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

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How The Mare throws gender, race and even language into flux

Mary Gaitskill's new novel presents an agonising world of "nice" and "nasty", where moral choice is always constrained.

I never loved pony books. Like many girls, I briefly tried to direct my longing for contact – primal and protosexual – into a dream of fusion with something more beautiful, more powerful than me: a horse. But then I found that riding was less sensual than political; it was to do with what you could afford to ride, and how often, and how you could afford to look while doing it. So far, so much like other teen courting rituals.

The Mare, like many of Mary Gaitskill’s works, is the story of a teenage girl. The Dominican-American Velveteen Vargas leaves her home in Brooklyn for “Friendly Town”, where a white couple – the childless Ginger and Paul – offer her a holiday under the Fresh Air Fund. “I’ve spent the last ten years nurturing myself and looking at my own shit,” Ginger says. “It’s time to nurture somebody else now.” She is attempting that most dangerous of things: to do good. She pays for Velvet to have riding lessons, which become an obsession, revealing society in miniature, or perhaps humanity itself.

Like other works by Gaitskill, The Mare is told polyphonically by means of interior monologues. Velvet is superbly articulate, especially about moments when she is not: “I felt, but not a normal feeling that you can say what it is.” She is also dyslexic: “although she could sound the words out perfectly and sometimes even understand their meanings individually, she could not really understand sentences put together”. No surprise; words are less than reliable. When Ginger talks to her contemporaries – biological mothers – she feels their “friendly unfriendliness” and wonders, “How do people make this simple sound into a mixture of real and false, the false mocking the real for the two seconds they rub together?”

Words are also to do with nurturing: “mare”, as Gaitskill notes, resembles the French “mère”, and motherhood is central here. “I am going down . . . like every woman in particular,” Ginger says, as if women crumbled more easily than men. She means menopause, the end of potential childbirth. As Velvet becomes a woman, her birth mother finds her to be “like a stupid animal”. Parallels are drawn between women and horses through the body: “She kicks because of hormones, because – well, basically, she’s just being a girl,” says Pat the trainer about Velvet’s horse.

Naming is a powerful force. The abused horse Funny Girl is rechristened “Fugly Girl” by the bitchy stable girls, then “Fiery Girl” by Velvet, who both identifies with her and wants to save her, just as Ginger wants to save Velvet.

Ginger at first sees Velvet as a cute animal: “Her skin was a rich brown; her lips were full, her cheekbones strong. She had a broad, gentle forehead, a broad nose, and enormous heavy-lashed eyes with intense brows . . . She was ours!” As Silvia Vargas says of her daughter, “some fool woman has made her into a pet”, yet neither people nor animals are easily petted.

“Human love”, says Ginger, “is the vilest thing” and “the most powerful drug in the world”. Paul says of Velvet: “I was beginning to feel we were doing some strange violence to her.” S&M has long been Gaitskill’s paradigm and in The Mare it sits in the ethics of the horse/rider relationship. Why do they care if you hit them with a whip?” Velvet asks. “It’s all psychological,” answers Beverly the sadistic trainer. “You control them from inside their heads. The physical is back-up. Mostly.” While Velvet uses horse behaviour to excuse her participation in bullying (“We ran together”), Ginger holds on to the distinction: “You are not a horse. You are a person.” Horses remain amoral: “one thousand pounds of unpredictable power”.

The Mare is a book about “nice” and “nasty” – words Gaitskill’s characters use to fumble at concepts of good and evil. Silvia finds Ginger “nice like a little girl is nice”. Velvet’s boyfriend, Shawn, says that “Ginger could be nice because people like her got other people to do the violence for them”. The difference is one of race. “Why is it that white people can walk their path in a way that black people – and people of my colour – cannot?” Velvet asks. At her lowest point (and Velvet’s), Ginger finds herself wondering if non-whites are “just different”, and discovers, “I’m racist. At least now I know.”

Gaitskill’s world is agonising because moral choice exists but is constrained by cruel circumstance. Silvia once had the privilege of riding a horse. Up there she saw “my life, going in different directions”. Thrown off, she has a vision of hell. “I was there, with the shit people.” Hell is a constant option. “I don’t think God would have to send people there, I think they would go there by themselves,” says Ginger who, like Velvet, has a vision of visiting it by “a door in our backyard”.

It is easy to question a white artist addressing dilemmas of white privilege. Yet not only does Gaitskill take this as her subject, but the act of writing The Mare is a direct challenge to what Justine in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), noticing her white mother’s careful relationship with her black maid, calls the “bloodless world of decency and politeness”.

The Mare has little of the gleeful disgust of Gaitskill’s previous books but this makes it pricklier than her most outrageous sexual tragicomedies. I loved Gaitskill before The Mare because, with brutal hilarity, she gave humanity to bullies and mean girls. But here, like Ginger, she is telling me, relentlessly, painfully, that “any good thing might happen, anything”.

Joanna Walsh’s books include the collection “Vertigo” (And Other Stories) and “Hotel” (Bloomsbury Academic)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpent’s Tail (441pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt