Thursday, 20 October 2016

Critical Week: Up in the air

It's been a nice quiet week following the end of the London Film Festival, with only a few screenings. The Eagle Huntress is a gripping, inspiring narrative documentary that was in the LFF, but I'd missed it. It's a stunningly shot story about a 13-year-old girl in Mongolia who takes on a man's world. By contrast, the dopey teen comedy Good Kids wastes its fresh cast with a script that pretends to be a gross-out romp but turns out to be prudish and corny.

There were also three independent dramas. Lazy Eye is a thoughtful, moving story of old lovers trying to reconnect, set in picturesque Joshua Tree, California. And there were the concluding two parts of a trilogy: made in 2013, The Falls: Testament of Faith never had a UK release, so I watched it to catch up on the events following the 2012 original before seeing this year's finale The Falls: Covenant of Grace. A bit over-serious but smart, honest and moving, the three films tell a story that explores the difficult balance between sexuality and religion (the lead characters are Mormons).

This coming week, the big movie is, obviously, Marvel's Doctor Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch. We also have Idris Elba in 100 Streets, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, the horror romp The Darkest Dawn, the military drama Burning Blue and Werner Herzog's internet doc Lo and Behold. Plus I have a bit of fringe theatre to take my mind off the cinema this weekend.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

LFF 10: Close with a bang

And that's it. The 60th BFI London Film Festival came to a close tonight with the red carpet UK premiere of Ben Wheatley's Free Fire. Most of the cast were on hand (that's Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Enzo Cilenti, Jack Reynor and Cillian Murphy, above), and I'm sure the party was a lot of fun. Not that I'd know: in the 19 years I've been covering the LFF I have never been invited to a festival party. But never mind - it's about the films for me, and here are some final highlights from Sunday...

Free Fire
dir Ben Wheatley; with Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley 16/UK ***.
With a bracingly simple premise and a screen full of hilariously quirky characters, Ben Wheatley plays a jazz riff on Tarantino in this riotous shoot-em-up. The plot may be under-defined and only barely developed, but the actors are having so much fun adding various shades of comedy and intensity to their roles that they keep the audience chuckling from start to finish.

dir Christopher Guest; with Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr 16/US ***.
Using his improvisational mock-doc style, Christopher Guest takes on the world of sports mascotery. As in films like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, Guest's gifted ensemble provides a constant flow of verbal and visual gags, playing up the wackier aspects of this subculture. There's nothing particularly new here, no innovation to the format, but the movie is consistently hilarious.

The Salesman
dir-scr Asghar Farhadi; with Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti 16/Irn ****
Here's yet another almost overpoweringly perceptive everyday drama from Asghar Farhadi, putting a normal couple through a series of events that push them to the breaking point. The plot centres on unexpected conflicts that provide challenging comments on both morality and forgiveness. This is a subtle, personal film that holds the audience in its grip, unable to work out where it might be going next.

The Last Laugh 
dir Ferne Pearlstein; with Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman 16/US ****
Like The Aristocrats, this documentary explores the boundaries of what's appropriate in comedy. The specific topic here is when it's OK to crack a joke about a tragic event, specifically something as big and horrific as the Holocaust. What makes the film worth a look is how director Ferne Pearlstein strikes such a remarkable balance between the views of comics and survivors.

And finally, another film I saw in Venice was the Golden Lion winner The Woman Who Left, the riveting, nearly 4-hour drama by Lav Diaz. It was a last-minute addition to the London programme.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

LFF 9: No sudden movements

The 60th London Film Festival heads into its final day with a flurry of starry red carpets, interview events and rather a lot of challenging movies (that's Dog Eat Dog above). The festival awards were handed out tonight to films I was unable to see, simply because of the sheer number of movies showing (it's been impossible to see about a third of my want-to-see list). Certain Women took the competition award, Julia Ducournau won the Sutherland Award (first feature) for her film Raw, the Grierson Award (documentary) went to Starless Dreams, and Steve McQueen was awarded the BFI Fellowship. Some highlights from Saturday...

Dog Eat Dog
dir Paul Schrader; with Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe 16/US ***
Paul Schrader goes all John Waters on us with this super-trashy crime comedy populated by a bunch of trigger-happy knuckleheads. It's violent and utterly absurd, and yet every scene is quietly saying something important about America's badly dysfunctional justice system. Still, the message isn't particularly easy to hear over the gunfire.

dir Oliver Stone; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley 16/US ****
Oliver Stone tackles another iconic figure in this urgent, robust biopic, which skilfully maintains an even keel while digging into a touchy political subject. Was Edward Snowden a patriot or a traitor? That's the question that haunts every frame of this film, and Stone does his best to let the audience make up its own mind.

