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Wind’s in the east

Another film about a film, another sign of Hollywood zombification: unable to come up with an original idea, it feasts on the still-warm corpse of a past glory. The “making of” concept is just the sequel/prequel trick on a perpendicular axis, the mark of a desperate industry scrambling for relevance in the internet age. Jebus help us when tinseltown discovers the third dimension.

Oh.

But despite all that, from its trailer Saving Mr Banks looked different, deeper than expected. Sure, it’s a Disney film, and Walt Disney’s a major character, and he’s played by serial schmaltzer Tom Hanks. And yet it’s not a film I instinctively wanted to sprint away from at light speed while vomiting from every orifice.

This is partly down to Emma Thompson, who’s perfect as Poppins creator P L “Mrs” Travers and has all the best, desert-dry gags in the film. (Although compared to the bustled biddy of reality she’s a few years too young.)

It’s also related to the comic moments, showing the true-to-life tension between Mrs Travers and the writers trying to craft a film we all know so well. She’s desperate to find a reason to walk away from the deal, and the Disneyites are desperate to keep her happy while making something people might want to actually watch. The truth is, she doesn’t want Disney — or anyone — to make the picture. Even though she’s pretty much skint, she’s very protective and doesn’t want a skipful of sugar dumped all over her story, her characters, her family. Walt tries to convince her this won’t happen — he’s been trying to convince her for twenty years — and we know he’ll win eventually. But that’s not what the film’s truly about.

It’s all in the backstory. This isn’t a film about the making of Mary Poppins: it’s a film about the making of P L Travers. Throughout the two hours we flash back from present-day 1961 LA to the Australian outback in the nineteen-oughts and the experiences of a young girl in a struggling family. This girl’s relationship with her father (Colin Farrell) is the core of the backstory, and the core of the film. The girl is, of course, Mrs Travers herself.

That’s what transforms this film from a will-this-do Hanks vehicle into something more special. You certainly won’t watch Mary Poppins the same way again the next time it’s on TV, in about fifteen microseconds.

Expect an Oscar nomination for Emma Thompson. And maybe one for Hanks too, because Disney.

Tremendous movie. Stay through the credits for a special treat.

Oh, yes. In Brazil this film is called “Walt Behind the Scenes of Mary Poppins”. I can’t even.

Avaragado’s rating: no pears.

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Pale, blue plot

If our solar system were to hide or magically spawn a second Earth, identical to ours down to the crinkle of the fjords (© D Adams) and the pluck of the eyebrows of its population, then I hope Other Dave doesn’t bother to see Another Earth.

I exaggerate slightly. I’ve sat through films more tedious and less engaging than this one, I’m sure, their names now blissfully blanked. (Oh, yeah, 2012. Damn it.) I didn’t flounce out, or tweet stroppily half-way through, or sigh and tut like a Daily Mail reader at an anti-BBC drivelganza. It’s just a little dull.

The main storyline concerns an intelligent young lady who drink-drives — it’s the American Way — and causes an accident, and must deal with the aftermath. This coincides with the first appearance of Earth’s photocopy, dubbed Earth 2. It’s initially spotted on the night of the accident as a pale, blue dot, and then later dominates the skies with its own sidekick, Moon 2 (Moon Classic is not shown). These doppelspheroids aren’t merely similar, they’re identical down to the names, ranks and serial numbers of the inhabitants. Potentially an interesting scenario in science fiction: how? Why? Is it anti-matter? Is there a crack in the multiverse? etc. But this isn’t science fiction. The other Earth is merely a pale, blue plot device attempting to inject some originality into a not-too-interesting movie.

This is rather sad. Such a bonkers premise brings to mind fifties/sixties classics like The Day The Earth Caught Fire, The Day The Earth Stood Still and, of course, When Worlds Collide. I want to see streets full of hats, a Strand drooping from every lip. No such luck. We get an earnest, slow-moving movie that’s not as touching as it thinks it is. And like Earth 2, most of the plot is visible from a very great distance indeed.

What irritates me about the film, what sticks in the craw, is the other Earth/Moon system. I know it’s a film, I know I should suspend disbelief, and I know I should have given up all hope that films obey the laws of physics at the opening titles of Armageddon. But every time Earth 2 appears large in the sky of the ‘real’ Earth, almost invariably behind the misery guts main character, a shattering klaxon goes off in my head and I want to launch into a lecture about gravity.

