B for Boy (2013)

Shot in that sort of vérité style that relies (perhaps too much) on handheld camera, this is a fascinating insight into familial dynamics in Nigeria. Amaka (Uche Nwadili) is nearing her 40th birthday, pregnant with her second child, and meanwhile her mother-in-law is desperate to know if it’s a boy so her late husband’s family name can be continued. She even has a contingency second wife lined up for her son, which, needless to say, creates a bit of tension within the household. What’s particularly on point here is that we don’t see any of the male characters exerting this pressure: such is the noxious ingrained nature of patriarchal expectation, it has all been internalised by the women to the extent that they at times literally gang up on Amaka. She has some difficult decisions to make, and even a plot development that leads her to wearing a fake pregnant belly doesn’t seem absurd by the time we’ve got to that point.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Chika Anadu | Cinematographer Monika Lenczewska | Starring Uche Nwadili | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 6 March 2017

Bayou Maharajah (2013)

This film seems to have had a long trail from festivals to release, and as there’s a 2016 date at the end of the credits, I assume there’s been some re-editing in the interim. It’s certainly an interesting piece, not least because its subject is himself an interesting character (James Booker, a multi-talented largely-jazz pianist from New Orleans; black, gay, one-eyed) but also one who is relatively obscure: obviously this isn’t more than anecdotal evidence, but I’d never heard of him. That said, the director here makes the choice to present much of his music in full and that’s a strong statement about the quality of his playing, something a lot of music documentaries (even ones about acknowledged ‘geniuses’) don’t do. And yes those performances are worth watching in full.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Lily Keber | Writers Lily Keber, Aimée Toledano and Tim Watson | Cinematographer David S. White | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016

Suzanne (2013)

I think there’s something to be said for Little White Lies‘ marking system, with separate marks for ‘anticipation’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘in retrospect’, as it really gets towards a sense of the different stages of appreciating a film (though perhaps the third mark can only be filled in a few weeks or months later). In trawling through online streaming content for something to watch of an evening, there’s often little enough to arouse any anticipation, but however unassuming it looks from a mere description, Suzanne turns out to be a really very well-judged and interesting film. Ostensibly it presents a character study of the wayward daughter to single father Nicolas (François Damiens) and older sister to Maria (Adèle Haenel), as she grows up over the course of 20+ years, rebounding from one major life decision to another. However, the film largely eschews psychologising or explanatory dialogue, as we see only disconnected fragments from her life — a few minutes of her childhood, some poor teenage decisions involving her getting pregnant, moving out of town, being in jail — although frequently landing on some telling moment. The film is like a photo album of Suzanne’s life, linked by the power of Sara Forestier’s cagy performance in the central role. It’s a fascinating narrative strategy, and by making Suzanne something of an absence at the film’s heart, it puts more emphasis on the dynamics within her family, as well as giving the audience a little more work to do, but Suzanne’s dramatic arc definitely satisfies as a story of a person learning to live with themself and others.


FILM REVIEW
Director Katell Quillévéré | Writers Mariette Désert and Katell Quillévéré | Cinematographer Tom Harari | Starring Sara Forestier, François Damiens, Adèle Haenel | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 4 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

Afternoon Delight (2013)

This is an odd film, and there are things about it I really like, but ultimately it just comes across as somewhat introspective and petit bourgeois. It’s about suburban ennui, specifically that felt by middle-class mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). She’s married to the slightly boring Jeff (Josh Radnor, the most annoying character on How I Met Your Mother), and does her best to work through her issues with her offbeat psychiatrist Lenore (Jane Lynch, with quite the most distracting glasses seen in recent cinema). The plot stretches credulity somewhat in orchestrating her becoming friends with a stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), but once that initial meeting is out of the way, it starts to promise something rather radical in exploring the overlap between McKenna’s sex work and Rachel’s frustrated desires, although it feels to me like it doesn’t quite deliver on that. There’s some melodrama, but the film remains closely focused on Rachel breaking out of what ultimately feels like a mid-life crisis. Still, Hahn does well with the central role, and there’s some excellent supporting work (notably Michaela Watkins as a hyperorganised busybody in Rachel’s Jewish women’s group).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jill Soloway | Cinematographer Jim Frohna | Starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch, Michaela Watkins | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Friday 30 October 2015

LGFF: Grdzeli nateli dgheebi (In Bloom, 2013)

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.