Staying Vertical [Rester Vertical]
dir-scr Alain Guiraudie; with Damien Bonnard, India Hair 16/Fr ***.
Bold and full-on, this parable from Alain Giraudie has a wilfully absurd story that gets increasingly symbolic as it goes along. This is a provocative exploration of the creative process, likening it to giving birth and nurturing a particularly fussy infant while threatened from various sides. And it's underscored with a jaded sense of humour that keeps things lively, plus a central character who is oddly sympathetic.

La Noche 
dir-scr Edgardo Castro; with Edgardo Castro, Dolores Guadalupe Olivares  16/Arg ***.
An experimental drama set on the dark side of Buenos Aires, Edgardo Castro's debut film is audacious and challenging in just about every way. But while the lack of a proper narrative structure will leave many viewers lost, there's a raw honesty to the movie that carries an unexpected emotional punch. And he also has some important things to say about a generation of people whose lives have been derailed by a new economic and political reality.

And another film I saw in Venice that's part of the LFF programme is Emir Kusturica's nutty Bosnian War comedy-drama On the Milky Road, costarring Monica Bellucci.

Friday, 14 October 2016

LFF 8: Back home again

I entered the press screening of Xavier Dolan's latest film here at the 60th London Film Festival with some trepidation. It was met with harshly mixed reviews at Cannes, booed by audiences, slated by critics and yet winning one of the top awards. I've been a fan of this young filmmaker since the start of his prolific career, and I was happy to immediately feel at home in his twisted, dysfunctional world. I also thought his filmmaking and the amazing cast (Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux and Nathalie Baye, above) were astonishing. This is my best film of the festival so far, and there are only two days to go. Highlights for Friday...

It's Only the End of the World 
dir-scr Xavier Dolan; with Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard 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.

Trespass Against Us 
dir Adam Smith; with Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson 16/US ***.
Like a slap in the face, this edgy Irish comedy-drama comes at the audience at full tilt and never really lets up. This is a story about a family stuck in a cycle of ignorance and criminality, and writer Alastair Siddons and director Adam Smith take an approach that's unapologetic. The plot isn't hugely developed, and the message is rather muddled, but the sharp cast keeps it entertaining.

The Innocents 
dir Anne Fontaine; with Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek 16/Fr ****
Based on real events, this harrowing true story is told with sensitivity and humanity, making it easy to engage with every step along the way. Even though the setting is somewhat alien - it's a Polish convent at the very end of WWII - the story resonates with themes that are instantly identifiable, especially the choices everyone has to make between following the rules and showing some compassion.

Ethel & Ernest 
dir-scr Roger Mainwood; voices Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn 16/UK ***.
A collection of gentle slice-of-life anecdotes, this is a warm account of 20th century life as a son retraces his parents relationship. Raymond Briggs told their story through drawings in his graphic novel, and now those scenes have been adapted into a movie with refreshing pen-and-ink style animation and a gently involving narrative free of gimmicks.

I saw Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals in Venice, and it was also a big gala presentation here, attended by Amy Adams and Armie Hammer (both of whom also have other films at LFF), as well as Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Ford himself.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

LFF 7: Can't take it anymore

The 60th London Film Festival is charging into its final weekend with a flurry of events and premieres. The red carpets outside the various venues are getting a workout, while the press screenings at Picturehouse Central are packed to overflowing. Here are some highlights from Wednesday and Thursday...

The Rehearsal
dir Alison Maclean; with James Rolleston, Kerry Fox 16/NZ ***.
A clever riff on acting, this drama from New Zealand is packed with terrific actors in complex roles. So even if the bare-boned plot gets a little pushy at times, at least the interaction has a raw honesty to it, exploring some enormous themes through the prism of art. Filmmaker Alison Maclean also injects plenty of jagged humour and understated emotion into the story, which makes it hugely engaging even if the pacing is a little slack.

The Ghoul
dir-scr Gareth Tunley; with Tom Meeten, Dan Skinner 16/UK ****
Moody and riveting, this dark British thriller takes the audience on a surreal journey into the human psyche. It's playful and surprising, with a style clearly inspired by David Lynch as it taps into emotions that the audience might not fully grasp. But we feel it all.

There were also a few films I saw at other festivals. From Venice, three female led dramas: Dakota Fanning and Kit Harington (pictured) in the edgy Western Brimstone, Alice Lowe in the fiendishly clever serial killer comedy Prevenge (pictured at the top), Natalie Portman in the offbeat period drama Planetarium. And from BFI Flare: Russell Tovey in the complex, intriguing football drama The Pass.

