Saturday, 22 March 2014

FLARE 1: First steps

The 28th BFI Flare (previously known as the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival) kicked off Thursday night with the European premiere of Lilting, the Ben Whishaw drama that won the cinematography award at Sundance in January. London writer-director Hong Khaou was on hand for a Q&A along with Whishaw and cast members Naomi Christie (pictured above with Whishaw and below with everyone after the screening), Andrew Leung, Peter Bowles and Morven Christie. And everyone went on to the kick-off party at Pulse.

There were more parties on Friday, with networking drinks for delegates followed by a fabulous disco in the Riverfront Bar. Also on Friday, I had a lively interview director Darren Stein and actor Michael Willett who are here with their comedy G.B.F., and I'm looking forward to seeing them again at the film's big party on Sunday. I'm not sure how many of these late nights I can endure before I collapse in a heap, but I'll give it a good go! Here are some programme highlights for Friday and Saturday...

dir-scr Hong Khaou; with Ben Whishaw, Cheng Pei-pei 14/UK ****.
With the same delicate approach to character interaction as he showed in his shorts Summer and Spring, filmmaker Khaou creates a drama that skims right along that line between brittle denial and warm emotional catharsis. It's an astonishing drama that carries us deep into the situation, forcing us to think both about the details and the much bigger picture. At the centre are two people struggling to find a way to connect. After the sudden death of her son Kai (Andrew Leung in seamlessly lyrical flashbacks), Junn (Cheng) feels trapped in her nursing home, having never learned English during all her years living in London. Then Kai's boyfriend Richard (Whishaw) reaches out to her, hiring an interpreter (Naomi Christie) to help her communicate both with him and with a man (Peter Bowles) she's met in the home. But Kai had never come out to his mother, and Richard tries to respect that as long as he can. Both Whishaw and Cheng deliver staggeringly transparent performances that let us see their thoughts and feelings in every scene, even though they're incapable of expressing them. The film has an effortless lightness, with a beautiful sense of both photography and editing that gently carry us through the story using earthy humour and raw emotions that never get remotely sentimental. A real stunner.

dir Darren Stein; with Michael J Willett, Paul Iacono 13/US ****
Like a special episode of Glee without the songs, this colourful and often very silly comedy takes on some big themes without getting heavy handed about them. Even the "what I learned" speech at the end is undermined in a way that makes it both resonant and meaningful... FULL REVIEW >

Last Summer
dir-scr Mark Thiedeman; with Samuel Pettit, Sean Rose 13/US *.
This nostalgic drama is achingly artful but so indulgent that it never lets us in. Filmmaker Thiedeman's camera floats over tanned young skin in ways that are never remotely sexy: it's like flicking through a book of pretty photos. There's a decent story here, but Thiedeman is more interested in moods and images than exploring human connections. Set in rural Arkansas, the film centres on unambitious teen Luke (Pettit), who's struggling just to graduate from high school while his brainy boyfriend Jonah (Rose) looks ahead to a bright university career. The idea of these lifelong partners being separated should spark some emotion, but Thiedeman pretentiously focuses instead on glistening leaves (echoes of Malick) and achingly long establishing shots (a la von Trier) that leave the film feeling like an extended A&F advert. So in the end they're just bodies without personalities.

dir-scr Linda Bloodworth-Thomason; with Shane Bitney Crone, Tom Bridegroom 13/US ****
Hugely emotional from the very beginning as it chronicles the love story between two young men, this documentary begins as the moving but unremarkable narrative of a real tragedy then shifts into a staggeringly personal statement about a political reality. The pungent question is: why were these men never allowed to properly love each other? Filmmaker Bloodworth-Thomason keeps the pace brisk, with tight editing and a focus on the people and their emotional reactions to everything that happens. Shane is at the centre of the film, talking about the senseless accidental death of the love of his life, Tom Bridegroom. It's sad but hardly noteworthy, although the filmmaking draws us in long before events take the strongly topical turn that makes the film resonate in an almost overwhelming way. By the end, there isn't a dry eye in the house - yes, this doc carries a serious punch, as well as a hugely important statement about love and family. As Shane asks, "Why do the people who were supposed to love Tom the most fight so much against who he was."

Behind the Candelabra
dir Steven Soderbergh; with Michael Douglas, Matt Damon 13/US ****.
Much more than a biopic about Liberace, this expertly assembled film recounts a true love story in a way we rarely see on-screen: with honest humour, real feeling and startling insight. It also boasts quite possibly the most camp production design ever... FULL REVIEW >

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