Thursday, 31 October 2013

Critical Week: This year's Help

UK critics finally got their first look at Lee Daniels' all-star epic drama The Butler this week. While it plays out essentially a Civil Rights-themed variation on Forrest Gump, it's actually a true story. And an unusually slushy film for Daniels. We had a lot more fun watching the sequel Thor: The Dark World, an oversized blockbuster that's so ridiculous that you can't help but smile. But the best movie this past week was Ryan Coogler's Sundance-winning Fruitvale Station, a shocking true drama skilfully filmed without pushing any sort of message other than this kind of thing must never happen again.

Off the beaten path, there was the surreal adventure thriller Escape From Tomorrow, a fiendishly clever film shot guerrilla-style at Disney theme parks; the British gypsy drama Traveller, which isn't well enough made to overcome its cliches; and the dark gay thriller Triple Crossed, which makes up for its low budget with a twisty plot and intriguing characters. And we also had three documentaries: the rousing Milius exploring filmmaker John Milius' astounding life and work; the harrowing Pandora's Promise looking into the truth about nuclear power an how it's probably the answer to climate change; and the witty but dry Rough Cut remaking scenes from a fake 1980s slasher horror.

This coming week we have Jude Law in Dom Hemingway, the animated adventure Free Birds, the British comedy Breakfast With Jonny Wilkinson, the political thriller Exposed, and the Israeli drama Fill the Void.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Critical Week: Chasing the rat pack

Post-London Film Festival, UK-based critics are now in catch-up mode with current releases, upcoming films and movies that are vying for our votes in year-end awards. Possibly the most starry movie screened to us this week was Last Vegas, featuring five Oscar winners: Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Kevin Kline (pictured above) and Mary Steenburgen. Comments are embargoed until next week on this one. We also finally got to see Harrison Ford's new movie Ender's Game, which opens this week and is a pretty thrilling ride for 12-year-old boys in the audience. It's very watchable for everyone else too.

The rest of the week was pretty eclectic. Idris Elba is impressive in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is a little too clearly designed to be the definitive movie about the great man. And his story is genuinely moving. Ralph Fiennes stars in and directs another biopic, The Invisible Woman, about Charles Dickens' secret romance. It's eye-catching but a bit dull and wilfully repressed. Two other films were the polar extreme: the insanely lively and colourful, but unimaginatively titled Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a lot of fun but a bit less satisfying than the first film. And the oddly gentle Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is packed with rude humour and raucous pranks, then surprises us with its sentimentality.

This coming week we will see the next Marvel movie, Thor: The Dark World, the animated adventure Free Birds, Lee Daniels' presidential drama The Butler, the Israeli comedy Cupcakes, the filmmaker doc Milius, and the nuclear power doc Pandora's Promise. And for awards consideration we have Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor and the Sundance winner Fruitvale Station. Among others....

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Sunday, 20 October 2013

LFF 11: That's a wrap

And so the 57th London Film Festival comes to a close with the world premiere of Saving Mr Banks, attended by Colin Farrell, Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks and Ruth Wilson - who earlier in the day gave one of the more hilarious press conferences I've attended. 

The festival was an odd one this year: it's just as un-festive as always, but there was controversy as this year for the first time they charged journalists a whopping £36 for accreditation (especially painful for freelancers, as it comes out of our pay) without giving us anything more. There weren't even goodie bags this year, for the first time in the 18 years I have covered this festival. But then this isn't a proper premiere festival; aside from tonight's closing film, there were no major world premieres. Instead, this is a catch-up event, presenting the best of the past year's festivals, including the winners of Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and Venice. So it's a great programme for film fans who struggle to catch up with these high-profile arthouse titles. It'll certainly always be a highlight of my cinematic year, fee or no fee.

So here are three more highlights - including the closing film, the full list of award winners and my 10 favourite films of the festival (linked to reviews). I have a backlog of about 8 films this year that still need to be written up. That's not too bad actually...