How exactly does Earth 2 mosey on down to park itself beside Earth 1? How does it stop? What happened to Moon 1? Why is nobody running up and down the street worrying about tidal waves? And many other interesting questions.

Is it odd that I find the fundamental concept of an Earth copy far more acceptable than said duplicate pulling up alongside Earth 1 like the Space 1999 Moon ricocheting itself around the rubber-faced galaxy? I don’t know. If I can accept that, I should, I suppose, also be able to accept that Earth 2 is (as far as I can recall) tide-locked — always showing the same face towards Earth 1 — and that it’s pretty much geostationary — always handily plonked directly above lady misery’s home town. And I should pay no attention to poor Sir Isaac thumping and weeping in his dark corner.

I suspect one factor in my fist-shaking is that I’ve recently been deeply wrapped up in the world of the Apollo programme, having just read The Last Man on the Moon by Gene Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17. Thirty-nine years ago yesterday he became the last person (so far) to leave bootprints on the lunar surface. One of the three Apollo 17 astronauts, most likely Jack Schmitt, took the famous Blue Marble photo of Earth. And it’s this photo, on many if not all occasions, which is used in Another Earth for Earth 2. It’s so recognisable to a certain class of spacenerd that every time the image appears in the film it’s all I can think of. Oh look, there’s the Arabian peninsula, the comma of cloud near the southern tip of Africa, and the huge cloudmass over Antarctica. WARNING: DISBELIEF SUSPENSION EJECTED. KLAXON!

I know. Superheroes, fine. Time travelling police box, fine. Wizard school, I suppose.  But this, hmm.

Avaragado’s rating: space noodles

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Weekend

I’ve written before how I dislike it when stage plays, TV shows and films still manage to be all about the gay even in the twenty-first century. Well, Weekend is one of those, about every aspect of teh gay — except, thankfully, the overblown HIV trope — and yet does not feel like it. From ten thousand feet it’s full of the usual stereotypes that replaced the old campy, mincing Graysons and Humphrieses: the meat market, drug-taking, one-night stands, casual homophobia, checked shirts and beards. Yet these are window dressing. Strip them away and you’re left with a raw core of universal truths. A desire for relevance, for belonging. A fear of commitment, of loneliness. What could be, what might have been.

Russell is semi-closeted, nominally happy but groping for meaning and not truly comfortable in his skin. Glen is out, brash, confident and charismatic with a heavy sprinkling of militant. One you’d be happy to show off to your parents; the other would undoubtedly upset the teacups with a well-meaning but entirely mistimed rant about heteronormativity. It is fair to say you find both types in the real world in abundance.

The film follows Russell over the course of a weekend, from just before his first meeting with Glen until — well, no spoilers. It’s an eventful few days, for both of them, and an inflection point in both their lives. Decisions, revelations, uncomfortable truths. Fundamental changes in their relationships with their closest friends. Universal themes, here seen from an authentic and unashamedly gay perspective.

One problem is that, as a rainbow warrior myself, it is all familiar stuff. It might be a sparkling revelation to the hetties that gays aren’t all of one mind, programmed by Cyber Controller Russell T. Davies with the same set of beliefs and the same agenda. The truth is, and please find a comfortable armchair for this dramatic announcement, we have different opinions. Most of us have at some stage been on one, other or both sides of the arguments portrayed in the film. You should hear what’s said about John Barrowman.

Weekend is shot in a naturalistic style, almost entirely with a handheld camera. The dialogue feels real, and indeed was partially ad libbed. You rarely feel a sense of staging; more than once it appears as though the actors were simply miked up and told to get on with it in a real crowd.

The film’s focus on just Russell and Glen, and primarily Russell, is relentless and almost total. In some scenes the camera stays close on Russell even as he interacts with other characters, who barely enter the frame. Many scenes are shot as long, single takes, often with a long lens, between the jackets of strangers on a tram or through drinkers in a bar. These techniques draw you in from dispassionate third-party, to voyeur, to intimate participant.

Both leads deliver excellent performances. Chris New (Glen) is an actualgay whereas Tom Cullen (Russell) is just gay-for-play, but it doesn’t particularly show.

The film is very definitely an 18: there is drug-taking, there is nudity, there is sex. None of it is gratuitous. Apparently the Daily Mail didn’t like it, which you can interpret as you see fit.

Some films you walk out of and instantly forget. Some you rant about, or laugh about, or immediately look up on IMDb to discover the goofs you missed. Some you shake your head at and say, “I wish George Lucas had stopped making films in 1990.”

Weekend made me want to write something like Weekend.

Avaragado’s rating: assorted munchies

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Cloverfjord

It’s got shaky, hand-held camerawork. It’s got a documentary, found-footage vibe, with portentous opening captions solemnly promising raw, unaltered material. And it has trolls. Proper, Norwegian trolls, galumphing through Norwegian forests and snowy Norwegian tundra. It also has a troll hunter: which is helpful, as the film’s called The Troll Hunter.

The documentary ostensibly being filmed is a student project, an attempt to investigate an apparent bear poacher. The three filmmakers – camera, sound and talent – follow this alleged poacher with his battered caravan as he travels from damp location to damp location, like a discarded segment from Top Gear. Happily for us it doesn’t take too long for the students to discover the truth. We see the first troll moments after the troll hunter, using the world-renowned “running away” method of hunting trolls, encounters the students deep in a forest and roars “TROLL”, eyeballs out, in their innocent Norwegian lugholes. Thereafter they work together, the students recording the troll hunter’s unexpectedly interesting nightlife.

Like Let the Right One In, the film benefits from its sometimes bleak Scandinavian setting and – for the British audience – unfamiliar cast (apparently the troll hunter is a well-known Norwegian comedian). The subtitles help, too.

It’s confidently made and unafraid to incorporate a little dark humour. Only once did I feel a plot development was overly signposted, and its aftermath was curiously under-explored. (Look at me, sucking on a pencil pretending I know what I’m talking about.)

The found-footage approach is occasionally mildly tiresome: we probably don’t need to see quite so many drizzled-upon lakes and steamed-up car windows. I suspect Cloverfield is the root of the current fashion for this technique; although I enjoyed Cloverfield, it rather succumbed to a virulent strain of the delusional illness known as Lucas. Latin name verdus maximus: we can do green screen, we shall do green screen, let’s wreak devastation on a scale hitherto only realised via the medium of plot. The Troll Hunter is thankfully much cheaper more restrained than Cloverfield: it’s CGI in service of story rather than trebles all round at WETA and chums.

In a sense, and I know I’m in danger of contradicting what I’ve just said, what excites me most about the film is the knowledge that believable, sophisticated motion-tracked effects are now available to relatively low-budget films – in this case, reportedly £3.5m. Such is the onward, mighty march of the nerds. It means that films like this one – hardly likely to interest a big Hollywood studio – can still be made, and made well, without papier mache trolls and comedy modelwork. Perhaps this normalisation will filter up to those with bigger budgets, leading to fewer cases of Lucas. I suspect not: my money’s still on an all-green remake of Episode IV by 2017. “Nooooooooo!” to coin a phrase.

Recommended, with one caveat: as with Cloverfield, if wobbly camerawork wonks up your balance, steer clear. It’s not a friendly film for those with balance conditions.

Avaragado’s rating: boiled furballs

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X-Men: Solid 2.1

The first message was confusing. It arrived sometime in the spring of 1980, in the lunchtime playground of Sheredes Junior School. The usual preteen chaos bounced around the tarmac, hopscotching and hula-hooping and Trevor Brooking in the service of entropy. I was busy repairing an android – an obsolete model, all cogs and flywheels, its maintenance bulb insistently recommending a positronic upgrade. That would have to wait: a rough-and-ready patch-up job was all I had spacetime for. These asteroids wouldn’t mine themselves, after all. I rolled up my genetically modified sleeves and got to work.

I’d barely started unscrewing the chest plate when I felt a silence spreading slowly around me, a cloud of inactivity. Pigtails and snot trails froze in mid-air. I began, imperceptibly, to glow. Uh. Did something happen? What?

The android repaired itself. The message came through loud and clear. The words, though, made no sense.

The playground came back to life.

