Thursday, 21 June 2018

Critical Week: Feeling festive

More festival films this week! The first four here are at the London Indian Film Festival (21-29 June). Venus is the closing film, and it comes from Canada. It's a comedy about a trans woman who discovers that she has a son from a teenage fling. It's beautifully written, witty and well played. Eaten by Lions is a British comedy about two brothers (above) searching for long-lost family members in Blackpool. It's very sharply written, with a nice multicultural angle to it. From India, My Son Is Gay is a powerful Tamil drama about a young man whose mother simply can't accept his homosexuality. Gorgeously shot, the film is thoughtful and tough. And Bird of Dusk is a documentary about the acclaimed Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, whose films had an unusually complex depictions of women.

From the Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles (7-17 June), I caught up with At the End of the Day, a snappy drama about a Christian university professor who infiltrates an LGBT group to scupper their plans to build a community centre. But of course he gets an education instead. It's knowing, and nicely well-made. And from FilmOut San Diego (7-10 June), Golden Boy is a drama about a young man's odyssey of homelessness and drug-fuelled clubbing in Los Angeles. It's gritty and involving, and a little over-plotted.

Other releases include The Endless, a fiendishly clever low-key sci-fi thriller in which two brothers return to the bizarre cult they escaped from as teens. And Beach House is a contained drama about four characters on the Long Island coastline, shifting slowly from a drama into a nasty thriller.

I'm travelling in rural America over the next couple of weeks, so whether I get near a cinema is anyone's guess. It's a family trip to a part of the country I've never visited. Films out over there that I'd like to catch up with include Incredibles 2, Sicario 2: Soldado and Tag.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Critical Week: Light up the night

My favourite press screening this week was for Pawel Pawlikowski's Cannes-winner Cold War, a black and white Polish drama that's quite simply a masterpiece. A companion piece to his Oscar-winner Ida, it's a smart, complex love story spanning 50s and 60s Europe. On a much bigger scale, the spin-off sequel Ocean's Eight has a new cast of A-list actresses and another twisty but very easy caper plot to play out. It's mindless fun.

Smaller films had some edge to them. Adrift is a harrowing true story of survival at sea starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. The Escape is an involving and very personal marriage drama starring Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper. And Alex Strangelove is a refreshingly original take on the gay teen comedy, avoiding cliches to find this generation's perspective on the topic.

More offbeat films included Stanley: A Man of Variety, an experimental mental hospital freak-out in which Timothy Spall plays all the roles. Happiness Adjacent is a low-budget romantic-comedy set on a Los Angeles to Mexico cruise, but it makes some provocative observations. And Al Berto is a Portuguese period piece about idealistic artists who think their nation is freer than it is after the revolution.

This coming week I have two American indie dramas: the edgy romance Golden Boy and the pointedly topical At the End of the Day. And there are also four films from the London Indian Film Festival: Bradford-set comedy Eaten by Lions, offbeat family comedy Venus, mother-son drama My Son Is Gay and filmmaker doc Bird of Dusk.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Critical Week: When the night falls

London critics caught up this week with Whitney, Kevin Macdonald's well-assembled documentary about Whitney Houston, which tells the same story as last year's Nick Bloomfield doc, but with a bit more focus on her family (including one dark new revelation). This week's blockbuster was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the fifth film in the franchise, which breaks the formula in that it takes place largely on the mainland, in a gothic mansion no less. Otherwise, it's still dinosaurs chasing people, and it's rather good fun thanks to an up-for-it cast and strong filmmaking.

Further afield, we had the Paraguayan drama The Heiresses, a strikingly well-made film about a middle-aged woman discovering that there's more to her than her ancestral home and long-time companion. From France, The Apparition is a fascinating if somewhat rambling mystery that grapples with faith and traumatic stress. And the low-budget indie Sunset Contract is a sharply made, stage-like thriller about a man who begins to realise that he's made a deal with the devil herself.

This coming week we have Sandra Bullock leading the charge in Ocean's 8, Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin in Adrift, Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper in The Escape, Murray Bartlett in Beach House, Pawel Pawlikowski's Cannes winner Cold War and the Portuguese drama Al Berto.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Sundance London: Face to face

I only caught a slice of the programme at this year's Sundance Film Festival: London, but the films were exceptional. Since I was attending public screenings at Picturehouse Central, all of them were attended by the directors, and also often key members of the cast and crew, offering insight into how the films were conceived and shot. Most of the Sundance London films will be released in cinemas, and are worth keeping an eye out for. Here are final highlights...

Leave No Trace
dir Debra Granik; with Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie 18/US ****
After the indelible Winter's Bone, filmmaker Debra Granik carries on exploring the connections of people with nature in this strikingly visceral drama set in the Pacific Northwest. As it expands to touch on a variety of timely themes, the film maintains its tight focus on the central father and daughter, played beautifully by Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. It's a provocative film that reaches deep to evoke a powerfully emotional response.

Generation Wealth
dir-scr Lauren Greenfield; with Florian Homm, Kacey Jordan 18/US *****
Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield takes her fabulous doc The Queen of Versailles and spirals out to explore the much bigger picture, creating one of the most vital, urgent films in years. An expertly assembled film packed with striking imagery, it's also a riveting exploration of consumerism, taking a surprisingly personal approach that touches on unexplored aspects of a society that's addicted to monetising virtually everything.

Skate Kitchen
dir Crystal Moselle; with Rachelle Vinberg, Ardelia Lovelace 18/US ****
Filmmaker Crystal Moselle skilfully creates a loose vibe in this drama about skater girls in New York City. The narrative is deliberately thin, as the film instead focuses on on the camaraderie, connections and rivalries between young people who are discovering who they are in the context of the tribe in which they find themselves. It's fascinating, honest and thoroughly gripping, expertly shot and edited to bring out the natural performances.

Sundance Short Film Tour
There are seven films from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in this programme, which has been travelling around the world to cinemas and festivals. This includes the grand prize-winning Matria (Alvaro Gago, Spain), a stunning and rather gruelling depiction of a woman trying to hold her family together through sheer force of will. Two others won jury prizes: Hair Wolf (Mariama Diallo, US) is a witty horror pastiche set in a Brooklyn beauty salon that's being invaded by zombie-like white people looking for "braids!" And Fauve (Jeremy Comte, Canada) is an intensely raw little film that shifts from lively romp to painful drama in the blink of an eye. The other stand-out for me was The Burden (Niki Lindroth von Buhr, Sweden - pictured), an inventively surreal stop-motion animation about the struggles of everyday life.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Sundance London: Build a happy home

The 6th Sundance Film Festival: London kicked off on Thursday night at Picturehouse Central. This brief festival only runs for three days, as the Park City festival programmers bring 13 films and two programmes of shorts to London audiences. Annoyingly, I had already planned a holiday for the first half of this week, so I missed all of the press screenings and will be unable to see virtually all of the films as I usually do. I'll have to make due with those I've already seen, and the ones I can catch at busy public screenings over the weekend. Here's the first set of highlights from this year's programme...

dir-scr Ari Aster; with Toni Collette, Alex Wolff 19/US ****.
Writer-director Ari Aster makes his feature debut with a boldly original premise that builds involving character drama as it thoroughly freaks out the audience. The horror climax may be somewhat hysterical, but the journey there features first-rate acting from the entire cast, plus skilfully controlled filmmaking that creates a terrifying experience that's both darkly emotional and delightfully bonkers.

First Reformed 
dir-scr Paul Schrader; with Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried 17/US ***
Paul Schrader once again takes a provocative look at religion in America in this dark and twisty drama that has all kinds of repercussions in today's headlines, from climate change to extremism. Anchored by very strong performances, the film gets increasingly intense as it continues, implying in unmistakable ways that it's headed for something awful. Although Schrader himself seems unsure about where he wanted it to go... FULL REVIEW >

The Miseducation of Cameron Post 
dir Desiree Akhavan; with Chloe Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr 18/US ****
There's an almost eerie honesty to this teen drama, which makes it feel bracingly current even though it's set 25 years ago. With naturalistic performances and a topic that has become uncomfortably timely all over again, the film worms its way under the skin. Based on a novel by Emily Danforth, director-cowriter Desiree Akhavan gives the film an autobiographical tone, which adds a proper kick of resonance.

Films That Made Me
Three filmmakers whose work is featured in the Sundance London programme have selected the movies that inspired them. And they are introducing special screenings at the festival...

  • Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) presents Celine Sciamma's stunningly original, moving and insightful coming-of-age drama Girlhood (2014) from France... SHADOWS' ORIGINAL REVIEW > 
  • Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) brings Morvern Callar (2002), Lynne Ramsey's bleakly brilliant drama starring Samantha Morton... ORIGINAL REVIEW > 
  • Jennifer Fox (The Tale) chooses Tarnation (2004), Jonathan Caouette's astonishing kaleidoscope of an autobiographical documentary... ORIGINAL REVIEW >

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Critical Week: A hot topic

It's been a busy week screening-wise, as I have packed in films in preparation for taking next week off. There was a new adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, one of my very favourite novels, although the film changes the plot and kind of loses the focus, despite strong performances from Michael B Jordan and Michael Shannon. And I managed to catch two screenings of Solo: A Star Wars Story, the Han Solo origin movie, which ticks a lot of entertaining boxes to take the audience on a fun ride.

A little off the beaten path, Travis Mathew's evocative Discreet is a swirling experimental drama about past wounds, regrets and the pointlessness of revenge. Hooked is a slightly over-obvious drama about a young rentboy on a dangerous trajectory. Freelancers Anonymous is a refreshing if silly comedy about a woman trying to start over in a tough economy. And Astro is an amateurish sci-fi thriller with a couple of decent performances and laughably overserious dialog.

There were also three docs: The Fabulous Allan Carr is a lively and moving trip through the life of the iconic, life-loving but lonely producer of Grease; All the Wild Horses is a spectacularly shot trip across Mongolia on the world's longest horse race; and Arcadia uses a lot of amazing archival footage to try and say something odd about Britain's relationship with the land. And finally, I had a chance to catch the restored Yellow Submarine on the big screen as it gets a 50-year reissue. It's simply delightful - great animation and a thoroughly whimsical story.

I'm on holiday over the next week, so am avoiding films altogether! I return home just as the Sundance Film Festival: London kicks off, and will catch up with the anticipated horror Hereditary, Leave No Trace, Generation Wealth and Skate Kitchen, plus a programme of short films. Then the following week, it's time for Jurassic Park: Fallen World.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Shadows on the Stage: It's not about sex

F**king Men
by Joe DiPietro • dir Mark Barford
with Richard De Lisle, August Ohlsson, Liam Darby
King's Head Theatre, Islington • 16.May-2.Jun.18

Tony-winning playwright Joe DiPietro's provocatively titled play comes back to the King's Head Theatre, where it first premiered in 2009. Based on Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde (1897), it's a series of encounters between 10 characters, this time with a cast of three performing multiple roles. Ostensibly about sex, the play is actually an astute exploration of masculinity and culture, grappling with expectations, sexuality, monogamy and trust. It's a beautifully written piece that continually surprises the audience with its astute observations, never becoming preachy despite touching on pungent issues like relational fidelity, closeted celebrities, safe sex and HIV.

Each actor plays three or four roles, switching accents and attitudes so the audience can keep up. Scenes unfold as encounters between two men who discuss and negotiate the terms of sex between them - as a hooker and his john, as partners dealing with relationship issues, as a porn star and a phone-app hook-up, as a playwright and a big Hollywood actor, as a TV presenter and a rent boy. Most of these may end up with some sort of sexual activity, but the real point is that none of these men is quite sure of the rules of combat, as it were. All are a little deceptive even as they are yearning for a connection and hoping for something lasting.

All three actors are excellent. The veteran of the cast, De Lisle has appeared in previous productions and brings an easy authenticity to each role, shifting dramatically between characters without even needing to change costume. Newcomers Ohlsson and Darby both bring distinctive jolts of energy to the production in their various roles, revealing telling details that engage the audience even with more prickly characters. The way the scenes weave together into an overarching narrative is riveting, coming full circle to end on a note that's revelatory without having a specific message. But the play touches on so many deeply personal topics that each person in the audience will see him or herself on-stage while pondering issues that used to seem obvious.