Thursday, 19 October 2017

Critical Week: Sister act

It's been nice to only see three films in the three days after the film festival ended (rather than three or four a day). The main event was an epic press screening of Thor: Ragnarok, which is surprisingly funny all the way through while also being packed with eye-catching energy (especially the scene-stealing Cate Blanchett, above), even if the whole Marvel thing is feeling oddly stale, perhaps because there is no suspense left in the formula. But it's a lot of fun. I also caught up with The Snowman, Michael Fassbender's serial killer thriller based on the Jo Nesbo novel, which has deservedly had terrible reviews across the board. There is a huge range of talent on both side of the cameras, yet the script is a mess. And on the smaller side, I caught the British thriller B&B, which touches on some big topics (mainly bigotry) with strong characters and a genuinely unsettling plot. I also had some time for the theatre...


Young Frankenstein
at the Garrick Theatre
Mel Brooks adapts his own classic film (one of my all-time favourites) into this rather nutty musical, which opened in the West End last week. It's basically the movie with added songs that stretch out some of the more iconic moments, and the characters are all played by a skilled singing-dancing cast exactly like their big screen counterparts. Perhaps the film is so indelible that there's no other way to play these roles - they wouldn't be as funny it they didn't hark back to the great Gene Wilder, Madeleine Kahn, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman. The material is robust enough to handle this transition - the film's best jokes are still funny on stage. And the emotional kick is here too, even if it's somewhat diluted by the extra razzle dazzle. I'll probably go see it again.


Graeme of Thrones
at the Charing Cross Theatre
The subject up for satire is obvious, but this fringe show takes an amusingly fresh approach that is actually poking fun at fringe shows themselves. The three-person cast is up for quite a lot of riotous silliness, with physical slapstick, wordplay and lots of sight gags. Their rendition of the series' opening titles is impeccably ridiculous. Fans of the TV show will get all of the jokes, which include spoilers right up to the latest season. And there are plenty of gems thrown in all the way through for a wider audience, especially the performance art pieces that come out of nowhere with their delirious absurdity. Some of the humour strains a bit, but most gags hit the target astutely. And by the end, the sloppy "let's put on a show" vibe means that we're rooting for all three of these scruffy actors (plus one game audience member) to claim the Iron Throne.


Coming up this next week, we have Nicolaj Coster-Waldau in Shot Caller, Domhnall Gleeson in Crash Pad, British thriller Palace of Fun and Aussie coming-of-age drama Teenage Kicks.


Sunday, 15 October 2017

LFF: Kick back on Day 12

Well, it's all over for another year, so I can start to get back to normal life now. Tonight's closing film is Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (that's Sam Rockwell above), with the usual red carpet premiere and gala party after. But for me it's been about the films, and there have been some great ones (plus a few duds). And as always, there is a long list of movies that I desperately wanted to see but couldn't fit into my schedule. Here are the winners of the festival's official juried awards, my 10 best films (including some I had seen previously), and a final collection of highlights...

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 AWARDS
  • Best Film: LOVELESS
  • Doc (Grierson Award): KINGDOM OF US
  • First Feature (Sutherland Award): THE WOUND
  • BFI Fellowship: Paul Greengrass

MY BEST OF THE FEST 2017:
  1. A FANTASTIC WOMAN
  2. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
  3. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
  4. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
  5. 120 BEATS PER MINUTE
  6. LOVELESS
  7. LAST FLAG FLYING
  8. LEAN ON PETE
  9. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
  10. CUSTODY

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
dir-scr Martin McDonagh; with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson 17/US *****
Writer-director Martin McDonaugh is on blistering form with this fiendishly clever personal drama, which arrives masquerading as a funny, violent police thriller. With take-no-prisoners performances from the entire cast, particularly a storming Frances McDormand, the film tackles our angry world head-on with a surprisingly heartfelt plea for compassion. And it approaches the riveting story and pungent themes with remarkable honesty... FULL REVIEW >

Zama
dir-scr Lucrecia Martel; with Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Lola Duenas 17/Arg ***
This is a fairly difficult movie even by the standards of adventurous Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. An existential odyssey based on the 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, it simply refuses to coalesce into any kind of sensible narrative as the title character's life becomes a swirling nightmare of bureaucracy and cross-cultural messiness. And that's actually the point. At least it's fascinating, beautifully shot and acted, and packed with witty satire... FULL REVIEW >

