Sunday, 29 September 2019

Raindance: Get a move on

The 27th Raindance Film Festival wraps up another big year tonight, having taken over the Vue Piccadilly and other venues for the past 10 days to celebrate truly independent films from all over the world. Of course, this kind of programming makes it tricky to sell tickets, and it has often seemed that audiences were made up mostly of accredited industry and press. But it's great to have the filmmakers on hand to introduce their films and offer Q&A sessions after each screening.

The Planters
dir-scr Hannah Leder, Alexandra Kotcheff; with Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder 19/US ***
Quirky and colourful, this offbeat comedy-drama centres on an unlikely friendship between two women, played by filmmakers Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder (above). The movie is sometimes a little too nutty for its own good, but this also makes it refreshingly unpredictable. Scenes are short and sharp, with witty observations about day-to-day life in a place that's rather a long way from anyone's dream... FULL REVIEW >

Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly
dir Cheryl Haines; with Ai Weiwei, Cheryl Haines 19/US ****
Beautifully assembled by first-time filmmaker Cheryl Haines, this documentary traces Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's exhibition exploring people who have been imprisoned for their beliefs and speech. His art is of course stunning, inventively unpeeling the themes to make them resonate on a powerfully human level. And Haines documents this project in such a clever way that the film carries its own emotional gut punch.

dir Dave Mclean; with Conor Berry, Tara Lee 19/UK ***
"Proudly made in Dundee", this Scottish comedy kicks off in high-energy mode and stays there. With its early 1980s setting, a pulsing sense of pop music and a very thick brogue, the film explodes with attitude as filmmaker Dave Mclean recounts events from his own life. The characters are likeably hapless, scraping by on sheer bravado. But it's not easy to find a way into the story... FULL REVIEW >

Masters of Love
dir-scr Matt Roberts; with Ciaran Dowd, Sarah Ovens 19/UK ***
This nicely made British comedy-drama centres on a group of people in their 30s going through the usual transitions in life while the world throws all kinds of messiness at them. The film playfully skewers current social situations, most notably the impact of technology on relationships. There's nothing particularly revelatory in here, but it's sharply written, directed and played. So it occasionally strikes a nerve... FULL REVIEW >


dir-scr Rishi Pelham; with; Megan Purvis, Yasmin Al-Khudhairi 19/UK ***
Sharply well directed and shot, this British drama has a terrific sense of London from the perspective of its teen protagonist. Lush and colourful, the film vividly captures youth culture and the attitudes that accompany it. It also has a lovely musicality to it, beautifully rendered by writer-director Rishi Pelham, who is also a composer. So the emotions are raw and honest. But everything is heightened and often rather hard to watch, as events are seen through the eyes of a child under duress.

Emma Peeters
dir-scr Nicole Palo; with Monia Chokri, Fabrice Adde 18/Bel ***.
There's jazzy sensibility to this cheeky Belgian film, which follows an actress who feels like she has missed her chance. Comedies about suicide are difficult to balance, so thankfully writer-director Nicole Palo keeps the tone light, making it clear without saying so that this isn't likely to end in tears. But the issues it touches on are real, and the gimmicky stylistic touches are good fun... FULL REVIEW >

The Racer [Coureur]
dir-scr Kenneth Mercken;with Niels Willaerts, Koen De Graeve 18/Bel ***.
With a thoughtful tone, this Belgian drama has a notably introspective perspective, based on the firsthand experiences of writer-director Kenneth Mercken. This makes it much more unblinking than other movie biopics examining the distinct issues that surround this sport. This is a sometimes difficult film to watch. And at its core, it's a bracingly complex coming-of-age story centred around a prickly, difficult young man.

The Long Haul The Story of the Buckaroos
dir Amy Enser; scr Kaleb Kerrwith John Betchtel, 
Keon Price, Josh Palmer, Erik Cargill, Jonathan Houser, Kaleb Kerr, Chris Pink
release US Jun.19 siff, UK Sep.19 rff • 19/US 1h24 ***

There's a lively energy to this documentary about a cabaret show at Seattle's legendary Can Can club. And director Amy Enser finds added interest as she digs into the idea of masculinity through the eyes of a group of male burlesque dancers who deliberately look like ordinary guys, as opposed to Magic Mike musclemen. The film is enjoyably intimate, centring on conversations with these men, although it feels oddly incomplete, never quite following through on some big ideas, letting plot strands fall away or become blurred, and pointedly avoiding some important questions.

