Monday, 30 March 2015

Flare 5: Stand for what's right

The British Film Institute's 29th Flare: London LGBT Film Festival wrapped up last night with the documentary Out to Win, featuring young athletes Chandler Whitney and Conner Martens (above) and an array of famously open competitors including NBA player John Amaechi, who appeared on-stage with director Malcolm Ingram for a Q&A after the film. It's been another lively 10 days at BFI Southbank, with lively audiences, nightly parties, an unusually high standard of films and a global impact thanks to social media. Here are some highlights from the final weekend...

Out to Win 
dir Malcolm Ingram; with Billie Jean King, John Amaechi 15/US ***.
Exploring an important topic with some strikingly personal insight, this documentary feels long overdue. But it's pegged to a news event that's essentially an over-hyped non-story, which leaves the film without much compelling narrative momentum. Even so, it opens the door to discussing why professional sports has had such a difficult time accepting openly gay athletes.

Hidden Away
dir Mikel Rueda; with German Alcarazu, Adil Koukouh 14/Sp ****
A loose, ambiguous style makes this Spanish teen drama remarkably involving. It's a bit elusive about developing the central relationship, as much of it seems to be off-screen. But the film beautifully gets under the skin of the two central characters, teens struggling to admit that they don't fit in as expected.

Drunktown's Finest
dir-scr Sydney Freeland; with Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore 14/US ****
Filmmaker Freeland clearly knows the importance of the subject matter of this three-pronged drama, which skilfully explores a range of issues in a Native American community through stories that are easy to identify with. And the deep human connections bring this scruffy movie come to life, thanks to some understated performances and real-life interaction. Set on the edge of a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, the characters give insight into hapless crime, issues of identity and birthright, community connections, and even gender issues. But all of this emerges organically through characters that get under our skin simply because they seem just like people we know. So it's a bit surprising as the storylines continue and intersect to discover that the film has some bracingly strong things to say about America.

We Came to Sweat
dir Kate Kunath, Sasha Wortzel; with Dennis Parrot, Linda King 15/US ***
With a mixture of archive footage and a narrative urgency, this documentary explores the life of an unusual community venue struggling to survive against the odds. Important both in the past and present, the Starlite Lounge has been an oasis of openness in a constantly shifting Brooklyn neighbourhood. But this isn't a big statement film, it's a low-key look at a slice of history that's been lost forever.

Flare Short Films
There are always several very strong programmes of short films at BFI Flare - films in every conceivable genre that explore themes from a variety of angles. I only managed to catch 10 shorts this year (a small number for me!). Two higher profile shorts touched on issues of ethnicity and immigration: Chance (by Jake Graf) is an earnest, moving exploration of unexpected love, while the somewhat elusive drama Followers (by Tim Marshall) is an Iris Prize production about a religious woman who has a revelation in a very unexpected place. Other favourites included Caged (by Dylan and Lazlo Tonk), a beautifully shot and edited Dutch short about teen athletes grappling with self-discovery and peer pressure; Hole (by Martin Edralin), a bold, important drama about a physically disabled man who asks his carer for something that definitely crosses some sort of line; and Been Too Long at the Fair (by Todd Verow and Charles Lum), a witty, warm autobiographical documentary about an unusual cinema in Queens, New York, that managed to buck the trend for shutting down adult theatres.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Flare 4: Emerge from the deep

One of the highlights of this year's BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival was the appearance of 83-year-old screen icon Tab Hunter in person - still looking great while answering questions after screenings of the new documentary about his life by Jeffrey Schwarz (I Am Divine). The British Film Institute does a great job at bringing filmmakers and actors over for this festival, including a huge number from the local London cinema scene that make it feel like a class reunion every year at various drinks receptions and parties over the 10 festive days. Here are some more highlights...

