Emily Mortimer

Mary Poppins Returns

 

23/12/18

Sporting a ‘what it says on the can’ title, Mary Poppins Returns is a thoroughly decent and handsomely mounted sequel to one of Disney’s most iconic films. I’ll ‘fess up right here and now and say that I don’t hold the original movie in the kind of esteem that some of my friends evidently do – but I entirely understand that, with its combination of whimsy and fantasy, it’s become a popular Christmas perennial.

The sequel takes place in depression-era London, some twenty years after the events of the first film, where the Banks children have grown up to a rather more depressing reality than they’ve been used to. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a recently bereaved widower with three adorable young children to look after, while his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has devoted her life to working for worthy causes. Michael hasn’t been too diligent about paying the bills and is now in danger of losing the beloved family home to the very bank he works for, after failing to keep up the repayments on a loan. The bank’s dastardly new manager, Wilkins (Colin Firth), is taking every step to ensure that the family home will soon be subject to repossession.

Into this troubled scenario, floats Mary (Emily Blunt), hanging onto the tail of a passing kite. Blunt is perhaps the logical actor to fill those famous red shoes,  but her incarnation is sterner and, it has be said, a good deal more mischievous than her predecessor. She is clearly in cahoots with local lamplighter, Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda), and together the two of them lead the Banks children into a whole series of magical situations.

If this sounds familiar, it ought to. The sequel sticks pretty closely to the format of the first film, replete with song and dance numbers – one of which is rather more fruity than you’d ever have expected from Julie Andrews – cleverly animated sequences (an underwater spectacle is perhaps the standout) and brief appearances from high calibre guest stars like Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury and a very spry Dick Van Dyke.

As I said, it’s all decently done, but perhaps, in the end, that over-familiarity works against it. Nothing here comes as a surprise and some of the plot strands are so needlessly over-complicated, they can only be solved by Mary – but she does have an infuriating habit of hanging back until the last possible moment. Also, sadly, none of the songs here are quite as memorable as the likes of Go Fly A Kite or A Spoonful of Sugar.

If you’re looking for a suitable Christmas film for all the family, this is probably the logical one to aim for, but be warned, you may not come out singing one of the songs.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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Howl’s Moving Castle

12/04/18

We had thought that the final film in the Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season had eluded us – but, luckily for us, they have scheduled a Thursday lunchtime screening of Howl’s Moving Castle and I’m delighted they have, because this is surely something that deserves to be viewed on the big screen. For its sheer visual impressiveness, it’s certainly the best-looking film of the season. Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel, Hayao Mizayaki’s sumptuous animation creates a stunning, steam-punk flavoured world, that contrasts charming Victorian imagery with futuristic depictions of flying machines and the horrors of warfare. Unlike the earlier films in the season, the version we see is dubbed and voiced by Western actors, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Eighteen year old Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a shy, unassuming girl, who works in her late father’s hat shop. She’s always thought of herself as plain and listens enviously as the local women discuss the mysterious Howl (Christian Bale), a powerful (and devilishly handsome)  magician who dwells in the eponymous moving castle. It is said that if he falls for a beautiful woman, he will devour her heart – so Sophie assumes herself safe from his predations. But then she does have an encounter with him and, shortly afterwards, is cursed by one of his rivals, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who transforms her into an old woman. Desperate to find a cure for her condition, Sophie heads into the Wasteland, hoping she will find a wizard powerful enough to help her, but meets up instead, with a very helpful scarecrow. Pretty soon, she finds herself taking refuge in the moving castle itself, employed as a cleaner and constantly having to tend to wisecracking fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who manages the travelling building and makes sure that everything runs smoothly for Howl.

As I said, the world-building here is absolutely spectacular, encompassing scenes that will make you gasp at the sheer beauty and ingenuity displayed on the screen. Rather less convincing is the needlessly complicated storyline, which is at times hard to follow. I am also less enthusiastic about the fact that Sophie’s age changes from scene-to-scene (the older Sophie is voiced by veteran actress, Jean Simmons); though this is, at first, an intriguing move, it eventually seems to lack a consistent logic – why is she young in this scene? And old in this one? And… middle-aged here?

However, the  sheer splendour and invention of the film overpower me in the end. It’s an extraordinary achievement and, up on the big screen, it glows like a collection of precious jewels.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Party

26/10/17

Shot in stark (and very unforgiving) black and white and confined pretty much to one set, The Party feels like the kind of thing that Mike Leigh has done so brilliantly in the past – indeed, if it resembles one of his works in particular, it certainly has echoes of Abigail’s Party about it. With a sprightly running time of one hour and eleven minutes, this film, written and directed by Sally Potter, canters amiably along but, though it can’t be accused of overstaying its welcome, it never entirely manages to blow you away.

Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) is in the mood to celebrate. She’s just been appointed shadow health minister for the ‘opposition’ and has invited some close friends around for vol au vents and bubbly. They are: her snarky best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), and her partner, the hippy-dippy faith healer, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); feminist university lecturer, Martha (Cherry Jones) ,and her wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who is currently expecting the patter of er… little triplets; and, definitely the odd one out at this gathering, handsome young property developer, Tom (Cillian Murphy), who explains that his wife, Marianne, will be ‘along later for dessert… or maybe just coffee.’ But it’s not destined to be a happy occasion, because Janet’s morose husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), has something he really needs to get off his chest…

Relentlessly middle class in its themes, the story is mostly about people being unfaithful to one another and, though the performances are generally pretty good, the protagonists cannot seem to help slipping into caricature. April can’t open her mouth without insulting somebody, Martha and Jinny say things in public that any rational person would surely save for later on, and Gottfried is so glib it hurts – but then maybe that’s entirely the point of him. Only Tom seems to have convincing reasons to act the way he does and, indeed, Murphy’s performance is the strongest one here – a man driven by jealousy to do something unspeakable.

Mind you, there’s a conclusion that I really don’t see coming and, all in all, this film makes a decent antidote to the steady diet of superhero movies we’re constantly being offered. I can’t help feeling though, that given the same set up and the same cast of characters, Leigh would have knocked this out of the park.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney