Monday, 31 March 2014

FLARE 5: Family ties

The 28th BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival came to a close last night with the Sundance and Berlin winner 52 Tuesdays, presented at the screening by director Sophie Hyde before we all wandered down the road for another raucous festival party. The films this year have been remarkably strong, with several films being picked up for mainstream distribution over the coming months. And as always, the best thing about this festival is the chance to hang out at BFI Southbank meeting filmmakers, actors and other industry friends to chat about the movies and life in general. If only life was like this all the time! Although at my age the nightly parties take their toll! Here are some final programme highlights...

52 Tuesdays
dir Sophie Hyde; with Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane 14/Aus ****
Del Herbert-Jane Shot over a year exactly as depicted in the narrative, this film has a strikingly realistic approach to its story, letting events and personalities blossom in unexpected directions. And even though it's set out as an exploration of gender identity and family connections, the film actually turns out to be a remarkable exploration of adolescence. Set in Adelaide, the film centres on teen Billie (Cobham-Hervey) who goes to live with her dad (Beau Travis Williams) for a year while her mum Jane (Herbert-Jane - above with Cobham Hervey) transitions into James. But they meet each Thursday to stay in each others' lives. Along with their changing relationship, Billie makes two new friends (Imogen Archer and Sam Althuizen) who challenge her to push her own limits. And this is where filmmaker Hyde (right with BFI Flare programmers) cleverly throws us off balance, as we realise that Billie is going through exactly the same issues every teen must deal with, and her mother's sexuality and gender has little to do with any of that. All of this is shot with an earthy, natural approach that really gets under our skin.

The Last Match 
dir Antonio Hens; with Milton Garcia, Reinier Diaz 13/Cub **** 
This Cuban drama tackles some big issues with honesty and sensitivity, even if the clanking gears of the plot begin to feel like a distraction in the final act. But the film has a sunny, gritty tone that gives us a remarkable glimpse at life in Havana, including a culture that makes it tricky to be yourself. It centres on Yosvani and Reinier (Garcia and Diaz) who play together on a local football team. Yosva is engaged to his girlfriend (Beatriz Mendez) and lives with her black market trader dad (Luis Alberto Garcia); while Rei has a wife (Jenifer Rodriguez) and baby and lives with his feisty mother-in-law (Mirtha Ibarra). So when there's a spark of attraction between the boys, they immediately reject it. Although Yosva finds it difficult when he realises that Rei sleeps with male tourists for cash ("I'm not gay," he insists, and indeed his mother-in-law encourages him). The relationship between these two guys is subtle and realistic, then a distracting loan-shark plot-thread takes over the final act. It's not remotely necessary, pushing the narrative in moralising directions that tell us more about Cuba's movie industry (and its society) than the filmmaker probably realises.

dir-scr Hilton Lacerda; with Irandhir Santos, Jesuita Barbosa 13/Br ****. 
Bursting with energy and passion, this lively Brazilian period drama expands to cover a variety of characters and storylines as well as both artistic and political themes. And it comes together like a visceral symphony in which flawed people find their voices in ways we don't always expect. Set in 1978 Recife, it centres on a lively theatre troupe that's always in trouble with the dictatorship government for its radical programming. And things get a bit personal when the show's host (Santos) falls for a young soldier (Barbosa). The main idea of the film is that sexuality isn't nearly as cut and dried as we would like it to be. Putting people into boxes never works, and it's even more dangerous when we try to force ourselves into one. These ideas play out in a plot that's messy and boisterous, allowing the characters to really grapple with their own journeys, which stubbornly refuse to travel in predictable directions. The film is packed with hugely entertaining musical numbers and the kind of crowded, unpredictable plot that holds our attention. And these are such complex characters that it's impossible not to see ourselves in here.

dir-scr Marco Berger; with Manuel Vignau, Mateo Chiarino 13/Arg ****
Like Berger's previous films Plan B and Absent, this gentle drama takes an askance look at attraction between men who perhaps aren't quite ready to take the plunge, as it were. Beautifully shot and edited with a patiently escalating pace, the film pulls us in to a story we can easily identify with. It's set over a summer as two young men (Vignau and Chiarino) who knew each other as young boys reacquaint themselves with each other and try to ignore the creeping attraction they now feel for each other. Berger has a special skill for capturing the physicality between men who are struggling to fit into the macho side of Argentine society. Furtive glances, awkward touches, hesitant conversations all add up to a powerful mix of unacknowledged attraction, both lust and something potentially deeper. And the cast is terrific at capturing this subtlety, as well as the insecurities these men feel about themselves.

