Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Critical Week: Talk to the hand

Spike Lee's 2015 Chi-Raq, a rap-musical take on an ancient Greek play, finally makes it to the UK this year. After screening at the London Film Festival, it's being shown to press before its release in December. Packed with social relevance, it's a hugely engaging look at race, gender and violence in America. But of course this week's biggest press screening was for Marvel's next blockbuster Doctor Strange, a massive crowd-pleaser that gives Benedict Cumberbatch one of his best roles yet. It's a heady concoction of trippy action and witty characters.

A little off the beaten path, there was Idris Elba and Gemma Arterton in the British indie drama 100 Streets, which is strongly shot and acted but has a rather clunky plot; the delayed UK release of the choppy drama Burning Blue, exploring the issue of Don't Ask/Don't Tell; and Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Lo and Behold, looking at the internet from angles we never thought were possible.

I also caught a couple of gay-themed plays showing on the London fringe over the weekend. The HIV Monologues (at Ace Hotel in Shoreditch until 28 Oct) is another collection of dramatic speeches by Patrick Cash (The Chemsex Monologues) that coalesce into a moving story. It's beautifully played by a sharp four-person cast, and carries quite a kick. And 5 Guys Chillin' (at King's Head in Islington until 5 Nov) is a revival of Peter Darney's v erbatim play taken from interviews about drug-fuelled post-club hangouts. It's presented in an almost unnervingly offhanded way - it feels improvised, never performed. It's a bit moralistic, but strikingly well-staged to force the audience to get involved. Both plays tackle seriously important issues in complex, challenging ways.

This coming week we have Ben Affleck in The Accountant, Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen, the British comedy-drama The Darkest Universe, the British sci-fi horror The Darkest Dawn and, just in time for the US election, something called Ron and Laura Take Back America.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Critical Week: Up in the air

It's been a nice quiet week following the end of the London Film Festival, with only a few screenings. The Eagle Huntress is a gripping, inspiring narrative documentary that was in the LFF, but I'd missed it. It's a stunningly shot story about a 13-year-old girl in Mongolia who takes on a man's world. By contrast, the dopey teen comedy Good Kids wastes its fresh cast with a script that pretends to be a gross-out romp but turns out to be prudish and corny.

There were also three independent dramas. Lazy Eye is a thoughtful, moving story of old lovers trying to reconnect, set in picturesque Joshua Tree, California. And there were the concluding two parts of a trilogy: made in 2013, The Falls: Testament of Faith never had a UK release, so I watched it to catch up on the events following the 2012 original before seeing this year's finale The Falls: Covenant of Grace. A bit over-serious but smart, honest and moving, the three films tell a story that explores the difficult balance between sexuality and religion (the lead characters are Mormons).

This coming week, the big movie is, obviously, Marvel's Doctor Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch. We also have Idris Elba in 100 Streets, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, the horror romp The Darkest Dawn, the military drama Burning Blue and Werner Herzog's internet doc Lo and Behold. Plus I have a bit of fringe theatre to take my mind off the cinema this weekend.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

LFF 10: Close with a bang

And that's it. The 60th BFI London Film Festival came to a close tonight with the red carpet UK premiere of Ben Wheatley's Free Fire. Most of the cast were on hand (that's Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Enzo Cilenti, Jack Reynor and Cillian Murphy, above), and I'm sure the party was a lot of fun. Not that I'd know: in the 19 years I've been covering the LFF I have never been invited to a festival party. But never mind - it's about the films for me, and here are some final highlights from Sunday...

Free Fire
dir Ben Wheatley; with Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley 16/UK ***.
With a bracingly simple premise and a screen full of hilariously quirky characters, Ben Wheatley plays a jazz riff on Tarantino in this riotous shoot-em-up. The plot may be under-defined and only barely developed, but the actors are having so much fun adding various shades of comedy and intensity to their roles that they keep the audience chuckling from start to finish.

dir Christopher Guest; with Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr 16/US ***.
Using his improvisational mock-doc style, Christopher Guest takes on the world of sports mascotery. As in films like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, Guest's gifted ensemble provides a constant flow of verbal and visual gags, playing up the wackier aspects of this subculture. There's nothing particularly new here, no innovation to the format, but the movie is consistently hilarious.

