WARNING: Spoilers

It’s that time of year again, when little boys and girls’ heads are filled with visions of sugar plums, stockings and awards. The Oscar nominations are being announced shockingly early this year – 13 January – so I need to get a move on if I want to maintain my record. Here are some films I’ve seen at the cinema over the last couple of weeks which may or may not be included in that announcement.

The Irishman

Scorsese’s long-awaited epic, reteaming him with DeNiro, putting Pacino under his tutelage for the first time and featuring an equally long-awaited return to the screen for Joe Pesci. Much of the advance word on this movie surrounded the (moderately) ground-breaking digital effects used to allow 70-something actors to play 30-something characters. By and large, this works, although there are a few shots in which those old bones can’t quite move with the vitality and grace which we’ve seen in earlier films.

Scorsese’s lengthy story with its complicated flashback-intercut-with-flashback structure follows the life of one Frank Sheeran, upon whose memoir I Heard You Paint Houses the movie is largely based. The film clocks in at 209 minutes which, given its Netflix pedigree, has led some commentators to suggest ways in which it could be sliced up into episodic chunks. Strange that we will binge countless episodes but baulk at a single long movie. I saw it at the Curzon in a single unbroken sitting and I was glad I did, because whereas some Scorsese films – notably The Wolf of Wall Street – succeed because they gather you up in whirlwind of cinematic energy, this one succeeds because it gradually draws you in. My overall feeling today is that I’m keen to see it again, because this is a film which doesn’t let on what it’s really about until very near the end – whereupon that complicated double flashback structure makes a lot more sense.

First time through, there’s much to admire but also much which feels samey. DeNiro kicking some poor bastard’s head in, in a fit of paternal rage feels achingly familiar, which is one reason why it’s so gratifying to see Pesci underplaying so effectively. When Pacino enters as Jimmy Hoffa, the film begins to spread its wings a little more, and the relationship between him and the remarkable Stephen Graham as Tony Pro is one of the highlights of the middle of the movie.

It’s the final half hour or so which lingers with me though, where – unlike, say the ending of Goodfellas – the true cost of Sheeran’s lifestyle is seen with bleak pathos. It’s a sombre (although there are some good laughs), meditative film which is at once a Scorsese greatest hits package and at the same time, quite unlike anything he’s made before.

Marriage Story

I think I know Noah Baumbach best as Mr Greta Gerwig. I remember really enjoying Frances Ha which Baumbach directed and they wrote together. I think I saw Margot at the Wedding as part of a New Year’s Eve staycation movie marathon. I can’t remember much about it. I didn’t like Fantastic Mr Fox. I haven’t seen The Squid and the Whale.

But, just as Gerwig is having her moment with Lady Bird and now Little Women, Mr Gerwig isn’t content to rest on his laurels and has assembled a truly heavyweight pairing to lend Oscar buzz and indie-pro credibility to his latest tragi-comedy, this time about divorce. I sat down to watch this with very high expectations (weirdly, higher than for The Irishman, I think) and left with rather mixed feelings. Let’s begin with a few things I didn’t like.

“Write what you know,” isn’t bad advice but it can lead to novels like those by John Irving which all feature novelists as their principal characters. Likewise, it slightly annoyed me that New York based movie writer-director Baumbach has chosen to make his New York based protagonists a theatre director and a movie/TV actor. It all feels a bit inside-baseball at times. The choice of professions, while it doesn’t help an awful lot (and it will hinder – see later), does set up the neat dichotomy which faces them when their marriage starts to fall apart just when Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is returning to LA to take a job on a new TV show. As far as she is concerned, they are an LA based family who have completed a stint in New York. As far as husband Charlie (Adam Driver) is concerned, they are a New York based family who met in LA, and Nicole will be back home soon. Thus, the stage is set for a divorce which only gets more complicated, painful and expensive as the process continues.

Having agreed not to use lawyers, the couple end up with the good, the bad, and the ugly of the legal profession, played with relish but never extravagance by an amazing trio of Hollywood’s finest – Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. It probably goes without saying, although it probably shouldn’t, that the acting from all the leads is exemplary. Driver and Johansson take the long dialogue scenes, full of agony and contradiction and black humour, and wring everything they can out of them with generosity and pinpoint accuracy. It’s a masterclass. And further down the credits, there are additional pleasures, notably Julie Haggerty (Airplane!) as Nicole’s mother and Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) as Nicole’s sister.

What’s slightly frustrating is that the film keeps threatening to become something darker, weirder, colder, odder, but never quite goes there. Baumbach’s commitment to naturalism gives us a story which feels very authentic as far as it goes, but ultimately doesn’t quite seem to mean anything. Charlie and Nicole were married. Now they aren’t. Life goes on.

The other thing which drove me crazy was the inclusion, virtually back-to-back of two songs from Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Company. Now, I adore this show and would happily be upstairs watching my Blu-ray copy of the production starring Neil Patrick Harris right now if I didn’t have this review to write. Watching Nicole and her family sing “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” at a family party is a) too cutesy, b) too on-the-nose and c) waaaay too long, but it’s bearable. What’s appalling is Adam Driver singing the climactic number “Being Alive” in a nightclub, complete with side-of-the-mouth asides from off-stage characters. At first, I wondered if this was going to be the last scene of the movie. Was Baumbach really going to help himself to a crescendo from another barely-related story as he struggled to end his own? But although it isn’t and he hasn’t, it still feels like he’s helping himself to someone else’s emotional catharsis and worse – in this era of Trump and Bannon – it comes across as a sort of ghastly unwitting parody of everything that’s wrong with peak hipster East Coast cultural snobs.

Now all that sounds way too harsh for a film I really enjoyed and would recommend, so let me end with a shout out to Azhy Robertson as Charlie and Nicole’s son who does everything asked of him, is never cutesy or mannered, and who consistently reminds us that children often suffer most when families break apart, but they won’t always be as angelic as we would want them to be.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Okay, on now to a couple of movies which will both be cultural landmarks for years to come but which are unlikely to feature very heavily in the top half of the Oscar ballot this year. It’s impossible to understand The Rise of Skywalker without understanding the story of its creation, for which we have to go back to 2012 and the sale of the Star Wars properties to Disney. Lucas’s own ideas for the third trilogy were rapidly abandoned, and the studio announced that the three films would be overseen by three different directors – JJ Abrams, Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow. While there was some talk of collaboration between these three, in practice it seemed like once one film was finished, the next team would take over, like a billion-dollar game of “Consequences”, with no overall plan in place.

People who enjoyed the first film in this cycle, 2015’s The Force Awakens, I think did so because it felt reassuringly familiar. After so much of the second cycle had felt so “off”, despite (or maybe because of) George Lucas’s singular vision guiding every aspect, here was a new film that had the texture of the old films. And while it wasn’t completely afraid to add new wrinkles (mutinous Storm Troopers, teenage-angst villains, a slightly different sense of humour) it followed the New Hope playbook pretty closely, with its Starkiller Base trying and failing to one-up the original Death Star.

Where it did succeed was in cutting ties to the original trilogy – the genuinely shocking death of Han, murdered by his own son – and in setting up tantalising plot threads for the rest of the cycle – Rey’s parentage, the role of Snoke, where Finn can find a role for himself, and the missing Luke Skywalker.

Perhaps, inevitably, when Rian Johnson took over, he had his own ideas about what he found interesting, and what he didn’t. His version of the saga feels very different – which is what some fans found so exciting about it and which turned others against it. I’m not as emotionally invested in Star Wars as I am in science fiction franchises, but for what it’s worth I found that the very slow chase across the galaxy stuff made zero sense, and you can delete everything that Finn and Rose do on Canto Bight without it affecting the story in the slightest – but I loved the stuff between Rey and Kylo Ren (Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver might be the best actors ever employed by the series – after Alec Guinness) and I think the final showdown outside the Resistance’s fortress might be my favourite sequence in the trilogy.

But in the meantime, Colin Trevorrow had been told that his services were no longer required and The Last Jedi had proved so controversial that – especially after the critical mauling dealt out to Solo – Disney wanted a safe pair of hands. JJ Abrams was rehired and put in an interesting position. Given that Film Two was almost certainly not the continuation of Film One that he would have made, casually disposing of unwanted plot threads in a rather cavalier manner, would Abrams do to Johnson what Johnson had done to him, and jettison any of Johnson’s ideas which didn’t fit with his vision of the Lucas-verse? Or would he, and screenwriter Chris Terrio, attempt to gather up all the story ideas from both previous films and try and stitch them together into one coherent narrative?

Have a guess.

At times, the JJ Abrams vision of the Skywalker saga pings back into place after the Johnson film so hard that it leaves viewers’ minds smarting. At the end of The Last Jedi, the resistance is beaten, no more than a ragtag collection of likeminded folk with no resources, no weapons, only their hopes for a better life. At the start of The Rise of Skywalker, the resistance is just as well-equipped as it was at the end of The Force Awakens. In Force, Kylo Ren is kept in line by a guttural voiced father-figure. In Jedi, Kylo Ren disposes of such an encumbrance. And in Skywalker, he’s replaced by a new guttural voiced father figure. Rian Johnson doesn’t know what to do with Finn, so he invents a new character, Rose, to try and give him someone to relate to. Abrams pointedly leaves Rose out of the adventure (even though it turns out he doesn’t know what to do with Finn either). And, most egregiously of all, in Jedi, after all that build-up in Force, it turns out that Rey’s ancestry is of no importance, because the Force can be in anyone – whereas in Skywalker, once again ancestry is of critical importance but the genes just skipped a generation.

So, does this film, which is far more a sequel to the 2015 film than the 2017 film, work on its own merits? A lot of the time, yes. It’s certainly pacey, almost ADHD in its zeal to leap from planet-to-planet, idea-to-idea – John Williams’ score can barely keep up. But the plot construction is clunky to say the least. Find the thing and take it to the place in order to pinpoint the location of the thing which will take us to the place where the actual thing is. Jesus. But it’s all played with tremendous energy and wit and charm and Oscar Isaac, Joonas Suotamo (as Chewbacca), John Boyega and Daisy Ridley manage to summon up a feeling of “the old gang back together again” even though that is patently false.

What’s also disappointing about the way this trilogy has turned out is that it seems likely that the first film was intended as focusing on Han, the second as focusing on Luke and the third as focusing on Leia, the only survivor of the original trio. However, poor Carrie Fisher’s untimely death put paid to that notion, so we get off-cuts from the previous two films, integrated into new scenes – fairly seamlessly from a visual standpoint, slightly awkwardly from a storytelling standpoint.

And, so to fill the void, we have more old faces from the first three films, starting with Billy Dee Williams who doesn’t accomplish much but it’s nice to see him. What’s less successful is the inclusion – in almost consecutive scenes – of surprise appearances by Force Ghost versions of first Han and then Luke. Han’s reunion with his son works far better than Luke’s reunion with Rey, especially as he basically shows up to tell her the opposite of what he told her in the last film, but it’s violently obvious fan-service to include both.

The film also has a nasty case of “didn’t really mean it” particularly when it comes to character deaths. Leia dies and stays dead – for grimly obvious reasons. Possibly because of that, almost nobody else does. Chewbacca is killed, seemingly partly at Rey’s hands, but it turns out he was (somehow?) on another transport. A shocking moment is thrown away almost as soon as it happens. Ren is killed by Rey, but then brought back to life by Rey. Rey is killed by Palpatine but brought back to life by Ren. Even C3P0’s literal reset switch is itself reset.

But what gives the film life is the relationship between Ren and Rey. With visual flair, excellent writing and truly committed performances from both actors, this single thread pulled me through all the other nonsense. These characters and these performers I think are the real legacy of this new cycle of movies.

Cats

There was no similar golden thread to pull on when it came to Cats, Tom Hooper’s epic folly, doomed to become a punchline, uttered in the same breath as Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate or Wild Wild West.

Let’s start with the theatre show. It seems to me that an excessive amount of historical revisionism has taken place regarding Lloyd-Weber’s hit show setting winsome TS Eliot poems to music which set box office records when it first opened in London in 1981. I’m fairly sure I was at one of those first performances, an eager-eyed nine-year-old, beaming with delight at the catchy songs, amazing set design, charismatic performances and witty lyrics. “Always on the wrong side of every door!” Just like our cat!

However, in the last half-dozen years, maybe with Hamilton giving the Broadway musical a bit of street cred that it hasn’t had in a long time, the conclusion has been reached by the hive mind of YouTube and the podosphere that Cats was and is and always will be a bit shit. It’s got no story. It’s just a load of drama school kids in tights going “Meow”. “Memory” is an okay song, but I’m not sitting through two hours plus of semi-feline prancing to hear one good song. Down with it! Kill it with fire!

Well, I still like the tunes and I don’t have a problem with a musical which unashamedly presents itself as a succession of songs. If you want a complex plot, then the problem lies with your expectations, not the material. But director Tom Hooper was determined to fix all these problems, whether he needed to or not.

There had been talk of an animated version for years, but post all those live action Disney remakes chewing up the box office, Hooper decided to cut out the middle-man and do the live action remake first. He’d hire the most stellar cast of actors he could lay his hands on and then replace those leotards and wigs with the finest digital fur and whiskers for a seamless CG costume. The best of all possible worlds.

As anyone who’s seen the trailer knows, this was a disastrous decision, from which flows many of the film’s problems. Whereas an actor in a mask and make-up invites you to suspend your disbelief, the fully-integrated visual movie experience invites you to treat what you are witnessing as unvarnished reality, and it just looks weird. Victoria, a minor character from the show is suddenly given star status, the rationale being that on the stage, the cats are mainly introducing themselves to us, the audience, but you can’t have actors singing down the lens, so they need someone to sing to. Thus Victoria.

This ignores the fact that the show itself has created a thin but serviceable rationale – that the cats are in effect auditioning to see who will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. The film gives this much more attention, but only actually shows the audition process in its last third, which means that effectively Bustopher Jones, Jenny Anydots and co have never had the chance to sing for their shot at reincarnation. It also means that Victoria, seemingly the central character, is actually just a bystander most of the time. Constantly cutting to her reaction shots (generally the same glassy wonderment) adds nothing to the overall spectacle.

Much has also been made of the fact that the scale of the weird human-cat hybrids constantly changes, but although I think Hooper and co have been careless with this (there about three different sizes of cat flap for example) what I haven’t seen discussed so far is the fact that this doesn’t work because it couldn’t possibly have worked. Humans have much smaller heads proportional to their body size, and much longer limbs than cats do. So, a scale which looks right when a human-feline chimera is shot in close-up will look completely wrong when the same ghastly concatenation is filmed in long shot. Whatever scale you pick, it will always look wrong part of the time at least. But Hooper piles bad choices on top of bad choices. Having some of the cats wearing fur coats on top of their fur is bizarre. Having Rebel Wilson’s Jenny Anydots strip off her fur to reveal that underneath that is a skimpy nightclub costume and more fur is demented. Making her ability to do that a plot point in the final act is ill-judged beyond all belief.

And where are all the humans? Many of Eliot’s lines reference the people with whom the cats share their lives, but although we see houses, theatres, railway tracks and the like, the cafes are named things like Milk Bar which suggest that this is a Cars like universe in which horrid moggymen and women occupy the space which humans take up in our world. It’s another inconsistent and poorly-thought-through choice in a film which is littered with them.

The unnecessary over-plotting (the work of Hooper and Lee Hall) extends to making Macavity (Idris Elba, constipated) not just the villain of the piece from the get-go but also possessed of magical powers which enable him to transport not just himself but any other cat (or presumably object) anywhere in space without effort. With this total mastery of time, space and matter at his claws, one wonders what he possibly needs the Heaviside Layer for. And the resolution to this nonsense is equally at odds with the source material, as Mister Mistoffelees’ boastful (but probably bogus) ditty is repurposed as a believe-in-yourself, triumph-over-low-self-esteem piece of hand-me-down Hollywood piffle. Among a cast, many of whom struggle, Laurie Davidson is so awkward and pathetic – even for this awkward and pathetic version of the character – that, not having heard of him before, I assumed he’d won a raffle to be in the film.

In fact, wherever Hall and Hooper have added to the text, they’ve done so without apparently having listened to the songs. Whereas the stage show has no dialogue at all, the film includes snippets here and there, which usually serve merely to repeat information already given in the lyrics, or sometimes just flatly contradict them. “You know I’m sensitive about my weight,” whines James Corden charmlessly, heedless of the fact that moments earlier he had been enthusiastically warbling “I’m a twenty-five pounder, or I am a bounder, and I’m putting on weight every day.”

The songs I still think are good, by and large. They’re well sung by most of the cast. The 1980s style synth arrangements are pleasingly retro, and they’ve even kept the original melody for “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” and not the inferior replacement. And what’s really frustrating is that, around twenty minutes before the end, the film does actually burst into life, when Taylor Swift sings “Macavity”. It doesn’t hurt that it’s probably the best song in the show, but she also sings it straight into the camera, which helps us to connect with her and the material, and distracts us from the weird fur effects. Hooper also gives this segment a bit of visual flair, which is rather lacking for most of the second half of the film.

On stage, the junkyard set was immense and hugely impressive. If the director had wanted to take the Jellicle Ball literally and make the whole film each cat in turn auditioning for Old Deuteronomy, (which is what they do from Gus the Theatre Cat onwards, but not before) then with $100m to play with, we could have had a gigantic, amphitheatrical junkyard of incredible proportions. But – as he did with the blockade in Les Miserables – Hooper takes an impressive stage set and turns it into an unremarkable film experience.

We’re spared the jingoism of “Growltiger’s Last Stand” (the longest number in the show, but also not part of the main “plot”) so the running time is not too excessive. Victoria, who had been a silent observer of the preceding hijinks, is pushed to the fore to get Grizabella the suicide/rebirth/jaunt in a hot air Macguffin that she presumably deserves, and then – since the final song is unequivocally addressed to humans and wouldn’t make sense sung to even guileless Victoria, Judi Dench delivers the last number straight down the camera lens, as if we could have been doing that all along.

So – this is ill-conceived, poorly executed, with childish humour and a plot which is simultaneously far more than is needed and virtually non-existent. Is it the worst film ever made? Hardly. There are bright spot, once you get over the whole skin-crawling weirdness of the aesthetic. Although she has little to do, Francesca Hayward is a winning enough presence, Jason Derulo is fun as The Rum Tum Tugger, Jennifer Hudson emotes the shit out of “Memory” (but each time they play it, they put the new shit song directly after it which hardly seems fair) and Ian McKellen scrapes up some vestiges of dignity and class for Gus The Theatre Cat. Will it make an awful lot of money as people flock to see for themselves one of the worst reviewed films from a major studio in ten years? I doubt it. There weren’t more than ten people in the cinema when I saw it.

Joker
So… what did I think of Spyfall, Part One?