Monday, 29 June 2009

Fest Day 12: Wrap-up

Well my two weeks of movie madness is over, as both the Edinburgh and Los Angeles film festivals came to a close yesterday. I saw 42 films over this past month - not too bad! Here are my favourite 10 films from both fests...
  1. Mary and Max (Edinburgh) - pictured above
  2. Garapa (Edinburgh)
  3. The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (Edinburgh)
  4. Fish Tank (Edinburgh)
  5. Cold Souls (Los Angeles)
  6. Amreeka (Los Angeles)
  7. In the Loop (Los Angeles)
  8. Big River Man (Edinburgh and Los Angeles)
  9. Soul Power (Los Angeles)
  10. Paper Heart (Los Angeles)
Awards were handed out at both festivals yesterday...

Edinburgh International Film Festival:
Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film: MOON
Best Performance in a British Feature Film: Katie Jarvis (Fish Tank)
New International Feature Award: EASIER WITH PRACTICE
Documentary Award: BORIS RYZHY
Critical Consensus Award: HUMPDAY
New Directors Award: Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre)

Los Angeles Film Festival:
Audience Award - doc: SOUL POWER
Audience Award - intl: BORN WITHOUT
Filmmaker Award: Sam Fleischner & Ben Chace (Wah Do Dem)
Documentary Filmmaker Award: Juan Carlos Rulfo and Carlos Hagerman (Those Who Remain)
Outstanding Performance: Shayne Topp (Dear Lemon Lima)
Dream in Color Award: LIPSTICK

And now I'm taking a break for 10 days to recover. There are still a few films to be seen (aren't there always?) and reviews to write, but I think lounging on the beach might be a priority for a change.....

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Fest Day 11: Friends and quirky lovers

Festivals in both Los Angeles and Edinburgh are winding up this weekend, and I'm looking forward to taking some time off to recover from my continent-hopping time at both festivals. I'll be back on Monday with the best of the festivals as well as the award winners. Here are a few films that are highlights of this weekend, including the Edinburgh closing film Adam (pictured). The first three films below are at Edinburgh, the last four at Los Angeles...

dir Max Mayer, 09/US **
Hugh Dancy stars in this strained and over-cute romance about a guy with Asperger's who strikes up a friendship with a neighbour (Rose Byrne) that leads to romance. The script is badly over-written, with dialog that's too smart and sweet for its own good and a plot that's so structured that there's no room for real life in it. Some moviegoers will fall for the quirky charm and pushy sentimentality, but others will find it nearly unbearable. > FULL REVIEW

Mary and Max
dir Adam Elliot, 09/Australia *****
My favourite film from both festivals, this animated movie for adults comes from the genius behind the short Harvie Krumpet. It's about a little girl in Australia who feels like an outcast and starts a pen pal relationship with a middle-aged man with Asperger's in Manhattan. The film combines raucous comedy and heartbreaking emotion, as these two people become an integral part of each other's lives over the decades - and each other's only real friend. The claymation-style imagery is simply stunning, but it's the characters wo win our hearts, beautifully voiced by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
dir Carlos Saldanha, 09/US ****
The first two films were nothing to get that excited about, but this one is actually more fun - with a stronger adventure-style plot and a couple of terrific new characters who bring some badly needed sharpness to the otherwise bland gang. First is Scratte, a female foil for our hero squirrel-rat Scrat, who provides both competition for that elusive acorn and a bit or silly romance. The second is the swashbuckling weasel Buck (voiced by Simon Pegg), who leads the "herd" on an action-packed odyssey to rescue the silly sloth Sid from a possessive T-rex mother. It's still corny and prone to sappiness, but the animation is better than ever. > FULL REVIEW

Hollywood Je T'Aime
dir Jason Bushman, 09/US ***
This feature feels almost like a sequel to Bushman's short Serene Hunter, which also starred the almost unbearably charming Eric Debets as a gay Parisian with relationship problems. In this film, a bad breakup sends his character to Los Angeles to start his life over - and in unnaturally quick succession he finds a place to live, a circle of friends and a great job. But part of the point is that, even if everything goes well and you're in the sunniest place on earth, you still have to deal with your personal baggage. The film is likeable and often very funny, but also recognises the dark side of things.

