Monthly Archives: November 2015

Eye to eye contact: start point of Rooney Mara’s and Cate Blanchett’s exquisite screen pairing

Falling in love raises our spirits and brightens our perception of all we survey, so what better than to wrap it in the delicious chill of the snowbound sparkle of the New York ‘holiday’ season?


Staff have been instructed to wear Santa hats at Frankenberg’s Department Store in Manhattan. As they line up to start the day, they are each wished ‘Compliments of the Season’ as they are given one to wear. Yet in the dolls section of the lavishly decorated Winter Wonderland of Toys, one young woman stands behind the counter minus hers – until she is told off for being hat-free. Therese (a luminous Rooney Mara) is guarded by sentries of expensive baby and girl dolls, yet she seems a dreamy young woman out of sorts with this world: she eats alone in the canteen too.

Until, one day across the crowded floor her eyes latch on to the lady in the fur coat who appears so stylish and wealthy. Their paths cross when the older woman (a stately Cate Blanchett) seeks advise about a gift to buy her young daughter – Therese suggests a trainset – and the two women exchange small talk. Before she turns to go, the shopper tells the shopgirl, ‘I like your hat.’ Moments later, from the melee of the crowd, she will turn her head and the pair exchange a glance. Later, in a letter, long after these two have had a wintertime affair, the older woman, Carol will write: ‘There is no such thing as an accident‘. On their very first meeting, it turns out she has left her kid leather gloves on the glass counter, and they will need returning.

Sumptuous Afterglow That Tempts The Heart

Todd Haynes sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel,The Price Of Salt (1952) covers similar ground to his earlier Far From Heaven (2002) Our Twenty First Century sensibilities are brought to bear on the story of same-sex desire during a less liberal era. The rich Douglas Sirk-inspired colourwash and Fifties’ settings of both Hayne films is balanced by the transparency of relationships which were only opaquely depicted in pictures from that period.

The initial setting inside a lavish department store captures the potential magic of such places at this time of year (providing the store manager has the decorative imagination). Frankenberg’s is a luxury temple of tinsel and sparkle which draws the shopper and leaves an afterglow in their minds when they leave. Both women have the same effect on each other.

Carol Aird is in a stilted, indifferent marriage that is hurtling towards divorce, while Therese Belivet is a frustrated photographer yearning to jump careers. The two women seem to recognise something in the other that the younger Therese cannot yet verbalise. She is dating Richard (the upright, 50s’-faced Jake Lacey) but is unsure what she wants from life. ‘Would you like to marry him?’ enquires Carol. ‘I barely even know what to order for lunch,’ the shopgirl replies. As much as Carol is a tale of deep, painful longing, it is also very funny.

Loving With Uncertainty

Therese is like Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (2005). While both films are couched as homosexual love stories, both involve a character whose sexuality is not clearly defined. The fatherless Ennis did not seem to know what he really wanted, while Therese admits ‘I never say “No”. I don’t know what I want, and how could I when all I ever do is say “Yes” to everything?’ It is as if she is fearful of missing out on life and its rich experiences. Yet the film is very much about the younger woman’s perception of the glamorous eponymous character, and of her first true experience of being in love. It is Therese watching through the camera viewfinder and writing in her engagement diary for December 21 Sunday: ‘lunch with Carol’.

Carol, meanwhile – as with Ennis’ lover, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) – knows exactly what she wants. Long ago before she married, she was in a relationship with her friend, Abby (Sarah Poulson), and the attention she gives the young shopworker seems predatory. (Later, Abby remarks: ‘She’s young. Tell me you know what you’re doing.’ Carol replies: ‘I don’t. I never did.’)

Trapped And Betrayed By Society’s Expectations

Carol is not a Christmas film per se. However, like The Hunt (2012) and The Apartment (1960), its most significant moments occur during Advent. This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is one where people come wrapped in coats and scarves. (The early Fifties was also an era when everyone wore hats and smoked, providing a fine metaphor for keeping a lid on one’s thoughts and desires while stifling even the air in one’s lungs.) Carol’s and Therese’s affair is one of unpeeling of barriers and defences over the course of the season and into the New Year. Conversely, a lot of the time, characters are shot through windows and behind doors as if they are closed in by society’s expectations.

As with Brokeback Mountain, we are made aware of the emotional impact this affair has on the partners left behind. Carol’s husband, Harge tells his estranged wife as they dance at a Christmas party: ‘You’re always the most beautiful woman in the room’, but his continued adoration for her will never be enough for her. The adoring Richard is potentially setting out on the very same road. Carol is a film about people who are swept along by their feelings and the consequences for good or ill of that – and that includes the menfolk too.

Seasons Of Love And Life Keep Turning

Carol and Therese effectively flee by car to New Jersey for Christmas and later will embark on a road trip. They leave the artificiality of the department store and New York’s decorative lights, and emerge out of the very new New Jersey Turnpike Tunnel from where they will encounter the more natural world. ‘I love the snow. Makes it feel like Christmas, don’t you think?’ Carol points out as she drives. They stop to view real fir trees: Therese snaps Carol with the camera Carol gave her for Christmas. The gift clearly chimes with Therese’s dreams but it is also a challenge to open her eyes and see things differently.

There is an innocent quality about Therese as if she is going along for the ride while open to whatever might transpire. Yet the custody of Carol’s young daughter is at stake, and even as the two women are drawing closer in intimacy, Fate is stacked against them. Snow falls and there is an atmosphere of glittery frostiness yet also a promise of spring in the air as they travel cross country. In a hotel in Waterloo, Iowa they will wish each other a Happy New Year and for the first time they will make love. And it will shortly be followed by deep heartbreak; then reappraisal and renewal for each individual.

Others.will choose to euphemistically dismiss Therese and Carol’s love affair as ‘The events of the winter’. Yet the Christmastide meeting and the enveloping of the couple in all the sensuous shine and magical lighting of the season represented so much more. As Carol later reminds Therese when all seems to have been lost: ‘We gave each other the most breathtaking of gifts.’

Carol went on general release on Friday.


A star is brightly shining: Christmas casts its own glow in Sean Baker’s iPad vision

In the sun-blasted City of Angels, it could be just another day for the hustlers and trans girls who ply their trade in the squalor around Sunset Boulevard, but yet, but yet the Season adds its own glow.


Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.’ A pink-iced doughnut sits on a table between two garishly dressed transwomen in a doughnut store in downtown Los Angeles. Sin-Dee (non-actor Kitama Kiki Rodriguez), newly released from prison having spent 28 days inside, has just inadvertently been told by her best friend, Alexandra that boyfriend – and pimp – Chester (James Ransone) had hooked up with a ‘white fish’ – a white straight woman – while she was incarcerated. Sin-Dee is fuming and on the warpath. As she storms off to find the offending woman, Alexandra (the more sane-acting Miya Taylor) is forced to follow in her wake, only able to sigh: ‘Merry fucking Christmas’ as she hurries out the store.

Sean Baker’s low budget Tangerine takes place entirely on December 24th, 2014 and is the first feature to be shot on an iPad 5, and uses non-professional actors. It takes a little while to settle down and the pair to find their thespian feet, though maybe that is the point. Sin-Dee is overtly shrill, her actions crudely expressive and her whole world seems to be filled with full scale DRAMA that is quite draining to watch. But Tangerine is salvaged by the fluid cinematography and framing and the film’s scorched dayglo bubblegum aura: there’s a touch of the early John Waters’ about this movie.

A shaft of Christmas magic in a grim, tough world

While Sin-Dee’s journey accompanied by Alexandra plays as the very heart of Tangerine, her story is intersected by that of Armenian cab driver, Raznik Karren Karagulian), the vagaries of the different fares he takes, and his relationship with the local trans hookers. He drives a woman along Sunset Boulevard, and it is clear that this remains a place of faded dreams and low expectations, food lines and pawn shops. This is the deadbeat end of town where people wash up and are lucky to escape. There’s a grim, tough world of hustling, poverty and drugs.

Yet Christmas Eve casts its own magic nevertheless. Again and again throughout Tangerine, people either plead for leniency or are willing to offer it, simply because it is December 24th. A drunken pair of men who have disgustingly and copiously thrown up in the back of Raznik’s car are unceremoniously dragged out by the driver and on to a grass verge. One of them, between bouts of continued illness bleats: ‘It’s Christmas Eve. Where’s your Christmas spirit?’ at the understandably irate cabbie.

