Friday, 31 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 5: Politics and religion

In addition to a range of films from the Arab world, the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival has been showcasing award-winning movies from other festivals, including Cannes winners Winter Sleep and Leviathan (above); Venice winners A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, The Look of Silence and Hungry Hearts; Berlin winners Black Coal Thin Ice and Stations of the Cross; Sundance winners Whiplash and 20,000 Days on Earth; plus the likes of Two Days One Night, 99 Homes, Return to Ithaca, The Homesman, '71, Men Women & Children, Miss Julie. It's impossible to see everything, but I've given it a good try!

Meanwhile, the festival is winding down, but the parties haven't let up. The food has been pretty awesome, with a lavish breakfast buffet in the hotel (St Regis) and another buffet for lunch in the press area at Emirates Palace. Each evening's dinner party has been themed, with minor variations of food in even bigger buffets spread out in various areas outside the palace. A Jordanian pop star turned up for Jordan's party, Bollywood Nights offered music and dancing, and there have been Lebanese and even French themed parties. Last night's was the best so far: Arabian Nights, with carpets and kiosks scattered around the palace's beach. A high bar has been set for tonight's closing bash. Here are films from Wednesday and Thursday...

Leviathan has been winning awards since it premiered at Cannes (and won best screenplay) in May. I missed it at the London Film Festival (where it won best film), but knew I'd have a chance to catch up with it here. Worth the wait, this is a staggeringly clever exploration of power, specifically the church and state, with a plot that is clearly inspired by the biblical story of Job. Lyrical photography and open performances make it utterly gripping as the story of a man who calls in an old friend to help when the local mayor decides to demolish his family home. Plot wrinkles abound, making no one heroic. Everyone is deeply flawed, but not everyone pays the consequences. And the themes resonate far beyond the rural Russian setting. It's a stunner of a film that's sure to scoop more accolades before the awards season wraps up.

El Ott, from Egypt, is a noir thriller with a rather aloof sense of plotting. Global star Amr Waked (most recently seen in Lucy) plays the title character, a mysterious thug who takes on a preening gangster who is grabbing street kids and selling their organs on the black market. The film is edgy and grubby, with a plot that should be darkly compelling, but the characters and situations are deliberately undefined, which makes it difficult to get a grip on why anyone does anything. And several scenes feel so oddly set up that they give the film a corny and contrived tone. On the other hand, there's a fascinating undercurrent about power and belief - glimpses of ancient ruins, synagogues, churches, mosques and rave culture - all of which plays into a story about the blurry lines between politics, capitalism and crime.

The Man From Oran, from Algeria, is a period drama set at two points during the nation's struggle for independence. In the late 1950s two friends become involved in the fight against the French colonial rulers, which turns both of their lives upside-down as they rise to positions of power in the new government: one begins making morally dubious decisions while the other struggles to live with past events. This story is involving and complex, but later events set in the mid-1980s are a bit more muddled, partly due to how the screenplay requires previous knowledge of Algeria's culture and history and partly because the timescale is badly handled (apart from some iffy make-up, a child born in 1958 appears to be a surly teen in 1987). But the film is well-acted and shot in a vivid '70s noir style.

Pirates of Salė documents the first circus school in Morocco through the eyes of four young students who come from rough backgrounds. For them, this is clearly a potential path out of poverty, and as they prepare for their first big performance they discover the first sense of their own worth, finding joy in artistic expression, physical fitness and the camaraderie of the company. So it's frustrating that the film feels somewhat simplistic in its approach, showing the setting vividly without ever quite cracking the surface of either the students or their teachers. Only one of the teachers emerges as a fascinating character, and he simply vanishes along the way. In addition, the filmmakers oddly opt to chop the colourful circus performances into tiny pieces, never letting us get a feel for the work. This is a real shame, because the snippets we see are pretty amazing.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 4: Past, present and future

Passing the halfway point in the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival, I still have quite a few movies to see before I'm done. We have 16 films on the short list for the two Fipresci awards (for narrative and documentary features), and there are films in other strands that I want to catch as well. Several of my colleagues from London have been arriving over the last two days - it's been fun to hang out in a new context.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the chance to get to know filmmakers like Naji Abu Nowar (Theeb), who was presented with the Variety Arab filmmaker of the Year award on Monday, and Samir, whose Iraqi Odyssey (above) was screened here in 3D to an audience that included about 20 members of his family, most of whom appear in the documentary. And on Tuesday I took advantage of a free morning to visit the Grand Mosque (incredible!) and Central Market Souk here. Comments on films from Monday and Tuesday...

Iraqi Odyssey is a two hour 45 minute 3D documentary that's utterly riveting. Iraqi-Swiss filmmaker Samir ambitiously traces his own family's history in the context of the past century of Iraq's constant regime changes (generally sparked by the British or Americans), in the process not only providing one of the most lucid chronologies of Middle East events but also offering a moving look at a diaspora that has seen more than four million Iraqis abandon their country for a variety of reasons, Samir's relatives are spread from Russia and Europe to America and New Zealand, and as he travels around he collects memories, old photos, footage and details that piece together the family's history. Yes, there are long sequences that don't feel strictly necessary, but it's beautifully shot and edited, with some superb stereoscopic touches.

Return to Homs is a documentary about the young men taking a desperate stand for freedom in their hometown in Syria. Director Talal Derki assembles this with all-original footage shot on the frontline of battle, edited together as a blockbuster war action movie with a wonderfully charismatic protagonist in singing football star Basset. Except that this is all real: people are actually shot and killed on-camera, while others disappear without a trace when detained by the regime. All of which makes watching the film a thoroughly harrowing experience. The central question these 20-ish students-turned-freedom-fighters ask is why their country's president is killing his own people, and more crucially why the military, whose job is to defend the country, is now murdering innocent people and reducing cities to rubble. It's a difficult film to watch, but absolutely essential as a document about both Syria and the nature of oppression and courage.

The Silence of the Shepherd, also from Iraq, is a drama connecting the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s with the US invasion in 2003 as a family struggles with its sense of honour after their daughter goes missing, presumably running off with a man. The truth is known only to a shepherd, who refuses to speak about what he has seen. The story is fascinating, but it's shot in a style that doesn't play well internationally, mainly due to an overwrought, melodramatic acting style reminiscent of a Latino soap opera. There's also the problem that, at the centre, there's a family that would prefer their missing daughter to have been violently murdered than to have married a man she loved, simply to preserve their honour. Which makes most of the characters difficult to sympathise with.

The Valley is a Lebanese drama that takes a minimalist approach to the story of a man who becomes amnesiac after a car crash, then is taken in by a group of people in an isolated valley, where they are manufacturing some sort of illicit drug (meths? generic pharmaceuticals?). Nothing is explained, the characters remain mere hints of human beings and the events are only vaguely defined in this overlong, elusive thriller, which has hints of sci-fi in the final act. It's well shot, and acted with plenty of mystery and internalised intrigue. But its deeply pretentious. And without any context or characterisation, there's simply nothing the audience can properly grab on to. There's clearly some important meaning here, but most audience members will feel left in the dark.

Um Gayeb: Mother of the Unborn is an Egyptian documentary about motherhood, focussing on a woman who has struggled for 12 years to conceive a child with her husband. In this culture she's valued as a cow who takes food but gives no milk: useless. But she has an unusually warm and supportive husband (a likeable stoner dude!) and family around her. The film is shot with real intimacy, as if we are eavesdropping on her conversations, which makes it startlingly honest and revelatory. It's also a hugely a valuable document of a world in which ancient traditions and superstitions sit alongside modern medicine. But most of all, it's a portrait of a strong, witty, likeable woman who is doing the best she can against the odds, which makes the film feel like a universal, resonant exploration of the innate desire most people have to be parents. 

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CRITICAL WEEK: Life goes on
Yes, during all the festival chaos, I still have to keep writing my usual reviews and reports on what's happening in cinemas. All of this is on the website. I didn't see any non-festival films in Abu Dhabi, but several are getting cinema releases, including Big Hero 6, Leviathan, Timbuktu and The Look of Silence. And I watched Third Person on the plane - it opens in the UK in November.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 3: Sand and sea

Had a free morning yesterday so took advantage of the slightly cooler weather (only 34C/93F) and went to the beach at Saadiyat island. Gorgeous to swim in the clear salty water of the Gulf. Back into the cinema in the evening, with the premiere of Theeb followed by a lavish Jordanian party starring pop star Omar Abdullat, who sang late into the night (he was still going strong when I left). Here are films from Saturday and Sunday...

Theeb, from Jordan, is set around the time of Lawrence of Arabia as an Englishman (Jack Fox) ventures into the Arabian desert to work on a railway that is having a huge economic and cultural impact on the local culture. The story is told through the eyes of the young Theeb (Jacir Eid, above), who tags along on what will become an odyssey into discovering his own nature. It's a remarkable story told with minimal dialog but a clear sense of a boy developing his own ideas about integrity and identity in a world that is drastically shifting around him. It's also beautifully acted by the young Eid and directed with skill and artistry by award-winning filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar. 

Timbuktu, by Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness), is an oddly quirky story about jihad that sits very uneasily in the present news climate. It's about a gang of fundamentalists who ride into Timbuktu (the film was shot in Mauritania) under an IS-like flag and impose their random laws on the feisty residents. These interlopers are depicted as relatively benign, disorganised opportunists who only slowly become more violent in the face of civil disobedience from locals who don't like new rules banning music, footballs and bare hands and feet. The focal plot thread is about a nomadic cattleman who lives peacefully outside town until his actions catch the attention of the new rulers. It's beautifully observed, nicely played and has a sharp sense of the clash of cultures and languages. But portraying oppressive thugs as relatively reasonable goofballs is rather hard to take.

Memories on Stone is a cheeky drama that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever worked on a low budget movie. It's about a group of filmmakers trying to make a drama about the 1988 Anfal genocide in Kurdistan. The key problems hinge from the difficulties in securing a lead actress - from getting her family's permission to making sure her passport is up to date. But there are issues with equipment, extras, weather and a hilarious diva-like pop star who joins the cast. And behind the comedy is the sobering story they're telling about an atrocity that has been covered up and ignored for decades. That the film's low-yet, deadpan tone never shouts its themes is remarkable. 

A Second Chance is Susanne Bier's return to Denmark (after the part-Danish Love is All You Need and the Czech-American Serena, both also this year) along with Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Bier regular Ulrich Thomsen. It's reminiscent of Brothers with its high-concept premise and morally compromised characters, as well as some plot contrivances and a bit of intense melodrama. But it's extremely well shot and edited, with sharply emotional performances and a proper sense of dread as the story wrenches itself through bigger issues and darker emotions than expected. In the end it's haunting and provocative.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the Swedish winner of the best film award at Venice. It's a surreal collection of vignettes exploring the bizarre ways people deal with thoughts of imperfection and mortality. Filmmaker Roy Andersson mixes constant silliness and absurdity with deeply thoughtful undercurrents as he follows a series of fairly ridiculous characters around a slightly fantastical colour-drained old European city. The most recurrent characters are two depressed door-to-door salesmen trying to flog novelty joke items to help put a bit of fun in their lives. That they have no fun at all in theirs is the point. Yes, it's irony-intensive and perhaps a bit too quirky for audiences who don't enjoy arthouse fare, but it's also unforgettable. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 2: From 18 to 99

The film viewing schedule here at the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival isn't too strenuous for our Fipresci jury (just two or three films per day), but I am also trying to catch a few outside our remit. The festival organisers are feeding us to within an inch of our lives - skipping meals will soon become imperative, I think. And the transitions from hot sunshine to chilly air conditioning have already started me sniffling. Otherwise, this is a fascinating city, and I'm enjoying the chance to see bits of it in between screenings. Yesterday I visited the central souk, a stunning marketplace with a modern design that feels intriguingly classic. I also saw two films...

The Wanted 18 is a documentary by Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan offering a remarkably fresh perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict as it traces the actions of the residents of Beit Sahour, who in the late-1980s bought 18 cows in an effort to gain a bit of independence from the regime (which forbade private enterprise and most other things). These cows became public enemy No 1 to the Israeli security forces, who searched the town as the residents moved them around, continuing the supply of milk. The film's light, comical approach makes all of this into a kind of caper heist, even though it includes references to arrest and torture and essentially is exploring the nature of the intifada, a system of civil disobedience and (mostly) peaceful protest against the occupying Israelis, who were demanding that the oppressed population pay its taxes (even one Israeli official acknowledges how unfair this is). The filmmakers take an inventive, comical approach using interviews, dramatisations, comic book frames and even claymation (giving voices to the cows as rather ridiculous Sex and the City type divas). It's a little fragmented and frantic, but it sharply highlights the absurdity of the situation.

99 Homes is an American drama by Ramin Bahrani set during the housing crisis in 2010. It centres on a Florida builder (Andrew Garfield) who loses his job and is evicted from his cruelly foreclosed home by an estate agent (Michael Shannon) who later offers him a job working with him. The script skilfully highlights the issues, even if the plot feels over-constructed and a bit too reliant on coincidence. It also gets darker and darker, which makes it clear that something is going to have to snap somewhere - and that there will be an obvious moral message to trumpet at the end, which indeed there is! Still, it's well shot and acted with raw intensity by Garfield and Shannon, plus a strong but somewhat truncated supporting turn from Laura Dern (as Garfield's mum). And it's the performances that hold the interest right through the story's creepy progression into a moral quagmire and out the other side. Garfield in particular brings a real emotional kick to the whole film.

> NB. Internet access can be a bit hit and miss here, but I'll keep updates coming whenever possible. I'm also tweeting and posting Instagram photos along the way.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 1: From A to B

This is the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and my first visit to this part of the world. I'm here on the Fipresci jury, which is tasked with giving prizes to two Arab films: narrative and documentary features. 

Last night the festival kicked off with a lavish opening night event, complete with an epic red carpet, ceremony honouring producer Edward Pressman and filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, and then the opening film From A to B, the first film from the Emirates to open the festival. It's a lively road movie with an unusually sharp script that combines character-based humour, introspective drama and a sharp sense of the political scene as three 25-year-olds drive from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, recreating a trip they were supposed to take five years earlier. 

This is a wonderfully involving story, with solid performances from the likeable, camera-friendly cast. The three central characters are very clever - all lifelong expats (from Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) who met at an American school in Abu Dhabi), each with his own personal issues and a distinct sense of humour. After last night's world premiere it should play well at other festivals, and also with at rouse crowds who have probably never seen a film from this part of the world that's so packed with sparky humour.

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CRITICAL WEEK: Life goes on
Yes, during all the festival chaos, I still have to keep writing my usual reviews and reports on what's happening in cinemas. All of this is on the website. Non-festival films seen this week include Horns, Say When (aka Laggies), November Man, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, Extraterrestrial and Stations of the Cross.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

LFF 10: At the end of the war

Brad Pitt invaded London to wrap up the 58th London Film Festival tonight with his World War II batttle epic Fury. He was accompanied by his entire tank team (around Pitt above: Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal) as well as filmmaker David Ayer, and their press conference following the morning screening was a combination of reverence for veterans and brotherly camaraderie developed over the shooting process.