Enser sets out the film in an experimental way, aiming for something interactive. Many sequences were staged specifically for the movie, hosted by writer Kerr playing a cowboy called T-Bone Tucker. These are intercut with more standard fly-on-the-wall documentary footage. While the two elements don't quite gel, they are both finely well shot and edited, recounting witty anecdotes and letting the audience into the personal lives of a handful of the performers. All of them are lively and positive, from the show's creator/papa bear John aka Bronco, to lifelong dancer Keon aka The Deputy and class clown Josh aka Slam. These guys are traditionally hunky, as opposed to the tall-skinny Erik aka Slim and the smiley-pudgy Jonathan aka Hoss. The audience of women and both gay and straight men goes equally mad for all of them.

This is the most engaging thing about this film, as it challenges standard notions of masculinity and what makes a man sexy. These guys have terrific camaraderie, which John compares to his days playing team sports. So when John announces that after 10 years he's leaving, it's understandable that the crew is shaken. The film's editing kind of botches this part of the story (he packs the moving truck but doesn't leave?). And Enser seems to deliberately want to avoid any questions of sexuality, which surely are salient, especially in the current cultural climate. But the film has a joyous bounce to it, lots of sexy footage and a wonderfully subversive sensibility that makes us hope that this kind of everyman burlesque becomes a thing.

Official RAINDANCE site
Shadows' RAINDANCE homepage (full reviews will be linked here)

Friday, 27 September 2019

Stage: From China with love

Soul of Shaolin
Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre
26 September - 6 October

In London for the first time, this show was originally created for the 2008 Olympics, then had a Tony-nominated run on Broadway before travelling around the world. It recounts a story through Shaolin kung fu that has been handed down through the generations in a Chan buddhist temple near Dengfeng.

Staged with a large cast of about 20 performers, this show is an elaborately choreographed action epic with an emotional kick at the end. The fights may feel more like dance than martial arts, but there are jaw-dropping stunts scattered through the entire show, including some spectacular ones involving smacking sticks, pointy spears and a balloon behind a pane of glass.

The story centres on a baby hidden by his mother as her town is looted. He's rescued by a Shaolin monk and taught kung fu as he grows up wondering about his mother, who left half of a jade amulet with him. Of course she kept the other half, and their reunion many years later brings some surprises. The narrative is recounted in blocks of text on the huge video backdrop (hint: there's time to skim, not to read). Each of the colourfully staged set pieces feeds into this narrative, which helps bring three characters to life: the lead Hui Guang, his mum and the monk who raised him.

It's thoroughly eye-catching, and the performers even get to show some personality as they go through their paces. There's some Bruce Leeing, Jackie Channing and Karate Kidding along the way, inducing gasps from the audience. These performers are amazingly bendy, bouncing off and landing on their heads, backs, knees, shoulders. A group of youngsters is particularly enjoyable to watch as they soar and tumble with seemingly no weight at all. All of them are nimble and very gifted athletes, and the story they tell may feel a little over-serious and hammy, but it's remarkably moving. 

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Raindance: Suburban angst

The 27th Raindance Film Festival is underway in London, with a wonderfully eclectic programme of independent films from all over the world. It's a lively, friendly event at which the filmmakers mix with audiences in a way that other film festivals never quite manage. Certainly the London Film Festival doesn't even attempt that - and for a journalist it's always a bad schedule clash as Raindance takes place during the advance press screening schedule for LFF, so days are very long! But as Raindance founder Elliot Grove says, "You can sleep when it's over." Here's a first batch of highlights including the opening film Krow's Transformation below, followed by my usual Critical Week, because those regular movie releases keep coming as well...

