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.

The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020)

Given the current situation, I’ve certainly been very picky about what I go to see in a cinema, but I couldn’t resist this new romcom, not least because after Blockers, its star (Geraldine Viswanathan) is very clearly one to watch. Also, it’s nice to occasionally see a lighter film, given that a lot of what’s coming out is fairly ponderous (or stupid).


For all the flaws with the genre, I can’t help but go into every new romcom with a little bit of hope in my heart that it will be delightful, because that is all you look for in a romcom. (Though I do like them not to be actively hateful, that’s a big thing for me too.) And what do you know, Geraldine Viswanathan is an excellent romantic lead. She played teenage in Blockers of course (in which she was the stand-out star) but here she’s Lucy, a gallery assistant in her mid-20s, though she sort of infuses that role with the slight gawkiness she’s brought to her other (younger) characters, fetching without being pathetic. Of course, it always helps when the usual tics of a romcom — the way they tend to rely on one of the characters being almost pathological — have been transferred to the female character, because once again the guy is a sort of blandly attractive forgettable type (the actor’s name is Dacre Montgomery, the character Nick) and if he’d been the one with the weird quirky ideas, this would be a very different experience.

The premise seems to be based on the Museum of Broken Relationships, as far as I can tell, an exhibition of artefacts of, well, failed relationships which I remember visiting and loving when I passed through Zagreb in 2013. Here it becomes the gallery of the film’s title which, in what seems very NYC or even Brooklyn — the sort of thing that you can imagine in a film shot in the last few years but seems somehow unimaginable any earlier — finds its space in the upstairs of Nick’s boutique hotel concept that he’s trying to bring to reality, using the unpaid labour of his friends. Look, it’s not breaking any new ground — it has the quirky best friends on either side (Philippa Soo chopping a cucumber menacingly is a highlight), the love obstacles to happiness, a lot of aspirational set design — but it’s heart is in the right place. Plus, Geraldine Viswanathan is a star.

The Broken Hearts Gallery film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Natalie Krinsky; Cinematographer Alar Kivilo; Starring Geraldine Viswanathan, Dacre Montgomery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Molly Gordon, Phillipa Soo, Bernadette Peters; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Saturday 12 September 2020.

Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996)

Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker very much from Belgium and linked with that country, but this Franco-German-Belgian co-production isn’t even set in any of those places, which certainly makes it unusual. European films about America and its people are rarely particularly successful, I don’t think, and this romcom (not a genre most associated with Akerman, though she often veered quite close to it) is surely very odd. It’s on Mubi right now, and worth having a look at.


I’m not honestly sure what exactly I can say about Chantal Akerman’s romcom, given just how far it is outside her usual style and themes (though I suppose Tomorrow We Move had a story of comedic edge to it, even if it was about mothers and daughters, which you somewhat more expect with Akerman). It’s set mostly in New York City, with a bit in Paris, as William Hurt and Juliette Binoche’s characters swap apartments, and he is exposed to a rather bijou but artfully squalid Parisian flat (complete with overly passionate boyfriends stomping in and smacking him around), while she gets a plush, grand apartment in a block with a concierge, where his patients (for he is a psychoanalyst) just wander in and demand therapy. This, primarily, is where I suppose the comedy happens, in these encounters where it turns out Binoche’s character is ‘curing’ everyone, leading him to return and seek therapy from her himself. It’s all a little bit arch, and stretches credulity, but such is the generic framework of the romcom. It doesn’t really work, quite, at least not in the usual ways, but Binoche remains a delightful screen presence as ever.

A Couch in New York film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Jean-Louis Benoît; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Hurt; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 17 January 2019.

Global Cinema 15: Barbados – A Caribbean Dream (2017)

There haven’t exactly been a huge number of Barbadian films, and it’s that country’s musical creators who have achieved rather more notable international success. So it’s a little unfair that I’m focusing on a film which I didn’t love, but it has enough in it to make it worthwhile watching, and it’s certainly one of the very few that have had a cinematic release.


