Monday, 27 April 2009

Critical Week: If you go out in the woods...

It was a very odd week for screenings, as I saw a hodgepodge of mismatched films, none of which could even remotely be described as mainstream. The two with the broadest appeal were British indies: Summer Scars (pictured) is a strikingly well-made thriller about teens being menaced by a stranger in the woods (kind of the inverse plot of last year's Eden Lake), and Dogging: A Love Story is a surprisingly sweet romance set amongst people who like to have sex in public (although most sex is oddly off-screen).

Then there were two docs: Sleep Furiously is a lushly shot but extremely elusive little film about the vanishing way of life in rural Wales, and Blind Loves is a fascinating combination of documentary, fiction and fantasy recounting four love stories between blind or partially sighted people in Slovakia. I also caught a bunch of older things that are coming out on DVD (or in very limited release): the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning cleverly covers the early voguing movement in Harlem, and Pasolini's Trilogy of Life adapts three collections of medieval stories into lively, energetic, provocative films - the raucous The Dameron (1970), the wacky The Canterbury Tales (1972) and the seductive Arabian Nights (1974).

This week's offerings include a couple of films that are only having one press screening - which is too late for my print outlets: Hugh Jackman is back in the prequel X-men Origins: Wolverine, and Matthew McConaughey stars in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. I've also got Robin Wright Penn in Rebecca Miller's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, the Mexican drama I'm Going to Explode, the Japanese drama Funuke, the fishing doc The End of the Line and a restoration of Godard's Pierrot le Fou.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Critical Week: To boldly go

I may have seen seven films last week, but there was only one anyone cared about: JJ Abrams' new take on Star Trek. It's easily one of the most entertaining films of the year - I can't remember the last blockbuster movie that actually kept me this gripped from start to finish. It cleverly combines the old, familiar characters with new cast members and an all-new story. I want to see it again on the Imax screen.

Other press screenings were a mixed bag. Crank: High Voltage brings Jason Statham back to another of his iconic roles for more riotous adrenaline-charged mayhem, although it's not quite as much fun as the first film. Observe and Report is a startlingly unfunny anti-comedy starring Seth Rogen as an unlikeable mall cop. Last Chance Harvey is an almost shamelessly cute rom-com starring Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, and it works mainly because of their gentle chemistry. Red Cliff is an amazing spectacle, a Chinese battle epic with a superior cast and John Woo's unique sweeping filmmaking skill. The Last Thakur tells a Shakespearean story of community mistrust and clashing religions in Bangladesh. And Three Miles North of Molkom documents a touchy-feely retreat in Sweden attended by the most astonishingly self-indulgent people you've ever met.

This week's schedule is rather a lot lighter, including the British comedy DG: A Love Story, the Welsh refugee/farming doc Sleep Furiously, the British horror flick Summer Scars, the French drama The Last of the Crazy People, and a mini-festival of restored Pasolini films, from The Canterbury Tales to The Decameron.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Critical Week: Blunt force

Now that the festival is over, it's back to the normal life of a critic (essentially it's the same, but with fewer films and parties). Not that I ever stopped watching the regular film releases over the past three weeks! But never mind. This past week's collection of press screenings has been extremely eclectic ... from the violent vagueness of the British football yob drama Awaydays to the slick intelligence of the political thriller State of Play (a remake of a BBC series transplanted to America) ... from the quirkiness of the indie comedy-drama Gigantic to the blunt force of Channing Tatum (above) in Fighting ... from the deafening roar of the unspeakably dumb Fast & Furious to the emotional intensity of the French thriller Anything for Her.

I guess if there's anything in common among these films, it's the in-your-face nature of them all. At least Gigantic kept the noise levels low.

This week's offerings include more noise with Jason Statham in the hotly anticipated Crank: High Voltage, the Seth Rogen mall cop comedy Observe and Report, the Dustin Hoffman-Emma Thompson romance Last Chance Harvey, a documentary about a touchy-feely retreat in Sweden called Three Miles North of Molkom, the Bengali drama The Last Thakur, John Woo's mega-hit Red Cliff and one of the biggest movies of the year, JJ Abrams' relaunch of Star Trek. More on those next week - or get instant comments by tweet!

Thursday, 9 April 2009

LLGFF 13 & 14: Happy endings

The LLGFF closed Wednesday night with a gala screening of the French comedy-drama Baby Love (pictured), followed by an extremely lively party at Floridita, at which festival programmers, filmmakers, actors, journalists and loads of hangers-on partied late into Thursday morning. I'm still recovering. The closing movie was an appropriate choice for this year's festival, which had such a strong family theme. Key films from the festival will be travelling around the UK over the next several months, while programmers at the BFI in London begin scouring the world for next year's offerings. Screened on the last couple of days...