When a bemused police officer breaks up a street fight between Alexandra and a punter over money, she tells the pair: ‘It’s Christmas Eve. We’re going to go our separate ways because that’s a lot easier than telling our family why we have to be bailed out of jail.’ (To which Alexandra retorts: ‘Family.’ Clearly she doesn’t have one, and the officer’s suggestion is all about the male punter.)

Trans identity has notably become more mainstream in Western media in recent years and Tangerine presents a non-judgemental view of the harsh beleaguered lives of these members of the trans community. It is rarely a pretty sight. When Sin-Dee attacks Chester’s much more slight girlfriend, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagen) and drags her along the street and then forces her up against a metal grill and throttles her, one cannot but help be made very aware of the sheer difference in physique. (Earlier, a fight between Sin-Dee and a man is heralded by her screeching ‘I still have a dick’ at him as if to confirm it will be a physically equal match.) Sin-Dee may claim to be all woman but it looks like an unequal and naked male strength and aggression we are observing.

A Day Of Grace And Reckoning

While people appeal to Christmas Eve for some graciousness, Tangerine’s tale in fact proves to be a day of reckoning for everyone this particular December 24th. On the surface, the Christmas dinner at Raznik’s family home appears the most conservative and settled. There is his little daughter and the family dog, his wife, her mother-in-law and friends, and a large twinkling Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. But the cab driver’s sexuality definitely will out this Christmas Eve and shake up the whole nest.

Interestingly, as an excuse to leave the household to go and watch Alexandra sing, and also catch up with Sin-Dee whom he fancies, Raznik announces ‘Christmas is for Americans. For us, it’s another work day.’ There’s something very Dickensian undergirding that statement about how not everyone can afford not to work during the festival. But there is another relevant point: once he’s left, his wife explains to her mother: ‘His real Christmas is on the 6th January.’ This is one of the few cinematic acknowledgments within the melting pot of the United States that Christmas is not on the same day for all. (That the film is set on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day suggests a more Eastern European and/or Catholic perspective of the season.)

It is back at Donut Time where everything comes full circle and to a head and all parties meet. Truth will out. Perhaps Reznik’s mother-in-law, for all her bigotry and overbearing personality, ironically is the most perceptive when it comes to this supposed season of good cheer. She complains to Karo, the cabbie driving her to find Reznik that ‘This is Christmas without snow.’ There is no whiteness to cover up and romanticise the city’s grim underbelly. ‘Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,’ she adds, as if on the one hand contradicting herself while her words carry their own truth too.

Lonely Souls Adrift In City Of Angels

By the film’s end when the night is setting in, it is clear that there are many lonely souls trying to make sense of Christmas. (A moment of tenderness between the two trans friends only serves to emphasise the bruised personalities and vulnerability beneath the hard sass.) And Reznik sitting in the dark beside the flickering Christmas tree in his warm family home is as adrift as those transgirls selling themselves on the street. Baker set the film on Christmas Eve for this very reason – because so many of the girls have no family, and can not rely on their fellow hustlers: ‘because there’s so many fake people out there. It’s just a whole fucked-up situation. In the end you only have yourself.’

Yet for all such harsh reality, Tangerine amounts to a funny, sad, grim, tortured, tender tale of people hanging on to the underbelly of the American Dream with their garishly fake-nailed fingertips during a fairy light-lit day of reckoning.

Familiar family gathering: but do they make ’em like this anymore?

For all the seasonal cinema screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life and tv stations pulling out all the stops to fill the November & December schedules with yuletide movies, annual Christmas-themed film releases tend to be thin on the ground. 2015 looks very different.


Last year, it was Get Santa and Nativity 3. One notable year, the tube was full of billboards showing a rather scary Father Christmas with Naughty and Nice tattooed on his fists but that was for Rise of the Guardians: a film set at Easter! That’s not to say that there weren’t pictures that flew under the radar, such as Happy! Happy! But on the whole, the annual selection was nominal, the releases often family-aimed contrivances. The Christmas movie canon, after all is a collection of titles released over decades.

