Thursday, 2 April 2020

Critical Week: Put me in coach

Another week of isolation, with a list of streaming releases so long that I can't possibly keep up with all of them. Frankly, it's tricky to even know what's coming out at any given time, as each streaming service does its own thing, while websites tend to do "editor's picks" rather than simply listing everything that's new. But the worst thing for me is missing the cinema itself: I've never gone this long without going to the movies, and I miss the communal experience of watching a film (or a play) along with an audience. Even a group of grumpy critics in a small basement screening room is better than sitting alone at home, where I'm limiting myself to two films per day just to maintain some sanity.

This week's biggest movie was The Way Back [UK title: Finding the Way Back], starring Ben Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach seeking redemption. It's moody and gritty, predictable but also movingly well-played. Also worth a look are the Netflix movie Uncorked, a warm father-son drama set in Memphis starring Mamoudou Athie and Courtney B Vance, and Standing Up, Falling Down, an understated comedy about an offbeat friendship starring Ben Schwartz and Billy Crystal.

Further afield, The Other Lamb is an artfully made and finely acted freakout about a charismatic cult leader (Michiel Huisman) and a follower (Raffey Cassidy) who begins to question things. Butt Boy is a pitch-black comedy-thriller played with a completely straight face. Tape is a worthy and perhaps overambitious take on #MeToo. And from Ukraine, Just Sex, Nothing Personal is a cute-silly comedy that isn't as sexy as it thinks it is.

Coming up this next week, I'll be watching the animated sequel Trolls World Tour, Josh Duhamel in The Lost Husband, Ed Helms in Coffee & Kareem, the sci-fi romcom Same Boat, the generational drama Tigertail, the Western comedy Gold Dust and other gems from my list of forthcoming streaming titles...

Sunday, 29 March 2020

BFI Flare: Finding family

It's been a strange one indeed! A sliver of the 34th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival was held online over the dates when the usually lively event takes over BFI Southbank. There were a lot of films I really wanted to see, and now I'll be hoping they get some form of distribution in the UK or another festival slot at a later date - including the opening night film Cicada, Marco Berger's new film Young Hunter, last year's Queer Lion winner The Prince and the London rugby club doc Steelers. Here are three more features and the cream of the crop of the shorts I saw this year...

A Dog Barking at the Moon
dir-scr Xiang Zi; with Nan Ji, Na Ren Hua 19/Chn ***.
Flickering around in time adds some texture to this Chinese drama, which explores the strained relationships within a family. While the central idea of a woman putting up with her husband's homosexuality isn't unusual, it's addressed with some boldly provocative filmmaking choices and played with honesty and insight. And the artful way writer-director Xiang Zi keeps things understated is intriguing, even if it's perhaps a bit dull.

Jack & Yaya
dir Jen Bagley, Mary Hewey; with Jack, Yaya, Tony, Jo Ann 19/US *** 
Exploring a friendship as it celebrates 30 years, this warm documentary takes a deeply personal approach, allowing people to be themselves as they speak and interact. Even though it feels somewhat random and overlong, the film has an offhanded slice-of-life quality as it recounts an extraordinary story with a strong sense of affection and humour. And along the way, some deeper universal themes emerge as well.

Rescue the Fire [Rettet das Feuer]
dir-scr Jasco Viefhues; with Jurgen Baldiga, Aron Neubert 19/Ger ***.
This unusual documentary looks back at the life and work of artist-photographer Jurgen Baldiga. Rather than a straightforward narrative, his story emerges in a free-flowing current of memories recounted by his friends as they look at his work. Not only does this provide a terrific glimpse of their life back in the day, but it also affirms the importance of art to help define key moments in history.

BFI Flare short films...
I saw 29 short films as part of this year's festival, including the Five Films of Freedom. There wasn't a dud in the bunch - which is rare - so congrats to the programmers on the high quality of the selection this year. Here are my top 10 favourites (aside from the frankly awe-inspiring #FiveFilmsforFreedom)...

