Black Christmas (2019)

So although I’m following a New Zealand theme this week, this horror remake of a 1970s classic isn’t strictly-speaking a NZ film. It was, however, shot there — and in that sense reminds me of 1996’s The Frighteners, another ostensibly American-set film shot in NZ (and coming across rather oddly for that reason) — and it gets a NZ co-production credit depending where you look, so I consider it NZ enough to include it. Though it’s not perhaps a perfect film by any means, it was written and directed by women, and probably for that reason attracted a lot of online derision. That said, the horror community is a passionate and cinephile one, so in not having a background in viewing that genre’s films, perhaps I went rather easy on it — then again, there’s a good case to be made that it was specifically aimed at non-horror afficionados.

I haven’t seen the original 1974 Black Christmas, but as a non-connoisseur of horror cinema, I can say this film is not really as horrific or gory as some of the advertising might lead you to expect. Though it has a few effective jump scares, the vibe at times feels very much closer to something like Dear White People (2014) or other cutting (sorry) campus-based satirical films about (rich, white, male) entitlement culture, or an episode of a 90s TV show like “Buffy” (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Sure, a lot of the targets are fairly obvious, but those things do need to continue being targeted and it’s good to see a film explicitly calling out campus rape culture without being cringingly performative in its ideas about social justice — though there are a few scenes early on in which Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the Black woman in the ensemble cast, waves around a clipboard outside a class trying to get signatures for her petition, which feel a little bit phony (though I’d definitely sign it, if only to get the reliably wooden Cary Elwes off screen). On the whole, though, this is a solid and topical horror film that is fairly enjoyable.

Black Christmas film posterCREDITS
Director Sophia Takal; Writers Takal and April Wolfe (based on the 1974 film written by A. Roy Moore); Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard; Starring Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Cary Elwes; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Surrey Quays, London, Thursday 19 December 2019.

Green Room (2015)

I haven’t been writing as many reviews recently, though I’ve been going to every bit as many films. Just one of those fallow periods I guess. There are still interesting movies coming out, though, and one that may have got missed in the glut of fine films is Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to Blue Ruin. Aside from the colour-themed titles (which inflect each film’s respective cinematographic palette), the two films are linked by Saulnier’s reliance on mining genre conventions — in this case, he’s set up a tense thriller format in which our heroes, an anarchist punk band, gets trapped in a cabin in the woods by a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads. I’ve seen it called a horror film and perhaps those more familiar with that genre will find things in common, but to me there’s a lack of horror to the way the story is set out (though there’s plenty of tension). Sure, when things get going, the gore does properly fly, but the curious thing to me is the almost matter-of-fact way it’s presented. All the actors, even the ones playing the skinheads (led by Patrick Stewart), have a human quality, almost as if they all want the best for the situation even if their personal ideologies are inflected by hate (being set in the Oregon backwoods, so beloved of libertarians and survivalists, there’s a notable lack of any people of colour, so racism never really comes into play). It somewhat complicates the genre trappings not to have anyone to actively hate, and when our punk band get into the action, their violence is every bit as nasty as that inflicted on them. I suppose that makes it a film in which nobody wins, which perhaps accounts for the tone of the ending, but in any case it’s another strong cinematic outing for Saulnier.

Green Room film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jeremy Saulnier; Cinematographer Sean Porter; Starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Macon Blair, Patrick Stewart; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 19 May 2016.

She’s Funny That Way (2014)

At a certain level this film by ageing auteurist Peter Bogdanovich seems achingly archaic, a collection of neurotic New York archetypes owing more to a careful study of Woody Allen films (or indeed those of its producers, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson) than anything resembling what one might recognise as real life or believable behaviour. Its heroine, Izzy (Imogen Poots, an English actor going for a broad working-class Brooklyn accent, the success of which will probably depend on who’s listening), isn’t much more rounded a one-dimensional muse/prostitute character than Mira Sorvino played in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), and the pecuniary salvation offered by theatre director Arnold (Owen Wilson) is an almost offensively crass rehash of (the hardly any less crass) Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990). But that would be to miss the film’s point, as set up by its silent film-like title card invoking the ‘print the legend’ refrain of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), just one of many classical Hollywood films Bogdanovich tips his hat towards, i.e. that these are characters who exist solely in a self-referential world of films. That’s not to say it’s a consistent delight, as it still requires the viewer to sit through these hoary clichés (women as wives/mothers/whores, men as desperate cheating cads, a hundred scenarios you’ve seen a hundred times before), however knowingly they’re deployed. And yet there’s a simple pleasure to a lot of it, especially the screwball scenes of characters all converging on the same place in various configurations. There are also some fine performances in roles large and small, as it seems Bogdanovich has quite an address book to call upon — Joanna Lumley gets a credit at the end for a scene that only plays while her name is on screen, while other name actors appear only fleetingly. For me (being hardly a fan of her filmic work), the biggest surprise is probably Jennifer Aniston as a straight-talking psychiatrist (another character only ever found in the movies), who delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs through her energetic mugging. It may not amount to much more than a slight pleasure to anyone watching it, but that doesn’t feel like a failure.