Meanwhile, journalists feel like we've been through a war since press screenings started in mid-September - averaging three or four movies a day since - but it's all over now, and hopefully we can get back to full nights of sleep. Although on Wednesday, I'm heading to Abu Dhabi to serve on the jury of their film festival 23-31 October. But that will feel like a holiday compared to London! Until then, here are some final highlights....

dir David Ayer; with Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf 14/UK ***
Writer-director Ayer makes no attempt to update the rah-rah bombast of the WWII genre, indulging in big action, the usual plot points, faux heroism and "war is hell" rhetoric. The film is sharply assembled and very nicely acted by a terrific cast, but it ultimately feels oddly pointless.

3 Hearts
dir Benoit Jacquot; with Benoit Poelvoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg 14/Fr 1h46 ***.
A twisty love story shot and edited as if it's a dark thriller, this odd film is utterly riveting mainly because it's impossible to predict what the characters are going to do next. At its core, this is a love triangle. But the film is assembled with attention to the most insinuating, creepy detail, confident enough to allow the characters to slip in and out of sympathy along the way.

Second Coming
dir Debbie Tucker Green; with Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba 14/UK **
Beautifully shot with an attention to internal intensity, this low-budget British drama should carry an emotional wallop. But filmmaker Tucker Green infuriatingly refuses to fill in any details, leaving dialog incomplete, the plot blurry and the characters' feelings as mere hints of something bigger. The acting feels raw and very personal, but without having a clue what's happening the film remains maddeningly elusive.

dir Mohsen Makhmalbaf; with Misha Gomiashvili, Dachi Orvelashvili 14/Geo 1h45 ****
Now based in London, exiled Iranian filmmaker Makhmalbaf pulls no punches in this blackly comical political adventure. Set in an "unnamed country" (it was filmed in Georgia), it's a story of political oppression told from perspectives that are rarely represented on screen with this much honesty and warm humour, forcing the audience to consider the themes from unthinkable angles.

Friday, 17 October 2014

LFF 9: A little chaos never hurt anyone

Alan Rickman turned up at the 58th London Film Festival to present his latest directing effort A Little Chaos, in which he stars alongside Kate Winslet, Matthias Shoenaerts and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci (is there any other kind?). Also on the red carpet tonight were James McAvoy with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (which oddly wasn't properly screened for the press) and filmmaker Julius Avery with Son of a Gun (see below). There are just two more days before I sleep. More highlights...

A Little Chaos
dir Alan Rickman; with Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts 14/UK ****
A cracking screenplay and sparky acting go a long ways to making this British period drama, set in 17th century France, thoroughly entertaining. With both spiky politics and swoony romance, the film has something for everyone, but it only works because the writing and directing allow the characters to have their own inner lives. Which makes the silly story surprisingly involving.

Son of a Gun 
dir Julius Avery; with Brenton Thwaites, Ewan McGregor 14/Aus ***.
Rippingly entertaining, this Australian thriller never quite breaks the surface but has strong characters well-played by an eclectic cast. And its pacing is so brisk that it holds the interest even if the plot twists and thematic metaphors are all painfully obvious. But without any subtle subtext, it's still a solid guilty pleasure.

Winter Sleep
dir Nuri Bilge Ceylan; with Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen 14/Tur ****.
The extra-long running time may put some viewers off, especially since the film is essentially made up of a series of issue-oriented conversations, but there's never a dull moment. As it explores the issue of justice and conscience in an increasingly economically divided world, the film is relevant, witty and startlingly moving.

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom
dir Jacob Cheung; with Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming 14/Chn **
An epic tale of conspiracy and war combined with a sweeping romance, this film has all the elements to be a classic. But filmmaker Cheung rushes through it erratically, leaving the plot nonsensical, the battles incoherent and the love story utterly flat. While it has plenty of energy, the film feels like a 12-hour miniseries roughly chopped down to 103 minutes: overcrowded, rushed and exhausting. And the 3D doesn't help.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

LFF 8: It's all about parenthood

Steve Carell and filmmaker Bennett Miller were on hand at the 58th London Film Festival today to present their new drama Foxcatcher, based on the true story of John du Pont and his rather outrageously creepy sponsorship of the US Olympic wrestling team. Carell is being mentioned as a sure-fire Oscar nominee for the role, which sees him under several layers of facial prosthetics and body padding - but it's also a remarkably understated performance that sends chills down the spine. They were joined on the gala red carpet tonight by Sienna Miller, and also on hand was Xavier Dolan with his Cannes-winning film Mommy. Here are some more highlights from the festival (I've uploaded several reviews, with more to come)...

dir Bennett Miller; with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum 14/US ****
After Capote and Moneyball, director Miller turns his hand to another true story, although this one is so unnerving that the film is rather difficult to like. But it's strikingly well made, building an almost unbearable sense of creepy tension through characters who are portrayed bravely by actors working beyond their comfort zones.

dir Xavier Dolan; with Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon 14/Can ****.
With his most audacious film to date (which is saying something for the 25-year-old writer-director of films like I Killed My Mother and Laurence Anyway),  Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan creates a whole new cinematic language to explore the astoundingly complex relationship between a mother and son. The film is difficult, confounding and sometimes maddeningly honest.