Cold Souls
dir Sophie Barthes, 09/US ****
Paul Giamatti plays an amusing version of himself in this surreal, Charlie Kaufman-esque comedy thriller about a middle-aged actor who puts his soul in storage so he can concentrate on playing Uncle Vanya. Yes, he feels a liberating lightness, but his talent disappears and his relationship with his wife (Emily Watson) is badly strained. But there's a nasty wrinkle when he tries to get his soul back, and he gets intangled with a gang of Russian soul traffikers. Witty and inventive (writer-director Barthes says the script was based on a dream), the film gives Giamatti one of his best roles ever. And beyond the riveting plot, it cleverly addresses issues of identity and humanity.

dir Cherian Dabis, 09/Canada *****
This insightful immigration drama is packed with fantastic characters and razor sharp observations. It's the story of a mother and son who emigrate from Palestine to Chicago to live with her sister (the fabulous Hiam Abbas) and family. and nothing goes as expected. Set in March 2003, the film examines American attitudes toward Arabs in a fresh, provocative way that really catches our attention. Even when the plot takes some slightly obvious turns, the characters are so vivid that we are always fully engaged with them.

Paper Heart
dir Nicholas Jasenovec, 09/US ****
This is such a sharply inventive mock-doc that it can't help but win us over. Yes, it's quirky and goofy, but it also has some interesting things to say about love and relationships. At the centre is comedian Charlyne Yi, who sets out to examine the reasons why she's incapable of falling in love by interviewing people all across the country. In the process of making the film, she meets actor Michael Cera and the two start a tentative relationship, which the filmakers within the film think will make a perfect counterpoint to her doc. The result is sweet and hilarious, and extremely well played by the cast.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Fest Day 10: A momentous day

The highlight of the L.A. festival yesterday was a 40th anniversary digital restoration of Midnight Cowboy followed by a wonderfully entertaining Q&A with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, during which they told raucous stories for more than an hour about making the film together. Meanwhile, outside the cinema, helicopters circled over the neighbouring hospital where Michael Jackson died yesterday afternoon - and Farrah Fawcett had died in the morning only a couple of miles away. A seriously surreal day.

Here are a few highlights from yesterday and today - the first two film films are at Edinburgh International Film Fest, the third and fourth are at Los Angeles...

dir Lindy Heymann, 09/UK **
Two Liverpool teens freak out when their beloved football star is traded to Madrid, but instead of just sobbing themselves to sleep, they concoct a drastic plan to change his mind, kidnapping him and taking him to an abandoned caravan. From here, the film turns into a low-key thriller, as these girls don't quite know what to do next with the man they have loved so long from afar. The problem is that the film feels a bit made up as it goes along too - with contrived plot elements and no real sense of pace. But the three central cast members (Kerrie Hayes, Nichola Burley and Lee Doyle) are very good,

I'm Gonna Explode
dir Gerardo Naranjo, 08/Mexico ***
A combination of teen-angst drama and on-the-run road movie, this stylish Mexican film keeps us gripped through its unpredictability. At the centre is the privileged teen son of a right wing politician who links up with a working class girl while in detention. They concoct a brazen fake kidnapping scam that not only rattles the establishment but also gives them a taste of life outside the pressures of society. The dark, energetic story that follows has an anarchic Pierrot le Fou/Bonnie & Clyde tone to it, intriguingly told from a teen's point of view. > FULL REVIEW

Mid-August Lunch
dir Gianni DiGregorio, 08/Italy ****
We don't often see films that centre around characters who are middle-aged or older, but this charming comedy-drama keeps us engaged with sparky personalities and recognisably real situations. Writer-director DiGregorio plays a man who stays home in Rome with his mother while the rest of Italy goes on holiday. He reluctantly ends up watching three other mothers and aunts of two other people, and while they drive him round the bend, he also rises to the challenge with warm humour. There's not much plot, but the underhanded dialog and witty situations keep us smiling while making a lovely point. > FULL REVIEW