Saving Mr Banks
dir John Lee Hancock; with Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks 13/UK ****
After veering dangerously close to becoming an overproduced slush-fest, this film digs deeper and draws us in. This is mainly thanks to a remarkably detailed script and especially sharp performances from Thompson and Hanks. Yes, the Disney spirit (and marketing machine) nearly swamps it, but the film remains lively, moving and thoroughly entertaining... FULL REVIEW >

Gare du Nord 
dir Claire Simon; with Nicole Garcia, Reda Kateb 13/Fr ***
As an exploration of the variety of life seen in a single railway station, this film has certain value for people-watchers. But its narrative strands are only barely developed, and it overstays its welcome when it tries to stir in some twisty plotting and magical realism... FULL REVIEW >

dir Michalis Konstantatos; with Nicholas Vlachakis, Eleftheria Komi 13/GR ***.
Fans of Dogtooth, Attenberg and Alps will be intrigued by this similarly styled Greek drama, which is even more elusive than those relentlessly obtuse films. But patience is paid off as the seemingly unrelated scenes begin to coalesce into something that's genuinely horrific. And when it's over, the film leaves us pondering some pretty big issues... FULL REVIEW >

  • Best Film: IDA
  • Doc (Grierson Award): MY FATHERS, MY MOTHER AND ME
  • First Feature (Sutherland Award):  ILO ILO
  • British Newcomer:  Jonathan Asser (STARRED UP)
  • BFI Fellowship: Christopher Lee

Saturday, 19 October 2013

LFF 10: I'll drink to that

Another big day at the 57th London Film Festival, with red carpet glamour including Anna Kendrick and Joe Swanberg with their film Drinking Buddies (above). It was also the night for the awards ceremony, and the big winner was Pawel Pawlikowski's excellent Ida, which took the best film prize. Here are some film highlights today...

Drinking Buddies 
dir Joe Swanberg; with Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson 13/US ***. 
As an exploration of a specific point in life, this film is authentic and observant. But it has a tendency to preach at us, overdramatising issues rather than letting them play out organically. At least the cast keeps it raw, creating recognisably realistic characters we can identify with... FULL REVIEW >

dir Adam Wimpenny; with Ed Stoppard, Sophia Myles 13/UK ***. 
While playing with every cliche in the haunted house genre, director Wimpenny and writer Hill find an inventive twist in the tale. The key influence seems to be The Shining, with a small family menaced by strange goings-on in an isolated, over-large house... FULL REVIEW >

Cutie and the Boxer 
dir Zachary Heinzerling; with Noriko Shinohara, Ushio Shinohara 13/US ***. 
While this documentary sets out to explore the colourful life of offbeat husband and wife New York artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, it finds its strongest resonance in its observations about marriage itself. It's fascinating to watch their creative processes, especially the long-overlooked Noriko. And their banter is amusing. But it's what holds these opposites together that gets under our skin... [review coming soon]

dir Amat Escalante; with Armando Espitia, Andrea Vergara 13/Mex **** 
This rather grim Mexican drama depicts how the tentacles of the drug trade can irreversibly change innocents who get too close to the danger. With moments of staggeringly awful violence and brutality set against an everyday vibe, this clever and skilfully made film is deeply unnerving... FULL REVIEW >

It's All So Quiet 
dir Nanouk Leopold; with Jeroen Willems, Henri Garcin 13/Ned ***.
The title of this Dutch drama is almost annoyingly accurate: this is a sleepy, almost silent drama about people who are so repressed that it's the height of enlightenment when they crack the hint of a smile. But the film's beautifully observed by writer-director Leopold and actors who have to convey the characters' feelings without many words... FULL REVIEW >

Friday, 18 October 2013

LFF 9: Facing the fans

As the final weekend of the 57th London Film Festival gets underway, a raft of glamorous red carpets and parties were held on Friday night. At the Peccadillo party, I chatted with the directors of Salvo, and the director and stars of Stranger by the Lake. Meanwhile in Leicester Square, Steve McQueen, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor smiled for the camera (above left) at the festival premiere of their film 12 Years a Slave, while Tom Hardy (above right) was on hand to sign autographs at the screening of his new one-man thriller Locke. All of those and two others are among my highlights of the day, including an amazing archival restoration that was performed last night with a live orchestral accompaniment...

12 Years a Slave 
dir Steve McQueen; with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender 13/US ****. 
Based on a chilling true story, this film is much more than an account of slavery in America: it's an exploration of the human urge to control and enslave people. And with fearlessly intense performances and director McQueen's artful eye, we are immersed in the story completely... FULL REVIEW >

dir Steven Knight; with Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman 13/UK *** 
Essentially a one man show, this pseudo-thriller explores the fallout from a single moment of weakness as our hero tries to salvage his marriage, family and career. The pushy set-up is a little hard to believe, but the film is held together by a terrific performance from Hardy as an essentially good guy who has reached his personal Armageddon... FULL REVIEW >

Stranger by the Lake 
dir Alain Guiraudie; with Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou 13/Fr ****. 
What starts out as a subtle drama exploring male sexuality quietly shifts into a Hitchcockian thriller, with big questions about the tension between lust and morality. Set in a gay cruising site at a naturist beach, the film isn't for the faint of heart. But its themes are bigger than the controversial setting... FULL REVIEW >

dir Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza; with Saleh Bakri, Sara Serraiocco 13/It ***. 
With almost no dialog to speak of, this gritty Italian thriller is relentlessly artful, using strikingly skilful photography and a vividly detailed sound mix to tell a story about a heartless young man who has a sudden pang of conscience... FULL REVIEW >

Gone Too Far!
dir Destiny Ekaragha; with Malachi Kirby, OC Ukeje 13/UK ***.
With a strong blast of local humour, this comedy captures the ethnic mix of a South London community using riotous slapstick, knowing dialog and rather nutty characters. It's far too silly to have a proper kick to it, but it's bright and cheeky, and the script touches on some big issues without ever getting heavy about them... [review coming soon]

The Epic of Everest 
dir Captain John Noel with George Mallory, Andrew Irvine 24/UK 1h27 ***** 
In documenting the third expedition up Everest, filmmaker Noel demonstrates a staggering amount of stamina as well as groundbreaking technical and artistic skills. Watching this 1924 film is a mystical experience, revealing the big mountain in ways no one as ever done since. And this digital restoration makes it essential viewing... FULL REVIEW >

Thursday, 17 October 2013

LFF 8: Hello ladies

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was on hand at the 57th London Film Festival this week to present his writing-directing debut Don Jon, looking every bit the dude on the red carpet that his movie requires. There's definitely a sense that the festival is winding down, as film journalists are starting to wake up from their zombie-like states with the thought that they may get to sleep in a few days. Here are some more highlights...

Don Jon 
dir Joseph Gordon-Levitt; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson 13/US **** 
Gordon-Levitt catches us off-guard with this remarkably assured writing-directing debut, which also gives him a chance to go against type as an actor. It's a warm and raucous comedy that wins us over as it reveals the soft side of a dedicated hard-man... FULL REVIEW >

Kill Your Darlings 
dir John Krokidas; with Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan 13/US ***.
Based on a shocking true story about celebrities before they were famous, this dark drama is strikingly written, directed and acted to recount a series of unnerving events while evoking a mood that would later grow into a movement. It's a clever approach to a complex group of artists, even if it feels somewhat mannered... FULL REVIEW >

dir Peter Landesman with Zac Efron, James Badge Dale 13/US **.
With a documentary sense of detail, this film recounts JFK's assassination from a variety of previously unseen angles. It's skilfully made but lacks any sense of focus that might draw us in. There isn't a single well-developed character, and it oddly doesn't even centre on the hospital that gives the film its name... FULL REVIEW >

Blue Is the Warmest Colour 
dir Abdellatif Kechiche; with Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux 13/Fr ****. 
Food, art and sex are the three elements of life in this evocative French drama, which takes a generous three hours to tell its story. This is an almost unnervingly honest film that holds us in rapt attention, shaking us even if we have nothing in common with the characters. Because it's about something much deeper than what's on screen... FULL REVIEW >

dir John Curran; with Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver 13/Aus *** 
As an account of an incredible journey, this film can't help but hold our interest, especially when the central figure is so beautifully played. But director Curran opts for glossy warmth rather than expansive nature, which leaves it feeling more like a movie and less like real life. [review coming soon]

dir Sebastian Lelio; with Paulina Garcia, Sergio Hernandez 13/Chl **** 
This Chilean comedy-drama may have a rather meandering narrative, but it's packed with memorable scenes that bring its characters vividly to life. It's also a rare film that centres on a 50-something woman trying to make the most of life on her own terms... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

LFF 7: True stories

It was duelling red carpets on Leicester Square tonight at the 57th London Film Festival, as one side hosted Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (pictured) for Philomena while across the square fans and paparazzi were lined up for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his film Don Jon. Yes, another day of too many films and lots of rain. I'm glad there are only four days to go. More highlights...

dir Stephen Frears; with Judi Dench, Steve Coogan 13/UK ****
A shameless crowd-pleaser, this warmly engaging drama is based on a remarkable true story. And it also offers Dench and Coogan the chance to create complex, involving characters we can identify with. The film sometimes feels harshly edited, zipping through serious scenes with an emphasis on sentimentality. But it still wins us over. FULL REVIEW >

The Past 
dir Asghar Farhadi; with Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim 13/Fr **** 
Farhadi brings his surgically precise filmmaking to Paris with an interpersonal drama that, like A Separation, fills the screen with almost frighteningly complex characters who are struggling to get on with their lives together. Or apart, for that matter. Farhadi isn't one to let old wounds heal slowly; he'd rather rip off the plaster and pick away the scab FULL REVIEW >

The Armstrong Lie 
dir Alex Gibney; with Lance Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey 13/US ***. 
Gibney takes his usual detailed approach to this documentary about Lance Armstrong's stellar cycling career and notorious fall from grace. But it's an oddly assembled hybrid, as much of the material was shot for a very different doc about his comeback in 2009. And wile it's great footage, it throws the film somewhat off-balance. FULL REVIEW >

We Are the Best! 
dir-scr Lukas Moodysson with Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin 13/Swe **** 
After dipping into more experimental filmmaking, Moodysson returns to the lively improvisational style of Show Me Love and Together. He coaxes energetic, utterly charming performances from his three pre-teen leads, while exploring youthful rebellion from a cleverly askance angle FULL REVIEW >

Floating Skyscrapers 
dir Tomasz Wasilewski; with Mateusz Banasiuk, Marta Nieradkiewicz 13/Pol ****
Exploring a very dark side of Polish society, which echoes in many parts of the world, this drama is compelling and involving. As well as rather overwhelmingly bleak. But it's so beautifully shot and edited, with sharply naturalistic performances, that we can't help but be drawn in.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L   W E E K
Yes, I also caught some non-LFF movies this past week, including: the Arnie/Sly action thriller Escape Plan, Danny Dyer in the crime drama Vendetta, Sheridan Smith in the girly comedy Powder Room, the British mystery-spoof World of Hurt, and the arty American drama Five Dances. None of them were great (to put it mildly), but they were a nice contrast to the intensity of the festival films.

Coming this next week outside the LFF: the comedy Last Vegas, the biopic Mandela, the Dickens drama The Invisible Woman and the sequel Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. Among other things...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

LLF 6: That scene-steaing cat

The big red carpet premiere tonight at the 57th London Film Festival was for the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, attended by Joel & Ethan Coen, Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman. But as far as I know, the film's feline scene-stealers weren't in attendance. Here are six more highlights...

Inside Llewyn Davis 
dir Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; with Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan 13/US **** 
In a whimsical mood, the Coens explore a musical movement through the eyes of someone who thinks he should cut his losses and run. On the other hand, he has nothing left to lose. Anchored by a hugely engaging performance by Isaac, the film is a meandering odyssey that's packed with great ideas and wonderful characters, leaving us smiling rather than thinking... FULL REVIEW >

Night Moves 
dir Kelly Reichardt; with Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning 13/US ***. 
Reichardt takes on eco-terrorism with her usual askance, original approach to filmmaking, avoiding big thrills for introspective drama and provocative moral dilemmas. Every layer of this film is subtle, which is remarkable when such a hot-potato topic is involved. But it's also a bit sleepy... FULL REVIEW >

Tom at the Farm 
dir Xavier Dolan; with Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal 13/Can **** 
Dolan once again impresses with his robust filmmaking style, this time with a creepy twist on the Hitchcockian thriller. In addition to creating vivid, enticing characters, he keeps the atmosphere warm and witty, so we're not sure whether the next scene will make us laugh or chill us to the bone... FULL REVIEW >

Afternoon Delight 
dir Jill Soloway; with Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple 13/US ***. 
A comedy that travels to some startlingly dark, bleak places, this film takes an intriguingly messy look at sexuality and relationships. With solid performances, there are no easy resolutions here, as the characters essentially have to work out their own issues in order to get on with each other... FULL REVIEW >

Short Term 12 
dir-scr Destin Daniel Cretton; with Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr 13/US **** 
With documentary-style realism, filmmaker Cretton offers a bracingly honest exploration of the fallout from child abuse. But even though the film visits some extremely dark corners, it remains clear-eyed and hopeful about the future. Which helps us engage as we get deeply involved with the characters... FULL REVIEW >

The Last Impressario 
dir Gracie Otto; with Michael White, Lyndall Hobbs 13/UK **** 
This lively, engaging documentary profiles a dying breed. No, this kind of independent producer doesn't exist in the days of the multinational entertainment industry. But Michael White has changed the face of the arts with his resolutely progressive approach to projects. This hasn't made him rich, but he has scores of amazing famous friends... FULL REVIEW >

Monday, 14 October 2013

LFF 5: Ready for labour

Kate Winslet and her rather large baby bump braved the chilly red carpet tonight in Leicester Square for the UK premiere of her film Labor Day at the 57th London Film Festival. She was joined by costar Josh Brolin and writer-director Jason Reitman. And yes, the city is crawling with cinema celebrities at the moment. In addition to the Labor Day junket, I also attended a small press conference today for The Family (not showing at LFF) with Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dianna Agron. But then, everyone seems to be in London at the moment. More festival highlights...

Labor Day 
dir Jason Reitman; with Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin 13/US ***
While this drama starts off well, with another remarkably layered performance from Winslet and a growing sense of uneasy tension, it slowly transforms itself into a Nicholas Sparks-style sappy romance along the way. To say this is frustrating is an understatement, and by the time we make it to a series of deeply schmalzy epilogues, we wonder what happened to the Reitman of Up in the Air or Young Adult... [review coming soon]

Like Father, Like Son 
dir Hirokazu Kore-eda; with Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono 13/Jpn ****. 
Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda is an expert at telling sentimental stories in a way that's genuinely involving but never remotely sappy. By catching tiny details in characters who are cleverly underplayed by the cast, he draws us into the events in an uncanny way that's utterly disarming. And wonderful... FULL REVIEW >

dir Pawel Pawlikowski; with Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza 13/Pol **** 
With pristine black and white photography and beautifully textured performances, this simple story overflows with big ideas about history and faith. And since the two central characters are so beautifully written and played, they are able to engage us on layers that go much deeper than we expect... [review coming soon]

The Double
dir Richard Ayoade; with Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska 13/UK *** 
Dostoevsky's novella is adapted into a Gilliamesque black comedy that's packed with visual invention but never quite grabs hold narratively. Still, the cast is so good that we willingly go along with them on a surreal odyssey about a young man struggling to make sense of his own identity. And the surprise-packed cast is a lot of fun... [review coming soon]

The Selfish Giant
dir-scr Clio Barnard; with Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas 13/UK **** 
After the brilliantly inventive drama-doc The Arbor, it's unsurprising to find that Barnard takes an original approach to a kids' story. This film was inspired by the Oscar Wilde tale, and the connections are askance at best. But there's such an intense blast of realism that it's utterly gripping, right to the shattering conclusion... FULL REVIEW >

Sunday, 13 October 2013

LFF 4: Meet the filmmakers

I've reached that point in the London Film Festival when my backlog of reviews begins to swell, and my lack of sleep begins to affect my ability to carry on a coherent conversation. But it's been a good weekend of movies, wrapped up with Pawel Pawlikowski (above with festival director Claire Stewart, photo by me on the front row) presenting his gorgeous new film Ida, one of my favourites so far. The stars and filmmakers were out in force over the weekend, enjoying the crisp sunshine on Saturday and the gloomy rainshowers on Sunday. Here are some more highlights...