Memoirs of a Geeza
dir-scr Theo James Krekis with Elliot Warren 19/UK 3m ***** 
A fiercely clever collage, this British short is narrated by a working class South Londoner who insightfully explores his life through a montage of grainy home movies. Packs an astonishing amount into three minutes.

dir-scr Harry Lighton, Marco Alessi, Matthew Jacobs Morgan; with Otamere Guobadia 19/UK 9m **** 
A bracingly fresh style of storytelling uses social media to help a young man piece together a pivotal night out. Visually inventive and darkly emotive, it tells its story using an all-new visual language.

Aliou's Journey [Le Voyage d'Aliou]
dir-scr Mamadou Samba Diallo; with Sadibou Diagne 17/Bel 21m ****
There's a raw, unpolished energy to this earthy drama set in Senegal, about a lively young guy who wants to make a film about a gay refugee, but his acting buddies are dubious.

My Sweet Prince
dir-scr Jason Bradbury; with Yoni Roodner 19/UK 12m **** 
Cleverly weaving together the filmmaker's childhood video diaries with a freeform narrative about a young guy trying to work out the attitudes and actions of some older teens he's hanging out with.

Miller & Son
dir-scr Asher Jelinsky; with Jesse James Keitel 19/US 21m **** 
Beautifully shot and acted, this narrative short tells a fully formed story about a young man whose two lives are about to collide. It has humour, cathartic release, dark emotional suspense and a lovely payoff.

dir Christopher McGill; with David Souk 19/UK 9m **** Based on real experiences, this Scottish short recounts the harrowing experience of a young man who is asked to prove that he's gay, in order to validate his asylum request. But this sparks some horrific memories.

A Battle in Waterloo
dir-scr Emma Moffat; with Jessie Buckley 19/UK 16m ****
Based on real events, this short offers a lovely insight into a little-known aspect of the iconic 1813 battle between France and Britain, where women fought disguised as men.

The Last Romantics [Os Últimos Românticos]
dir-scr Joao Candido Zacharias; with Mauricio Jose, Lucas Canavarro 19/Br 12m **** 
This inventive short consists of two takes in which someone recounts a story from his own perspective, slightly shifting the focus for reasons that remain partly off-screen. It's superbly engaging.

dir-scr Justin Ducharme; with MacKenzie Kingdon-Prouty 18/Can 12m ****
This soft-spoken Canadian drama centres on a young guy who takes up sex work as a way to understand his identity and control his sexuality. It's remarkably unapologetic, and beautifully observed.

Boldly Go
dir-scr Christopher Cosgrove; with Nicolai Lafayette, Adam Sollis 19/Aus 5m **** 
This Aussie short blends a witty premise with some much darker realism while playing with sci-fi iconography and horror-movie elements. But at its centre is a pointed and sweet romantic encounter.

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NOTE: Over the coming year, I will continue updating the site's BFI Flare page with links to full reviews of films that were programmed as part of the festival.

Friday, 27 March 2020

BFI Flare: Thinking clearly

The 34th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival continues to run virtually, via the BFI Player, so I've been watching movies at home in isolation. There's only a very small selection of features from the festival available to review, so I hope the filmmakers have found other ways to get their work out there - I'm happy to give it a boost if I can! There are a lot of shorts online for press to cover, so I'll include a roundup of those in my final post on the festival, plus reviews on the website of everything. My usual Critical Week roundup of non-festival films is below (everything there is currently streaming!). But first, here are three more Flare highlights...

The Lawyer [Advokatas]
dir-scr-prd Romas Zabarauskas; with Eimutis Kvosciauskas, Dogac Yildiz 20/Lit ****
Set in Vilnius, Lithuania, this soft-spoken topical romance explores the nature of attraction with a collection of realistic characters and situations. Filmmaker Romas Zabarauskas never pushes things over the top, maintaining a tight sense of realism while digging into some provocative themes with honest complexity. At its heart, this is a properly touching love story, and as the story develops it works its way deeply under the skin.... FULL REVIEW >

Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story
dir Posy Dixon; with Glenn Copeland, Jeremy Costello 19/UK ****
There's a loose approach to this documentary, which approaches issues of race and gender from the striking perspective of a black trans man who survived the tumultuous cultural climate of the 50s and 60s and, after gaining experience as a musician, recorded his now-iconic eponymous album in 1986. With a fluid style, director Posy Dixon lets the story unfold in a way that's powerfully moving... FULL REVIEW >