She's Funny That Way film posterCREDITS
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Bogdanovich and Louise Stratten; Cinematographer Yaron Orbach; Starring Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Tuesday 14 July 2015.

The Look of Love (2013)

It’s not much of a stretch to see Michael Winterbottom as a sort of British Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker who has turned his hand to a huge range of different film projects over his career, which he churns out at a fearsome rate and which are always put together with verve and visual flair, despite sometimes being of uneven quality. While I found Soderbergh’s most recent film Side Effects (2013) at times overburdened itself with melodramatic twists, I might say that this film remains a bit too comfortable given its potential, though both films are excellent at telling their respective stories.

I suppose the extent to which you’ll like The Look of Love (originally to be called The King of Soho, though that title has been optioned by the subject’s son for his own future film project) is a matter of how much you empathise with Steve Coogan’s portrayal of the brooding ‘regal’ central character, Paul Raymond. Your response may also be influenced by the casual (female) nudity that frequently frames the scenes. After all, Raymond was an impresario in the world of adult entertainment, and though his character is always quick to avoid being labelled a mere pornographer, his legacy as filtered through this film is very much one of sleazy softcore magazine titles like Men Only and the kinds of faux-artistic revue shows that can claim a direct lineage to those glitzy Las Vegas acts as seen in films like Showgirls (1995). In a press conference at one point, he is asked by a female journalist if his work is demeaning to women, for which question he pauses briefly before grandiloquently stating “no”; however this statement is immediately undercut through montage, as we skip straight to the sleaziest yet of photoshoots for his magazine, one dominated by many of the signifiers of naff 80s Britain.

As a story which covers several decades from the mid- to late-20th century, it’s mainly style which dates the passage of time: haircuts, clothes, interior decor, fonts and design. The Soho that we glimpse around the (period-dressed and coiffed) characters is largely the scrubbed-up gentrified present day Soho with its hip bars and restaurants, and as an aesthetic choice to avoid the wholesale recreation of a more ‘accurate’ historical fabric, it’s a subtle way perhaps of imbricating into the past Raymond’s more enduring property legacy. We are reminded more than once during the film of just how much of Soho he bought up in the 1970s and especially after the financial crash of the 1980s (and which his family presumably continues to own), leaving it an area largely untouched by the kinds of unattractive wholesale redevelopment that has beset other parts of central London, with enduring institutions such as the wonderful Maison Bertaux tearoom (glimpsed a number of times in this film). It is an area which has reinvented itself just like its owner (himself born Geoffrey Quinn).

Of course, the film’s story is more interested in presenting the more sordidly photogenic side of Raymond’s pursuits. The narrative is framed by his old age and the early death of his beloved daughter Debbie (played charmingly in the film by Imogen Poots), as he reflects on his life up to that point. It’s a choice that ensures that all of what we see of his life is inflected with an underlying melancholy, though even without it, I feel that Coogan’s performance, all hollow-eyed flashy bravado, is strong enough to convey the ennui of his existence. And sure, like Arbitrage (2012) earlier this year, this makes it essentially another film about the travails of a nouveau riche, which you’d be quite entitled to dismiss, except for the characterful central performances (Coogan here as Gere there).

But aside from Coogan (and a nice turn by Chris Addison as the louche magazine editor Tony), it’s the female actors who dominate The Look of Love and really carry the film. Tamsin Egerton enters initially as the coquettish Amber, a showgirl in one of Raymond’s shows, before reinventing herself as Fiona and taking control of her life, though from the very first she’s clearly no-one’s stooge. Meanwhile Anna Friel, as Raymond’s first wife, invests a character who could easily be a nagging shrew with far more pathos and assertiveness. Their character arcs further ensure that Raymond, a man of undoubted ambition but with the Hefner-like affectations of a self-centred roué, never really compels as a role model: as played by Coogan, he is easily charismatic but difficult to really sympathise with. His part in the decline of his daughter comes to overshadow and inflect his other achievements.

Whatever the squalid excesses of the life the film depicts, it’s a compelling story of reinvention which shines an affectionate if unflattering light on a corner of London’s recent history.

Director Michael Winterbottom; Writer Matt Greenhalgh (based on the book Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond by Paul Willetts); Cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski; Starring Steve Coogan, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton, Anna Friel; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 2 May 2013.