Sunday, 24 March 2013

LLGFF 5: Enjoy the steam

The BFI 27th Lesbian & Gay Film Festival came to an end on Sunday night with the gala screening of Margarita, a warm comedy-drama from Canada about one of the festival's recurring themes: the rights of gay couples to live together legally (see also I Do, below). The final party was a terrific night of just hanging out with filmmakers, journalists, festival programmers and friends. Here are six more film highlights...

dir Dominique Cardona, Laurie Colbert; with Nicola Correia-Damude, Claire Lautier 12/Can ****
Some serious drama and complex interaction adds depth to this breezy romantic comedy. The film feels effortless and perhaps a bit slight, but has plenty of depth to let us see ourselves in each scene. And as its six characters cycle around each other, there's just enough farce to keep us smiling. The plot centres on nanny Margarita (Correia-Damude), who has been part of a Toronto family for six years raising 14-year-old Mali (Maya Ritter) while running the entire household for doctor Gail (Lautier) and dentist Ben (Patrick McKenna). But the economic crunch means that Margarita is being let go, which sparks a crisis for everyone, especially her girlfriend (Christine Horne). Refreshingly, the characters' sexuality is irrelevant in this story of open-minded people who are all seeking the best possible solution, despite their self-interest or inability to let go and ask for help. The filmmakers keep the tone snappy and realistic, allowing the excellent cast to have fun with the relationships. It may be a bit soapy, but it keeps a smile on our faces.

I Do
dir Glenn Gaylord; with David W Ross, Jamie-Lynn Sigler 12/US ***.
Although it's somewhat overcomplicated, this romantic drama touches on some big issues while telling an engaging story about people who hold our attention. At the centre is Jack (Ross), a New York photographer who puts his life on hold to help his widowed sister-in-law Mya (Alicia Witt) raise her daughter. Seven years later he finds out that his visa won't be renewed, sparking a panicky need to stay in the US as he asks work colleague Ali (Sigler) to marry him. Both of them are gay, and things get complicated when he meets a charming Spaniard (Maurice Compte) and starts ignoring Ali. The film is nicely written and directed, with a relaxed pace and grounded characters. And it's nice to see director Gaylord and writer Ross avoid pushy emotions and preachy moralising, although a few plot points strain the realistic tone. Ross is a bit too good-looking at the centre, but his relationships with both Witt and Sigler snap with warmth and awkward edges, while his relationship with Compte is nicely understated. The final act is a little overwrought, with a series of wrenching decisions and difficult ramifications. But in the end we're both entertained and challenged to think about the issues.

Beyond the Walls
dir David Lambert; with Matila Malliarakis, Guillaume Gouix 12/Bel ****.
While it may seem like a trip into a more extreme side of sexuality, this beautifully played Belgian drama is actually a revealing exploration of the push and pull of relationships. Whether you can identify with the details of the story or settings, the ideas and interaction resonate strongly. It's about two men - Paulo and Ilir (Malliarakis and Gouix) who are just starting out a relationship when a twist of fate changes everything. As their new flush of romance is suddenly tested to the limit, Lambert captures the nature of relationships in a way we rarely see on screen, as these two men go through cycles of power and control, devotion and helpless adoration. And while there are moments of gentle humour and warmth, the film is unafraid to head into some very dark corners. Fortunately, the actors remain grounded and raw, creating a genuine sense of chemistry between them. And Lambert refuses to allow us to put them into boxes, playing with the boundaries of relational control is so truthful that it haunts us long after the story ends.

dir Marcal Fores; with Oriol Pla, Augustus Prew 12/Sp ***
It's difficult to imagine a teen movie much darker than this moving, evocative Spanish film. Although just a bit of lightness might have helped make it more engaging. As is, it's artfully made and packed with solid performances, but so gloomy that it's difficult to identify with the characters. It centres on 17-year-old Pol (Pla), who lives with his big brother (Javier Beltran) and attends an international school with a helpful teacher (Martin Freeman) and two feisty best pals (Dimitri Leonidas and Roser Tapias). Bit it's the new kid in school, Ikari (Prew), who's causing a stir. And Pol's secret crush on him, along with his ongoing struggle with day-to-day events, sends Pol into a private fantasy world in which he is accompanied by his teddy bear as he walks through the woods. Yes, the film is a swirl of internalised fantasy and gritty reality that sometimes doesn't quite gel, and the relentlessly serious tone isn't easy to take. But the beautiful imagery and poetic quality of the filmmaking and acting make it worth a look.

