We run down the low down on Mary Poppins Returns, Green Book, A Simple Favor, Bird Box, The Favourite, Roma, and Bandersnatch in this epochal podcasting event. Miss it at your gravest peril.
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This made such an impact on me that I’d forgotten I’d seen it, for a while, so that’s not looking great for its lasting legacy in the minds of viewers. That said, I’ve never had all that much time for the original, for I am history’s worst monster.
Set, I’d guess, about thirty-odd years after the terrifying events of Mary Poppins, where reality warped, the cartoon realm and Earth prime merged, kites were flown, and cockney accents were transmuted into whatever Dick Van Dyke was attempting -this is the official explanation, you can look it up on the science website- we return to Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now with three children of his own, and struggling to raise them after the death of his wife.
He’s given up his art to take a clerks position at the Bank, but even with the help of sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), he’s struggling to keep up repayments on the family home. To that end, Colin Firth’s William “Weatherall” Wilkins, the outwardly pleasant but secretly evil bank manager, differentiated from modern bank managers by still keeping up a “not-evil” pretence, gives the family a week to either make payment, or find their father’s certificate of shares in the bank as collateral.
In the midst of this, Emily “420 blaze it” Blunt’s Mary Poppins, well, Returns, to look after the Banks children, young and old, teaming up with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack, an apprentice to Bert in both the magic, lamp-lighting, and accent senses. I don’t think there’s much value in recapping events further than to say that Mary Poppins-esque things occur as the family try various measures to beat the clock and save their home.
I’m not really the person to come to for opinions on Mary Poppins Returns. I’m not a massive fan of anything that it’s trying to do, so all I can say is that it seems to be doing everything well enough. It’s bright, bold, colourful, in both production design and character senses, and the musical portions seem fine, although that said I’ve plainly not found any of the songs that memorable, what with my not remembering them and all.
It’s certainly open to criticisms of retreading broadly, if not exactly, the same paths that the original trod, but I suppose rebootquels are enough of a thing these days that i can’t oppose it on ideological grounds. All I can say is that given that I’m far from the target audience, it was charming and funny enough to keep me entertained for the duration, but I’ll likely never think of this again.
Let’s begin with the title here, as it’s important and, I think, pretty much unknown in this country (and, I further suspect, similarly largely unknown amongst those in the United States with the same general skin colour as myself). The Green Book was a guidebook for black citizens who wanted to travel around the US South during the Jim Crow era, informing them of motels, hotels and restaurants where their skin colour would be accepted, and also where it would not, to aid in the goal of safe travel.
It is into this despicable setting that director Peter Farrelly takes us (yes, Farrelly. As in “one of the Brothers Farrelly who brought us There’s Something About Mary”. That Farrelly), as he delivers the true story of racist bouncer/odd job man/sometime Mob thug Frank Anthony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and his employment by, and, however unlikely, subsequent friendship with the black polymath and musician Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali).
Manhattan resident Shirley has arranged a series of concerts throughout the South, and having made enquiries within New York City has identified Vallelonga (more widely known as Tony Lip) as the ideal driver cum bodyguard to transport and protect him on his tour. Tony’s racism is almost cartoonish at first, being of the “I can’t touch that, I’ll get black cooties” type in the beginning, but he’s encouraged by his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) to take the job (it pays well and it’s honest work).
As they travel a friendship forms, as Tony tries to educate Doctor Shirley about the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Little Richard and Chubby Checker, and the Doc tries to educate Tony about… well, mostly he just tries to educate him. It is a pretty odd friendship, to be sure, with the quiet and reserved Don Shirley seemingly very much at odds with the garrulous Tony, whose mouth never seems to stop moving, either to talk or to eat or, to Shirley’s distaste, both. But both actors are on top form, and the friendship doesn’t feel forced or unnatural. And while the film follows a well-trodden path, it’s the journey that counts, and the shocking and horrible moments have more impact when we have had so much fun with the two travellers in-between.
I talked briefly about Green Book in our year end podcast a few weeks ago, and I said that I very much liked it. Having had some further time to reflect on it, I’m less certain of that. It’s certainly entertaining, of that there is no doubt, but I’m not sure I could actually call it good. I also referred to it as being like Driving Miss Daisy with barbs, a statement I stand by, but it’s difficult to consider it as much more than a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, albeit with a more believable (and not just because it’s based on a true story) blossoming of friendship and respect between the two protagonists.
The racism and disrespect in the US South of this era (the film is set in 1962) is breath-taking, both in its nature and degree, and with the impunity with which it is meted out by people from every social level, and is no less affecting for its repeated depiction. But the problem with Green Book is one shared by other relatively recent films dealing with a similar time and place, for example The Help and Hidden Figures, which may shock the audience, but largely allow it to feel good by the end and, perhaps, collectively think, “my my, how awful, but isn’t it good that all of that ghastly business is behind us now?”. All of these crowd pleasers conspicuously lack the edge of work like Sorry to Bother You, which give lie to the idea that we are in any way living in a post-racial society.
With all of that said, I do still recommend Green Book as a piece of entertainment, with the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali being hugely watchable. It’s not often we see Mortensen’s goofy side, and its juxtaposition with Ali’s refined, composed and erudite portrayal of Doctor Shirley leads to plenty of laughs. And these laughs are perhaps the sugar that helps the medicine go down as, while it may have less relevance or, at least, less contemporary insight than other works, its chronicling of this shameful time and its shameful behaviours is of vital importance: racism isn’t going to be treated by pretending it didn’t, or doesn’t, exist.
I’ll also add in more than a handful of praise for Betsy Heimann’s costume designs and Sean Porter’s photography: it really is a lovely looking film. It’s pretty good musically, too.
Hmmmm. I think I do like this film, actually. As you were. Or, I suppose, as I was.
Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie Smothers cuts a lonely figure, devoted to raising her child after the death of her husband, filling her time with volunteering and recording her YouTube mommy blog series. I can’t recall off hand if her home has a white picket fence, but that’s very much the archetype she’s drawn from.
Meeting through their child’s friendship, Blake Lively’s Emily Nelson is a very different character – a PR executive at a fashion firm, she’s all sharp suits, sharp wits, sharp tongue and sharp gin and tonics. Are gin and tonics sharp? I don’t drink them. But it makes for a better sentence, so let’s go with that. While some observers think that Stephanie is being used as an unpaid nanny service, she seems happy with the attention and trust Emily shows her, so who are we to judge?
Things kick off in earnest when Emily asks Stephanie to look after her kid for a few days while she attends to a work matter, her husband Sean (Henry Golding) having been called to London to care for a sick family member. Trouble is, she doesn’t return, prompting an investigation that will unravel the past lives and characters of both Emily and Stephanie.
Comparisons with Gone Girl are inevitable and entirely justified, as this treads a very similar path and similar mix of multi-twist thriller and dark comedy. A Simple Favor, as perhaps you’d expect from this cast and director Paul Feig seems to be weighted more in favour of the comedy. Well, it seems to be, but especially as it heads into the last hour or so when revelations come thicker, faster, and ever increasingly far-fetched, it seems like they’ve forgotten to put any actual comedy in. Perhaps the attempt was to rely on the inherent situational daftness of the plot to provide a few metalaughs, but it doesn’t work all that well.
By the end, it’s more of a series of madlibs than a narrative, all the more disappointing after a first half that’s intriguing and often pretty funny indeed, with some highly commendable dialogue. The longer it goes, the more it lost me, I’m afraid to say, and in the end it’s squandering the promise and the hard work of a talented cast and production team I have no other issue with, bar the script. Sadly, that’s quite the major issue.
While my attention wandered all over the place by the end, there’s enough good work done in the opening stretch to allow me to give it a guarded recommendation when it appears in your catch-up service of choice, but it saddens me that I can’t be as enthusiastic about it as I would have been if you’d asked me halfway though.
I don’t think I’d ever really given any thought to the major studio’s various sub-brands for different types of movie, but I’m starting to see some sense in it. Mainly because seeing “Netflix” at the start of a film is a total dice roll on the style and quality of what you’ll land on. It was ever so, I suppose, but having the same logo so prominently attached (either as producer or distributor) to some of the most enjoyable and/or interesting films of last year (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Other Side of the Wind, Roma) and some of the least (Apostle, Mute, The Cloverfield Paradox) gives the company a weird brand non-identity.
To that end, we can add Bird Box to their reckoning sheet, a horror film starring Sandra Bullock, which may perhaps be all the review necessary. An unexplained malady quickly takes hold of the world, we come to later understand somehow transmitted through sight, that causes people to commit suicide as swiftly as possible, causing all manner of inconvenience.
Escaping the chaos through blind luck, hohohodoyouseewhatIdidthere, Bullock’s heavily pregnant Malorie winds up sheltering in the home of John Malkovich’s splendidly irritable Douglas, alongside a variety of characters ranging from “person I can barely remember” to “other person that made no impact on me” as they try and figure out what’s going on, and how they can survive it.
All this is intercut with a Malorie of five years hence preparing for and undertaking a dangerous river journey with two kids to a supposed safe haven as a desperate last gambit for survival, which must be made blindfolded to prevent whatever possibly demonic force is causing this from infecting them.
So, it’s basically landing somewhere between A Quiet Place and The Happening, both of which we hold in rather low regard, and this is perhaps worse than either of them. There’s such a huge believability hurdle to get over with the infection, whatever you want to call it, that I just can’t bring myself to get over. It’s playing the “not explaining anything” card to attempt to create an air of mystery, but there’s just nothing in the rest of the film to provide any interest, unlike, say Pontypool, which could be open to the same criticism but is a far more interestingly executed film.
It’s well enough acted and shot, but nothing that’s being said or done is anything remotely interesting or that hasn’t been done a million times before, bar, perhaps from a few blindfolded camera shots, which as done infrequently enough that they seem silly rather than a way to empathise with Malorie’s predicament. There’s probably a really interesting VR game in here, just not, sadly, a film.
Add to this a wildly misjudged, insensitive development regarding this affliction’s effect on the mentally ill, and it’s hard to find much to recommend at all in here. So I won’t. Make best endeavours to avoid.
In this, I assume 100% historically accurate documentary of Queen Anne’s court from The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos, we examine the most trusted courtiers of Olivia Coleman’s Queen, initially Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, essentially ruling on a disinterested and, well, let’s politely say mercurial Anne’s behalf. Sarah’s husband James effective controls the Army, so they’re quite the power couple, although what he’d make of her affair with the Queen is, well, not remotely important, other than as a way to introduce this fact into the review. Seamless. I am quite the master storyteller. Move over Stevie King.
Into this milieu of politicking between Churchill, Anne, and the leaders of the Tories and Whigs over the never-ending wars with other European powers steps Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, a younger cousin of Sarah’s who has fallen on hard times. Initially employed as a scullery maid, she soon proves her worth and is raised to Sarah’s lady of the bedchamber. However, she aims to raise herself higher and supplant Sarah and sets about doing so, which is doing scant service to about ninety minutes of exceptional scheming, counter-scheming and character work, but I think it’s best left for you to discover, dear listener.
In truth, I don’t seem to have all that much to say about The Favourite, other than to recommend it as highly as I can. It’s a fascinating narrative with fascinating characters, tied together with Yorgos Lanthimos’s fascinating quirkiness that I appreciated from The Lobster even if I wasn’t so taken with the film overall. Most importantly, every plaudit that Coleman, Weisz and Stone have been receiving for this film is entirely deserved. Three superb performances that was a pleasure to watch, and about a million miles away from the traditionally stuffy and obnoxious period dramas this sort of thing would usually entail, just as frequently raw and emotional as it is funny.
If this isn’t at or near the top of my films of 2019 list then we’ll have a hell of a year ahead of us.
As a pitch, “based on the Director’s own experiences”, is an immediate turn-off for me, as I am repelled by the egotistical notion that of all the seven billion people on Earth whose stories you might use your ultra-privileged position to bring to our attention you felt the most worthy was…you? I’m also not a huge fan of Alfonso Cuaron, having grown slightly more contemptuous over time of his reliance on technical camera trickery and forced pseudo-profundity in the likes of Children of Men and Gravity, though I profess to having never watched Y Tu Mama Tambien. Or Harry Potter and the Naughtystepwhatsitsshite, for that matter.
Therefore with some trepidation and nowt else to do of that particular night I fired up Netflix and battened down the hatches for two hours and ten minutes of pretentious arsehouse flannel before reuniting myself with the sweet embrace of bed. Except I was pretty much wrong in my entire supposition as to what Roma is or indeed sets out to achieve.
Yes, the ten year-old Alfonso is present in some form in this movie, but the director sidelines himself with admirable restraint in a tale that focuses instead on his family’s housemaid Cleo as she tended to the Cuaron’s home against the backdrop of social and political change in Mexico City circa 1971. The film spans about a year, during which time both Cleo and the family experience fundamental changes to the fabric of their being, chief among them Cleo’s pregnancy and, to a lesser degree, the departure of the household patriarch who abandons his wife and four children for a younger woman.
So far so Ken Loach. However there is a great deal which sets Roma apart, most immediately obvious and gratifying of which being the cinematography, for which Cuaron is also responsible on this occasion. Presented in beautifully graded black and white, Roma wastes no time in establishing a very definite sense of place and time, and every single shot is perfectly framed to within a pixel of its life; despite its humble aspirations and beautifully mundane setting, this is up there with Blade Runner or Lawrence of Arabia as one of those films where you could capture a still at pretty much any moment and be absolutely justified in mounting it and hanging it on a wall.
Then as the movie bedded in I came to appreciate that the cinematography is kept pace by the characterisation, and that my initial feelings about the treatment of Cleo by the adults in the house, that she seems a victim of poverty and class, were at least partly misplaced. Cuaron so clearly has such unending affection for his nanny that my reservations around the whole “based on director blah blah” thing were roundly binned, and I came to realise that he was playing to just about every strength his privileged position afforded him in telling this story of a quietly, unassumingly, galactically noble woman. And not playing in the wise or manipulative sense, but rather a disarmingly affectionate one.
That is not to say Roma is a love-in or laugh-fest, as our compassion for Cleo comes at a dramatic price. There are moments in the movie, particularly on the back nine, where it can be downright punishing, and at least two of those moments left me moved to tears. I don’t think I’ve had this particular emotional experience before in a film – Brett Goldstein on his excellent Films to be Buried With podcast recently likened it to feeling guilty at intruding on a private moment of grief, which pretty much sums up the most devastating scene in question.
Likewise Cuaron deploys his trademark technical trickery in a much more reserved and transparent way here, and in particular a scene taking place at the beach later in the movie uses it to leverage a moment of profound emotional catharsis for Cleo; a technological achievement you absolutely never have to worry about applying to Gravity.
Ultimately I was absolutely humbled by Roma, and that was despite only watching it on a small screen (this is a film that begs to be seen in a cinema), and also having to stop for half an hour at the forty five minute mark while I enacted an emergency repair on the impeller assembly of our over-worked dishwasher.
While the nature of it means so am in no rush to see it again (unless I can catch a cinema screening a year or so from now) there is a pretty good objective case to be made for Roma as the year’s best crafted piece of cinema.
Bandersnatch! Bandersnatch! Is whatever a Bandersnatch is! Look out! Here comes a fourth wall smashing lampshade hanging death defying tropifying choose your own full motion video game slice of interactive fiction that’s in the main not really a film, and so is of questionable value discussing in this format.
If you have Netflix, it’s worth spending a couple of hours fiddling with Bandersnatch, and I say that as someone who thinks Black Mirror is, in general, the most perplexingly well received slab of media over the past decade. In terms of overarching narrative, it’s about a young programmer with some mental health issues that’s trying to finish a video game on a tight deadline, adapting a cult classic choose your own adventure novel, the creation of which drove the author insane, and I’m sure you can see where this is heading.
The gimmick here is that you can, at various points and with various consequences, make choices in the life of Fionn Whitehead’s Stefan Butler, and how he interacts with his father (Craig Parkinson), rockstar programmer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) and therapist, Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe).
For a piece of achingly meta interactive fiction like this, it’s perhaps fitting that the most fun I’ve had with this is reading film critics flailing around trying to describe this when, to anyone who’s been around video games for the past decade or so we can simply say “it’s a Telltale game” and describe it in its entirety, or if like us greybeards they’ve been around since the ZX Spectrum home computing heyday in which Bandersnatch is set, “it’s The 7th Guest without the irritating puzzles”.
Just as that did not turn out to be the future of games, this is not the future of film, but it’s a fun gimmick worth some of your time to play with, but nothing like enough to go through multiple times to find the “different” endings, especially as it seems many of them are different in the “Mass Effect 3” sense.
Strangely, though, the main thing that’s stayed with me from Bandersnatch is a similar, but much less virulent form of the annoyance of the meta narrative from Spec Ops: The Line. If you’ll permit the tangent, in that game, in a nutshell, everything you as a protagonist did to help the people you proport to be helping makes it much, much worse, to the point that at the end you are presented with your actions by essentially an author avatar saying you could have simply stopped playing instead of doing these horrible, white phosphor based things. Which is the sort of comment that’s clever for ten seconds, before it falls apart on analysis. There’s no way to progress the narrative or the game in Spec Ops without performing these actions, and while I see the artistic intent of saying you could stop, the form is tied to the function here, and games are expensive and bought to be played, so simply not playing is a daft waste of money, and a silly thing for a game developer to say.
I get a similar, but far less explicit sense of finger-wagging from Bandersnatch, undercut entirely by the way that any option chosen to stop our protagonist suffering leads to an immediate non-standard game over and prompt to go back and screw him up a little more. Turn that black mirror back upon yourself, Charlie Brooker. Kudos for coming up with a film that’s difficult to pirate, though, so I’m sure Netflix were happy with that.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you soon with something fresh, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.
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