstances beyond what’s needed to set up the characters’ motivations and the emotional stakes? What if, instead of the living manifestation of the cruelties and horrors of the grown-up world in Dorothy’s adolescent eyes, the Wicked Witch of the West was shown as more of a diabolical tyrant bent on conquering Oz using the ruby slippers? What if we were treated to endless exposition detailing the history and politics of Oz and the mechanics of the ruby slippers and their magical powers before eventually watching Dorothy lead the Munchkins to liberation from the evil baddie which (spoiler) turns out to be Glinda or the Wizard or perhaps the Cowardly Lion for all I care? What would any of that have to do with the movie’s timeless message that there’s no place like home?

That fairy tales do not all have to be remodelled into fantasy epics is something that Disney used to understand. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Jungle Book and the 1951 Alice in Wonderland are all films that barely have plots to speak of because they are so much more interested in exploring their worlds and characters and finding ways to enchant the audience (all three have since been given remakes by Disney which attempted to add greater stakes to their stories). When the epic narrative does work and you get an empowering film like Frozen that’s one thing, but even that is a story that relies more on emotion than logic. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has more in common with the 2010 Alice in Wonderland, a film that tried to apply a logical plot in the form of a chosen-one narrative to a story that not only worked but thrived without one. When you try to apply reason to a fantastical story, you’re inviting the viewer to apply a level of scrutiny that outlandish plots, strange happenings and bizarre characters cannot easily stand up against. That film not only completely missed the point in terms of what made the Lewis Carroll books so wonderful, it also failed on its own terms with a dull protagonist and a tired, predictable story that failed to score a single emotional beat. This movie isn’t as bad as that but it has many of the same problems.

The hero of this tale is the generically smart and resourceful Clara (Mackenzie Foy), the daughter of Marie from the original story. She and her family are going through their first Christmas together since the mother’s passing and her loss is still deeply felt. On Christmas Eve Clara and her siblings, elder sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and little brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), are each bequeathed a gift left to them by their mother. Clara receives a strange Fabergé egg, one without a key or any other apparent means of opening it. The family then heads for their usual Christmas ball, held every year by Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) where her father Benjamin (Matthew Macfadyen) expects her to put on a happy face and dance with him. Clara doesn’t feel much like dancing though and instead seeks out her godfather with whom she shares a passion for mechanisms and machinery. She learns that it was he who first built the silver egg for Marie and that she had always wanted to pass it on to her daughter. When the time comes for the children to receive their gifts from the evening’s host, Clara follows the trail leading to hers and stumbles into a world quite unlike her own.

Thus Clara finds herself in the same magical world that her mother discovered as a young girl, a world of snow, flowers, sweets and mice. However, in the years since Marie first arrived, the world of the Four Realms has fallen on hard times. Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) of the Land of Amusements has declared war on the other three realms, a war that has engulfed the realms in destruction and chaos. Clara meets the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) who remembers her mother well and reveals that she is the princess of the Four Realms. It falls onto her to defend the Lands of Sweet, Snowflakes and Flowers from the wrath of the Fourth Realm and to restore peace once again. What follows is a hero’s journey as Clara braves the dangers of the Four Realms, finds the answers she seeks to the questions left by her mother, and learns to trust in herself. Oh, also there’s a Nutcracker in the film. He’s a soldier boy played by Jayden Fowora-Knight who occasionally helps Clara but otherwise is sort of just there. There is absolutely no reason for him to be the titular character except that Disney wouldn’t be able to franchise this movie without the Nutcracker name.

Like with Tim Burton’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms demonstrates the futility of trying to incorporate a by the numbers plot into a story that’s guided by feeling rather than logic. Narrative conventions that we can see coming from a million miles away and lengthy explanations about who everyone is, what exactly is happening and where they need to go next cannot help but drain the spell of its magic. Nowhere is this more evident than in what is by default the film’s best scene. This is when Clara and the residents of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s palace gather before a stage to watch a re-enactment of the Four Realms’ history in the form of, what else, a ballet. This scene features real sets and practical effects, Tchaikovsky’s original music and a cameo by Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to become a prima ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre. This would be an inspired way to provide the audience with an entire wealth of exposition and pay tribute to the story’s origins while still allowing them to marvel in the wonder and whimsicalness of this universe. If only the Sugar Plum Fairy could stop nattering away every five seconds with her incessant commentary on what’s actually happening because she doesn’t appear to understand how ballet works! If this film had enough confidence in its own wondrousness that it didn’t feel the need to hold the viewer’s hand all the way through, this scene could have been spectacular.

Even then, however, that ballet scene would simply have been the highlight in an unremarkable film with a formulaic plot and a bland protagonist. Clara, I gather, is intended to be a response to the Victorian heroine archetype that her mother fell under; these pretty, joyful and otherwise unremarkable young girls who assume passive roles in their own stories and more often than not need to be rescued by the male hero. This heroine however is no damsel in distress; she’s clever, talented and brave, all good qualities for a main character to have. She’s also as dull as a rock. The movie operates on the assumption that making the main character technically savvy and having her fight a few soldiers counts as giving her a personality, but actions don’t mean much if there’s isn’t some kind of feeling or motivation inspiring them. The film tries to make this the grief that Clara feels from losing her mother, but there’s so little there of substance that the movie cannot hope to make it bear the weight of its emotional crux (on a side note, I find it funny how Clara was clearly the mother’s favourite to the point that her two siblings don’t matter in the slightest). Foy doesn’t manage to bring any kind of spark to her character and mostly just drifts between scenes without direction, acting like she’s more interested in looking the part of the pretty princess than she is in becoming the resourceful, adventurous girl wonder that the film wants her to be (for more on what a brilliant, daring, inventive princess with a spirited personality can be, see Shuri in Black Panther and Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).

It seems that most of the effort went into making this film look the part and there are some aspects worth praising. The costumes and make up make for some fun character designs such as Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy, whose frilly dress and elaborate hair-do is entirely imbued with the sugary pink of cotton candy, and Freeman’s Dorsselmeyer, a Victorian nobleman sporting a steampunk ballroom get-up, an eyepatch and an owl perched on his shoulder. A film depicting exactly how a black man of such mysteriousness and eccentricity became an upstanding member of society in Victorian London would have been enormously fascinating. The production design also yields some picturesque sights, most notably in the ballet scene. Yet little of the film’s visual splendour is rooted in a personality it can call its own. The scene where Clara wonders into the enchanting forest of the snowflake realm could have been copied and pasted straight from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mother Ginger’s lair and the cartoonish clowns that inhabit it look like something Tim Burton would design. The movie mostly feels like it was guided by a corporate obligation to assemble certain scenes in some mandated order and seldom feels like it’s trying to tell the story of itself. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a movie so lost in its search for an identity that it is only through the occasional recurrence of Tchaikovsky’s music that you’re reminded what it is you’re even watching.

★★