The Prince of Nothingwood
dir Sonia Kronlund; with Salim Shaheen, Sonia Kronlund 17/Fr ****
A fly-on-the-wall look at prolific Afghan filmmaker Salim Shaheen, this documentary is both playful and chilling in the way it explores the life of a colourful man and a nation's momentous history. French-Swiss journalist Sonia Kronlund follows Shaheen into some rarely seen parts of Afghanistan, which he calls "Nothingwood" due to his no-budget filmmaking style. It's an entertaining and eye-opening film.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco
dir-scr James Crump; with Bill Cunningham, Jessica Lange 17/US 1h30 ****
A fast-paced, skilful portrait of an artist who isn't very well-known outside fashion circles, this film is infused with the sensuality of its 1970s period. Through lively, expressive interviews and a wealth of footage and stills, Antonio Lopez springs to life before our eyes, making us wish we had a chance to get to know him, because he seems like someone we'd probably fall in love with just like everyone else did.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

LFF: Do the right thing on Day 11

It's the penultimate day of the 61st BFI London Film Festival, and tonight's gala will see Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix walking the red carpet in Leicester Square. There will also be a flurry of celebrities attending tonights awards ceremony, hosted by James Nesbitt, at which Paul Greengrass will receive the prestigious BFI Fellowship. I'll list the winners, as well as my own best of the fest, tomorrow. Here are more highlights...

You Were Never Really Here
dir-scr Lynne Ramsay; with Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts 17/UK *****
This singular thriller by Lynne Ramsay is like a slap across the face, a fresh approach to the genre. It's also unapologetically an arthouse film, demanding a lot from the audience as it presents a swirl of imagery and sound that says a lot about the central character without being obvious about it. Anchored by a burly-bear performance from Joaquin Phoenix, it's definitely not an easy film, but it isn't easy to shake.

Let the Sun Shine in [Un Beau Soleil Intérieur]
dir Claire Denis; with Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois 17/Fr ****
An exploration of the yearning to find that elusive one true love, this astutely observed film is funny, charming, beautiful and sad. But it's never remotely sentimental, thanks to filmmaker Claire Denis' razor-sharp approach. It's also elevated by a sharply honest performance from Juliette Binoche as a woman seeking the love of her life.

Nico, 1988
dir-scr Susanna Nicchiarelli; with Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair 17/It ****
This biopic about the final years of the iconic German-born musician-actress strikes an intriguing tone, diving into firsthand accounts of people who worked with her. It feels remarkably personal, with a bold, gritty edge that echoes the intensity of both Nico's singing and Trine Dyrholm's thunderous performance. Some elements feel a little undercooked, leaving the audience perhaps misled about details. But it's an involving film packed with rivulets of emotion... FULL REVIEW >

This Is Our Land [Chez Nous]
dir Lucas Belvaux; with Emilie Dequenne, Andre Dussollier 17/Fr ***.
With an earthy sense of authenticity, this drama takes a controversial approach to French politics. There's an urgency to the premise that shifts this from a gently pointed drama into something rather darker and scarier. All of which makes it perhaps a little muddled, but the film highlights the insidious idea that both politicians and bigots are happy to change strategies if they have a chance of winning, but they'll never change their goals.

Strangled [A Martfüi Rém]
dir-scr Arpad Sopsits; with Karoly Hajduk, Gabor Jaszberenyi 16/Hun ***
Based on a true story, this dark, stylish thriller builds dramatic suspense as it chronicles a serial killer in a small Hungarian town. Revealing the cold-blooded murderer from the start, the film sometimes feels a bit draggy as we wait for the cops to connect the dots, but it's packed with terrific characters who are conflicted and relatable.

The Nile Hilton Incident
dir-scr Tarik Saleh; with Fares Fares, Mari Malek 17/Swe ***.
This Cairo-set police thriller is perhaps too elusive to properly grip the audience, but it's a striking portrait of a culture that seems to ignore every rule of law. Shot in an offbeat style, the story's most momentous moments are shot in an almost throwaway style, which makes it an intriguing challenge to know who or what is important. This also provides some nasty gut-punches along the way to the requisite shocking finale.

Friday, 13 October 2017

LFF: Share a snack on Day 10

The 61st BFI London Film Festival powers into its final weekend with a flurry of world premieres, red carpet galas and lots of great little films packed into the edges of the programme. I have no more press screenings, but there are several movies I'm hoping to catch at public screenings over the weekend, so watch this space. And here are some more highlights...

The Florida Project
dir Sean Baker; with Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite 17/US ****
Loose and lively, this free-flowing comedy-drama is set among people living just outside the main gates of Disney World. And its young cast of mainly non-actors is terrific at creating likeable characters with big attitudes. As he did in Tangerine, filmmaker Sean Baker focusses on engaging people touched by the carelessness of loved ones who think they deserve sympathy, but don't... FULL REVIEW >

Downsizing
dir Alexander Payne; with Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig 17/US ***
Alexander Payne eschews his usual organic style of storytelling for something more pointed and constructed. The premise is ingeniously conceived and thought out down to the (ahem!) smallest details, and as the plot develops a variety of big issues make themselves known. This may provide a connection to present-day issues, but it makes the film begin to feel rather pushy. And the ideas themselves become stronger than the narrative... FULL REVIEW >

Sweet Country
dir Warwick Thornton; with Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris 17/Aus ***.
With a gentle pace that echoes the rhythms of life in turn-of-the-century rural Australia, this slow-burning dramatic Western quietly creeps up on the audience. It offers deep themes and detailed characters, plus a vivid depiction of the clash between the Aboriginals and the European interlopers. The film's setting may echo other movies, but the tone is distinctly more internalised, exploring the true nature of justice in a seriously unfair place... FULL REVIEW >

The Forgiven
dir Roland Joffe; with Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana 17/SA ***
This well-produced drama about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission feels somewhat dated, as this kind of story has been told in plenty of movies over the past 20 years. But strong performances from an international cast raise the interest level, and it's a vivid exploration of forgiveness that transcends some rather sentimental storytelling.

A Sort of Family  [Una Especie de Familia]
dir Diego Lerman; with Barbara Lennie, Yanina Avila 17/Arg **.
From Argentina, this dark drama is intriguing enough to hold the interest, but it loses the audience's sympathy along the way. With a central character whose specific issues are only superficially defined, much of what happens feels infuriating, which is a problem for a movie that's straining so hard to be emotionally wrenching. Even so, filmmaker Diego Luna has an eye for characters and settings, so he draws us in to the dilemma and its implications.

Grain
dir Semih Kaplanoglu; with Jean-Marc Barr, Ermin Bravo 17/Tur ***.
With a gorgeous visual sensibility augmented by expansive monochrome cinematography, this Turkish odyssey explores big issues about the future of humanity through a meandering narrative following a man across a dystopian landscape. It's a bit obtuse at times, dipping into allegorical surrealism and arthouse nuttiness, but it's also utterly riveting, both for its epic plot and its big ideas.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

LFF: Look closer on Day 9

Only a few days to go, the press screenings at the 61st BFI London Film Festival are increasingly looking like the parade of the living dead as us journalists push our sleep patterns to the limits to see as many movies as possible. But we're also enjoying every gem we uncover. Here are some more highlights, plus more below...

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
dir Yorgos Lanthimos; with Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman 17/UK ****
Possibly the least surreal thriller yet from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, which isn't saying much, this movie verges on horror as it pushes its characters right to the brink. The story builds quietly, layering in a variety of issues that continually compel the audience to make decisions about the rather unhinged people on-screen. And while the ultimate message is perhaps a little muddled, it definitely gets us thinking.

Journeyman
dir-scr Paddy Considine; with Paddy Considine, Jodie Whittaker 17/UK ***
With a tightly focussed script, this film feels perhaps a bit slight, like a short stretched to feature length. But it skilfully captures a sense of real life for these characters caught in an extraordinary situation. And it avoids the usual boxing movie cliches for something much more internalised. Paddy Considine shines as writer, director and star, but it's a striking supporting performance from Jodie Whittaker that pulls the audience in.