Ask Any Buddy
dir-prd Evan Purchell; with Casey Donovan, Al Parker, Jack Wrangler, Peter Berlin 19/US ****
A feature based on the eponymous Instagram feed, this cinematic collage uses clips from 125 theatrical movies from 1968-1986, creating a fascinating depiction of gay life between Stonewall and the Aids epidemic. This isn't about realism, it's about how filmmakers depicted the lifestyle on-screen. Editing together pornographic films that were shot in real-life locations, filmmaker Evan Purchell creates an unusual documentary portrait of the subculture as it expressed its sexual freedom... FULL REVIEW >

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K

In the absence of press screenings, I've had a lots of films to watch while home-isolating this week. On the flight from Los Angeles to London, I watched The Wolf Hour, the dark and rather gloomy dramatic thriller starring Naomi Watts. Also this week, there was the Catherine Deneuve/Juliette Binoche drama The Truth, an expertly understated drama by maestro Hirokazu Kore-eda; the oddly muted remake Human Capital, starring Liev Schreiber and Marisa Tomei; the mindless guilty pleasure action of Bloodshot, with Vin Diesel as an indestructible operative; the surprisingly astute political satire The Hunt, which squares off Betty Gilpin against Hilary Swank; and the thin but enjoyable romcom Hooking Up with Brittany Snow and Sam Richardson.

In addition to the BFI Flare movies, arthouse gems included the German social services drama System Crasher and Saudi Arabia's astonishing The Perfect Candidate - both are entertaining, surprising and unmissable. And also on the flight, I watched the Bollywood action comedy The Man Who Feels No Pain starring the painfully likeable Abhimanyu Dasani (pictured). The title kind of explains it all, but it's solid corny entertainment.

BFI Flare continues through this weekend, and this coming week I'm hoping things aren't quite so busy. Films I need to watch include Billy Crystal in Standing Up Falling Down, Ben Affleck in The Way Back, Disney's remake of The Lady and the Tramp, the entertainment industry drama Tape, the thriller From Iceland to Eden, the black comedy Dogs Don't Wear Pants and the football doc The Australian Dream.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

BFI Flare: Watching horizons

Here in lockdown, the 34th edition of BFI Flare continues to unfold virtually on the BFI Player (which has a free trial period). There are several films online, plus new titles added regularly along with filmmaker Q&As. Meanwhile, everyone in Britain is confined to their homes at the moment, only able to go out once a day for exercise and essential shopping. It feels more than a little like the apocalypse, but hopefully these drastic measures will help us calm the impact on the health system and return to some sort of normality soonish. Here are five more features from the festival's programme worth looking for, plus this year's Five Films for Freedom, a special selection of LGBTIQ+ shorts that are globally available online...

dir-scr Hong Khaou; with Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers 19/UK ****. 
Director Hong Khaou continues on from the delicate beauty of Lilting with this gentle, finely crafted exploration of personal history and identity. Set in Vietnam, it also centres around a death, but this time as a window into the past as the central character quietly allows his lost connection with his roots to wash over him and change him. It's a stunner of a film packed with moving moments... FULL REVIEW >

dir Oliver Hermanus; with Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers 19/SA ****
Strikingly well-made, and carrying a devastating emotional kick, this South African drama tells a deeply personal story that has much wider implications. Writer-director Oliver Hermanus creates gorgeous-looking films, and this one is augmented by beautiful cinematography and clever editing. It gets deep under the skin of a nation still grappling with its past, and offers a remarkably resonant look at issues of racism and homophobia... FULL REVIEW >

Don't Look Down [Haut Perchés]
dir-scr Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau; with Manika Auxire, Geoffrey Couet 19/Fr ***
Like a stage play, this film puts five characters in an apartment and watches them over the course of a single night as they talk to each other. French filmmakers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau use deep colourful lighting to give the film a lush look and feel, and each of the cast members has a vivid sense of physicality. This is a seductive, mysterious little film that pulls the audience... FULL REVIEW >

For They Know Not What They Do
dir Daniel Karslake; with Sarah McBride, Elliot Porcher 19/US ****
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision recognising marriage equality, mainstream evangelicals worked with the Republican Party to initiate more than 200 discriminatory laws, stoking fear and emboldening bigotry. This open-hearted documentary follows a series of specific experiences as parents struggled to deal with children who didn't fit in with their religious leaders' teachings. And this beautifully assembled film makes their pain and hope feel universal... FULL REVIEW >

Portrait of a Lady on Fire [Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu]
dir-scr Celine Sciamma; with Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel 19/Fr *****
With a staggeringly astute screenplay and sharply observant direction, French filmmaker Celine Sciamma breathes inventive life into this period drama. She fills scenes to the brim with subtext, and not only mines her richly layered story for resonant themes but also creates complex characters the audience can fall in love with. So the film's otherworldly beauty becomes a provocative depiction of both art and romance... FULL REVIEW >

Five Films for Freedom
The British Council and BFI Flare present a selection of shorts each year during the festival, inviting viewers from around the world to watch and share the films in solidarity with LGBTIQ+ communities in countries where freedom and equal rights are limited, under the tagline "Love is a human right". Over the past five years, almost 14 million people have watched these films in more than 200 nations. This year's strong selection includes dramas and docs from four countries... FIVE REVIEWS >
After That Party: dir Caio Scot 19/Br ****.
134: dir-scr Sarah Jane Drummey 19/Ire *****
Pxssy Palace: dir Laura Kirwan-Ashman 19/UK ****
Something in the Closet: dir Nosa Eke 19/UK ****
When Pride Comes to Town: dir Julia Dahr, Julie Lunde Lillesaeter 18/Nor ****.

Watch #FiveFilmsForFreedom

Monday, 23 March 2020

BFI Flare: Making connections

The 34th edition of the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival was supposed to kick off last Wednesday (the photo above is from the opening film Cicada), but of course it was cancelled, like everything else at the moment. I've covered this festival for 22 years, and it's my favourite - not just for the terrific mix of movies but also because it's one of the best chances all year to hang out with filmmakers and encourage new voices. The BFI is hosting a virtual festival over the next week, a selection of the films on its BFIPlayer, including live filmmaker Q&As. It won't be the same, but it's something!

I will cover as much as I can remotely from isolation at home, including the now-iconic annual collection Five Films for Freedom. To get started, here are some films that have been seen already in London - either at London Film Festival last October or on general release in the UK. Most are already streaming somewhere...

And Then We Danced 
dir-scr Levan Akin; with Levan Gelbakhiani, Bachi Valishvili 19/Geo ****
There's a lovely mix of personal emotion and societal outrage in this sensitive Georgian coming-of-age drama. Swedish writer-director Levan Akin keeps the camera close to the protagonist, seeing events tightly through his eyes as the world comes into brighter focus for him. What it says about empty, fearful machismo is very harsh, and this is also an engaging celebration of artistic freedom. And a bold statement of support for Georgia's LGBTQ community... FULL REVIEW >

Matthias & Maxime 
dir-scr Xavier Dolan, with Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas, Xavier Dolan 19/Can ***.
There's a bold, bracingly fresh idea at the centre of this film, and actor-filmmaker Xavier Dolan spends much of the running time avoiding it, just as his characters do. The film is sharply written to catch the rhythms of 30-somethings still working out where to go with their lives. And the central story of two lifelong friends has a strong kick, even if it comes a bit late... FULL REVIEW >

You Don't Nomi 
dir Jeffrey McHale; with Adam Nayman, David Schmader 19/US ****
A fascinating exploration of the notorious 1996 drama Showgirls, this documentary asks whether it's a masterpiece or a turkey. Or maybe it's both at the same time. Certainly, Paul Verhoeven's film has become a cult classic in the two decades since it was declared the worst film of the year (it swept the Razzies). With comments by journalists, academics and commentators, plus archival interviews with the actors and filmmakers, this is a deep dive into why such an obviously trashy movie has had such an indelible impact... FULL REVIEW >

Pain and Glory [Dolor y Gloria]
dir-scr Pedro Almodovar; with Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia 19/Sp *****
At age 69, Pedro Almodovar delivers on of his most intimate, powerfully inventive films, a striking rumination on the nature of artistic creation in the story of a filmmaker looking back on his life and work, neither of which are quite finished yet. The movie is of course visually sumptuous, but there's also a confident maturity in the storytelling that makes several moments drop-dead gorgeous. It's, quite simply, a stunner... FULL REVIEW >

dir Olivia Wilde; with Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever 19/US ****
Like a blast of fresh air, this raucous teen comedy approaches high school from an unapologetically female perspective. The film doesn't merely flip the gender, it inventively finds a new path through the usual tropes to create fantastically vivid and complex characters while indulging in the kind of silly outrageousness that has always been reserved for boys. It deserves to be a massive hit... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

On the road: Bring it home

So here I sit in cold, rainy Southern California, all my plans derailed. I've seen some friends and family while I've been here, but not everyone I came out here to visit. And virtually everything has been cancelled due to covid-19, with cinemas and theatres closed, along with bars and restaurants. So as I distance myself socially, I have little to do. When not listening to music on hold, I've watched a few films. For example, out this week in the UK (perhaps!) is The Jesus Rolls, John Turturro's offbeat remake of the 1974 Les Valseuses featuring his Big Lebowski character Jesus Quintana. It's loose and perhaps too smiley.

I also watched, to review them, the engaging and creepy German arthouse thriller Darkroom, about a nice guy serial killer, and the adorable Swedish animated romance Top 3, about a guy with self-esteem issues. And exploring Netflix I found the warm Spanish film Live Twice, Love Once, an involving, very cleverly written and played drama about memory, as well as the concert video Steve Martin & Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, which is as hilarious as you want it to be and leaves you wanting more.

I'll continue prowling around Netflix and, since cinemas are closing, I'll be covering more films released online over the next several weeks. The website will need to begin to reflect this new reality (this week's cover, right, replaces the planned one for A Quiet Place Part II). I'm still working out how this all looks, while I currently have review links for upcoming streaming movies titled: The Perfect Candidate, Hooking Up, The Other Lamb, Gold Dust, Just Sex Nothing Personal and, ahem, Butt Boy. So I have plenty to do whether I'm isolating in California or, hopefully, back home in London...

Thursday, 12 March 2020

On the Road: Staring at the sea

I flew from London to Los Angeles this past week, amid growing global unease about covid-19, so I'm trying to be careful. I've seen one new film since landing here, ironically a British drama set on the English coast: Hope Gap. It's a sensitive marital drama starring Annette Bening, Bill Nighy and Josh O'Conner as a couple and their son going through a shift in the family dynamic. It's refreshing to see a movie tackle these things without resorting to overwrought melodrama, and all three actors are excellent.

I only watched two films on the flight (plus some episodic television). First was the gorgeous Oscar-winning animated short film Hair Love, and then the feature doc Andy Murray: Resurfacing, an intriguing look into the life of a top sporting competitor facing the possible early end of his career. And arriving in Los Angeles, I attended the opening night of the Noir Film Festival, a screening of the rarely seen 1952 Argentine thriller The Beast Must Die, a fabulously melodramatic noir whodunit.

In addition to visiting a few museums, I also spent a rainy day at Disneyland with longtime friends, and of course many of the attractions are based on movies - from the two frankly awesome Star Wars rides Smugglers Run and Rise of the Resistance to the outrageous gravity-defying hilarity of Guardians of the Galaxy: Breakout and The Incredicoaster. It was also fun to revisit rides based on Indiana Jones, Mr Toad and Pinocchio, as well as two that later became movies: Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise.

There's not much out here this week in cinemas (I'm not particularly tempted by Bloodshot or My Spy, more interested in Sally Potter's The Roads Not Taken if I can find it in a local cinema), but I have a few films I need to watch online for work, including the Lithuanian drama The Lawyer, the German thriller Darkroom and the animated rom-com Top 3.