Criterion Sunday 492: Un conte de Noël: Roubaix ! (A Christmas Tale, 2008)

The very first full film festival I went to, when I was really starting to get into world cinema, was back in 1997, and I still remember that my least favourite film was probably Arnaud Desplechin’s How I Got into an Argument (My Sex Life), massively overlong and also melodramatic in a way that I didn’t connect to at all. To be fair, I was probably too young for it, but it did introduce me to Mathieu Amalric, who was already a veteran of Desplechin’s films by that point. I can’t say I’ve necessarily warmed up on the strained familial drama, but I still find myself only tolerating this film. The title, it should be said — at least going by the film’s title card — is actually Un conte de Noël: Roubaix! I’m not exactly sure that this setting deserves the point d’exclamation, looking to be a fairly unmemorable town just on the Belgian border in the north-east of France, not too far from Lille, but it appears to have some kind of hold over this family, who are coming together not just for Christmas but to support Catherine Deneuve’s matriarch, who has been diagnosed with cancer.  It’s where the director was born, though, so it makes sense as a setting for his Christmas film. He still loves a long film, too, it seems, but amongst it all there are some tender and touching moments, in quiet times when Amalric just takes it down a notch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Arnaud Desplechin; Writers Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Emmanuelle Devos; Length 152 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 23 December 2021.

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.


The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.

A Castle for Christmas (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 438: Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

It’s difficult now to approach this film without at least some awareness of the posthumous allegations that have so tarnished the name of the film’s director, but a film isn’t a work by a single person, and this remains a poignant and affecting story of growing up in the cold, icy middle of nowhere (well, near the Québec town of Asbestos, so I gather). You don’t need to know the history of the place or the strike of 1949 that would become so important to Québécois history (and again, I am rather reliant on Wikipedia for this, as obviously none of this was known to me, not being Canadian), in order to get a sense of the feeling of post-war 40s provincial Canada. If it does nothing else it provides a distinct sense of how little there is to do for young kids growing up, where the unveiling of the local shop’s nativity display is a major event (the shop being run by the titular character, who looks after his nephew Benoît like a son). This is largely how the film proceeds, with little vignettes of life, moments of liveliness and humour amongst the snow drifts and the evident tedium. There’s a distinctly 1970s vibe to filmmaking (all those zoom shots) but this isn’t the slick New Hollywood, but a more indigenous vibe that feels homegrown and a little bit amateur, but in an engrossing way that pulls you in. And while Benoît (Jacques Gagnon) is a bit of a blank slate as a character (which is more realistic to these kind of teenage protagonists), the lives of those around him become the focus, as well as the landscape of this remote place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Jutra; Writers Jutra and Clément Perron; Cinematographer Michel Brault; Starring Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe, Olivette Thibault; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.

Happiest Season (2020)

What with moving country and not have any internet access at home (yet), I’ve been a little bit lax in posting film reviews on here, though I’ve still been venturing to the cinema occasionally and trying to keep up with films at home as much as I can, though the aforementioned lack of internet means I’ve not seen many recent films. However, there’s a special holiday on at the moment so I thought I best post a review of a related film that I did get a chance to see, along with apparently everybody else on the internet.


You may have read about this film on the internet already, and goodness knows enough people have already seen it. Before I’d seen it, then, I was all ready to chalk this up as a bit of kitschy normcore — a Christmas-themed romcom! seasonal jumpers! — for its starry cast to be involved in, because doing Hallmark-style movies seems to have become a Thing for A-listers recently. And it’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of elements of that, but it’s also fairly self-knowing about the way it’s deploying the tropes of the genre alongside a critique of unfair expectations of gay people in repressed small-town contexts, and the very real spectre of being in the closet that this seems to entail. So there are a lot more tears by the end than I had expected going in, and while the denouement seems a little bit forced, it’s also earned I think and deserved too.

Among the cast, Kristen Stewart is of course excellent, but the highlight is Dan Levy as the gay best friend. Alison Brie also does a fine job at finding some pathos in a very difficult and unapproachable character; the young actors playing her kids also have a great range in deadpan stares. Oh and the co-writer Mary Holland has given herself a great role as Jane, the other sister largely forgotten and sidelined by this imperious New England family. It’s just a pity that a brief appearance by Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus didn’t go anywhere, as I feel they could have been better served. Still, this is a film that’s focused on the traumas of its central character Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and though it’s somewhat a thankless role, the film does follow through her story in a satisfying way, and it’s all I could want from a lesbian Christmas-themed romcom, I suppose.

CREDITS
Director Clea DuVall; Writers DuVall and Mary Holland; Cinematographer John Guleserian; Starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Alison Brie, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 345: Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969)

There’s a reason people make austere black-and-white films about relationships, and it might just date back to this film. Well, maybe not (as themes go it’s a mainstay of the art cinema canon), but clearly this film forms a sizeable chunk of what people think about when they think about French cinema. Four people in the city of Clermont-Ferrand intersect with one another, but never at the same time, and slowly the ties that bind each of them become clearer — never explained exactly, but they become like a shadow across the other relationships, fracturing them in perhaps unexpected ways. It’s all very subtle and it follows the format of a series of dialogues, explicitly linking itself to Pascal’s Pensées in expounding on the moral questions that are at its heart (this is, after all, the third in Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” series). An attractive engineer played by Jean-Louis Trintignant has a reputation as a bit of a player, and falls for a woman at church (Marie-Christine Barrault), but then via a school friend gets to know another woman (the Maud of the title, played by Françoise Fabian), and must essentially choose between them, and this perhaps is his Pascalian wager. Maud is, secretly, the tie between all of them, and the way Rohmer unveils this all is exquisitely structured. I think perhaps it’s a film whose complexities only deepen upon rewatching, but clearly it is formally precise and beautifully shot. It’s also, presumably not insificantly (given that Rohmer made this third of his moral tales after the fourth because of his insistence at shooting at the right time of year), a Christmas film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Rohmer’s short film Entretien sur Pascal (On Pascal, 1965) — an episode of a rather dry French TV series called En profil dans le texte — is attached to the film above on Criterion’s disc, and that makes sense because Blaise Pascal and his famous wager is discussed within that film, and indeed forms something of the backbone to the ‘moral tale’ it tells. Here we get a dialogue between a philosopher and a priest touching on this wager, and it’s fairly dry stuff, but not uninteresting.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, Antoine Vitez; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 August 2020.

1985 (2018)

Not every Christmas film is about Christmas, some of them are just set at that time of year. That shouldn’t stop people claiming them as “Christmas films” as even if they don’t star Santa Claus as a character, that doesn’t mean they don’t have something meaningful to say about that time of year. In this American indie film from last year, it’s about being with family, and what that means if you’re somewhat alienated from them in various ways.


A film about Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a young gay man returning from NYC for the Christmas holidays to visit his Texan parents, this low-key small scale indie drama, shot on black-and-white film and largely confined to the few days he’s in Texas for the holidays. It has an elegiac feel greatly aided by an orchestral soundtrack, which, given the film’s lead actor, reminds me of Todd Haynes’s Carol — and indeed one gets the sense of Haynes’ work lingering over this rendering of the period when he was starting to make his own first films. There are a lot of pointed touches to hint at Adrian’s situation (which is all fairly clear from the title and from the film’s outset) — touches which at times feel just a little too heavy-handed — but the film does its best to move these into genuinely moving situations without getting too buried in sentiment. Mostly it’s just really nicely acted by its small ensemble, and a good example of what a proper little American indie should look like.

1985 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yen Tan; Cinematographer Hutch; Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

Карнавальная Ночь Karnavalnaya noch (Carnival Night, 1956)

Obviously this Soviet comedy-musical from the 1950s is not about Christmas, because Christianity wasn’t exactly a state-sanctioned religion at the time. However, it’s set around the same time of year and deals instead with a New Year’s party. Still it feels somehow Christmassy, and was presented somewhat as such at a screening introduced by the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw, so I’m including it here.


A delightful Soviet musical comedy about a bunch of plucky kids putting on a fun New Year’s party being constantly criticised and belittled by a pompous apparatchik bureaucrat (Igor Ilyinsky) determined to stamp out all the joy and replace it with long disquisitions on topics of pedagogical improvement: he intends a number of lectures, including from himself; he wants old men to play serious music rather than a young band of jazz neophytes; he wants a sad song from the librarian and a fable from the accountant; he completely reworks a bawdy clown routine in every element; the list goes on. So the entire film is just the kids finding ways to thwart this dull and lifeless man, who nevertheless manages to steal the show with his immaculate comic timing and ridiculously puffed-up self-importance. It manages to both satirise some of the humourless tendencies of the Soviet leadership, while also being genuinely rather fun.