The Boy Downstairs
dir-scr Sophie Brooks, with Zosia Mamet, Matthew Shear 17/US **.
A fairly straightforward rom-com livened up by some structural editing, this film takes the rather tired position that no young woman is complete until she finds the perfect man to grow old with. Otherwise, it's smart and engaging, with characters who are easy to identify with and a nice sense of awkward energy as they try to interact. Easy to watch, and never remotely challenging.

Angels Wear White
dir-scr Vivian Qu, with Wen Qi, Zhou Meijun 17/China ****
A slow-burning lament about corruption and injustice in China, Vivian Qu's dramatic thriller is warm, steely and packed with conflicted characters from a variety of generations. It's sometimes so morally complex that it makes the viewer's head spin, not because we don't know what's right, but because everyone is so good at sidestepping around it.

Custody
dir-scr Xavier Legrand; with Denis Menochet, Lea Drucker 17/Fr ****
A punchy drama that grips the audience with a complex situation and shifting characters, this French film only gradually reveals the truth about the dissolution of a marriage. Writer-director Xavier Legrand and his skilled cast take a bold and intense approach to a story that unfolds through a series of perspective-shifting encounters. It's often painful to watch, building to a confrontation that leaves us deeply shaken... FULL REVIEW>

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L    W E E K
I only saw one regular press screening this week (for a non-LFF film), and that was the British period movie The Man Who Invented Christmas, starring Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens. It's light and entertaining, and once again proves the resilience of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. And then there was this world premiere, which oddly wasn't included in the LFF...

The Phantom of the Opera
dir Rupert Julian; with Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin 25/US *****
Written in 1993, Roy Budd's magnificent original score finally had its world premiere some 24 years later, performed live at the London Coliseum by the Docklands Sinfonia Orchestra with a print of the film that has been restored with its original colour-tinting. To call this screening a triumph is an understatement. It was the perfect combination of venue, live music and an iconic film that's still surprisingly freaky nearly a century after it was made.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

LFF: Escape on Day 8

The end is in sight for the 61st BFI London Film Festival, as we cross into the later half of this week with several more starry gala screenings to come. I noticed things felt a little quieter in the press screening rooms today, but perhaps that's because I'd seen some of the bigger films at Venice, so I was catching up on slightly more off-kilter things. It's always tricky finding time to see the more marginal films, but they tend to be the surprises, the ones you remember. Here are some more highlights...

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
dir Paul McGuigan; with Annette Bening, Jamie Bell 17/UK ***.
With a gorgeous visual style and vivid characters, this true story is packed with superb details that bring the people and situations to life. It's an offbeat narrative, rejecting the usual structures as it flickers back and forth in time over the course of about three years, but it offers some sharp comedy and big emotional moments along the way. And a nice comment on how Hollywood discards old actors.

Brawl in Cell Block 99
dir-scr S Craig Zahler; with Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter 17/US ****
After infusing the Western with horrific new life in 2015's Bone Tomahawk, S Craig Zahler is back with a thunderous reinvention of the prison movie. Set in the present day but playing out like a 1970s exploitation thriller, this increasingly grisly story unfolds with choreographed precision, grinding the audience into its emotional depths with several genuinely hideous plot turns. And it's anchored by a superbly thoughtful/fierce performance from Vince Vaughn... FULL REVIEW >http://www.shadowsonthewall.co.uk/17/brawcell.htm

Man Hunt
dir John Woo; with Zhang Hanyu, Masaharu Fukuyama 17/Jpn ***.
John Woo returns to his roots with this rampaging action movie, which also pays homage to the history of Japanese cinema as an innocent man tries to clear his name. Set in the present but shot in cheesy 1970s style, the film is a lot of fun with its convoluted plot and breathtakingly choreographed action scenes. It also features all the Woo trademarks, from shattered glass to fluttering doves. And bullets, lots of bullets... FULL REVIEW >http://www.shadowsonthewall.co.uk/17/fi.htm#manh

A Ciambra
dir-scr Jonas Carpignano; with Pio Amato, Koudous Seihon 17/It ***.
Following on from his 2015 refugee drama Mediterranea, Italian filmmaker Jonas Carpignano switches the focus to catch up with another character, a young Romany teen who is straining to come of age. Shot like a documentary with mainly non-actors, the film is abrasive and pungent, maintaining a close-up perspective on this cocky teen's forays into what will clearly become a hopeless life of criminality.

Beyond the Clouds
dir-scr Majid Majidi; with Ishaan Khattar, Malavika Mohanan 17/India ***.
Iranian maestro Majid Majidi brings his humane filmmaking approach to India with this complex story about makeshift families. While it may be a bit melodramatic and abrupt in its approach, this is a provocative drama set around the moment when revenge clashes with compassion. It's also beautifully shot with a lively, expressive cast.

The Journey
dir Mohamed Al Daradji; with Zahraa Ghandour, Ameer Ali Jabarah 17/Iraq ***
The title of this film may seem weakly generic, but this is a sharply pointed drama that uses an allegorical structure to strong effect. With a range of characters and emotions and a plot that unfolds in real time, this is an engaging, sometimes harrowing profile of a suicide bomber. It maybe somewhat arch, but it's also thoughtful and powerful in its yearning for truth.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

LFF: Have a chat on Day 7

OK, this is the point in a film festival when a critic's brain begins to turn to mush, unable to remember what he saw today, let alone what's in the diary for tomorrow. I'm sure the 61st London Film Festival is a starry parade of red carpet premieres and glamorous parties somewhere, but for me it's an endless stream of press screenings. Well, I shouldn't complain too much, today there were two receptions involving free wine and canapes. So at least I'm feeling fed and watered. Some more highlights...

The Party
dir-scr Sally Potter; with Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson 17/UK ****
A pitch-black comedy packed with equal measures of awkward irony and brittle tragedy, Sally Potter's offbeat film is like a stage play filmed for the big screen. Photographed in black and white with expressionistic lighting and editing that makes it feel almost like a feature-length Twilight Zone episode, it's a rampaging trawl through politics and social connections. It's also deceptively light, but carries a piercing sting... FULL REVIEW >

The Shape of Water 
dir Guillermo del Toro; with Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins 17/US ****
Guillermo del Toro lets his imagination run wild with this engaging and also rather dark romantic adventure. It's a riot of clever production design, witty dialog and heartfelt emotion that carries the audience on a journey along with the vivid characters. The whimsical family-movie tone sits a bit oddly alongside the film's resolutely adult-oriented touches, but for grown-ups this is a fairy tale full of wonder... FULL REVIEW >

6 Days
dir Toa Fraser; with Mark Strong, Jamie Bell 17/UK ***
Muscular direction and an insistent tone maintain a sense of urgency all the way through this fact-based account of a terrorist siege. The quality of the production is very high indeed, although the somewhat on-the-nose screenplay and a pulsing musical score leave this feeling more like a quickly produced TV movie than something 35 years in the works. Still, it's a fascinating account that builds to a superbly staged finale... FULL REVIEW >

Foxtrot
dir-scr Samuel Maoz; with Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler 17/Isr ****
Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz takes an audacious journey into grief and guilt in a drama that's made unsettling by the inclusion of sardonic wit, surrealism and dark irony. With characters who are strikingly well-played, travelling through this gorgeously photographed narrative is like taking an epic voyage into the neglected corners of your soul... FULL REVIEW >

I Am Not a Witch
dir-scr Rungano Nyoni; with Margaret Mulubwa, Henry BJ Phiri 17/UK ****
A fascinating mix of allegory and satire, this offbeat tale from rural Zambia is packed with wonderful characters and surreal touches. It's a story about a group of women who are marginalised as witches and treated with voyeuristic reverence. With her feature debut, writer-director Rungano Nyoni has created a marvellous movie that might not always be easy to watch, but it sparks with artistry and originality.

The Wound [Inxeba]
dir John Trengove; with Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsai 17/SA ****
A finely observed drama from South Africa, produced with sometimes startling honesty as it depicts ukwaluka, the Xhosa rite of passage into manhood. The film is a bracing depiction of a tribal tradition in modern times, packed with vivid characters who are grappling with a range of big questions. What emerges is a striking depiction of masculinity that transcends cultures.