The Out List
dir Timothy Greenfield-Sanders; with Dustin Lance Black, Ellen DeGeneres 13/US **** 
A series of 16 openly gay men and women chat to the camera about the issues they feel strongly about. Most resonant is Black, whose military/Mormon/Texan background gives him an unusual perspective to go with his emotional passion about the issues. And his comments are echoed in striking ways by familiar faces like Degeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Wanda Sykes, Wade Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Jake Shears. Each has a very personal story that holds our attention and puts the focus on equality in society. Even so, the film as a whole feels a bit simplistic and over-thought - why not let these people express themselves by where they are speaking rather tin front of an this anonymous grey wall? Still, it has real power in what these people have to say, which makes it essential viewing. And it would make a great ongoing YouTube series.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

FLARE 4: Life's a beach

Well, the weekend is here and we're back in party mode at BFI Flare, which wraps up on Sunday night. There's been a great atmosphere at the Southbank over the past week, with an open and friendly collection of all kinds of people. And there's a celebratory feeling too as England equalised marriage for gay and straight couples at midnight on Friday night. Here are some more programme highlights...

Reaching for the Moon
dir Bruno Barreto; with Miranda Otto, Gloria Pires 13/Br ***.
This beautifully made Brazilian drama tells a true story with sensitivity, bringing real people to life with a spark of personality. It's all a bit melodramatic, with surging emotions and soulful torment on every side. But it gives us an insightful glimpse into a momentous time and place. Set in 1951, it's the story of American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Otto), who travels to Rio to visit her university pal (Tracy Middendorf), who's living in idyllic splendour with her girlfriend, the noted architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Pires - pictured above with Otto). And it's the growing connection between Elizabeth and Lota that fuels the movie, complete with mercurial mood swings and deep jealousies. The plot takes some dark turns along the way that feel a bit overplayed, but Otto and Pires are terrific, as are the gorgeous Brazilian settings and the political and historical touches that give the film a sharp period context.

dir-scr Chris Mason Johnson; with Scott Marlowe, Matthew Risch 13/US ****
Set in 1985 San Francisco, this involving drama captures a brief period in time with sharp introspection, focusing on characters who aren't sure how to react to the advent of Aids and the first possibility to test for HIV infection. Although in many ways the film works better as an internal journey than as an Aids drama, it's strong physicality is haunting. The movie focuses closely on Frankie (Marlowe), a young dancer who freaks out when he thinks he has a cold - after all, that's how it began with Rock Hudson! Through his interaction with fellow dancers, specifically the more sexually outgoing Todd (Risch), Frankie finds the inner strength to admit his fears and do something about it. This story is so locked in its time and place that it's tricky to see the relevance today, and sometimes filmmaker Johnson gets a bit preachy about safe sex issues. But he also keeps everything grounded and natural, letting the actors faces say more than the dialog. And the dance milieu adds a terrific physicality to the whole film.

My Prairie Home 
dir-scr Chelsea McMullan; with Rae Spoon 13/Can ****
With a sharp sense of humour and innovative filmmaking, this documentary uses all kinds of witty touches to tell the story of musician Rae Spoon, who talks about growing up in a strongly religious home in Calgary as a person of indeterminate gender. Yes, Rae is neither a he nor a she, and chooses to use neutral pronouns, which means we should refer to Rae as "them". But Rae is also a gifted music who expresses their life story through songs that blend a country music style with hints of grunge and punk. Meanwhile, filmmaker McMullan shoots these scenes with loads of style, hilariously depicting the lyrics in ways that are strikingly telling and bring out both the knowing absurdity of Rae's poetic observations as well as the everyday truths we can all identify with. This makes the film both wonderfully entertaining and strikingly important.

dir-scr Malcolm Ingram; with Steve Ostrow, Edmund White 13/US ****
Telling the story of New York's iconic Continental Baths, this documentary is a remarkably entertaining look at a transformative community centre that launched the careers of the likes of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. The focal point is owner Steve Ostrow, a colourful figure whose life took a series of surprising twists and turns before, during and after he ran the club from 1968 to 1974. And in addition to discussing the celebrities who hung out there, Ostrow also observes the way New York society changed around the club over the years. The film is whizzy and energetic, a lot of fun to watch due to the terrific archive footage and eye-opening anecdotes. And it also has something important to say about America's obsessive attempts to control people's bodies by prohibiting sex. And more than that, the film clearly shows how important gay culture is in society at large.

Stranger by the Lake
dir-scr 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 >

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

FLARE 3: Apples and oranges

On these mid-week days during the 28th BFI Flare film festival, I take a bit of a break from the festivities, watching films without indulging in the parties! I have to build my strength for the weekend that's coming, right? Here are some more programme highlights...

dir-scr Kyle Patrick Alvarez; with Jonathan Groff, Denis O'Hare 13/US ***
Based on a David Sedaris essay, this isn't so much a coming-of-age story as an odyssey in which a young man takes himself apart and tries to reassemble himself into something new. It's warm and full of darkly suggestive shadows, but filmmaker Alvarez never gives us the puzzle pieces that would make it resonate... FULL REVIEW >

Age of Consent 
dir-scr Charles Lum, Todd Verow; with Kurt Striegler, Guy Patrick Irwin 14/UK ****
This hilariously deadpan doc opens the door on something most people would describe as obscene, exploring London's original fetish club The Hoist. But the filmmakers expand beyond the bar itself to grapple with legal issues in the UK and the impact of HIV and Aids on the gay subculture. And of course the bigger issue of a personal pursuit of happiness. Since 1996, The Hoist has offered Londoners a German-style industrial bar, and the filmmakers take us on a tour of the empty venue (with rather explicit cutaways showing us what goes on here). Each person interviewed talks in a matter-of-fact way about their job, their personal experiences and how society has slowly shifted around the venue, perhaps hinting that its days are numbered. The ultimate message is that we should enjoy our liberty while we have it. Which is a more provocative and far more important statement than we expect from a witty 88-minute documentary about a leather bar.

Big Words 
dir-scr Neil Drumming; with Dorian Missick, Gbenga Akinnagbe 13/US ***.
This sensitive, straight-talking drama is packed with strong comments on issues that are both deeply personal and hugely important in society. Without coming to any glib conclusions, filmmaker Drumming and his adept cast tackle the kinds of things most men are terrified to talk about. So while it's an engaging story, it's also pretty strong stuff. Set on election day in November 2008, the film follows three men who have lost touch with each other for 15 years. Formerly in a rap group together, they've never properly dealt with their feelings about what broke them apart. And it takes some outsiders to help them both confront each other and move on. Performances are raw and natural, with energetic spikiness (Yaya Alafia is particularly engaging as a brainy stripper who relentlessly challenges Missick's down-at-heel lyricist). All of this is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, but the approach constantly challenges our preconceptions.

dir Marcel Gisler; with Sibylle Brunner, Fabian Kruger 13/Swi ****
An intriguing exploration of past regrets and bad decisions in relationships, this Swiss drama drags on as it tells its story, but remains introspective and involving. And it has a lot to say about facing up to the truth and allowing yourself to move on with life. Rosie (Brunner) is a feisty woman who, after having a minor stroke, is suddenly back in the life of her busy children. Lorenz (Kruger) is a single gay novelist struggling to write something as brilliant as his debut, while Sophie (Judith Hoffmann) has a difficult husband and teen son to deal with. Most of Rosie's care falls to the 39-year-old Lorenz, who travels regularly to rural Switzerland from his home in Berlin. It takes quite a long time for each of these characters to realise what they really need to do to make their lives work, and the plot kind of meanders in circles before it finds focus in the final scenes. But it's thoughtful and introspective, with some surprisingly tough, darkly moving scenes along the way.