In a sense, this Georgian film set in the capital Tbilisi in 1992 tells a very specific story to that country, a time just after its independence from the Soviet Union when the country was embroiled in a civil war. Certainly there’s a pervasive atmosphere of malaise and nobody really seems happy, but for the most part the war is not seen, just something people mention that colours their interactions and moods. The film focuses on two teenage girls — the studious and dour Eka (Lika Babluani) and her more outgoing friend Natia (Mariam Bokeria) — who seem to be dealing with fairly typical stuff: boys being bullies, lack of interest in schoolwork, and so on. However, soon enough — subtly and gradually — the mood gets darker. For example, one of the guys who’s enamoured with Natia gives her a loaded gun as a present, ostensibly under the impression it will keep her safe in the lawless time. And so this gun is there, held in the girls’ purses, traded between them, and occasionally wielded in anger, creating an underlying tension throughout. And then, the gun aside, there are little outbreaks of almost inexplicable violence and threat (inexplicable, at least, to viewers unused to the setting). Notable is a rather disturbing sequence with Natia and Eka at a bread line, which leads quickly in to an apparently happy celebration — including a glorious dance sequence — but nothing quite seems right. What marks the film out as particularly good is the way it negotiates these tonal shifts, and frequently cuts away from (or leaves to the imagination) the tipping points of dramatic change, though the lead performances are faultless too. It’s definitely a film worth anyone’s time, whether those who are familiar with Georgia in the 1990s and those, like me, to whom it’s all new.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Georgian Film Festival
Directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß | Writer Nana Ekvtimishvili | Cinematographer Oleg Mutu | Starring Lika Babluani, Mariam Bokeria | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Friday 2 October 2015

Blackfish (2013)

As someone who was never likely to trouble the doors of a marine theme park, at least not one that entertains audiences with orcas (known more commonly as ‘killer whales’ or ‘blackfish’) doing tricks, I’m probably not the target of this documentary. And I can’t say that any of what it presents is really a surprise, except in so far as I’d never really thought about the practice of running such a theme park. But it turns out that it entails a fair amount of animal cruelty, not to mention some brazen disregard for the safety of human trainers. I have no doubt that working practices for the humans have improved at SeaWorld and other such facilities presented here, but to a certain extent this documentary isn’t even about the trainers — though the deaths of several of them are covered — but about the whales. Chief among them is Tilikum, a whale who has not only lived longer than many in captivity (reaching over 30 years, though still a fraction of an orca’s lifespan in the wild), but has also sired a huge number of SeaWorld’s orca stock, and, as it happens, caused the injury and deaths of more than one trainer. The chief insight then is into the lifespan of a captive orca, using ‘Tilly’ as an example: from capture, to being passed around a number of parks, kept in a variety of conditions, and required to take part in shows for sometimes scant reward. All of this, Blackfish suggests, seems to contribute to a level of psychosis in the whale that leads to them lashing out. Whatever the reasons for the whales’ violence under captivity, the clear message remains that capturing them and exploiting them for entertainment is just a bad idea for everyone who’s involved in it.


FILM REVIEW
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite | Writers Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres and Tim Zimmermann | Cinematographers Jonathan Inglis and Christopher Towey | Length 83 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 21 September 2015

Black Nativity (2013)

I spoke in my review of Song One about what it is to watch movies on flights, and once again I find myself second-guessing my own response. Was I tired and emotional, did the altitude and atmosphere allow me to drop my critical guard? Because I really liked Black Nativity, and certainly outwardly it has a lot of elements that would usually ring major alarm bells. For a start, it’s unashamedly corny, but also unapologetically Christian — the title should make that much evident. It would be easy, in other words, to be cynical and dismissive. But however programmatic some of the character interactions may be — and this, being a morality play (and indeed, based on a play), leans heavily on allegorical characters grappling with moral choices — it frames them in such a way as to give them real force of conviction.

To a large extent, I think the film’s success is to do with the musical register (and I’m a sucker for a musical), a form which is very tolerant towards the melodramatic emotionalism the film strives for, as characters turn to song to work through their feelings. But it’s also to do with the performances, and you couldn’t really hope for a more accomplished company, both in terms of acting (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett play the central character’s estranged grandparents, a minister and his wife), and singing (Jennifer Hudson as the kid’s mother, and Mary J. Blige as a guardian angel), within which Jacob Latimore as troubled teen Langston holds his own very well. It hardly bears repeating the story, for as with many musicals (or indeed any opera), it cleaves to some fairly broad strokes: Langston and his mother Naima have been served with an eviction notice for their Baltimore flat, so Naima sends her son off to Harlem to stay with his grandparents, with whom she had severed contact when he was born for unclear reasons, the revelation of which is folded into the film’s denouement.