Passenger Side
dir Matt Bissonette, 09/US ***
This gently quirky drama centres on two brothers (well played by Adam Scott and the director's brother Joel Bissonette) who spend a day driving around Los Angeles on some sort of ill-defined quest. The premise is extremely simple, but effectively examines the relationship between these two men through sardonic dialog and snappy wit. Meanwhile, director Bissonette shoots the film in a slightly askance style that keeps us on our toes. It's a little meandering, and there's a loud clunk of plotting when things all come clear in the end, but it's an enjoyable journey.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Fest Day 9: Summer movie parties

Jonathan Caouette presented his new film All Tomorrow's Parties last night here in Los Angeles at a gorgeous screening under the open sky at the Ford Amphitheatre. The film was preceded by Spike Jonze's hilariously surreal new short We Were Once a Fairytale, starring Kanye West. Meanwhile in Edinburgh, All Tomorrow's Parties premiered to that festival crowd followed by a Mogwai concert.

Here are some other festival highlights from yesterday and today - the first two films are in Edinburgh, the second two are in both Edinburgh and L.A., and the last one was in L.A. only...

The Hurt Locker
dir Kathryn Bigelow, 09/US ****
Gritty and raw are the best words to describe this Iraq battlefield drama, in which Jeremy Renner plays the leader of a bomb squad team (which includes Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty). It's an anecdotal film, made up of a series of blisteringly tense set pieces. The through line is pure emotion as we watch these three men cope with the pressure in very different ways. Great cameos from Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, David Morse and Evangeline Lilly. > FULL REVIEW

dir Jose Padilha, 09/Brazil ***** After his gritty Berlin-winning Elite Squad, Padilha turns to a startlingly pure doc format for this film about hunger, following three poor families through their everyday life in a small city, a small town and an isolated rural village. Without making any commentary, Padilha just presents the images for us to see - and it's gorgeously shot in black and white, which makes it look like an Apu movie, or perhaps Italian neorealism. Utterly unforgettable. > FULL REVIEW

35 Shots of Rum
dir Claire Denis, 08/France ****
Here's another impressionistic drama from Denis and her ace cinematographer Agnes Godard. It centres on the relationship between a fatehr and daughter, both of whom find romance in unexpected places as the extremely loose story continues. As usual, Denis is looking at moods and emotions and connections, rather than a defined plot. But more adventurous filmgoers will find plenty to love about this beautifully observed film. > FULL REVIEW

All Tomorrow's Parties
dir Jonathan Caouette, 09/UK ***
Five years after his remarkable debut Tarnation, Caouette is back with this clever documentary about the unstructured UK festival. It's a collage-style film made up of both new footage and scenes shot by the fans - and it captures both the fantastic music (including the Gossip, Sonic Youth, Mogwai, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith) and the raucous, free-spirited atmosphere at the events over 10 years. But for those unfamiliar with the ATP movement, it feels like a bit of an inside perspective.

El General
dir Natalia Almada, 09/Mexico *** Filmmaker Almada starts with a series of audiotapes recorded by her grandmother, talking about growing up as daughter of the norotious Mexican strongman President Calles. From here, Almada examines issues of memory and history in evocative, intriguing ways. The film includes a wealth of old footage (including beautiful scenes from Eisenstein's Mexican films), and instead of trying to nail down a firm history of her great-grandfather's life, she instead examines the intriguing difference between the politician and the father - and also between Mexico's past and present. Intriguing, but a bit open-handed.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Fest Day 8: The big guns

After what felt like an interminable flight (due to shrieking baby behind me and ludicrous queues at LA Airport), I arrived at the Los Angeles Film Festival last night just in time to see the start of the cleanup after the star-studded premiere of Michael Mann's Public Enemies. (Pictured above, in case you don't recognise them, are Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard and Christian Bale).

The sun is shining here in California, of course, but I will still be diving into darkened cinemas to see what I can find at this festival. Here are a few highlights from today's programme - the first film is both here in L.A. and at Edinburgh Film Fest. The other three are all at Edinburgh today...