Greener Grass 
dir-scr Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe; with Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe 19/US ****
With an exhilaratingly bonkers tone, this suburban satire uses surrealism to maximum effect, as if it's the lovechild of David Lynch and John Waters. Drenched in lurid pinks and blues, the film looks simply amazing, and actor-filmmakers Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe (above) pack every moment of the film with witty touches, astutely skewering a society that places value on surface over substance. Yet even as it's laugh-out-loud hilarious, there are strong emotions gurgling underneath.

World Beyond My Mind [Draussen in Meinem Kopf]
dir Eibe Maleen Krebs; with Samuel Koch, Nils Hohenhovel 18/Ger ***. 
Dark and provocative, this intense German drama explores a complex friendship between two young men who begin to desperately need each other. It's jagged and often difficult to watch, simply because the material is so pointed. Filmmaker Eibe Maleen Krebs skilfully avoids claustrophobia even though the entire story takes place in one room, using the camera, lighting and a cast of vivid characters to challenge the audience's imagination in perhaps dangerous ways.

The Waiter 
dir-scr Steve Krikris; with Aris Servetalis, Yannis Stankoglou 18/Gr ***
Greek filmmaker Steve Krikris brings plenty of moody visual style to this dark drama, so it holds the interest as it slowly creeps through a plot that swirls with suggestion. But as the film continues, it becomes increasingly clear that there's very little to it. Basically a character study, it's very nicely observed but too contrived and humourless to work on any more than a superficial level... FULL REVIEW >

Label Me
dir-scr Kai Kreuser; with Renato Schuch, Nikolaus Benda 19/Ger ****
Dark and thoughtful, this German drama is beautifully understated as it explores the complexities of identity for an immigrant who is afraid to let anyone see who he really is. Within a brief running time, writer-director Kai Kreuser maintains a tight focus on the shifting balance of power between two central characters, wasting no time on melodrama or the usual gyrations of plot structure... FULL REVIEW >

Imperial Blue 
dir Dan Moss; with Nicolas Fagerberg, Esther Tebandeke 19/UK **
Traversing three continents, this British thriller is seriously ambitious, perhaps too much so for these inexperienced filmmakers. Director-cowriter Dan Moss is working with a great idea here, but the script perhaps wasn't quite ready to shoot, as it is riddled with gaps in logic. And the direction feels a little haphazard as well, with scenes that feel unplanned or incomplete. Still, the central story and fascinating locations do hold the attention.

Krow’s Transformation
dir Gina Hole Lazarowich
with Krow Kian, Lisa Jacobsen, Kas Baker, Dexter Quinto, Liz Bell, Emily Seal, Ashton Sciacallo
release UK Sep.19 rff • 19/Canada 1h29 ***.

This is a fairly straightforward narrative documentary covering three years in the journey of a young man's transition from female to male, including of course a major shift in his modelling career. It's beautifully shot and edited without any gimmicks, tracing Krow's journey with real intimacy as he, his friends and family let the cameras into their lives. The details the film includes are fascinating, openly discussing private aspects of a trans man's new life. Krow's trans musician friend Kas also speaks candidly to the cameras about his own journey, letting the crew document his wedding to Emily.

Filmmaker Gina Hole Lazarowich begins following Krow as a pre-transition 18-year-old in Vancouver, talking about how he felt growing up, realising that his gender was an issue. He first contemplated suicide at 11. His mother Lisa encouraged him to start modelling (as a girl) at age 13 in Japan, then he made a group of transgender and queer friends, including best pal Ashton. His mother wasn't so supporting of his transition, believing it was a fad and worrying about the permanence of this "life choice". But she also knew the importance of assuring Krow that she loved him no matter what. "It has nothing to do with me," she says. "It's about him and what he needs, not what he wants." There are also powerful discussions about loneliness, knowing that no one will ever understand this but recognising that some people will offer love and support.

Seeing both old and new clips is fascinating, as it highlights Krow's physical changes, most notably his deeper voice and masculine manner. And photographer Dexter talks about how interesting it has been to shoot photos of Krow before and after his transition. The best thing about this doc is the way Krow takes everything in its stride: his situation is normal for him, and shouldn't be seen as shocking. So while it's not easy, for example, to learn to give yourself testosterone injections every day, you'll get there. Each person who shares their experience in this film allows the audience into their thoughts and feelings, which makes the film remarkably emotional. And these powerful moments are dotted all the way through.