Barbadian flagBarbados
population 287,000 | capital Bridgetown (110k) | largest cities Bridgetown, Speightstown (3.6k), Oistins (2.3k), Holetown (1.6k), Bathsheba (1.5k) | area 439 km2 | religion Christianity (76%), none (21%) | official language English (but Bajan Creole is also recognised) | major ethnicity Afro-Barbadian (91%), White Barbadian (4%) | currency Barbadian Dollar ($) [BBD] | internet .bb

A Caribbean island nation located in the Lesser Antilles. The name comes from the Portuguese or Spanish (l)os barbudos (meaning “bearded ones”), colloquially called “Bim”, but before Columbian times it was called Ichirouganaim. The earliest settlements are dated to c1600 BCE, with more permanent ones by Amerindians (arriving from South America) from the 4th century CE, the Arawaks at first and then the Kalinago from the 13th century. Europeans arrived by the early-16th century and largely ignored the island until the English arrived in 1625. A lot of these arrivals were indentured labourers or transported convicts, including many from Ireland. Sugar became a major crop from the mid-17th century and a number of slave rebellions took place. Reforms took place in the 20th century, leading to internal self-government in 1961 and independence on 30 November 1966. The British monarch was retained as head of state, with an elected Prime Minister.

Although there are some cinemas in Barbados, there is little to no local feature film production, as far as I can tell.


A Caribbean Dream (2017)

There’s little enough reason for me to be mean about this film, given it’s unlikely to reach a wide audience. As a Barbados-set and filmed version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s every bit as fantastical and silly as its source, and while the acting can be of variable quality, it’s more than made up for by the enthusiasm of its cast and their gameness to play with various configurations of racial and gender identity with relative ease and fluidity. There’s a sense you get that it could have been tightened up in the editing, but I’m glad it exists.

[NB The film’s date is sometimes given as 2016, but I’m not clear if it did first screen in that year.]

A Caribbean Dream film posterCREDITS
Director Shakirah Bourne; Writers Bourne and Melissa Simmonds (based on the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Robin Whenary; Starring Aden Gillett, Sonia Williams, Adrian Greene, Susannah Harker, Lorna Gayle; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Rio, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.

Global Cinema 11: Azerbaijan – By the Bluest of Seas (1936)

As a former Soviet Socialist Republic, Azerbaijan has had some past form as a cinema-producing nation, though it’s never made as much of a world impact as say Georgian or even Armenian cinema. Therefore, for my Global Cinema entry this week I’ve gone back to Soviet times, to Boris Barnet’s well-regarded film set on and near the Caspian Sea, which plays an important part in the country’s identity.


Azerbaijani flagRepublic of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan)
population 10,127,900 | capital Baku (Bakı) (2.15m) | largest cities Baku, Sumqayit (325k), Ganja (323k), Mingachevir (100k), Lankaran (85k) | area 86,600 km2 | religion Islam (97%) | official language Azerbaijani (Azərbaycan dili) | major ethnicity Azerbaijani (92%) | currency Manat (₼) [AZN] | internet .az

A Eurasian country in the South Caucasus, it sits alongside the Caspian Sea, with mountains the north and plains inland, and an exclave to the west (Nakhchivan), cut off by neighbouring Armenia. It also includes a contested territory, the Republic of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh), of primarily Armenian ethnicity, which has its own government but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The name derives from the Persian satrap Atropates, who ruled around the time of Alexander the Great, which is itself a transliteration of Old Iranian for “Land of the Holy Fire”, and while the name evolved over millennia, it was only first applied to the region in the 20th century. The earliest settlement dates to the Stone Age, with Scythians and Medes arriving to create their own empires, merged into the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. Subsequent Sasanian Empire rule gave way to the Umayyads, then Turkic rule from the 11th century. A number of dynasties, many Persian, competed for control over the following millennium until the Russians invaded in the early-19th century. When that Empire collapsed, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was declared in 1918, though it was invaded again due to its strategically important oil and made an SSR in 1920. It declared independence in 1991, celebrated as 18 October. It has an elected President, who forms the Cabinet and appoints a Prime Minister.

The earliest films were made in the country in 1898 in the capital Baku, a prosperous oil town. A steady number of productions were made in successive decades, particularly after it became an SSR under Soviet control, though never more than a handful each year given its small size and the small number of cinema screens.


У самого синего моря U samogo sinego morya (By the Bluest of Seas, 1936)

The blue sea of this film’s title is the Caspian, and the film concerns two strapping young men who are shipwrecked and taken in by a seaside kolkhoz in Azerbaijan only to fall in love with the commune’s leader Masha (Yelena Kuzmina). It’s a very simple set-up, but there’s something engaging about director Boris Barnet’s way with waves, which seem to frame much of the film’s action, whether crashing over fishing boats, dragging away comrades to their (apparent) deaths, or just in the backdrop of the landborne action. The simple competition between these two men drives the film, one a tall blonde muscular heroic type (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and the other and native Azeri (Lev Sverdlin), shorter and solidly-built — though hardly unattractive either (Soviet or not, this is still the movies). Their aims are of course noble, and when they fall out it’s over their lack of commitment to the collective (with a side order of trying to impugn the other in the eyes of Masha), but the rivalry remains that of two friends, and when the final decision is made, it reminds you that it’s not just the men’s feelings which are at stake.

