Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

I did want to like this Cold War-era spy romance. It has snowy settings, as the title promises (specifically, Moscow in the late-50s and early-60s), and it has some attractive actors doing their best thespian faces. Chief among these is the Swedish actor Rebecca Ferguson, who, playing glamorous spy Katya, is required to look with steely intensity at both young Sasha (Sam Reid) in the 1960s setting, and then, as Katya’s artist niece Lauren, at older Sasha (Charles Dance) in the 1990s. The snow does indeed fall, and Ferguson puts her role across rather well, but it doesn’t manage to make up for the clunky underwhelming dialogue the actors are lumbered with, plus the 1990s setting doesn’t really seem to work very well, though some of the intercutting between the two is rather neatly done. Aspects of the plot, too, stretch credulity (our government apparatchik hero Sasha is asked to take home super-top-secret documents to read for his boss, whose eyesight is failing) — this feels like an airport novel romance at its core — and so would seem to require a more full-blooded approach to the acting, perhaps even a bit of campness, which the film rarely delivers (much though Anthony Head does his best in his brief scenes). Yet despite all its misfires, it still looks very handsome — that falling snow — and that’s at least something.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Shamim Sarif (based on her novel) | Cinematographer David Johnson | Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 16 April 2016

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Esther Williams at MGM

A couple of box sets document swimming star Esther Williams’ career at its late-40s and early-50s heights, via a series of boldly Technicolor films shot for MGM studio. It can’t be claimed that all are masterpieces, but they seem to give a sense of this lost era of filmmaking, with its charms as well as its evident weaknesses. The latter largely involves Williams’ male co-leads, not least a stiff Howard Keel in Pagan Love Song (1950) and the perpetually unfunny Red Skelton in both Bathing Beauty (1944) — which, despite the title, largely focuses on Skelton’s annoying songwriter twit Steve — and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and while the latter at least is a far more supporting role, it’s still hard to see what the laughs are supposed to be, and these end up being the weakest films in the set. Still, it’s not all bad for the men, as Esther’s pairing with Ricardo Montalbán in this latter film, as well as On an Island with You (1948) and the Mexico-set Fiesta (1947), is the strongest through-line to her films of this era. She doesn’t always end up with him, mind, but aside from some of Fiesta (in which both play Mexicans, somewhat less convincingly in Williams’ case, though her skills as a female toreador are rather more in question), the films are largely free of any ethnic stereotyping.

Fiesta, in particular, points up Williams’ proclivity to ‘brown up’ for a role (undoubtedly forced on her by the studio, as it’s more a sad reflection of the era), which is at its worst in Hawaii-set Pagan Love Song. It seems initially that something similar is taking place in On an Island with You, but her Hawaiian temptress in that film’s opening scene turns out to be a swimming-based acting star in a film within the film, though hardly one that makes any particular argument about the dubious practice, and when the film takes a turn into ‘romantic kidnapping’ on the part of the boring (white) US Navy love interest played by Peter Lawford, it gets a little bit hard to accept, even under the veil of historical difference. Among these 1940s films, 1945’s Thrill of a Romance almost passes without notice, feeling more like an excuse to bundle a bunch of disparate acts (a Danish opera singer, the Tommy Dorsey Band, a teenage pianist) together in a wartime variety revue, though Williams does at least shimmer in the Technicolor.

If anything, it’s the saturated colours of the celluloid process which is the most impressive star of all these films — no one looks quite so good in Technicolor as Esther Williams — though the early-50s features The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Dangerous When Wet (1953) are the best of the lot for more traditional reasons. In the former, Williams is playing a version of herself in the real-life story of silent film star Annette Kellerman, an Australian, not that you’d guess it from Williams’ accent (she thankfully doesn’t try for an accent either her or in her Mexican role in Fiesta). It also features probably the most spectacular swimming sequence of any of the films, in a grand Busby Berkeley-choreographed setpiece. And then there’s Dangerous When Wet, which may even be her best film, and is certainly most charming in a celebrated Tom and Jerry sequence. Williams plays a young woman who takes up a challenge to the swim the English Channel, with romantic entaglements very much in the background. The plot means there’s some genuine tension in the way things unfold, and it ends up finishing rather neatly.


