Film Round-Up May 2016

So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May…

New Releases (Cinema)

Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. Anthony Russo/Joe Russo) Surely many people are in the same position as me, of now being quite emphatically weary of superhero movies. I’d largely sworn off them this year (hence no X-Men: Apocalypse for me, no Batman v. Superman), but I dragged myself along to this third Captain America film (more if you include the Avengers ones which also feature most of these characters) because I’d liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) more than many other superhero flicks. Needless to say the demands on “fan service” (catering to the fans by featuring storylines for all the characters, which by now is getting to be quite a few) made it overlong, but there was a general avoidance of extended city destruction and it grappled with more complex moral issues than most of these films manage. [***]

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, dir. Richard Linklater) I saw this twice, because I wanted to be sure whether I really liked it. Granted, it has some serious problems, not least an overly affectionate regard for a group of people (and an era) some might say is beyond reclaiming. That affection goes for unironic female nudity (thankfully fairly brief) and lusty testosterone-fuelled sporting men (though that’s in the title), and yet I still find Linklater’s ability to put together a film pretty peerless, and for all that they were unlikeable characters (for the most part), I found it likeable watching these baseball players through Linklater’s fairly soft-focus filter. [***½]

Evolution (2015, dir. Lucile Hadžihalilović) Seen for the second time also; I’ve written up my initial viewing at the London Film Festival last year. Still beguiling and mysterious, though even at its short running length and for all its excellent qualities, the sense of creeping dread and its ominous atmosphere means I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it again in a hurry. [****]

A Flickering Truth (2015, dir. Pietra Brettkelly) A documentary about the beleagured Afghan film archives, and their attempts to preserve a film heritage which has suffered through various regimes and bitter warfare. Plenty of dusty shots of picking through rubble, and quite affecting in its interviews with long-standing workers there, who’ve dedicated their lives to these films, though it never really lifts off as a film. [***]

Green Room (2015, dir. Jeremy Saulnier) I wrote this up already here, though already its tinged with melancholy at the passing of its star Anton Yelchin. Now that it’s sat with me for a little while, I think if anything I may have underrated this gory siege film: it may not appeal to those who dislike this kind of content, but it’s done a lot more ably and interestingly — and stylishly — than many of this genre. [***]

Heart of a Dog (2015, dir. Laurie Anderson) A strange little personal documentary by musician/artist Anderson, who narrates a digressive story made up of animation, home-shot footage and various other media, in an attempt to deal with loss — ostensibly of her beloved dog, but at a wider level with her husband and with her own mortality. It seems too ragged to work initially, but it has a cumulative power. [***½]

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, dir. Miguel Gomes) I wrote this up with the other two already here. A bold experiment which didn’t entirely captivate me as it did other critics. [***]

Money Monster (2016, dir. Jodie Foster) There’s an oddly old-fashioned feel to this movie, perhaps because it harks back to Network and Broadcast News and other such newsroom-set movies. The hostage situation that TV host George Clooney finds himself in helps to draw in arguments about modern capitalism and recent financial woes, but in the interplay between Clooney and his producer Julia Roberts, this remains largely a story about a news anchor handling a complex situation. Like Our Kind of Traitor below, it may not be a major work, but it’s an enjoyable watch. [***]

Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, dir. Maïwenn) This relationship drama between Vincent Cassel’s self-assured chef and Emmanuelle Bercot’s (rather unbelievable) lawyer proceeds at a rather strained tempo. It’s not inherently bad, but your tolerance for melodramatic fireworks and exuberant Acting may affect how much you like it. [**½]

Our Kind of Traitor (2016, dir. Susanna White) A straightforward spy thriller with the terminally dull Ewan McGregor in the lead, though Naomie Harris as his wife is excellent, and Stellan Skarsgård runs away with the film as a Russian mobster/money launderer. Because of these performances, it’s actually a lot better than one might expect, and certainly passes the time ably enough. [***]

Special Screenings (Cinema)

Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, dir. Feriel Ben Mahmoud) It presents a broad sweep for an hour-long film and it does its best to fit in some key historical events and personas for a broad audience presumably unfamiliar with the subject. There are some interviews from interesting perspectives on the key issues as the film sees them, although these are predominantly polygamy and the hijab, which given the preponderance of French commentators is a little loaded. The audience I saw it with (primarily academic) came to the consensus that it was pretty simplistic, and notably omitted any class-based issues, not to mention focusing on key male figures in the early history. However, as a basic intro you could do worse, and it’s good to see another perspective on a narrative of Islam that doesn’t cleave to the usual subjects. [***]

Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, dir. Aki Kaurismäki) A pendant to the BFI’s months-long Shakespeare season is this Kaurismäki film, which in its preponderance of plot puts it a little out of pace with his other films. That said, it still retains a mordant deadpan humour that works rather well, at least at times. [***]

Losing Ground (1982, dir. Kathleen Collins) I was trying to work up a review of this film, but I find it difficult to capture my feelings upon seeing it. More or less rescued last year by Milestone Video, the founders of that label provided a brief introduction. It’s one of the earliest feature films by a Black American woman (who sadly died only a few years after making it), and certainly doesn’t lack for the quality of its acting, or its unusual setting amongst fairly comfortable middle-class intellectual couple (she is a lecturer, he a painted) — indeed, eschewing the usual ghetto/violent setting of most African-American films probably didn’t help its commercial prospects at the time. In any case, I immediately bought a copy on DVD and advise anyone else to try and watch this film. Some of its technical qualities seem a little ropey, but it has a great energy and a keen visual eye. [****]

Radio On (1979, dir. Christopher Petit) A ‘mystery film’ screening at the Prince Charles Cinema, and it’s fair to say many of the audience were probably expecting something a bit more trashy, but Petit’s homage to German road movies (à la Wim Wenders) still has a sort of slow-burning spell of gloomy depressing English towns appropriately filmed in monochrome. It’s hard to make out all the dialogue, but there’s an energy to its peripatetic aimlessness which is helped along by the choice of music (Bowie, Kraftwerk, all the usual suspects) — well, aside that is from a cameo by one Sting. [***½]

Trouble Every Day (2001, dir. Claire Denis) A new feminist collective focusing on horror movies put on this screening as the introduction to their project, and as a fan of Denis’s work, I felt I should catch up with it. It’s a gory horror film with a hint of vampirism, but suffused with slow-mounting threat (though just looking at Vincent Gallo’s face will achieve that nicely). When it does go gory, nothing is held back, and the mood of frank eroticism only makes the bloody turns the more upsetting. Moreover it’s shot with a lot of extreme close-ups and a grainy weariness that only enhances that lack of distance. It seems to be saying something about the way love is (literally) an all-consuming passion, and in depicting that it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. [***½]

Home Viewing

Cold Comfort Farm (1995, dir. John Schlesinger) Broadly likeable in its way, though at times I couldn’t tell if it was going for warm-hearted satire on the ways of simple country folk, or nasty-edged class-based caricaturing of the yokels. Of course, Beckinsale’s Emma-like central character is little better, yet on the whole it remains fairly light in tone. [**½]

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, dir. Susan Seidelman) You don’t expect a mid-80s US film to recall Céline and Julie Go Boating, but then again why not? The playfulness and feminine camaraderie of that Parisian film transfers well to NYC, and the stars here never looking anything less than glorious — of their time, yes, but never ridiculous. It’s a film about performance and having fun and in the process finding out what you want. It’s a delight. [****]

Down with Love (2003, dir. Peyton Reed) I’ve reviewed this already here, but to recap based on yet another viewing, it’s a hugely underrated masterpiece of 2000s retro filmmaking which both delights in the costumes, set design, and possibilities of the widescreen frame which come from its early-60s NYC setting (although somewhat conflated with the 50s) via Doris Day comedies, Frank Tashlin satires and a hint of Nick Ray. Yet this isn’t ultimately nostalgia exactly — there are plenty of ways in which the zippy dialogue hides darker unpleasant facets to the era’s sexual politics. But chiefly this is a film whose real stars are its (nominally heterosexual, but that’s part of the satire one suspects) supporting players David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, so utterly perfect and so brilliantly played that even my usual dislike for McGregor and Zellweger is forgotten — though in truth, their goofy smiles fit the material quite well. Ah, “Catcher Block. Ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town.” I love this film. [****½]

Lemonade (2016, dir. Kahlil Joseph/Beyoncé Knowles Carter) I’ve listened to the album a lot since first watching this and it strikes me the film is quite a different proposition. If you can believe the album is just about her and Jay-Z you can’t really take that from the film, which broadens the focus, and really allows for a range of black stories and experiences, moving from the specific to the political. It’s ravishing, raw and moving, and it’s definitely one of the best films of the year. [****]

Lovely Rita (2001, dir. Jessica Hausner) As a big fan of Amour Fou, it’s interesting to watch this early film by director Jessica Hausner and identify some stylistic continuities. There’s a stillness to the way scenes play out, an affectless quality to the acting, and underlying it all, something utterly morbid. Here though there’s an ugly visual texture which may be due to financial constraints but which is completely embraced and even feels right for the story — little tics like the quick zooms and the self-conscious acting which suggest dated and cheesy TV soaps. It makes the way the actions of the title character unfold that much more surprising, even shocking. It’s an interesting debut in any case. [***]

Luck by Chance (2009, dir. Zoya Akhtar) A likeable amusing behind-the-scenes take on Bollywood, ahem, the Hindi film industry. It’s a classic tale of the little guy getting a big break and (almost, maybe) getting corrupted in the process. If I were better versed with the context I’d have picked up on a lot more of the celebrity cameos and maybe a bit of the satire, but it all still works very nicely. [***]

My Life Without Me (2003, dir. Isabel Coixet) There’s a little clunkiness to some of the meaningful symbolism, but as far as films about women tragically dying young this is about as good as they can get, and its probably just as well it wasn’t directed by its producer Pedro Almodóvar. There’s a small dose of whimsical magic realism but it’s mostly grounded in the acting, primarily Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo. [***]

Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, dir. Lina Wertmüller) I was all set to detest this film at the start, with its grimy 70s palette and more to the point a protagonist who is vain, brutal, nasty, misogynist trash. And yet somehow it becomes something different by the end, as he undergoes a gradual dehumanisation when captured by the Nazis, as all of what he considered his integrity and morals (very little he had too, mostly around ‘protecting’ his sisters) are stripped from him. I’m not convinced by the use of concentration camps in this way, as it seems like a cheap exploitative means to making a moral point, but there’s no winners here after all so perhaps I’m overthinking it. In any case, it achieves some kind of cumulative power that is affecting. [***]

Picture Bride (1994, dir. Kayo Hatta) A sweetly sentimental film about early-20th century Hawaii and the practice of arranged marriage, focusing on city girl Riyo transplanted to a sugar plantation with a much older husband and coming to find some value in the life there. Nice performances and a surprise cameo by Toshiro Mifune as an ageing benshi. [***]

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, dir. Mary Dore) A very solidly made documentary about second wave feminism in the US which nimbly flits through a range of issues from a variety of women (of many races and classes), and also looks at some modern expressions of feminist action. I think it does a particularly good job of celebrating and honouring achievements while also acknowledging the range of opinions which exist (and have existed), and that continued action is necessary. It is ultimately about a certain period of history, but it’s not kept in isolation. There are still plenty of stories to tell. [***½]

Sisters in Law (2005, dir. Kim Longinotto/Florence Ayisi) Kim Longinotto tells another fascinating story of women in marginalised spaces fighting for rights, this time in Cameroon. There’s clearly a wider picture of a society based on ‘traditional’ values trying to change, or rather being pushed to do so by the strong women of this story (whether those bringing charges of assault, rape and the like, or those defending them or judging their cases). However the film really focuses in on these key four stories and follows them through, and it is in its way, after all the detailed accounts of abuses heard earlier, a heartening one. [***]

Star Men (2015, dir. Alison Rose) A likeable documentary in which four British astronomers reunite in California 50 years after first meeting one another. It touches on the professional work and research each has done, as well as their respective personalities, and cannot help but address mortality. The filmmaker inserts herself as a sort of fan into the storyline, and her style (particularly with the music) seems to recall Errol Morris. Rather devolves into an extended hiking sequence towards the end, but does have some lovely nature photography not to mention some nice insights along the way (not least that evolution demands death to allow new ideas to take root, an observation by one of the elderly men). [***]

Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, dir. Darnell Martin) A very creditable film about one woman’s self-determination and struggle to find her identity in the American south, based on Zora Neale Hurston’s great novel (which I was reading at the same time). It’s made for TV and as such feels a little airbrushed around the edges (nobody really ages much despite its sweeping span), pushed perhaps more than it needs to be into a certain generic mould for such stories, but the acting is excellent across the board and the film is beautifully shot. [***]

Underground (1928, dir. Anthony Asquith) Excellent Tube-set London melodrama with a love triangle which goes awry. Expressive camerawork with a fine new score by Neil Brand. [***½]

L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, dir. Agnès Varda) There’s something almost disarmingly sweet-natured to this film about politically active 70s French feminists, but perhaps that’s the prevailing hippie vibe of its lead actor who travels around the country in a van singing right-on songs about a woman’s right to choose. It’s a good film though and it still looks great, with vibrant colours and a keen eye for framings. Its political message too is warmly inclusive while celebrating the right to a legal abortion. [***½]

Visage (Face) (2009, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang) Every great director has their self-indulgent French film which premieres at Cannes and promptly disappears (well it passed me by at the time). It’s a typically visual film, with scenes that don’t seem to hang together, except perhaps as notes towards an essay on grief, loss, the passage of time, artistic creation, things like that. It has a lot of Tsai’s familiar motifs (it basically kicks off with a deluge) and has plenty of French acting greats. An interesting work that would probably benefit from being seen on a big screen. [***]

Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, dir. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad) I found the narrative a bit difficult to follow at times, but basically it’s about a poor family whose son is struggling to make a better life for himself. Gets a little overwrought at times but mostly is a fine domestic drama. [***]

Criterion Collection Home Viewing

I also watched Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible) (1944/1958, dir. Sergei Eisenstein), L’avventura (1960, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), Pygmalion (1938, dir. Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard), Do the Right Thing (1989, dir. Spike Lee) and Gimme Shelter (1970, dir. Albert Maysles/David Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin) as part of the Criterion Sunday series, but you’ll have to wait for those reviews.

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Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime (2014)

There’s a slightly muckraking angle to the title which might be more suited to a tabloid, but for all its Nazi referencing (which turns out to be a relatively minor part of the tale), this is a story more about the power of the press at its best, hence the mention of Harold Evans, the key figure around whom the documentary is crafted. He’s the former editor of the Sunday Times newspaper — before one R. Murdoch bought it up, the film is keen to note — and a leading proponent of the kind of investigative journalism which is sorely missed these days as a means to hold the powerful to account. The documentary proceeds in a straightforward manner, using talking heads interviews with some of the key players, as well as archival documents and video footage, to set out its tale of, first, the creation and marketing of the drug Thalidomide by the now-defunct Distillers Group and, secondly, its disastrous physical effects on those exposed to it, particularly the children of pregnant women (the latter group targeted by the advertising). Despite clear evidence of these side effects, the drug continued to be promoted for several years, and then when it was withdrawn, the story of its effects was swiftly buried, largely due to the prohibitive effects of the UK’s libel laws. It wasn’t for some decades until Evans and his team started to expose the scandal, after changes in law and some very carefully-worded campaigning that led to questions in Parliament and therefore made the exposé legally more feasible. The film really does give a sense of the labirinthine bureaucratic complications to simply reporting the facts, and that aspect of it feels like the kind of story that hasn’t moved on hugely in the intervening years; governments and corporations still regularly collude to protect their interests, and a strong free press is still urgently required to uncover these issues.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors David Morris and Jacqui Morris | Cinematographer Clive Booth | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 3 February 2016

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Clearly intended as an hommage to a certain strand of 1970s Euro exploitation flick (Strickland even uses one of Jess Franco’s actors in a supporting role), this is undoubtedly a very odd film. It strips away any of the more overt exploitative elements (there is no nudity or gore) to focus on the erotic transference between two women living together in a small, apparently self-contained, rural community which seems dedicated to the study of entomology — when we see them away from their home, they’re presenting lectures about bugs.