Big River Man
dir John Maringouin, 09/US ****
Essentially, this film documents Slovenian Martin Strel as he attempts to swim the entire length of the Amazon (he had previously conquered the Mississippi, Danube and Yangtze). Narrated by his son, the film actually captures a remarkable tale of tenacity and madness, as the son watches his father lose his mind during the gruelling ordeal. Just as remarkable is the technical achievement of the film crew, which remains off screen and makes the doc into a gorgeously shot and edited drama that's utterly gripping.

Rudo & Cursi
dir Carlos Cuaron, 09/Mexico ****
Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna reunite for this lively Mexican film examining issues of fame and the economic divide. They play brothers who are drafted into the professional football leagues and deal with their success in very different ways. It's an energetic, extremely well-made film that sometimes feels a bit fragmented but really gets under the skin of the characters, who are extremely well played. > FULL REVIEW And Garcia and Luna are also at the LA Film Fest tonight to present a series of films about Mexico.

The September Issue
dir RJ Cutler, 09/US ****
Centring on the production of the September 2007 issue of Vogue, its largest issue ever, this documentary follows editor Anna Wintour on her globe-hopping job checking out fashion shows, overseeing photo shoots and picking out which photos are in and which are out. The film occasionally finds crasks in her ice-queen facade, but what makes it even more unmissable is the counterbalance of her colourful and brilliant creative director Grace Coddington. The tension between these women is both hilarious and sharp. > FULL REVIEW

Fear Me Not [Den du Frygter]
dir Kristian Levring, 08/Denmark ****
Ulrich Thomsen and Paprika Steen are terrific as a married couple stretched to the breaking point when the husband takes a leave from work and gets his brother-in-law to let him test some new anti-depressants. His changes of mood give him a creepy inner life that he completely hides from his wife and daughter, even as things get very, very scary. The film intriguingly asks whether the drugs give him an excuse for his erratic behaviour - and if there's any way back. Sleek and cool, and pretty scary too.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Fest Day 7: Family values

Kierston Wareing, Katie Jarvis, director Andrea Arnold and Harry Treadaway turned up for the premiere of their film Fish Tank at the Edinburgh International Film Festival yesterday. The Cannes-winner is a major candidate for a couple of awards here.

Meanwhile, I'm flying all day today - off to L.A. to attend the final days of the Los Angeles Film Festival. I always hate leaving London when it's this sunny and gorgeous here - but California sunshine isn't such a bad trade-off, eh? Besides, if you're going to sit in a darkened cinema, what difference does it make what's going on outside?

Here are a few highlights from the Edinburgh fest today...

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
dir Rémi Bezançon, 08/France *****
This beautifully written, directed and performed drama traces the life of a family over 12 years - with scenes set on five key days over that period, each one centring on one family member. It's a simple idea, but the way it's put together is remarkably effective, as the film bristles with energy and humour, as well as some very dark emotions. And in the end, it's almost overwhelmingly moving in all the right ways. > FULL REVIEW

El Niño Pez (The Fish Child)
dir Lucia Puenzo, 09/Argentina ****
After her remarkable film debut XXY, Puenzo returns with an intriguing film that seems on the surface like a genre thriller, but is actually something much deeper. Her excellent lead actress Inez Efron is back as a rich girl who falls in love with her indigenous maid, and the two plan a daring escape from society, Thelma & Louise-style. But things don't go to plan, and when the girls are separated, their individual journeys actually bring them closer together. They also highlight some extremely serious social and racial issues in Latin America. And Puenzo shoots and edits it together like a lush dream. > FULL REVIEW

Easier With Practice
dir Kyle Patrick Alvarez, 09/US ****
This is Brian Geraghy's second film at the Edinburgh fest (he also stars in The Hurt Locker), but this is a much bigger role: he plays a nerdy writer who is paralysed by fear at the thought of meeting a woman. So when a mystery girl with a sexy voice calls him one night, he launches into what he thinks is a real relationship - but without ever meeting in person, isn't it just about phone sex? The film is one of those slightly over-quirky American indies that annoys us as much as it engages our sympathies (and makes us laugh at these oddball people). But there are some solid twists and turns in the plot, some terrific side characters and a surprising sting in the tail.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Fest Day 6: Stick it to the man