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 >

Monday, 24 March 2014

FLARE 2: Surprising connections

It was a weekend of parties at the 28th BFI Flare film festival - and they show no signs of stopping for the rest of the week. Much of this involves networking with filmmakers, critics and actors, which is great fun, and makes a nice change from the usual day-to-day business of watching movies then spending hours writing about them alone at my desk. But during a festival I have swathes of time to kill between screenings, so I enjoy getting to know people visiting from all over the world. Yesterday I even had a couple of hours to walk along the river in the sunshine and take in a gallery or two at the Tate Modern. Anyway, here are more programme highlights...

dir Bruce La Bruce; with Pier-Gabriel Lajoie, Walter Borden 13/Can ****
Bruce LaBruce is working dangerously close to the mainstream in this gentle drama with romantic overtones. But even though there isn't a monster in sight, the film includes some of LaBruce's trademark jolts, not least in how the provocative subject matter is treated with unnerving honesty. It's about a young guy named Lake (Lajoie), who is startled to discover that he's attracted to geriatric men, specifically 81-year-old Melvyn (Borden, pictured above with Lajoie during a drunken game of strip poker). Intriguingly LaBruce frames this in an everyday style, focussing more on Lake's voyage of self-discovery than the transgressive sexuality. Even his girlfriend (Katie Boland) feels that this shift makes Lake a revolutionary saint. The film is a bit rough around the edges, but it's beautifully acted and shot and edited in a way that makes it thoughtful and warmly engaging.

The Passion of Michelangelo
dir Esteban Larrain; with Sebastian Ayala, Patricio Contreras 13/Chl ***.
With the aesthetic of a Pasolini film, this Chilean drama tells the true story of 14-year-old Miguel Angel (the astonishing Ayala), who in 1983 became nationally famous for his visions of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by a variety of miracles. But in the shadows he was being manipulated by Pinochet's government, which was trying to distract the populace from street protests. The film slightly muddles the story, forcing us to work to make much sense out of events that feel fragmented and a bit random. But as we think about it, the story worms its way under the skin as a telling exploration of misplaced religious fervour and cynical political manipulation.

The Punk Singer
dir Sini Anderson; with Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz 13/US ***.
Lively and insightful, this biographical documentary traces the life of feminist punk artist Kathleen Hanna, a strikingly strong voice in the music scene from the 1990s until her sudden retirement in 2005. The film kind of races through the story, but is thoroughly engaging and ultimately inspirational in ways we don't expect. What makes it worth a look is the way it tells the story of a musical movement that has never quite been in the mainstream, but has had a major impact on the rest of the pop world. And as its catalyst, Hanna is a staggeringly important figure whose impact is still being felt. There's also a strikingly moving sidestory about Hanna's marriage to Beastie Boy Horovitz, who has been at her side through a very difficult illness that also rarely makes the headlines.

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 >

Flare Shorts
I saw three shorts programmes over the weekend - 16 films in all ranging from 3 to 30 minutes long. Standouts include: Mathilde Bayle's The Swimming Trunks, a strikingly daring exploration of pre-sexuality; Christophe Predari's Human Warmth, a sensual, inventive look at lingering attraction; Mike Hoolboom's eerily moving Buffalo Death Mask, a nostalgic trip through the Aids epidemic; Stephen Dunn & Peter Knegt's Good Morning, a light morning-after comedy with a warm sting; and Mark Pariselli's Monster Mash, a hilarious riff on horror movies. Honourable mention goes to Laura Scrivano's one-man monologue The Language of Love and Karol Radziszewski's photographer doc Kisieland.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
Along with the festival, critics still have the usual releases to watch. Screenings this week included slightly uneven the franchise launcher Divergent, which at least has terrific performances from Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet. Two slightly underwhelming sequels were both sillier and less snappy than the originals: Muppets Most Wanted and Rio 2. And there was also the astonishing high school black comedy The Dirties and the involving but somewhat dense undersea Scandinavian thriller Pioneer.