The Salesman
dir-scr Asghar Farhadi; with Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti 16/Irn ****
Here's yet another almost overpoweringly perceptive everyday drama from Asghar Farhadi, putting a normal couple through a series of events that push them to the breaking point. The plot centres on unexpected conflicts that provide challenging comments on both morality and forgiveness. This is a subtle, personal film that holds the audience in its grip, unable to work out where it might be going next.

The Last Laugh 
dir Ferne Pearlstein; with Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman 16/US ****
Like The Aristocrats, this documentary explores the boundaries of what's appropriate in comedy. The specific topic here is when it's OK to crack a joke about a tragic event, specifically something as big and horrific as the Holocaust. What makes the film worth a look is how director Ferne Pearlstein strikes such a remarkable balance between the views of comics and survivors.

And finally, another film I saw in Venice was the Golden Lion winner The Woman Who Left, the riveting, nearly 4-hour drama by Lav Diaz. It was a last-minute addition to the London programme.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

LFF 9: No sudden movements

The 60th London Film Festival heads into its final day with a flurry of starry red carpets, interview events and rather a lot of challenging movies (that's Dog Eat Dog above). The festival awards were handed out tonight to films I was unable to see, simply because of the sheer number of movies showing (it's been impossible to see about a third of my want-to-see list). Certain Women took the competition award, Julia Ducournau won the Sutherland Award (first feature) for her film Raw, the Grierson Award (documentary) went to Starless Dreams, and Steve McQueen was awarded the BFI Fellowship. Some highlights from Saturday...

Dog Eat Dog
dir Paul Schrader; with Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe 16/US ***
Paul Schrader goes all John Waters on us with this super-trashy crime comedy populated by a bunch of trigger-happy knuckleheads. It's violent and utterly absurd, and yet every scene is quietly saying something important about America's badly dysfunctional justice system. Still, the message isn't particularly easy to hear over the gunfire.

dir Oliver Stone; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley 16/US ****
Oliver Stone tackles another iconic figure in this urgent, robust biopic, which skilfully maintains an even keel while digging into a touchy political subject. Was Edward Snowden a patriot or a traitor? That's the question that haunts every frame of this film, and Stone does his best to let the audience make up its own mind.

Staying Vertical [Rester Vertical]
dir-scr Alain Guiraudie; with Damien Bonnard, India Hair 16/Fr ***.
Bold and full-on, this parable from Alain Giraudie has a wilfully absurd story that gets increasingly symbolic as it goes along. This is a provocative exploration of the creative process, likening it to giving birth and nurturing a particularly fussy infant while threatened from various sides. And it's underscored with a jaded sense of humour that keeps things lively, plus a central character who is oddly sympathetic.

La Noche 
dir-scr Edgardo Castro; with Edgardo Castro, Dolores Guadalupe Olivares  16/Arg ***.
An experimental drama set on the dark side of Buenos Aires, Edgardo Castro's debut film is audacious and challenging in just about every way. But while the lack of a proper narrative structure will leave many viewers lost, there's a raw honesty to the movie that carries an unexpected emotional punch. And he also has some important things to say about a generation of people whose lives have been derailed by a new economic and political reality.

And another film I saw in Venice that's part of the LFF programme is Emir Kusturica's nutty Bosnian War comedy-drama On the Milky Road, costarring Monica Bellucci.

Friday, 14 October 2016

LFF 8: Back home again

I entered the press screening of Xavier Dolan's latest film here at the 60th London Film Festival with some trepidation. It was met with harshly mixed reviews at Cannes, booed by audiences, slated by critics and yet winning one of the top awards. I've been a fan of this young filmmaker since the start of his prolific career, and I was happy to immediately feel at home in his twisted, dysfunctional world. I also thought his filmmaking and the amazing cast (Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux and Nathalie Baye, above) were astonishing. This is my best film of the festival so far, and there are only two days to go. Highlights for Friday...