Tab Hunter Confidential 
dir Jeffrey Schwarz; with Tab Hunter, Allan Glaser 15/US ***.
While this documentary about the 1950s heartthrob feels a bit gentle and overtly positive, it manages to focus attention on how the Hollywood studio system routinely moulded its stars into a carefully managed image, creating a whole generation of artists who were living a lie. This makes it an important document, even if a much grittier film is needed to dig up the darker edges of the story

Stories of Our Lives 
dir Jim Chuchu; with Kelly Gichohi, Janice Mugo 14/Ken ****
Based on true accounts, the five segments in this film are artfully shot in black and white and played with raw honesty and pointed human insight. As a collection, it has an even stronger impact because the filmmaking is both artful and straightforward, reflecting a deeply repressed, harsh society through stories that are very sad but are also full of hope. These are important voices that demand to be heard. (Gala screening)

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.

Everlasting Love [Amor Eterno]
dir Marcal Fores; with Joan Bentalle, Aimar Vega 14/Sp ****
Arch and over-stylised, this clever film also manages to remain eerily natural, as writer-director Flores insinuates all sorts of freaky secret-society goings on. The idea is to trace love from that first flash of lust to something more eternal. And while the plot is somewhat undercooked, as it were, it's also thoroughly involving, unnerving and ultimately haunting.

54: The Director's Cut
dir Mark Christopher; with Ryan Phillippe, Mike Myers 98-15/US ****
On its original release, Miramax executives cut nearly 15 minutes of footage from this film, deleting all of the gay content in a misguided attempt to appeal to wider audiences. The result was a movie that made little sense since this also eliminated much of the character motivation and complexity. Writer-director Christopher has now restored that material in a director's cut. Some of these scenes are VHS quality, which gives the film an intriguing period touch. More importantly, this restored material adds a serious kick to the plot. It's a much better film now, more focussed on the central journey of Shane O'Shea (Phillippe). As a result, it's more resonant and makes a much more provocative comment on the time and place.

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 Strickland 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 this is beautifully revealed through vivid filmmaking and raw performances... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Flare 3: Sleep like a baby

The British Film Institute's 29th Flare: London LGBT Film Festival continues at the Southbank with a terrific range of screenings and events every day - and lots of filmmakers in attendance to both offer Q&As at screenings and mix with the audiences at parties and events around the venue. Here are some more highlights...

Tiger Orange
dir Wade Gasque; with Mark Strano, Frankie Valenti (pictured above) 14/US ****
An unusually strong script confronts some darkly resonant issues in a simple story about two brothers working out who they are both together and as individuals. The low budget may make it look simplistic, but the characters have an unusual complexity, and the themes are provocative and important... FULL REVIEW >

The New Girlfriend
dir Francois Ozon; with Romain Duris, Anais Demoustier 14/Fr ****.
Based on the Ruth Rendell novel, this slick, sexy film plays cleverly with genders to tell a remarkably entertaining story. A terrific cast makes the characters not only surprising but also thoroughly resonant. And writer-director Ozon juggles the plot and themes so effortlessly that it can't help but worm its way under the skin.

Dear White People
dir Justin Simien; with Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson 14/US ****
Almost too clever for its own good, this knowing comedy-drama plays with cliches using by placing parody within pastiche. Set in an American university, this sharply played film is populated by people trying to both fit into and rebel against racial, economic and sexuality stereotypes. It may be somewhat overpacked, but it's fiendishly clever and very funny.

Dressed as a Girl
dir-scr Colin Rothbart; with Jonny Woo, Scottee, Holestar 15/UK ***.
Focussing on a few shining stars from the London drag scene, this documentary is packed with telling observations as performers reveal the real person under the wigs and sequins. It's entertaining and enlightening, but the film is also rather fragmented, never quite building up a sense of momentum to bring new fans into the scene. (World premiere)

Do I Sound Gay?
dir David Thorpe; with David Thorpe, Susan Sankin 14/US ****
In the style of Morgan Spurlock, filmmaker Thorpe puts himself at the centre of a documentary about an intriguing issue everyone's aware of but nobody talks about: why gay men have distinct vocal patterns. Or do they? It's a fascinating topic, especially as Thorpe delves deeper into bigger issues about identity and equality. So in the end the film is both witty and surprisingly empowering. (Centrepiece film)