dir Jun Robles Lana; with Eddie Garcia, Rez Cortez 12/Ph ****.
A charming black comedy, this Filipino drama is packed with vividly memorable characters beautifully played by an exceptional cast. It also touches on some very big issues without ever being preachy about them, quietly stirring our thoughts and emotions with a gentle slice of life. It centres on Rene (Garcia), a retiree who lives alone with his dog Bwakaw. He's "older than the Filipino constitution" and is probably more likely to bite someone than Bwakaw is - everyone knows him as the town grump, as he acerbically insults everyone he meets. Then a series of life and death events begins to eat away at his cynicism, which is a result of a life of suppressed desires; he only admitted to himself that he was gay at age 60 and has never been in love. The film is simply delightful, with moments of raucously incorrect humour balanced by earthy emotion. Everyone in the film is thoroughly enjoyable, including the shifty looking taxi driver (Cortez) who becomes Rene's unlikely friend, a nosey neighbour, a senile ex-girlfriend and the camp cross-dressers at the local hairdressing salon. And as it goes along, it really gets under our skin because we can see so much of ourselves on-screen.

Mr Angel
dir Dan Hunt; with Buck Angel, Elayne Angel 12/US ****
Warm and intimate, and surprisingly inspirational, this snappy little documentary not only chronicles the life of an unapologetic original, but also makes a bold statement about the destructiveness of being forced into one of society's boxes. Buck Angel describes his childhood as a tomboy, then modelling career as a young woman before he became a man and started making porn. But he doesn't have male genitalia, which makes him seriously confusing for people who want to force him into a stereotype. His whole goal is to say, "It's OK not to fit in the box." And he works with his trans wife Elayne to break down barriers. The cameras follow him to Berlin, Vegas and home to Mexico, including footage from his childhood, so we see him age from a young girl into a 40-year-old muscle-man. And along the way, the filmmaker expands his approach to look at other men and women who blur the lines of gender. The result is important and hugely provocative, since it challenges our preconceptions and forces us to accept these people where we understand them or not.

Friday, 22 March 2013

LLGFF 4: Passenger seat

The BFI's 27th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival winds into its final weekend with a flurry of parties every night, including events for industry delegates, filmmakers and journalists. And of course lots of movies. Here are some more highlights...

dir Joshua Sanchez; with Wendell Pierce, Emory Cohen 12/US ***.
Adapted from a play by Christopher Shinn, this low-key American drama is still extremely theatrical, mainly in its use of dialog that's rather too on-the-nose. But the cast is excellent, nicely maintaining the ambiguity of characters who are never who we expect them to be. The title refers both to the number of main characters and to the fact that the events take place on the 4th of July. June (Cohen) escapes from his family barbecue to go meet Joe (Pierce), an older man he has been chatting to online. They see a movie, then go back to Joe's hotel room. Meanwhile, we also meet Joe's daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King), who thinks her dad is away on business. While her ill mum is sleeping, she sneaks out to meet Dexter (EJ Bonilla), who has been pursuing her relentlessly. All four of these people want something from the other, and the way they go about getting it is circuitous, awkward and a bit sad. The film's overwhelmingly downbeat tone kind of obscures some fascinating things that are going on here, mainly in the fact that the people in power aren't who we think they'll be. So in the end, it's smart and thoughtful, but also a bit gloomy and empty.

Les Invisibles 
dir Sebastien Lifshitz; with Bernard, Catherine, Christian, Therese 12/Fr ****. 
This beautiful, thoroughly involving documentary catches the everyday details of a group of retirement-age men and women along with the extraordinary stories of how they have lived with their homosexuality. These are engaging, articulate, bracingly honest people who have a lot to say about where European society is now. This relaxed and intimate film is beautifully shot with attention to detail, simply letting a handful of people talk about their lives while going about their daily routines. Some emerge with massive personalities, while others break our hearts with their remarkable life stories. The point is that their experiences are vastly different than young gay and lesbian people today, and we need to remember these things. In the end, their stories are not only fascinating, but urgent and relevant. And hugely resonant too.