Official RAINDANCE site
Shadows' RAINDANCE homepage (full reviews of all films will be linked here)

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K

Aside from London Film Festival titles (more about those after the festival starts on 2nd October), I've also caught up this week with the terrific true story Skin, featuring a ripping performance from Jamie Bell as a violent racist. Naomie Harris is by far the best thing about the rather substandard cop thriller Black and Blue. Mathieu Amalric leads the enjoyable men's synchro swimming comedy-drama Sink or Swim (the same story was the British movie Swimming With Men last year). The British-Norwegian WWII thriller The Birdcatcher looks great but is too melodramatic to take seriously. The Bulgarian-Russian fable Aga is gorgeous both visually and thematically. And because there were no press screenings, I bought a ticket to see Rambo: Last Blood, which was far worse than it needed to be.

This coming week's press screenings will include Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, Adam Driver in The Report, Keira Knightley in Official Secrets, Will Smith in Gemini Man and the wartime allegory Werewolf. Can it really be October already?

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Critical Week: Family time

These are busy days in the screening rooms, with festival films as well as the usual forthcoming releases. And the awards season has also begun to rear its head with for-your-consideration screenings. It'll be like this for the rest of the year! This week I caught up with the Cannes-winning Parasite by Bong Joon-ho, a staggering drama about a family of con-artists that continually twists and turns to keep the audience gasping. There was the second Shaun the Sheep Movie, Farmageddon, which is just as sweet and hilarious, if a bit more madcap, than the first. Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss all go against type in the thriller The Kitchen, which struggles to find its tone. And Ready or Not is a horror comedy that's funny and very grisly, but not scary at all.

Awkwafina is terrific in a dramatic role in The Farewell, a charming and involving drama set in China. The gifted Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) is back with the important, unnerving and rather long dramatic thriller The Nightingale, set in 19th century Tasmania. Celine Sciamma (Girlhood) is back with the staggeringly good, utterly unmissable period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Richard Kind gets a rare serious role in the gentle, uneven virtual reality drama Auggie. The inventive but messy black comedy Groupers takes on homophobia in ways that will make everyone feel uncomfortable. And this beautiful documentary opens this week...

dir Kristof Bilsen; scr Kristof Bilsen, Xan Marquez Caneda
with Chutimon "Pomm" Sonsirichai, Maya Gloor, Elizabeth Rohner, Martin Woodli,
Walter Gloor, Joyce Gloor, Sara Gloor, Tanja Gloor
release UK 20.Sep.19 • 19/Belgium 1h22 ****

Reflective and intimate, this understated documentary simply follows women who initially seem completely different but reveal layers of common ground between them. Filmmaker Kristof Bilsen cuts between Thailand and Switzerland, quietly observing mothers and children as they connect to each other in unexpected ways. This gives the film a gently involving narrative, allowing the audience to experience these situations and emotions in a vivid way.

Pomm is a care worker from an isolated Thai village. She only gets to see her children when she's on holiday, and feels guilty that she isn't there all the time. Her job is to work with the Western patients at Baan Kamlangchay, an Alzheimer's care centre in Chiang-Mai. One of these is Elizabeth, a smiley woman who occasionally wonders where she is. "You're on holiday in Thailand," Pomm cheerfully reminds her, calling her "granny". Pomm feels that her patients are family, and she uses emotions to communicate with them. Meanwhile in Switzerland, Maya has early onset Alzheimer's at 57, and is being readied by her family to travel to Chiang-Mai. Maya's husband and daughters are sensitive to criticism that they are sending her away, but from their perspective this is a sacrifice, giving up their time with her so she can have a better life and proper care. As Pomm is grieving Elizabeth's death, Maya moves in, and they begin a new relationship.

The film is beautifully shot without ever being pushy about themes, offering remarkable insight into a variety of issues, including a young woman who needs to work two jobs to support a family she rarely sees and also the importance of providing dignified care for Alzheimer's patients. It's fascinating to see how Pomm identifies with women who have lost their past lives. She longs to hug her mother, who takes care of her kids, but the culture forbids it, so she lavishes affection on her patients instead. She's also well aware that if she needed this kind of care, she could never afford it. Yes, this is the kind of doc that makes us think.