It's Only the End of the World 
dir-scr Xavier Dolan; with Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard 16/Can *****
Few filmmakers are as bold as 27-year-old Canadian Xavier Dolan, who regularly takes on family relationships using bravura filmmaking that brings out unexpected, unfiltered emotions. This film, based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, is a staggering dissection of the dynamic between parents, children and siblings. It's heightened to the point that it's often painful to watch, but it's also urgent, honest and essential.

Trespass Against Us 
dir Adam Smith; with Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson 16/US ***.
Like a slap in the face, this edgy Irish comedy-drama comes at the audience at full tilt and never really lets up. This is a story about a family stuck in a cycle of ignorance and criminality, and writer Alastair Siddons and director Adam Smith take an approach that's unapologetic. The plot isn't hugely developed, and the message is rather muddled, but the sharp cast keeps it entertaining.

The Innocents 
dir Anne Fontaine; with Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek 16/Fr ****
Based on real events, this harrowing true story is told with sensitivity and humanity, making it easy to engage with every step along the way. Even though the setting is somewhat alien - it's a Polish convent at the very end of WWII - the story resonates with themes that are instantly identifiable, especially the choices everyone has to make between following the rules and showing some compassion.

Ethel & Ernest 
dir-scr Roger Mainwood; voices Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn 16/UK ***.
A collection of gentle slice-of-life anecdotes, this is a warm account of 20th century life as a son retraces his parents relationship. Raymond Briggs told their story through drawings in his graphic novel, and now those scenes have been adapted into a movie with refreshing pen-and-ink style animation and a gently involving narrative free of gimmicks.

I saw Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals in Venice, and it was also a big gala presentation here, attended by Amy Adams and Armie Hammer (both of whom also have other films at LFF), as well as Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Ford himself.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

LFF 7: Can't take it anymore

The 60th London Film Festival is charging into its final weekend with a flurry of events and premieres. The red carpets outside the various venues are getting a workout, while the press screenings at Picturehouse Central are packed to overflowing. Here are some highlights from Wednesday and Thursday...

The Rehearsal
dir Alison Maclean; with James Rolleston, Kerry Fox 16/NZ ***.
A clever riff on acting, this drama from New Zealand is packed with terrific actors in complex roles. So even if the bare-boned plot gets a little pushy at times, at least the interaction has a raw honesty to it, exploring some enormous themes through the prism of art. Filmmaker Alison Maclean also injects plenty of jagged humour and understated emotion into the story, which makes it hugely engaging even if the pacing is a little slack.

The Ghoul
dir-scr Gareth Tunley; with Tom Meeten, Dan Skinner 16/UK ****
Moody and riveting, this dark British thriller takes the audience on a surreal journey into the human psyche. It's playful and surprising, with a style clearly inspired by David Lynch as it taps into emotions that the audience might not fully grasp. But we feel it all.

There were also a few films I saw at other festivals. From Venice, three female led dramas: Dakota Fanning and Kit Harington (pictured) in the edgy Western Brimstone, Alice Lowe in the fiendishly clever serial killer comedy Prevenge (pictured at the top), Natalie Portman in the offbeat period drama Planetarium. And from BFI Flare: Russell Tovey in the complex, intriguing football drama The Pass.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L   W E E K
Along with LFF movies, I've also had to keep up with the regular releases in cinemas. This week's screenings included a double dose of Tom Hanks: the lacklustre second Da Vinci Code sequel Inferno and the strikingly edgy, well-made Sully, about the amazing real-life landing of a passenger jet in the Hudson River in 2009. And then there was Tom Cruise in the thriller sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Plus a couple of punchy British dramas: Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake, a powerful, uplifting drama about taking on bureaucracy; and Starfish, the dark but moving true story of a man who survived sepsis then struggled to rebuild his life.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

LFF 6: Preach it, brother

Tonight's red carpet at the 60th London Film Festival was for The Birth of a Nation, a biopic about Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in the early 19th century. Armie Hammer and Nat Turner (above) were on the red carpet, along with several other costars. Today was my busiest day of the festival so far, with five films. That's too much even for me! I'll try to take it a bit easier tomorrow. Highlights from Tuesday...