Joy! Portrait of a Nun
dir Joe Balass; with Sister Missionary P Delight, Sister Hysterectoria 12/Can ***
A portrait of a fringe gay movement, this gentle, meandering documentary focusses on a man who lives his life under the name Sister Missionary P Delight, nicknamed Mish. Yes, this lifestyle is a bit ridiculous, but it has deep meaning for its participants, who also have something important to say. Mish was thrown out of the priesthood for being gay and turned to activism instead. With other gay nuns in San Francisco, he helped found the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, making political and religious statements by finding comedy in unexpected places. Called to a life of service, he now lives with a group of radical faeries in the Tennessee woods. The film is packed with photos and old film footage that are priceless. And the low-key, rambling doc style nicely matches Mish's cluttered, hippie lifestyle. Although the lack of cinema structure leaves it feeling a bit elusive.

The Comedian
dir Tom Shkolnik; with Edward Hogg, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett 12/UK ***
This low-key improvised drama has a rather misleading title. Writer-director Shkolnik astutely explores the bleak aimlessness of his central character, drawing knowing performances from the cast. But it's so gloomy that it's difficult to connect emotionally... REVIEW >

Future My Love
dir Maja Borg; with Jacque Fresco, Nadya Cazan 12/Swe ****
Swedish filmmaker Borg gets a little carried away with her own artistry in this mash-up of documentary, film essay and visual poem, which explores the question of why humanity hasn't sorted out our problems even with enough information and technology at our disposal. Borg combines music, historical footage and an elusive black and white parallel story to explore this theme. At the centre is an extended interview with genius futurist Fresco, who explains the technocracy movement of the 1930s, a realistic plan to wipe out hunger, poverty and unemployment. And why this hasn't happened is simple: greed. The rich aren't willing to abandon a system that is no longer working if I means they can't accumulate as much private wealth as they want. Which basically makes this one of those beautifully made films that clearly explain what's going on but leaves us with no hope for a solution. Well not in our lifetimes, at least.
[NB: I saw this film at last year's Edinburgh Film Festival]

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

LLGFF 3: Calm before the storm

Filmmakers have flown in from around the world to present their work at the 27th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Yesterday I got the chance to interview actors Michael Aloni and Nicholas Jacob (above) from the Out in the Dark, along with the film's director Michael Mayer, before the UK premiere at the festival last night. They all talked openly about the controversial politics and sexuality that infuse the story - although the interview itself won't run until the film's theatrical release in the UK this summer. More festival highlights...

Out in the Dark
dir Michael Mayer; with Nicholas Jacob, Michael Aloni 12/Isr ****
The violent struggle between Israel and Palestine is highlighted in an unusual way in this gentle romantic thriller. As the events get increasingly nasty, the film isn't easy to watch, and we begin to lose hope for a peaceful solution either for the society or the relationship between two young men: Palestinian Nimr (Jacob) and Jewish Roy (Aloni). And both of them have external stresses - including visa issues, parental pressure and the fact that Nimr's brother is a violent rebel leader. What's most impressive here is that director-cowriter Mayer never lets the politics take centre stage, keeping the story tender and personal. The film is beautifully shot, with sensitive performances that reveal complexities within both the characters and situations. So in the end, both the suspense and the romance hold our interest. And keep us emotionally engaged.

She Male Snails
dir Ester Martin Bergsmark; with Ester Martin Bergsmark, Eli Leven 12/Swe ***
This experimental fantasy-documentary is a somewhat indulgent collection of images and scenes that force us to think about ideas of gender and sexuality. Some of this is quite disturbing, while other moments contain hopeful romanticism and tender observations. And even though it's fascinating, it's also meandering and difficult to engage with. At the centre are filmmaker Bergsmarck and his boyfriend Leven, who both identify themselves as "trans", uncomfortable in their gender. Their goal is to find a way to live in the world, so they adopt what looks like an experimental existence. The original title Pojktanten translates as "boy hag-lady", and both men find inspiration in the hermaphrodite nature of snails. It's lushly shot, with a moody electronic score and somnolent, poetic narration. Artfully recreated flashbacks mix with home movies in an openhanded kaleidoscopic structure. All of which makes the film more like a thought-provoking museum piece than an actual feature film.