Scott Sanders brought his hysterical new pastiche film Black Dynamite to the Los Angeles Film Festival on Saturday. The film is also screening this week in Edinburgh's festival. After returning from Edinburgh on Friday, I've been in London for the past three days, and after seeing Bruno tonight I'll be flying to Los Angeles tomorrow to attend five days of the festival there. Here are a few films on today - the first two in Edinburgh and the third in both Edinburgh and L.A., The fourth, somewhat unbelievably, is premiering at the L.A. fest tonight.

Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1
dir Jean-François Richet, 08/France ****
Following on from Killer Instinct, this is the second half of the epic biopic about notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine, played blisteringly by Vincent Cassel. This part is set in the 1970s, and the film takes a period style with much grittier action and fascinating philosophical themes. Cassel has a lot more to do this time, as Mesrine enters his well-known paunchy phase, adopting the slogans of Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang as he corners the authorities into action. It also features several terrific heist/escape sequences and a fantastic role for Mathieu Amalric as a quirky character who deserves his own film.

Pardon My French (Un Chat un Chat)
dir Sophie Fillières, 09/France ***
Chiara Mastroianni plays a blocked writer in this extremely strange French comedy-drama. As she deals with issues surrounding her mother and son leaving her lacking in confidence and losing her grip on reality. The film takes a similarly surreal approach to the story, which is sometimes clever and interesting, but also gets a bit annoying from time to time. Fortunately the actors are good enough to keep us engaged.

dir Marco Bechis, 08/Brazil ****
Beautifully shot and performed with raw authenticity, this drama centres on a group of Guarani indians in Brazil who challenge a local rancher over land rights. This is told in a refreshingly off-handed way that might alienate some viewers, but it really captures the feeling of the time and place, as well as the local culture and traditions.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
dir Michael Bay, 09/US **
Not as disastrously franchise-ending as the recent Terminator movie, but this sequel shows the heavy hand of indulgence. And in the case of Bay, that's a heavy hand indeed. It's two and a half hours of gigantic robots hitting each other while the human characters run around and try to scream about the din of metal against metal. Because of this, and an overcomplicated, illogical plot, it's just not nearly as much fun as the first film. > FULL REVIEW

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Fest Day 5: A life of crime

Kerry Fox, Frank Langella, Sara Langella and Alan Cumming attend the gala dinner at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Saturday - a star-studded event also attended by the likes of Sean Connery, Joe Wright and Lord Puttnam. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a similar range of stars is parading down red carpets and posing for the paps. Here are a few films showing today - the first three in Edinburgh and the last one in L.A.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct
dir Jean-François Richet, 08/France ***
The first half of this epic biopic about the notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine centres on the 1960s, and the film is made in that style, with split screens, groovy action and a rip-roaring central performance by Vincent Cassel as the flambouyant bank robber. The film is energetic enough to keep our attention, even though it never seems to get beneath the surface of the central character. The story continues in Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1, which we'll cover tomorrow.

Fish Tank
dir Andrea Arnold, 09/UK *****
With her second film (after 2006's award-hoovering Red Road), Arnold won a second prize at Cannes. And you can see why: this is fiercely assured filmmaking, telling a story about a struggling 15-year-old teen from her perspective, which adds astonishing resonance. It's a haunting, unforgettable film, made all the more powerful by the star-making central performance by Katie Jarvis plus terrific roles for Michael Fassbender and Kierston Wareing. And it's packed with brittle wit and unnerving suspence.

dir Fabrice Du Welz, 08/France **
There's a terrific sense of atmosphere in this creepy thriller, which is set in Thailand after the tsunami, where a grieving couple (Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Beart) goes upriver into Burma in search of their missing son. So far, so good - with strong emotional resonance and simply spectacular scenery. Then the film devolves into a crazed jungle horror movie that seems far more interested in creepy and grisly imagery than the fate of the characters.