Baby Love ***
Lambert Wilson stars as Manu, a paediatrician who wants to have a baby, but his boyfriend (Pascal Elbe) certainly doesn't. They split up as a result, and Manu befriends an Argentine woman (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) who's in Paris with visa problems - a marriage of convenience combined with surrogate motherhood is the logical solution. But there are many wrinkles on the road to happiness. The film is bright and busy, with snappy dialog and surprisingly sharp performances. The characters aren't always likeable (indeed, the women are pretty thinly written), but it's cute and easy to watch, and as it goes along it touches on some very serious issues as well.

Burn the Bridges ***
There's a dark undertone to this otherwise bright and slightly goofy Mexican movie about a brother and sister caring for their dying mother, a former pop star. Helena is a bit too in love with her baby brother Sebastian, who is coming to the realisation that he would rather have a boyfriend than a girlfriend. And their impending grief nearly gets the better of both of them, as they descend into depression and obsession, eventually discovering that they really must make some difficult decisions about moving forward in life (the original title is actually Burn the Ships, referring to the Spanish conquistadores who decided they had to cut off ties with their homeland and make the most of their new life in the New World). The film gets a bit mopey and melodramatic, but it's also funny, emotional and enjoyably twisted.

Dream Boy ***
With a strikingly realistic sense of life in the South, filmmaker James Bolton (Eban and Charley) tackles deep-seated prejudice with this evocative drama about a new kid in high school (Stephan Bender) who struggles against his strongly religious family and community as he comes to grips with his sexuality. He also develops a quiet relationship with the brooding boy next door (Max Roeg, son of Nicolas). The film builds an almost unbearably tense atmosphere as it progresses; we know this is not going to end well. And the filmmakers keep things grounded and realistic, even though in the end it feels somewhat overwrought and oddly simplistic. But it looks amazing, and the cast is terrific.

Monday, 6 April 2009

LLGFF 11 & 12: Those pesky kids

Family issues are a main theme at this year's LLGFF, with lots of movies about children and parents that have sexuality woven naturally through them. This ties in with a change in the law here in Britain this week that allows, for the first time, same-sex parents to be listed on an adopted child's birth certificate. Here are just a few of the festival films from the past few days looking at youth from various angles...

Tru Loved ****

From the maker of the charming Coffee Date, this enjoyable high school comedy deals with some serious themes as it progresses to a very cute and corny finale. Tru (Najarra Townsend, pictured left) is a new girl in school whose open-minded background (she has four parents - a gay couple and a lesbian couple) gets her into the middle of the coming out crisis for a football star who thinks his whole life will end if anyone finds out that he's gay - so he asks her to play his girlfriend. The plot wrinkles are pretty predictable, but it's played with warmth and honesty. And there are some terrific small roles for the fabulous Jane Lynch, Marcia Wallace and even Bruce Vilanch.

Chef's Special ***
From Spain, this extremely cute comedy stars Javier Camara (Talk to Her) as a restaurant owner who obsesses about everything, especially the fact that a Michelin Guide writer is coming to review his restaurant. So it's not helping that he has to take care of his two kids while falling for a neighbour and dealing with a bickering staff. The film is full of vivid colours and huge personalities, with snappy dialog and a continuous stream of hilariously farcical situations. It's a little over-long and chaotic, but there's a real sense of character development underneath the madness. And the film touches on real issues - parenthood, meddling, reputations - along the way.

Japan Japan ***
This experimental movie from Israeli filmmaker Lior Shamriz centres on a 19-year-old who moves to Tel Aviv and shares a flat with a rather crazy young woman while he goes out looking for boys and tries to figure out what to do with his life. He has a dream of moving to Japan, but is distracted by his best friend's video-blogs from her New York holiday as well as the Palestine-Israel conflict. The film is a witty, intriguing exploration of identity, shot with split-screens and some pretty outrageous imagery. There's no real plot, but the film catches a terrific autobiographical tone along the way, and vividly shows that sometimes there are bigger issues beyond us that put our own lives into perspective.

OMG/HaHaHa ***
Subtitled "another piece of homo-propaganda", this fake doc indeed gets rather preachy as it goes along, pretending to be a video-blog by an emo 18-year-old talking about his dying mother, teen pregnancy, relationships and generation-gap issues. Even if it doesn't ring fully true, it feels extremely improvisational, with revealingly open conversations. It has an airy, light-filled photographic style that's reminiscent of free-form Gus Van Sant, plus laidback music and a genuine attempt to catch that whole MySpace thing. On the other hand, the on-screen captions get rather annoying with their text-spellings and emoticons. And when the big themes start to come together in the end, it feels a bit forced and gimmicky.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

LLGFF 9 & 10: Song and dance

The BFI's 23rd London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is into its second weekend now, with a wide range of films on offer, plus special events, discussion forums and, of course, lots of parties. Here are some highlights from this weekend...