The Salvation
dir Kristian Levring; with Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green 14/Den ****
A remarkably fresh take on the Western, this Danish film (shot in South Africa) is packed with believable characters in realistic situations. Director Levring captures the genre's recognisable elements without ever falling back on a simplistic cliche, which makes the events eerily easy to identify with, especially where they involve moral dilemmas. FULL REVIEW >

Catch Me Daddy
dir Daniel Wolfe, Matthew Wolfe; with Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, Conor McCarron 14/UK ***
Revealing its story in hints and fragments, and relying on some understanding from a clued-up audience, this dark dramatic thriller is so vividly made that any shortcomings in the uneven cast and jarring narrative are more than made up for in atmosphere. Not only is it genuinely terrifying and emotionally wrenching, but it also touches on a very important current issue.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

LFF 7: The beat goes on

At the 58th London Film Festival today, the gala presentation was the premiere of Sundance winner Whiplash, attended by stars Miles Teller and JK Simmons (above). The film kicked off the critics' day with a breathless 9am screening that certainly got our adrenaline pumping for the rest of the day. Here are some more highlights...

dir Damien Chazelle; with Miles Teller, JK Simmons 14/US ****.
With a literally breathtaking pace and outrageously high energy, this film grabs you by the lapels and shakes you until you're a blubbering wreck. This is about as black as comedies can get, hurtling through the story of a talented young man coming up against a seriously fearsome teacher. And it's so powerful that it takes awhile to recover after the credits roll.

Love Is Strange 
dir Ira Sachs; with John Lithgow, Alfred Molina 14/US ***.
Gentle and almost overwhelmingly bittersweet, this drama is packed with such engaging characters that the weaknesses of the plot don't seem too distracting. It has something powerful to say about extended relationships as it explores a long-term romance in a quietly moving way.

Jamie Marks Is Dead
dir Carter Smith; with Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver 14/US ***.
This soft-spoken film is both a sensitive teen drama and one of the most inventive ghost stories in recent memory. It's haunting and visually stunning, with moments that are deeply moving and genuinely horrific. And at its core it's a thoughtful exploration of adolescent yearning to make sense of unexpected feelings.

dir Bryn Higgins; with Agyness Deyn, Lenora Crichlow 14/UK **.
While this film has enough visual panache to please arthouse audiences, its script is simply too thin to back up the imagery with any resonant meaning. The solid cast never gets the chance to delve deeply into the characters and, in the end, the filmmaker's emphasis on eye-catching flourishes leave everything else feeling rather simplistic and empty.

Next to Her
dir Asaf Korman; with Liron Ben Shlush, Dana Ivgy 14/Isr ****
This offbeat Israeli drama features vivid characters and a series of stunning twists and turns that continually challenge the viewer's attitudes. With a strong sense of realism, director Korman creates a strikingly involving film that touches on big issues while remaining deeply grounded in the characters.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

LFF 6: She knows how to pick 'em

Jennifer Lawrence made a witty red carpet appearance at the 58th London Film Festival to promote her new film Serena, costarring Bradley Cooper, which was only showed to selected press (I'll see it next week). At least the rain stayed away today! Also on the red carpet tonight were the cast and crew of Testament of Youth, based on the Vera Brittain memoir. It was the film's world premiere, attended by actors Kit Harington, Emily Watson, Dominic West and more, plus director James Kent and writer Juliette Towhidi. That one I did see, and it's covered below, along with some more highlights...

Testament of Youth
dir James Kent; with Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington 14/UK ***
Vera Brittain's iconic memoir gets the full British period drama treatment, although it's so lovingly crafted that it struggles to spring to life. It's beautifully shot and acted but, especially in the final third, the film is almost painfully worthy, wallowing in its emotions rather than finding something resonant in the story.

Return to Ithaca
dir Laurent Cantet; with Alberto Pujols, Isabel Santos 14/Cub ****
A lively reunion of old friends, this organic drama swirls from comedy to dark drama and back again, refusing to wallow in nostalgia even as this gang of "old farts" can't help but reminisce about the old days. But since it's set in Havana, the film has a lot to say beyond the issues facing five 50-ish pals whose lives haven't gone the way they expected them to.

The Cut
dir Fatih Akin; with Tahar Rahim, Simon Abkarian 14/Ger ***
Shot in Germany, Jordan, Malta, Cuba and Canada, this international production takes on a major historical atrocity that most countries refuse to admit ever happened: Turkey's genocide against the Armenians during World War I. The film goes on to be an epic global odyssey that has a powerful emotional kick, even if the filmmaking feels somewhat contrived.

