We love ya, tomorrow: Quvenzhané Wallis stars in the new remake of Annie, directed by Will Gluck
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Thrills, flops and hard knocks: films to watch this Christmas

Ryan Gilbey casts an eye over the Christmas fare.

One of the first shots in Birdman (15), in which the director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel) introduces a comic element in addition to his customary intensity, shows Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, in the dressing room of a Broadway theatre. He is preparing to star in a Raymond Carver adaptation after years of being known only for superhero movies. First, he must contend with the method madness of his celebrity co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).

Then there are the emotional demands of the women in Riggan’s life, including his volatile daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and his stoical star Lesley (Naomi Watts), who wonders aloud why she doesn’t have any self-respect (“You’re an actress, honey,” comes the reply). Riggan is being hounded by his old fictional alter ego “Birdman” for allowing the likes of Robert Downey Jr to steal his thunder (“That chump doesn’t have half your talent and he’s making a fortune in that tin-man get-up!”). Oh, and he is also levitating in his underpants.

Daring works of art are often described as high-wire acts but in the case of Birdman this is no mere turn of phrase. The camera rises into the rafters; it barrels down hallways with the woozy confidence of a self-righteous drunk; it follows Riggan through the fizzing hubbub of Times Square, into a forest of multicoloured light bulbs in a liquor store and off the edges of rooftops. On the rare occasions that it pauses, you can still feel the energy buzzing in the lens, the way an overactive mind races even after the head hits the pillow. This is one of the most wide-awake movies ever made.

Its central conceit, achieved through digital trickery, is that the entire picture has been filmed in a single take. It hardly matters that this isn’t logistically possible: it lends the film a stream-of-consciousness momentum that makes it feel like a live-stream from the darkest recesses of Riggan’s ego. The star of the film is undoubtedly Keaton, whose jittery, jangly performance, with its poignant references to the actor’s past as Batman, represents his wildest work since Beetlejuice more than 25 years ago. Stone is also superbly emphatic, with her gigantic anime eyes set in that pallid CBGB face.

Equally deserving of top billing is the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the man to whom film-makers turn when they want shots that defy logic (it was his hand and eye behind Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Gravity). It’s a pleasing irony that this study of one actor’s search for honesty has been concocted using a repertoire of visual sleights of hand. A philosophical rumination it may be but that doesn’t prevent it from also being an adrenalised delight. It puts the romp into trompe l’oeil.

Two new biopics might benefit from the tiniest drop of that audacity. The faults in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything (12A) lie not with Eddie Redmayne, who is full of vitality as the young Stephen Hawking, nor with Felicity Jones as his future wife, Jane Wilde, whom he meets when his motor neurone disease is not yet diagnosed. The film fails to find an expressive voice for its subject once his verbal powers become restricted – it then becomes Jane’s story, with Hawking gradually sidelined from his own movie.

But then, conventionality is on the cards right from the early shots of Hawking and his chums woo-hooing on their bicycles through a blue-tinged Cambridge in the 1960s; it’s the sort of cinema that will look best on Sunday-night television. This extends to the tone of excessive niceness. How jarring to see a film so devoid of conflict, tension or struggle. The most memorable character is the physicist who storms out of a lecture and calls Hawking’s theories preposterous. The closing titles stop short of assuring us that everyone got on famously for ever and no one said or thought anything nasty or resentful. But only just.

Unbroken (15), which follows the Olym­pic athlete Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) from the broiling frenzy of the Second World War to internment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, is poor in more exotic ways. Directed with extravagant ineptitude by Angelina Jolie from a screenplay that counts Joel and Ethan Coen among its writers, it plays like parody – this is a Mommie Dearest-style cult classic of the future. The material is indisputably dramatic but it hasn’t been shaped or shot with any dynamism; the PoW camp scenes aren’t remotely harrowing. And the dialogue incorporates countless lines – “If you can take it, you can make it!” – destined to become camp slogans for the ages.

The usually excellent O’Connell is only one member of the cast whose best efforts at suffering are undone by a creosote tan and gleaming teeth. In the film’s lowest point, he is upstaged by a computer-generated shark hamming up its death scene.

If you’ve ticked the glorious Paddington off your list, you could take any nippers in your care to the modern-day remake of Annie (PG). “Everyone loves a musical,” crows the rock’n’roll has-been Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Everyone except the makers of Annie, that is: though the old numbers are here, they’re staged in an off-hand manner that lacks the excitement of John Huston’s original. There are compensations. Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest ever nominee for Best Actress at the Oscars, for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild) is delightful without being twee, and there’s sparky chemistry between Jamie Foxx as the mayoral candidate who takes the Little Orphan in to improve his polling and Rose Byrne, his perky assistant. “The sun will come out . . .” trills Wallis, exaggerating only slightly. A clement few hours with occasional outbreaks of pizzazz.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.