Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Critical Week: Ready for battle

Last week we had the summer movie season's first big remake, sequel and reboot, so of course this week it's time for the big guns: a massive comic book movie that has the enormous weight of an entire publishing house behind it and is keyed in to comic book superhero movies past (Ironman, Hulk) and future (this summer's Captain America and, most importantly, 2012's summer tentpole The Avengers). We are of course talking about Thor, which was screened to the UK press last week in all its muscly, noisy, eye-popping 3D glory. It's a big movie that's almost as dumb as it looks but is helped by having Kenneth Branagh, however improbably, in the director's chair. Of course, the photo above isn't from Thor; it's from a bit of non-competition at the box office - Takashi Miike's higher-brow samurai battle drama 13 Assassins, which is entertaining but perhaps not as smart as it looks.

Also screened for us were Philip Seymour Hoffman's feature directing debut Jack Goes Boating, a wilfully "normal" indie drama; the freaky Italian thriller Shadow, which is stylishly made but a bit random; the West Indies cricket doc Fire in Babylon, a colourfully interesting film even for non-fans; and the micro-budget B-movie Airline Disaster, yet another so-bad-it's-hilarious crisis thriller from Asylum. Better than all of those, I got the chance to see Danny Boyle's amazing production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, with Benedict Cumberbatch (as the professor) and Jonny Lee Miller (as the monster).

If last week was short (4 days) this week is even shorter, as we have holidays for both Easter Monday and Royal Wedding Friday. As a result, I only have four screenings (plus a handful of DVDs I really need to stop putting off): Trust is an online thriller with Clive Owen and Catherine Keener; A Screaming Man is a Cannes-winning drama from Chad; Bobby Fischer Against the World is an acclaimed doc about the chess player; and Flying Monsters is a dinosaur extravaganza in Imax 3D.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Critical Week: Summer ahoy!

When  remakes and sequels start to take over the cinema, we know that blockbuster season is upon us - that time of year when movies get increasingly disappointing as we watch filmmakers throw away hundreds of millions of dollars in a desperate attempt to fleece dim-witted filmgoers of their cash on opening weekend, before word of mouth sets in. On the other hand, some sequels and remakes actually live up to (or even exceed) expectations. Well, three of these were screened for London critics this past week, as well as a handful of smaller, more original things.

All eyes are on Arthur, Russell Brand and Helen Mirren's solid update of the goofy 1981 comedy. But American society has shifted in the three intervening decades, and billionaire drunken playboys aren't quite as loveable now. Actors from the previous four films all turn up in Fast Five, another loud, big, shamelessly entertaining blast of machismo that benefits from the addition of Dwayne Johnson to the line-up. And Wes Craven plays with the whole concept of the remake/reboot with Srea4m, wryly subverting the received wisdom that franchises need to give over to new, younger casts to carry on.

There's much more inventiveness on display in two British thrillers: Attack the Block is an uneven Shaun of the Dead-style South London alien invasion comedy-adventure, and The Veteran is a gritty action movie following fresh-from-Iraq Toby Kebbell as he's dragged into dodgy activity with the government and the mob. There were also two French dramas: The Big Picture stars Romain Duris, whose life derails, turning him into a likeable variation of the Talented Mr Ripley, while Love Like Poison is artfully and morosely explores a young teen girl exploring faith, fear and sex. And then there's Life in a Day, Kevin Macdonald's fascinating and sometimes annoying attempt to make sense of some 4,500 hours of YouTube footage chronicling one day of humanity.

The big movie for critics this week is Kenneth Branagh's comic book blockbuster Thor. And we also have Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jack Goes Boating, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, the Italian drama Angels of Evil, the cricket movie Fire in Babylon, the Formula One doc Senna, and the acclaimed doc Sweetgrass.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Critical Week(s): The big bad wolf

This week's trend in press screenings was clearly female-centred fairy tales. Saoirse Ronan stars in Hanna as a Bourne-type teen being chased by a tooth-obsessive Cate Blanchett. Amanda Seyfried is Red Riding Hood in the werewolf twist on the old story, in which she has to pick between two male models while grandma (Julie Christie) shows off her unusually big eyes, ears and teeth. In Luc Besson's The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Louise Bourgoin is a self-assured Indiana Jones-style heroine in pterodactyl-menaced 1911 Paris. And in the British independent thriller Island, Natalie Press is an unstable young woman confronting her birth mother (Janet McTeer) on a creepy Scottish isle.

