Monday, 28 April 2014

Sundance London 4: Peace and quiet

The 3rd Sundance London Film & Music Festival wrapped up on Sunday night with a flurry of film screenings and musical performances. The whole event felt much more subdued this year, and not just because it was a day shorter. The main change was the lack of a place to properly hang out - the press and filmmakers' lounge was gone, as was the more intimate club space, replaced by a sprawling and rather amorphous bar/bowling alley/dance venue. There was nowhere to sit, chat or work. And the O2 isn't known for its friendly spaces. Still, the films were superb, and all were accompanied by Q&As with the filmmakers and actors. My last screening (The Voices, pictured above and reviewed below) on Sunday night featured Marjane Satrapi, Ryan Reynolds and Gemma Arterton in a lively and unhurried Q&A - that doesn't happen at most festivals. Here are comments on three final films...

The Voices
dir Marjane Satrapi; with Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick 14/US ****
It's tricky to categorise this offbeat horror comedy, which maintains a playful tone even as things get genuinely dark and disturbing. But director Satrapi maintains a wonderfully witty visual vibe even as Michael R Perry's viciously clever script explores the pitch-black corners of mental illness. It's the story of Jerry (Reynolds), a tormented young man trying to get on with life after being instituted. He has a job in a bathtub factory and a helpful therapist (Jacki Weaver), and he has his eye on a girl in accounting (Arterton), although her colleague (Anna Kendrick) is the one who really likes him. But Jerry has also gone off his meds, and is hearing the voices of his loveable dog Bosco and bitter cat Mr Whiskers. And what they tell him to do is pretty horrific. The film touches on so many sub-genres that we never have a clue where it's going next. Is this a black comedy about a serial killer? A sharp tragedy about a guy who's criminally insane? A creepy fable about a murderer's inner turmoil? This complex layering makes the film far more involving than it should be, and also far scarier than expected for a comedy. So even if performances are a bit broad and uneven, the film exerts a strong grip on the audience, provoking laughter and nervous horror in all the wrong places.

dir-scr David Cross; with Meredith Hagner, Matt Walsh 14/US ***.
Actor-comedian Cross makes his feature directing debut with this offbeat ensemble comedy about instant fame. It's a sharply written script with a terrific cast that includes both newcomers and established stars. And even if Cross' direction wobbles, the film keeps us laughing as it makes some rather astute commentary on growing up in the reality TV era. Set in Upstate New York, the key figures are Katelyn (Hagner), a teen who believes that fame is an inherent right, and her father Dave (Walsh), who is pushed into prominence when he complains to the town council about their shoddy service. Swirling around them are another teen (Jake Cherry) who also believes he has the talent to make it big and has a crush on Katelyn, and three ridiculous hipster bloggers from New York (James Adomian, Wyatt Cenac and Derek Walters) who descend on Dave in the hopes that his cause boosts their profile. Yes, everyone in this film wants to get noticed, and no one wants to do the work. It's all a bit caustic and obvious, and scenes play out without much sense of momentum, but the brave actors make the most of the witty, telling dialog. And this often hilarious film carries an important kick.

Little Accidents
dir-scr Sara Colangelo; with Boyd Holbrook, Elizabeth Banks 14/US ****
Expanding her 2010 short into a feature, filmmaker Colangelo beautifully captures a small-town community in the grip of a series of tragedies that may or may not be accidental. Watching these characters grapple with the ambiguity of the situation is riveting, especially as each must muster the courage to tell the truth. It's a powerful drama that envelops us in its world and doesn't go easy on us. The main characters are Amos (Holbrook), injured in a recent mining accident and trying to get his life back on track; Bill and Diane (Josh Lucas and Banks), the manager of the mine and his wife, who live in relative splendour in the working-class West Virginia town; and Owen (Mud's Jacob Lofland), whose father died in the accident and who has a secret that is not easy to keep. These people circle around each other in ways that sometimes feel a bit contrived and scripted, but push the characters into fascinating corners, drawing out breathtaking a range of emotions. Performances are subtle and understated, and the setting adds beautifully to the film's overall tone of tense uncertainty. It's also a striking drama with themes so deep that the film is very hard to shake afterwards. Keep an eye on Colangelo.

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K :
I only saw two non-Sundance films last week, but both were terrific. Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur stars Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric as an actress and director during a stage audition. As the power shifts between them in subtle, complex ways, both actors deliver powerhouse performances, captured with wit and invention by Polanski. But it's the script (by Polanski and David Ives, based on Ives' play) that is the main show: astoundingly clever. Less sophisticated, Advanced Style is a documentary about over-50 women in New York who are almost ridiculously glamorous. They're also fantastic movie characters, and we feel like we could follow them around all day long. A lot of fun, with some emotional moments as well.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Sundance London 3: Tales of deconstruction

The Sundance London Festival is winding down tonight, and it's been a rather crazy weekend at the O2 with films and filmmakers crawling all over the place. The public screenings are always a lot more fun than the press shows, as we get filmmaker intros and Q&As, plus of course lively audiences to watch the movies with. I'll have one last entry tomorrow; in the meantime, here are more highlights...