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K
Along with LFF movies, I've also had to keep up with the regular releases in cinemas. This week's screenings included a double dose of Tom Hanks: the lacklustre second Da Vinci Code sequel Inferno and the strikingly edgy, well-made Sully, about the amazing real-life landing of a passenger jet in the Hudson River in 2009. And then there was Tom Cruise in the thriller sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Plus a couple of punchy British dramas: Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake, a powerful, uplifting drama about taking on bureaucracy; and Starfish, the dark but moving true story of a man who survived sepsis then struggled to rebuild his life.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

LFF 6: Preach it, brother

Tonight's red carpet at the 60th London Film Festival was for The Birth of a Nation, a biopic about Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in the early 19th century. Armie Hammer and Nat Turner (above) were on the red carpet, along with several other costars. Today was my busiest day of the festival so far, with five films. That's too much even for me! I'll try to take it a bit easier tomorrow. Highlights from Tuesday...

The Birth of a Nation
dir-scr Nate Parker; with Nate Parker, Armie Hammer 16/US ***.
Actor-filmmaker Nate Parker pours his soul into this engaging true story about a slave uprising in early 19th century Virginia. It's a slickly produced and only slightly over-egged period drama packed with present-day resonance as a young preacher finally realises he can't ignore the injustice any longer. Yes, aside from being a powerfully involving film, it has a lot to say to us today.

dir Gabe Klinger; with Anton Yelchin, Lucie Lucas 16/Por ***
Offbeat and so wispy thin that it barely seems to exist at all, this gentle drama traces circles around a romance that flares briefly. It takes its name from the northern Portuguese city where it's set, and where two young foreigners connect in an offhanded way. And while the film is beautifully shot and acted with a warm introspection, it's also somewhat indulgent in its insistence that this kind of romance has sent ripples through past and future.

I Am Not a Serial Killer
dir Billy O'Brien; with Max Records, Laura Fraser 16/Ire ***.
Irish filmmaker Billy O'Brien brings a snappy sensibility to this drama set in Middle America, never allowing the story's larger issues to become bigger than they need to be. It centres on a sociopathic teen trying to live a "normal" life, but there's also a subtle supernatural plot element that adds a whiff of horror. And while the pacing is too artful for the mainstream, the film feels fresh and original enough to hold the interest.

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 resort-style house for a sweltering summer holiday 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.

Monday, 10 October 2016

LFF 5: Stare into the abyss

Amy Adams was on hand to lend some Hollywood glamour to the red carpet for the 60th London Film Festival tonight - with the gala screening of her new film Arrival (pictured above). And she'll be back later in the week for Nocturnal Animals. There are quite a few actors pulling double duty this year, including David Oyelowo and Natalie Portman. Meanwhile, those of us in the ranks of the film journalists are starting to look like the walking dead, as too many movies and too little sleep begins to catch up with us. Here are some highlights from Monday...

dir-scr Jim Jarmusch; with Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani 16/US ****
Evoking the poetry of William Carlos Williams, this whimsical comedy-drama explores the profundity of everyday details in Williams' hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch lets this hilarious story unfold gently, taking the time to soak in the small things that liven up both our seemingly monotonous lives and our seemingly similar personalities.

After the Storm
dir-scr Hirokazu Kore-eda; with Hiroshi Abe, Kirin Kiki 16/Jpn ****
Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda continues his string of gently revelatory dramas with this story about a rather typical modern family. As they explore the connections between them, the characters are pondering the past and the future, and realising that they may need to live in the present if they're ever going to be happy. There are no fireworks in this movie, but Kore-eda's writing and directing are simply beautiful, as always.

Sweet Dreams [Fai Bei Sogni]
dir Marco Bellocchio; with Valerio Mastandrea, Berenice Bejo 16/It **
Italian maestro Marco Bellocchio makes bold movies, and this one feels deeply personal as it explores the very Italian topic of the mother-son bond. It's beautifully shot, with insinuating performances and an ambitious approach to the narrative structure. But it's also oddly over-serious, and the fragmented style of storytelling stubbornly refuses to properly let the audience into the characters' inner lives.

Being 17  [Quand On a 17 Ans] 
dir Andre Techine; with Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein 16/Fr ***.
An intriguing teaming of French filmmakers Andre Techine and Celine Sciamma, this drama tackles a series of emotive issues head-on with strong characters and striking honesty. The problem is that it feels like two separate films have been mashed together, so each storyline undercuts the power of the other one. Is this about the challenges of a community doctor whose husband works abroad? Or an edgy romance between two teen outcasts?

The Ornithologist [O Ornitólogo]
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.

And two more films I saw in Venice that are showing here in London: Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival and the Italian road movie These Days.