Saturday, 31 March 2018

Flare 6: Face your future

The British Film Institute's 32nd Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival holds its closing night gala tonight, with the premiere of Steve McLean's Postcards From London, featuring rising star Harris Dickinson. I spend a day on the set of the film about a year and a half ago, so it's great to finally see it on the big screen. And the party at BFI Southbank after the screening should be great fun. Then tomorrow there's Second Chance Sunday, when audiences can catch up with the best of the festival all day long for a reduced price (I think that, in my 20 years covering this festival, this is only the second time the final day has fallen on Easter). Here are some final film highlights, and I'll have one more report about short films and my best of the fest...

Postcards From London
dir-scr Steve McLean; with Harris Dickinson, Jonah Hauer-King 18/UK ****
A highly stylised exploration of the nature of art, this colourful British film is set out as an odyssey into a fantastical version of Soho, which has a history of remaining just outside the boundaries of polite civilisation. Boasting another riveting performance from Harris Dickinson, the film may divide audiences with its heightened approach and controversial plot. But it's worth hanging on for the ride, because the film has a lot to say.

Good Manners 
dir-scr Marco Dutra, Juliana Rojas; with Isabel Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano 17/Br ****
An extraordinary fairy tale that mixes comedy, horror and personal drama, this Brazilian film so resolutely challenges expectations that it's almost impossible to describe the plot without spoiling it. Lushly shot and acted with deep emotion, this film provokes the audience as much as it entertains, taking us on an outrageous journey that's both fantastical and properly grounded. It leaves us shaken and oddly satisfied.

Hard Paint
dir-scr Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon; with Shico Menegat, Bruno Fernandes 18/Br ****
There's a raw sensitivity to this Brazilian drama that digs deeply under the surface, pulling the audience into the internal journey of a painfully shy young man at a key moment in his life. While some sequences are painful to watch, the film is warm, humane and very sexy. It's shot in a darkly colourful visual style that continually reveals new details. And the central performance from newcomer Shico Menegat is mesmerising.

dir Robin Berghaus; with Will Lautzenheiser, Angel Gonzalez 17/US ****
This sharply observed documentary tells two distinct stories, initially chronicling how a young man turned to stand-up comedy to put his life-altering disability into perspective. And then it shifts into an often startling look at the process of organ transplants, as he goes through a relatively new procedure that would give him a new set of arms. The warm humour and honesty of everyone on-screen makes the film both engaging and vital.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Flare 5: Stand out from the crowd

The 32nd BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival is entering its final days, and there's a sense of exhaustion among the journalists who have been trying to see as many films as possible, starting each morning with a 10am press screening and usually finishing with a bit of a dance at 11pm in the BFI Southbank cafe. But the weather has taken a wet turn, so where else would you rather be? Here are a few highlights (pictured above are Laverne Cox, Abigail Breslin, Alex Lawther and AnnaSophia Robb)...

Freak Show
dir Trudie Styler; with Alex Lawther, Ian Nelson 17/US ****
While it might be a bit arch, pushing to make its point, this film has such a strong message about identity that it's both powerfully moving and deeply important. Anchored by an offbeat, beautifully textured performance from Alex Lawther, it's a story about a colourful teen who simply refuses to fit in at his high school, which leads to both triumphs and serious challenges. And it's gorgeously shot by Dante Spinotti.

Alaska Is a Drag
dir-scr Shaz Bennett; with Martin L Washington Jr, Maya Washington 17/US ***.
Expanded from a 2012 short, this warm drama centres on three people who feel trapped in the middle of nowhere, trying to make life a bit more colourful than it is. It's a gently involving story, with strongly sympathetic characters who are very well-played by a fresh cast. So it's charming and moving. And even with some rather insistent plot points, it raises important issues without ever preaching about them.

