Sunday, 24 March 2019

Flare: Put on a show

The 33rd BFI Flare continues this weekend, as a million people marched just across the river Saturday trying to stop the chaos of Brexit. Screenings have been busy, packed with a lively audience looking for movies outside the mainstream that deal with more complex issues of identity and humanity. I particularly enjoy the chance to see short films on a big screen. These are busy days for me: I also have my regular weekly releases to watch, so I'll see both Dumbo and Wonder Park on Sunday, then walk back across the river to BFI Southbank for more offbeat Flare fun. Here are some more highlights...

Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life
dir-scr Tomer Heymann; with Jonathan Agassi, Anna Langer 18/Isr ***.
Unapologetic and more than a little disturbing, this graphic documentary follows a porn star through his day-to-day life, capturing amusingly awkward moments with his family along with the sex shows and harrowing drug trips. With this unvarnished portrait, filmmaker Tomer Heymann takes the audience right into an existence most people would find difficult to imagine: there's no glamour at all. The approach is both intimate and dispassionate, which kind of leaves the viewer's head spinning.

Tell It to the Bees 
dir Annabel Jankel; with Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger 18/UK 1h46 **.
Told with perhaps too much warmth, this 1950s romance is sharply written, acted and production designed to create a specific period atmosphere. It's austere and fairly bursting with secret feelings as two women fall in love in a small town. The themes are nicely handled with sensitivity and a light directorial touch, but the melodrama begins to feel somewhat sticky in the final act, pushing the characters in arch directions. And a magical realist element never quite gels.

dir Alex Moratto; with Christian Malheiros 18/Br ****
Produced by a workshop of young people aged 16 to 20, this Brazilian drama takes a bracingly realistic approach to its story of a teen living, in more ways than one, on the margins of society. Addressing economic issues, religion and sexuality, the film never tries to preach, instead offering an open-handed, humane approach that seeks compassion and hope in a situation that is increasingly desperate. It's a remarkable little film, beautifully shot and edited, and deeply moving... FULL REVIEW >

The Heiresses [Las Herederas]
dir-scr Marcelo Martinessi; with Ana Brun, Margarita Irun 18/Par ***.
A startlingly introspective filmmaking style sets this film apart from the usual self-discovery drama, as it allows the audience to simply take a journey with the central character without ever trying to explain anything. This can sometimes make the film feel rather vague, as key events and relationships are left to the imagination, but it also draws us in to properly feel the weight of what happens... FULL REVIEW >

Light in the Water
dir Lis Bartlett; scr Lis Bartlett, James Cude
with James Ballard, Mike Wallace, Morri Spang, Tom Wilson, Charlie Bartel, Michael Mealiffe, Mauro Bordovsky, Paulo Figueiredo, Amy Dantzler 
18/US ****

With its straightforward, informative approach, this engaging documentary tells an important story that's gripping and powerfully moving. There's a wealth of wonderful archive footage and cleverly integrated snapshots, and the film hinges around firsthand interviews, each person recounting a resonant personal story about how they dealt with harsh prejudice by finding like-minded friends and forming a close-knit family. Forced off his school swim team because he was gay, Charlie joined the West Hollywood Aquatic Club to find a place where he wasn't the "other". Hs story is echoed by a range of men and women who found a place where they could participate in their sport while being themselves. Many of these are older athletes who joined the club as it was founded in 1982, when mainstream teams refused to see gay people as capable of competing. Their stories include bullying, abuse, being fired and sidelined, but as a team of close friends they competed in the first Gay Games in San Francisco, then establishing an international swimming championship with a colourful queer flavour. And the way their team triumphed in the Masters is inspiring, breaking down discrimination and setting world records. And by 1994, the Gay Games were actually bigger than the Olympics. "I didn't know it at the time," one says. "But everything we did was making history." This beautiful film is brisk and full of terrific anecdotes, as these men and women recount their world-class achievements in the swimming pools, happy to refute those who doubted them and to crush ignorance about HIV even as Aids took 38 teammates' lives. Today they remain at the forefront of the fight against discrimination in competitive sport. And yes, the team welcomes its straight swimmers too.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Flare: Meeting of minds

The British Film Institute's 33rd Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival kicked off last night on the Southbank with the gala screening of Vita & Virginia, attended by Gemma Arterton, Rupert Penry-Jones, director Chandra Button and several cast and crew members. This is my 21st year covering what is one of London's biggest film festivals, and the most festive film festival I get to attend each year - one where you can mix with the filmmakers and actors, attend parties and casual gatherings alongside screenings and special events. Not only are the films of unusually high quality, but BFI Southbank is always a much more colourful part of the city for these 10 days! I'll be blogging the festival every day or two. Here's the first bunch of highlights...