Fig Trees ****

Pictured above, this is another outrageously inventive rant from Greyson, similar to his pop musical Zero Patience, but this time playfully using opera to look at the life of notable Aids activists Tim McCaskell from Canada and South African Zackie Achmat. Mixing new interviews with film clips, satirical music videos (an increasingly funny list of Top Aids Songs!), animation and Gertrude Stein's opera Four Saints in Three Acts, this film keeps us mesmerised with its multi-screen, subtitled lyricism, constant comical touches and an underlying sense of anger at the greed of pharmaceutical companies and government inaction (or worse) that have resulted in the loss of literally millions of lives. It's extremely bold and inventive, and well worth seeing, but will struggle to cross over to mainstream viewers.

Greek Pete ***
A scruffy semi-documentary about a London escort, this film has value as an exploration of a seedy side of society in which sex has been completely removed from love. Pete is a very watchable central figure, beautiful but shallow, and not remotely likeable. But the film exposes this with raw honesty, even if it's clear that some sequences are completely fake (at one point Pete actually lets slip that he's playing a fictional character in the film). This is one of the most popular films in the festival - before anyone has seen it, all screenings have been sold out, and more have been added. It will be interesting to see if it lives up to the hype for London's escort community and all their, erm, friends.

After Him [Apres Lui] ***
Catherine Deneuve gives a rippling, emotional performance as a woman whose son dies in a car crash, leaving her utterly shattered. To fill the void, and try to achieve a kind of peace with herself, she begins obsessing about her son's best friend (Le Clan's Thomas Dumerchez). The film is sharply well shot and acted, with a seriously intense script by those French masters of familial angst, Gael Morel and Christophe Honore. It's a genuinely wrenching film with a darkly emotional tone that really catches a sense of loss and yearning, mixing creepy stalker behavious with maternal hope.

Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon *****
One of my favourite films of the festival so far, this is a brilliantly well-assembled documentary about pornstar Jack Wrangler, who shook up the gay scene with his energetic, beefy films and then shocked everyone by switching to straight porn and marrying a woman. This fast-paced, entertaining doc really gets into this story with revealing interviews and lots of film clips that tell Wrangler's story with humour and even some emotion. It also goes even further to cleverly explore the entire porn industry, including the way it has changed from relative respectability in the 1960s and 1970s to the disposable stuff that's produced today.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

LLGFF 7 & 8: Behind the issues

Halfway through the festival, and things are still very busy at the BFI Southbank, with lively crowds attending screenings and events examining gender issues from every conceivable angle. A few more recent screenings...

Before Stonewall ****
This landmark 1984 film documents the gay rights movement of the 20th century leading up to the momentous events of June 1969 (pictured). It's a remarkable film, especially as it traces sexuality issues in America through the roaring 20s, the Prohibition era, the Depression and World War II, all key events that fed into the outbreak of civil rights protests in the 1960s. What emerges is a key moment in human history when a large segment of society finally found the voice to stand up for their rights, and to stop living in fear and, yes, oppression. As part of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this film was followed by a panel discussion with the filmmaker Greta Schiller, along with former London mayor Ken Livingstone, German filmmaker Monika Treut and others. A fascinating discussion.

Pedro ****
Written by DustinLance Black (Milk), the script for this film is extremely strong and carries us through the slightly TV-movie production values. The cast is fairly strong as well, as it tells the true story of Pedro Zamora, who rose to fame in 1994 on the MTV Real World series for being so outspoken about his HIV status. Indeed, Zamora was a pioneer activist who made a real difference in the lives of people he met - and spoke to in theatres, on radio and TV. His story is truly inspirational, and it's told here with a real sense of emotion and honesty that cuts through the out-of-sequence structure. The makes him into a saintly figure, and isn't afraid to dip into heavy sentimentality - but if you take those two things with a grain of salt, the film has real power.

Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom ***

Taking the gay sitcom stars onto the big screen, this film maintains some of the corny stereotypes and goofy comedy, but also gets surprisingly deep into the serious issues facing this group of people as they gather in a Martha's Vineyand home for a wedding. The main theme centres on confronting the truths of your past and present, and amid the silly antics there's some surprising resonance in the encounters and conversations. The characters are also allowed to deepen a bit beyond their superficial TV versions. All in all, it's a very nice surprise. And nicely well-acted by most of the cast.

Milk *****
The other script by Dustin Lance Black (the one what won him an Oscar and two SAG awards) is this biopic of murdered San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. It's gorgeously well-directed by Gus Van Sant, and features a jaw-dropping performance by Sean Penn (another Oscar) in the title role. Just as good are James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch as three men orbiting around Milk as he spoke out for the rights of the marginalised. It's an inspirational film that feels utterly current, even though the events took place 30 years ago. And it has an important message we still need to hear. It has five special screenings at this festival, which are bound to be emotional events.