Thursday, 29 October 2015

A visit to Twin Peaks

Extended until 21st November, The Owls Are Not What They Seem is a Twin Peaks fan experience in Central London that plays on the 25-year-old TV series' now iconic imagery and characters. It's interactive and immersive, with a terrific cast of characters and a range of food and drink inspired by the show.

On arrival, you're given an identity. I had come as my Twin Peaks alter-ego One-eyed Jack, and there I was told I was a "self-medicating divorcee" with a small task to carry out. Ushered into a diner, we were given what looked like a cup of coffee but what actually a coffee cocktail, followed by three courses of rather witty food - from another coffee-themed bowl of soup (with savoury dipping donuts) to a breakfast-style main course and of course cherry pie with a caraway twist at the end.

The inventive food is provided by Blanch & Shock, while the entire experience is created by Lemonade and Laughing Gas. Actors playing variations on the series' characters continually appear to improvise some riotously funny drama, leading us into other areas of the sprawling site, including a cocktail bar with some rather seedy rooms off to the side, and a road house with a live show (including a fire eater). Along the way I was arrested by a thug who had been deputised. And I had several hand-made cocktails courtesy of the sponsor Wild Turkey Bourbon.

While this installation isn't officially linked to Twin Peaks or David Lynch, it's packed with references that will send chills up fans' spines. I particularly enjoyed the long red-curtained corridor, in which I of course had to do a little dwarf dance of joy.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that I was a huge fan of the show in 1990-1991. I first saw the pilot as a movie projected in a vast cinema at the Miami Film Festival, and was glued to the series as it unfolded. In the summer of 1991, I visited relatives in Seattle and took a drive to Snoqualmie, where the show was filmed, seeing that sinister waterfall first hand and having some damn fine pie and coffee at the real Double-R diner. I was also a card-carrying member of Operation Pine Weasel, writing letters and campaigning to save the show from cancellation. We were successful after the first season, but when the show became more obtuse in the second year, nothing we could do would save it.

And now David Lynch is reassembling the cast for a new season that is scheduled to be broadcast in 2017. To prepare for this evening, I binge watched 15 of the 30 shows that were made - and I had forgotten that the red curtained room scenes were set "25 years later", which is now. 


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Critical Week: A cry for help

Jennifer Connelly gives a storming performance in Shelter, written and directed by her husband Paul Bettany and costarring the excellent Anthony Mackie. The film tries to say too much about homelessness, but the drama is involving and the themes important. I've tried to keep this week a bit slow screening-wise, but caught the British comedy A Christmas Star, a goofy romp in the vein of the Nativity! movies - in other words, almost charming enough to make up for its silliness. And The Hallow is an Irish horror about a family that finds sludgy demons living in the woods. It's enjoyably yucky, but not very scary.

But of course the big film of the week was Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed because it combines the darkly personal elements of Skyfall with old-style 007 storytelling. And for sheer wonder, I have binge-watched the entire first series of David Lynch and Mark Frost's 25-year-old classic gonzo mystery Twin Peaks and am now diving into the second, which I know will remember was more troublingly surreal. I hadn't seen the show since it originally aired 1990-1992, when I participated in Operation Pine Weasel to save the show from cancellation! On Wednesday evening I'm attending the London diner/bar experience The Owls Are Not What They Seem - and I'll cover it here later this week.

I'm preparing for a break in November, so have a few films to catch up with over the next week, including awards-season contenders like Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies and Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, as well as the horror comedy Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse, the South African heist movie Momentum and the drag-queen doc Queen of Ireland.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Critical Week: Beardy men unite!

That's Vin Diesel in the photo above. Yes, really. He's going a rather decent Tom Hardy impression in the olde worlde scenes in his new franchise hopeful The Last Witch Hunter, which was screened to London press on Monday only a couple of days before it opens in cinemas. Whether that franchise materialises depends on the audience's appetite for a batty supernatural thriller that mixes Game of Thrones with Underworld. But it got a lot of laughs from the critics!

Most of the films I watched over the previous week were London Film Festival offerings. Some of these have release dates coming up, including Danny Boyle's exhilarating Steve Jobs starring Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet; Jack Black in the manic comedy-horror romp Goosebumps; Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford in the true journalism drama Truth; the artful, surprisingly moving documentary The Fear of 13, about a man on death row; and Jafar Panahi's Taxi Tehran, his superbly mischievous third film as a banned filmmaker in Iran.

Tomorrow comes the first press screening of one of the year's most anticipated movies, Sam Mendes' Spectre, starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. I've also got the British comedy A Christmas Star in the diary, as well as Josh Duhamel in Lost in the Sun and the pre-apocalyptic Mexican buddy movie Velociraptor. I'm also planning to binge watch the entire old series of David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks in preparation for a press trip to The Owls Are Not What They Seem, a themed cafe-club night in a secret London location. Watch this space for a full report!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Shadows on the Stage: Riffing on a classic

dir-scr Phil Willmott
Above The Stag Theatre, Vauxhall • 14.Oct-15.Nov

A loose riff on David Lean's classic 1947 film Brief Encounter, writer-director Phil Willmott's play sets out to imagine the way the story might have unfolded if the movie's gay screenwriter Noel Coward had been able to write it about two men instead. So the whole thing is a bit gimmicky by definition, sometimes straining to make a witty reference or political comment. But it's an intriguing idea with lots of possibility.

It's also an involving story on its own, using present-day scenes to frame a late-1940s story about a doctor (Adam Lilley) and a station agent (Alexander Huetson) whose schedules converge every Thursday afternoon on the platform at Vauxhall (insert inside joke here), so they begin to hang out together, talking about their wives and children and trying not to acknowledge the illicit attraction they feel for each other. Until they do, flinging open a can of worms the original film never even peeks into.

This open acknowledgement of sexuality at a time when being gay was illegal adds a major kick to the story, even though addressing it head on begins to undermine the emotional power. Unlike Brief Encounter, which can leave a viewer in tears even on the 10th viewing, this play only musters a lump in the throat.

The four-person cast dive in with plenty of personality. Lilley has an offhanded, authentic intelligence and wit as Larry, a doctor with a respectable career and a family that seems happy to everyone but Larry and his stoic wife (Penelope Day, who doubles as the station's sassy newsagent). Opposite him, Huetson brings considerable masculine charm as the likeable railway employee Arthur, although he sometimes overplays his internal feelings. The chemistry between them zings from the moment they meet. The fourth cast member is Chris Hines, who plays both the disapproving priest and an alert police constable.

The nicely crafted set might be too complex for such a small space, representing a wide range of settings with more detail than was strictly necessary. But the black and white design is clever, and the lighting nicely augments the shifting moods. And if the musical underscore sometimes feels somewhat pushy, at least this theatre has finally found a show that incorporates the sound of trains rumbling overhead. And also one that's packed with themes that still echo around this particular corner of London. And the whole world for that matter.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

LFF 12: Sail away

The 59th London Film Festival came to an end this evening with the gala screening of Steve Jobs. But before that, Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier (above) walked off with the award for best film. Annoyingly that was one of the films on my need-to-see list that I didn't manage to see (it's impossible to see everything).

Once again, the LFF proved itself a rather harsh atmosphere for the press - unlike most festivals in the world, we have to pay dearly for our accreditation, and there are no parties, no freebies, just lots of great movies, usually showing five at a time so you have to choose carefully what you see. It's pretty exhausting, but the programme is an excellent compendium of the year's top festivals, so it's a great way to catch up. Here are the prize winners, my favourites, and a couple more highlights...


Doc (Grierson Award): SHERPA
First Feature (Sutherland Award): THE WITCH
BFI Fellowship: Cate Blanchett
BFI Ambassador: Tom Hiddleston

  1. CAROL
  2. ROOM

Steve Jobs
dir Danny Boyle; with Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet 15/US ****.
Whether this film is an accurate portrait of the eponymous Apple founder is frankly irrelevant. This is a storming example of the power of cinema to tell a story with complexity and invention. Every element works together to carry the audience through the narrative using just three key scenes that would actually play well on-stage. But the way it's shot and edited adds layers of depth... MORE >

dir Rob Letterman; with Jack Black, Dylan Minnette 15/US ***
Like Jumanji on steroids, this action-horror romp packs the screen with animated mayhem swirling around an established comedian and a cast of plucky kids. The breathless pace holds the attention, boosted by surprisingly sophisticated gags peppered all the way through. But while working overtime to keep the audience entertained, it undermines every serious point it pretends to make... MORE >

