Thursday, 30 March 2017

Critical Week: Kick into action mode

Women led the charge in two big action thrillers screened to London-based press this past week. Noomi Rapace stars in Unlocked as a CIA sleeper agent put back on active duty in London. Comments on the film are embargoed, but the starry cast includes Toni Collette, Michael Douglas, John Malkovich and Orlando Bloom. And Scarlett Johansson takes the lead role in Ghost in the Shell, an exhilaratingly visual but thematically thin sci-fi mystery-thriller that's well worth seeing in Imax 3D.

A bit further afield, two low-budget horror dramas were effectively freaky. Catherine Walker and Steve Oram star in A Dark Song, a creepy story of angelic incantations in an isolated house in Wales. And The Transfiguration is an evocative drama set in New York, where a young boy with vampire tendencies befriends an unsuspecting neighbour.

Screenings over this rather busy coming week include Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in The Fate of the Furious, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in Going in Style, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in The Sense of an Ending, Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington in The Shack, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Aftermath, Dennis Quaid in A Dog's Purpose, Cate Shortland's Berlin Syndrome and the Oscar-nominated animation My Life as a Courgette.

Monday, 27 March 2017

31st Flare: Take 'em down

The British Film Institute's 31st Flare came to a festive conclusion last night with the international premiere of the closing film Signature Move (above) and the expected energetic party afterwards, with dancing long into the night. This is how all film festivals should be: great movies with audiences, journalists and filmmakers all mixing together at a series of enjoyable parties and special events. There are also of course ongoing discussions about whether there is still the need for LGBT-themed film festivals at all, but as long as bigotry and division exist even in supposedly accepting societies, they're vital. And it's nice to see that the films themselves are beginning to reflect a change - most of these are just movies about people getting on with their lives, and the fact that they may be gay or trans is a side note. I still have a bit of catching up to do, but here are some final highlights...

Signature Move
dir Jennifer Reeder; with Fawzia Mirza, Sari Sanchez 17/US ***.
With a sharp sense of humour and a gentle pace, this comedy is set in a multi-cultural corner of Chicago. Expanded from a short, the narrative is rather slight, but the characters are strong enough to hold the attention. And refreshingly, director Jennifer Reeder keeps the deeper themes gurgling strongly under the surface and resists preaching to the audience.

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin
dir Jennifer M Kroot; with Armistead Maupin, Laura Linney 17/US ****
A lively and revealing documentary, this film weaves together details from the life and writings of the beloved storyteller who crushed stereotypes and taboos in 70s-80s San Francisco. Armistead Maupin's journey from the conservative South to perhaps overconfident gay icon is fascinating, and it's moving to see how his writings have inspired millions to stand up for themselves and live a more positive life.

Flare Shorts
I managed to catch up with only 10 shorts this year. The programmes are increasingly popular with the public, making it tricky to get a ticket. Highlights for me were: The Hares (dir Martin Rodriguez Redondo, 16/Por) is a subtly moving story about a young boy pushed by his father into going on a nighttime hunting trip; An Evening (dir Soren Green, 16/Den) is a beautifully shot, lightly observant exploration of the different reactions two teens have to a sexual encounter; Pria (dir Yudho Aditya, 16/Ina) is a bold look at Indonesia's entrenched culture, as a 16-year-old guy reluctantly prepares for his wedding; and Jamie (dir Christopher Manning, 16/UK) is a sharply well-played, understated odyssey about a young man who opens up to his inner feelings for the first time.

Friday, 24 March 2017

31st Flare: Dance the night away

The British Film Institute's 31st Flare heads into its final weekend with a continual stream of receptions, parties, club nights and of course film screenings and events. It's been great to hang out with all of these filmmakers, actors and festival people, but all of these late-night activities aren't the most helpful for a critic who needs to be at a 10am screening each morning! At least the festival only runs for 10 days. And we'll miss it badly when it's gone. Here are more highlights (that's Lucas Andrade and Kelner Macedo, above)...

Body Electric
dir Marcelo Caetano; with Kelner Macedo, Lucas Andrade 17/Br ****
A loose slice of life movie, this Brazilian drama simply follows its young protagonist through a series of everyday situations and interactions. It's a striking representation of a rather normal gay man's life, as he enjoys his budding career, hangs out with friends, indulges in alcohol and sex, and doesn't worry about tomorrow. So without preaching at all, the film has a lot to say.

dir Nathan Adloff; with Tim Boardman, Molly Shannon 16/US ****
Based on a true story, this charming comedy-drama set in small-town America uses a collection of cleverly written and played characters to explore why it's so important so break out of the box sometimes. It's smart and warm, which makes it both funny and engaging, and filmmaker Nathan Adloff proves that he's also not afraid to generate some honest, dark resonance as well.

Handsome Devil
dir-scr John Butler; with Fionn O'Shea, Nicholas Galitzine 16/Ire ****
From Ireland, this breezy drama tackles some earthy issues as it tells an engaging story about inclusion and boarding school bullying. It's a sharply written film, with bold central characters and some surprisingly strong emotional moments along the way. Along with several pointed comments about the tyranny of sports-obsessed culture, the film carries an important message about finding the courage to be yourself, whatever the cost.

The Ornithologist
dir-scr Joao Pedro Rodrigues; with Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao 16/Por **.
This experimental film from Portugal starts promisingly, as it follows a bird-watcher on a trip into a spectacular wilderness. It's an intriguingly internalised odyssey, beautifully shot and played, with tantalising clues about a variety of issues. But as it continues, writer-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues drifts into pretentious metaphorical nuttiness that overwhelms any sense of narrative drama and loses the audience deep in the forest... FULL REVIEW >

Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things 
dir-scr Mark Kenneth Woods, Michael Yerxa; with Jack Anawak, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril 16/Can ***
There's nothing particularly inventive or flashy about this simple little documentary, but the situation it explores is utterly riveting. Centred in an isolated community near the top of the world, the issues the film explores are relevant all over the world, with some big implications for nations still struggling with their response to sexuality in society. And the people who speak to the camera are articulate and compelling.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

31st Flare: Pamper yourself

The British Film Institute's 31st Flare had a bit of a scare today, as a crazed madman attacked Parliament just over the river. But London carried on in defiance, and the festival had another busy evening. One major event was the Iris Prize party at Ministry of Sound, a lovely event celebrating the world's premiere LGBT short film festival. Here are some more highlights...

The Handmaiden
dir Park Chan-wook; with Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri 16/Kor ****
Korean maestro Park Chan-wook adapts Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith into a stylish, twisty drama set in Korea and Japan during WWII. It's a visually ravishing film about passion and subterfuge, told in three chapters that flip the perspective in unexpected directions. So even if the themes are a little thin, the film looks so amazing and has such a wickedly labyrinthine plot that it's thoroughly riveting... FULL REVIEW >

Out of Iraq
dir Eva Orner, Chris McKim; with Nayyef Hrebid, Hayder "Btoo" Allami16/US ****
This documentary tells the story of two young Iraqis who take a journey together in very different ways. It has two basic narratives, a romance and an immigration odyssey, and both are so compelling that the film becomes utterly gripping. It also packs a strong emotional kick as these young men struggle against cultural realities that are difficult to imagine.

dir Ashley Joiner; with Michael Salter, Peter Tatchell 17/UK ****
A fast-paced, pointed documentary about London's Pride movement, this film explores the rise in alternative events that have sprung up to avoid the crowds and commercialisation. And as it faces government budget cuts, the question is whether Pride has merely become a branding opportunity bogged down in bureaucracy. It's a timely, emotional and unusually balanced film that doesn't shy away from past and present issues.

Seat in Shadow
dir Henry Coombes; with David Sillars, Jonathan Leslie 16/UK ***.
Cleverly shot by rising-star cinematographer David C Liddell, and directed with quirky artistry by Scottish filmmaker Henry Coombes, this Glasgow-set drama is elusive and intriguing. It's nutty and outrageous enough to intrigue fans of offbeat cinema, and it's packed with deeper themes about human connections that resonate in unexpected ways.

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K 

In addition to Flare movies, I had my normal weekly releases to watch at press screenings. These included the police action-comedy CHiPs (comments embargoed),  the enjoyable sci-fi thriller Life with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, the earnest Armenian genocide drama The Promise starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, the intriguing Amazon exploration adventure The Lost City of Z with Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson, the murky London noir mystery City of Tiny Lights with Riz Ahmed, and the offbeat Finnish refugee drama The Other Side of Hope. Films this coming week, aside from more Flare titles, include Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Orlando Bloom in the thriller Unlocked, and more.

Monday, 20 March 2017

31st Flare: Get ready to jump

The British Film Institute's 31st Flare: London LGBT Film Festival charged through its first weekend with a flurry of screenings, events, seminars and parties. This is a very lively season on the Southbank, with a colourful crowd and strong discussions. It's great to be able to interact with filmmakers, actors, journalists and festival programmers in this kind of relaxed setting. Here are some highlights from the weekend, including Heartstone (above), the film to which my jury awarded the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival last September...

dir-scr Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson; with Baldur Einarsson, Blaer Hinriksson 16/Ice ****
Dark and sometimes very grim, this Icelandic teen drama tackles a serious topic in an intensely personal way. Set in a rural area, the small community ramps up the emotions to the breaking point, pulling the audience into the story with serious force. The film's loose editing may weaken its balance and pace, but it's an involving and deeply moving filmmaking debut... FULL REVIEW >

Dear Dad 
dir Tanuj Bhramar; with Arvind Swamy, Himanshu Sharma 16/Ind ***.
For Western audiences, the mix of cheerful silliness and earthier realism in this Indian drama will feel somewhat jarring. But there are sharp insights along the way, as the cast and crew invert the usual coming out formula. It's an engaging road movie with a few corny sidetrips, but it grapples with some very big issues with a level of honesty that Western filmmakers should take note of.

dir-scr Yan England; with Antoine Olivier Pilon, Lou-Pascal Tremblay 16/Can ***.
There's a driving momentum to this dark drama that makes it difficult to watch. But the acting and filmmaking are compelling, holding the attention with vivid emotions and topical resonance. This is a story about bullying that refuses to play out the way we hope it will, pushing its characters in increasingly painful directions. It's somewhat overwrought, but also important.

Centre of My World
dir-scr Jakob M Erwa; with Louis Hofmann, Sabine Timoteo 16/Ger ***
Sunny and colourful, this inventively written and directed German coming-of-age drama has a light touch that's thoroughly engaging. But there's also an offbeat dark undercurrent that gurgles up as the story continues, sending the characters down into rather disturbing situations. It's a bold, complex film that turns far too heavy but carries a strong punch.

Last Men Standing 
dir-scr Erin Brethauer, Tim Hussin; with Peter Greene, Jesus Guillen 16/US ***
As an exploration of the lives of long-term survivors of the Aids epidemic in San Francisco, this film has plenty of archival value. It recounts the stories of eight people with an unusual honesty, adding an emotional kick along the way. But the filmmakers focus on the past, which makes the film feel morose and relentlessly gloomy. It's as if these people are unable to look forward.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

31st Flare: Make an opening move

The 31st edition of the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBT Film Festival kicked off on Thursday night with the world premiere of the BBC drama Against the Law, produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. It's a powerfully cinematic movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen, as it includes documentary clips of men who lived through the events depicted from the 1950s, starring Richard Gadd and Daniel Mays (above).

Against the Law
dir Fergus O'Brien; with Daniel Mays, Richard Gadd 17/UK **** (world premiere)
An inventive blending of period drama and talking head documentary, this pointed film is beautifully edited to make the most of both strands. Each feeds into the other with a powerful sense of momentum, giving the final scenes a proper emotional kick. And there's also a sense of timeliness, as the story recounts events from 60 years ago that would change British law about homosexuality a decade later. And the events still resonate loudly today.

After Louie
dir Vincent Gagliostro; with Alan Cumming, Zachary Booth 17/US ***. (world premiere)
Big ideas circle around this earthy drama set among New York artists. The characters are bright and engaging, even as they are deeply flawed, and the talky script takes an unexpectedly honest approach to hot potato topics, exploring how nostalgia for the gay rights movement of the 1990s might not be the healthiest way to move forward. It's perhaps too deliberately provocative to be properly moving, but Alan Cumming delivers a beautifully complex central performance.

dir-scr Marco Berger; with Gabriel Epstein, Lucas Papa 16/Arg ***. 
Essentially a mash-up of writer-director Marco Berger's Hawaii and producer-codirector Martin Farina's Fulboy, this film places nine athletic young men in an isolated house for a sweltering summer getaway and observes the physicality between them. There's a hint of a plot between two of the guys, and a few traits emerge here and there, but the movie is basically a tactile, tantalising tease that pays off only in the final moments... FULL REVIEW >

B E S T   O F   T H E   Y E A R
dir-scr Barry Jenkins; with Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland 16/US ****.
With its intimate approach and deeply resonant themes, this film gets under the skin right from the start, putting us in the shoes of the lead character at three points in his life. His journey to self-discovery is difficult, partly because he is painfully withdrawn due to his tough life experiences. And what this movie has to say is so important that it deserves all the the attention and awards it gets... FULL REVIEW >

It's Only the End of the World
dir-scr Xavier Dolan; with Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel 16/Can *****
Few filmmakers are as bold as 27-year-old Canadian Xavier Dolan, who regularly takes on family relationships using bravura filmmaking that brings out unexpected, unfiltered emotions. This film, based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, is a staggering dissection of the dynamic between parents, children and siblings. It's heightened to the point that it's often painful to watch, but it's also urgent, honest and essential... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Critical Week: A bit of a giggle

Well, that photo certainly isn't very indicative of Terence Davies' new film A Quiet Passion, the Emily Dickinson biopic that screened for London-based press this week (it also featured in last October's London Film Festival). A gloomy but strikingly realistic period film, it's livened up by the crisp performances of Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle, and it features lots of Dickinson's wonderfully evocative poetry, but it's pretty grim stuff. There was also a much bigger movie, Disney's remake of the 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast, which stirs live actors into the now photo-realistic animated fairy tale. It's still a hugely engaging story, and the actors and filmmakers add superb subtext, but fans of the original may find it unnecessary.

The best film of the year so far is the Oscar-nominated doc I Am Not Your Negro, which inventively reframes the race issue as the overall history of America. A stunning film, beautifully adapted from James Baldwin's words. We also had the slickly made, action-packed Korean period thriller The Age of Shadows, the grim but inventive British rural drama The Levelling, the astute and moving Chilean drama You'll Never Be Alone, and the serious-themed Italian road comedy A Little Lust.

Coming up this next week, we have Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale in The Promise, Charlie Hunnam and Tom Holland in The Lost City of Z, Dax Shepard and Michael Pena in CHiPs, and the Finnish comedy The Other Side of Hope. Also, the 31st BFI Flare kicks off on Thursday with the world premiere of the true British drama Against the Law. Look for comments on that film and lots of others in regular updates over the next two weeks.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Critical Week: Bump in the night

Back into screening mode after returning to London, my first was to finally catch up with Personal Shopper, which reunites a superb Kristen Stewart with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. It's an endlessly fascinating mix of personal drama and ghostly horror that leaves the audience wondering. Kong: Skull Island is a big, enjoyably 1970s-style take on the monster movie that's entertaining and very cool, even if the characters are rather thin. My comments on two British comedies are embargoed until closer to the release dates: Roger Allam, Matthew Modine and Fiona Shaw in The Hippopotamus, and Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson and Lesley Manville in Hampstead.

There were two micro-budget underwater thrillers: The Dark Below is a wordless cat-and-mouse chase on a frozen-over lake, while The Chamber is a claustrophobic stranded-sub adventure. Both have solid production values but little in the way of story or characters. Fair Haven is a sensitive American indie drama that grapples with issues of expectations and sexuality with warmth and honesty. And from Argentina, Bromance is a provocative drama that raises some big themes and almost deals with them. I also caught up with this gem...

Fifty Shades Darker
dir James Foley
scr Niall Leonard

with Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes 17/Can *.
This sequel, based on the second novel in EL James' trilogy, is noticeably dumbed down from the first movie, with empty slick direction (by safe pair of hands Foley) and an embarrassingly simplistic script (by James' husband Leonard). But the biggest problem is that it abandons the premise, as billionaire Christian (a sleepy Dornan) goes all mushy in the presence of his young lover Ana (a feisty Johnson) this time. Instead of punishing her as before, he gives her pleasure and begs her to move in and then marry him. This never remotely rings true, as there is only a slight spark of chemistry between them and no sign of love at all. Conflict arises simplistically from outside in the form of two of Christians exes (glowering Basinger and psycho Heathcote), plus a near rape and a random helicopter crash that both like a pointless asides. But then, there is nothing about this movie that even remotely grabs hold. Every scene feels rushed and superficial, with dialog that's painfully cheesy, completely missing the central themes of control and dominance. So by the time Basinger takes a drink and slap to the face, the audience reaction is laughter. Badly in need of a sense of humour about itself, as well as an awareness of its own misogyny (Dakota is often naked while Dornan takes off his shirt a few times), the film is hardly whetting appetites for next year's sequel.

As for films this coming week, I have the Disney revamp of Beauty and the Beast, the indie drama Bwoy, the British drama The Levelling, the Korean thriller The Age of Shadows, the award-winning Brazilian drama Aquarius, the Finnish comedy-drama The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki and the Oscar-nominated doc I Am Not Your Negro. There's also a film festival starting next week, the 31st edition of BFI Flare - expect my usual coverage....

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Critical Week: Oscar pulls a switcheroo

The 89th Academy Awards ended with a major upset on Sunday night, as Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar over seemingly set-in-stone favourite La La Land, which had scooped up almost everything in its path during awards season. And it was made even more memorable when this important triumph was so badly botched by officials from PwC, who gave the wrong envelope to presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty (a 50th anniversary Bonnie & Clyde reunion), who announced La La Land. And it took two long minutes to correct the error. Watching this unfold live was simply astonishing, one of the most jaw-dropping moments in Oscar history. It definitely overshadowed just how amazing Moonlight's win is.

There were hints early on that the expected La La Land sweep wasn't going to happen, as awards were handed out to Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and even Suicide Squad before La La Land won its first statuette. In the end, La La Land won 6 awards to Moonlight's 3. Other than Best Picture, there were no real upsets. Speeches were terrific, with pointed political jabs and lots of wonderfully emotional moments.

Jimmy Kimmel did a solid job as host, maintaining his jokes all the way through the ceremony (something few hosts manage). He also gave his continual mocking of Trump a jokey tone. Some of his bits didn't really work (the tour bus) and others were recycled (mean tweets), but his dry approach was very funny, and the ongoing banter with Matt Damon genuinely hilarious.

Before leaving Los Angeles, I managed to catch up with Get Out, Jordan Peele's superbly original horror drama - witty, scary and very clever. And back in London I headed to a screening of the strikingly original superhero thriller Logan, Hugh Jackman's last outing as Wolverine. On the plane in between, I revisited one of my all-time favourites, Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles, which still makes me laugh uncontrollably.

Coming up this week, we have screenings of the new mega-blockbuster Kong: Skull Island, Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, Stephen Fry's Hippopotamus, the Argentine drama Bromance, and the dark romance Fair Haven, to start with.