All Is Lost 
dir JC Chandor; with Robert Redford 13/US ***.
Shot with an astounding attention to detail, this film puts us right in the middle of a life-or-death situation with its only character, a sailor whose boat founders in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But Chandor's remarkable skill as a director is slightly undone by a plot that piles on too many disasters... FULL REVIEW >

Enough Said 
dir-scr Nicole Holofcener; with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini13/US ****
With her usual style of off-handed honesty, writer-director Holofcener gives the rom-com formula a welcome grown-up twist. And even if the story is somewhat simple, the characters bring out layers of insight in every scene. It's smart and often very funny, with brittle, flawed people we can easily identify with... FULL REVIEW >

The Zero Theorem 
dir Terry Gilliam; with Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry 13/Rom *** 
Terry Gilliam updates the look and feel of Brazil to the digital age with this lively and raucously imaginative adventure-drama. So it's a shame that the plot runs out of steam about halfway through, leaving us unable to piece together the big ideas that flood through every corner of the script... FULL REVIEW >

Closed Curtain 
dir Jafar Panahi, Kambuzia Partovi; with Kambuzia Partovi, Maryam Moqadam 13/Irn *** 
Banned filmmaker Panahi continues to work by making movies with other filmmakers and distributing them outside Iran. Packed with clever ideas, this feels more like an expression of his frustration than a fully formed feature. After an intriguingly provocative first half, it turns surreal and far too metaphorical... FULL REVIEW >

dir Matt Wolf; with Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw 13/US **. 
An odd hybrid, this film mixes authentic newsreel footage with fictional re-creations to explore the concept of the teenager, which didn't exist before World War II. But ultimately the film merely traces American and European history from 1904 to 1945, only offering a flash of insight in its final moment... FULL REVIEW >

Saturday, 12 October 2013

LFF 3: London goes starry

The red carpet parade continues this weekend at the 57th London Film Festival. Running the gauntlet tonight at the festival are Julia Jouis-Dreyfus and Nicole Holofcener with their film Enough Said; Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige and Richard Ayoade with The Double; and Charlie Cox, Jodie Whittaker and Christian Cooke with Hello Carter; plus Japanese maestro Hirokazu Kore-eda, French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch and Norwegian actor Pal Sverre-Hagen (of Oscar-nominee Kon-Tiki, below). Here are some of today's film highlights...

Starred Up
dir David Mackenzie; with Jack O'Connell (pictured), Ben Mendelsohn 13/UK ***.
Even though this film deploys just about every cliche in the prison-thriller genre, it continually twists its story in more personal directions, which allows the fine cast to create vividly intense characters. So although the plot has some nagging holes in it, we are gripped to the action unfolding on-screen... [review coming soon]

dir Alexander Payne; with Bruce Dern, Will Forte 13/US ****
Harking back to his own About Schmidt as well as David Lynch's The Straight Story, Payne gently explores Middle America with equal doses of spiky observational wit and soft-hearted sentiment. With bristlingly detailed performances, the film worms its way under our skin as it reveals some awkward truths about family connections... [review coming soon]

Camille Claudel: 1915
dir Bruno Dumont; with Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent 13/Fr ****
Bruno Dumont continues his provocative exploration of religion in society with this true story, which plays out like a sequel to the 1988 biopic. Like the film itself, Binoche plays the title role in a stripped down, unadorned way that forces us to listen to her words and look beneath the surface... [review coming soon]

Hello Carter
dir Anthony Wilcox; with Charlie Cox, Jodie Whittaker 13/UK **
With its charming tone and a likeable cast, this warm British comedy draws us into a gentle story about a young guy trying to get his life back in track. But about halfway in the script pivots suddenly into into implausibility, leaving the characters looking so idiotic that we cease to care what happens to them... [review coming soon]

dir Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg; with Pal Sverre-Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen 12/Nor ***.
The astonishing story of a man who risked his life to prove a scientific theory, this biopic has a strong sense of passion and tenacity that makes it utterly riveting. It's also a staggeringly well-made film, grounded both in the vivid characters and a skilful attention to detail... FULL REVIEW >

Friday, 11 October 2013

LFF 2: Live in the now

The 57th London Film Festival continues at venues all around the city, plus red carpet events in Leicester Square tonight, as filmmakers and stars brave the chilly drizzle. Here are some highlights...