1001 Grams
dir Bent Hamer; with Ane Dahl Torp, Laurent Stocker 4/Nor ****
Cheeky Norwegian filmmaker Hamer is back with another film that combines black comedy and dark drama. And this time there's also a layer of startlingly warm emotion running just underneath everything. Ostensibly a story about the most immovable technical details about everyday life, the film's ultimate point is that some things can't be measured.

dir Christophe Honore; with Amira Akili, Sebastien Hirel 14/Fr 1h42 ****
Based on Ovid's epic 1st century poem, this film is a strikingly involving exploration of how ancient mythology both creates and exposes elements of humanity and culture. Set in modern-day France in which average people take on the roles of gods and mythical characters, the film isn't easy, but its earthy approach makes it unnervingly resonant.

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CRITICAL WEEK: Life goes on
Yes, during all the festival chaos, I still have to keep writing my usual reviews and reports on what's happening in cinemas. All of this is on the website. Non-festival films seen this week include The Maze Runner, This Is Where I Leave You, The Judge and The Secret Path.

Monday, 13 October 2014

LFF 5: Let's hear it for the girls

Reese Witherspoon took London by storm today - and it was a properly stormy day - with the London Film Festival gala screening of her new movie Wild. She braved the rainy red carpet tonight with Cheryl Strayed, the intrepid author she plays in the film, and screenwriter Nick Hornby. Also on the red carpet today were Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and Asa Butterfield (for X + Y); and Sophie Okonedo, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Shaun Evans and Antony Sher (for War Book).

After gorgeously sunny, crisp weather over the weekend, today was a thorough wash-out, with spray from the heavens all day. It wasn't much fun walking around; it's the kind of day you really want to be sitting in a cinema. Here are some more festival highlights (full reviews are coming!)...

dir Jean-Marc Vallee; with Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern 14/US ***.
Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, this film depicts her journey as launching with a badly overstuffed backpack, which is just the first metaphor in this overstuffed thematic odyssey. Fortunately, it's directed with skill and artful insight by Vallee and acted with rare transparency by Witherspoon. The trick is to not let the onslaught of aphorisms weigh you down.

My Old Lady
dir-scr Israel Horovitz; with Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith 14/UK ***.
An oddball sensibility keeps this gentle drama from ever turning maudlin or sentimental, even as the story explores some potentially melodramatic issues. Relaxed performances and a script packed with revelations (based on writer-director Horovitz's play) keep the audience entertained while being poked by some surprisingly sharp edges.

The Falling
dir Carol Morley; with Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake 14/UK ****
There's a fiercely original sensibility to this film, which boldly explores female puberty through a series of rather outrageous events. By combining life and death with sexuality, writer-director Morley is definitely courting controversy, and some of the plot points feel like a step too far. But it's so strikingly intimate and fiercely artistic that it can't be ignored.

Appropriate Behavior
dir Desiree Akhavan; with Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson 14/UK ****
Actor-filmmaker Desiree Akhavan is clearly exorcising some very personal ghosts with this lively comedy, which echoes the style of Girls by presenting the central character as a likably flawed real person doing her best to get through a messy life. (Intriguingly, Akhavan appears in the next series of Girls.) It's a very funny movie, with a remarkably astute script and some surprising textures along the way.

A Girl at My Door
dir July Jung; with Doona Bae, Kim Sae-ron 14/Korea ****
A chilling tale of social evils in small-town Korea, this drama centres on an offbeat friendship between two damaged women who draw the suspicions of everyone around them. Filmmaker Jung is playing with perceptions, letting the audience see things only slightly more clearly than the bigoted locals. It's a riveting film that never offers easy answers.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

LFF 4: The boys of Rosewater

Jon Stewart (right, above, with actors Amir El-Masry, Dimitri Leonidas, Kim Bodnia and journalist Maziar Bahari) hit London this weekend for the gala screening of his directing debut Rosewater, the staggering story of Bihari's 118-day imprisonment in an Iranian prison. It's one of my favourites of the festival so far - a proper punchy political drama packed with wit and emotion. Another is 10,000 Km (also reviewed below), a bracingly realistic romance.

Meanwhile, I kept myself to one movie today - needed a bit of a break and some time to write! There's still a long way to go to catch up. And here are some more festival highlights...

dir Jon Stewart; with Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia 14/US ****.
Based on London-based journalist Maziar Bahari's book Then They Came for Me, this film is a strikingly even-handed exploration of the situation in Iran, telling a harrowing story that never turns into a rant. The key here is a smart, knowing, mercifully witty screenplay, plus performances that dig far beneath the surface.

The Drop
dir Michael R Roskam; with Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini 14/US ****
A dark dramatic thriller, this film keeps the suspense intimate right to the heart-stopping climactic scene. It's an unusually internalised approach to a crime drama, and it pays off in fine performances from an excellent cast, plus moral dilemmas that properly draw in the audience. In the end, it kind of leaves the viewers in the dust, but it's been a great ride.

The Keeping Room
dir Daniel Barber; with Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld 14/UK ***.
Set at in the final onslaught of the American Civil War, this offbeat film combines a war movie with a horror thriller as three women make one last stand against encroaching violence. It's an unnerving, haunting film that isn't afraid to take eerily emotional punches without lessening the suspense for a second.