United in Anger: A History of Act Up
dir Jim Hubbard; with Gregg Bordowitz, Jim Eigo 12/US ****
The key aspect of this documentary is the way it clearly shows that the Aids devastation in America in the 1980s and 90s wasn't due to a viral infection, but rather to government inaction. And it was only stopped by people who tapped into a rage they didn't know they could possibly muster up. While the Oscar-nominated doc How to Survive a Plague (see below) takes a more personal approach to the same events, this fast-paced film centres on the political outrage that sparked a national movement that actually changed the way the government addressed Aids research and treatment. In addition to footage of each pivotal moment of protest, filmmaker Hubbard makes extensive use of archival interviews with activists who didn't survive the epidemic, adding to the urgency of the period. There are perhaps too many faces on-screen, with too much attention paid to methods and events rather than ideas and feelings. But then this is a vital side of the story, and seeing it laid out so clearly is deeply compelling.

How to Survive a Plague
dir David France; with Larry Kramer, Peter Staley 12/US *****
What does a decent society do to help people who hurt themselves? If you're a smoker, overeater or bad driver, there's plenty of help available. But in America, people who had unsafe sex were left to die: for nearly a decade there was no useful medication to treat Aids. This astounding film documents how grass roots organisations Act Up and TAG forced the US government to show some compassion... REVIEW > 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Critical Week: Don't read that book!

The week's biggest screening was Evil Dead, a remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 classic about a group of young people who find a sinister book in a cabin in the woods and unleash all sorts of nasty horror. This version has some very nice touches, and gore-hounds will absolutely adore it. We also caught up with Danny Boyle's twisty, gleaming, enjoyably over-complicated hypnosis thriller Trance, starring James McAvoy; Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in the amusing but pointlessly overcomplicated comedy Identity Thief; Bryan Singer's epic-sized fairy tale action movie Jack the Giant Slayer, in which a lively cast rescues us from digital overload; and Jim Sturgess and Kirstin Dunst in the fantasy-romance Upside Down, which is strong on ideas but short on logic and story.

A bit further off the beaten path were Bernardo Bertolucci's perceptive and remarkably youthful Italian drama Me and You; the astonishing, essential British doc We Went to War, which catches up with Vietnam veterans after filmmaker Michael Grigsby (who sadly died last week) first documented them in 1970; and an intriguing but annoyingly indulgent French actor-director encounter in Unfaithful.

This coming week we have the action sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the comedy 21 and Over, Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan in Byzantium, Eric Bana and Olivia WIlde in Deadfall, the American indie Four and the Filipino-Malaysian drama Bwakaw.

Monday, 18 March 2013

LLGFF 2: Take a ride

In the documentary Interior. Leather Bar., directors James Franco and Travis Matthews are trying to challenge their own preconceptions by reconstructing 40 lost minutes from William Friedkin's notorious 1980 thriller Cruising. At the 27th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, the doc was shown with a couple of similarly themed shorts, providing a rather steamy night for those in attendance. Here are some festival highlights...

Interior. Leather Bar.
dir James Franco, Travis Mathews; with Val Lauren, James Franco 13/US ****
A fascinating exploration of artistic expression on a range of levels, this documentary is just as provocative for its cast as it is for the viewer. Although it's easy to miss the point of it all if you're not paying attention. Franco and Matthews set out to recreate the 40 minutes censored from William Friedkin's shocking 1980 thriller Cruising, in which detective Al Pacino goes undercover in New York's gay fetish scene. Franco's long-time friend Lauren plays Pacino here, and his reaction is the fascinating as he grapples with the ramifications of appearing in a project that can be defined as almost-porn. He spends a lot of time on the phone to his agent and girlfriend, and discusses it at length with Franco and his fellow actors. This behind-the-scenes footage is far more informative than the slickly produced scene fragments they come up with. But the film's real value is in how it explores the line between movie-sex and porn, and between prejudice and diversity.