The Spectacular Now
dir James Ponsoldt;  with Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley 13/US ****
Credit to these filmmakers for creating an adolescent comedy-drama that feels bracingly raw and honest. And their willingness to go places most movies shy away from gives the actors a chance to create fresh characters who are engaging even when they do stupid teenager things... [full review to come]

dir Anne Fontaine; with Naomi Watts, Robin Wright 13/Aus ***.
Infused with a sense of sun-kissed physicality, this drama has a provocative premise that would be hard to take if it weren't shot so beautifully and played with such offhanded authenticity by the solid cast. And despite the Australian surf-community setting, the film has a refreshingly grown-up European sensibility... FULL REVIEW >

Mystery Road
dir Ivan Sen; with Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving 13/Aus ***.
Writer-director Sen captures a vivid sense of life in the Australian Outback in this rural Wild West-style drama. And he cleverly undermines the film's thriller-like plot with low-key pacing and a refusal to indulge in genre cliches. The problem is that this makes the film almost inert, as it never generates even a hint of suspense... [full review to come]

Child's Pose
dir Calin Peter Netzer with Luminita Gheorghiu, Bogdan Dumitrache 13/Rom ***.
Romanian filmmaker Netzer takes a strikingly intimate look at the layers of control within families and society. And while some of the details are a little heavy-handed, witty touches and rippingly honest acting hold our attention. As does the unusually intimate, urgent filmmaking... [full review to come]

The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies
dir Wiktor Ericsson; with Joseph Sarno, Peggy Steffans Sarno 13/Swe ***.
Leave it to a Swedish filmmaker to find the important social relevance in the 1960s sexploitation movies of the legendary Joseph Sarno! But that's exactly what this documentary manages to do while exploring the filmmaker's lengthy career, his enduring marriage and the history of cinema itself since the 1960s... [full review to come]

Thursday, 10 October 2013

LFF 1: Aye aye, captain!

The 57th London Film Festival kicked off last night with the Leicester Square premiere of Captain Phillips, and star Tom Hanks braved the suddenly chilly evening with his wife Rita Wilson as well as director Paul Greengrass and a range of celebrities, from Tom Ford to Terry Gilliam. Tonight it was Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuaron's turn to present Gravity. Here are some highlights from the first day...

Captain Phillips
dir Paul Greengrass; with Tom Hanks, Barkhi Abdi 13/US *****
Coming straight from the headlines and adapted with a documentary-style attention to detail, this fiercely well-crafted thriller would be impossible to believe if it weren't true. And even though we know the end of the story, this film generates so much nerve-shredding suspense that we feel like we need to be debriefed afterwards... FULL REVIEW >

dir Alfonso Cuaron; with Sandra Bullock, George Clooney 13/US ****
Cuaron takes us on a 91-minute thrill ride deploying cutting-edge cinema technology and a harrowing performance from Sandra Bullock to root us in our seats. So even if the plot is rather contrived, the film looks so amazing that we barely breathe as we're hurled here and there just on the cusp of Earth's atmosphere... [full review coming soon]

As I Lay Dying
dir James Franco; with James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson 13/US ***
For his first narrative feature as a director, Franco ambitiously adapts William Faulkner's notoriously grim novel. And what a surprise: the film is relentlessly downbeat, and pretty dull too. Franco may prove that he has a fresh visual eye, but the highly emotive story is oddly uninvolving... FULL REVIEW >

Jeune & Jolie
dir Francois Ozon; with Marine Vacth, Geraldine Pailhas 13/Fr ****
Ozon explores a transgressive side of sexuality in this internalised drama about a teen prostitute. But this isn't the usual trip to the seedy low-life: these are well-off people who seem balanced and intelligent. And it's tricky for us to admit that this is just as realistic as the grimier depictions we see in preachier films... FULL REVIEW >

The Congress
dir Ari Folman; with Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel 13/Isr ***.
A film of two halves, this brain-bending drama/thriller is either a provocative exploration of identity in an increasingly digital age or an indulgent visual kaleidoscope that only the filmmaker can understand. Either way, it's bracingly original and often thrilling to watch... FULL REVIEW >

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Critical Week: She's not human

I'm not feeling massively human myself after such a busy week. The 21st Raindance Film Festival came to a close Sunday night with the creepy British thriller The Machine (pictured), which also won the top prize for best UK feature. Exploring artificial intelligence with an emotional edge, the film features sharp performances and some genuinely unnerving touches. Also at Raindance, I caught up with the Argentine comedy The Critic, which touched a few nerves in its engaging, cleverly told tale of a film critic's messy life.