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I had a few days out of circulation this week, but still managed to catch a few press screenings, including the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart comedy Get Hard, which is funnier than it looks; the Anthony Hopkins thriller Kidnapping Freddy Heineken, which is oddly low-key and hard to engage with; the French drama Samba with Omar Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg, which is long but sharply pointed and beautifully played; the scruffy French black The King of Escape, which is odd enough to be engaging; the Swedish coming-of-age drama Something Must Break, which is honest and original; and the documentary Altman, a wonderful film-by-film love letter to the iconic director.

Next week's films, in addition to those I'll catch at Flare, include Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in Fast & Furious 7, Keanu Reeves in John Wick, the Kiwi drama The Dark Horse, the German horror The Treatment and the Cannon studios doc Electric Boogaloo.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Flare 2: Sing like an angel

Mo'Nique makes her first return to the big screen alongside newcomer Julian Walker (above) in Blackbird, showing at the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBT Film Festival. The festival was a flurry of parties and screenings over the weekend, with the highlight being the presence of movie icon Tab Hunter in attendance to talk about a documentary tracing his life and career (alas, I was unable to attend, but I'll catch up with it this week). More film highlights...

dir Patrik-Ian Polk; with Julian Walker, Mo'Nique 14/US ***
Strong topical themes make this film worth seeing, even if the script drifts over-the-top in the final act, piling on just a few too many issues, emotions and coincidences. But the fresh cast is strong, and the film has a lovely musical sense about it. It also says some very important things about the clash between religion and sexuality.

dir Celine Sciamma; with Karidja Toure, Assa Sylla 14/Fr ****.
Building on the effectiveness of her gender-challenging Water Lillies and Tomboy, writer-director Sciamma creates a series of fascinating characters that continually jolt us out of our expectations. This film is stunningly well-made, peppered with unforgettable goosebump moments even as it refuses to answer all of the questions it raises.

dir Chandrasekaram Visakesa; with Dasun Pathirana, Jehan Srikanth Appuhami 14/Sri ***.
From Sri Lanka, this film is made in a distinctly local style that will feel hesitant and awkward to a Western audience, but it offers sharp insight into a culture still struggling to deal with questions about sexuality and gender identity. It's also infused with warmth and a cheeky sense of humour. And the characters are so strong characters that they don't need to say too much.

Something Must Break 
dir Ester Martin Bergsmark; with Saga Becker, Iggy Malmborg 14/Swe ****
Beautifully shot and edited to get into the mind of its young central character, this Swedish drama explores how it feels to live outside the lines society has drawn for you. It sometimes an overpoweringly dark drama, with relentlessly bleak undercurrents, but there's a spark of hope that maybe people can find ways to love and accept each other.

Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity
dir Catherine Gund; with Elizabeth Streb, Laura Flanders 14/US ****
Intense and intriguing, this documentary traces an outrageously inventive, physical form of artistic experssion that combines dance, gymnastics and circus movement. From a desire to see a human being fly, Elizabeth Streb develops what she calls "extreme action". So even if the filmmaking is somewhat serious and straightforward, the performances are visceral and thrilling... FULL REVIEW >

Alive! [Vivant!]
dir-scr Vincent Boujon; with Vincent Leclercq, Matteo Montenegro 14/Fr **** 
This simple, straightforward documentary has an unusually loose narrative that's evocative and experiential rather than informative. Along the way, filmmaker Boujon inventively uses a relatively simple situation - a group of five HIV-positive men going skydiving - to explore some much bigger issues. It's involving and moving, and rather amazing.