The Dead Lands
dir Toa Fraser; with James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, 14/NZ ***
What starts as an intriguing fable about early life in New Zealand spirals quickly into a rather dim-witted action movie. But the Maori setting and culture add plenty of intrigue, and the plot has the heft of an enduring legend. So even though it's all faintly ridiculous, it's easy to just sit back and go with it. And fans of the haka will love it. FULL REVIEW >

10,000 Km
dir Carlos Marques-Marcet; with Natalia Tena, David Verdaguer14/Spain ****.
Spanish filmmaker Marques-Marcet gives this film a disarming tone so realistic that it almost feels like a doc. From the intimate 24-minute opening take to a series of webcam chats, this seems like real people living out a long-distance relationship. Impeccably shot, edited and played, it's impossible to watch this film without seeing yourself on-screen.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

LFF 3: That voice! That dress!

Among the premieres at the 58th London Film Festival was Bjork's concert movie Biophilia Live, presented by directors Nick Fenton and Peter Strickland (whose The Duke of Burgundy is also in the festival). Shot in North London a year ago, it's about as close to being at a concert as you can get on film. Meanwhile, the red carpet was packed today with such actor-filmmaker duos as Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams and Carol Morley (with the world premiere of The Falling), Mia Wasikowska and Sophie Barthes (for Madame Bovary), Noomi Rapace and Michael Roskam (with The Drop), and George MacKay and Duane Hopkins (for Bypass).

Meanwhile, I have hit the festival wall today - three weeks of press screenings and three days of the festival itself have left me feeling like a zombie. But we persevere! I had three films today plus my only party of the festival thanks to distributor Peccadillo and their film Appropriate Behavior. Meanwhile, here are some more highlights (full reviews are on the way)...

Bjork: Biophilia Live
dir Nick Fenton, Peter Stricklandwith Bjork, Manu Delago 14/UK ***
Recorded on the last night of Bjork's Biophilia world tour in London, this film makes very few concessions for non-fans, mainly due to her atonal music. But the Icelandic singer's followers will love every moment, rendered with swirling care by filmmakers Fenton and Strickland to capture the imagery and sounds of her performance in remarkable detail. There's no denying that her voice is magnificent, but it might be nice to have a song you could hum along with.

dir Duane Hopkins; with George MacKay, Benjamin Dilloway 14/UK ****
With a dark, moody tone and an extremely internalised perspective, this film gets under the skin simply because it's so tightly focussed on one character, beautifully played by young British actor MacKay. Even so, the narrative sometimes lets him down, leaving key details unexplained while earnest writer-director Hopkins never quite catches the offhanded humour that would ground the film in real life.

Charlie's Country
dir Rolf de Heer; with David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr 13/Aus ****
Slow and observant, this drama might test the patience of viewers who need a driving narrative to hold their interest, but this film is bursting with pungent issues that have resonance far beyond the aboriginal history of Australia. And it's anchored by yet another fine performance by David Gulpilil.

El Niño
dir Daniel Monzon; with Luis Tosar, Jesus Castro 14/Sp ***.
While the film is shot and edited like a cheesy TV cop show, the twisty plot is far more involving than expected, focussing on the human element to make the story of drug trafficking between Spain and Morocco startlingly involving. By getting under the skin of the characters, the film is not only more entertaining, but it finds some important things to say.

Free Fall 
dir Gyorgy Palfi; with Piroska Molnar, Miklos Benedek 14/Hun ***.
Essentially seven short films linked together by proximity, the humour in this wildly surreal romp is as pitch-black as it can be. But filmmaker Palfi is touching on some key elements of human interaction that manage to strike a chord despite the wacky variations in style and subject matter. And even though most of these themes are deeply grim, there's also a strong glimmer of hope.

Friday, 10 October 2014

LFF 2: It's a woman's world

Another day of movies at the 58th BFI London Film Festival. I had a superb interview with Brazilian filmmaker Daniel Ribeiro in the morning about his film The Way He Looks (see below), and then ended the day with a Q&A after a screening of The Cut with filmmaker Fatih Akin and actor Tahar Rahim. Meanwhile, festival highlights on Day 2 included Peter Strickland's astonishing The Duke of Burgundy (above). Here are some short comments on that and other films - full reviews will be on the website soon...

The Duke of Burgundy
dir Peter Strickland; with Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna 14/UK ****
After Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio, no one expects British filmmaker to make a straightforward movie, and this is far from the mainstream. Yet despite its superficially shocking premise the film is actually about the core elements in any relationship, and the vivid filmmaking and raw performances bring this out as the story develops.

Queen & Country
dir John Boorman; with Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones 14/UK ***
Essentially a meandering collection of nostalgic anecdotes, this gentle military comedy-drama is somewhat undermined by its uneven performances and unfocused plot. But it's full of likeable characters and enjoyable moments. And it nicely continues the tradition of irreverent war movies.

dir Abel Ferrara; with Willem Dafoe, Riccardo Scamarcio 14/It **
Swirling with ambition, this odd collage of a movie never quite connects its disparate parts together to communicate anything very meaningful to the audience. Shot in a murky, uneven style, director Ferrara has made it difficult to make out what writer Braucci intended with this Fellini-esque dip into the mind of an iconic filmmaker. 

