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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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