Descendants (2015)

I don’t intend to make a strong case for High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega’s latest film, but it is brightly coloured and likeable in a fairly anodyne way, as befits a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie. The premise is that Disney’s famous villains, having been sent away to live on the Isle of the Lost, far from the good guys, have grown up and a number of them now have children who are to be reintegrated into the mainstream world of Auradon, where their parents hope they will continue to spread their legacy of evil-doing. As ever, the hierarchical society is premised on benign royalty (Beauty and the Beast in this case) ruling justly over a fluffily-updated mediaevalesque world populated by bland white prep kids. It’s up the bad guys to inject some colour (not to mention people of colour, for that matter) and they are all so clearly far more interesting than the ‘heroes’ that this amounts to its own form of critique. Certainly brief book-end appearances by musical veterans Kristin Chenoweth (as Maleficent) and Kathy Najimy (as the Evil Queen) lend a bit of Broadway pizazz to the older generation (which also includes a Black Cruella de Vil and an Iranian-American Jafar), though generally the film could do with more music and dance numbers — I understand these were only added at the late arrival of Ortega to the project, so at least there are some I suppose. The kids are all pleasant to watch, with Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) being the purple-haired highlight. There’s not a whole lot more to say, and for what it sets out to achieve it feels like it’s generally a success.


FILM REVIEW
Director Kenny Ortega | Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott | Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn | Starring Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 27 January 2016

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W.E. (2011)

I think it’s fair to say that W.E., which depicts the love affair between King Edward VIII (or “David” when he wasn’t the king) and Wallis Simpson, got a bit of a critical kicking when it came out. That’s not to say that certain elements of the film aren’t easy to deride — some of the scenes just seem misjudged or laughable (an elderly Wallis dancing for her ailing husband comes to mind), and the camera has a tendency to wander a bit loosely — but I imagine a lot of it comes down to its framing narrative, which uses historical objects as a means to enter the past. This fetishisation of material things is, indeed, an overriding element of the story — objects, clothes, set design, hairstyles and make-up, all of these things are fawned over by the camera and lavishly depicted — though it shouldn’t really come as a surprise given the film’s creator. But that needn’t be a drawback or a criticism — if anything it’s just making explicit the pitfalls of recreating historical events for the screen. In any case, the history is very much nested within a modern story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), who has grown up obsessed by the historical romance, and in communing with their personal effects at a Sotheby’s auction, via flashbacks starring Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy as the royal couple, comes to understand that their love affair wasn’t perfect. At the same time, her own marriage is foundering and she is falling for a security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), hence the “W.E.” of the title refers to both of these couples. The film isn’t perfect, but the actors are all excellent, and moments of absurdity aside, this is on the whole a handsomely-mounted period production.


FILM REVIEW
Director Madonna | Writers Madonna and Alek Keshishian | Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski | Starring Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac | Length 119 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 9 January 2016

Bachelorette (2012)

Like Bridesmaids before it, and the more recent film Sisters, Bachelorette is a comedy about adults misbehaving which is written by and primarily stars women, and which if written by and starring men would probably be atrocious. (These scenarios have almost certainly already been made in that guise. They probably star Vince Vaughn.)

Sadly, Bachelorette doesn’t quite attain the hilarity of those other films, but it’s also fascinating in a quite different way, because all the central characters are uniformly awful, unlikeable people. Sure, there’s a move towards softening some of these characteristics by the end (which, for a film about marriage and strained friendships, is of course a wedding), but that’s really just the very final scene (it’s a bit soppy). For the most part the film doesn’t spare these characters, and yet despite that, the film mostly kinda works.

As for the storyline, it’s Rebel Wilson’s Becky who’s getting married (Wilson sounding weird doing an American accent), but the film is most interested in her closest friends, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), none of whom are particularly happy, and who manifest this in various ways. When they accidentally ruin the bride’s dress (for the benefit of a particularly nasty joke at Becky’s expense), they end up having to call in favours and run around figuring out how to fix it, and it’s this almost-slapstick set-up which is probably the weakest part of the film. However, there are plenty of observant moments for each of these characters, and the acting is of a high calibre, such that it’s never quite as bad as it feels it should be. It’s even a little bit refreshing.


Bachelorette (2012)

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Leslye Headland (based on her play) | Cinematographer Doug Emmett | Starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson | Length 87 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 5 January 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Whatever else it might be accused of, it can’t be said that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t a coup du cinéma in its 70mm ‘roadshow’ version, harking back to a lost showmanship of printed programmes, overture fanfare, intermission and extra-wide widescreen format. There are many things indeed that I might accuse the resulting film of, yet I find it difficult to build up the necessary steam of self-righteous anger. In short, it is everything that everyone most vociferously damns it for: it is a distillation of all Tarantino’s most annoying tropes, all the abused women (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their abusers (Kurt Russell), racist Southern rednecks (Walton Goggins) and gentlemen (Bruce Dern), noble yet weirdly homophobic black men (Samuel L. Jackson), and disarming patter of movie-literate self-reflexiveness against the backdrop of real and disturbing historical periods (the post-Civil War Reconstruction period). It sets up a beautiful wintery world using its widescreen palette, quickly drawing us into the single remote location where the eight title characters (as well as one nice guy, and some surprise late arrival characters vying for equal hatefulness, one of which is the director’s voice) spend much of the film battling for one-upmanship, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste as it descends into the usual Grand Guignol of bloodshed that you expect. However, Tarantino’s filmmaking is so desperate in its mugging for cinematic approval that even the nastiest events (with the exception of a hanging towards the end) just pass by with a shrug of my shoulders. Perhaps the title should be a hint that its protagonists are hardly likeable, but for me the film isn’t either and that’s a problem. It doesn’t seem to speak of anything so much as of all the films Tarantino has seen (so no change there). Others have enjoyed this opus, others have eviscerated it. Me, I just can’t be bothered anymore.