The Birth of a Nation
dir-scr Nate Parker; with Nate Parker, Armie Hammer 16/US ***.
Actor-filmmaker Nate Parker pours his soul into this engaging true story about a slave uprising in early 19th century Virginia. It's a slickly produced and only slightly over-egged period drama packed with present-day resonance as a young preacher finally realises he can't ignore the injustice any longer. Yes, aside from being a powerfully involving film, it has a lot to say to us today.

dir Gabe Klinger; with Anton Yelchin, Lucie Lucas 16/Por ***
Offbeat and so wispy thin that it barely seems to exist at all, this gentle drama traces circles around a romance that flares briefly. It takes its name from the northern Portuguese city where it's set, and where two young foreigners connect in an offhanded way. And while the film is beautifully shot and acted with a warm introspection, it's also somewhat indulgent in its insistence that this kind of romance has sent ripples through past and future.

I Am Not a Serial Killer
dir Billy O'Brien; with Max Records, Laura Fraser 16/Ire ***.
Irish filmmaker Billy O'Brien brings a snappy sensibility to this drama set in Middle America, never allowing the story's larger issues to become bigger than they need to be. It centres on a sociopathic teen trying to live a "normal" life, but there's also a subtle supernatural plot element that adds a whiff of horror. And while the pacing is too artful for the mainstream, the film feels fresh and original enough to hold the interest.

dir-scr Marco Berger; with Gabriel Epstein, Lucas Papa 16/Arg ***.
Essentially a mash-up of writer-director Marco Berger's Hawaii and producer-codirector Martin Farina's Fulboy, this film places nine athletic young men in an isolated resort-style house for a sweltering summer holiday and observes the physicality between them. There's a hint of a plot between two of the guys, and a few traits emerge here and there, but the movie is basically a tactile, tantalising tease that pays off only in the final moments.

Monday, 10 October 2016

LFF 5: Stare into the abyss

Amy Adams was on hand to lend some Hollywood glamour to the red carpet for the 60th London Film Festival tonight - with the gala screening of her new film Arrival (pictured above). And she'll be back later in the week for Nocturnal Animals. There are quite a few actors pulling double duty this year, including David Oyelowo and Natalie Portman. Meanwhile, those of us in the ranks of the film journalists are starting to look like the walking dead, as too many movies and too little sleep begins to catch up with us. Here are some highlights from Monday...

dir-scr Jim Jarmusch; with Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani 16/US ****
Evoking the poetry of William Carlos Williams, this whimsical comedy-drama explores the profundity of everyday details in Williams' hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch lets this hilarious story unfold gently, taking the time to soak in the small things that liven up both our seemingly monotonous lives and our seemingly similar personalities.

After the Storm
dir-scr Hirokazu Kore-eda; with Hiroshi Abe, Kirin Kiki 16/Jpn ****
Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda continues his string of gently revelatory dramas with this story about a rather typical modern family. As they explore the connections between them, the characters are pondering the past and the future, and realising that they may need to live in the present if they're ever going to be happy. There are no fireworks in this movie, but Kore-eda's writing and directing are simply beautiful, as always.

Sweet Dreams [Fai Bei Sogni]
dir Marco Bellocchio; with Valerio Mastandrea, Berenice Bejo 16/It **
Italian maestro Marco Bellocchio makes bold movies, and this one feels deeply personal as it explores the very Italian topic of the mother-son bond. It's beautifully shot, with insinuating performances and an ambitious approach to the narrative structure. But it's also oddly over-serious, and the fragmented style of storytelling stubbornly refuses to properly let the audience into the characters' inner lives.

Being 17  [Quand On a 17 Ans] 
dir Andre Techine; with Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein 16/Fr ***.
An intriguing teaming of French filmmakers Andre Techine and Celine Sciamma, this drama tackles a series of emotive issues head-on with strong characters and striking honesty. The problem is that it feels like two separate films have been mashed together, so each storyline undercuts the power of the other one. Is this about the challenges of a community doctor whose husband works abroad? Or an edgy romance between two teen outcasts?

The Ornithologist [O Ornitólogo]
dir-scr Joao Pedro Rodrigues; with Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao 16/Por **.
This experimental film from Portugal starts promisingly, as it follows a bird-watcher on a trip into a spectacular wilderness. It's an intriguingly internalised odyssey, beautifully shot and played, with tantalising clues about a variety of issues. But as it continues, writer-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues drifts into pretentious metaphorical nuttiness that overwhelms any sense of narrative drama and loses the audience deep in the forest.

And two more films I saw in Venice that are showing here in London: Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival and the Italian road movie These Days.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

LFF 4: Take on the establishment

After launching the festival with his opening film A United Kingdom on Wednesday, David Oyelowo was back out again tonight for the premiere of Queen of Katwe, an inspiring true story from Uganda. Oyelowo has made quite a mark on the 60th London Film Festival, as he also hosted the launch of the BFI's Black Star programme exploring diversity in cinema. His speech made headlines, including the fact that only 13 percent of British films have leading roles for black actors. "The odd token thrown, the odd bone given is not going to do it," he said. "Don't pat yourself on the back because you made that black drama. Bully for you, but that's not diversity. It's got to be baked into the foundation of where the ideas flow from." Here are some highlights from Sunday...

Queen of Katwe
dir Mira Nair; with Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo 16/SA 2h04 ***.
While this fact-based film is low on authentic edge, it's bright and engaging enough to hold the audience's interest and deliver a terrific emotional kick. Abject poverty hasn't looked this colourful since Slumdog Millionaire, and this story also addresses big social issues as it follows a handful of likeable characters through an involving odyssey. And the movie is so entertaining that we hardly realise we're learning something.  FULL REVIEW >

dir Paul Verhoeven; with Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte 16/Fr ****
With a bold tone that's bracingly matter-of-fact, this outrageous comedy-thriller takes the audience on a rollercoaster ride with an extraordinary woman who refuses to just accept whatever life throws at her. It's a twisty, surprising story that takes several disturbing turns, offering Isabelle Huppert another wonderfully complex role, while director Paul Verhoeven adeptly plays with audience expectations.

dir Benedict Andrews; with Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn 16/UK **
Adapted by playwright David Harrower from his play Blackbird, this is a harrowing look at seduction and manipulation. But its gyrations feel somewhat contrived on a film screen, and the characters are oddly simplistic for a story that takes such a bold, complex approach to a difficult situation. It's worth seeing for some of the performances, and also for its ability to get us thinking. But it's never engaging. 

dir Steven Cantor; with Sergei Polunin, Galina Polunina 16/UK ****
This narrative doc traces the life and career of Sergei Polunin, often called the "bad boy of ballet" for his hard-partying lifestyle. But the film reveals a more complex young man whose innate gift made him the youngest ever principal for the Royal Ballet, while his family fell apart supporting him. It's a powerfully emotional documentary, even though it feels like it only scratches the surface.

Hermia & Helena
dir-scr Matias Pineiro; with Agustina Munoz, Maria Villar 16/Arg **
Indulgently experimental, this is the kind of movie that appeals to film students due to its clever references and artful juxtaposition. But the fact is that there is no plot to speak of, scenes simply don't hang together and it's perhaps too generous to call the acting uneven. There is some charm in filmmaker Matias Pineiro's loose, witty style, but in the end it's just too smug to have any resonance.

And another film I saw in Venice that's playing here in London is Terrence Malick's ethereal earth doc Voyage of Time

Saturday, 8 October 2016

LFF 3: Can't stop this feeling

There's no pause for the weekends for journalists covering the 60th BFI London Film Festival. In fact, it feels a bit more intense, perhaps because I have the feeling that I need a rest! Red carpet events continue every evening in Leicester Square with a parade of A-list stars and acclaimed lesser-known actors and filmmakers. And I'm sure there are parties going on somewhere. Here are some films for Saturday...

dir Mike Mitchell; voices Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake 16/US ****
Almost ludicrously happy, this colourfully animated musical comedy makes up for a thin plot with quick wit. It's fairly impossible to wipe the smile off your face from start to finish, even in the movie's deliberately feeble attempt to generate some dark tension. And as Justin Timberlake's pathologically bouncy theme tune says, you can't help but want to dance.

