Crazy Rich Asians (2018) – A blow for representation this may be, but the central relationship is on the messed-up Jane Eyre/Rebecca model, where the heroine (Constance Wu) has to make all the adjustments to win over her rich, impassive boyfriend (Henry Golding) – romance as an obstacle course, where the prize is getting your man to open up to you. It’s a fairy tale where the prince is a thoughtless jerk who never prepares the person he loves for the social minefields she enters for him or lifts a finger to protect her from his family. On some level he seems to enjoy watching her flail – to enjoy the power that allows him to test her in this way. He flat-out doesn’t deserve her, which is a problem in a genre where you’re supposed to root for the central couple. The movie gets into some interesting family dynamics in the second hour, particularly between Nick’s mother (Michelle Yeoh) and grandmother (Lisa Lu), who’s both a kindly matriarch and, with her daughter-in-law, undermining and cruel. The attitude to their grotesque wealth is mixed – it’s made them miserable (Astrid) or outright, status-obsessed monsters (almost everyone else), but we’re still supposed to be bowled over, like Rachel, by the legroom in first class. Family, of course, can be a way of giving a moral gloss to the hoarding of privilege, as it is for dynasties from the Windsors to the Murdochs. This one is so toxic that Rachel’s success in joining their ranks seems a very dubious victory. **

The Favourite (2018) – There’s plenty of the nasty fun promised by the trailer, but Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is also kinder than I expected, and more generous. Every interaction in Queen Anne’s palace, from the scullery maids up, is determined by (and, at crucial moments, determines) status, but this does not preclude real affection between the characters. (Nicholas Hoult gives the only performance where the arch calculation is a little one-note.) Anne may be pathetically unequal to her duties as head of state (the political issue of the moment is whether to continue a war with France, and these people become grotesque when you perceive what a plaything that question is to them), but her suffering is real, and Olivia Colman movingly captures the derangement of chronic pain, how it can render someone querulous and dependent on their carers. As the rivals for her favour, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have never been better: Weisz with her marvellous composure, Stone scrambling and regrouping. Like the Queen, the film’s ambit is limited – much of it takes place in two rooms, Anne’s bedchamber and the corridor outside – and Robbie Ryan’s wide lens cinematography turns these spaces into a chessboard where the characters’ moves play out, cold light streaming in from outside. ***½

Mary Poppins Returns (2018) – Less a sequel than a remake, this is part of Disney’s larger project of repackaging every piece of its intellectual property, whether generated in-house or acquired; it hews as closely to its source material as The Force Awakens, beat for beat, though it’s much less successful at evoking the spirit of the original. It’s less charming than it intends: the Paddington movies do a much better job of presenting a gentle, whimsical “England,” and integrate their magical elements more gracefully. Returns makes the original Mary Poppins look positively radical in its politics: where the old songs poked fun at Mr. Banks’ pompous enjoyment of his male prerogatives, capitalism and its links to empire, and so on, here Marc Shaiman’s songs are bland self-help homilies about the power of imagination and learning to see the world from a different perspective. Emily Blunt’s crisp attack is probably closer to P. L. Travers’ conception of Mary Poppins than Julie Andrews’ warmth, but it also feels a little one-note, and makes her refusal to acknowledge her adventures with the children seem withholding, even cruel. At the outset the children are a capable, tight-knit outfit: this Poppins infantilises them, turns them into frightened ditherers, all in the name of the Disney cult of ‘childhood’. I often enjoyed the staginess of Rob Marshall’s direction – the bustling first scene at the house on Cherry Tree Lane especially, with all its doors opening and closing – but it sometimes feels clumsy, like the cramped set for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s big number, viewed awkwardly head-on. Mostly, this is a flat, forgettable film: better than the remake of Beauty and the Beast, but that’s setting a pretty low bar. **

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) – Maybe Tarantino is right to talk about retiring, because the life has gone out of his movies. Like Spielberg and Scorsese before him, he’s fallen into the cinephile trap of finding movies and genre more compelling than life: there’s a perceptible lift in energy here every time Tarantino gets to do what really engages him – recreating the TV and spaghetti Westerns of his youth. I understand the rationale for flattening the characters in this fairy tale: Sharon Tate is the princess that needs rescuing, the Family the coven of witches that must be defeated. But this doesn’t prevent Tarantino from making the knights played by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio into full, complicated humans; in this world, apart from the child actor played by Julia Butters, only men get to be people. The women are ball-breaking wives or flirty young things in denim shorts or dirty, witchy hippies: they exist strictly from the men’s point of view. The movie feels like a response to the #MeToo reckoning of the last few years – once-powerful men realising that their kind of masculinity is out of date, that certain assumptions no longer fly – but its sympathies are with the dinosaurs. The ending feels predictable after Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino travesties that movie here, in one of DiCaprio’s B-movies), with the crucial difference that, instead of granting agency, as Basterds did, to the victims of real-world violence, this is a fantasy about two white has-beens regaining their potency when they’re inserted in a situation that has nothing to do with them. (It’s implied that DiCaprio will get to make a movie with Roman Polanski as a result.) The movie feels reactionary in the face of change, the expression of someone who feels frightened by new possibilities. **

Rocketman (2019) – It’s such an obvious idea to turn a music biopic into a jukebox musical – the songs full-blown numbers that express character and story beats rather than moments from real-world gigs – but it’s so rarely done that Rocketman feels like a breath of fresh air. Elton John was rarely the kind of earnest, personal artist that predominated in the early 70s – Bernie Taupin’s main theme as a lyricist was a distant, fetishised America, and John drew much of his strength as a performer from his blatant artificiality – so to use his songs to explore his biography creates an interesting tension that mirrors the tensions in the music, between its ostensible subjects and its borrowed styles and second-hand imagery, its undeniable energy and its ersatz thinness. So as well as depicting where he came from, the movie has something interesting to say about what kind of artist John is; it’s also, happily, explicit in relating his camp aesthetic to his sexuality. I liked the first half a lot: Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mum, her slack upper arms expressing a lifetime of disappointed sensuality; the fairground fantasy of “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”; the moment when John’s feet leave the ground in “Crocodile Rock”. But it shares the weakness of so many rock and roll stories – the artist’s origins and inspiration are so much more interesting than the inevitable spiral into drug addiction and big spending. Touring on coke may be repetitive and miserable, but in its second hour so is the movie; it leans harder into cliché too, the whirling piano and the flashbacks to family members during an orgy perhaps the nadir. (The movie also, unfortunately, literalises a group therapy session that seemed like a witty fantasy.) It’s a disappointing end to a movie that’s still better than the biopic norm. ***