Now I Know What a Fool I've Been
Disney's current near-hegemony at the box office is always just a bit more apparent at Christmas time, where for some years now it has been very apparent that everyone else is running scared of the power of the Mouse House. One sign of this is that other studios are releasing their festive (heh) movies absurdly early: bringing anything new out at a sensible time, like actually at Christmas, risks being squashed like a bug by their latest stellar conflict brand extension or whatever.
As a result, Paul Feig's Last Christmas has been out since about the middle of November, which is plainly a bit ridiculous, especially when you consider the grim, steely determination with which it sets about spraying the audience with yuletide cheer, like an Uzi set to fully automatic. As is not entirely unexpected for a film heavily trading on affection for George Michael and his music, it opens with a choirgirl singing 'Heal the Pain'. This is not unpleasant to listen to, but I was almost at once distracted by the fact she is apparently singing it in a church, in – according to a caption – Yugoslavia in 1999. Did they really sing English pop songs in Balkan churches in 1999? Was Yugoslavia even still around in 1999?
Best not to get too tangled up in such issues, anyway. For reasons which remain obscure, the bulk of the film is set at Christmas 2017, and concerns the now-grown choirgirl, Kate (Katarina to her family), who is played by Emilia Clarke. She is an aspiring musical theatre actress, but is going through a sort of ill-defined long-term personal crisis. She is also (initially at least, though this kind of gets forgotten about) a huge fan of George Michael and Wham, and (in the name of ensuring the film's festivity quotient is maxed out) works in a year-round Christmas shop run by Michelle Yeoh.
It is while she is working here that she meets Tom, a mysterious stranger played by Henry Golding, in a more than usually contrived cute-meet involving a bird voiding its bowels on her face. All the usual stuff blossoms between the two of them, and slowly she begins to reassess her life, be more considerate of the people around her, and generally attempt to be a bit more positive… WAKE UP!!! (Sorry. I just know the effect that this sort of thing has on me, and I imagine it's the same for other people.)
The first thing I should mention about Last Christmas is that it is a film built around a plot twist. Nothing wrong with that; many fine films can say the same. The thing about a good plot twist is that it should come as a complete and breathtaking surprise when it actually happens in the film, but (in retrospect) seem entirely reasonable. Last Christmas's plot twist does not quite reach these lofty heights: unless all the bulbs in your cerebral Christmas lights have blown, you will almost certainly be able to guess the twist just from watching the trailer. Even then, this wouldn't necessarily be a fatal problem were most people not then moved to say 'That's a really cheesy/stupid/terrible idea'. But they are. Hereabouts we respect plot integrity (even in bad movies), so I will simply suggest that the film's plot pivots around a uniquely reductionist interpretation of some George Michael lyrics. Enough said.
So: basically, what we have here is the archetypal seasonal story, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, involved in a head-on smash with the Richard Curtis rom-com formula. Various often acceptable performers are scythed down by the ensuing shrapnel, and quite possibly members of the audience too. The story was thought up by Emma Thompson and her husband, and written down by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, possibly all on the same afternoon. I can't speak about Thompson's husband or Kimmings, but Emma herself always struck me as a fairly smart cookie, and I am surprised to see her so signally fail to figure out that these two story-patterns are just not compatible. For the Christmas Carol pattern to work, you need to have a genuinely flawed character seriously in need of redemption. Rom-com characters are also flawed, as a rule, but not to anything like the same degree: the form requires them to be cute and loveable from the get-go. Last Christmas' problem – one of its problems – is that it can't get over how wonderful it thinks Emilia Clarke's character is. We are occasionally told what an awful person she is, but that's all: the film is almost palpably needy in its attempts to make you root for and sympathise with her. Only having watched certain selected highlights of Musical Chairs on the internet, I am not really familiar with Emilia Clarke; but even if she really is as great an actress as my friends often assure me, she would need a much better script to make this particular character work.