Manchester by the Sea 
dir-scr Kenneth Lonergan; with Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges 16/US ****
Anchored by the cast's raw performances, this drama is packed with big themes that everyone in the audience can identify with, from strained family connections to the lingering effects of grief. It sometimes feels like writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has dumped rather a lot of misfortune on these beaten-down characters, but the film maintains a strong sense of hope simply because none of them will give up.

dir Antonio Campos; with Rebecca Hall, Michael C Hall 16/US ****
The true story of Christine Chubbuck is turned into an eerily intense personal odyssey that grows increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Director Antonio Campos vividly explores Christine's growing stress without trying to explain it away, which makes it resonant as a depiction of the cumulative effect of the daily struggles everybody experiences. And Rebecca Hall is quite simply awesome in the role.

Toni Erdmann 
dir-scr Maren Ade; with Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller 16/Ger ****
A riotously astute look at modern life, this German comedy holds the attention by simply refusing to be even remotely predictable. As writer-director Maren Ade follows a father and daughter through a twisty series of events, she not only highlights some pungent issues facing Europe, but she more importantly digs deep inside to reveal the prankster in all of us. And to remind us that we need to laugh more.

The Handmaiden 
dir Park Chan-wook; with Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri 16/Kor ****
Korean maestro Park Chan-wook adapts Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith into a stylish, twisty drama set in Korea and Japan during WWII. It's a visually ravishing film about passion and subterfuge, told in three chapters that flip the perspective in unexpected directions. So even if the themes are a little thin, the film looks so amazing and has such a wickedly labyrinthine plot that it's thoroughly riveting.

And from Venice, Amat Escalante's controversial dramatic monster horror movie The Untamed is also screening in London.

Friday, 7 October 2016

LFF 2: Looking for trouble

The 60th London Film Festival demonstrated its size today with a blinding array of screenings all over the city. And in the press zone, our screenings were all overcrowded, vividly showing that (1) the festival has too many movies, (2) the wildly popular films are being screened too few times, and (3) there are too many journalists and industry professionals who need to see them. But then, this is a massive festival that's covered all over the world. It may not feature many proper world premieres, but it's bringing the best of the premiere festivals to an audience that's clamouring for more of this kind of programming. Some highlights from Thursday...

American Honey
dir-scr Andrea Arnold; with Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf 16/UK **. 
Filmmaker Andrea Arnold astutely slices through American youth culture with this meandering road trip, which is gorgeously photographed by Robbie Ryan and played with bracing honesty by its fresh-faced cast (pictured above). But with so little structure to the plot, the extended running time feels at least an hour too long. Especially since the events stop making logical sense and the characters stubbornly refuse to take their own internal journeys.

La La Land
dir-scr Damien Chazelle; with Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone 16/US ****.
This colourful musical about Los Angeles is both a celebration and a cautionary tale about the city of dreams. Its buoyant tone and fizzy performances make it a delight from start to finish, even when things turn rather dark along the way. Writer-director Damien Chazelle proves that Whiplash was no fluke: this is a bravura display of pure cinematic joy. FULL REVIEW >

King Cobra
dir-scr Justin Kelly; with Garrett Clayton, Christian Slater 16/US ***
Based on an outrageous true story, this film grips the audience with its colourful characters and unpredictable situations. But the script struggles to find a point of view, which means that it's not easy to identify with anyone on-screen, so it's difficult to find the emotional core to what happens. A more focussed dramatic approach might have made a better film, but this is still a riveting story.

dir-scr Barry Jenkins; with Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland 16/US ****
With its intimate approach and deeply resonant themes, this film gets under the skin right from the start, putting us in the shoes of the lead character at three points in his life. His journey to self-discovery is difficult, partly because he is painfully withdrawn due to his tough life experiences. And what this movie has to say is so important that it deserves all the the attention and awards it gets.