This coming week, alongside BFI Flare, I'll also be watching Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic Noah, the Greek action epic The Legend of Hercules, the Pierce Brosnan comedy The Love Punch, Juliette Binoche in A Thousand Times Good Night, Kristen Scott Thomas in Before the Winter Chill, the British comedy Downhill and the Mexican drama The Golden Dream.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

FLARE 1: First steps

The 28th BFI Flare (previously known as the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival) kicked off Thursday night with the European premiere of Lilting, the Ben Whishaw drama that won the cinematography award at Sundance in January. London writer-director Hong Khaou was on hand for a Q&A along with Whishaw and cast members Naomi Christie (pictured above with Whishaw and below with everyone after the screening), Andrew Leung, Peter Bowles and Morven Christie. And everyone went on to the kick-off party at Pulse.

There were more parties on Friday, with networking drinks for delegates followed by a fabulous disco in the Riverfront Bar. Also on Friday, I had a lively interview director Darren Stein and actor Michael Willett who are here with their comedy G.B.F., and I'm looking forward to seeing them again at the film's big party on Sunday. I'm not sure how many of these late nights I can endure before I collapse in a heap, but I'll give it a good go! Here are some programme highlights for Friday and Saturday...

dir-scr Hong Khaou; with Ben Whishaw, Cheng Pei-pei 14/UK ****.
With the same delicate approach to character interaction as he showed in his shorts Summer and Spring, filmmaker Khaou creates a drama that skims right along that line between brittle denial and warm emotional catharsis. It's an astonishing drama that carries us deep into the situation, forcing us to think both about the details and the much bigger picture. At the centre are two people struggling to find a way to connect. After the sudden death of her son Kai (Andrew Leung in seamlessly lyrical flashbacks), Junn (Cheng) feels trapped in her nursing home, having never learned English during all her years living in London. Then Kai's boyfriend Richard (Whishaw) reaches out to her, hiring an interpreter (Naomi Christie) to help her communicate both with him and with a man (Peter Bowles) she's met in the home. But Kai had never come out to his mother, and Richard tries to respect that as long as he can. Both Whishaw and Cheng deliver staggeringly transparent performances that let us see their thoughts and feelings in every scene, even though they're incapable of expressing them. The film has an effortless lightness, with a beautiful sense of both photography and editing that gently carry us through the story using earthy humour and raw emotions that never get remotely sentimental. A real stunner.

dir Darren Stein; with Michael J Willett, Paul Iacono 13/US ****
Like a special episode of Glee without the songs, this colourful and often very silly comedy takes on some big themes without getting heavy handed about them. Even the "what I learned" speech at the end is undermined in a way that makes it both resonant and meaningful... FULL REVIEW >

Last Summer
dir-scr Mark Thiedeman; with Samuel Pettit, Sean Rose 13/US *.
This nostalgic drama is achingly artful but so indulgent that it never lets us in. Filmmaker Thiedeman's camera floats over tanned young skin in ways that are never remotely sexy: it's like flicking through a book of pretty photos. There's a decent story here, but Thiedeman is more interested in moods and images than exploring human connections. Set in rural Arkansas, the film centres on unambitious teen Luke (Pettit), who's struggling just to graduate from high school while his brainy boyfriend Jonah (Rose) looks ahead to a bright university career. The idea of these lifelong partners being separated should spark some emotion, but Thiedeman pretentiously focuses instead on glistening leaves (echoes of Malick) and achingly long establishing shots (a la von Trier) that leave the film feeling like an extended A&F advert. So in the end they're just bodies without personalities.

dir-scr Linda Bloodworth-Thomason; with Shane Bitney Crone, Tom Bridegroom 13/US ****
Hugely emotional from the very beginning as it chronicles the love story between two young men, this documentary begins as the moving but unremarkable narrative of a real tragedy then shifts into a staggeringly personal statement about a political reality. The pungent question is: why were these men never allowed to properly love each other? Filmmaker Bloodworth-Thomason keeps the pace brisk, with tight editing and a focus on the people and their emotional reactions to everything that happens. Shane is at the centre of the film, talking about the senseless accidental death of the love of his life, Tom Bridegroom. It's sad but hardly noteworthy, although the filmmaking draws us in long before events take the strongly topical turn that makes the film resonate in an almost overwhelming way. By the end, there isn't a dry eye in the house - yes, this doc carries a serious punch, as well as a hugely important statement about love and family. As Shane asks, "Why do the people who were supposed to love Tom the most fight so much against who he was."