Vita & Virginia
dir Chanya Button; with Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki 18/Ire **.
There's a refreshingly modern sensibility to this period drama, which allows the actors to create vivid characters. But the script is so wordy that it never lets the audience in. This leaves this as a film that's lovely to look at, and even admire, but it's impossible to crack the surface and genuinely experience the emotions. And the excellent cast struggles to make the dialog resonate with the famous characters they're playing.

dir Craig William Macneill; with Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart 18/US ***.
The sensational true story of Lizzie Borden is told in an intriguingly naturalistic style by filmmaker Craig William Macneill. It's a remarkably thoughtful film, packed with insinuating plot points and earthy performances. And Macneill uses deliberately choppy editing to drop hints and reveal the chain of events out of sequence. It's rather chilly, and very cleverly made... FULL REVIEW >

dir Li Cheng; with Enrique Salanic, Manolo Herrera 18/Gua ****
Earthy and honest, this observational drama deals with big themes without ever getting pushy about them. Chinese-born American filmmaker Li Cheng lets the story develop in an organic way, almost as if he's capturing real events with the camera. This astute style stretches from the busy street scenes to much more intimate moments, grounding the events and emotions in a way that's powerfully resonant... FULL REVIEW >

dir Lukas Dhont; with Victor Polster, Tijmen Govaerts 18/Bel ****
Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont takes a matter-of-fact approach to an extraordinary story, turning a teen trans girl's epic struggles into something that's remarkably easy to identify with. And without a traditional plot, the film builds a gnawing sense of dread that bottled-up feelings will lead to something very dark. Indeed, the climactic scenes deliver a powerful punch... FULL REVIEW >

The Gospel of Eureka
dir Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher; with Lee Keating, Walter Burrell 18/US ****
Beautifully written and edited, this documentary centres on an unusual corner of the world where devout Christians mix with the LGBTQ community. The filmmakers wisely avoid commenting on the issues, cutting scenes together with knowing wit to make an important point, bracingly highlighting the hypocrisy of people who use the Bible to justify bigotry. And the personal stories earn the viewers' tears... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Critical Week: Acting up

Most films I've seen this week have been previews for BFI Flare, the festival that kicks off on Thursday night, so I'll be writing more about them here over the next couple of weeks. Otherwise, I've seen a few movies that will work their way into cinemas over the next weeks and months. These include Madeline's Madeline, a resolutely experimental film that dances around mental illness but features a fascinating introduction to young actress Helena Howard (above with the always superb Molly Parker). Jordan Peele follows up his groundbreaking hit Get Out with Us, an even more audacious riff on the horror genre. It's freaky and often darkly unnerving, and has something powerful going on under the surface. Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger star in Tell It to the Bees, a warm, slightly gooey forbidden romance set in 1950s Scotland. From Argentina, A Trip to the Moon is a quirky coming-of-age film with a terrific set-up, although it struggles to deliver on its promise. And I also caught up with this one...

Triple Frontier
dir JC Chandor • scr Mark Boal, JC Chandor
with Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona
release US/UK 13.Mar.19 • 19/US Netflix 2h05 *.

This is one of those macho meathead movies in which beefy men go by nicknames like Redfly, Pope, Ironhead and Catfish. The plot sees Pope (Isaac) recruiting four ex-military buddies (Affleck, Hunnam, Hedlund and Pascal) for a mercenary mission to steal hundreds of millions in drug money from a kingpin in the dense jungle where Bolivia, Brazil and Peru meet. With this basic set-up and a very limited vocabulary, it feels like an unused script for Expendables 4, but the adept cast does what it can, breathing charm and camaraderie into the blunt roles. Isaac is always watchable, even in a vacuous part like this, and Affleck is charismatic enough to make his world-weary soldier vaguely intriguing, but Arjona is wasted in the requisite thankless female role. As former special ops soldiers, none of them hesitates before killing anyone who looks even remotely shifty, taking a scorched-earth approach to their work then insisting that no man is left behind, as if that makes them humanitarians. Of course, the mission doesn't go as planned, so this feels like two separate movies: an hour of heist and an hour of messy clean-up as greed literally weighs them down. It's a mix of survival thriller and action violence as these tough guys are pushed to the breaking point. Like their murderous impulses, this undermines the film's pushy moral sermon and leaves the biggest action sequences feeling rather dull (not helped by a trite Disasterpeace score). But the real problem is the clumsy plot, which gets increasingly far-fetched as these true blue heroes abandon their principles and make far too many boneheaded decisions. Frankly it's impossible to see JC Chandor's usually smart touch anywhere.

BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival runs on the Southbank until the end of the month, and I'll be covering it here with regular updates and reviews. In addition to rather a lot of festival films, I'll also be catching regular releases including Tim Burton's Dumbo, Judi Dench in Red Joan, Charlize Theron in Long Shot, Mel Gibson in Dragged Across Concrete and the animated adventure Wonder Park.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Stage: A dance to remember

Goodbye Norma Jeane
by Liam Burke • dir Robert McWhir
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • from 16.Mar-7.Apr.19

Essentially a one-man show set over one day, this clever, involving play unfolds as a backstage Hollywood version of A Christmas Carol in which a hungover choreographer is visited by the spirits of seven stars from the studios' golden age. Rooted in a true story, the play inventively weaves in a series of classic dance moves, exploring the magic of the movies from an angle that's initially fascinating and ultimately deeply moving.

The play centres on Jack Cole (Tim English), the creator of theatrical dance as we know it, who on 5th August 1962 is holding a pool party in his West Hollywood home. Then he hears the news that Norma Jeane, aka Marilyn Monroe, has been found dead. As he reminisces about working with her on various film projects, his muses drop in to see him: Gwen Verdon, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Ann Miller, Jane Russell, Rita Hayworth and Norma Jeane herself (all played by Rachel Stanley). What follows is a series of conversations that include fragments of songs and dance numbers, as Jack walks through his career in the context of Hollywood history.

English & Stanley (as Verdon)
Notably for a play with such a heightened premise, this production is remarkably understated. English plays the character with earthy sensitivity, recounting Jack's story conversationally, never indulging in arch melodrama while quietly revealing his chemistry with each of these larger-than-life divas. And Stanley's performance is a marvel of subtle detail that brings each woman vividly to life, with both personality quirks and exhilarating choreography (Verdon is the highlight, and Grable is particularly fabulous).

It of course helps that writer Burke has carefully researched this story while Above the Stag fully invests in the set, lighting, costumes and wigs, all of which bracingly ground the fantasy. And the show's choreography is carefully recreated from routines Cole created for these icons, exploring the very nature of artistic invention and legacy.

The result is a provocative, expertly underplayed drama that pulls the audience into a carefully recreated version of faded old-world glamour. Watching it, we are entranced by each visitation as it evokes yet another indelible movie memory. Then Jack's never-sentimentalised journey into grief makes the play itself unforgettable.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Stage: Into the light

The Thread
choreography Russell Maliphant • music Vangelis
lighting Michael Hulls • costumes Mary Katrantzou.
produced by Lavris Productions, Athens
Sadler's Wells, London • 15-17.Mar.19

This world premiere collaboration between Sadler's Wells choreographer Russell Maliphant and composer Vangelis takes its main cues from Greek culture. So watching it often feels like some sort of cultural presentation, with dancers in baggy costumes moving around the stage taking tiny steps, often holding hands in a line or shoulder-to-shoulder. It's beautifully staged in squares of light around the stage, and expertly performed by a team of Greek dancers. But it isn't always terribly compelling.

Thankfully they occasionally break out into passionate segments, sometimes solo pieces, duets or group numbers in which they stomp and express some punchy emotions. There are also moments in which the rather tight choreography suddenly expands into full-bodied physicality, which is utterly riveting as they perform in various forms of queues moving across and around the stage.

The title refers to the thread that ties humanity together regardless of culture, the connections people feel to each other regardless of their background. The show taps into this in ways that are both individualistic and corporate. Even as it continually reverts to more typical Greek movements, there are continual flurries of internationalism that connect each piece of the performance. Although the costumes remain so floaty that basically we can't see the dancers' bodies from the shoulders down, they create a clever mix of the folkloric and athletic.

And what makes the show worth seeing is the way the choreography, music, performance and lighting combine to make it almost sculptural. The shapes on the stage are simply breathtaking, especially as they emerge from the shadows and cross over into the spotlights. So even if the presentation lacks a deeper visceral connection, it's a vividly engaging exploration of global connections.

Stage: Moonlight through a window

dir Steven Dexter
book/lyrics Barry Harman • music Keith Herrmann
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • from 15.Mar.19

Originally produced on Broadway in 1988, but writer Harmon has given this musical romantic comedy a twist with this production at London's Above the Stag. Like the National Theatre's acclaimed gender-swapped new production of Sondheim's Company, this show is now staged with an all-male cast, which adds some intrigue and resonance to its tangled plotlines.

The show is actually two musicals linked through a yearning for real love. The first act is The Little Comedy, set in early 20th century Vienna, where Valentin (Jordan Lee Davies) has become bored with his wealthy lover, and the playboy Alfred (Blair Robertson) is tired of a string of empty affairs. They meet when they're both pretending to be poor: Valentine posing as a butcher and Alfred as a poet. And they struggle to maintain the deception on a weekend in the country at a fleabag guesthouse far from the luxuries they're used to.

The second act is Summer Share, set in present-day New York as two couples go on holiday together in the Hamptons. Sam (Alex Lodge) and Jeremy (Ryan Anderson) are long-time friends who bring their husbands (Davies and Robertson) along with them. But over one long evening, Sam and Jeremy wonder why they never got together, and they begin to think that tonight might be the night something happens.

Davies & Robertson
Both halves of the show unfold in song with surreal touches. In the first, the story is told as a series of letters written by Valentin and Alfred to friends abroad, and their false identities are depicted by Lodge and Anderson in masks. In the second, Davies and Robertson appear as versions of their characters imagining what might happen if their husbands ever had an affair.

It's this element that brings Summer Share to particularly vivid life, as it adds a swirling range of emotionality to all four of the characters, making the songs much more intensely engaging and darkly moving. By contrast, The Little Comedy feels almost gimmicky, with its jaunty tone and lavish costumes. Although making these men gay does add a certain zing to the premise, which intriguingly echoes fake dating app profiles.

Lodge & Anderson
As always, the Above the Stag team outdoes itself with simple but effective sets, lighting and a superb on-stage orchestra. Performances are strong from all four actors, each of whom has a distinctively belting singing voice and plenty of stage presence. Although some of the songs are a bit of a challenge. In the first half, Davies steals the show with a lively, detail-filled turn that's continually hilarious. But it's Anderson's quietly devastating role in the second half that becomes the most memorable. His naturalistic performance vividly brings out the show's universal themes about love and lust, longing and loneliness, cutting through the absurdity of everyday life to take a much more complex look at love than most musicals dare.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Critical Week: Sing it loud

It's the week between blockbusters (Captain Marvel last week, Us next week) so there's an eclectic collections of films in the cinemas, apparently the ones distributors had no idea what else to do with, hoping they don't suffer too much in the shadow of a megahit. Meanwhile, I'm watching my usual offbeat set of press screenings. Far and away, the best this week (and so far this year) is Wild Rose, a British drama about a Glasgow girl (the staggeringly good Jessie Buckley) with a gift for country music, and an otherwise messed up life. Along with Buckley, the film features awards-worthy work from Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo. Please remember this next awards season (I will)!

The week's even starrier offering was Ben Is Back, starring a superb Julia Roberts as a mother who spends 24 hours trying to protect her teen son (the always excellent Lucas Hedges) while he's on a break from rehab over Christmas. The plot is a little corny, but the relationships are beautifully played.

Further afield there was Paolo Sorrentino's Berlusconi fantasia Loro, a 2.5-hour odyssey that's packed with magic even as it wears us out. Iceman is about a Neolithic man on a quest for revenge after his clan is massacred. It's strikingly well-made, although the plot is rather blunt. Bruce!!!! is a comedy that suffers badly because its hero (played by writer-director Eden Marryshow) is an insufferable jerk. And there were three docs: Last Breath is a riveting, skilful mix of real footage and recreations to create a thriller about North Sea divers. Silvana profiles the queer Swedish rap sensation with terrific intimate footage that almost breaks the surface. And everyone was talking about this one...

Leaving Neverland
dir Dan Reed
with Wade Robson, James Safechuck, Joy Robson, Stephanie Safechuck, Laura Primack, Lorraine Jean Cullen, Chantal Robson, Shane Robson
release US 3-4.Mar.19, 
UK 6-7.Mar.19
19/US C4 4h00 ***
After premiering at Sundance, this controversial and compulsively watchable documentary arrives in two parts. It's assembled in an unflashy style, with archival film, snapshots and some new drone footage framing interviews with the now 40-ish Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who knew Michael Jackson when they were young boys and now claim that he sexually abused them. The first half is a little unconvincing, as they feel oddly scripted and director Dan Reed pointedly omits key facts, such as that Robson and Safechuck are working together to sue the Jackson estate for millions. So the film's depiction of them coming out in the open separately for benevolent reasons will ring hollow to sceptics. In the second half, the interviews with their mothers, wives and siblings bring things into sharper, more emotive focus, especially as they talk about why they waited so long to speak up. Even after testifying in earlier trials that nothing happened, their psychological situations make sense, which gives the doc a compelling power. And Reed's camera work is skilful, sharply well-edited together to tell the story in a clear-eyed, chronological way that pulls the viewer in. It's what he leaves out that niggles, and not just that Robson and Safechuck are seeking to make a fortune here. There's no mention of the years-long police investigations into Jackson that completely exonerated him. And no one outside the Robson and Safechuck families is on the record, even though there are many who tell different stories. It's a horrible thought that these two men may be making up these allegations, especially as it's so important that these cases are taken seriously. But films this explosive need to be watched with a critical eye, and the story behind the scenes is important.

Coming up this next week, we have Jordan Peele's Us, Anna Paquin in Tell It to the Bees, Jafar Panahi's Three Faces, the Argentine coming-of-age drama A Trip to the Moon, and the documentary Making Montgomery Clift.