By the Bluest of Seas film posterCREDITS
Director Boris Barnet Бори́с Ба́рнет; Writer Klimentiy Mints Климентий Минц; Cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov Михаи́л Кири́ллов; Starring Yelena Kuzmina Еле́на Кузьмина́, Nikolai Kryuchkov Николай Крючко́в, Lev Sverdlin Лев Све́рдлин; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 22 July 2020.

Rajma Chawal (2018)

A recent release that I saw at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago, and which is now on Netflix, fits into the very familiar and comfortable patterns of the romcom. It overlays a traditional familial relationship, updating it to the social media age in some pretty heavy-handed ways at times, but I found it likeable all the same.


I was honestly sort of expecting to hate this once the film had set up the premise — which it does very swiftly — as out-of-touch newly-widowed father tries to connect with his moody musician son using social media (specifically Facebook messenger), by impersonating a hot woman whose picture his own mother has found on the internet. These are broad strokes, very very broad, and they are played for the expected laughs (it’s all too easy to laugh at people acting stupidly). However, as the film went on I found myself enjoying it quite in spite of myself, perhaps because of the likeability of all the leads, and the gusto with which they go about their somewhat hackneyed plot, but also because of the filmmaking on show. There’s a really lovely and evocative sequence of the son moving physically through his memories and encountering his mother on the street. I wasn’t entirely sold on the son’s music, and as I said already, it can get quite broad in its humour, but it remains a sweet romcom.

Rajma Chawal film posterCREDITS
Director Leena Yadav लीना यादव; Writers Vivek Anchalia, Manu Rishi Chadha and Yadav; Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Rishi Kapoor ऋषी कपूर, Anirudh Tanwar, Amyra Dastur अमायरा दस्तूर; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Sunday 21 October 2018.

करीब करीब सिंगल Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017)

It’s impossible to cover Indian cinema without at least a few feel-good Bollywood films. This one, directed by Tanuja Chandra — who has had a fairly long career for a woman directing in India (since 1998), though she has family connections to the business — is a likeable romcom with two big name leads. Irrfan Khan, who sadly died recently, is probably the best-known in the West.


I enjoy a good romcom, but they do tend to lean heavily on the personal charm of their leads. Luckily both Irrfan Khan and Parvathy Thiruvothu have that, although Irrfan’s character of Yogi, a wealthy layabout who writes self-published poetry does initially come across as less quirky than creepy in his insistence. Then again, romcoms do often normalise pathological behaviour, and his is comparatively tame by the genre’s standards. Needless to say, some feeling develops between the two as they criss-cross India (mostly in the north I believe, though I’m hardly a geographic expert). The director encourages her heroine to break the fourth wall by addressing the camera directly in what is now I suppose a time-honoured tradition, but it all comes off rather nicely and this is a very likeable film.

Qarib Qarib Singlle film posterCREDITS
Director Tanuja Chandra तनुजा चंद्रा; Writers Chandra, Gazal Dhaliwal ਗਜ਼ਲ ਧਾਲੀਵਾਲ and Ramashrit Joshi; Cinematographer Eeshit Narain; Starring Irrfan Khan इरफ़ान ख़ान, Parvathy Thiruvothu പാർവ്വതി ടി.കെ.; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Friday 17 November 2017.

Romantic Comedy (2019)

At the lighter end of any festival’s line-up (not least Sheffield Doc/Fest’s) are the films about films. 2018 saw Shirkers, though that investigation of a lost bit of cinema history blended personal essay with criticism and went rather dark in the process. A different approach is taken by this film premiered last year, that provides a bit of cinematic film criticism, entirely made out of clips from the genre suggested by the film’s title.


This personal essay film/reflection on the titular genre borrows a lot of its approach from Beyond Clueless (2014, directed by Charlie Shackleton né Lyne), from the clip-based structure, to the poster design right down to the musical collaborators (plus Mr Shackleton shows up as one of the commentators, which is one way that it differs from that film at least, which relied instead on a single narrator). It may not offer any insights that aren’t obvious enough to anyone who watches the films (that they glorify a lot of extremely creepy male behaviour, and pander to the patriarchy) but of course it’s nice to hear it all expressed in one place. It even, thankfully, moves into what is compelling about romcoms, why they continue to be made and gain a lot of success, though I did appreciate the way it used the genre’s format to pull in some other titles that aren’t usually considered as romcoms. Some of the use of the commentators’ voices was to speak to experiences outside that of our director/writer Elizabeth Sankey, namely those of women of colour and gay men, though those sequences were touched on only very briefly towards the end. What becomes clear is that the bulk of the form has long been dedicated to heteronormative, white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class desire, so while counterexamples exist (for at least some of those categories), the strength of the genre in future will rely on a far more equal acknowledgement of all kinds of love.