Behind the Candelabra
dir Steven Soderbergh; with Michael Douglas, Matt Damon 13/US ****.
Much more than a biopic about Liberace, this expertly assembled film recounts a true love story in a way we rarely see on-screen: with honest humour, real feeling and startling insight. It also boasts quite possibly the most camp production design ever... FULL REVIEW >

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Critical Week: Rogues gallery

One of the more anticipated press screenings this past week was for The Raid 2, Gareth Evans' sequel to his surprise hit. Although this time he ditches the gritty, linear narrative for a Hong Kong-style corruption epic. There are spectacular moments, although at two and a half hours it's somewhat exhausting. Even bigger (but barely half as long), Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the next episode in Marvel's big-screen serial, with grittier action but less suspense.

Fan-funded mystery Veronica Mars will either give closure to the truncated TV series' cult following or spark a new franchise - it's a lot of fun. An all-star cast makes the Nick Hornby-based comedy-drama A Long Way Down watchable even though it's tonally all over the place. Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return is a weakly animated adventure with an A-list voice cast (Liam Neeson, Lea Michele, Patrick Stewart) and a surprisingly strong plot.

There were also two films from Ireland: John Michael McDonagh's Calvary has the same laconic wit as The Guard, but with even deeper themes, while The Stag is a surprisingly involving bachelor-party comedy with serious edges. The independent American black comedy How to Be a Man has its moments but tries to hard to be rude and wacky, while the German drama Lose Your Head has engaging characters, but never makes much of its intriguing plot.

This coming week, screenings include the franchise wannabe Divergent, the sequels Muppets Most Wanted and Rio 2, Ben Whishaw in the British drama Lilting, the Scandinavian thriller Pioneer and the notorious Canadian black comedy The Dirties. Thursday also sees the opening night of the 28th BFI Flare, one of London's biggest and most important festivals, which runs 20-30 March. Updates on the way...

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Critical Week: A song for Frank

London critics got a chance to catch up with this year's Sundance sensation, Lenny Abrahamson's Frank, starring Michael Fassbender wearing a giant papier-mache head. Yes, it's as offbeat and arty as it sounds, but also surprisingly warm and endearing, with terrific performances from Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy. The other big movie was Hossein Amini's subtly involving and very twisty thriller  The Two Faces of January, starring Viggo Mortensen, Kristin Dunst and Oscar Isaac, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel.

Only slightly further afield, C.O.G. is a dark, introspective drama starring Looking's Jonathan Goff as a guy trying to run from his own shadow. Khumba is an engaging, colourfully animated South African feature, with a somewhat compromised plot about a geeky zebra. Cheap Thrills is an escalating exercise in finding the audience's breaking point - a very clever, hard-to-watch black comedy. Awful Nice is an awkwardly written comedy with some telling observations. And The Punk Singer is a lively, insightful doc about feminist punk, centring on the iconic Kathleen Hanna.

The big films screening this coming week are the Marvel sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the TV show reunion Veronica Mars and the black comedy A Long Way Down. There are two Irish films - Brendan Gleeson in Calvary and Andrew Scott in The Stag; the Indonesian action-sequel The Raid 2; Chiwetel Ejiofor in Half of a Yellow Sun; the black comedy How to Be a Man; the animated adventure Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return; and something called Patema Inverted.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Critical Week: All rise

Yes, the big movie this week for critics was the sequel 300: Rise of an Empire, which isn't much of an improvement on the simplistic original film, but fans who like these kinds of effects-based romps (and screens full of almost naked men) will love it. A little further from the mainstream, Hair Brained is a young-genius-at-university comedy that has surprising depth, while Stephen Sommers' Odd Thomas is a quirky comedy-thriller that gets under the skin. There were also two animated features: Hayao Miyazaki's astounding Oscar-nominated animated biopic The Wind Rises, a proper movie with real characters and situations that makes Hollywood studios' formulaic animation and plotting look rather pathetic. And the Spanish animated feature Wrinkles is equally grown-up with its engaging story of pensioners bored with life in a nursing home.

It was also a week for documentaries, including the Oscar-winning Twenty Feet From Stardom, the fiercely uplifting story of iconic background singers that also takes an intriguing look at civil rights. Also Oscar-nominated, Dirty Wars takes a much gloomier look at America, revealing the dark truth about the president's black-ops programme. It's honest and razor sharp, never rabble-rousing and yet deeply depressing. Errol Morris' haunting The Unknown Known also delves into the halls of power as it interviews Donald Rumsfeld about his two controversial stints as defence secretary. And Bridegroom tells a staggeringly involving personal story that touches on America's current inequalities. Equally empowering but without being grim, Next Goal Wins follows the loveable but perpetually losing ragtag American Samoa football team to a historic first victory.

Sunday night's Oscars delivered no surprises (I only missed one prediction), even if most categories could have gone multiple ways. The ceremony itself was good fun, with Ellen's hilarious audience participation antics (serving pizza and taking this twitter-busting selfie) and some marvellously rambling thank yous (Jared Leto gave the best speech). But the "Heroes" theme didn't resonate at all, Will Smith was a strange let-down to present Best Picture (where was George Clooney when we needed him?), and aside from Pharrell's deliriously Happy opening number, the music was eerily downbeat, scraping the bottom of the barrel by dragging lovely Bette Midler out to sing her exhausted Wind Beneath My Wings. Otherwise, it was a great night, capped by Steve McQueen's jubilant, deserving triumph.

This coming week's screenings include Michael Fassbender in Frank, Viggo Mortensen in The Two Faces of January, Todd Sklar's black comedy Awful Nice, the festival favourite Cheap Thrills, the animated Zebra romp Khumba and the bio-doc The Punk Singer. Among other things...

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Out on a limb: Oscar picks and predictions

This year's Oscar race is the most wide open competition in years - it's hard to remember when there were so many categories that could go one of two (or even three) ways, and this year only Best Actress is a true lock.

I'll be watching the ceremony Sunday night in London with a gang of critics and friends in a pub that's staying open all night for us. Of course, the ceremony kicks off at 1am British time and finishes around 5am, so Monday isn't going to be too terribly coherent for me! But I plan to live-tweet right through the red carpet and the ceremony.

Below are the ways I think the wind is blowing this year. I will be hoping for upsets and surprises, as always. I should also admit that I hope Gravity only wins in the craft categories, where it belongs. The film is astonishing technical genius, but let's be honest: the script makes it the least of the nine Best Picture nominees.

Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Could win: Gravity
Dark horse/should win: American Hustle

Will win: Alfonso Cuaron
Could/should win: Steve McQueen

Will/should win: Cate Blanchett
Dark horse: Amy Adams

Will win: Matthew McConaughey
Could/should win: Chiewtel Ejiofor
Dark horse: Leonardo DiCaprio

Supporting Actress
Will/should win: Lupita Nyong'o
Could win: Jennifer Lawrence

Supporting Actor
Will/should win: Jared Leto
Could win: Barkhad Abdi

Original Screenplay
Will/should win: American Hustle
Could win: Her

Adapted Screenplay
Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Could/should win: Philomena

Foreign-language Film
Will win: The Great Beauty
Could/should win: The Broken Circle Breakdown

Will win: Twenty Feet From Stardom
Could/should win: The Act of Killing

Animated Feature
Will win: Frozen
Could/should win: The Wind Rises

Will win: Gravity
Should win: Her or Philomena

Cinematography/Film Editing/Effects/Sound Mixing/Sound Editing
Will/should win: Gravity

Production Design/Costumes
Will win: The Great Gatsby
Should win: American Hustle