Except this year, there’s a veritable glut. And what is more, there is a broadness in the themes they cover: as a collection, they take in issues of sexuality and gender, homelessness, the traditional family gathering, and folk legend. And that is without counting films such as The Lady In The Van, and New Year’s Day release, Joy which both incorporate Christmas scenes into their trailers while neither film is essentially about Christmastime.

On current release

Tangerine (15)

Given it happens to be the first feature film produced on an IPad, trans drama, Tangerine makes both a strange and fitting double bill to watch with Steve Jobs starring a hugely impressive Michael Fassbender as the eponymous Apple computer genius. Mind you, what Jobs would have made of Sean Baker’s sun bleached dayglo vision set among Los Angeles’s hustlers on Christmas Eve is anyone’s guess. The trans girls are shrill, and the drama of their lives is spelt out in capital letters. But this is a funny, sad, grim, tortured, tender tale of people hanging on to the underbelly of the American Dream with their garishly fake-nailed fingertips during a fairy light-lit day of reckoning.

A Christmas Star (U)

Billed as the ‘first Northern Ireland Christmas film’, production company, Cinemagic have accumulated a young cast and crew along with industry professionals to encourage trainees into the industry. Pierce Brosnan plays a property developer (boo hiss) and the mellow tones of Liam Neeson provide the narration. All who worked on it clearly gained some valuable experience, and the whole project is well meant. And while I have not yet seen the film (it is out on dvd on November 23rd), I have been warned off seeing it both by film reviews and to my face (yesterday evening after a press screening of Christmas With The Coopers).

Out 27th November

Carol (15)

As with The Apartment and The Hunt, the crux of Todd Hayne’s beautifully shot and coloured Carol takes place during Christmastime, but it is not the whole story: which is why, technically, none of them can be classed as Christmas movies. It is in the run up to the festival that Cate Blanchett’s upper middle class wife and mother first sets eyes on Rooney Mara’s shopgirl in the tinselled toy department of a New York store. It feels a magical place where dreams might come true, and the pair effectively bewitch each other, striking up a relationship. Which proves a very dangerous game in America in 1952, especially for Carol who risks losing her young daughter. This is a beautifully rich character study that has had critics salivating but may face difficulty in attracting audiences beyond the arthouse circuit.

Out 1st December

Christmas With The Coopers (12A)

I expected slapstick and schmaltz around the Christmas dinner table with Diane Keaton and John Goodman as the heads of the household. The trailer gives the same poor impression. Ignore the trailer. Christmas With The Coopers focuses more on the journeying than the actual arrival at the family home. It’s a film about memories, regrets, lost love, life’s disappointments and childhood sleights that still burn. And is wistful, funny, sharp, moving, romantic, sceptical, humane, hopeful and silly. There are moments which children will enjoy, but this is essentially a Christmas movie for those who have lived a bit longer. At the time of writing, I ‘ve yet to see all the films listed here, but this might be my favourite of the season. And it’s got a great soundrack too.

Out 4th December

Krampus (15)

Nothing like some influence from European folklore to darken the – enforced – Christmas mood and jollity of a dysfunctional American family gatheinrg. Krampus is the anti-Santa Claus whose focus is on the naughty kids – and while there are shivers and shocks to be had, it also falls on the right side of horror. The audience shrieks will be laced with laughter. As with the excellent Rare Exports, Black Christmas, and, why, A Christmas Carol itself, a dark twist on the festivities provides part of the season’s winter colour.

Out 11th December

The Night Before (15)

Three friends – Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt embark on their annual Christmas Eve night of debauchery across New York in search of the best party, well aware that this could well be their last. If there are any laughs, they are broad ones. And there is one scene set at Midnight Mass that looks set to deeply offend many Christians. James Franco’s genitals apparently have a cameo role. It’s that sort of Christmas movie…

Hector (15)

Peter Mullan plays Hector McAdam, a homeless Scot who every year travels down south to spend Christmas at a London hostel. This year, he has an added journey: he wishes to track down his estranged siblings. This is a small British seasonal film with limited release.

So, it’s quite a year! I will cover each of the films as close to their cinema release date as possible. Look out for my full review of Tangerine shortly.

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