Perhaps Professor Charles Xavier peered briefly through my eyes, saw no wheelchair ramps, and bailed out muttering. Understandable. In those days children with disabilities tended to be segregated in schools, and mutants hid. Disabled mutants were most certainly not welcome in Tory Broxbourne. (I think she was in Debbie Does Dallas, but I’m no expert.)

 

X-Men: First Class positively goads you into titling a review “X-Men: Second Class” or opining about the price of stamps these days (46p! Cameron’s Britain, ConDemNation, har-de-har, etc, etc). And as you’ll have noticed I’ve given in to temptation. I don’t think it’s a classic film or even a classic genre film, but there’s nothing wrong with a 2.1. That’s what I told myself when I wore my Darth Vader cape to collect my degree from Chancellor Palpatine Baroness Warnock.

The film’s 1962 setting – around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis – gives it an interesting if slightly clichéd edge. As many have said there’s a strong feeling of Dr No about it, plus a nod towards the war room of Dr Strangelove. (All it needed was Dr Kildare and Doctor Who for the full house.) Toss in a few cheeky references to the earlier films (set in this film’s future) including a couple of show-stopping cameos, and some gags about hair loss, and mix with bucketloads of bangs and crashes, and you’re done. It’s not afraid to laugh at itself and is confident enough to play to the audience’s knowledge of the franchise in its varied forms. It takes a few liberties with some characters, naturally, but X-Men and comics continuity in general is notoriously malleable. Another year, another reboot. A slice of retcon, a spoonful of alternate universe. ANTIHULK UNSMASH! Happens all the time.

 

Xavier’s second message didn’t reach me for another couple of years, until a run-of-the-peppermill Tuesday afternoon in Home Economics. A laugh, a joke, an innocent pair of tongs. An unequivocal sign. “Don’t trifle with these powers,” said Xavier, which was odd as we were making a flan.

I put away childish things, and the tongs. I didn’t want to speak to Xavier. He was old, bald, and liked hanging out with younger guys. All a bit creepy if you ask me.

 

In the film Xavier is young, hirsute, and James McAvoy out of Shameless and a Narnian Wardrobe – like David Tennant, a Scot who’s often professionally English. Adding to the accent confusion is Nicholas Hoult, once About a Boy and later of Skins, expanding his acting chops from 1962 All-American totty in A Single Man to 1962 All-American mutant totty here.

Other mini-mutants appear, little x-boys and x-girls, as Xavier trawls the world sniffing out the talent: looking for that elusive X Factor I suppose. Hmm – Simon Cowell: alias Supreeno, special power Hypnosis of TV Executives, costume The Gentleman’s High-waisted Trouser.

The film’s plot ostensibly concerns the nascent X-Men battling a Big Bad called Sebastian Shaw – Kevin Bacon bringing himself home in splendid cackly fashion. His opening scenes are really rather unsettling, almost entirely – and bravely – conducted in several flavours of non-English. In those scenes we discover exactly how the young Magneto – Magnetini? – learns the extent of his powers, and what drives him and the main thrust of the movie.

The film succeeds for me by meshing both the BANG CRASH and subtler stories. The effects-laden set pieces window-dress the underlying human mutant tensions of the leads. The heart of the film is the heart of the X-Men franchise in comic and film form: the story of Professor X and Magneto, of Charles and Erik. Friends and enemies.

 

Xavier tried to get through to me regularly in my teens, never defeating my psychic block. He failed again in my college years, despite a cunning flanking manoeuvre at the Societies’ Fair.

It might have been different had he sent a representative. I knew there were other mutants; I knew where they gathered. Had one approached me I might have embraced my mutation much sooner and answered Xavier’s call (his ringtone was mental).

Or I might not. Mutations can take a time to mature, to ripen. The trigger that finally unleashes the power can occur at any time, in any place. In my case, the trigger was Batman. Well, actually, Robin.

Marvel versus DC – as it was, so shall it always be.

Avaragado’s rating: one blueberry muffin

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Five Go Mad in Brixton

In the movie ET, you may recall, the titular alien touched down in a forest bordering a suburban California sprawl, and was sheltered by an angsty tween from nasty men with guns torches. But what if he’d landed in Brixton instead? And wasn’t here to sniff out a hundred varieties of moss for the Betelgeuse branch of Notcutts?

That’s the premise of the new movie Attack the Block, written and directed by Joe Cornish – once of nineties Channel 4’s  Adam and Joe show, now of tens BBC Radio 6 Music’s Adam and Joe show, and it seems a proper grown-up film-maker.

The stars of the film are most certainly not grown up, though. They’re almost unintelligibly young, with their strange clothes and their loud music and HAVE YOU UNDERSTOOD A WORD THEY’VE SAID YET? These YOUNG PEOPLE, they don’t SPEAK PROPERLY these days. THAT’S NOT DANCING, THAT’S JUST JUMPING UP AND DOWN. Have I had my dinner, Doreen? I have, haven’t I? I have, yes. I thought I had. A lovely dinner. Ooh, it was a lovely dinner. What was it? Curry? I don’t understand curry. IT’S JUST MUCK. MUCK ON A PLATE. I’m given to believe she stands on a BOX.

Anyway. The urban dialect of the younger cast, all ya get me and allow it and isnit and teeth-sucking, takes a little adjustment for those like me unfamiliar with the patois. You have to hear your way into it, pick up the rhythm, feel the force flowing through you. Before long you’re jiving like a native – wicked, chum, comprendez? Booyakashah of Iran.

Incidentally I have just bought a hoody. From Her Majesty’s The Gap shop. I know. Fashion. Icon.

Anyway. The film! Yes, the film.

Attack the Block is a coming-of-age film. Well, more a coming-of-rage film. The main characters are a gang of rufty-tufty teens, led by a boy called Moses, who spend their evenings terrorising the estate with their bikes and parkas and knives. On bonfire night they encounter a most unusual visitor: not a bewildered American tourist, nor a taxi driver willingly south of the river after 10pm, but something far stranger and not of this world. Their turf – their estate, their block – becomes a battleground, a castle under siege from alien invasion. Their universe expands a little; they do a little growing up. Hijinks ensue.

The film has a refreshing lack of grown-ups wagging fingers. Most adult characters veer either to the stoner or psychopath ends of the spectrum, leaving the gang to tackle the unwanted visitors in their own special way. It’s a bit like a Famous Five movie written by William S. Burroughs.

Joe Cornish coaxed pretty impressive performances from the cast, even the youngest members. The dialogue was, apparently, checked and independently verified as accurate for the disaffected mopers of today’s Broken Britain. Give it ten years and it’ll need subtitles, mind. I can’t imagine it’ll play in the US without them, unless audiences are given crib sheets on the way in or screened for age.

It’s Cornish’s first feature film as a director, but you wouldn’t know it. All those years of bedroom-based film-making with Adam Buxton certainly paid off. It’s fast-paced, nicely plotted, and I expect a strong candidate for Best British Film next year. Ya get me?

Avaragado’s rating: curry

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With malice a Thor fought

Aussie soaps were not originally a well-rubbed waypoint on the cobbled road to celebrity. Nobody from The Sullivans ever wore spandex over dubiously inflated muscles in a Marvel franchise, not even 1977’s The Amazing Spider-Man. All that has changed. Chris Hemsworth can, curiously, trace his casting as Norse totty Thor back to cigar’n’braces soap-enabler Michael Grade or his eighties vicinity, and the unexpectedly world-changing decision to buy Neighbours for BBC Daytime. For Neighbours begat Kylie, Jason, Guy, Alan and a few others, and let loose Home and Away on the UK, which spawned Hemsworth.

From Summer Bay and World of Cliché to Kirk’s dad and now Asgard, in but a few short tumultuous years. It’s like casting Adam ‘Ian Beale’ Woodyatt as one of the X-Men. Iceman, Phoenix, Wolverine, Black Pudding.

Thor has a tricky path to take: part action-adventure, part Norse Mythology 101, it needs to introduce a non-comic-gobbling crowd to a pantheon of “actual” gods it might remember only vaguely from school discussions about days of the week, and also deliver a coherent plot that isn’t something cheesily related like an apocalyptic Battle For Thursday.

