Meryl Streep

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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The Post

21/01/18

In the era of fake news, here’s an interesting concept – a film about real news. More specifically, a film about a newspaper’s quest to tell the truth that doesn’t come across as some kind of hollow joke. There was a time, it seems, when newspapers were prepared to risk everything to fight for the right to free speech, and that time was 1971.

Stephen Spielberg’s The Post may be set in the past but its story couldn’t be more prescient. We’ve recently had the Paradise Papers, but back then it was The Pentagon Papers, a series of purloined documents that proved that President Nixon’s administration – and indeed, many others before it – had lied to the American public about the Vietnam war, insisting that it was a winnable cause even when they all knew full well it wasn’t. This secret sent untold numbers of young soldiers to their deaths.

When reporter Daniel Elisberg (Matthew Rhys) learns of this, he decides to turn whistleblower, stealing a bundle of secret government files and handing them over to the New York Times. They have every intention of publishing the story, but Tricky Dicky gets wind of their plans and serves them with an injunction, forbidding them to go to print. The files subsequently find their way onto the desk of a reporter for the Washington Post. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is eager to get the scoop, but first he must convince the Post’s owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to give him the green light. Graham is struggling to assert her authority at The Post just as it prepares itself to float on the stock market. Having inherited her position from her late husband, Kay finds herself continually marginalised, lectured and talked down to by her male employees – and, she’s all too aware that publishing the banned documents could land her and Bradlee in jail and finish off the newspaper once and for all…

The Post is a compelling piece of docudrama, helmed by a director at the peak of his powers – it’s sobering to note that Spielberg made this film largely because he had a few weeks to kill whilst waiting for the special effect shots in his upcoming Ready Player One to be processed. Given the quick turnaround, it’s astonishing that the film is as assured as it is. Furthermore, Spielberg has managed to pull in two of Hollywood’s major power players for his lead roles. Amazingly, Streep and Hanks have never made a film together until now.

What’s most fascinating here is to note how the publishing process has changed over the decades. Spielberg’s cameras linger almost voyeuristically over the process as the ‘hot metal’ printing presses are tortuously put together – and I love the scene where reporter Bob Bagdikien (Bob Odenkirk) attempts to make a covert call from a street pay phone, his nickels and dimes raining onto the pavement as he talks. Hanks is great as the news-hungry Bradlee and Streep gives an object lesson in understatement as Graham. The scene where she finally tells the men in suits what they can do is priceless. Make no mistake, this is also a feminist film in the truest sense of the word.

Having said all this, I don’t see The Post bothering Oscar too much this year – there are simply more exciting offerings to choose from. But – in its quiet, unassuming way – this is an important release that has plenty to say about the way government’s operate and how important it is to preserve the right to bring their actions to the public’s attention. Sadly, these are qualities that we are in danger of losing altogether. The events in this film eventually led to the impeachment of a President. What would it take, I wonder, to achieve a similar outcome now?

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Florence Foster Jenkins

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16/05/16

The last time we saw the chameleon that is Meryl Streep in a musical role it was in Rikki and the Flash, where she managed to utterly convince as an ageing rocker with a troublesome daughter. The titular Florence Foster Jenkins is something else entirely. Streep plays a genuine historical character who lived only for music and who enacted a whole series of infamous concerts during the 1940s.

She was remarkable for a variety of reasons. As a teenager, she’d been a musical prodigy but an unwelcome dose of syphilis, passed on to her by her first husband when she was eighteen, had left her incapable of playing the piano. Her only other option was to sing and luckily for her, she had inherited her father’s fortune and was able to fund a series of private concerts. The reviews were generally favourable, largely because of the sterling efforts of her second husband, former actor St Clare Bayfield (played here with great charm by Hugh Grant) who smoothed his wife’s path by bribing reviewers and ensuring that she never ever witnessed people laughing at her – something they were likely to do, because of course, she couldn’t carry a tune to save her life.

The film opens with her auditioning for an accompanist and she soon settles on Cosme McMoon (a beautifully understated turn by Simon Helberg) who finds himself conflicted by his desire to play good music and his understandable horror at the noises he hears coming from the mouth of Ms Jenkins. The situation is manageable when the concerts are kept small and intimate but when on a whim, Jenkins books herself a performance at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience of 3000, it’s clear that Bayfield and McMoon are going to have a more difficult job on their hands. And to compound matters, she’s only gone and made a blooming record!

This is a slight but perfectly judged film, skilfully directed by Stephen Frears and built around a wonderful comic performance from Streep. If you think there’s not much humour to be milked from such a tragic premise, don’t be fooled – you’ll laugh your way through much of this and towards the end, you’ll almost certainly be close to tears. The script, by Nicholas Martin, is adept at confounding your expectations. Bayfield, who at first appears to be an unspeakable cad (he led a double life, living with a young woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson)) clearly did love his wife and lavished great care and attention on her at every turn, unlike musical virtuosos such as Arturo Toscanini and Carlo Edwards, who happily took a series of cheques from her but never once turned up to show their support.

In an age where the likes of The X Factor and BGT have elevated the championing of musical mediocrity to an art form, Jenkins’ story seems a particularly prescient one – and for Streep’s performance alone, this is worth seeking out.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Suffragette

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17/10/15

Suffragette feels like an important – and timely – film. There’s a bit of a feminist backlash going on at the moment, with cries of “feminazi” and “what about the men?” drowning out the fact that all feminists have ever really asked for is equality, which shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Suffragette brings to the screen the stories of the unknown women who fought the cause. The casting of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst cleverly highlights this shift in focus: the most high-profile actor has a cameo role, as does the figurehead of suffrage. This film is all about the less-exalted stars of the women’s movement: working-class washerwomen like Maude and Violet (Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff) and middle-class professionals such as Edith, a pharmacist (Helena Bonham Carter). Their lives are tough and unforgiving, and they have little control over anything. Their husbands own their property, their children. No wonder they want something more, or at least the right to have a say.

But, as ever, change is difficult to effect: the beneficiaries of the status quo are reluctant to let go, and others are afraid to rock their fragile boats. Here, we see Maude vilified and reviled as she begins to speak up for herself, and the reality of what she’s lost hits home – both for the character and the audience – when we see her son adopted because her now-estranged husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw) thinks she will corrupt the boy. Sonny is bereft too: he’s threatened and undermined by Maude’s assertion of her rights; he’s a decent man who doesn’t understand. His tragedy is real as well. Everyone’s trapped by the rigidity of societal norms: Brendan Gleeson’s Inspector Arthur Steed feels some sympathy for the women, but that doesn’t stop him locking them up or allowing them to be force-fed.

Abi Morgan’s script is well-balanced: dispassionate and informative as well as emotive and personal. It’s a truly moving tale of the past with a message for the future: as Maude says, speaking tentatively to Lloyd George, “This life… I thought there might be a better way to live it.”

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Ricki and the Flash

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06/09/15

Let me start with a question. Is there any role on this planet that Meryl Streep can’t actually play? I only ask this because we’ve segued straight from a trailer for Suffragette, where she portrays Emmeline Pankhurst, to this little gem, where she plays Ricki Rendazzo, an ageing rocker, struggling to keep her dreams of stardom alive as she fronts a small time band (the eponymous Flash) by night and works by day at the checkout of an LA supermarket.

And you know what? Streep absolutely nails it.

The film starts as it means to go on, with Ricki’s band blasting out a credible version of Tom Petty’s American Girl and for once, in a movie, this sounds like genuine musicians playing genuine music – as well it should, because Streep recorded her own vocals for this and she’s fronting a real band, featuring Rick Springfield as the new man in her life, Greg.

When Ricki takes a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), informing her that their daughter, Julie (Streep’s real life daughter, Mamie Gummer), has just been dumped by her husband and is feeling pretty low, Ricki heads back to Indianapolis, to try and mediate with Julie and to reconnect with her two sons, who have pretty much cut Ricki out of their lives since she broke up with their father. She also has to deal with Pete’s new wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), a woman who seems to have been invented simply to illustrate the true meaning of perfection. Can Ricki have any hope of patching up all those wounds from the past? Or has she simply been away for far too long?

