Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

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As I live and breathe. Grown up father Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his three children get some help from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) when the bank closes in on their home where his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps out following the death of Michael’s wife a year earlier … Cleaning is not a spectator sport. Perhaps it was inevitable that following the successful transposing of the classic film into musical theatre that Disney would go back to the toybox and raid one of their most significant creations, a live-animation hybrid that lingers long in the imagination and the heart. With songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman and set in ‘The Great Slump’ which we presume is sometime in the Thirties, this is a combination of race against time and treasure hunt, as the shares certificate is in the place least likely to be found – or the most obvious, if you know anything about movies/kites. There is a highly unlikely romance between Jane and Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary is rather astringent and inconsistent, the dour interior and visual designs lack the antique spark of the original and there are real longeurs in between the fantasy sequences. Breaking the contract with the audience, there is jeopardy in these, featuring a kidnapping that harkens back to The 101 Dalmatians or The Aristocats. You might recognise Willie the Operatic Whale in ‘The Royal Doulton Music Hall’ but there seems to be a real disconnect with the story and some diversionary tactics – Lin-Manuel Miranda has a speechifying song part in ‘A Book is Not the Cover’ that could be out of his own Hamilton. Meryl Streep shows up as Mary’s foreign cousin and has an upside down song (‘Turning Turtle’) which has little to do with anything. It’s odd that the true heart of the original only starts to be suggested in the finale, a coda to the action that visually resonates and practically pops perfectly off the screen – at last. Directed as well as he directs everything else by Rob Marshall, who adapted with David Magee and John DeLuca, at least this isn’t a remake and James Corden isn’t in it but Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke are. Everything is possible, even the impossible

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Valentina Cortese 1st January 1923 – 10th July 2019

The death has taken place of the wonderful Italian actress Valentina Cortese. Trained at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome, she first appeared in elaborate costume dramas and following the war made the move to Hollywood, making a stop in the UK  industry for the Dolomites-set The Glass Mountain where her fine beauty and warm screen personality impressed and her role opposite Orson Welles in Black Magic drew the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck. She married actor Richard Basehart following their appearance in The House on Telegraph Hill, a view of the war from the American perspective following her local roles in The Wandering Jew and Rome, Open City which had made her an icon of Italian cinema. As an independent and mostly in the Italian industry thereafter, she would eventuallywork with Antonioni (Le amiche) and Zeffirelli (Brother Sun, Sister Moon and others up to Sparrow) who remained a close friend.  She had forged links with Fellini early with one of his first screenplays (Three Quarters of a Page) and later memorably played in Juliet of the Spirits. Nominated for an Academy Award for her fading actress Séverine in François Truffaut’s Day For Night, she continued in both film and television and worked until the Nineties including for Terry Gilliam in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. She had a famously popular theatre reputation particularly for fans of high campIt took eight different actresses to play her in the film Diva! adapted from her autobiography “A real character, extremely feminine and very funny,” Truffaut said of Cortese. We cannot improve upon that. Rest in peace.

Anything (2017)

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You don’t want to live in Hollywood. Struggling to cope with the death of his wife and following his own suicide attempt, Mississippi widower Early Landry (John Carroll Lynch) moves to Los Angeles to be near his sister Laurette (Maura Tierney) who works in development at Sony and lives in Brentwood with her wheelchair bound husband Larry (Bradley Wayne James)  and teenage son Jack (Tanner Buchanan). A stranger in the city, Early endures the dinner party from hell when a widow (Bonnie McNeil) says she can’t stop thinking about her dead husband. His life is changed forever when he gets a place of his own in Hollywood and grows close to his transgender prostitute neighbour Freda (Matt Bomer) and experiences a different kind of love in a ramshackle building where everyone’s got their own problems … When I first got here I had a pulse. That and a desire to die. Practically an essay in kindness and intersectionality, this very contemporary mood piece has its origins in a 2007 stage play written and directed by Timothy McNeil who does the main duties here. With beautiful impressionistic handheld cinematography by James Laxton (who works a lot with Barry Jenkins) we see downtown LA as Early gets to experience it:  shopping at Ralph’s, eating at Canters, hiking in the hills, stopping at the burger stand. These interludes and montages disguise the fact that most of the action takes place in Early’s new home. His interactions with his neighbours including songwriter Brianna (Margot Bingham) and her junkie boyfriend David (Michah Hauptman) are blunted with alcohol and he finally sees in these marginal people echoes of his own life and its limitations following a happy 26 year-long marriage.  Lynch is nothing if not an unconventional romantic lead – as Brianna says, like Andy Griffith’s sadder brother.  He imbues this supposedly simple man with incredible complexity and warmth. (Let us not forget Lynch is a fine director too, having helmed Harry Dean Stanton’s last film, Lucky). The abortive attempt to introduce Freda at a dinner party with Laurette and family is grindingly difficult and ends in tears:  rather fantastically, everyone behaves just as you’d expect but the writing it so good and lacking in crude stereotypes you’d expect elsewhere. This is all about pain and lack of empathy. Bomer is superb as the beautiful prostitute who cannot believe her feelings for this tightie Southern whitey and she endures the horrors of detoxing when Early decides they’ve got to quit their respective demons.  She’s a mess of feelings and conflicts with all sorts of arresting ideas and lines and a desire to change her life, it’s just that this relationship was definitely not on her agenda. It’s a sweet romantic drama with rough corners about acceptance and making the best of what and who you’ve got. In this small scale but rewarding film we are reminded that love and friendship find a way, no matter what we do to get in the way. In spite of all your love letters and your stars you really fucking hate me

Lost in London (2017)

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Hollywood is almost like Royalty Without Borders. Woody Harrelson comes offstage from a dour drama in London to see he’s made headlines on a tabloid following an orgy with three women. He tries to persuade his wife Laura (Eleanor Matsuura) to leave a restaurant where she’s been dining with their small daughters before she sees the news but she returns to their hotel without him and he goes off drinking with an Arab prince, landing at a nightclub where he’s initially refused entry. Inside he meets his buddy Owen Wilson who berates him for his stupidity at not paying 30K to keep the story out of the papers and then they argue about their respective careers and get into a fistfight. The police are called and Woody gets assistance from a singer (Zrinka Cvitesic) who gives his last £50 to a wheelchair-bound beggar who Woody knocks over to retrieve the money before running off in a taxi where he breaks an ashtray. He flees the scene, only to be arrested in a playground and Irish cop Paddy (Martin McCann) seems bribable with a call to Bono of U2. Except when he talks to him he tells him he hasn’t made a good album since October … In the real world Wes Anderson is a Woody Allen wannabe. He hasn’t made a good film since Bottle Rocket. And come to that, neither have you. Presumably inspired by Birdman, this behind the scenes look at an actor’s wild night out in London was based on something that happened to debut writer/director movie star Harrelson 15 years previously  – and it’s shot in one take – and was livestreamed to a presumably gobsmacked audience in London’s Picturehouse Cinema at Piccadilly Circus and 500 cinemas around the US as it was being made! So far, so unprecedented, and it’s a little ropy to begin with, understandably, mostly due to the movement and some tricky performances from a cast of 30 actors: in reality just before they hit the streets they got the news (which we get from the top ‘n’ tail filmed segments added in post) that one of their locations, Waterloo Bridge, was closed off due to the discovery of an unexploded bomb. You have to admire the chutzpah of a crew who did it anyway! More than that, it’s witty, self-lacerating, and abounds with good energy, philosophical insights and jokes into fandom and celebrity (it might even be a mockumentary such is the extent of the mistaken identity and snide remarks about the last time Harrelson was in a good movie or even sexy). It even has a dream sequence with Willie Nelson playing to Harrelson. Except for the last part which fast forwards to morning (in name only as it’s night for day!) and the imminent trip to Neasden Studios to go to the Harry Potter set to prove Woody’s not a completely deadbeat dad, this is what it is: a live movie shot in a single (admittedly rather murky) take (by Jon Hembrough and Nigel Willoughby). And that’s pretty remarkable. What you are about to do is beyond crazy. Don’t do it!

Here and Now (2018)

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Aka Blue Night. I’m not done yet. Jazz singer/songwriter Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) has just received a cancer diagnosis. She spends the day walking around New York City, meeting up with her manager Ben (Common) to discuss her upcoming tour, rehearsing with her backing band, telling her ex-husband Nick (Simon Baker) who has custody of their daughter Lucie (Gus Birney), dealing with her overbearing French-speaking mother Jeanne (Jacqueline Bisset), arguing with a taxi driver (Waleed Zuaiter), having an assignation with her drummer and romantic interest Jordan (Taylor Kinney) and reflecting on her life as she comes to terms with her mortality … First a tragedy, then a miracle. An homage to (if not a direct remake of) the late Agnès Varda’s 1962 nouvelle vague classic Cléo from  5 to 7, this is written by Laura Eason and capitalises on Parker’s association with NYC, that city which became so important televisually with Sex and the City in the same way that it has always been for cinema. Reconciling this star’s iconicity with latterday roles is proving problematic. Essentially this is about a woman in a state of perpetual avoidance (even in the course of just one day) and for a character and public persona notable for costume it will be a vast disappointment that until the very last scene she wears the same outfit throughout – save for a session in a boutique in a metaphorical attempt to alter her situation then she presents the dress as a gift to her truculent teenage daughter. This is an indication of a script that’s not altogether in tune with its somewhat dithering protagonist: Parker is not given enough to do and that is quite literally fatal considering this is a film concerning something going on in her head but despite the internalising of the dramatic performance at its centre there are some pithy lines. Vivienne (the irony extends to her name) is about to perform an anniversary gig at Birdland where 25 years earlier great things were forecast but a broken engagement last year somehow triggered a retreat. All of my albums have been triggered by all of my broken engagements, she deadpans to a noxious journalist who has never heard of Donald O’Connor. Renée Zellwegger as her friend Tessa brings a sharpness to a character which makes it more interesting than the scene that perhaps was written, while the scenes between Parker and Bisset are horribly convincing. The feature debut of commercials director Fabien Constant, this is notable for Parker’s quite odd performance of Rufus Wainwright’s marvellous song Unfollow the Rules, indicating that she’s not a jazz singer at all but a different animal entirely, a thread the narrative might have pursued (she still loves Belgian pop singer Lio), just like she should have kicked off her heels and got real, delving deeper into that fascinating hinterland where several interesting signposts are left dangling. I’d like to change the destination

All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

The Best of Everything (1959)

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Here’s to men. Bless their clean-cut faces and dirty little minds! 1950s Manhattan:  three young women meet in the typing pool at Fabian Publishing and later share a home together: glamorous Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker) is an aspiring actress secretly yearning for domesticity whose director David Savage (Louis Jourdan) is using her; naive country girl April Morrison (Diane Baker) is left pregnant and alone by callous playboy Dexter Key (Robert Evans); and ambitious Radcliffe graduate Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) finds solace in the arms of editor Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd) while her fiancé is abroad. Together the three contend with unwise entanglements, office politics and the threat that their dreams for a fulfilling career will be cut short by marriage and children, while their romantic obsessions attract tragedy and the office is ruled with an iron fist by bitter chief editor Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford) ...What is it about women like us that make you hold us so cheaply? Aren’t we the special ones from the best homes and the best colleges? I know the world outside isn’t full of rainbows and happy endings, but to you, aren’t we even decent?  Rona Jaffe’s1958 novel was an electrifying publishing event – a book by a woman about women trying to make it with explosive stories of sex and illegitimate pregnancy, featuring a spectrum of female experience in the workplace. Its influence is all over the presentation of corporate NYC in Mad Men and its cast represents a showcase for stars new and old in an era just before Women’s Lib. Edith R. Sommer and Mann Rubin’s adaptation fillets the material yet the throughline of forging your way through a chauvinistic office and patriarchal world retains its edge and raw emotion. Crawford supposedly made some script revisions but whether they were retained in the released film (as opposed to the tantalising trailer) is up for debate. She sure gets the lion’s share of tough lines as office witch Amanda Farrow who at heart is just a lonely disappointed older woman albeit with a hell of a list. She is the benchmark for female achievement in a drama about the perils of settling for less and the sacrifices you have to make to succeed. She has a carapace of steel but it can be pierced  … Martha Hyer also impresses as Barbara, the divorced office siren, while Lange is a sympathetic heroine and Brian Aherne is fine as the loathsome Lothario Mr Shalimar. An entertaining romance about whether or not you can have it all which limns the realities of being female – the contemporary detail may be different but the song remains the same. Directed with his customary zest and smooth visual finesse by Jean Negulesco and produced by Jerry Wald.  Author Jaffe – who was a Radcliffe alumnus working at Fawcett Publishing in NYC when the book came out – appears briefly as an office pool stenographer. She graduated to writing extraordinary culture pieces at Cosmopolitan and enjoyed huge success with her subsequent books. I’m so ashamed. Now I’m just somebody who’s had an affair

Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)

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Aka Sparrers Can’t Sing. Don’t argue. If I hadn’t have liked you, I wouldn’t have bashed your head in, would I? Cockney merchant sailor Charlie (James Booth) comes home after two years at sea to find his house in London’s Bethnal Green razed and his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor) missing. She’s now living with bus driver Bert (George Sewell) who has his own wife and Maggie has a new baby – but who’s the daddy?!  Charlie’s friends won’t tell him where Maggie is because he’s famed for his terrible temper. But he finally finds her and, after a fierce row with Bert, they are reconciled… Hey, bus driver! I can go away for *ten* years and get my own wife back! Interesting on so many levels, this, even if its experimental styling doesn’t wear so well with elements of raucous pantomime occasionally diverting the narrative thread. Developed from Stephen (On The Buses) Lewis’s play at director Joan Littlewood’s famed Theatre Workshop at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1960, with improvised contributions from the performers, many of whom are featured here, this has sentimental value as a vehicle for Barbara Windsor (who was discovered by Littlewood), better known from the Carry On series and TV’s Eastenders. She earns her stripes in a heartwarming even startling performance.  It’s notable also as a southern variation on the British New Wave or kitchen sink realist style and for its use of language in conveying a sense of community in that part of London, with plenty of Yiddish and Cockney slang. The city gleams courtesy of Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography and the original score by Stanley Black coupled with original songs (including the title by Lionel Bart, sung by Windsor) marks it out from the pack. It also has a cracking cast of familiar faces including Roy Kinnear, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, Harry H. Corbett, Murray Melvin, Victor Spinetti  and Arthur Mullard to name a few. Although the Krays were rumoured to appear in it, and they seem to make a cameo appearance, allegedly they don’t, but the parties celebrating the premiere were held at two of their clubs. Adapted by Littlewood and Lewis, this was Littlewood’s only feature aside from an earlier TVM based on a play by Aristophanes so this is really the only filmed record of her groundbreaking achievements. Shot around Limehouse, Stepney, Shadwell, Millwall, the Isle of Dogs, West Ham, Greenwich, Whitechapel and Blackheath, this gives an authentic picture of the city as the slums were being cleared and its face was quite literally changing. Some interiors were shot at Merton Park Studios. It wasn’t always your fault

Genius (2016)

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You took the words right out of my mouth. In 1929 Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) is the successful book editor known for working with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West). He lives peaceably with wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters and is taken with the manuscript O, Lost by a new writer, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and agrees to work with him. Its success (with the title Look Homeward, Angel) causes issues between Wolfe and theatre designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) an older married woman with whom he is involved and the tensions escalate in the years it takes to produce his next book, Of Time and the River, which requires massive revision. He moves to Paris and upon his return to New York, he quarrels with Max and turns to another editor… Might want to read this one. Adapted by John Logan from the legendary biography of editor Perkins by A. Scott Berg, this was always going to be a tricky proposition:  how to you make the internal mechanics of the writing world interesting? How do you externalise the creative process? Here, it’s all about relationships. Perkins had the reputation he had because he knew how the writer’s mind worked and how to make a book sell and here it’s a talent dedicated specifically to the spectacularly gifted Wolfe, a seemingly rare genius who however needs someone to finesse his excessively prolix work. This is an acting masterclass with rhyming scenes and dialogue that must have been a dream to perform, rhythmic and quotable and filled with nuance and payoffs. To be a novelist, you have to select. You have to shape and sculpt. It’s telling that Fitzgerald and Hemingway are supporting characters working as a kind of echo chamber to the central story. Will anyone care about Thomas Wolfe in 100 years? Ten years? When I was young, I asked myself that question every day/ I used to trouble myself like that every day. Now I ask myself, “Can I write one good sentence.”  Wolfe and Berg are fully fleshed out, real and rumbustious and rich, with their letters used by Logan to create scenes that evoke difficulty and even jealousy with the women in their respective lives. The production design and editing are detailed and impactful but this is essentially illuminating about two men, big characters with a way with words, their working friendship and a thorough exposition of negotiating through a creative collaboration focusing on the importance of having the right editor for the right writer and the best book it is possible to produce. Fascinating and brilliantly acted, this is a buddy movie of a very different variety which ironically might need a little editing itself but it’s a great excursion into the business of big books and the world of the Great American Novelist. Directed by theatre grandee Michael Grandage. I don’t exist any more. I’ve been edited

Happy 80th Birthday Ian McKellen 25th May 2019!

Legendary Shakespearean Sir Ian McKellen celebrates his 80th year today. It seems like he keeps getting discovered on stage and screen by successive generations, most recently of course as Magneto in the X-Men films and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings cycle; twenty years ago it was in Gods and Monsters and Apt Pupil; but in truth he was making his mark thirty years earlier and has committed many of his great theatre performances to celluloid.  He works happily on TV in camp sitcom Vicious with Derek Jacobi and in soap opera Coronation Street in between film commitments and new stage roles. He brings scrupulous physical detail and not a little grandeur to everything he does. He has spent the last year doing his birthday tour and makes you love him whether he’s doing Widow Twankey or Chekhov. He is equal parts kind and mischievous by reputation and is a great spokesman for Stonewall and gay rights. What a gent. Many happy returns!