The story is by Mark Protosevich and Babylon 5 overlord J. Michael Straczynski, with a three-author screenplay that suggests development Helheim. The film takes place bang in the middle of the Marvel universe (movie franchise edition), with noob-tolerant, fanboy-wetting references to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Tony Stark. But fanboys beware: movie Thor’s not comics Thor. Of course you know that already, you’re a fanboy; you probably already wrote a capped green exclamated thesis on the matter. Less foamy Thor-comic fans will be happy that certain aspects of the comics are preserved (though not all).

Some of the early scenes in Asgard feel draggy at the time: I thought they were trying and failing to be quick expositional backgrounders, but they turned out to be plot. Asgard itself is beautifully realised by director Kenneth Branagh (I know, right?). Kirby loved a wide galactic smear and that’s what we see, with a world full of godly fixtures and fittings and implausible furniture. No pixel is left unbuffed. The Midgard Earth scenes are a great counterpoint, a dreary dustbowl of diners and utterly ungodlike fatsos.

The main human characters are nothing to Bifröst home about. Natalie Portman plays the standard scientist/love interest role; no Oscar noms here. She has a sassy wisecracking girly sidekick and a weathered, Viking-like colleague with whom to enter and exit sundry scrapes. All very comic-like, in fact.

Aside from eight-packing Thor and his massive weapon Mjolnir, gods include but are not limited to dad Odin, portrayed by barely not-Welsh Anthony Hopkins, and brother Loki, played by Michael Sheen Loki-likey Tom Hiddleston. Other deities are available.

Hemsworth scrubs up well. Seekers of flesh will perk up for one brief scene and instantly divide into mary and contrary camps. I’m on the mary side: he’s overly muscled for my tastes. But I still wød.

As you might expect, there’s nothing to stop further films with at least some of the same cast. Indeed I see The Avengers (no, not Steed et al) is in production for 2012 – presumably drawing together the various strands from several Marvel movies. I confess a low-grade squee at this: different movies, different characters, one consistent(ish) universe. It all makes the constantly rebooting Batman and Superman franchises look like dinothors.

Yeah, sorry about that one.

Avaragado’s rating: one tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey

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5 CLS

One of the few non-spoilers I can relate about the new Duncan Jones film Source Code is that it’s not released under the GPL. Oh, and it has a 12 certificate rather than an X.509 certificate. Even so, I imagine someone from the smoking remains of Caldera/SCO is already, Terminator-like, reaching an immortal hand from a lava lake in a bid to claim that certain lines of the screenplay are copied verbatim from its priceless intellectual property – where by “lines” they mean “words”, such as “include” and “the”.

The truth is that Source Code is undoubtedly inspired by at least one other copyrighted work, as subtly acknowledged by one particular casting choice and a line delivered by that character. It’s part Groundhog Day, part Quantum Leap.

The Bill Murray/Scott Bakula role is taken by Jake Gyllenhaal’s big blue eyes. Other characters probably appeared. I found only two flaws in his performance: he was occasionally off-screen, and he kept his clothes on. I trust he can learn from this experience and rectify it in future roles.

sigh …

Sorry. Drifted off there briefly.

The Quantum Leap part: Jake-sigh wakes to find himself seemingly in another person’s body. But why? How? And then for reasons unknown he’s suddenly somewhere else, with the equivalent of the Quantum Leap character Al – some woman or other. It becomes evident he must go back, Groundhog-like, and repeat himself. We discover what’s going on as he does; indeed the film starts with no preamble bar some city-swooping scene-setting in the opening credits – we’re straight into the story, as confused as Jake.

As with Duncan/Zowie Jones/Bowie’s previous film, Moon, the screenplay doesn’t spoon-feed you or festoon the sets with neon arrows honking at plot points. It toys with you a little: a misdirection here, a surprise there. It’s more moving than you might expect. It’s an intelligent film that treats you as more than the slack-faced drooler Hollywood usually targets. And I’m pleased to say that it’s resplendent in all two of the traditional, sufficient movie dimensions.

One of the few nits I can pick in the film – ignoring Jake’s lack of lack of clothes – is the title. I’m sure no-one will settle down with their popcorn expecting ninety minutes of emacs pr0n or even Linus Torvalds’ life story (well, if they can make a film about Facebook), but it feels as though they couldn’t think of a better title. It’s not wrong, exactly, but nor does it feel entirely right. On the other hand, perhaps it puts off the droolers – who’d last about fifteen minutes before ejecting overpriced confectionery and bleating about the lack of nudity black and white hats.