Saturday, 17 October 2015

LFF 11: Surprise us

The surprise film at this year's London Film Festival was Anomalisa, and directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, plus actor David Thewlis, were on hand to present their film to the audience. Alas, I wasn't able to attend this year, so I'll have to wait until the film is screened to the press prior to its UK release. Meanwhile, the parade on the red carpet is continuing with tonight's awards ceremony, at which Cate Blanchett will be presented the BFI Fellowship. The last day of the festival is tomorrow, and it will be all about Michael Fassbender. Here are a few more highlights...

dir James Vanderbilt; with Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford 15/US ****
Cate Blanchett's gives yet another storming performance in this smart, enlightening backstage drama about the 2004 scandal at CBS News, which ended the career of iconic newscaster Dan Rather. Like a populist blending of The Newsroom with Good Night and Good Luck, the film is talky and a bit too obvious in the points it makes, but it's also important...  MORE >

Ruben Guthrie
dir Brendan Cowell; with Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades 15/Aus ****
It seems obvious that an Australian filmmaker would make a movie about alcoholism into a blackly hilarious comedy. What's surprising here is that the serious undercurrents are just as pungent, and that the film never slips into the usual simplistic approach to the topic. As a result, it's both entertaining and thought provoking.

dir Sebastian Schipper; with Laia Costa, Frederick Lau 15/Ger ****.
German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper took a big risk shooting this epic romantic thriller in a single unbroken take, and the resulting film not only wows the audience with its technical audacity but also fully engages the emotions. This story of a young expat's two-hour odyssey is genuinely terrifying, darkly touching and thumping entertainment.

From A to B
dir Ali Mostafa; with Fadi Rifaai, Fahad Albutairi 14/UAE ****
This is a lively road movie with an unusually sharp script that combines character-based humour, introspective drama and a sharp sense of the political scene as three 25-year-olds drive from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, recreating a trip they were supposed to take five years earlier. It's also cleverly timely, connecting with political realities while keeping the audience laughing, then hitting us with an emotional whammy.

Friday, 16 October 2015

LFF 10: See the world

The gang from Youth lined up on the red carpet last night at the London Film Festival: Paul Dano, Harvey Keitel, Paloma Faith, Rachel Weisz, Michael Caine and director Paolo Sorrentino. I had a slightly slower day today - just two films and a night off at the theatre! Here are a few more highlights...

dir Jacques Audiard; with Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan 15/Fr ***
With a powerfully topical subject, this drama both grapples with big issues and gives in to some oddly slanted politics that seem to convey a rather lopsided message. It's strikingly well made, with a solid cast and a sometimes startling realism. But filmmaker Jacques Audiard seems to get caught up in both the violence and the unrealistic dreams of refugees.

Taxi Tehran 
dir Jafar Panahi; with Jafar Panahi, Hana, Omid 15/Irn *****
Banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi continues to make sharply clever films that manage to just fit within the rules of his sentence (this is his third). Once again cleverly exploring the nature of filmmaking itself, this film also offers a strikingly earthy, funny exploration of Iranian culture. And human nature.

Gold Coast 
dir Daniel Dencik; with Jakob Oftebro, Danica Curcic 15/Den **.
Beautiful landscapes and an artful, almost experimental approach make the most of this rather pointed drama about colonial Europeans in Africa. Packed with big ideas about how humans bend the laws of nature at their peril, the film is ambitious but also self-important and morally simplistic. And the way the story is told eliminates any opportunity for either narrative kick or emotional resonance.

dir William Fairman, Max Gogarty; with David Stuart, Matt Spike 15/UK ****
An unblinking exploration of one of London's more disturbing drug scenes, this documentary plays on both fascination and distaste for sexual activities that go against the flow. It sometimes feels sensationalised, veering perilously close to Reefer Madness territory, but the issue is real. And what it has to say about both addiction and sexuality is hugely important.

Screen Talk:
Todd Haynes

The filmmaker sat down with festival director Clare Stewart to talk about his work in front of an audience of 450 gripped cineastes. The conversation was extremely literate, as Haynes went into his thought processes, methods and experiences while making Superstar, Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I'm Not There, Mildred Pearce and Carol. He discussed running themes (illness, isolation, societal demands) and recurring actresses - he clearly adores both Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett and offered intriguing insights into the different ways they work. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

LFF 9: Don't be shy

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett were the stars of last night's red carpet premiere of Carol, and Blanchett will be out again on Saturday for the premiere of Truth and to be honoured with the BFI Fellowship at this year's London Film Festival. Tonight's red carpet stars include Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano for Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, and Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan and Kevin Guthrie for Terence Davies' Sunset Song. Here are a more highlights...

dir Paolo Sorrentino; with Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel 15/Italy ****
Gorgeously shot in a spectacular setting and edited with cheeky energy, this atmospheric film has a rather freeform plot exploring age and mortality from unexpected angles. But the characters are so witty and offbeat that they can't help but hold the attention, and writer-director Paolo Sorrentino plays engagingly with artistic ambition and romantic passion to keep the film utterly riveting.

Sunset Song 
dir Terence Davies, with Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan 15/UK ****
Adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic 1932 novel, this is a wrenchingly beautiful look at life in rural Scotland, crafted with real artistry by Terence Davies. The film has an unusually period tone, keeping everything bracingly realistic while observing events from a darkly personal perspective.

Closet Monster 
dir Stephen Dunn; with Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams 15/Can ***.
Filmmaker Stephen Dunn takes a strikingly introspective look into the life of a young boy who feels like his life is spiralling out of control. Beautifully shot and edited, the film mixes artfully stylised flights of fancy with earthy themes that cut to the heart of big issues like bullying and self-loathing. But more than that, this is a thoughtful exploration of someone learning to accept his sexuality.

dir Branden Kramer; with Ashley Benson, Matt McGorry 15/US **
Yet another gimmicky found-footage style movie, this feels more like a polemic about the dangers of webcams than a thriller with a cogent story. While it's slick and unnerving, filmmaker Branden Kramer seems so intrigued by his idea that he completely forgets to establish proper characters or situations. It looks cool and has some solid freak-outs, but never seems to have a point.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

LFF 8: Own the moment

It's was the dame's turn to hit the red carpet at the London Film Festival last night: Maggie Smith out for the European premiere of The Lady in the Van. I've kind of hit the wall today - there hasn't been enough time to see all the films and write about them, perhaps because I'm seeing four movies every day! But tomorrow I only have two in the diary, so that should help restore a sense of balance. Here are some more highlights...

dir Todd Haynes; with Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara 15/US *****
With delicate precision, this story unfolds in a way that's both true to its period and fully relevant now. A beautiful companion piece to director Todd Haynes' own Far From Heaven, this is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about two women trying to live their lives the best they can, but finding themselves against the grain of society. And it carries a powerful kick.

Take Me to the River 
dir Matt Sobel; with Logan Miller, Robin Weigert 15/US ***. 
After starting as a gently witty drama, this film turns dark quickly, sending its central character on an unexpected odyssey. The themes it's exploring are so intense that the film feels creepiest when everyone is smiling broadly. And even though the film is flooded with a sense of foreboding, where it goes is utterly unpredictable.

The Ones Below 
dir David Farr; with Clemence Poesy, Stephen Campbell Moore 15/UK ****
As it puts an infant child in jeopardy, this fiercely clever psychological thriller draws easy comparisons with the iconic The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But this is no schlock horror movie; it's a much more subtle exploration of parental paranoia and urban angst in which every moment is soaked in echoes of impending doom. And screenwriter-turned-director David Farr keeps his wits about him, while scaring us out of ours.

Our Little Sister 
dir Hirokazu Kore-eda; with Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa 15/Jpn ****
Exquisitely observed, this warm and gentle drama prowls around generational relationships without too much plot but plenty of resonant impact. Filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda continues his astute depiction of family interaction with characters are remarkably authentic. And the situations are lively and witty without ever tipping over into melodrama.

dir Jonas Cuaron; with Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan 15/Mex **. 
While this strikingly well-made thriller touches on big issues regarding migration, it ultimately settles for being merely violent, almost wallowing in the hideous immorality of right-wing Americans who believe they should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. This lack of complexity leaves the film superficial and pointless. So forget the subject matter - the filmmakers did - and enjoy this as a ghastly horror thriller.

LFF 7: Run for your life

The London Film Festival is now fully in its stride, dazzling audiences with the best films from the year's festivals while keeping the journalists hopping with an intense schedule of press screenings (I am seeing three or four films a day, others are seeing five or six). Somewhere I'm sure there's something festive happening, but I haven't really spotted it, aside from a press drinks hour the other night at Picturehouse Central's gorgeous new members' bar. And most of the films have been great, including these four...

The Lobster
dir Yorgos Lanthimos; with Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz 15/Ire ****
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) makes his English-language debut with this blackly comical satire about how society pressures us into relationships. It's telling and complex, and it feels like two movies mashed together, plus a very dark coda. But an up-for-it-cast brings out layers of meaning while keeping us laughing brittlely... MORE >;

The Lady in the Van
dir Nicholas Hytner; with Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings 15/UK ****
Alan Bennett adapts his own memoir for the big screen, cleverly playing with the idea that he is writing his own story. Yes, a homeless woman really did live in a van in his driveway for 15 years. And since the great Maggie Smith plays her on-screen, the film is not only entertaining, but its message has a spiky bite. 

The Wave [Bølgen]

dir Roar Uthaug; with Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp 15/Nor ****
Structured exactly like a classic disaster movie, this Norwegian dramatic thriller is particularly well-made, with vivid characters and a believable sense of the science behind it. The premise is a picturesque fjord that has long been at risk of a mountainside collapse, which would trigger a devastating tsunami. And in this solidly crafted, only slightly corny movie, an entire village's day has come.

The Endless River
dir Oliver Hermanus; with Nicolas Duvauchelle, Crystal-Donna Roberts 15/SA ****
A harrowing drama about the cycle of violence in South Africa, this film certainly isn't easy to watch as it continually challenges the viewer's preconceptions. Dark and tough, it's evocative and simply gorgeous to watch, even though the story is relentlessly painful. Filmmaker Hermanus finds real resonance using period-style touches in a present-day story. Although it somewhat heavy and over-serious for some viewers.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L   W E E K

I only had a few of non-LFF screenings this week, including a very late press screening for Guillermo Del Toro's visually ravishing but otherwise disappointing Crimson Peak; the nutty British werewolf thriller Howl; the offbeat Argentine road movie Jess & James; and the acrobatic documentary Grazing the Sky, which is a must see for fans of physical movement. I have a glut of LFF films to come, and won't be back in non-festival mode until after this coming week.

Monday, 12 October 2015

LFF 6: Charm the fans

More glamour on the red carpet last night at the 59th BFI London Film Festival, with the premiere of Black Mass, attended by filmmaker Scott Cooper and actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Depp - who got the crowds cheering. On the red carpet tonight: Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen for Brooklyn; top filmmakers Hirokazu Kore-eda and Hany Abu-Assad; and writer-director Robert Eggers and his entire cast from The Witch. A few more highlights...

dir John Crowley; with Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson 15/Ire ***.
Constantly surging emotions become a little overwhelming very soon after this film opens, never letting up until the very end. Most of this is genuinely resonant, thanks to a sensitive script and transparent performances from the entire cast. But even a slight hint of loose energy wouldn't have gone amiss, and might have helped balance the romantic suds with earthy realism.

From Afar [Desde Allá]
dir Lorenzo Vigas; with Alfredo Castro, Luis Silva 15/Ven ****
Twisty and unexpected, this Venezuelan drama stars acclaimed Chilean actor Alfredo Castro as a lonely man who strikes up a tentative relationship with a young street thug. It's a remarkably involving film, because the characters have so many sides that they lead the audience on a quest for understanding. Equally impressive is how first-time filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas never sensationalises the subject matter.

The Witch 
dir Robert Eggers; with Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson ****
Taking elements from historical accounts that would go on to become classic fairy tales, filmmaker Eggers creates a period movie that plays on our culture's deepest fears. It's also a strikingly well-made horror film, offering eerily realistic settings that are filled with character subtlety, unnerving details and plenty of big jolts. Although genre fans might find its arthouse pacing a bit dull.

My Skinny Sister [Min Lilla Syster]
dir Sanna Lenken; with Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont 15/Swe ***.
Essentially an issue movie, this Swedish drama is effective because it sticks closely to an unusual perspective, drawing out resonant themes in a variety of relationships. The topic is eating disorders, and seeing it through a little sister's  gradually dawning understanding adds unusual angles to the film. Which makes it more involving than expected.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

LFF 5: Enjoy the high-life

Sienna Miller, Tom Hiddleston and Elisabeth Moss were on the red carpet last night at the London Film Festival for the opening of their new film High-Rise. Yes, the parade of filmmakers and stars continues at a fairly brisk clip. As always at the LFF, there are two events going on here: a festive party for VIPs and an intensive film season for everyone else, including the press. This is my 18th year covering the festival, and I have still never been invited to an official LFF party. For me it's about the films, and here are some more highlights...

dir Lenny Abrahamson; with Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay 15/Ire *****
With goosebump-inducing skill, Lenny Abrahamson and novelist-turned-screenwriter Emma Donoghue dig deep beneath a notorious global headline. In the process they tell a story that actually changes the way we see the news. And the use of a young child's perspective gives it undeniable power, especially since every scene is so inventively directed and played

Black Mass
dir Scott Cooper; with Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton 15/US ***
Gritty and muscular, this is the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger played as a rather standard FBI/mob thriller. It's sharply well-made, capturing a strong sense of the period, but nothing about the film sets it apart from the pack. Without an original angle, it feels like the same story of criminal ambition, betrayal and violence that we've seen countless times before... MORE >

Queen of Earth
dir Alex Ross Perry; with Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston 15/US ****
After Listen Up Philip, Perry continues his wilfully arty approach to filmmaking with this florid drama how lifelong friendships flip and slip. Using complex editing and sound, plus a B-movie vibe that indulges in lingering emotive closeups, this observant, expressive film cleverly mixes raw feelings with brittle black humour... MORE >

The Assassin 
dir Hou Hsiao-Hsien; with Qi Shu, Chen Chang 15/Chn **.
Exquisitely crafted, this film features sumptuous cinematography, costumes and settings. So it's very frustrating that the story is so poorly told. While the basic outline of the plot becomes clear eventually, there's virtually no development to the characters, while the connections between them remain maddeningly vague. And the talky dialog is simply impenetrable, never conveying much meaning about the culture or situation.

Listen to Me Marlon
dir Stevan Riley; with Marlon Brando, Stella Adler 15/UK **** 
Expertly edited together from archival footage and never-released private material, this documentary offers a startlingly intimate look into the mind of an iconic actor. Marlon Brando reveals himself to be a fascinating character full of wit, passion and artistic insight. And defiantly unlike his public image.

Live From New York! 
dir Bao Nguyen; with Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase 15/US ***.
This documentary explores a show that has reflected and influenced American culture for more 40 years. The film takes a serious look at an iconically hilarious programme that's well-known for its political parody and brightly talented cast. It's a surprisingly balanced, in-depth documentary, although it's likely that only fans of the show will enjoy it.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

LFF 4: Strike a pose

The 59th London Film Festival forges ahead with more red carpet mania (that's Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren and John Goodman out last night, for Trumbo). It's only Day 4 and I'm already suffering from burn-out, so tonight I'm taking a break and heading to the theatre! That should help me face the coming eight days, even with those nasty 8.45am press screenings. Thankfully the films have been good enough to (mostly) keep me awake. More highlights...

Bone Tomahawk 
dir S Craig Zahler; with Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson 15/US ***.
A fresh take on the Western genre, this film combines dark drama with snappy wit and grisly horror to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. So while it's riveting and unpredictable, with strikingly bold performances from the entire cast, it's also vaguely ridiculous in its grotesque exaggeration of frontier fears about Native Americans.

The Program
dir Stephen Frears; with Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd 15/UK ***. 
With a quick pace and steely tone, this drama traces Lance Armstrong's career in a strikingly lucid way. Never simplistic, it sees the events through the cyclist's own perspective, acknowledging the moral issues while carefully exploring why a sportsman would cheat his way to success. Anchored by a bracing performance from Foster, this is also one of the edgiest movies in Frears' eclectic filmography

Couple in a Hole 
dir Tom Geens; with Paul Higgins, Kate Dickie 15/UK **. 
Like something from the Greek new wave, this film takes a surreal look at fundamental human emotions through a premise that feels both fantastical and eerily realistic. On the other hand, this particular parable is far too on-the-nose, never quite coming up with anything very insightful. Still, it's packed with unexpected twists and characters that defy expectations.

Men & Chicken 
dir Anders Thomas Jensen; with Mads Mikkelsen, David Dencik 15/Den **** 
A wickedly grotesque look at family connections, this Danish black comedy is both hugely entertaining and utterly bonkers. A mixture of scientific creepiness and Three Stooges-style slapstick, the film defiantly refuses to fit into a genre. Which makes it gloriously entertaining in all the wrong ways.

dir Hansal Mehta; with Manoj Bajpai, Rajkummar Rao 15/Ind ****
It would be easy to write off this true drama as something that could only happen in India, but the film has striking layers of global resonance. Not only is it a vivid depiction of the struggle for human rights, in this case relating to sexuality, but it's also a subtle indictment of how Western media have created a need for everyone to be put into their appropriate box. And it's written, directed and acted with remarkable sensitivity and insight.

Friday, 9 October 2015

LFF 3: Take a walk

The nightly parade of stars continued last night at the 59th London Film Festival, as the cast of Trumbo trooped down the Leicester Square red carpet - including Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren and John Goodman. Tonight it'll be the teams from High-Rise (Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Ben Wheatley), A Bigger Splash (Ralph Fiennes, Luca Guadagnino) and Tangerine (Sean Baker and actress Mya Taylor, pictured above with Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). Thankfully the weather has turned bright but crisp, so no soggy carpets tonight. Here are some more highlights...

dir Sean Baker; with Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor 15/US ****.
This film is so fresh and original that it's easy to forget that it was shot entirely on an iPhone, proving that money isn't what makes a movie engaging. With snappy dialog, colourfully complex characters and a farcical plot that's genuinely hilarious, this is a seriously unforgettable Christmas comedy.

A Bigger Splash
dir Luca Guadagnino; with Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton 15/It ****
A remake of the 1969 French classic La Piscine, this is a fresh, enjoyably twisted drama about a group of people whose lives are inextricably entangled. With fine performances from the eclectic cast and the striking visual stylings of director Luca Guadagnino, this is a fast, funny little romp. And it carries a surprisingly nasty sting in its tail.

dir Ben Wheatley; with Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller 15/UK **
With a string of triumphs behind them, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump hit a rough patch in this adaptation of JG Ballard's dystopian social satire. The political observations are strong, but oddly stuck in the 1970s period setting. And it isn't easy sitting through chaotic violence when there isn't a single sympathetic character.

The Invitation
dir Karyn Kusama; with Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard 15/US ***.
This unnerving, contained thriller pours on suggestions of horror until the audience begins to believe that the terror might only be in the central character's mind. But even so, there are so many nagging incongruities that it's impossible to sit back and relax. This is fiendishly clever filmmaking, with sharply layered performances and a terrific sense of a single setting.

Beeba Boys
dir Deepa Mehta; with Randeep Hooda, Ali Momen 15/Can ***
An disarmingly comical tone undercuts any point this movie might be making about gang violence, as it portrays murdering thugs as hapless dandies who don't realise that they're playing with fire. Even so, the film is sharply well-made, with a strikingly watchable cast (in largely unlikeable roles) and enough humour and energy to keep us entertained.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

LFF 2: Tell the truth

The opening night red carpet at the 59th London Film Festival was interrupted last night by a group of activists protesting government cuts in programmes to help abused women. A rather appropriate action for the premiere of Suffragette, as cast members in attendance noted. The festival gets up to speed today with the first full day of programming - and it's my busiest yet, with four press screenings. Here are some more highlights...

dir Jay Roach; with Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren 15/US ****
It's a good thing this film has a sharp screenplay, since it's about one of Hollywood's most notorious screenwriters. Sharp, funny and cleverly resonant, this true drama explores a grim period in American history with intelligence and emotion. And it's packed with superb performances from a skilled cast.

He Named Me Malala
dir Davis Guggenheim; with Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai 15/US ****
Filmmaker Guggenheim manipulates the audience with a rather jarring story structure in this documentary, choosing to place events in order to build the maximum emotional punch. But when the subject is this strong, the audience doesn't mind too much. And Malala Yousafzai is inspirational even without all of these cinematic flourishes... MORE >

The Club
dir Pablo Larrain; with Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers 15/Chl ****
Exploring a topical issue with invention and insight, Chilean filmmaker Larrain tells a haunting but magnetic story about disgraced Catholic priests caught in a kind of pergutory of self-deception. It's a stunningly clever film, packed with quietly pointed commentary and darkly involving drama.

dir Cesc Gay; with Ricardo Darin, Javier Camara 15/Sp ****
With vivid characters and a superb blend of comedy and drama, this story about two lifelong friends continually catches the audience off-guard, revealing layers of resonant detail that can't help but draw out a strong emotional response. It's a thoroughly likeable film featuring spiky characters who speak their minds. But it's what isn't spoken that carries the real punch.

Blood of My Blood
dir-scr Marco Bellocchio; with Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Lidiya Liberman 15/It ***.
Ambitious and assured, this Italian drama shifts between time periods to explore issues of morality and mortality through the filter of religion and, ahem, vampires. Using the same setting several hundred years apart, the film has an eerie, mesmerising quality that holds the attention, even if the plot isn't very easy to unpick.

Brand: A Second Coming
dir Ondi Timoner; with Russell Brand, Noel Gallagher 15/UK ****
Fast-paced and abrasively entertaining, like Russell Brand himself, this is a documentary about a man who throws himself into everything with wild enthusiasm. It demonstrates vividly how he wins over everyone he meets, against all odds. And it explores why the things everyone wants - fame, money, power - mean nothing and bring no happiness. So he has set out to disrupt the prevailing ideology.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

LFF 1: Kick it off

The 59th BFI London Film Festival kicks off tonight with the red carpet European premiere of Sarah Gavron's Suffragette. Over the next 10 days, a busy programme of acclaimed films floods cinemas across the city, largely drawn from the premiere festivals Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and Venice. So this is a great chance for Londoners to see many of this year's awards hopefuls before they arrive in cinemas, plus a lot of superb smaller independent and foreign titles that will sadly never get UK distribution. Here are some highlights from the first two days...

dir Sarah Gavron; with Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter 15/UK ****
With a smart script by Abi Morgan, this drama about the British suffrage movement is challenging and deeply moving, avoiding cliches to find present day relevance in a fight that took place a century ago. And it's elevated by a full-throated performance from Carey Mulligan that never hits a false note... MORE >

Beasts of No Nation
dir Cary Joji Fukunaga;
with Abraham Attah, Idris Elba
15/US ***.

Strikingly well shot and edited, with rumbling, raw performances from its cast, this dark thriller immerses its audience in the chaotic horror of civil war in Africa, where young boys are pressed to participate in atrocities. And filmmaker Fukunaga's remarkable attention to detail just about sustains the story when it loses focus in the final third... MORE >

dir Paul Weitz; with Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner 15/US ****
A sharp script and another beautifully measured performance from Lily Tomlin seamlessly mix comedy and pointed drama to tell an engaging story that isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers along the way. It may feel both constructed and slight, but between the lines there's plenty of gristle to chew on... MORE >

James White
dir Josh Mond; with Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon 15/US ***.
This is an unusually focussed character study, both in terms of script and camerawork, offering a seriously complex role for likeable actor Abbott. It sometimes gets bogged down in its central melodrama, almost sidelining the eponymous character's journey, but it continually catches the audience with its resonant themes and emotions... MORE >

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C R I T I C A L    W E E K

Non-festival films screening to London critics this week included Ryan Reynolds in the entertaining but thin Mississippi Grind; Patrick Stewart in the moving but melodramatic Match; Gaspar Noe's controversial and rather brilliant Love; nutty British animation for adults in The Big Knights; and the engaging astronomer doc Star Men. Everything else was festival related, as is my intensely overcrowded screening schedule over the next 10 days. The only two non-LFF titles are Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak and the circus acrobat doc Grazing the Sky.