Much of my time at the moment is being taken up with festival screenings. The Raindance Film Festival is running right now (18-29 Sep), and press screenings have already begun for the London Film Festival (2-13 Oct). I'll of course have more updates on both of those! And there are also regular movies screening for the press these days, including Naomie Harris in Black and Blue, Juliette Binoche in Non-Fiction, Jamie Bell in Skin, Mathieu Amalric in Sink or Swim and the horror movie The Birdcatcher

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Critical Week: Turn the tables

The women ruled at this week's press screenings. Jennifer Lopez (with Constance Wu, above) chomps merrily on the scenery all the way through Hustlers, a far-too-energetic retelling of a true story about strippers who con Wall Street clients out of their cash. Renee Zellweger is nothing short of astonishing in the terrific biopic Judy, following a few months near the end of the icon's life with passion and emotional power. And Downton Abbey brings those fabulous grand dames to the big screen. The men are there too, but who cares when Maggie Smith is shooting daggers at Penelope Wilton?

Brad Pitt travels into space, and into his own repressed daddy issues, in the muted and rather odd Ad Astra, a gorgeous sci-fi epic that simply fails to resonate. Peter Sarsgaard leads the charge as a quirky-nerdy house tuner in The Sound of Silence, a nutty little drama that's more intriguing than involving. From Colombia, Monos is a ripping dramatic thriller about a group of teens working for some sort of paramilitary organisation, isolated in the mountains and then jungle. It looks amazing, and packs a punch. And there were two documentaries: the harrowing Sea of Shadows skilfully traces the horrors inflicted by humans on the diverse sea life in the Gulf of California, while Mother is a sensitive, powerfully moving look at a carer who works with European Alzheimer's patients in Thailand.

This coming week, there are no press screenings for Sylvester Stallone's franchise closer Rambo: Last Blood, so we'll be at the cinemas with everyone else to see this swan song. But we do have screenings lined up for the comedy-horror Ready or Not, Awkwafina in the comedy-drama The Farewell, Dev Patel in the true drama Hotel Mumbai, the claymation sequel A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, Celine Sciamma's acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the British drama Real. Advance press screenings also start next week for the BFI London Film Festival (which runs 2-13 Oct).

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Critical Week: If looks could kill

Yes, it's been yet another eclectic week in the screening rooms, as film critics scavenged for press previews of movies so we could write about them. Films this week were relatively low-key, a gasp of breath between the summer blockbusters and the early trickle from the autumn film festivals. There was the moody police procedural Night Hunter, starring Alexandra Daddario and Henry Cavill (above) as cops, along with Ben Kingsley as a vigilante. The week's biggest movie was screened to us in nearly three hours of Imax, namely It: Chapter Two. The original kids are back in flashbacks with the likes of James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader playing them as adults. It's grislier than the first film, and a bit more grown-up in its themes, but more fun than scary. And Sarah Hyland stars in the rom-com The Wedding Year, which feels fluffy and genuinely witty as it mixes some deeper ideas into the usual formula.

Off the beaten path there was the sleek, low-budget thriller Empathy Inc, shot in black and white and full of big ideas, some of which go somewhere. Seeds is a brainy freak-out in which yucky monsters menace a flawed man in his old-money family home. Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots is a lively, raucous night in the streets with two gay buddies. It feels scruffy and a little unfinished. From Argentina, Rojo is a strikingly clever drama exploring 1970s politics with a very dark story. And ee also had the programme launch for next month's London Film Festival, which as always will be a glut of great movies across the city's cinemas.

Coming up this next week, awards contenders are starting to rear their heads, as well as some autumn crowd-pleasers: Renee Zellweger is Judy, Brad Pitt goes into space for Ad Astra, the entire Downton Abbey cast reassembles on the big screen, Jennifer Lopez leads a pack of Hustlers, and Sea of Shadows documents environmental issues surrounding fishing.