In pushing all its elements to a melismatic musical climax at the grandfather’s Harlem church, the film embraces the ideas of family, love, forgiveness, and just simple joy in boldly straightforward ways that had me caught up in tears, though I recognise that other responses may be available (especially if you are less forgiving of the story’s embrace of Christian spirituality). It also, not incidentally, testifies to a range of contemporary Black American experiences without lapsing into the overplayed cinematic terrain of gangs and violence, and celebrates a powerful history of cultural achievements — not least Langston Hughes, whose play the film is based upon, and after whom the central character is named (other characters’ names evoke Aretha Franklin, and Naima recalls for me John Coltrane’s standard of that name). Still, its critical reception seems to be largely middling to negative and that makes me wonder if we all saw the same film. The Black Nativity that I saw is a glorious achievement.


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Kasi Lemmons (based on the play by Langston Hughes) | Cinematographer Anastas Michos | Starring Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson | Length 93 minutes || Seen on a plane from Istanbul to London, Wednesday 9 September 2015

Touchy Feely (2013)

I gather from the internet that not everyone loves this film, which is both a shame, and understandable to an extent — it shares certain qualities with other low-budget improvised films (like Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas). You may know the kind of thing: that tentative awkwardness of the actors as they navigate conversations for the first time, not to mention some of the darker recesses of the characters’ emotions — the kinds of things that mainstream films tend to shy away from. For all that it’s clearly made as a labour of love, and it looks very polished, with a photographer’s eye for framing and cutting together. Rosemarie DeWitt plays the central character of Abby, a massage therapist who starts to become averse to skin, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) is an introverted and unsuccessful dentist who suddenly finds popularity due to his presumed healing powers, and caught between these two are Paul’s daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) and Abby’s boyfriend Jesse (Scott McNairy). It’s a film of people who have trouble relating to one another, and who exhibit all kinds of social anxieties that may explain a low-level attachment towards various alternative New Age-y therapies — things that wouldn’t usually make for gripping cinema, which is probably why it’s not going to be a big hit with everyone. However, it does so in an attentive low-key way that pays off dividends in Shelton’s more recent Laggies, which marries some of this psychological character work to a bigger budget and stars.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton | Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke | Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Josh Pais, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 20 August 2015

52 Tuesdays (2013)

I saw this Australian feature right after The Diary of a Teenage Girl (they were both released in the UK in the same week) and the comparison between the two is in some way instructive. They’re both films dealing with a teenage girl’s coming of age, diarised in visual form, against a backdrop of parents who keep themselves at a distance from the protagonist’s life. In the case of 52 Tuesdays, whose protagonist is the 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), that distance is because Billie’s mother (Del Herbert-Jane) is transitioning to becoming a man called James. He therefore decides he needs time to himself (no easy decision of course), and so Billie is sent to live with her father for a year (also a fairly distant figure given his busy work life as a chef), visiting only on Tuesday evenings. It’s this premise — which comes about partly due to the filmmakers’ own work/life schedules — which gives the film its structure, as the weeks are counted off with intertitles. Some are very short snippets of conversation (or, more often, lack thereof), but others are extended, and for various reasons Billie doesn’t always visit her mother. The story of James’ transitioning is fascinating yet sensitively rendered, and the film deals to a certain extent with the fallout from that — both in Billie’s life and in James and those around him. But more central is Billie’s own sexual awakening, which comes about as she gets more into drama and filmmaking, recording video diaries which we see throughout the film. There’s a slightly mannered game going on here, limning the divide between fiction and documentary, but you could count the difference between the two films in the way this diary is used: in both films it becomes a point of generational conflict, but here it’s used as a method to try and control and limit Billie’s sexual expression, though this is surely partly due to societal shifts between the 1970s and now on such matters. Even if 52 Tuesdays moves towards a point of resolution that seems unmatched to the gaping emotional wounds that have opened up between its characters (and would surely require many more Tuesdays to reconcile), it’s still a fascinating film and well worth checking out.


© Vendetta Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sophie Hyde | Writers Matthew Cormack and Sophie Hyde | Cinematographer Bryan Mason | Starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane | Length 109 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015