Bathing Beauty (1944)

FILM REVIEW

Bathing Beauty (1944)
Director George Sidney | Writers Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz and Frank Waldman | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Thrill of a Romance (1945)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Carleton G. Young | Length 105 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 February 2016

Fiesta (1947)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers George Bruce and Lester Cole | Cinematographer Wilfred M. Cline | Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Mary Astor, Fortunio Bonanova | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 17 February 2016

Neptune's Daughter (1949)

On an Island with You (1948)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers Charles Martin, Hans Wilhelm, Dorothy Kingsley and Dorothy Cooper | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalbán, Cyd Charisse | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016

Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Director Edward Buzzell | Writer Dorothy Kingsley | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Red Skelton, Betty Garrett | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 February 2016

Pagan Love Song (1950)
Director Robert Alton | Writers Robert Nathan and Jerry Davis (based on the novel Tahiti Landfall by William S. Stone) | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel | Length 76 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Dangerous When Wet (1953)

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writer Everett Freeman | Cinematographer George J. Folsey | Starring Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon | Length 115 minutes || Seen on a train (DVD), Friday 4 March 2016

Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Director Charles Walters | Writer Dorothy Kingsley | Cinematographer Harold Rosson | Starring Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Jack Carson | Length 95 minutes || Seen on a train (DVD), Sunday 6 March 2016

Dedemin Fişi (2016)

There are few things more disorienting in a cinematic context than going to see a film that’s made within a foreign film industry and which is not intended to be seen outside that country (or at least, by people who are not embedded within that industry’s cultural context). You can usually tell such films when they show up here by the fact they are only screened at cinemas near an existing ethnic population, and that their titles are rarely translated into English. So I can’t tell you exactly what the title of this film means, but it’s something to do with a grandfather dying, because that’s the film’s premise: a family are brought back to their home town (Malatya in Eastern Anatolia) to be by the bedside of their ailing patriarch, who has a number of commercial concerns which need to be divvied up amongst his kids and grandkids. Another thing I gather from the internet is that this film brings together the cast and crew from a popular Turkish TV show, which may explain its broadly caricatured comedy and extensive ensemble cast. From an outsider’s perspective, then, the humour doesn’t translate particularly well — it leans rather heavily on frantic mugging and comedy misunderstandings, which are probably more amusing if you know the actors, though there’s an amusing running gag about the Malatya-based wife (Özge Borak, I think), whose presentation plate set gets progressively smashed during the film. Less successful is the brief bit where the wife of the German-based son harangues her husband in German while Nutella is smeared on her upper lip in a familiar moustache-like shape. Still, I’m hardly in the best position to judge, except that it’s all very colourful and seems to be well-meaning.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Meltem Bozoflu | Writers Eray Akyamaner, Sila Cetindag, Ugur Güvercin, Murat Kepez, Ayberk Sak and Sükrü Özbey | Cinematographer Turksoy Golebeyi | Starring Alper Kul, Erdem Yener, Özge Borak | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 30 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

LGFF: Pirveli mertskhali (First Swallows, 1975)

London Georgian Film Festival logo
With the London Film Festival just getting underway, I present short reviews of the four films I saw at the London Georgian Film Festival last week.


Sitting down to watch a football-themed comedy made in 1970s Georgia during the Soviet era is probably a niche interest, and certainly the filmmaking has a roughness and simplicity to it that suggests a small industry. Unless Georgians in the 1970s had a great fondness for dressing in archaic fashions, this is a historical drama about the earliest Georgian football team at the outset of the 20th century, a bunch of local misfits (the genre clichés are the same wherever you’re making your films) who recruit the mighty, and somewhat older, Jasoni (Dodo Abashidze) to come help them win with his fearsome strike. From playing with local English sailors (hilarious accents on these chaps), they’re conquering the more feted teams of the world. It’s told largely through a young guy who knows nothing about the sport but ends up fitting nicely into the goalie’s gloves (if they wore gloves, but this is early days), so it’s pretty easy to follow. It’s rousing and patriotic but perhaps lacks some of the polish that more recent films from Georgia have. Still, an interesting curio, and for all its macho credentials (with nagging wives at home), it’s directed and written by a woman.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Georgian Film Festival
Director Nana Mchedlidze | Writers Levan Chelidze and Nana Mchedlidze | Cinematographer Giorgi Chelidze | Starring Dodo Abashidze | Length 75 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 4 October 2015

Criterion Sunday 40: Armageddon (1998)

© The Criterion Collection

If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay | Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi | Length 153 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015

Material Girls (2006)

It turns out I wasn’t done with the trashy post-Mean Girls teen films this weekend, because on Sunday I watched this effort showcasing Disney Channel stars the Duff sisters (Hilary and Haylie) with an obviously referential title (it even uses similar graphic design on the poster). It also gained some really very negative reviews but it’s not quite as bad as those suggest. Not that I’m trying to reclaim it as a misunderstood masterpiece: it’s pretty stupid. Basically our wealthy teen heroes, Tanzie and Ava, live as socialites on their late father’s cosmetics empire wealth, while occasionally stopping by the office to check in with managing director Tommy (Brent Spiner). Well, events transpire, their company is under threat, their wealth is taken from them, and in a moment of stupidity Tanzie burns down their mansion, leaving them to live with their housekeeper and do things like regular people. And so… look I can’t even be bothered continuing the plot summary. Who cares? There’s a surprising range of roles for proper actors (Anjelica Huston and Lukas Haas both pop up), called upon to prop up a ridiculous plot that barely makes sense at times, but I found the leads to be more charming than their Razzie Award nominations suggest, and it has a sort of easily digestible soap opera likeability.


