Sunday, 29 April 2012

Sundance London: Day 4

Music continues to be a major theme of this first Sundance London event, with a panel discussion today on movie soundtracks and screenings and concerts featuring Rufus and Martha Wainwright. This has been an unusual event for London, a South by Southwest-style combination that seems to have struck the right balance with audiences. Whether ticket sales have been strong enough to guarantee a second festival isn't clear yet. But it's been great to have the chance to see small, inventive films that might not normally get a UK release. More importantly, some are getting a release simply because they have been screened here! Here are some highlights from the final day (including Safety Not Guaranteed, pictured above)...

Safety Not Guaranteed
dir Colin Trevorrow; with Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass 12/US *****
The script for this inventive and deceptively simple comedy is so beautifully balanced that it's difficult not to fall in love with the characters. It also helps that the cast members deliver note-perfect performances. Aubrey Plaza stars as a disaffected youth who takes a job as an intern at a Seattle magazine, and is sent to help investigate a classified ad asking for a partner for a time-travel mission. Her character's arc is so delicately written, directed and played that we almost don't notice it happening right in front of us. And the same thing happens with characters played by Duplass (the time traveller), Jake Johnson (the journalist) and Karan Soni (another intern). All of them are dealing with issues relating to their pasts and futures, but Derek Connolly's screenplay doesn't lay any of it on heavily, while Trevorrow's direction consistently pulls us into the scenes. Easily one of the best films of 2012.

The Queen of Versailles
dir Lauren Greenfield; with Jackie Siegel, David Siegel 12/US ****
Filmmaker Greenfield clearly has a wonderful eye for the absurd, finding moments of offbeat humanity all the way through this involving documentary. It starts out as a comical chronicle of a ludicrously wealthy family, then shifts into something much more dramatic. And important. The title refers to Jackie Siegel, third wife of time-share kingpin David. As we begin, they are living in the lap of luxury in their 30-bedroom home in Orlando while building a mammoth 90-bedroom mansion they call Versailles. It will be the biggest family home in America. And then the financial crisis of 2008 hits them hard, bringing on downsizing and pressure to rein in their spending. What follows is startlingly serious, as David lapses into a very dark depression and Jackie reacts by continuing to buy things that they don't really need.

Sundance London Shorts
There were nine short films in this programme, which is rather a lot, really. But the variety of tones and styles is remarkable. They range from offbeat jokes (British creativity romp Don't Hug Me I'm Scared) to searing political commentary (Somalia pirate thriller Fishing Without Nets), from downbeat melodrama (The Return from Kosovo) to farcical comedy (Tooty's Wedding from Britain) to politically correct animation (Song of the Spindle from the US). But the four most memorable films were the UK's haunting dystopia-riot drama Robots of Brixton, which carries an eerie gut punch; the surreal, thoughtful and very brief look at British immigration in Extranjero; the hilariously inventive The Arm, an exploration of peer pressure in the social media age; and a warm and hauntingly sweet trip to a 1-year-old's birthday party in Dol (First Birthday).

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Sundance London: Day 3

Audiences have been pretty strong at the first Sundance London festival, even though the O2 as a venue feels oddly corporate for an event that celebrates non-corporate moviemaking. But the Cineworld screens are excellent showcases for films, each of which is screened with a director Q&A. And the neighbouring IndigO2 venue has been great for music events, such as tonight's Placebo film and concert combo. There's also something called the Sundance London Inc Club, a music cafe that I haven't checked out yet. Here are some more highlights (including the doc Chasing Ice, pictured above)...

2 Days in New York
dir Julie Delpy with Julie Delpy, Chris Rock 12/Fr ****
This sequel to Delpy's wonderful 2007 comedy 2 Days in Paris brings Marion's family to New York, where she's now in a relationship with Mingus (Rock). Both have children, and their blended family is doing just fine until Marion's dad (Julie's real dad Albert Delpy) arrives with her sister Rose (Alexia Landeau) and Rose's outrageous boyfriend Manu (Alexandre Nahon), who of course is one of Marion's exes. The script is simply hilarious, sharply cutting through the relationships and bringing out the culture-clash clash comedy with intelligence and insight. The performances are earthy and funny (Rock is especially good in an against-type role), and while the story gets a bit corny in the end, the film remains utterly charming.

Chasing Ice
dir Jeff Orlowski; with James Balog, Louie Psihoyos 12/US ****
Even though this documentary is rather chilling, it features such staggeringly beautiful imagery that we can't take our eyes off the screen. It follows Balog as he photographs glaciers over time in a major global survey, and what he finds is definitive proof that humans have caused global warming (in a nutshell: the melting accelerated exponentially when we started burning fossil fuels in the 19th century). Over the years of his project, he assembles amazing time-lapse sequences and captures some major events on camera, including the calving of an ice shelf the size of Lower Manhattan. He also discovers that, at this point, the melting is now irreversible. Sea levels will rise, climates will continue to change, there is no going back. Yes, this makes the film rather gloomy, but as a documentary it has real power to help us understand exactly what's happening. And it's assembled so adeptly - and gorgeously - that it changes the way we see not only our planet but our relationship to it.

dir Sheldon Kandis; with Common, Michael Rainey Jr 12/US ***
Skilful filmmaking gives this drama a warm, smooth tone, even when events turn very dark. And the cast gets the chance to deliver seriously wrenching performances. So it's a shame that the story takes a couple of corny turns in the final act. It centres on 11-year-old Woody (Rainey), who spends a day with his Uncle Vincent (Common), who has just finished an eight-year prison term. Vincent wants to start his life over, get on his own two feet and start his own business. But he turns to his old gang bosses for help, which is a mistake since they basically draw him straight back into the old criminal ways. This inexorably nasty slide isn't easy to watch, especially as Vincent has Woody along for the ride. But the actors make the most of every scene, and the film is boosed by appearances from veterans like Danny Glover, Dennis Haysbert, Charles S Dutton and Lonette McKee. On the other hand, the final act feels like it was rewritten by a marketing team, as what has been a loose, earthy plot veers into implausible movie cliches that leave us cold.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Sundance London: Day 2

Among the events at Sundance London today at the O2 are a table read for the film Farming, featuring actor-filmmaker Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. There's also a forum about the challenges of independent filmmaking in the US and UK. And of course a lot of films (Filly Brown is pictured above). Here are some more highlights...

The House I Live In
dir Eugene Jarecki; with David Simon, Nannie Jeter 12/US *****
Important documentaries like this one can spark a range of responses: righteous anger, informed action or exhausted hopelessness. And we experience all three in Jarecki's lucid, engaging, staggeringly urgent film. It traces the history of the war on drugs, which Richard Nixon declared in the late-60s but which actually dates back to the 19th century. And by interviewing historians, politicians, policemen, prisoners and all kinds of other people affected by the situation, Jarecki reveals some seriously chilling historical facts. Everyone knows that the war hasn't worked, but most don't realise the real damage it has done to America as a society, driving it down a dangerous path that has caused much more destruction than good. It has also left America with 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the prisoners. Many of whom are victims of overly tough sentencing that has taken them out of the economic engine of the country. Yes, it's a harrowing film, but it's also thoroughly involving. And honestly it should be mandatory viewing.

For Ellen
dir So Yong Kim; with Paul Dano, Jon Heder 12/US ***
There's a terrific performance by Dano at the centre of this film, which is so focused on him that everything else kind of blurs into significance, including the plot. It's very well made, but feels rather thin. The story centres on Joby (Dano), a rocker who travels back to his small town to sort out a divorce and child-custody settlement. His inexperienced lawyer (Heder) tries to help, but it's Joby who will need to figure out what he wants. The film is like a long journey into his soul, as all of the other characters are so peripheral that we never remotely care about them (even Shaylena Mandigo as his soulful little girl Ellen). Director Kim shoots the film in the dead of winter, and the snowy townscapes give the story an intriguingly icy atmosphere. Dano is of course terrific in the role, all jangling limbs and breathless introspection. He makes the film utterly gripping, even as we begin to wonder why he can't snap out of it and just decide on a few priorities in his life. Sure, it's not easy, but this film feels like it barely cracks the surface.

Filly Brown
dir Youssef Delara, Michael D Olmos; with Gina Rodriguez, Lou Diamond Phillips 12/US **
There are rather too many searing themes in this uneven Los Angeles-set Hispanic drama, which mixes the criminal underworld with the rap music scene. The plot is in need of major surgery to make it less overwrought, and a few dodgy performances don't help either. But it's still quite watchable as young wannabe rapper Majo (the terrific Rodriguez) turns herself into Filly Brown to record angry songs about her community. But she's in need of cash to help her imprisoned mother (Jenni Rivera), so she tries to take a shortcut to fame and fortune, which means getting caught up in the crime and nastiness that is causing so much trouble in her community. The story is packed with interesting characters, but trying to wedge in all of their stories leaves the film's message decidedly mixed.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Sundance London: Day 1

Robert Redford brought his Sundance Film Festival to London this month, showcasing American independent films as well as a few British music documentaries that are being shown alongside performances from the artists in the films (including Placebo, Tricky and Rufus and Martha Wainwright). It's being held at the O2 Dome in North Greenwich, and Redford made a personal appearance today (above). Here are some highlights from Thursday...

Under African Skies
dir Joe Berlinger; with Paul Simon, Harry Belafonte 12/US ****
This beautifully assembled documentary traces the creation of Paul Simon's seminal album Graceland, through the lively recording sessions and the startling political controversy they sparked since South Africa was the subject of a cultural boycott at the time. Through interviews with everyone involved on a variety of levels, the film captures both the magic of the recordings, but also the much bigger political issues that were involved, most notably the way Simon's colour-blind, apolitical approach made such a huge impact on bringing down Apartheid. Intriguingly, and a bit worryingly, this is something the ANC still won't admit. Although Nelson Mandela gets it.

Nobody Walks 
dir Ry Russo-Young; with John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby 12/US ****
This lively ensemble comedy is set in the Hollywood Hills, where a couple (Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt) welcomes a family friend (Thirlby) who's working on a film project. But her presence upsets what's clearly an already fragile balance, as each character ends up at one end of an inappropriate crush. And the way they deal with it gives the film some intriguing moral depth, as director-cowriter Russo-Young refuses to moralise. It's clear that we're supposed to know that certain things are wrong, but the way the characters behave makes it increasingly involving, blurring the lines between each person until we realise exactly which relationships are robust enough to survive the farce. Very clever even if it's perhaps a bit too silly sometimes.

Liberal Arts
dir Josh Radnor; with Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen 12/US ***
Radnor writes, directs and stars in this film as a 35-year-old academic who travels to his alma mater and meets a 19-year-old co-ed (Olsen) who upsets his idea of propriety. The story is set up as a coming-of-age comedy as Radnor's character discovers some truths about growing up and acting like an adult with other people. Although there's a bit of smugness that creeps in as well, since he seems to end up believing that he has all the answers now. This is a bit odd since there are two fabulous older characters played by marvellous scene-stealers Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney. And there's also an intriguing goofball turn by Zac Efron that considerably livens up the whole film. It's a thoroughly enjoyable comedy, with scenes that are smart, sweet and thoughtful. But it's not quite as insightful as it thinks it is.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Critical week: Campfire songs

It's been a very odd week of press screenings here in London, with a series of documentaries, revivals and indie films. The only starry cast was the Mexploitation pastiche Casa de Mi Padre, starring Will Ferrell, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. It's pretty hilarious, actually, even if it's difficult to see the point after we've got the joke. More involving was Mia Hanson-Love's intricately plotted French romance Goodbye First Love. And while the British indie Piggy features a terrific central role for Martin Compston, there's nothing particularly original about its violent plot.

Documentaries were better, with the startlingly moving Being Elmo, telling the story of Muppet performer Kevin Clash; Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, a visually stunning exploration of the fashion icon; and Town of Runners, exploring young athletes from a small Ethiopian town who dream of Olympic glory. I also caught up with the just-reissued Flamenco Trilogy by Carlos Saura: Blood Wedding, Carmen and El Amor Brujo - three masterpieces of 1980s Spanish cinema that playfully blend theatre, film, music and dance to tell three iconic stories of love gone badly wrong.

This coming week is taken up mostly with press screenings for the Sundance London Festival, which is bringing American independent movies (plus some British music docs) to the O2 for four lively days later this week. My screening list includes: Nobody Walks, Liberal Arts, Safety Not Guaranteed, For Ellen, Filly Brown, Luv, Under African Skies, The House I Live In, Chasing Ice, The Queen of Versailles and a collection of shorts. Meanwhile, regular press screenings continue with Emily Blunt in Your Sister's Sister, Jon Hamm in Friends With Kids, Tahar Rahim in Free Men, Karin Viard in Polisse and, bringing it full-circle, the Spanish spoof Juan of the Dead.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Critical week: Look! Up in the air!

Friday night's big London screening of the mega-blockbuster Avengers Assemble (aka The Avengers) managed to work the crowd into a frenzy. Well, it's no wonder since this film features the stars of four franchises coming together to save the planet rather than working on their own. It's a big, crazy movie, put together by writer-director Joss Whedon with a mix of po-faced heroics, witty banter and astounding action. It has "massive hit" written all over it, and bodes well for further movie adventures for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and even the Hulk, who's wonderfully reinvented in this film.

Nothing else really came close to that last week. American Pie: Reunion (aka American Reunion) managed to reassemble the franchise's entire cast, which was pretty impressive. Sadly the script just isn't up to snuff. Also screened to us were the extremely low-key British drama Late September, the pretentious but boldly inventive gay Shakespeare adaptation Private Romeo, and a trio of American B-movies: William Friedkin's stagey but hugely atmospheric Killer Joe, starring Matthew McConaughey as a dirty cop/hitman; the full-throttle grisly road thriller Transit, starring Jim Caviezel as an ex-con family man; and, best of the lot, the subtle noir drama Fury (aka The Samaritan), starring Samuel L Jackson as a con-artist trying to go legit.