Facing Mirrors
dir Negar Azarbayjani; with Shayesteh Irani, Ghazal Shakeri 11/Irn *****
There's real tension in this steely, low-key Iranian drama, which outlines the moving story of two women who are struggling against the demands of their culture. Hinging on their unusual friendship, this sharply well-observed film gets deep under the skin as it traces a very difficult story to an overwhelming conclusion. The women are Rana (Shakeri), whose husband is in prison as she illicitly drives a taxi to make ends meet, and Edi (Irani), who wants to return to Germany for a sex change operation before her father marries her off. Their meeting is anything but smooth, as Rana certainly has no sympathy for Edi's situation. But both of them are transgressive in their own way, and as they begin to see things through each others' eyes, a surprising friendship develops. Officially sanctioned by the powers that be (trans-gender operations are legal in Iran), the film is impeccably written, directed and acted to draw us into a complex story with a serious punch of emotional resonance.

Jack & Diane
dir Bradley Rust Gray; with Juno Temple, Riley Keough 12/US **
Even though it's infused with moody atmosphere that captures the confusion of first love, this gimmicky romance is indulgent and infuriatingly hesitant about its plot and characters. A clever horror subtext rendered in Quay Brothers' animation helps, but it's so relentlessly low-energy that it feels like it simply won't end. The title characters are two young women played by Keough and Temple, respectively. Jack is tomboyish and quirky, Diane is sickly and quirky, and both mope everywhere they go, rarely speaking above a squeaky whisper. They're so annoying that we really don't care that Diane is about to move to Paris, certainly not because we believe they have discovered true love and don't want to be separated. Oddly, it's the fantasy animated sequences that ring truest in this mumbly, inarticulate film.

My Brother the Devil
dir-scr Sally El Hosaini; with James Floyd, Fady Elsayed 12/UK ****
Punchy and emotive, this British drama deals with intense themes in its story of two brothers caught between subcultures in northeast London. Even though it gets a bit overwrought, this is a beautifully observed film that gets us thinking... REVIEW >

Saturday, 16 March 2013

LLGFF 1: Simply Divine

The British Film Institute's 27th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival kicked off Thursday night with the international premiere of Jeffrey Schwarz's documentary I Am Divine, celebrating the unforgettable star of Pink Flamingoes and Hairspray. Jeffrey was on hand to introduce the film and answer questions afterwards at BFI Southbank, then mix with the opening night crowd at the big party on HMS President, just down the river. The festival is one of the biggest in the UK, and the next 10 days promise a wide range of fascinating films addressing issues of diversity, gender and sexuality from every conceivable angle. Here are a couple of highlights from the first few days, including revivals of two recent releases for appreciative audiences...

I Am Divine
dir Jeffrey Schwarz; with John Waters, Ricki Lake 13/US ****
This fast-paced documentary tells the story of an important artist who changed cinema, music and the theatre forever, but died far too early at age 42 in 1988. Divine (aka Harris Glenn Milstead) was a childhood friend of filmmaker John Waters in Baltimore, and together they took the underground cinema world by storm. As his career grew, Divine's work as an actor became increasingly sophisticated, with breakout roles in Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind before the crossover success of Hairspray. Schwarz documents this with energy and plenty of trashy style, interviewing family, friends and costars while also letting us see lots of fabulous film clips, glimpses behind the scenes, archive interviews and never-before-seen performance footage. It's an engaging, funny and surprisingly moving doc that never tries to be anything more than the celebration of an icon.

White Night
dir-scr Leesong Hee-il; with Won Tae-hee, Lee Li-kyung12/Kor ***.
With minimal dialog, this is a film about feelings, focussing intently on its central character's dark reckoning with his own vengeful soul. Wongyu (Won) is a flight attendant based in Germany who returns home to Seoul for the first time in two years to see his ex-boyfriend. But their meeting doesn't go as planned, leaving Won to stew alone over a violent homophobic attack they experienced years earlier. While he plots revenge against the thugs, who have just been released from prison, he has an anonymous sexual encounter with Taejun (Lee) that takes a series of surprising twists over one long night. The film is beautifully shot and edited to force us inside the minds of the characters. This makes the story strongly evocative as these two young men bristle against each other, bringing up sharp, painful memories as well as some tenderness and hope. It's the kind of film that isn't too obsessed with plotting, instead letting the story meander in ways that leave us thinking.