Romantic Comedy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elizabeth Sankey; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 16 May 2020.

Thank God He Met Lizzie (aka The Wedding Party, 1997)

Right, I’ve done weeks themed around various online streaming platforms, but I haven’t yet mentioned YouTube, which may just be the best repository for films online. It certainly has some of the more interesting and obscure titles. It’s always worth searching YouTube when you’ve exhausted every other possibility, especially when you’re looking for a particularly niche title, because someone may have uploaded it. I also can’t verify that at any given moment any of the films I mention having watched there will be available, but who knows. This particular pick comes from inspiration provided by Australian film writer and academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in a Twitter thread of Australian movies directed by women which were available on various platforms, including YouTube, so a few more may appear on my blog this week.


A deeply bittersweet Australian romcom of the late-1990s, about a man who marries a woman but realises as he’s doing so that he still has deep and real feelings for an ex that he can never repair due to his own stupidity. That all comes out in the final act, though, as the early part of the film is him meeting his future wife, and then a series of flashbacks to the earlier relationship. At first these seem like they’re just a reminder of another similar time of happiness in his life, but by the end comes the realisation (for him as for the audience) that this was in fact the only time he was happy. The problem — and this is perhaps a problem exacerbated by time — is that it’s difficult to really feel for his predicament because the woman he ends up marrying, the Lizzie of the film’s title, is played by Cate Blanchett. That said, playing the role of a beautiful, perfect yet imperious and demanding woman is in fact very suited to Blanchett; the true love is played by late-90s Aussie romcom mainstay Frances O’Connor (well, she was in Love and Other Catastrophes anyway), and that makes some sense even if the fact that both of them fell for this guy (called Guy, which makes me think of the similarly bittersweet Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is rather less explicable. Still, it’s rather likeable in my opinion.

Thank God He Met Lizzie newspaper adCREDITS
Director Cherie Nowlan; Writer Alexandra Long; Cinematographer Kathryn Milliss; Starring Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett, Frances O’Connor; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

एक लड़की को देखा तो ऐसा लगा Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)

It’s only fair in my week of romance and wedding-themed films to have one that actually seems fairly positive about the whole thing. Plus, given today marks the release on Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the UK, I can tie this film in somewhat to that in the sense that it’s a lesbian romance.


A big, boldly-coloured and glamorous mainstream film about two women in love, still rather a taboo subject in this traditional country it would seem, which approaches its topic via the roundabout route of suggesting first an interfaith relationship. It’s set in India’s northern state of Punjab, and presents its Hindu heroine Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) as apparently being smitten with Muslim film director/writer Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), much to the disappointment of her fiery brother Babloo and father Balbir (Sonam’s real life father Anil Kapoor). By the time the latter two men come round to Sahil, the film has made it clear that actually she’s really into a woman she met at a wedding (Regina Cassandra), so everyone’s in an awkward situation, which the film resolves with a musical-within-the-film. It manages to guide this emotional movement rather sensitively, only gradually laying out the real situation, and ensuring that when everything goes down with her family, she at least has the newly-welcome Sahil on her side. There’s some sweet detail around the edges which reminds us of the story’s source (a PG Wodehouse novel) and the British class structure of that original text: the family’s servants have scenes in which they’re seen taking bets on what’s going to happen; while businessman Balbir’s real love is cooking, though he’s been banned from the kitchen by his mother, who is clear that this is an undignified pursuit (indeed, when Sahil comes by to secretly pass a message to Sweety, he makes the classic comedy mistake of confusing Balbir for a servant). Of course, given it’s a Bollywood film, there’s some dancing at the wedding, but this isn’t quite as musical as some other films, preferring to retain its focus on the emotional core of the film, and comes in at a slim two hours running time.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga film posterCREDITS
Director Shelly Chopra Dhar शैली चोपड़ा धार; Writers Gazal Dhaliwal ਗਜ਼ਲ ਧਾਲੀਵਾਲ and Dhar (based on the novel A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse); Cinematographer Himman Dhamija; Starring Sonam Kapoor सोनम कपूर, Anil Kapoor अनिल कपूर, Rajkummar Rao राजकुमार राव, Regina Cassandra ரெஜினா கசாண்ட்ரா; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 22 August 2019.