The Golden Age of the American Male
dir Bob Mizer; with Joe Dallesandro, Blackie Preston 12/US ***
This is a very simple compilation of vintage gay-interest movies made by Mizer's AMG Studios using home-movie techniques to shoot scenes celebrating the male physique. These fit young men are wearing posing pouches or completely naked enacting contrived scenarios that are so hilariously absurd that even they can't stop laughing. If this collection contained some information about how or when they were made, it would be a much more valuable document. As is, it's an amusing, intriguing glimpse at a forgotten corner of movie history.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Flare 1: Start with a question

The British Film Institute's 29th Flare: London LGBT Film Festival kicked off at BFI Southbank on Thursday night with an intriguingly controversial opening film: I Am Michael, the true story of a gay activist who converted to Christianity and became an outspoken critic of homosexuality. The festival started as it means to go on, grappling with issues in an intelligent, balanced way that will force people to take sides. It should be a fun one. Here are some highlights from the first two days...

I Am Michael
dir Justin Kelly; with James Franco, Zachary Quinto 15/US ****
With remarkable restraint, director Kelly and his cowriter Miller tell a provocative true story without taking sides. Written and directed with an artistic flair that cuts beneath the surface, this is a story that raises questions without overtly answering them. It's also the kind of movie that will divide audiences and generate hopefully positive dialog.

Futuro Beach
dir Karim Ainouz; with Wagner Moura, Clemens Schick 14/Br ****
Intense and foreboding, and yet deeply human and emotional, this offbeat Brazilian drama explores the lives of three young men who are unsure about where they are headed. Shot and edited for a maximum visceral kick, the movie resists standard filmmaking structures for something much looser, forcing the audience to get involved in a story that remains intriguingly elusive... FULL REVIEW >

The Falling
dir-scr 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.

dir Martin Farina; with Tomas Farina, Facundo Talin 14/Arg ***.
This beautifully shot and edited voyeuristic documentary explores the life of professional footballers in Argentina, revealing things fans never get to see. While following his brother's team, filmmaker Farina seeks to capture the truth: work, fun and everything in between. And the film raises intriguing questions about whether that's even possible, since everyone edits themselves when a camera is around.

Dior and I
dir Frederic Tcheng; with Raf Simons, Pieter Mulier 14/Fr ****
Much more than a documentary about a fashion house, this film finds real resonance in its central characters, people who bring an open passion, artistry and depth of feeling to their everyday work. So watching them get ready for a pivotal show becomes utterly riveting. And by the time we reach the big event, the emotional catharsis is contagious.


Appropriate Behaviour
dir-scr Desiree Akhavan; with Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson 14/UK ****
Actor-filmmaker Desiree Akhavan is clearly exorcising personal demons 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... FULL REVIEW >

dir Matthew Warchus; with Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay14/UK *****
Based on a seriously rousing true story, this British feel-good comedy-drama is energetically written and directed, and it's sharply played to get under the skin of a variety of characters. Even though the events took place 30 years ago, they have a present-day resonance that makes this one of the most important films of this year... FULL REVIEW >

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Critical Week: Well well well...

UK critics had a chance to catch up with Russell Crowe's directing debut The Water Diviner this past week. It's a moving true story set in the aftermath of World War I, but its earnestness tries the patience. As does a somewhat gratuitous romantic subplot involving Olga Kurylenko as an impossibly gorgeous Turkish hotelier. The biggest film of the week was Insurgent, which held its world premiere in London before the only press screening on Monday. It's an improvement on the original, with stronger characters, terrific acting and even more impressive visuals.

Critics were also treated to a lively morning screening of the hilarious DreamWorks animated romp Home, and an evening screening of Liam Neeson's latest action movie Run All Night, which was better than expected. Stonehearst Asylum is a nutty mental institute thriller by Brad Anderson with an all-star cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Kate Beckinsale and Jim Sturgess. Listen Up Philip is a funny and awkward comedy about writers starring Jason Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce and the amazing Elizabeth Moss. Still is a low-budget British film that majors in moody set design and intense characters at the expense of personal involvement. And 3 in a Bed is an even smaller-budget British romance that proves that anyone can make a movie, including amateurs.