Malila: The Farewell Flower
dir Anucha Boonyawatana; with Sukollawat Kanarot, Anuchit Sapanpong 17/Tha ****
This odyssey from Thailand weaves together themes from religion, politics and sexuality as it follows a young man on a profound voyage of self-discovery. It's not a traditional narrative, instead occupying more in a spiritual space, including a touch of magical realism, and it moves at the pace of a slow-flowing river. But it's beautiful to look at, provocative in its ideas and ultimately moving in what it has to say.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco 
dir-scr James Crump; with Bill Cunningham, Jessica Lange 17/UK ****
A fast-paced, skilful portrait of an artist who isn't very well-known outside fashion circles, this film is infused with the sensuality of its 1970s period. Through lively, expressive interviews and a wealth of footage and stills, Antonio Lopez springs to life before our eyes, making us wish we had a chance to get to know him, because he seems like someone we'd probably fall in love with, just like everyone else did... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Flare 4: Walk on the wild side

The British Film Institute's 32nd Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival continues on the Southbank, and my main tasks over the past few days has been to watch films and interview filmmakers and actors. So I missed the special screening of Maurice, which reunited Hugh Grant and James Wilby on-stage. There are still a few parties to go, so I'm looking forward to seeing friends and getting to know some more of the guests who are in town. Here are some highlights...

The Happy Prince
dir-scr Rupert Everett; with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth 18/UK ****
With lush, deep-coloured production design, this film traces the last three troubled years in Oscar Wilde's life. It's a swirlingly artful approach, shifting around in time to paint a vivid, emotionally charged portrait of a shattered man trying to stoke the embers of his once-grand life. And he's beautifully played by Rupert Everett, who also makes a notable debut as a writer-director.

dir Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, Daniel Powell; with Lena Hall, Christine Lahti 17/US ***.
Skilfully shot and acted, this warm drama is grounded in an earthy sense of authenticity as it follows a young woman trying to rebuild what's left of her dreams. Even though the plot gives in to structural demands, filmmakers Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell tell the story in an engaging way, quietly bringing out important themes without pushing them...

dir Marcel Gisler; with Max Hubacher, Aaron Altaras18/Swi ***.
Gently observant, this Swiss drama uses a gripping, personal story to confront a much bigger issue: the prejudice against homosexuality in football. Thankfully, director-cowriter keeps the approach personal, creating a character-based romance that's genuinely involving even when the politics threaten to take over. So although it feels rather overlong, it's packed with powerful moments.

dir Stevie Cruz-Martin; with Daniel Monks, Caroline Brazier 17/Aus ***.
There's an earthy authenticity to this very slightly fantastical Australian drama that catches the attention right from the start. Shot in an urgent, realist style, it never seems like the actors are performing, and some scenes are so raw that audience members feel almost invasive watching them. As it continues, the story becomes formulaic, but the characters remain solidly grounded.

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C R I T I C A L    W E E K

Outside of Flare, I've seen two very nice surprises, genre films that more than live up to expectations, namely the properly hilarious comedy Blockers and the genuinely terrifying A Quiet Place. There was also the somewhat dense financial scandal doc The Outsider, and a fabulous screening of GW Pabst's 1929 silent classic Pandora's Box, starring the incandescent Louise Brooks.

And the only non-festival screening in the diary for next week is the rescheduled one for The Hurricane Heist. But there are a few things I need to catch up with.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Flare 3: Spill your guts

I always enjoy attending public screenings as part of the British Film Institute's annual Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival, because audiences tend to be far more open and curious than those in most cinemas. Watching a movie in this atmosphere is an experience in itself, a collective series of sighs, gasps, laughter and tears. I saw two collections of short films over the weekend with public audiences, and all of them were terrific (more on those later). And I've enjoyed being able to chat with filmmakers about their work, including the directors of three of the films below. Here are some more highlights - a mainstream comedy (that's Nick Robison and Katherine Langford, above) and three docs...

Love, Simon
dir Greg Berlanti; with Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford 18/US ****
A fresh take on the teen rom-com, this film harks back to vintage John Hughes movies with its smart, self-aware characters and realistic situations that are both amusing and thoughtful. Based on Becky Albertalli's novel (cleverly titled Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda), the story also breaks ground by taking the central character's homosexuality in stride. So aside from being hugely engaging and very funny, it also carries a powerful kick.

A Deal With the Universe
dir-scr Jason Barker; with Jason Barker, Tracey 18/UK ***
Tracing some 15 years in the life of a couple, this autobiographical documentary is sometimes startlingly raw, as filmmaker (and former Flare programmer) Jason Barker and his partner Tracey chronicle their yearning to have a child, which led to extraordinary decisions along the way. Assembled as a collection of home movies and video diary entries, the film never embellishes the story. And the honesty speaks to several big issues.

Sidney & Friends
dir Tristan Aitchison; with Sidney, Guillit, Ben, Maria 18/UK ****
Shot over several years, this documentary explores a segment of Kenyan society that's virtually invisible, mainly because it wouldn't be safe for these people to come out in the open. Scottish filmmaker Tristan Aitchison gets sometimes startling access to this community, revealing the day-to-day issues in their lives. The film is beautifully assembled in an introspective way that draws the audience in and challenges our perceptions.

Conversations With Gay Elders
dir David Weissman; with Kerby Lauderdale, David Weissman 17/US ****
Part of a series, this doc is simply a conversation between two men. And it's utterly riveting. Honest and revelatory, it features filmmaker David Weissman (We Were Here) encouraging Kerby Lauderdale to recount his relatively normal story. It's a telling look at the thoughts and feelings of a man who grappled with his sexuality throughout his life. And what he has to say is vitally important in the wider conversation about the topic.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Flare 2: Party and protest

The British Film Institute's 32nd Flare is off and running, heading into its first weekend with a flurry of film programmes, special events and club nights. One of the best things about this festival is that the filmmakers mix very freely with the press and audiences, so there's a chance for real conversation about both the movies and the issues that are being raised in them. I'm planning to see quite a few short films over the weekend - always a highlight. And here are some features, including the special presentation film 120 BPM (pictured above)...

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)
dir Robin Campillo; with Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois 17/Fr ****.
There's a striking realism to this epic drama about Aids activists in early 1990s Paris. Filmmaker Robin Campillo sometimes seems too ambitious for his own good, indulging in the intense debates between protesters, but the film's core is a tender love story that's powerfully moving. And it highlights the struggle these men and women went through to gain attention for their cause, saving millions of lives in the process... FULL REVIEW >

Uncle David 2
dir Gary Reich; with David Hoyle, Archie Redford 18/UK ***.
In this sequel to his offbeat 2010 black comedy, performance artist David Hoyle basically takes a flamethrower to civilised society, railing against and lampooning superficial values, but always of course with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The film has a loose warmth to it that draws the audience in, fully aware that we're going to get badly burnt. No, it's not for the faint-hearted.

Love, Scott
dir-scr Laura Marie Wayne; with Scott Jones, Sherise Jones 18/Can ****
Canadian filmmaker Laura Marie Wayne puts her close friend Scott Jones at the centre of this intimate documentary, exploring some very big issues from a darkly personal angle. The film has an often dreamy feel to it, exploring thoughts and emotions as it quietly retraces a momentous series of events that started out horrifically but have become a movement for positive change.

The Wound
dir John Trengove; with Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsa 17/SA ****
This finely observed drama from South Africa is produced with sometimes startling honesty as it depicts ukwaluka, the Xhosa rite of passage into manhood. The film is a bracing depiction of a tribal tradition in modern times, packed with vivid characters who are grappling with a range of big questions. What emerges is a striking depiction of masculinity that transcends cultures... FULL REVIEW >

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Flare 1: Don't fence me in

The British Film Institute's 32nd annual Flare: London's LGBTQ+ Film Festival has kicked off on the Southbank, and runs for 10 days with a selection of intriguing, entertaining and provocative film. There seems to be an emphasis this year on controversial movies, with films about politics and religion along with a significant number of features and shorts exploring disability and identity. It was fun reconnecting with my annual Flare buddies at the opening night party on Wednesday - this is my 20th year covering this festival! Here are some highlights from the first days...

My Days of Mercy (opening night film)
dir Tali Shalom-Ezer; with Ellen Page, Kate Mara 17/US ****
Despite having a hugely contentious issue at the heart of its plot, this film remains remarkably centred on its characters, all of whom are played with an earthy authenticity that often feels improvised. Scenes are so raw that they continually take the audience aback. And while the narrative itself is a bit predictable, the character complexity more than makes up for it.

The Revival
dir Jennifer Gerber; with David Rysdahl, Zachary Booth 17/US ***
Adapted by Samuel Brett Williams from his own stage play, this drama is sharply well written and played, with knowing observations about the collision between religion and culture. When the plot kicks in for the final act, the film's honesty begins to feel contrived, badly muddying its message in a series of scenes that may ring true but say all the wrong things about the topics at hand.

dir-scr Mazen Khaled; with Carol Abboud, Hamza Mekdad 17/Leb ***
An experimental exploration of masculinity and male friendship, this Lebanese film is very tactile as it follows a young man over the course of a fateful day. While touching on some social issues, the main focus is on his friends, who remain by his side through a very detailed ordeal. There isn't much plot, and very little sense of character for the actors to work with, so it never quite resonates emotionally as it should. But it's darkly involving. [VFF 2017]

dir-scr Erlingur Thoroddsen; with Bjorn Stefansson, Sigurdur Thor Oskarsson 17/Ice ****
Sleek and dark, this Icelandic thriller gets under the skin quickly with filmmaking that's enticingly mysterious. Writer-director Erlingur Thoroddsen skilfully shoots the film to catch deep colours while positioning characters against stunning landscapes, giving everything a powerfully visual kick while the story develops beneath the surfaces. It's overlong but beautifully made, and packed with fiendishly clever touches. FULL REVIEW >

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K

Films screened this past week included a few big blockbusters. Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One basically shows up virtually all other big effects-based movies for the empty spectacle that they are. This movie is utterly gripping - a great story and superb characters. As if to prove the point, we also saw Pacific Rim: Uprising, a robots-bashing-robots sequel no one really asked for and a movie that would be unwatchable without the wonderful John Boyega. A Wrinkle in Time is a disappointment, an important, ambitious adaptation of the classic Madeleine L'Engle novel that feels overdesigned. Much grittier, Unsane is Steven Soderbergh's edgy mental hospital nightmare thriller starring the amazing Claire Foy. Taraji P Henson brings the rather mindlessly violent Proud Mary to life. Agnes Jaoui is wonderful in the French comedy-drama I Got Life! And Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies, is pretty much what it sounds like: a bit of bonkers, and rather hilarious low-budget mayhem.

Non-festival films coming up include the parent-teen comedy Blockers, the Emily Blunt horror A Quiet Place, the action thriller The Hurricane Heist, the banking doc The Outsider, and a restoration of GW Pabst's 1929 silent classic Pandora's Box.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Critical Week: Fireside chat

London critics watched a few higher profile films this year, including the incoming young adult romantic disease drama Midnight Sun, which like most films in this genre is aimed at 12-year-old girls. Patrick Schwarzenegger and Bella Thorne are the picturesque leads. A more grown up approach sets the new Tomb Raider reboot apart from the last adaptation, including a fierce performance by Alicia Vikander. But fans may bristle at the film's deliberately grounded approach. Wes Anderson's new stop-motion animated adventure comedy Isle of Dogs is a pure, utterly bonkers delight. And Madame is a French farce with a high-profile cast (Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel, Tom Hughes) and a surprisingly meaningful plot.

A little off the grid, My Friend Dahmer stars Disney hero Ross Lynch as the notorious murder before he started killing people. It's a high school movie with a black sense of humour and unusually strong performances. Gook is Justin Chon's lively, artful comedy-drama set around the 1992 Los Angeles riots. They Remain is a very clever low-budget horror movie with sci-fi overtones. From France, My Golden Days is an ambitious look at a man's life and loves, a big exhausting but packed with lovely moments. And from Finland, Screwed is a micro-budget movie about attraction and sexuality, set in lovely locations with a very strong cast.

This coming week there are a few more big ones: Steven Spielberg's complex adventure Ready Player One, Ava DuVernay's take on the classic A Wrinkle in Time, the robot action blockbuster sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, Claire Foy in Steven Soderberg's Unsane, Rupert Everett's The Happy Prince and the French drama I Got Life! BFI Flare kicks off this week too, opening with Ellen Page and Kate Mara in My Days of Mercy. Look for daily updates during the festival's run 21st March to 1st April.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Critical Week: Oscars for everyone

The 90th Oscar ceremony on Sunday night felt unremarkable, running along without incident with a line-up of winners that was never surprising. There were some nice touches along the way, including host Jimmy Kimmel's opening newsreel montage and his dry, sharply pointed opening monolog. Many of the thank you speeches were also topical, touching on key themes of inclusion and diversity. The star moment went to an impassioned Frances McDormand.

Meanwhile, the show was stolen by Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph, who appeared holding their high heels to present a couple of awards. That made as strong a statement as any, and their banter was flat-out hilarious. Clearly the producers worked overtime to compile a diverse list of presenters, with an emphasis on women and ethnicities. Some of the homage sequences were a little odd (looking at war movies through the decades?), and Kimmel's star-packed trip to the cinema next door was clever but rather corny.

Other highlights included powerful performances of all five song nominees and welcome wins for A Fantastic Woman and long-time nominee Roger Deakins. Although the sweep by The Shape of Water felt somewhat excessive. A good film rather than a great one, its message to outsiders was certainly timely. And frankly, if the ceremony was more entertaining, we wouldn't mind if it was longer.

Meanwhile, back in the screening room, Rooney Mara stars in the biblical drama Mary Magdalene, which is a little too reverent to properly spring to life, despite a strong cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tahar Rahim as Jesus, Peter and Judas, respectively. Gringo stars David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton in a lively, funny, entertaining but ultimately pointless action comedy. Peter Rabbit is a fast-paced, genuinely amusing romp mixing photo-real animation with live-action (Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne are adorable) to riff on the classic Beatrix Potter stories. And the documentary Mansfield 66/67 traces the final years of the iconic bombshell, whose notorious friendship with Satanic church leader Anton LaVey sparked rumours of a curse surrounding her death at age 34.

Coming up this week are screenings of Alicia Vikander in the Tomb Raider reboot, Bella Thorne in Midnight Sun, Mathieu Amalric in My Golden Days, the dark drama My Friend Dahmer, the teen drama Screwed and something called Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Out on a limb: Oscar picks & predictions

Here we go again: it's the 90th Academy Awards, and it seems as predictable as always. Hopefully they'll throw some surprises in on Sunday night. So even though I rarely get many of these right, here are my votes, who I think will win and who might sneak in and take home the prize. I'm always hoping for an upset...

Will win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Could win: The Shape of Water
Should win: Dunkirk

Will / should win: A Fantastic Woman
Could win: The Insult
Dark horse: Loveless

Will / should win: Coco
Dark horse: The Breadwinner

Will / should win: Faces Places
Could win: Strong Island

Will win: The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro
Should / could win: Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan

Will / should win: Call Me by Your Name - James Ivory
Could win: Molly's Game - Aaron Sorkin
Dark horse: Mudbound - Virgil Williams, Dee Rees

Will / should win: Three Billboards - Martin McDonagh
Could win: Get Out - Jordan Peele
Dark horse: Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig

Will / should win: Frances McDormand - Three Billboards
Could win: Sally Hawkins - The Shape of Water
Dark horse: Saoirse Ronan - Lady Bird

Will win: Gary Oldman - Darkest Hour
Should win: Timothee Chalamet - Call Me by Your Name

Will win: Allison Janney - I, Tonya
Could win: Laurie Metcalf - Lady Bird

Will / should win: Sam Rockwell - Three Billboards
Could win: Willem Dafoe - The Florida Project

Will win: The Shape of Water - Alexandre Desplat
Should win: Phantom Thread - Jonny Greenwood

Will win: This Is Me - The Greatest Showman
Should win: Remember Me - Coco

Will win: Blade Runner 2049 - Roger A Deakins
Should win: Dunkirk - Hoyte van Hoytema

Will win: Baby Driver - Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos
Should win: Dunkirk - Lee Smith
Dark horse: I, Tonya - Tatiana S Riegel

Will win: Blade Runner 2049
Should win: The Shape of Water

Will / should win: Phantom Thread

Will / should win: Blade Runner 2049
Dark horse: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

Will / should win: Darkest Hour

Will win: The Shape of Water
Should win: Dunkirk
Could win: Blade Runner 2049

Friday, 2 March 2018

Critical Week: Out of the shadows

Amid an unprecedented onslaught of snow and freezing temperatures, London critics caught up with a few big titles this week. Jennifer Lawrence is the main reason to see Red Sparrow, an overlong, rather muddily plotted Russian spy thriller. And Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make the most of a surprisingly smart, funny script in the action-comedy Game Night. Then there were two new sci-fi films by hotshot British filmmakers, released directly to Netflix in the UK: Annihilation is Alex Garland's followup to Ex Machina, and it's a swirling, gripping, smartly obtuse odyssey starring Natalie Portman. Duncan Jones' Mute stars Alexander Skarsgard against type as a shy Amish barman in a Blade Runner-esque Berlin, but the plot gets lost amid its murky gyrations.

Further afield, The Lullaby is a gleefully grisly South African horror film that plays with some deeper, darker themes but never quite digs in to them. From Russian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, A Gentle Creature is a gorgeously shot and cleverly acted Kafkaesque parable about a nation that has lost its own soul. And I tracked down the final two Oscar nominated features I hadn't seen: The Breadwinner is a powerfully moving, flat-out gorgeous Irish-Canadian animated drama set in Taliban-era Kabul, while there was also this best actor nominee...

Roman J. Israel, Esq.
dir-scr Dan Gilroy; with Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell 17/US ***
Denzel Washington gives one of his most enjoyably textured performances yet in this offbeat legal drama, which tells an intriguing story while grappling with some very big issues. Washington is the title character, a veteran lawyer whose life changes drastically when his more-public partner dies. He ends up going to work for slick hotshot George (Colin Farrell) while trying to help some vulnerable clients and taking some dodgy actions that benefit him personally but also put him in danger. The film is gripping as it follows Roman as he begins to emerge from his shell, breaking rules, ruffling feathers, flirting with an unfeasibly gorgeous charity lawyer (Carmen Ejogo) and, when he discovers that George has both a mind and a conscience, begins mentoring him without him even realising it. As it gets increasingly knotted, writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) loses control of the overlong narrative, with some over-detailed tangents and undercooked themes. And the side characters never seem to have a life of their own. But the smart script allows Washington to continually add wit and subtext to each scene. And he makes the film worth watching.

It's Oscar night on Sunday, which here in London means staying up all night to watch the ceremony live from Los Angeles. Naps will be required. And this coming week, I'll catch up with Rooney Mara in Mary Magdalene, Domhnall Gleeson in Peter Rabbit and the documentary Mansfield 66/67, among other things.