The Way He Looks
dir Daniel Ribeiro; with Ghilherme Lobo, Fabio Audi 14/Br ****
Brazilian filmmaker Ribeiro expands his award-winning short I Don't Want to Go Back Alone in to a feature, the title of which translates, cheekily, Today I Want to Go Back Alone. Yes, he's taking a different approach this time, not just by expanding the cast and the themes, but also in his relaxed approach to what is a startlingly warm and effective coming-of-age drama.

Wild Life
dir Cedric Kahn; with Mathieu Kassovitz, Celine Sallette 14/Fr ****
Based in an astonishing true story, this free-spirited French drama can't help but get under the skin with its pungent premise and sharp characters. It's also directed with earthy honesty by Kahn to bring out the rougher edges of the people and places. And it quietly builds to a powerful emotional kick.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

LFF 1: The game's afoot

The 58th London Film Festival got off to a fine British start with The Imitation Game on Wednesday night, a rain-soaked premiere attended by Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and most of the cast and crew. As a biopic about one of the greatest Brits who ever lived, it's an appropriate enough opening movie, and is likely to land Cumberbatch with an Oscar nomination in January.

For me, the first couple of days have passed in a blur of film screenings, interviews and scrabbling around for time to write up reviews, features and this blog. Here are some film highlights:

The Imitation Game
dir Morten Tyldum; with Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley 14/UK 1h53 ****
Ripping performances add layers of depth to a script that isn't quite as complex as its secrets-within-secrets structure would suggest. Based on declassified documents, the film is a hugely involving account of how British mathematicians cracked the Nazis' Enigma code and turned the tide of the war. Just as importantly, this is the first proper biopic about the world-changing genius Alan Turing. FULL REVIEW >

Men, Women & Children
dir Jason Reitman; with Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner14/US **.
This cautionary tale about social media could only have been made by someone who grew up before it took over the world. Based on the novel by Chad Kultgen (age 38), the film was written by Wilson (50) and director Reitman (36) as a cautionary tale highlighting the dangers of small-screen interaction. But viewers under 30 may find it condescending and simplistic. FULL REVIEW >

Mr. Turner
dir Mike Leigh; with Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey 14/UK ****
At age 71, Mike Leigh continues to prove that he's one of the nimblest filmmakers working today. By avoiding the pitfalls of a formulaic plot, he reinvents both the costume drama and the celebrity-artist biopic as something earthy and real. Packed with humour and sardonic honesty, this exploration of the life of iconic painter JMW Turner is simply gorgeous.

dir Yann Demange; with Jack O'Connell, Paul Anderson 14/UK ****
Set out as one young man's experience in the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, this gritty, urgent film has much broader things to say about the impact violent conflict has on individuals and communities. It's a bit relentless in its approach, but it takes the audience on a provocative odyssey that sparks thought rather than trying to explain it all. FULL REVIEW >

dir Randall Wright; with David Hockney, John Kasmin 14/UK ****
One of Britain's greatest living painters is the subject of this artful documentary, which swirls together firsthand memories from David Hockney, his friends, family and colleagues. Put together, this is a fascinating exploration of Hockney's art, digging in to see how his work was created and why he has such an obsession with pushing technical boundaries. The film is slightly long and indulgent, but fans will love every moment.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Critical Week: Everybody wants to be a star

Two high-profile press screenings in London this past week were for buzzy festival hits. Nightcrawler is the blackly comical thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an ambitions crime-scene photographer. It's a stunner. And the crowd-pleasing St Vincent gives Bill Murray his best role ever as a grouchy old man who takes a young boy under his wing.

We also caught up with the next teen dystopia franchise launcher, the nicely made and well-acted but slightly thin thriller The Maze Runner; the wonderfully atmospheric and slightly undercooked 1970s British drama Northern Soul; the slick and unsettling drama A Good Marriage, starring Joan Allen and Anthony LaPaglia; and the documentary Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption, about how the controversy surrounding the notorious play is largely misplaced.

I took it a bit easier on London Film Festival screenings this past week - just three: the searing British drama Bypass with George MacKay; the haunting American ghost story Jamie Marks Is Dead; and the Australian aboriginal drama Charlie's Country with David Gulpilil. And I got away from screening rooms for music (my first Kylie concert), theatre (a fringe comedy) and a set visit with Drew Barrymore. I was also elected vice chair of the London Film Critics' Circle, and had a power cut for 16 hours on Wednesday. Quite a week.

Films this coming week include the all-star ensemble comedy-drama This Is Where I Leave You and Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in The Judge. As for London Film Festival, screenings in my diary over the first six days include: The Imitation Game, Rosewater, Wild, The Drop, My Old Lady, Kung Fu Jungle, The Falling, Return to Ithaca, Pasolini, The Salvation, Silent Storm, 1001 Grams, Second Chance and The Goob. Daily blog entries start on Thursday...