© The Weinstein Company

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino | Cinematographer Robert Richardson | Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern | Length 187 minutes || Seen at Odeon Leicester Square [70mm], London, Sunday 10 January 2016

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)

As a period-set detective film, this looks fabulous, as if a lot of money has been spent to recreate a sense of Calcutta in the 1940s. As the title character, Sushant Singh Rajput looks the part, fresh out of wherever detectives go to the school and eager to work. Aided by his geeky-looking sidekick Ajit (Anand Tiwari), Byomkesh soon comes up against a cabal of nefarious sorts. The film is heavy on plot, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re liable to lose track of who’s doing what to whom for what reason — and I’m not always convinced it’s particularly interesting if you do keep track — but just on the handsomeness of the sets and the costumes, this is a pleasant enough film to pass the time.


FILM REVIEW
Director Dibakar Banerjee | Writers Dibakar Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar (based on the novels Satyanweshi and Arthamanartham by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay) | Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis | Starring Sushant Singh Rajput, Anand Tiwari, Swastika Mukherjee | Length 147 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Friday 1 January 2016

Three Made-for-TV Christmas Films

What better time than January to cast our minds back to some of those delights of a December spent at least partially at home, sipping port or whatever is your tipple, and flicking through your TV channels? If you’re in the same place next year you might come across some of these titles.


There are, it seems to me, many different types of film one might talk about. The kinds of productions usually reviewed on this site tend towards the prestige and high-brow — film festival-friendly films, with the occasional popcorn-munching blockbuster towards one end and the frankly experimental/avant-garde at the other, as the feeling takes me. Other sites focus more on cult or genre films (I’m thinking horror and slasher films, as an example) which make up a sizeable but largely submerged world of filmmaking which rarely pokes its head above the middle-brow surface of the kind of cinema I tend to skim across. And then there are various national cinemas: I’ve been dipping my toe into Bollywood over the last year, but it and the other cinemas of the Asian continent have their own almost-entirely-separate ecosystems. So within this vaguely aquatic metaphor I’ve deployed, I don’t quite know where made-for-TV films live — somewhere down in the trenches where weird-looking brightly-coloured sea creatures live — nor do I know quite how heated the discussion around them is, but I’m guessing there must be at least someone enthusiastically poring over the latest Hallmark Channel offering.

Even within this context — and to be clear, we’re not talking the growing arena of TV where quality, high production values and big screen actors make their living (this isn’t Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake I’m talking about) — even within this corny, cardboard and strictly-no-longer-than-90-minute domain, Christmas movies have their own special place. There are cable channels dedicated to them. There’s a whole world of filmographies that seem to include only films with the word “Christmas” in the title. It’s a permanently frosted, be-tinselled and sparkling place of elven delight and gnomic repartee. (Okay, maybe not gnomic.) My point is mainly to say there’s not really much I can tell you about these films, though one of them is ostensibly a more prestige production, made for Netflix under the auspices of famous director Sofia Coppola and with cameos by actually-A-list celebrities, but I’ll get to that later. No, the bread and butter of this genre is often almost indistinguishable when flicking through plot summaries on your favoured service.

All I Want for Christmas (2013) is largely typical of what I’ve seen: it’s filmed in the ever-sunny Los Angeles, in a series of unremarkable (if not bland) office, home and retail settings, with capable actors who probably get a lot of work but aren’t exactly stretched by the demands of a script which credits at least three or four writers. There’s room for a Santa’s elf with magical powers, but this isn’t Bad Santa (2003), and Martin Klebba might in any case be the best actor in this film — that distinction certainly doesn’t go to Tom Arnold, who is beyond wooden as the boss of Melissa Sagemiller’s Elizabeth. Anyway, thanks to magic and some credulity-stretching plotting, she ends up with (or does she?… okay okay you can probably guess which) Brad Rowe’s executive Robert, whom she first meets cute when she cuts in front of him at a coffee shop, allowing for a bit of comedy grumpiness back and forth for, oh, more or less the film’s entire running time. Anyway, at least I think that’s the plot. It’s been a few months since I saw it, and it blends together a bit with all the other Christmas films I’ve ever seen (I have a friend who likes them, and anyway look, you just need to be in the right frame of mind, which needless to say is certainly aided by mulled wine).