This is a gorgeous film, perfectly pitched to avoid stereotyping and mawkishness. It’s cleverly scripted by Diablo Cody – the scene where Ricki sits down for dinner with her estranged family (including her son’s fiancee) is a comic masterclass – and there’s a resolution here that, in the wrong hands, could have come across as hopelessly sentimental but, guided by seasoned professional Jonathan Demme, is an absolute triumph. Cody has some history here. Her mother in law apparently fronted a rock band for years and that experience has clearly paid dividends. That odd title isn’t doing the film any favours at all, but you really should check this out. It’s a heartwarming tale about love, relationships and the redemptive power of rock n’ roll,  well worth the price of admission.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Into The Woods

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12/1/15

As I have documented elsewhere on this site, musicals are not really my cup of char. But there are a few I love (Little Shop of Horrors, Matilda, Cabaret…) , and these make me retain the hope that occasionally, others may appeal. Unfortunately I will not be adding Into The Woods to the short list on the positive side of the slate. It’s not that this Stephen Sondheim mash-up of six of the world’s most popular fairytales was bad, exactly; bits of it were wonderful. But on the whole, it fails to ignite. And not just because of Johnny Depp’s godawful pedophile wolf.

But let’s start with the positive. Meryl Streep is fabulous. Of course she is; when is she not? She clearly relishes her role as The Witch and plays it with enough vim and gusto to make her scenes, at least, compelling. And James Corden’s good too. I know he’s not always popular with the critics, but I think he has real talent; in this, he manages to be both endearing and ridiculous, and his singing isn’t too bad either.

The overall look of the film is remarkable. The lush, forbidding beauty of the forest is a perfect representation of FairyTale land and Frances De La Tour’s vengeful giant is a visual delight. And yet… there’s too much here to lament, not least the sheer brutal length of the film, a punishing 125 minutes that felt at least forty minutes too long – there were audible sighs of dismay around us as the audience realised that the ‘happy ending’ was by no means the end of the film. Not by a long shot.

And it’s this, I think, that sums up my main problem with it. Sondheim’s aim is to subvert the traditional fairy tale, to show that ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t really exist, that charming princes cheat and stray, that people can be selfish and unkind. It aims to expose the the fairy tales’ dark heart – but in truth, it’s just not dark enough; this is a Disney adaptation, after all, so even in the midst of its subversion, the fridge magnet epithets abound`: you’re never truly alone, even good people make mistakes, blah blah blah. It doesn’t have the guts to really look at what the stories say; there’s not the faintest traces of Angela Carter here.

Oh yeah. And I didn’t like the songs.

2.6 stars

Susan Singfield

The Homesman

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22/11/14

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for a decent western, but in this day and age they are rare beasts indeed and they seldom draw much attention from the media (the honourable exception being the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, a strong Oscar contender back in 2011.) Veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones has co-written and directed this downbeat story, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout and while it’s occasionally rather bleak, there’s nonetheless plenty here to enjoy, even if the movie doesn’t really deserve the ‘feminist western’ tag it’s been er… saddled with. Yes, there’s a strong female central character, but there are also three women who have been driven mad by their inability to cope with life in the wilderness, whilst their respective husbands seem to be getting along just fine – so while it might be considered feminist in the sense that it centres on a woman’s story, it’s hardly a tale of empowerment.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a spinster, hacking out a living for herself as a homesteader in the brutal environs of Nebraska territory at some unspecified point in the 1800s. Because she’s supposedly ‘as plain as a tin pail’ she’s struggling to find a husband for herself in an era where such a failure is considered shameful. This is one point where the film doesn’t really convince. Swank is terrific in the role, but there’s no way anyone could consider her plain, despite the costume department putting her in some of the ugliest costumes in cinematic history. Cuddy is a devout and determined woman and when she hears that three local wives have (for a variety of reasons) lost their minds, she undertakes the hazardous job of driving them back East to civilisation, a trip that will take five weeks or more. When she chances on George Briggs (Lee Jones) sitting on a horse with a rope around his neck, she offers to save his life if he will promise to help her with the (unspecified) task and he hastily agrees, little realising what he’s taking on. Lee Jones is a delight as the scowling, curmudgeonly George, a man with a shady past and a tendency to go off the rails when he’s had a few drinks. If the film is reminiscent of any other, it’s The African Queen and the pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Humphry Bogart.

As I said, there’s much to admire here. Great central performances, superb cameos from the likes of Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld (though James Spaders’ turn as a duplicitous Irish hotel owner, features a very dodgy accent indeed) and a genuinely shocking surprise in the film’s final third. But a sequence where Briggs burns down Spader’s hotel (and everyone in it) seems somehow over the top, given the minor provocation he’s received. (Perhaps it was the accent?) At the end of the day, The Homesman is an entertaining film, that falls short of perfection in a few respects, but is still worth your consideration.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney