Wednesday, 17 October 2018

LFF: It is your destiny!

I'm finally back from my globe-hopping, and dove right back into press screenings for the 62nd London Film Festival, which has entered its final stretch now. My jet lag seems to be helping rather than sending me into a coma, thankfully. And I'm enjoying the buzz of the festival, if not the mammoth crowds of accredited journalists this year (which leads to vast queues for each screening). But it's great to be back in the swing of things - and to see those daily red carpets drawing crowds of fans in Leicester Square in the evening. Here are seven highlights from Tuesday and Wednesday...

Outlaw King
dir David Mackenzie; with Chris Pine, Florence Pugh 18/UK ***.
David Mackenzie brings the historical saga of Robert the Bruce to life with a sharp mix of introspective drama and epic-scale grandeur. This makes the film both darkly involving and gorgeous to look at, although the emotions are somewhat elusive and the narrative perspective never quite comes into focus. But the drama is strong, and the battles are enjoyably messy and grisly, even if they're also rather choppy.

dir-scr Mike Leigh; with Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake 18/UK ***
Produced on a frankly awesome scale, this dramatisation of historical events from 1819 Britain wears out the audience with its endless speech-making, basing the narrative on ideas rather than a coherent sense of story. Each scene is fascinating, and it builds to a staggering climax, but the vast number of distinct characters and rambling structure leave it feeling somewhat dry. It's basically a spectacularly produced museum exhibition.

dir Luca Guadagnino; with Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton 18/It ***
Luca Guadagnino takes on Dario Argento's bonkers 1977 masterwork and spins it into a politically aware horror epic that's so over-serious that it often forces the viewer to stifle a giggle. It's also darkly creepy, and infused with a bizarre emotionality that never quite makes sense but registers almost subliminally. And the long running-time allows for a seriously extended bloodbath finale... FULL REVIEW >

Support the Girls
dir-scr Andrew Bujalski; with Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson 18/US ***.
Crisply well-written in a way that avoids the most obvious gags, this dramatic satire pokes fun at those American chains that require waitresses to dress in skimpy outfits and have no more more than one black waitress on duty per shift. While recounting a day in the life of a frazzled manager, writer-director Bujalski astutely observes the issues in a way that's quietly involving rather than madcap funny.

Birds of Passage [Pájaros de Verano]
dir Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra; with Carmina Martinez, Jose Acosta 18/Col ***.
Using real events and traditions from the Wayuu culture in northern Colombia, this involving drama tells a fascinating, deeply human tale about an escalating cycle of revenge. But there's added meaning since what happens is fuelled by a combination of isolationism and colonial invasion. It's a striking film that remains earthy and honest even as it touches on magical realism.

After the Screaming Stops
dir Joe Pearlman, David Soutar; with Luke Goss, Matt Goss 18/UK BBC ***
Matt and Luke Goss turn out to be such great characters that it feels like their words in this biographical documentary have been written by a comedy genius. But no, this film uses archives and newly captured footage to trace their reunion as Bros for a concert in London 28 years after they famously split up. It's a fast, snappy movie, although it's also a bit squirm-inducing since the most riotously entertaining dialog is unintentionally funny.

Bisbee '17
dir Robert Greene; with Fernando Serrano, Becky Reyes 18/US ****
This chilling documentary features a town re-enacting the darkest chapter in its history 100 years later to the day. Filmmaker Robert Greene ambitiously overlays history in the present-day town, which has struggled with the horrific truth of these events. It's strikingly well shot and edited, and performed full-on by the townsfolk with an undercurrent of quiet contemplation... FULL REVIEW >

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

The only other films I've seen over the past 12 days have been on very, very long flights. This includes finally catching up with the horror adventure It (rather good fun) and the survival drama The Mountain Between Us (beautifully made, nicely acted, corny story), revisiting The Last Jedi (I still like it!) and catching two new releases: Operation Finale (a great story, somewhat clumsily told) and Disobedience (a messy story, brilliantly well acted). And I am just beginning to add press screenings into the diary for next week, including Beautiful Boy, Monsters and Men and Adrift in Soho.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

LFF: Flights of fancy

The 62nd London Film Festival continues on without me, as I wish I was there! But I saw several films before I flew off to the other side of the earth, and here are some highlights from days 4 to 6, including some gorgeous animation, a fumbled multi-strand all-star drama, an auspicious directing debut, a Cannes best actor winner, and a couple of extraordinary docs...

dir-scr Mamoru Hosoda; voices Moka Kamishiraishi, Haru Kuroki 18/Jpn ****
Japanese anime features are terrific at combining flights of fantasy with deeper, resonant themes. And this movie is a beautiful portrait of family connections, exploring the nature of relationships between spouses, siblings, parents and children through the generations. The story is relatively simple, and yet its flourishes are packed with provocative meaning for both adults and kids in the audience.

Life Itself
dir-scr Dan Fogelman; with Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde 18/US **
Writer-director Dan Fogelman has gone from his hit TV series This Is Us to a film with an even more anodyne title. His approach here is similar, leaping around various timelines to tell the story of a family over three generations. And this time he ambitiously weaves in a second family and continent. But even the persistent voiceover can't connect the leaps in logic or overwrought sentimentality... FULL REVIEW >

dir Paul Dano; with Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal 18/US ****
Beautifully shot to emphasise the unspoken feelings of the three central characters, this film gets deep under the skin with its dark emotions and intense drama. It's a terrific directing debut for Paul Dano, cutting through the noise to quietly expose the inner lives of the characters from the perspective of a singularly sensitive teen boy... FULL REVIEW >

dir Matteo Garrone; with Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce 18/It ****
There's a gritty, gloomy tone to this Italian drama, but filmmaker Matteo Garrone cleverly undermines the overt sadness using a steady stream of wry humour. With themes that echo through classic Italian cinema (strong parallels with Fellini's Nights of Cabiria), the film skilfully and artfully explores the idea of hope even amid darkly violent situations. The characters are vivid, as are the emotions... FULL REVIEW >

Bad Reputation
dir Kevin Kerslake; with Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna 18/US ****
With a driving rock 'n' roll vibe, this documentary traces the career of one of our most iconic rockers: Joan Jett. As a take-no-prisoners woman, her story seriously inspiring, even if she would balk at the thought. This is a hugely entertaining film, recounting her life with humour and texture, revealing her as a dedicated musician who has never forgotten who she is... FULL REVIEW >

Won't You Be My Neighbor?
dir Morgan Neville; with Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers 18/US ****.
Warm and engaging, this documentary lets the iconic TV personality Fred Rogers narrate his own story using extensive archival interviews and a wide range of clips. Director Morgan Neville skilfully crafts a film that's both fast-paced and deeply personal, exploring exactly what made Rogers such a one-off. It also vividly captures his message that the essentials in life are invisible to the eye... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

LFF: Start the party without me

The 62nd London Film Festival kicked off on Wednesday evening with Steve McQueen's Widows. Unfortunately, I was halfway around the world at the time, in the tiny town of Kavieng on New Ireland island in Papua New Guinea. A family event (more on that in another post) took me away from the London Film Festival for 10 days this year - my 22nd year covering the event. I've seen several films beforehand, and will be back to binge on movies over the final five days. So my coverage won't be quite as deep as usual. But here we go with some highlights from the first three days, starting with something bracingly original (pictured above)...

Border [Gräns]
dir Ali Abbasi; with Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff 18/Swe ****
This Swedish film is such a genre mash-up that it's relentlessly surprising, with an engaging through-line that also makes it darkly satisfying. Mixing comedy, romance, mystery, horror and Norse mythology, each scene provides a thrill of the unexpected as secrets are revealed and the interconnections between the rather oddball characters continually shift... FULL REVIEW >

dir Wash Westmoreland; with Keira Knightley, Dominic West 18/UK *****
Much more than a period biopic, this inventive film digs beneath the surface of its people and situations to offer both a refreshing angle on history and a bold comment on the world today. Finally, it ends up feeling bracingly current, exploring both gender issues in ways that are both honest and understated. And it's beautifully written, directed and performed... FULL REVIEW >

dir Craig William Macneill; with Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart 18/US ***.
The sensational true story of Lizzie Borden is told in an intriguingly naturalistic style by filmmaker Craig William Macneill. It's a remarkably thoughtful film, packed with insinuating plot points and earthy performances. And Macneill uses deliberately choppy editing to drop hints and reveal the chain of events out of sequence. It's rather chilly, and very cleverly made... FULL REVIEW >

dir Panos Cosmatos; with Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough 18/Bel ***.
Set in 1983, this film has a strong period vibe, echoing the era's horror thrillers everything from the themes to the typeface. Benjamin Loeb's grainy widescreen cinematography and Johann Johannsson's haunting score further add to the tone. Filmmaker Panos Cosmatos creates a deliciously deranged mix of grisly violence and witty characters, although the inevitable climactic carnage is at least 30 minutes too long... FULL REVIEW >

The Breaker Upperers
dir-scr Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek; with Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek 18/NZ ****
With this engaging comedy, the Kiwi duo Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami keep up a steady stream of hilarious gags from beginning to end in each of their roles: as writers, directors and actors. Much of the film has the awkward, absurd tone of Taika Waititi's work (he's a producer), creating riotously sloppy characters who are deeply likeable even when they're doing something painfully stupid.

Papi Chulo
dir-scr John Butler; with Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patino 18/Ire ***.
Irish filmmaker John Butler traces an offbeat friendship in this engaging comedy-drama, which takes a turn that adds a complex exploration of a deep theme. It's a charming story with intriguing characters who interact in honest, messy ways. So while the events in the movie sometimes tip over the top, the story and characters remain easy to identify with.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Critical Week: Up against the wall

It's been another busy week in the screening rooms as I prepare to travel over the next couple of weeks. One of the bigger titles wasn't screened for most of the press, so I had to buy a ticket to see Venom, Tom Hardy's Marvel movie, a spin-off that has is again marred by that glut of murky grey digital animation. Otherwise, Hardy is charming and makes up for a rather dull plot. Life Itself was also a disappointment. From the creator of This Is Us, it's an over-ambitious multi-generational schmaltz-fest, but the acting is excellent (Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas) and there are strong moments here and there. Much more fun, Johnny English Strikes Again returns Rowan Atkinson to the goofy James Bond spoof character. The film is very silly, but it's also genuinely funny.

Moving into art-film territory, Suspiria is Luca Guadagnino's remake of the Dario Argento classic, a bonkers satanic dance freak-out with Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton (both superb). White Boy Rick gives Matthew McConaughey another strong role as the dad to the title character (the excellent Richie Merritt), a teen caught between the FBI and 1980s Detroit drug kingpins. Joaquin Phoenix is solid as cartoonish Jim Callahan in the biopic Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. As directed by Gus Van Sant, it's wonderfully experiential. And Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Steward are terrific in Lizzie, an offbeat period piece spinning the story of notorious murder suspect Lizzie Borden.

Even further afield, An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn is a thoroughly nutty and oddly loveable comedy-drama with Aubrey Plaza and Jemaine Clement. Papi Chulo is an involving drama about an odd friendship between Matt Bomer and a hired workman (Alejandro Patino). Cruise is a nostalgic teen romance set in late-80s Queen. There were also two gems from Scandinavia: Border is an indescribably brilliant fairy tale from Sweden, while Heavy Trip is a hilariously engaging road movie about a scruffy death metal band from Finland. Made in Germany because it could never be made in Iran, Tehran Taboo is a beautifully animated story of young people fighting an oppressive culture. And Testosterone: Volume One is a collection of four shorts, three of which are about very mopey gay men, while the other is a black comedy about murdering a friend.

I have no plans to see any films at all over the next 10 or 11 days, as I will be travelling halfway around the world on a charity trip. I'll blog about that afterwards! I return to London in time for the last four days of the London Film Festival, so will be playing catch-up then.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

26th Raindance: Pop the question

The Raindance Film Festival arrives each autumn with the promise of a banquet of films that are far more truly independent that anything on the Sundance programme. The hitch is that Raindance always arrives just as press screenings kick off for the London Film Festival, a far bigger and more important event for journalists. Many decide to skip Raindance completely, but I've always tried to at least get a flavour of the festival. And this year I did better than usual.

Features: I have caught 10 features this year, which isn't bad even though it's only a tiny slice of the broad and deep programme. Actually, my favourite of these was one I saw in Venice in 2017, Sara Forestier's amazing drama M. The others were a range of intriguing, offbeat, sometimes wildly ambitious films that are packed with surprising moments. British comedy Love Possibly (above) is a witty improv-style mock-doc poking fun at romantic comedies. American indie Dizzy Pursuit is a clever one-room comedy hilariously lampooning how hard it is to make an indie comedy. And Redcon-1 is a messy, big-scale British zombie action thriller.

Docs: Raindance specialises in offbeat documentaries (doesn't every film festival these days?), so I caught a range of them. George Michael: Freedom is the director's cut of the deeply insightful biographical doc the iconic singer-songwriter himself completed the week before he died. Ruminations is a lovely look into the lives of the famed Cockettes performance art troupe, through the eyes of colourful original member Rumi Missabu. And there are brief reviews of two more Raindance docs below.

Shorts: I managed to see nine short films playing at Raindance this year. These ranged widely in quality, from the painfully obvious to the darkly insightful. None of them was a knock-out, but the best of the bunch: The Rabbi, a refreshingly complex drama from Israel that never mentions its central provocative theme out loud; 3 Siblings, a short doc about the intriguing connection between very distinct siblings (one is trans, one is gay, one is a football player) in a Sao Paulo favela; and Sunken Plum, a bold Chinese short exploring deep-seated bigotry as well as a defiant subculture. Reviews of all nine are HERE.

If the Dancer Dances
dir Maia Wechsler
with Stephen Petronio, Meg Harper, Andrea Weber, Rashaun Mitchell, Gino Grenek, Dava Fearon
18/US ***.
Brisk and bright, this dance-studio doc goes behind the scenes of an unusual production that changes the dynamic of an established company. Beautifully shot in a rehearsal space with full-length corner windows on Manhattan, the film looks terrific. And filmmaker Maia Wechsler keeps the pace snappy, capturing the personalities along with extraordinary physicalities. Up to now, Stephen Petronio's dance company has only ever performed his work. But in an effort to preserve a classic production, he decides to restage iconic choreographer Merce Cunningham's Rainforest with the help of three dancers (Mitchell, Weber and veteran performer Harper) from Cunningham's company. Stephen's dancers are surprised by this change of tack, including a new way of rehearsing without music. The film is an intriguing exploration of how dancers use muscle memory, as the original Rainforest performers discuss the singular nature of Cunningham's style, the way he stripped away obvious narrative to tell a story physically. Archive clips are superb, interviews are full of insight. And it's fascinating to watch these dancers challenge themselves to achieve something so unfamiliar, while Petronio watches bemused from the sidelines. As Cunningham said, "If the dancer dances, everything is there."

Dykes, Camera Action!
dir Caroline Berler
with Desiree Akhavan, Rose Troche, Cheryl Dunye, B Ruby Rich
18/US ***.
Fast-paced, expertly edited and informative, this documentary traces how lesbians have been portrayed in cinema over the decades, as well as the rise of gay female filmmakers who put their own ideas and stories onto the big screen. It's an intriguing angle on movie history, as the majority of films are made by and centre on straight men and the way they see women. So this angle is important, tracing the journey from negative portrayals in the 60s (The Children's Hour, The Killing of Sister George) through experimental movies of the 70s into more mainstream hits like Personal Best (1982) and The Hunger (1983). And from here, lesbian filmmakers found their voices in films like Go Fish (1994), Rose Troche's deliberately cheerful Aids-era comedy, and Lisa Cholodenko's High Art (1998), a great film by any standard. And Jamie Babbit's classic comedy But I'm a Cheerleader (1999) was hugely influential in crushing stereotypes. And then there's The Hours (2002), which was both mainstream and queer at the same time. This doc may only be an hour long, but it includes a superb range of clips and interviews with people who know what they're talking about.

Reviews of the Raindance films I've seen are online, linked through my RAINDANCE page, and I'll continue adding review links there as I see more of the movies.