dir Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra; with Harshvardhan Kapoor, Saiyami Kher 16/Ind ***
Infused with music and history, this bold Bollywood epic parallels a modern story of forbidden love against a mythological romance. The settings and design work are stunning, with frequent cutaways to elaborately choreographed songs. So even if it all feels somewhat corny for Western audiences, the grand scale keeps it entertaining. FULL REVIEW >

And along with La La Land, there were two films I saw in Venice screening today in London: Francois Ozon's terrific post-war drama Frantz and Stephane Brize's deconstructed 19th century drama A Woman's Life.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

LFF 1: Unroll the carpet

The 60th London Film Festival kicked off last night with the UK premiere of Amma Asante's biopic A United Kingdom. Rosamund Pike (above) ruled the red carpet, making the most of a wardrobe malfunction. And her costar David Oyelowo hit the headlines today as host of a symposium on race issues in movies. And so it begins, with an exhausting schedule of nearly 250 movies over the next 12 days. I'm packing as many in as possible, and still will be missing several big titles on my list simply because there isn't time. Here are some highlights for today...

A United Kingdom
dir Amma Asante; with David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike 16/UK ***
This is a great true story with a huge present-day relevance, and it features robust, engaging performances from both David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. So it's a shame that the screenplay lets it down so badly. Not only are characters painted with broadly cartoonish strokes, but the structure drains any sense of momentum from the narrative. So if it's not hugely compelling, at least it's still a worthy biopic packed with important themes.

A Monster Calls
dir JA Bayona; with Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson 16/UK ****.
This may look like a fantasy adventure, but it's actually a staggeringly resonant emotional journey that will connect with audience members of all ages. As it explores enormous themes from loneliness to grief, the film builds an earthy authenticity that even carries through its big effects sequences. Not only is it shot with skill and care, but it's anchored by a terrific performance from the young Lewis MacDougall.

Into the Forest
dir Gilles Marchand; with Jeremie Elkaim, Timothe Vom Dorp 16/Fr ***
Clearly a riff on Zvyagintsev's The Return by way of Kubrick's The Shining, this dark thriller evokes considerable dread, mainly in its sound mix. But director Guy Marchand also has some visual tricks up his sleeve to freak out the audience. There doesn't seem to be much to the film beyond insinuated nastiness, but it's enjoyably spooky.

Ma' Rosa
dir Brillante Ma Mendoza; with Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz 16/Ph ****
Shot with handheld urgency and extended real-time sequences, this Filipino drama grabs hold of the audience from the start and never lets up. Filmmaker Brillante Mendoza skilfully immerses us in the rain-soaked bustle of Manila, focussing on a low-level drug dealer whose concern for her family makes her enormously sympathetic. And while the drama is more than enough to hold the attention, the film also has some harrowing things to say about justice in the Philippines.

And two films I saw in Venice were also screening in London today: the French drama Heal the Living and the Italian drama Indivisible.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Critical Week: Off the rails

The best film screened this week was easily the Korean action horror Train to Busan, a nonstop thrill ride of a movie that keeps you holding on for dear life and screaming at the screen. And it has some properly serious subtext too. Honestly, I didn't think they made movies like this anymore! Alongside the current release of Under the Shadow, it's nice to see that there's life in the horror genre again.

Also this week, we had the lively, hilarious animated adventure Storks; the superbly well written and acted British comedy-drama Burn Burn Burn; the choppy, romantic Bollywood epic Mirzya; the meandering experimental Spanish drama The Ways of Man; and the hugely affirming narrative documentary Life, Animated, offering a new angle on autism.

Also, the 24th Raindance Film Festival came to a close over the weekend. I saw two more features: the harrowing trafficking drama Selling Isobel and the moving Holocaust documentary Trezoros. And I spent an hour experimenting with virtual reality in the festival's whizzy VR Arcade - clearly a glimpse of the future, but filmmakers still need to seize the narrative possibilities.

This coming week I have the Da Vinci Code sequel Inferno, Ken Loach's Cannes-winner I, Daniel Blake, the British drama Starfish and about 25 films I'll be watching just in the next week for the London Film Festival. Daily blog updates start Thursday...