Friday, 24 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 1:From A to B


This is the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and my first visit to this part of the world. I'm here on the Fipresci jury, which is tasked with giving prizes to two Arab films: narrative and documentary features. 

Last night the festival kicked off with a lavish opening night event, complete with an epic red carpet, ceremony honouring producer Edward Pressman and filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, and then the opening film From A to B, the first film from the Emirates to open the festival. It's a lively road movie with an unusually sharp script that combines character-based humour, introspective drama and a sharp sense of the political scene as three 25-year-olds drive from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, recreating a trip they were supposed to take five years earlier. 

This is a wonderfully involving story, with solid performances from the likeable, camera-friendly cast. The three central characters are very clever - all lifelong expats (from Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) who met at an American school in Abu Dhabi), each with his own personal issues and a distinct sense of humour. After last night's world premiere it should play well at other festivals, and also with at rouse crowds who have probably never seen a film from this part of the world that's so packed with sparky humour.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

LFF 10: At the end of the war

Brad Pitt invaded London to wrap up the 58th London Film Festival tonight with his World War II batttle epic Fury. He was accompanied by his entire tank team (around Pitt above: Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal) as well as filmmaker David Ayer, and their press conference following the morning screening was a combination of reverence for veterans and brotherly camaraderie developed over the shooting process.

Meanwhile, journalists feel like we've been through a war since press screenings started in mid-September - averaging three or four movies a day since - but it's all over now, and hopefully we can get back to full nights of sleep. Although on Wednesday, I'm heading to Abu Dhabi to serve on the jury of their film festival 23-31 October. But that will feel like a holiday compared to London! Until then, here are some final highlights....

Fury
dir David Ayer; with Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf 14/UK ***
Writer-director Ayer makes no attempt to update the rah-rah bombast of the WWII genre, indulging in big action, the usual plot points, faux heroism and "war is hell" rhetoric. The film is sharply assembled and very nicely acted by a terrific cast, but it ultimately feels oddly pointless.

3 Hearts
dir Benoit Jacquot; with Benoit Poelvoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg 14/Fr 1h46 ***.
A twisty love story shot and edited as if it's a dark thriller, this odd film is utterly riveting mainly because it's impossible to predict what the characters are going to do next. At its core, this is a love triangle. But the film is assembled with attention to the most insinuating, creepy detail, confident enough to allow the characters to slip in and out of sympathy along the way.

Second Coming
dir Debbie Tucker Green; with Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba 14/UK **
Beautifully shot with an attention to internal intensity, this low-budget British drama should carry an emotional wallop. But filmmaker Tucker Green infuriatingly refuses to fill in any details, leaving dialog incomplete, the plot blurry and the characters' feelings as mere hints of something bigger. The acting feels raw and very personal, but without having a clue what's happening the film remains maddeningly elusive.

President
dir Mohsen Makhmalbaf; with Misha Gomiashvili, Dachi Orvelashvili 14/Geo 1h45 ****
Now based in London, exiled Iranian filmmaker Makhmalbaf pulls no punches in this blackly comical political adventure. Set in an "unnamed country" (it was filmed in Georgia), it's a story of political oppression told from perspectives that are rarely represented on screen with this much honesty and warm humour, forcing the audience to consider the themes from unthinkable angles.




Friday, 17 October 2014

LFF 9: A little chaos never hurt anyone

Alan Rickman turned up at the 58th London Film Festival to present his latest directing effort A Little Chaos, in which he stars alongside Kate Winslet, Matthias Shoenaerts and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci (is there any other kind?). Also on the red carpet tonight were James McAvoy with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (which oddly wasn't properly screened for the press) and filmmaker Julius Avery with Son of a Gun (see below). There are just two more days before I sleep. More highlights...

A Little Chaos
dir Alan Rickman; with Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts 14/UK ****
A cracking screenplay and sparky acting go a long ways to making this British period drama, set in 17th century France, thoroughly entertaining. With both spiky politics and swoony romance, the film has something for everyone, but it only works because the writing and directing allow the characters to have their own inner lives. Which makes the silly story surprisingly involving.

Son of a Gun 
dir Julius Avery; with Brenton Thwaites, Ewan McGregor 14/Aus ***.
Rippingly entertaining, this Australian thriller never quite breaks the surface but has strong characters well-played by an eclectic cast. And its pacing is so brisk that it holds the interest even if the plot twists and thematic metaphors are all painfully obvious. But without any subtle subtext, it's still a solid guilty pleasure.

Winter Sleep
dir Nuri Bilge Ceylan; with Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen 14/Tur ****.
The extra-long running time may put some viewers off, especially since the film is essentially made up of a series of issue-oriented conversations, but there's never a dull moment. As it explores the issue of justice and conscience in an increasingly economically divided world, the film is relevant, witty and startlingly moving.

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom
dir Jacob Cheung; with Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming 14/Chn **
An epic tale of conspiracy and war combined with a sweeping romance, this film has all the elements to be a classic. But filmmaker Cheung rushes through it erratically, leaving the plot nonsensical, the battles incoherent and the love story utterly flat. While it has plenty of energy, the film feels like a 12-hour miniseries roughly chopped down to 103 minutes: overcrowded, rushed and exhausting. And the 3D doesn't help.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

LFF 8: It's all about parenthood

Steve Carell and filmmaker Bennett Miller were on hand at the 58th London Film Festival today to present their new drama Foxcatcher, based on the true story of John du Pont and his rather outrageously creepy sponsorship of the US Olympic wrestling team. Carell is being mentioned as a sure-fire Oscar nominee for the role, which sees him under several layers of facial prosthetics and body padding - but it's also a remarkably understated performance that sends chills down the spine. They were joined on the gala red carpet tonight by Sienna Miller, and also on hand was Xavier Dolan with his Cannes-winning film Mommy. Here are some more highlights from the festival (I've uploaded several reviews, with more to come)...

Foxcatcher
dir Bennett Miller; with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum 14/US ****
After Capote and Moneyball, director Miller turns his hand to another true story, although this one is so unnerving that the film is rather difficult to like. But it's strikingly well made, building an almost unbearable sense of creepy tension through characters who are portrayed bravely by actors working beyond their comfort zones.

Mommy
dir Xavier Dolan; with Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon 14/Can ****.
With his most audacious film to date (which is saying something for the 25-year-old writer-director of films like I Killed My Mother and Laurence Anyway),  Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan creates a whole new cinematic language to explore the astoundingly complex relationship between a mother and son. The film is difficult, confounding and sometimes maddeningly honest.

The Salvation
dir Kristian Levring; with Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green 14/Den ****
A remarkably fresh take on the Western, this Danish film (shot in South Africa) is packed with believable characters in realistic situations. Director Levring captures the genre's recognisable elements without ever falling back on a simplistic cliche, which makes the events eerily easy to identify with, especially where they involve moral dilemmas. FULL REVIEW >

Catch Me Daddy
dir Daniel Wolfe, Matthew Wolfe; with Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, Conor McCarron 14/UK ***
Revealing its story in hints and fragments, and relying on some understanding from a clued-up audience, this dark dramatic thriller is so vividly made that any shortcomings in the uneven cast and jarring narrative are more than made up for in atmosphere. Not only is it genuinely terrifying and emotionally wrenching, but it also touches on a very important current issue.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

LFF 7: The beat goes on

At the 58th London Film Festival today, the gala presentation was the premiere of Sundance winner Whiplash, attended by stars Miles Teller and JK Simmons (above). The film kicked off the critics' day with a breathless 9am screening that certainly got our adrenaline pumping for the rest of the day. Here are some more highlights...

Whiplash
dir Damien Chazelle; with Miles Teller, JK Simmons 14/US ****.
With a literally breathtaking pace and outrageously high energy, this film grabs you by the lapels and shakes you until you're a blubbering wreck. This is about as black as comedies can get, hurtling through the story of a talented young man coming up against a seriously fearsome teacher. And it's so powerful that it takes awhile to recover after the credits roll.

Love Is Strange 
dir Ira Sachs; with John Lithgow, Alfred Molina 14/US ***.
Gentle and almost overwhelmingly bittersweet, this drama is packed with such engaging characters that the weaknesses of the plot don't seem too distracting. It has something powerful to say about extended relationships as it explores a long-term romance in a quietly moving way.


Jamie Marks Is Dead
dir Carter Smith; with Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver 14/US ***.
This soft-spoken film is both a sensitive teen drama and one of the most inventive ghost stories in recent memory. It's haunting and visually stunning, with moments that are deeply moving and genuinely horrific. And at its core it's a thoughtful exploration of adolescent yearning to make sense of unexpected feelings.

Electricity
dir Bryn Higgins; with Agyness Deyn, Lenora Crichlow 14/UK **.
While this film has enough visual panache to please arthouse audiences, its script is simply too thin to back up the imagery with any resonant meaning. The solid cast never gets the chance to delve deeply into the characters and, in the end, the filmmaker's emphasis on eye-catching flourishes leave everything else feeling rather simplistic and empty.

Next to Her
dir Asaf Korman; with Liron Ben Shlush, Dana Ivgy 14/Isr ****
This offbeat Israeli drama features vivid characters and a series of stunning twists and turns that continually challenge the viewer's attitudes. With a strong sense of realism, director Korman creates a strikingly involving film that touches on big issues while remaining deeply grounded in the characters.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

LFF 6: She knows how to pick 'em

Jennifer Lawrence made a witty red carpet appearance at the 58th London Film Festival to promote her new film Serena, costarring Bradley Cooper, which was only showed to selected press (I'll see it next week). At least the rain stayed away today! Also on the red carpet tonight were the cast and crew of Testament of Youth, based on the Vera Brittain memoir. It was the film's world premiere, attended by actors Kit Harington, Emily Watson, Dominic West and more, plus director James Kent and writer Juliette Towhidi. That one I did see, and it's covered below, along with some more highlights...

Testament of Youth
dir James Kent; with Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington 14/UK ***
Vera Brittain's iconic memoir gets the full British period drama treatment, although it's so lovingly crafted that it struggles to spring to life. It's beautifully shot and acted but, especially in the final third, the film is almost painfully worthy, wallowing in its emotions rather than finding something resonant in the story.

Return to Ithaca
dir Laurent Cantet; with Alberto Pujols, Isabel Santos 14/Cub ****
A lively reunion of old friends, this organic drama swirls from comedy to dark drama and back again, refusing to wallow in nostalgia even as this gang of "old farts" can't help but reminisce about the old days. But since it's set in Havana, the film has a lot to say beyond the issues facing five 50-ish pals whose lives haven't gone the way they expected them to.

The Cut
dir Fatih Akin; with Tahar Rahim, Simon Abkarian 14/Ger ***
Shot in Germany, Jordan, Malta, Cuba and Canada, this international production takes on a major historical atrocity that most countries refuse to admit ever happened: Turkey's genocide against the Armenians during World War I. The film goes on to be an epic global odyssey that has a powerful emotional kick, even if the filmmaking feels somewhat contrived.

1001 Grams
dir Bent Hamer; with Ane Dahl Torp, Laurent Stocker 4/Nor ****
Cheeky Norwegian filmmaker Hamer is back with another film that combines black comedy and dark drama. And this time there's also a layer of startlingly warm emotion running just underneath everything. Ostensibly a story about the most immovable technical details about everyday life, the film's ultimate point is that some things can't be measured.

Metamorphoses
dir Christophe Honore; with Amira Akili, Sebastien Hirel 14/Fr 1h42 ****
Based on Ovid's epic 1st century poem, this film is a strikingly involving exploration of how ancient mythology both creates and exposes elements of humanity and culture. Set in modern-day France in which average people take on the roles of gods and mythical characters, the film isn't easy, but its earthy approach makes it unnervingly resonant.

Monday, 13 October 2014

LFF 5: Let's hear it for the girls

Reese Witherspoon took London by storm today - and it was a properly stormy day - with the London Film Festival gala screening of her new movie Wild. She braved the rainy red carpet tonight with Cheryl Strayed, the intrepid author she plays in the film, and screenwriter Nick Hornby. Also on the red carpet today were Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and Asa Butterfield (for X + Y); and Sophie Okonedo, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Shaun Evans and Antony Sher (for War Book).

After gorgeously sunny, crisp weather over the weekend, today was a thorough wash-out, with spray from the heavens all day. It wasn't much fun walking around; it's the kind of day you really want to be sitting in a cinema. Here are some more festival highlights (full reviews are coming!)...

Wild
dir Jean-Marc Vallee; with Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern 14/US ***.
Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, this film depicts her journey as launching with a badly overstuffed backpack, which is just the first metaphor in this overstuffed thematic odyssey. Fortunately, it's directed with skill and artful insight by Vallee and acted with rare transparency by Witherspoon. The trick is to not let the onslaught of aphorisms weigh you down.

My Old Lady
dir-scr Israel Horovitz; with Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith 14/UK ***.
An oddball sensibility keeps this gentle drama from ever turning maudlin or sentimental, even as the story explores some potentially melodramatic issues. Relaxed performances and a script packed with revelations (based on writer-director Horovitz's play) keep the audience entertained while being poked by some surprisingly sharp edges.

The Falling
dir Carol Morley; with Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake 14/UK ****
There's a fiercely original sensibility to this film, which boldly explores female puberty through a series of rather outrageous events. By combining life and death with sexuality, writer-director Morley is definitely courting controversy, and some of the plot points feel like a step too far. But it's so strikingly intimate and fiercely artistic that it can't be ignored.

Appropriate Behavior
dir Desiree Akhavan; with Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson 14/UK ****
Actor-filmmaker Desiree Akhavan is clearly exorcising some very personal ghosts with this lively comedy, which echoes the style of Girls by presenting the central character as a likably flawed real person doing her best to get through a messy life. (Intriguingly, Akhavan appears in the next series of Girls.) It's a very funny movie, with a remarkably astute script and some surprising textures along the way.

A Girl at My Door
dir July Jung; with Doona Bae, Kim Sae-ron 14/Korea ****
A chilling tale of social evils in small-town Korea, this drama centres on an offbeat friendship between two damaged women who draw the suspicions of everyone around them. Filmmaker Jung is playing with perceptions, letting the audience see things only slightly more clearly than the bigoted locals. It's a riveting film that never offers easy answers.