Laurence Anyways
dir Xavier Dolan; with Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clement 12/Can ***. 
With each feature, 23-year-old Dolan gets more ambitious. This third time out, the unusually gifted filmmaker pushes things just over the edge into self-parody, but still tells a powerfully provocative story with a strong emotional undercurrent... REVIEW >

Keep the Lights On
dir Ira Sachs; with Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth 12/US ****
This gorgeously shot and edited film is an incisive exploration of two people struggling to make a relationship work over nearly a decade. Its honest perspective makes it thoroughly involving, even if it turns dreary in the final act... REVIEW >

Monday, 11 March 2013

Critical Week: Spring break forever!

This week's most memorable press screening was for Harmony Korine's odd concoction Spring Breakers, which blends hedonistic antics with a gritty thriller, plus James Franco's astonishingly fabulous performance as a rapping gangster. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone stars Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carrey as flashy Vegas magicians in an amusing story pitting old-world values against shallow modern-day methodology. The animated prehistoric romp The Croods features much better than usual writing, voice work and animation to follow a caveman struggling to let his teen daughter grow up. And a father-daughter relationship is also at the centre of Michael Winterbottom's fascinating but uneven The Look of Love, a biopic about King of Soho Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), the London strip club and publishing magnate who always hoped to pass his empire on to his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots).

In the artier corner, we had perhaps the most provocative film in recent memory in Compliance, a movie so cleverly concocted that it can't help but make you furious; Small Apartments, starring Matt Lucas and a variety of big-name cameo players, is a relentlessly wacky pitch-black comedy that has an odd ability to stir your emotions; and the bracing but controversial documentary Long Distance Revolutionary takes us into the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an astute journalist who's in prison for murder.

This coming week we have a very late screening of the latest fairy tale blockbuster Jack the Giant Slayer, Melissa McCarthy as an Identity Thief, James McAvoy in Danny Boyle's Trance, the remake of Sam Raimi's classic Evil Dead and Bertolucci's Me and You. Plus various other things I need to catch up with on disc, as always.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Monday, 4 March 2013

Critical Week: Into the woods

The most anticipated press screening this past week was The Place Beyond the Pines, a moody three-part drama starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper that's beautifully filmed and acted. It certainly leaves us with more to think about than the colourful Disney adventure Oz the Great and Powerful, which has fantastic 3D and a strong cast led by James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, but feels both too family friendly and over-reliant on digital flashiness. We also caught up with Fire With Fire, a contrived but watchable thriller with Bruce Willis and Josh Duhamel; the lushly photographed French double-biopic Renoir, an intriguing film about both the painter father and filmmaker son; and the Icelandic true-life adventure The Deep, an astonishing story of survival that's intriguingly (and slightly dully) told without any manipulative moviemaking.

I also continued to preview films from the upcoming 27th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (14-24 March). There was more James Franco - both on-screen and as codirector this time - with the seriously clever arthouse oddity Interior. Leather Bar., recreating 40 censored minutes from Al Pacino's 1980 thriller Cruising; rising stars Juno Temple and Riley Keough in the mopey romance Jack & Diane; the powerfully moving Iranian drama Facing Mirrors (my best of the fest so far); the provocative, intense Israeli drama Out in the Dark; the engaging, startlingly honest retiree documentary Les Invisibles; an eye-opening doc about female-to-male transexual pornstar Mr Angel; the artful Swedish kaleidoscopic doc She Male Snails; and the intensely powerful activism doc United in Anger.

This coming week, I've got still more James Franco in the crime comedy Spring Breakers, Steve Coogan in the Soho property tycoon biopic The Look of Love, Steve Carell as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, the animated prehistoric comedy-adventure The Croods and the Spanish drama The Sex of the Angels.