To be fair, men were at the centre of three award-winning docs: Armadillo follows a group of young Danish soldiers on a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and feels more like a drama than a documentary; The Oath centres on a terrorist-by-association on trial in Guantanamo while his brother-in-law provides a potent narrative in Yemen; and Becoming Chaz tells the story of Chastity Bono's female to male transition in a remarkably personal way.

And then there were two wild cards: Point Blank is a pulse-racing French thriller about a married couple caught up in an unimaginably violent nightmare, while Rubber is a playfully knowing art-house piece about a killer tyre.

The big movies showing to us in the next week don't look hugely promising, from Russell Brand's remake of Arthur to the gonzo chaos of Fast Five. More interesting are the smaller, less predictable movies like the British crime thriller The Veteran, with Brian Cox and Toby Kebbell; the French drama The Big Picture, with Romain Duris; the French coming-of-age drama Love Like Poison; and the Italian horror movie Shadow, the name of which I seem unable to type without adding an s at the end. I wonder why?

NB. The site's frontpage this week will be the same as last week, as Rio opens in the USA on Friday. Next week we'll have some meat.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

LLGFF Part 4: A festive finish

The British Film Institute's blink-and-you-miss-it 25th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival wraps up on Wednesday night. It seems like it only just started (it did). But at least the programmers packed as much into six days as they could. Yesterday's screening of the new doc We Were Here ended with a live Skype Q&A with director David Weissman at his home in sunny San Francisco. It was a long, lively interview with lots of audience interaction, and it clearly marks a step forward for cash-strapped festivals to continue to allow filmmakers and viewers to talk together.

Here are some of today's highlights. I still have one screening to attend - plus the closing party, of course. The review of that film (Rent Boys) will be on the website in a couple of days...

The Four-Faced Liar (closing film)
dir Jacob Chase; with Todd Kubrak, Marja-Lewis Ryan 10/US ***
Light and undemanding, this New York romantic-comedy is engaging enough to hold our interest, even though we know from the start that it's probably not going to say anything very important. But it touches on some big issues... FULL REVIEW >

Going South
dir Sebastien Lifshitz; with Yannick Renier, Lea Seydoux 10/Fr ****
With his usual light touch, Lifshitz again concentrates on feelings rather than plot for this involving road movie. This may annoy viewers looking for something tight and tidy, but it captures the moods of its central character in a remarkably honest way... FULL REVIEW >

We Were Here
dir David Weissman; with Paul Boneberg, Guy Clark 11/US ****
Almost overwhelming in its emotional kick, this documentary about the San Francisco Aids epidemic is so intensely personal that it's sometimes difficult to watch. Which is why it's so important... FULL REVIEW >

Festival shorts
Normally I try to see as many shorts as possible at any festival I attend, but this year's LLGFF had a much smaller selection than usual, and no press screening facilities. So in the end I managed to see only five short films - but they were all very good. Four came from UK filmmakers: Hong Khaou continues his sensitive, understated seasonal explorations of sexuality with Spring; Miikka Leskinen's Small-time Revolutionary is an intriguing period piece combining personal and political issues in Thatcherite Britain; Jason Bradbury makes a mark with his introspective, haunting look at two young men dealing with some big issues in We Once Were Tide; and Andrew Steggall takes on the thorny issue of immigrant refugees in the artful, thoughtful To the Marriage of True Minds. From America, Pierre Stefanos offers a remarkably effective fairy tale about lust, attraction and expectations in Bedfellows. I've been able to hang out with three of these filmmakers (and many others) at parties during this festival, and I suspect more fun is to come at tonight's closing bash ... REVIEWS >

Monday, 4 April 2011

LLGFF Part 3: An imaginary love

The British Film Institute's 25th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival heads into the week a bit bleary headed after the party-filled weekend. Since the festival is so short this year, everything has been packed into this one weekend - leaving us all feeling a little worn out as we look ahead to the next three days of screenings (and one more party). But it's been great fun to socialise with filmmakers and actors, as well as the festival staff and London-based distributors who I already know. This really is one of the friendliest, liveliest festivals we all attend, so we're making the most of it now, and we'll deal with the morning-after headaches and sleep deprivation later.

Here are some festival highlights on Monday and Tuesday...

dir Xavier Dolan; with Monia Chokri, Xavier Dolan 10/Can *****
At 21, actor-filmmaker Dolan proves that I Killed My Mother was no fluke. This is even bolder filmmaking that continually takes risks with its material. It's not always successful, but it's clever, funny and sharply observant... FULL REVIEW >

dir Dennis Todorovic; with Sasha Kekez, Tim Bergmann 10/Ger ****
This film's light, comical tone is slightly misleading, as something much more dramatic is going on under the surface. And this makes it an entertaining, sensitive exploration of a young man trying figure out a way to be himself... FULL REVIEW >

A Marine Story
dir Ned Farr; with Dreya Weber, Paris Pickard 10/US ***
While the filmmaking itself is a bit simplistic, this movie tackles a big subject with sincerity, never taking the easy route through the material and developing strongly involving characters along the way... FULL REVIEW >

Man at Bath
dir Christophe Honore; with Francois Sagat, Chiara Mastroianni 10/Fr ****
This odd experimental film has only the loosest sense of narrative, merely letting us observe the wrinkles and twists of a relationship between two men who are apart for a week. It's difficult to pin down, but still manages to engage us... FULL REVIEW >

The Advocate for Fagdom
dir Angelique Bosio; with Bruce LaBruce, Gus Van Sant 11/Fr ****
Lively and engaging, this documentary about iconic filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is a real gift to his fans. It takes a lucid, witty trip through his career, but it's definitely not for general audiences... FULL REVIEW >

Saturday, 2 April 2011

LLGFF Part 2: A personal journey

The British Film Institute's 25th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival continues over the weekend with a variety of screenings and events. The opening night on Thursday was great fun - with a lively screening of Kaboom attended by writer-director Gregg Araki, who held a terrific Q&A afterwards, followed by a rather raucous party at the BFI.

Pictured above is Chaz Bono with filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato - sadly, festival budget cuts meant they were able to attend the UK premiere of their film last night. But the festival parties continue all weekend. And here are some film highlights...

Becoming Chaz
dir Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato; with Chaz Bono, Jennifer Elia 11/US ****
In documenting Chastity Bono's transition from female to male, filmmakers Bailey and Barbato offer a detailed, intimate narrative. And letting Chaz tell his own story is both engaging and moving... FULL REVIEW >

Break My Fall
dirKanchi Wichmann; with Kat Redstone, Sophie Anderson 11/UK ****
Scruffy and offhanded, this low-budget British feature takes a fractured, fragmented look at a relationship. Without a clear narrative, it's not an easy film, but it's honest and often painfully raw... FULL REVIEW >

dir Jake Yuzna; with Daniel Luedtke, Morty Diamond 10/US ***
Artfully and beautifully directed, this film feels like a feverish dream, with characters whose gender is impossible to define. It's an impassioned, important call for respect, although it's unlikely that a bigot would watch it... FULL REVIEW >

dir Sebastiano d'Ayala Valva; with Angel Preciado, Feliza 10/Fr ***
This unusual doc follows a cross-dressing man home from Europe to visit his family in rural South America. And what we see is continually surprising, as the story and colourful people defy expectations... FULL REVIEW >

Horror of Darkness (special screening)
dir Anthony Page; with Alfred Lynch, Glenda Jackson 65/UK ****
Originally broadcast on BBC television's The Wednesday Play, this ominously titled drama gets increasingly forceful as it progresses, vividly exploring the complex inner life of three people who are connected in a disturbing way... FULL REVIEW >