Jones is quickly earning a reputation for intelligent, entertaining, genuinely thought-provoking movies. I look forward to seeing how he trumps this one with his next film, which I understand will be a subtle allegory about the Vietnam war called Underfloor Heating.

Avaragado’s rating: swiss cheese

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Coronation Street, one episode per second

I didn’t think much of the last Jonathan Harvey play I saw, Canary. Set-pieces haphazardly stitched together, trowel-loads of heavy handedness and nothing we hadn’t seen before.

With Corrie! we get the same again. The difference here is that it’s exactly what the audience wants: a romp through fifty glorious years of Coronation Street storylines. A chance to see again the most famous scenes unencumbered by the dodgy TV reminiscences of random celebrities and Paul Ross. And all with a knowing script that doesn’t take itself too seriously – like the show itself.

Like the show the play is dominated by strong female characters, from Elsie Tanner to Becky Macdonald and all tram stops in between. It focuses on the ones most commonly in man-trouble: Deirdre Hunt-Langton-Barlow-Rachid-Barlow and Gail Potter-Tilsley-Tilsley-Platt-Hillman-McIntyre. We see the major plot points in their lives, their downs and their further-downs – those characters not greatly blessed with extended periods of happiness – with stories for other characters slotted in alongside.

Almost all the characters you’d expect to see are here, ably impersonated by an impressively tiny and versatile cast. For me, the highlight is Ken Barlow: the actor captures Essence of Roache perfectly, almost uncannily at times. And while we can all trill Hilda Ogden’s Sound of Music when sufficiently lubricated, and might be able to drop a couple of octaves for a few angsty Deirdre classics, I doubt we could do as good a job as the actor playing the actor playing Gail.

The internet leads me to believe that the six main performers in the play portray a total of 54 authentic Corrie characters. That’s some feat. Happily they do so with humour and warmth rather than snark, and those of the actual soap’s actual cast who saw the play during its initial run in Manchester reportedly enjoyed it.

There’s a seventh performer on stage: a narrator, played by a gen-yoo-ine former cast member. It’s a guest role, with different cobble-wanderers lined up for stints as the show tours. For us it was Gaynor Faye, who played Judy Mallet for four years in the nineties. No, I don’t remember her either. Future guests include Ken Morley (Reg Holdsworth) and Roy Barraclough (Alec Gilroy).

There are some odd omissions from the line-up of characters. No Alf; no Norris; no Mavis; no Betty; no Battersbys; no Dev. But I guess the play’s only two hours long; it’s tricky squeezing 7500 episodes into one evening’s entertainment, even if most of the 1960s storylines were about Ena Sharples’ hairnet.

They manage to pack a great deal into the running time. Think of a famous clip, funny or sad, and chances are it’s here or at least referred to. Don’t think they’d be able to pull that one off? Think again!

Some of the set pieces, though, don’t work that well. I understand why Jonathan Harvey would want to break up the ‘straight acting’ with a ballet about Tony Gordon (seriously!) but it’s not, in all honesty, a story I cared for. For me, a funnier alternative would have been an opera about Fred Elliott and Ashley. And I can’t believe I just wrote that.

It’s easy to criticise soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders for their relentless implausibility, their dilation of time and space, their murder rates and their inability to hold a wedding without a simultaneous catastrophe. But, for now at least, they are a core part of British culture – one of few remaining shared experiences, whether you watch or not.

The characters are like members of our (very) extended family. We know their foibles. We roll our eyes at Gail’s doomed attempts at romance, at Ken and Deirdre’s rows. We tut at the latest round of wife-swapping and twitch our televisual curtains at every bout of handbags on the cobbles. We cheer when someone gives birth to a three-month-old baby and mourn when much-loved characters pass on to the next world (Heartbeat).

The play works because we know and love the characters already. We don’t have to spend the first act trying to remember who’s who before deciding whether to empathise with them or not. Even if, like me, you’re not currently a habitual viewer of the soap, it’s impossible to grow up in this country without being at least peripherally aware of the characters in Corrie growing up with you.

I guess this makes Corrie! the play a massively elaborate cultural in-joke. Flamin’ ’eck!