I saw a couple of independent films outside Raindance: Who Needs Enemies is a low-budget London crime thriller that takes a clever approach to the genre and has a superb cast, but doesn't quite come together. And the comedy-documentary Seduced & Abandoned is a joy for movie fans, as Alec Baldwin and James Toback hit Cannes to sell their Iraq-set remake Last Tango in Tikrit. Pointed and very funny, it's packed with big-name cameos including Bertolucci himself, as well as surprisingly adept raconteur Ryan Gosling. And just last night I attended a massive Ender's Game teaser event with Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld and Ben Kingsley in attendance, but we'll have to wait to actually see the movie.

In continuing press screenings for the 57th London Film Festival, which opens Wednesday night, we caught up with Robert Redford's staggeringly well-made but somewhat over-done solo thriller All Is Lost; the amazing Robin Wright as a version of herself in Ari Folman's striking but confusing live-action/animated The Congress; the warm but implausible Brit-com Hello Carter with the likeable Charlie Cox, Christian Cooke and Jodie Whittaker; the provocative French drama Stranger by the Lake, which morphs from a quiet drama into a Hitcockian freakout on a gay-naturist beach; and the documentary Teenage, mixing terrific archive footage along with matching faked scenes that kind of undermine the entire point.

This coming week is pretty much devoted to the LFF with screenings of: Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, Alexander Payne's Nebraska, Jason Reitman's Labor Day, Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem, Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm, Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915, Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best, David Mackenzie's Starred Up, Hong Sangsoo's Haewon, the Berlinale winner Child's Pose, and the sexploitation doc The Sarnos. There's also a screening of two London movies: the crime thriller Vendetta and the comedy World of Hurt. Whew.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Critical Week: Cabin fever

Things always get a bit surreal for critics this time of year, as our usual press screenings are augmented by Raindance (25 Sep-6 Oct) and press screenings for the London Film Festival (9-20 Oct)....

At 21st Raindance Film Festival: Outpost 11 (pictured) is a superbly stylised British thriller set in a parallel steampunk Cold War reality. Claustrophobic and unnerving, it's seriously inventive, and deserves a proper release. Jake Squared is a self-indulgent trawl through a filmmaker's own middle-age angst, with a terrific cast including Elias Koteas, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Virginia Madsen and Mike Vogel. But it's far too gimmicky to work. Dirtymoney is a spin on the usual London crime drama, with a much more introspective approach and a strong central performance from Anthony Welsh. And Whoops! is a pitch-black comedy about an accidental serial killer. Strong characters make up for the goofy plot.

In advance of the 57th London Film Festival (more comments to come): The festival's opening film Captain Phillips is easily one of my best of the year. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon is absolutely hilarious. The Spectacular Now is one of the most realistic teen movies we've seen. Afternoon Delight is a sharp comedy that goes to some very bleak places. Francois Ozon's Jeune & Jolie explores the very touchy topic of teen prostitution from an offbeat perspective that forces us to think. Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie uses the cyclist's 2009 comeback attempt to frame a detailed story of doping and deception. The British thriller Blackwood adds a clever twist to the ghost horror genre. And the Polish drama Floating Skyscrapers tackles machismo and homophobia from a startling angle.

Meanwhile: We had a very late press screening for the disappointing online-casino thriller Runner Runner, starring Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and an underused Gemma Arterton. And I also caught up with the schlocker Sharknado before its UK release next week: funniest bad movie ever!

This coming week, I have at least two Raindance movies: the Latin drama The Critic and the British comedy Convenience. LFF screenings include Robert Redford in All Is Lost, the comedy Drinking Buddies, the British rom-com Hello Carter, the animated/live-action hybrid The Congress, Bernard Rose's SX_Tape, the French drama Stranger by the Lake and the doc Teenage. And for everyday movies, we have the Stallone-Schwarzenegger thriller Escape Plan, the horror remake We Are What We Are and the Alec Baldwin/James Toback doc Seduced & Abandoned.