FILM REVIEW
Director Martha Coolidge | Writer John Quaintance, Jessica O’Toole and Amy Rardin | Cinematographer Johnny E. Jensen | Starring Hilary Duff, Haylie Duff, Brent Spiner, Anjelica Huston, Lukas Haas | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 16 August 2015

Mean Girls 2 (2011)

I mentioned in my short review of Mean Girls that it beget a number of increasingly anodyne imitators. Well, Mean Girls 2 is one of them. It shares no cast or creative personnel with the original (save for Tim Meadows as the school’s principal), and the plot is content to largely copy wholesale from the original. So we get new arrival Jo (Meaghan Martin, a ringer for Taylor Swift) who has moved around the country with her NASCAR engineer dad, but now finds herself at North Shore, where she’s up against the school’s fashionable ‘Plastics’ (led by Maiara Walsh’s Mandi), but gains an ally in fellow outsider Abby (Jennifer Stone), who like the first film’s Janis has a history with the head Plastic. The lives of Mandi and Abby seem even more gratuitously dipped in wealth and privilege than the first film, and there’s a similar narrative arc for Jo. None of it has the wit of the first film’s script and so is all largely forgettable. It’s not utterly awful, it’s just disposable and pointless.


FILM REVIEW
Director Melanie Mayron | Writers Allison Schroeder, Elana Lesser and Cliff Ruby | Cinematographer Levie Isaacks | Starring Meaghan Martin, Maiara Walsh, Jennifer Stone | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 15 August 2015

Jaanisaar (2015)

As a sweeping period romantic epic set in the 1870s in the historical province of Awadh or Oudh in North India (the modern Uttar Pradesh), this hits all the requisite costume and set design boxes. After all, the resources of Bollywood film production can at least be relied on for exquisite costuming. The cinematography too is pretty lush, heavy on the soft-focus settings and filming in grand old buildings — even if there’s some use of slightly dubious landscape paintings as backdrops in the nabob’s stately home. Speaking of him (and I’m not sure “nabob” is exactly the right term, what with my admittedly not being much of an expert on this historical period, to say the least), the very English Mr Cavendish is a proper stage villain, all but twirling his moustache as he plots the division of the region, which is split between Hindus and Muslims, whom it is suggested have been living side by side in relative harmony up until this point. Our hero is a Muslim, Ameer (Imran Abbas), recently returned from receiving his education in England and dressed up as the colonial puppet ruler, who only slowly comes to comprehend the devastation wrought to his region by the English. His tutor in this regard — and eventually his love interest — is Noor (Pernia Qureshi), a dancer and stately courtesan, keen to overthrow the tyrannical outsiders. Everything progresses from here by episodic means, woven together by director Muzaffar Ali, who also appears as a mysterious elderly figure pulling strings in the background, though the action never really seems to spark off as it should do. The acting (and dancing) is restrained and elegant, almost too much so for the roiling melodrama of the setting, and it’s only Cavendish who seems to betray much anger (disconcertingly, this is largely directed at his mistress). While Jaanisaar is certainly not withouts its merits, it seems almost too bloodless to do justice to such a tumultuous period of history.


© Kotwara Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Muzaffar Ali | Writers Javed Siddiqui, Shama Zaidi, Ruchika Chanana and Muzaffar Ali | Cinematographer Gianni Giannelli | Starring Imran Abbas, Pernia Qureshi, Muzaffar Ali | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Thursday 16 July 2015

Born of War (2013)

I really wanted to like this film. It seems like a worthwhile pursuit, recasting the internationally-set counter-terrorist action thriller with a female hero, fighting the good fight against a confluence of terrorism, governmental corruption and capitalist business interests while dealing with the trauma of her own family background. Sofia Black D’Elia in the central role of Mina does decent work limning these various divides, it’s just that she’s not really given much support from the other actors or, more importantly, the script. A lot of the plot contrivances feel fairly perfunctory in order to move the narrative along, and even veteran English actor James Frain seems a bit lost with some of his lines. It doesn’t help either that the villains lack a certain charisma, with the role of Mina’s tormentor/father, an interesting character certainly, succeeding neither at being a vengeful terrorist or a sympathetic freedom fighter. Still, it’s filmed with panache given the presumably low budget involved, and vigorously works through the (over-)familiar setpieces to set up a final confrontation with a female antihero.


© Shear Entertainment

FILM REVIEW
Director Vicky Jewson | Writers Ben Hervey [as “Alan Heartfield”], Vicky Jewson and Rupert Whitaker | Cinematographer Malte Rosenfeld | Starring Sofia Black D’Elia, James Frain | Length 109 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 4 August 2015