Avaragado’s rating: no eclairs

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Turning Bertie

The single man from A Single Man as the Duke of York/George VI! Mrs not-Miggins from Sweeney Todd as the Duchess of York/Queen Mum! Dumbledore as George V! The girl from Outnumbered as Princess Margaret! The Master as the Archbishop of Canterbury! Him off Auf Wiedersehen, Pet as Churchill! Mike from Neighbours as the Prince of Wales/Edward VIII! How could The King’s Speech possibly disappoint?

Two speeches bookend the film. The first, the duke’s disastrous closing speech at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition. The second, his far more important broadcast to the Empire and the world as king at the outbreak of World War 2 (if you consider that a spoiler, I recommend you resign from the Internet immediately). The filling between those speech-slices shows how Bertie – the duke’s first name was Albert, not George – struggled to overcome a severe stammer with the unconventional help of aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Hollywood’s default Bruce, Geoffrey Rush.

The two meet after the Duchess of not-Miggins, quack-hunting, finds Logue in a dingy office on Harley Street. He and Bertie don’t immediately get on, not least because Logue insists on calling him Bertie. It seems that despite having married a commoner – not-Miggins wasn’t royal by birth – Bertie rarely interacted with the lower classes other than on a purely genuflective basis; unlike today, when you haven’t truly come of age until you’ve poked the Duchess of Cornwall in the ribs.

The turbulent relationship of Bertie and Logue is set against the ever-growing backdrop of the scandal of the day – Mike from Neighbours and That American Woman. In passing we also see our own dear present Queen in princess form, virtually mute for some reason; Princess Outnumbered, pre-gin and pre-fags-on-sticks, gets all the lines.

The film covers Dumbledore’s death and Mike’s accession, and we learn how both plum-tongued toffs played a part in perpetuating Bertie’s stammer. His authoritarian father took a shouty “just say it” approach to therapy, akin to the well-known “just cheer up, ferchrissakes” treatment for depression. His playboy party animal elder brother taunted him, calling him b-b-b-Bertie. Oh Mike, how could you? You were such a nice boy in Erinsborough.

Mike’s subsequent abdication and relocation to the Bungle Bungles with Her, though constitutionally a barrel-load of ZOMG! at the time that rocked the Windsors to their very core (somewhere in Bavaria?), was in hindsight the best possible outcome. Mike was far too chummy-chummy with the Austrian painter then wowing Germany with his hypnotic moustache; had he hung on to the throne through 1938 and 39 we might all be sporting that moustache today.

That’s not to say that Bertie, as king, was perfect. The film ignores the uncomfortable truth that he was entirely relaxed about Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich, and indeed favoured Halifax over Churchill when Chamberlain evacuated himself from Downing Street in 1940. But it’s true that Bertie, in contrast to his elder brother, was a fighter not a quitter. Although unprepared and untrained to be king – “I’m a naval officer,” he says in the film – he knew his duty. As Duke of York, despite his stammer, he stood before thousands and spoke – unconfidently, haltingly, with endless, excruciating pauses, with uneasy, embarrassed crowds – at event after event. And as king during the war he was seen as a symbol of Britain, a great strength, a huge asset to morale. Perhaps some of that was down to his Australian therapist and his apparently dodgy but effective techniques.

A few of the film’s visuals stand out: the original, partly-uncovered Wembley stadium is nicely recreated, and a balcony scene at Buckingham Palace is very effective. Mostly London is enveloped in budget-friendly smog.

With the exception of the cliched and slightly comic cigar-fatty Churchill impersonation of Timothy Spall, performances are universally good. Geoffrey Rush is entirely convincing. Derek Jacobi looks more and more like a barn owl with every movie. Mike from Neighbours has a tough job: not just doing toff, but the toff whose voice we all know from regular outings of the abdication speech (which he performs in the film).

Colin Firth’s Bertie, of course, dominates. This is no p-p-p-pick up a Penguin acting: it’s a real, raw, painful stammer. More than once I realised I was holding my breath as he spoke, my heart racing. In the final outbreak-of-war speech we will him on, fight with him, and cheer at the finish (not actually, we’re British, but we do fidget a little and exhale with a faint smile).

It’s a great performance, and a great film. Firth for the Oscar.

Avaragado’s rating: a pound of gobstoppers

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