We also had some press screenings for the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, which kicks off on Thursday night at BFI Southbank. The opening film is I Am Michael, a bracingly open-handed drama starring James Franco and Zachary Quinto that's bound to spark a lot of discussion. And we also watched the director's cut of 54, Mark Christopher's 1998 disco-era drama that was eviscerated by the studio at the time and makes a lot more sense with key narrative elements reinstated. Great performances too from Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek, Breckin Meyer and Mike Myers, plus a glimpse of a young Mark Ruffalo. I've seen a lot more BFI Flare movies already, and will be covering the festival here as usual.

Over the next week, BFI Flare will take up most of my time, but I also have screenings of Will Ferrell's Get Hard, the true thriller Kidnapping Freddy Heineken and a pair of somewhat self-explanatory docs: Altman, about the filmmaker, and I Am Big Bird, about the Sesame Street performer.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Critical Week: Up on the roof

Press screenings this past week included Spooks: The Greater Good, the first big-screen adventure for the long-running BBC TV spy series (titled MI-5 in the USA). Comments on the film are embargoed until closer to the May 8th release, but the cast includes Kit Harington (above), Jennifer Ehle, David Harewood and series actors Peter Firth, Tim McInnerny and Lara Pulver. And there were two other action movies this week: Sean Penn is The Gunman, an oddly dull and brutal Euro-thriller with the spark of a topical theme, while Jason Statham leads Wild Card, an oddly dull and brutal Vegas thriller with a jazzy undertone.

There were also four comedies: Noah Baumbach's engaging but contrived While We're Young features Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts facing the early flares of middle age; Mae Whitman is terrific in The Duff, a smartly written and played teen comedy that keeps the audience laughing; from the same producers, the perhaps too-snappy meta-comedy Playing It Cool stars Chris Evans as a screenwriter trying to write a rom-com while resisting romance; and Andrew J West leads a starry cast as Walter, a likeable young guy who thinks he's God's messenger and takes a surprisingly engaging journey back to reality.

And two superbly well-made but essentially plotless art films were a tonic to critics worn out by too-literal commercial movies: the rural British coming-of-age drama The Goob and the Colombian class-clash drama Gente de Bien are both beautifully observed studies of people grappling with life in their specific cultures.

Coming up in the next week, we have screenings of the Divergent sequel Insurgent, Liam Neeson in Run All Night, Russell Crowe in The Water Diviner, Elizabeth Moss in Listen Up Philip, James Franco in I Am Michael, sirs Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine in Stonehearst Asylum, the animated adventure Home, the Swedish drama Something Must Break and the finally uncensored 54: The Director's Cut.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Critical Week: If the shoe fits

Some big movies were screened to UK critics this week, including Disney's new live-action Cinderella, starring Lily James and Richard Madden, plus the likes of Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger and Downton Abbey's Sophie McShera. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, this takes a more sumptuous, old-fashioned approach than Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland or last year's Maleficent, and it's rather charming. This screening included the first London showing of the hilariously entertaining short Frozen Fever, which will definitely further the franchise.

The other gorgeously well-made big-budget film was Suite Francaise, based on Irene Nemirovsky's acclaimed novel and starring an especially superb Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts and Kristin Scott Thomas. We also had very late screenings of two films opening this week around the world, and both have had their reviews embargoed until later in the week: Neil Blomkamp's Chappie and the Vince Vaughn comedy Unfinished Business. 

A bit further afield, there was Salma Hayek energetically fighting off a steady stream of goons in Everly, Julia Stiles and Scott Speedman facing creepy child ghosts in Colombia in Out of the Dark, Jean Dujardin chasing an elusive drug dealer in The Connection, a group of kids trying to be themselves in the astute comedy-drama Geography Club, some comically inept East End London criminals in the rather tired Hackney's Finest, and a subtle exploration of unexpected young love in Berlin in Silent Youth.

Coming up this week: Sean Penn in The Gunman, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Samba, Virginia Madsen in Walter, the hit American teen comedy The Duff, another meta-comical American rom-com Playing It Cool, the British indie drama The Goob, and the Colombian drama Gente de Bien.