Carnival Night film posterCREDITS
Director Eldar Ryazanov Эльда́р Ряза́нов; Writers Boris Laskin Борис Ласкин and Vladimir Polyakov Влади́мир Поляко́в; Cinematographer Arkadi Koltsaty Аркадий Кольца́тый; Starring Igor Ilyinsky И́горь Ильи́нский, Lyudmila Gurchenko Людми́ла Гу́рченко, Yuri Belov Юрий Белов; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 December 2018.

The Holiday (2006)

Though it would not be possible to do a themed week around romcoms without something by Nancy Meyers, it turns out she’s also dipped her filmmaking talents into the Christmas-themed picture with The Holiday, which of course is still a romcom primarily. Her films always feature couples trying to work out their issues, such as in 2009’s It’s Complicated, or even 2015’s The Intern (though the romcom plot is not at the core of that film), and she doubles it up for The Holiday, a comforting blanket of a movie, like so much of her work.


A Meyers family movie is a comforting thing (whether by mother Nancy or her daughter Hallie Meyers-Shyer, who made Home Again). Indeed, like the daughter’s film a decade after this one, there’s even something refreshing about a film where guys may act badly but no one is being an out-and-out creep. This means that there’s no danger that, however menacingly weird Jack Black’s smile may look, he’s going to try and force anything more than a kiss on Kate Winslet’s cheek and even then he’ll apologise winsomely for it. Oh sorry, I haven’t even mentioned the plot, have I? Well, Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) swap homes, for reasons… that’s all that you really need to know, though you might like to be aware that Jude Law will show up. The film does have a certain clunkiness to the setups, with some very self-aware “meet cutes” and an internet relationship that doesn’t seem likely, as well as a toe-curling opening voiceover from Winslet about her relationship with the dastardly Jasper (Rufus Sewell). Still, it is supremely Nancy Meyers-ish, and there are some very nice bourgeois homes on display in both the States and rural England.

The Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers; Cinematographer Dean Cundey; Starring Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black, Rufus Sewell, Edward Burns; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Monday 1 January 2018.

Two 2018 Straight-to-TV Christmas Romcoms: The Princess Switch and Mingle All the Way

This Friday in the UK sees the release of Last Christmas, the latest romcom themed around the annual holiday, which presumably will lean heavily on snow, baubles, lights, eating and love. And of course, at this time every year, all the online streaming services provide unceasing Yuletide content, whether higher-end bigger-budget fare from Netflix (often starring Vanessa Hudgens, who will I gather be in The Knight Before Christmas for Netflix this season) or the Hallmark-style TV pabulum that often is made with the same stars, writers and directors every year, and probably throughout the year in dedicated studios in LA, Canada and Eastern Europe, I’m guessing. I already did a post about made-for-TV Christmas movies a few years ago, so I guess it’s time to update with a few more recent titles. Perhaps there’s a great film in this genre out there (or at least one I can rate as highly as being merely “good”), but I still seem to be searching.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Straight-to-TV Christmas Romcoms: The Princess Switch and Mingle All the Way”

Criterion Sunday 263: Fanny och Alexander [The Theatrical Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

Having seen this film for the first time a few weeks ago in its “TV Version”, I now watch the “Theatrical Version” — although the latter is really just the former cut in half (they’re both films) — and I have the sense of seeing some things for the first time. I suppose it’s just the necessarily more clipped way that things progress, but some of these moments just never really struck me so much when it played out in full. In either case, Bergman’s artistry as a filmmaker is fully evident, with long scenes filled with detail and artifice playing out almost effortlessly, though they must have taken a fair bit of staging and practice. However, the brevity brings its own rewards, and in some ways the little moments of the supernatural or hallucinatory — the way dead figures come to life in front of our young protagonists’ eyes, for example — seem to have more of a punch to them in the shortened version. In any case, this remains a film about Alexander primarily, a portrait of the artist as a young man if you will (for he is the Bergman stand-in). Every element is crafted with deep care, particularly the set design of the various family apartments and the austere parson’s lodgings. I had perhaps not expected to like this coming of age period costume drama as much as I did, but it’s a towering achievement.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a commentary on the film by Peter Cowie, but I’ve not listened to it yet.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 15 September 2019.