What’s also particularly notable is that there are no men shown on screen at all (or even referred to), so this could be construed as a form of science-fiction perhaps, though in fact there’s really no reason for their presence. The overriding tone is one of mystery, and it allows the story to focus on its chief theme, which is the use and manipulation of power within relationships. At first, it seems as if the older woman Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is dominant, but as the sexual games between the two are repeated, we come to understand that in fact it is Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) who has written these scenarios and is very much in control of the relationship’s dynamics. It’s only when Cynthia becomes bored and increasingly testy about the limits of her place does the drama start to unfold, but when it does it’s a fascinating struggle. For all that it may play out at an allegorical level, it’s also a finely acted chamber drama of sexual desire and control.


The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Peter Strickland | Cinematographer Nic Knowland | Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 21 January 2016

While We’re Young (2014)

Another story of the New York middle classes from its latter-day poet laureate Noah Baumbach, and however insufferable one might expect it to be, While We’re Young actually treads a rather fine and well-judged line for much of its running time. The overall impression by the end is of it being more a drama than a comedy thanks to its extensive disquisition on ethics in documentary filmmaking, but in getting there it does a good deal of wryly amusing legwork as established filmmaker Ben Stiller finds himself being usurped by young pretender Adam Driver. It’s at its strongest in observing the generational differences between Stiller and his wife Naomi Watts, and Driver and his wife Amanda Seyfried, as the older couple find themselves inspired and energised by their youthful counterparts (I suppose one would call them hipsters). Unlike some of the film’s reviewers, I don’t find them particularly ridiculous, but it’s in the nature of Stiller’s characters to overanalyse such things to the point of ridiculousness, and at that he remains a master. Still, I do prefer Baumbach’s looser collaborations with Greta Gerwig (most recently, Mistress America).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Noah Baumbach | Cinematographer Sam Levy | Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 21 December 2015

Gett (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, 2014)

There’s a powerful intensity to the presentation of this film, which is essentially a courtroom drama. Partly that comes from the fact that it is pretty much confined to a single room, where wife Viviane (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) is attempting to obtain a divorce agreement (or gett) from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). The room has a bland, clean starkness, and there are only a few camera set-ups possible to capture the two benches where Viviane and Elisha sit with their respective counsels, and the three judges who sit listening to their arguments. But a lot of the intensity is to do with the mismatch between the unchanging solemnity of this bureaucratic setting and the absurdity of Viviane’s situation, which unfolds over five years, with frequent titles indicating the passage of months between appearances. It’s not just that divorce seems normalised to modern Western viewers, it’s that the religious demands of the Israeli society within which the Amsalems live place all the burden onto the wife, with the husband largely unpunished for making little effort to mount a defence. There are no grandstanding speeches (when Viviane’s lawyer or she herself attempt anything of this nature, they are quickly shut down by the stern men who sit in judgement), it just quietly goes about documenting the manifest absurdities of the process, meanwhile hinting at details of the couple’s life together and the reasons for her actions.


FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz | Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian | Length 115 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 3 January 2016

Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen (Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, 2014)

Another film I’ve belatedly caught up with for my 2015 New Year’s Resolution (one of the co-writers is a woman), I must confess that I’m not familiar with the source material or either of the two previous films in the trilogy, so this is all a bit of a blur. However, it’s an attractively-mounted 19th century period film blur, awash with rich costume design and the swish of samurai swords. If anything, the film resists the lure of its comic-book origins to give in to a videogame or clip-show editing style, and instead essays an almost traditional filmic sense of the jidaigeki, the camera movements more calm than the frenzy of blades one might expect. That said, the heroes all have floppy fringes in the modern style, and beyond their matinee idol looks, I’m not entirely sure a lot more is going on. Still, it’s a good deal better than one might fear and if I just had an investment in the story, this might be a more attractive proposition.


FILM REVIEW
Director Keishi Otomo | Writers Kiyomi Fujii and Keishi Otomo (based on the manga Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki) | Cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka | Starring Takeru Satoh | Length 135 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015

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

Meet the Patels (2014)