It probably doesn't help that she is sharing the screen for a lot of the film with Henry Golding, who is playing – and let me just pause for a moment here while I reflect upon the mot juste – a git. Specifically, he is a rom-com git, the kind of relentlessly warm, quirky, caring, decent chap guaranteed to evoke feelings of homicidal animosity in any right-thinking viewer (cf Michael Maloney in Truly, Madly, Deeply, for instance). As the name suggests, it takes an actor of significant skill, nuance, and charisma to transcend the essential gittishness of this kind of role and turn them into someone whose appearance in a scene does not cause the heart to sink. Golding brings to bear all the experience and technique he has acquired in his long career as a presenter of TV travel shows, and yet still somehow falls short.
There does seem to be something awfully calculated and insincere about Last Christmas, and I do wonder if this doesn't extend to the casting. One of the trends I have noticed in commercial cinema over the last few years is the tendency to stick in a couple of Asian actors, just to help flog the film in the far east, and I can't help wondering if the inclusion of Golding and Yeoh (Anglo-Malaysian and Chinese-Malaysian respectively) isn't just another example of this sort of thing. It does make the various jokes in the film about the proliferation of horrible commercialised Christmas tat seem rather lacking in self-awareness, given the whole movie is horrible commercial Christmas tat itself. Nevertheless, we are assured this is 'the Christmas film of the decade!', although without specifying which one: possibly the 1340s.
It would be remiss of me to suggest that Last Christmas is all bad, of course: there was one moment which actually made me laugh, although as it featured Peter Serafinowicz this is not really surprising. Unfortunately he is only in the film for about a minute. The rest of it is fairly consistently horrible, containing weird plot holes, mistaking quirkiness for genuine wit, and failing to realise that feel-good moments only come at a price: you have to really believe the characters have been knocked down if you're going to rejoice when they get up again. The film's attempts at moments of genuine emotional seriousness and pain just feel trite, though I should note that Clarke is trying hard throughout. The film's habit of occasionally sticking in a glib and superficial political subtext with little real bearing on the plot is also rather crass, and does rather jar with Emma Thompson's sizeable performance as a comedy Yugoslavian immigrant.
In the end, this is all surface and sentimentality, without any real sense of believeable characters or genuine emotions, with a soundtrack of George Michael songs (seemingly picked at random) trying to hold it together. I imagine that admirers of this thing (and they must be out there, for it has made $86 million to date) would say that its heart is in the right place. Given how the plot turns out, this is somewhat ironic, but it's not true, in any case. Last Christmas' heart is in the right place only if you believe the right place for a heart is between the ears.
Also This Week...
...Fernando Meirelles' The Two Popes, another example of Netflix giving one of their movies a tiny cinema release because they think it could potentially snag a few awards. Whatever you think of this strategy – and I am inclined to suggest it is highly cynical and mercenary – they may have a point in this case, for this is a classy and impressive movie. The film concerns the relationship between Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) and Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) who end up both being – for the first time in many centuries – pope at the same time. Ratzinger is conservative, unworldly, and stern; Bergoglio is warm, humane, and outward-looking. Needless to say there are tensions between them.
Very fine performances, as you would expect from these two actors – a little unexpectedly, the film certainly feels like it's favouring Pryce, who seems to get more screen time and a better-developed character. The film is certainly more sympathetic towards the current Pope than his immediate predecessor, although you could certainly argue it gives Benedict XVI a rather easy ride by not exploring some of the accusations levelled at him. The film works hard to be accessible and funny, although scenes of the two men discussing theology and the state of the church are still gripping when they're performed by actors like these two with a script this good. Well worth watching.
... an example of two big names in one relatively modest movie, as Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson headline Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's Ordinary Love. They play a happily married retired couple leading a very normal life, until she is diagnosed with breast cancer and must undergo a gruelling course of treatment, which tests the limits of their shared bond.
The question, of course, is what a new treatment of this subject can add to our understanding of an issue which too many people already have their own personal experience of – the more general the statement you're looking to make, the greater the chances of producing something glib or facile. Most of the time this film is understated enough, with strong enough performances, for this not to be a problem – although there is at least one eggy subplot threatening to turn it all into something rather more melodramatic. On the whole, though, this is a moving and very well made film.