dir Nicolas Winding Refn, 09/UK ***
Thomas Hardy gives an outrageous tour-de-force performance as Britain's most notorious criminal Charles Bronson (he named himself after the actor), who has spent virtually his entire adult life behind bars, where he continues to cause havoc. The film is an artful concoction, with some very clever gimmicks that add interest to what's otherwise just a story about a brutal thug. But he's such a magnetic bundle of energy that the film has a Chopper-like feel to it, with a bit of A Clockwork Orange stirred in as well. > FULL REVIEW

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Fest Day 4: All kinds of heroes

Jeff Daniels and Ryan Reynolds star in Paper Man, which opened the Los Angeles Film Festival on Thursday night. This weekend I'm covering both the Edinburgh and LA fests from London for a few days while I do laundry and repack between my trips to Scotland and California. These daily blogs will include updates from both festivals, just to keep me on my toes.

Stars are traipsing up and down red carpets in both cities, presenting their films to hopeful festival audiences, while punters in other cities are in multiplexes watching deafening Terminator and Transformers sequels (and those watching quieter movies in next-door cinemas are wondering if World War III is taking place outside).

Below are notes on three festival films - the first is at Edinburgh, the second is at LA and the third is at both festivals...

dir Duncan Jones, 09/UK ****
David Bowie's son turns out to be a remarkably adept director with this introspective sci-fi thriller that has echoes of 2001, Solaris and Silent Running in its tale of a man (a terrific Sam Rockwell) who's working alone on the dark side of the moon when he runs into himself in the mining station. Besides the low-key suspense, the film is a superb examination of what makes us human. > FULL REVIEW

In the Loop
dir Armando Ianucci, 09/UK ****
Peter Capaldi is hysterical as a British government spin doctor in this raucous political drama, which plays out as a satire but is actually far more accurate than anyone wants to believe (especially as it is already echoing in headlines). The film is spun off from the TV series The Thick of It and broadened to include some priceless American government figures played by the likes of James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy and David Rache. While the Brit-cast also creates vivid, iconic characters. Don't miss it. > FULL REVIEW

Black Dynamite
dir Scott Sanders, 09/US ***
A pitch-perfect pastiche of 1970s blaxploitation movies, this nutty comedy follows the outrageously manly title character (hilariously played dead-straight by Michael Jai White) as he seeks revenge for his brother's murder. Packed with pimps, hookers, dealers and shady cops, the film is a riot of cheesy humour - much of which is extremely clever. Sadly, as the plot kicks in, the joke begins to wear a bit thin. It's still very funny, but the filmmakers don't hold enough inventiveness out for the final act, which leaves it feeling repetitive. And they also never make anything more out of the promising material than an extended sketch comedy.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Fest Day 3: Strong women

Rebecca Miller and Robin Wright Penn were on the red carpet last night for the premiere of their film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which was followed by a cool, low-key party at the Voodoo Rooms. The weather today is gloriously sunny, so of course it's time for me to head back south to London for a brief interlude before I embark on Part 2 of my summer film fest.

Here are a few highlights from Edinburgh yesterday and today...

Sin Nombre [Without a Name]
dir Cary Joji Fukunaga, 09/Mexico ****
With lush cinematography and a very strong sense of character, Fukunaga tells the story of two teens who are thrown together as they travel from southern Mexico to the US border. One is a Honduran travelling with her father to meet his wife in New Jersey, the other is a local gang member trying to escape violent revenge. The actors are raw and natural, and the unlikely connections between these characters makes the film utterly riveting - and also very emotional.

White Lightnin'
dir Dominic Murphy, 09/UK ***
Based on a real person in the American backwoods, this deeply unsettling film tells the story of Jessco, a glue-sniffing addict who finds purpose in life through a bizarre form of tap dancing, but can't quite get his life on track, even when he falls for an older woman (played by Carrie Fisher, who's a blast of fresh air in the film). But it's a relentlessly dark journey into Jessco's soul, and the final act is hauntingly grisly.