This documentary, about LA-based aspiring actor Ravi’s search for love and how that conflicts with the traditions of his Indian parents, is amusing, delightful and coasts by easily on the charm of its star. But it’s also, more than anything else it seems to me, a film that’s really about what it means to be an American, something that negotiating various cultural traditions brings into focus — for Ravi (and his sister Geeta, who shot the film) is a first generation child of immigrants to the States. Aziz Ansari has been bringing this perspective to the mainstream in recent years, especially with his excellent Netflix series Master of None, but Meet the Patels has been on the go since the late-2000s, when Ravi was about to turn 30 and his parents had started to despair of his ever marrying (although he’d been in a relationship with a white American woman for a number of years, without letting his parents know). The film is really very good at getting across how important marriage is to his parents (who incidentally end up basically stealing the film when they’re on screen), to Ravi and Geeta’s entire upbringing, and to the vast swathes of India (specifically Gujarat in this case) where Patel is not just a surname but a caste signifier, and getting hitched is so important that there’s a family-based industry of matchmaking and arranged marriages. It gives a real and vivid sense of what it means to be part of a culture, and how difficult it is to break with that. However, as a documentary it’s very much about its subject rather than filmmaking style (it very self-consciously points out the technical limitations of its creation), and uses cutely animated inserts to frame the story and provide occasional commentary, though not to the extent of ever becoming annoying. It’s ultimately very likeable, and an easy introduction to quite an emotive subject.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Geeta V. Patel and Ravi V. Patel | Writers Geeta V. Patel, Ravi V. Patel, Billy McMillin and Matthew Hamachek | Cinematographer Geeta V. Patel | Starring Ravi V. Patel | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 5 January 2016

Urok (The Lesson, 2014)

Fitting into a sort of cinema-of-abjection continuum with the films of the Dardenne brothers (most notably their recent Two Days, One Night), not to mention a number of works coming out of post-Soviet Eastern European cinema (a number of Romanian films come to mind), this Bulgarian film tells a similar story of a woman who quite against her will or involvement finds herself pitted against capitalist bureaucracy and petty local corruption. In the case of Nadezhda (as excellently played by actor Margita Gosheva), our protagonist is a small town schoolteacher doing some translation freelance work on the side, who has been put into household debt because of her feckless husband’s financial mismanagement, and quickly finds herself at the wrong end of a system which is not set up to help her in any way. It is of course a pointed indictment of a system, and an empathetic scream on behalf of an entire class of those disenfranchised by financial systems, but it roots it in a family which is falling apart under these stresses — no one is exactly culpable, and they’re all good people, they’ve just been forced apart by circumstance. There’s plenty to like here, but you have to be a bit of a sucker for slow cinematic punishment to reach the film’s final ‘lesson’.


© Film Movement

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov | Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez | Starring Margita Gosheva | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 17 December 2015

UKJFF: Princess (2014)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, reading from the festival brochure.


This recent Israeli film makes a fascinating companion piece to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, released earlier this year. I loved that film intensely, but there’s definitely another side to that film’s coming-of-age story. Whereas Diary hardly depicted a healthy set of relationships (whether between the protagonist Minnie and her mother, Minnie and her mother’s boyfriend, or between the two adults), the film via its narrator seemed intent on locating some kind of power within these, however tenuous. In Princess, Adar (Shira Haas) is also alienated from her studies and starting to show interest in a wider society, particularly latching on to the androgynous Alan (Adar Zohar Hametz), but the persistent attentions of her mother’s boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer), which begin innocuously and even playfully, are by several orders creepier and more difficult for her to repel than in the US film. Still, for all its similarities in set-up (and even the actors have a broad physical resemblance; at many junctures I could imagine Kristen Wiig in the same role as played here by Keren Mor), this is a quite different film in tone. There’s a persistent thread within the film of gender-fluid identities, recalling the French films of Céline Sciamma. Alan and Adar are filmed at times interchangeably, such that you’re not entirely sure at the start of the scene who we’re watching, given their broadly similar shape and hairstyle. Meanwhile, Michael teases each with gender-swapped names (he uses “Prince” for Adar). There’s a languid narrative and filmic style, as the film builds its characters incrementally, only slowly introducing the full of extent of Michael’s abusive relationship with the younger characters, and the way that Alma isolates herself from this. There may be no easy way forward for Adar, and no easy way for the film to conclude, the nurturing relationship between her and Alan does at least provide some small window of hope.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival
Director/Writer Tali Shalom Ezer | Cinematographer Radek Ładczuk | Starring Shira Haas, Keren Mor, Ori Pfeffer, Adar Zohar Hanetz | Length 92 minutes || Seen at Everyman Hampstead, London, Wednesday 11 November 2015