A Royal Christmas (2014)

At a more competent level of quality (not even filmed in LA) is Hallmark’s 2014 production A Royal Christmas. To say it rips off elements of The Princess Diaries (2001, a film which in the context is a masterpiece) would be to deploy some pretty high-level diplomatic language, but for all that it passes by in exactly the kind of pleasing haze I hope the makers are happy to know they achieved. In comparison to Julie Andrews in that earlier work, Jane Seymour leans a little heavily on dismissive hauteur as the Queen of Cordinia, but Lacey Chabert has a goofy charm as seamstress Emily (yes, seamstress! her surname is Taylor!) who falls in love with normal guy-around-the-corner Leo (Stephen Hagan) who turns out to be… a Prince! Specifially, of the aforementioned Ruritanian kingdom, which luckily is English-speaking and looks like a pretty nice set. Once you have a sense of the contours of this genre, there’s really little point in saying very much more than that it’s performed with all the likeability that its programmatic plot allows.

And then there’s A Very Murray Christmas which is a film not dissimilar in its general effect — in fact, if anything it seems to be striving to be a pastiche of something the directors of the films above might have casually tossed off back in the ‘golden era’ of 50s US TV, and which has probably since been lost to time. It purports to present a seasonal live TV variety show hosted by Bill Murray, with the twist being that the hotel in NYC where he’s filming has been snowed in and none of the scheduled guest stars can get there, so it’s ironically distanced by showing the behind-the-scenes trauma of the staging, as a desultory Murray is consoled by his pianist Paul Shaffer and eventually co-opts some of the hotel’s other snowed-in residents (who are played by famous people, in any case). I admire its spirit of drink-sozzled cheer in the face of adversity, which eventually cedes to full-blown fantasia, but even over an hour-long running time it comes across a little uneven.


A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
All I Want for Christmas (2013)
Director Fred Olen Ray | Writers Michael Ciminera, Richard Gnolfo and Peter Sullivan | Cinematographer Theo Angell | Starring Melissa Sagemiller, Brad Rowe | Length 88 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (streaming), London, Sunday 8 November 2015

A Royal Christmas (2014)
Director Alex Zamm | Writers Janeen Damian, Michael Damian, Neal H. Dobrofsky and Tippi Dobrofsky | Cinematographer Viorel Sergovici | Starring Lacey Chabert, Jane Seymour, Stephen Hagan | Length c90 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 28 December 2015

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Director Sofia Coppola | Writers Sofia Coppola, Mitch Glazer and Bill Murray | Cinematographer John Tanzer | Starring Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones | Length 56 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 7 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director J.J. Abrams | Writers Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt | Cinematographer Dan Mindel | Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher | Length 135 minutes || Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015

Criterion Sunday 55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Philip Kaufman | Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera) | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin | Length 171 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015

Criterion Sunday 54: For All Mankind (1989)

I can’t really fault this documentary about the Apollo space missions of the late-1960s and early-1970s: it tells a big story using archival footage of the era, shot by the astronauts and those working at NASA, and it does so using only these images and the voices of the astronauts. The value is in seeing this footage, some of which is shot from space and presents uncanny views of the Earth and of the work the astronauts were doing, and hearing from the participants. Nevertheless it can at times be a little difficult to tell apart all these buzz-cut white guys in their control centre, and the missions are interwoven fairly fluidly, meaning we jump back and forward in time. It’s a fascinating and informative work for those with a strong interest in the space race, and for those people this is likely to be far more interesting than it was to me.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Al Reinert | Length 80 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015

The Dressmaker (2015)

I’ve seen a fair few strange films this year but in some ways The Dressmaker might be the oddest of the lot, and the film it most reminds me of tonally is The Voices. There’s something to that blend of gruesomeness and light-hearted comedy which can often go wrong, and I’m not convinced that it’s been fully solved here, but it certainly finds a better balance than The Voices did. Largely that may be down to the bright, dusty, rural Australian setting, and to Kate Winslet’s spirited performance in the title role of Tilly Dunnage, returned to her hometown after 20 years, having left under the shadow of an unsolved child murder. The town she returns to has that Blue Velvet tinge of nastiness under the surface, and there are brief unpleasant hints of rape and spousal abuse that crop up and are just as swiftly dusted away (one hardly needs more than a hint of it to colour our perceptions of some of the characters). The town is filled with its odd local types, fairly broadly played in most cases (the hunchbacked pharmacist for example, or Hugo Weaving’s crossdressing policeman), and in others rather more delicately (nice to see Kerry Fox in a small role as a brutal schoolteacher). At a plot level, it swerves all over the place, and there are at least a few different endings that each have a finality in their own way, not least the budding romance between Tilly and the down-to-earth Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). The director and screenwriters (husband-and-wife team of Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan) do their best to keep it all together, but there’s a waywardness to the tone that at its best is delightfully barmy, but can get wearying at times. No, if this film is likeable it’s because of the winsome Winslet, and of course those glamorous 50s dress designs in which she soon has the town outfitted, for this is nothing if not a glamorous film.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse | Writers Jocelyn Moorhouse and P. J. Hogan (based on the novel by Rosalie Ham) | Cinematographer Donald McAlpine | Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015