Big River Man
dir John Maringouin, 09/US ****
From Slovenia, Martin Strel is a larger-than-life character, both literally and figuratively, and this doc follows him and his son as they continue Martin's efforts to swim the world's longest rivers. Having already conquered the Danube, Mississippi and Yangtze, he tackles the Amazon, which is not only a test of physical endurance but also drives him around the bend mentally. The film is skilfully shot and edited, with a narrative that's both funny and riveting as we can't imagine what these people will do next.

Little Soldier
dir Annette K Olesen, 09/Denmark ***
Trine Dyrholm delivers an astonishing performance as Lotte, a tightly wound soldier just back home in Denmark from Iraq and working for her father - as a driver for his new Nigerian girlfriend Lily (Lorna Brown), who works as a prostitute. These two tough women couldn't be more opposite, or at least that's how it seems. And their relationship is a remarkably complex journey, as Lotte's save-the-world mentality clashes with Lily's fierce determination.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Fest Day 2: And away we go...

Sam Mendes, Carmen Ejogo and John Krazinski pose on the red carpet in the cool evening sunshine at the opening premiere of Away We Go in Edinburgh last night. The party after the screening was great fun - filling several rooms at the Teviot with happily festive film fans, including several actors from films showing in the festival, including Alan Cumming, Harry Treadaway and Brian Geraghty. Here are a few films showing today...

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
dir Rebecca Miller, 09/US ****
Like a particularly sensitive, feminine version of American Beauty, this film examines the myth of the American dream from the perspective of a trophy wife (the superb Robin Wright Penn) who begins to question her marriage (to Alan Arkin) now that their kids are grown. It's beautifully written and acted, with several surprises along the way. And even though it's a bit long and indulgent as a film, it's still powerfully emotional and packed with telling insight. > FULL REVIEW

dir Davey Frankel, Rasselas Lakew, 09/Ethiopia ****
The story of Olympic champion marathon runner Abebe Bikila is beautifully dramatised in this lushly photographed film that uses real newsreel footage for flashbacks. It's an amazing story of tenacity and duty, elegantly told. And if you don't know the details of Bikila's remarkable story, there are several astounding twists and details along the way.

High Life
dir Gary Yates, 09/US
The story of a 1980s bank heist gets a witty twist in this wry comedy - because these robbers just can't seem to shake their drug habits long enough to get the job done. The result is twisty and surprising, funny and sad, and packed with terrific performances from a lively ensemble cast that includes Timothy Olyphant and Rossif Sutherland. > FULL REVIEW

Van Diemen's Land
dir Jonathan auf der Heide, 09/Australia ***
From Australia's penal colony days, this gritty dramatic thriller tells a story that's not easy to watch, as eight men escape from their guard and run into the woods. But it's rather a lot further to safety than they expected, and when they run out of food, they start eyeing up the most obnoxious guy as the potential next meal. Filmed with extraordinary style and skill, it looks fantastic, and really gets us into the environment. We can practically smell and, erm, taste it! And we kind of wish it wasn't quite so vivid.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Fest Day 1: Welcome to Scotland

The photo was taken yesterday, when the weather cleared up for a rather stunning evening. It's been stormy and rainy all day today, the first day of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. This seems to be typical weather for this festival - which always makes walking around the city an adventure.

I came up on the train last weekend, just to have a few days outside London before the madness starts. It's been nice to just hang out, and of course watch a few films but not too many (press screenings started on Monday). I'm staying with a friend a 30-minute walk from the festival centre (where I am now), and the main cinema is another 15 minutes walking from here. So there's a lot of opportunity to get wind and rain swept. Not to mention the fact that every route seems to be a construction site. Including Princes Street, one of Europe's most famous boulevards, which is completely closed and all dug up for a tram project.

Anyway, I'm here to watch films, and I've already seen eight of them - plus 20 I'd already seen before that. So on Day 1 I'm already doing pretty well. Tonight, things kick off with a glitsy, star-studded international premiere...

Away We Go
dir Sam Mendes, 09/US ****
John Krazinski and Maya Rudolph are terrific as a young couple expecting their first child and trying to decide where to settle down and start their family. They criss-cross North America to see their friends and relatives, played in terrific scene-stealing performances by the likes of Alison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Catherin O'Hara and Maggie Gyllenhaal. But Krazinski and Rudolph give the film its heart - and it's a hugely engaging, entertaining film. The examination of what makes a family sometimes feels a little heavy handed, but it's great fun and warmly emotional too.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Critical Week: It's only a cartoon

For London critics, last week's blockbuster was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a mind-bogglingly noisy cacophany of state-of-the-art animation and sound mixing. After the rather enjoyable 2007 film, this felt oddly soulless, and you had to keep reminding yourself that there were human characters in it at all. Much more human were the week's smaller movies, including the lovely Irish odyssey Kisses and the hilariously fascinating Vogue documentary The September Issue. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is yet another gritty Iraq drama, but it's also more harrowing than most, and anchored by an amazing performance from Jeremy Renner. And Mid-August Lunch is a wonderful surprise from Italy about a man trying to cope with an invasion of old ladies.

A small film that should have been more likeable was Adam, a relentlessly quirky romance that's also the closing night film at the imminent Edinburgh Film Festival. I'm actually writing this from Scotland, where press screenings have started - the festival kicks off with Sam Mendes' Away We Go on Wednesday.

I'll be blogging daily about this festival as well as the equally imminent Los Angeles Film Festival, which kicks off on Thursday (I'm flying over there next Tuesday). Yes, I'm covering two simultaneous festivals separated by an 11-hour flight - call me crazy...

Monday, 8 June 2009

Critical Week: The happy couple

Watching The Proposal, there's very little doubt where it's going, as Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock bicker their way to true love. But at least they have an infectious chemistry that keeps us smiling. And a hilarious back-stage mini-doc on YouTube gives us a glimpse how they kept the silly energy on-camera as well. Have a look:

Also last week, I caught up with the third instalment in the trilogy, Goal III, subtitled Taking on the World but actually a much gloomier look at world-class football than the first two films. No wonder it's going straight to dvd next week. I also saw Three Kingdoms, a gritty Chinese battle epic based on the same 14th century novel as John Woo's more exhiliarating Red Cliff. And then there was the Swiss yodelling doc Echoes of Home, which is indescribably odd and probably only for extremely curious filmgoers. My best film last week was another doc, shot in 1974 but assembled this year: Soul Power tells the story of the music festival that ran alongside the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire. It's even better than its Oscar-winning companion piece When We Were Kings, about the boxing match.

This week's films include the offbeat romance Adam, the Irish runaway drama Kisses, the acclaimed Italian drama Mid-August Lunch, the Vogue doc The September Issue, and the next awkwardly titled summer blockbuster, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Critical Week: Eric's the man

It's hardly surprising that it took an ex-footballer to bring out Ken Loach's warm and funny side. His new film Looking for Eric caught the Cannes audiences by surprise and left London critics smiling last week too. It's a charming little film with a serious drama at its centre (of course) and a hilarious comedic pay-off. And Eric Cantona is terrific as himself - poking fun and having a ball, much as he did as the snooty French director in last month's French Film.

Other movies offered up to London critics last week included the Beyonce bunny boiler Obsessed, which is far more trashy fun than it has any right to be; the grimly involving and gorgeously shot Mexican migrant drama Sin Nombre; the ever-so-slightly more edgy high school musical BandSlam; and the gripping guerrilla journalism doc Burma VJ, which examines how video footage of a vicious closed society makes it to our newscasts.

This week is another odd mix of screenings, from the Sandra Bullock-Ryan Reynolds rom-com The Proposal to the Chinese war epic Three Kingdoms, by way of the Iranian experimental film Shirin, the yodelling doc Echoes of Home, and the concluding chapter in the trilogy Goal III: Taking on the World, which is sadly going straight to DVD here in the UK. Probably because Eric Cantona's not in it.