This coming week we have Will Ferrell's Spanish-language drama Casa de Mi Padre, the Matt Smith sci-fi romance Clone (aka Womb), the British thriller Piggy, the award-winning British drama Two Years at Sea, the French action thriller The Assault, the Diana Vreeland doc The Eye Has to Travel, the Muppet-performer doc Being Elmo, and the African village doc Town of Runners.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Critical Week: All glory is fleeting

Most actors would do well to remember the slogan tattooed across Zac Efron's character's back in The Lucky One, which was screened to UK critics this past week (a short one). Comments on the film are embargoed for another week, but even before seeing the film I had doubts about Efron's career choice of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. The other big screening was a very late one (just one day before release): the aliens vs sailors action blockbuster Battleship, which stars Rihanna in her first big film role. Very loosely based on the board game, it's a loud, stupid, thoroughly entertaining summer popcorn movie that opens in the UK tomorrow, more than a month before the US release.

Before the four-day Easter weekend, I also saw Blackthorn, a finely made Bolivian Western starring Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy; The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, a quirky indie that kind of gives up on its road-movie premise along the way; and Pasolini's iconic 1964 film of The Gospel According to Matthew, a masterpiece just remastered for DVD release. Meanwhile, distributors cancelled the only press screening of the Bruce Willis/Henry Cavill action movie The Cold Light of Day, so I missed it completely. Critics who paid to see it haven't been very kind.

Biggies this coming week (another short one) include three films retitled for their UK releases: Avengers Assemble screens Friday ahead of its release in two weeks; American Pie: Reunion reassembles the entire cast of the original film; and Fury is a Samuel L Jackson thriller perhaps cynically retitled to cash in on his Nick Fury character in the Avengers (it'll be released in the US next month as The Samaritan). We'll also catch up with Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe, the British drama Late September and two documentaries: Town of Runners and Being Elmo.

Monday, 2 April 2012

LGFF 5: Inner longing

The 26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival had its closing night gala last night with the beautiful Belgian drama North Sea Texas (above), a complex, introspective exploration of teenage yearnings. This year's festival has been an unusually strong one: the programmers really worked to find films with provocative themes, darkly intriguing stories and resonant subject matter. If there's any complaint it's perhaps that there weren't enough comedies (a comedy-themed shorts programme was a welcome relief). But then it's not like the festival is a downer: I doubt any film event on earth has as many parties as the LLGFF. There is at least one per night, often two or three, and it would be easy to get through the week with no sleep at all - although your liver might not survive. And this festive atmosphere makes it a favourite event for journalists (sadly this was the final year for supreme press officer Billy Wiz, who makes a difficult job look effortless) and audiences (almost every screening is a sell-out). Here are a few more weekend highlights...

North Sea Texas
dir Bavo Defurne; with Jelle Florizoone, Mathias Vergels 11/Bel *****
This gentle coming-of-age film is gorgeously shot and acted, sharply capturing those first feelings of love and loss. It's a powerful exploration of teen yearning, made even more remarkably by its sensitive approach to the characters' sexuality... FULL REVIEW >

This Is What Love in Action Looks Like
dir Morgan Jon Fox; with Zach Stark, Peterson Toscano 11/US ****
This even-handed documentary explores the issue of ex-gay therapy by letting everyone have their say. It's a fast-paced, well-assembled film, although some righteous anger wouldn't have gone amiss... FULL REVIEW >

American Translation
dir Pascal Arnold, Jean-Marc Barr; with Pierre Perrier[E!], Lizzie Brochere 11/Fr ***
Dark and involving, this extremely well-made French drama draws us in through its strong characters and intensely creepy story. Although it's not very clear what the filmmakers are trying to say... FULL REVIEW >

Leave It on the Floor
dir Sheldon Larry; with Ephraim Sykes, Andre Myers 11/US ***
This attitude-fuelled musical is a celebration of youthful expressions of gender and sexuality that fall outside the mainstream. What the film lacks in subtlety and finesse it makes up with sparky characters and meaty songs... FULL REVIEW >

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CRITICAL WEEK - And while the festival was underway, regular press screenings continued in London as well. In brief, we saw two very different action blockbusters (the angry Greek gods sequel Wrath of the Titans and Jason Statham's latest shoot-em-up mayhem Safe), the British ethnic comedy-drama All in Good Time, the French musical drama Beloved, Kaurismaki's mystery-style drama Le Havre, and the biggest of them all, 1997's timeless classic blockbuster Titanic, now in 3D. This coming week is a bit quieter with Easter weekend, but we'll finally be watching Henry Cavill action in The Cold Light of Day, Zach Efron drama in The Lucky One, Samuel L Jackson action in Fury, and something called The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best.