They Came Together
dir David Wain; with Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler 14/US ***.
A goofy spoof of romantic-comedies, this film sets itself a pretty tricky target, since rom-coms are pretty corny themselves. But cowriters David Wain and Michael Showalter and their up-for-it cast charge on regardless, wringing a lot of laughs from the material. Frustratingly, the hilarious rom-com they create isn't actually very involving. The story plays out in flashback as Joel and Molly (Russ and Poehler, above) recount their movie-like tale to friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) over dinner. And there isn't a single movie cliche left out, from various montage sequences to a series of best pals to various improbable breakups and reunions. With lesser actors, this could have turned out like a painful cross between Mel Brooks and Zucker-Abrams-Zucker, but Rudd and Poehler add the necessary zing to hold our interest and keep us laughing at the dense onslaught of visual and verbal gags. Not to mention a non-stop flow of hilarious starry cameos. But if the film itself was actually a charmer, that would have been something special.

dir Lenny Abrahamson; with Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender 14/Ire ****
Loosely based on the life of Chris Sievey (aka Frank Sidebottom), this offbeat comedy continually challenges us both with big ideas and narrative U-turns. It's a remarkably assured comedy with a warm centre underneath a prickly, sometimes maddeningly absurd surface... FULL REVIEW >

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter 
dir David Zellner; with Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube 14/US ***.
An offbeat riff on the Coen brothers' Fargo, this "true story" is packed with witty touches and knowing references, as well as a remarkably complex, surreal performance from Kikuchi. It's also a little bit frustrating in its refusal to let the audience in on the joke, if it is a joke. It opens in Japan with the surly but intriguingly cheeky Kumiko (Kikuchi) following a treasure map to a videotape buried in a seaside cave and a clue pointing to a specific moment in the film, indicating the spot a case of cash is buried in snowy Minnesota. Even though Fargo is clearly a fictional movie, Kumiko becomes obsessed with travelling to the wintry American Midwest to find that cash. The bare bones of the plot are so bonkers that the film has the ring of truth to it, although there's something squirm-inducing about being asked to sympathise with someone who is so delusional - and probably mentally ill. And director-cowriter-costar Zellner somehow manages to create a lightly comical tone while undermining every scene with horror movie touches. Clever, unsettling, unforgettable.

Sundance Shorts
I watched nine shorts at this year's festival, and the best was easily Yearbook, Bernardo Britto's animated tale about a man trying to distill human influence into the historical records before the planet is destroyed. It's a real stunner. Other highlights included Burger, the Iris-produced late-night comedy shot in Cardiff that's a blast of pure energy; The Last Days of Peter Bergmann, an Irish documentary about a man who managed to erase himself from the world; and Life's a Bitch, a staggeringly ambitious and utterly wonderful French short about the romantic entanglements one hapless guy gets into and out of over a year.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Sundance London 2: Seeing double

It's only Day 2 of a three-day film festival and I already have that feeling like I need more sleep, more time to do my work and more time away from screens of any kind. Any journalist who has covered a film festival knows these symptoms, but we persevere. The Sundance London Festival is actually refreshingly small - there are only 21 features, and I don't have to see them all. But then the festival started for the press on Tuesday morning, so we're actually almost a week in. Some more highlights...

The One I Love
dir Charlie McDowell; with Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass 14/US ****
With a bone-dry sense of humour and a fiendishly clever central gimmick, this relationship movie gets surprisingly deep while also creating unexpected currents of tension. There's definitely a sense that the script is too smart for its own good, but as played by the cast it feels remarkably off-handed, revealing real emotions in every scene. Moss and Duplass (pictured above) play a couple struggling to hold their relationship together when they head off on a remote retreat, where they are confronted in an outrageous way with the ways they idealise each other. It's a fiendishly clever idea, very simple and utterly mind-bending. Both actors play it perfectly, playfully adding telling details and subtle emotions to scenes that unfold as if they're improvised. And Moss adds something even more impressive in yet another astonishing performance.

Fruitvale Station
dir-scr Ryan Coogler; with Michael B Jordan, Melonie Diaz 13/US *****
Expertly written, fluidly directed and performed with earthy authenticity, this drama recreates a terrible real-life event without resorting to melodramatics or manipulation. And what's most remarkable is that filmmaker Coogler presents the story without trying to wedge in a contrived message. In other words, these kinds of things happen to complex people who are neither heroes or bad guys ... FULL REVIEW >

The Case Against 8
dir Ben Cotner, Ryan White; with Ted Olson, David Boies 14/US ****.
While there's nothing particularly notable about the way this documentary is put together, it tells a hugely important story with real skill, building to key emotional points while making sure the political implications are clear. And the people on-screen become such vivid, engaging characters that the moving final sequence is almost overwhelming. After a bit of scene-setting, the narrative begins on election day in 2008, when Obama was elected president and California ratified Proposition 8. Lawyers immediately saw the holes in this legislation, and over the next five years the case escalated through the courts, culminating in the Supreme Court decision last June, which effectively repealed Prop 8. The film follows all of this through the eyes of the plaintiffs, two same-sex couples who bravely volunteered to be the public face of equality, working with the unlikely legal team of Olson and Boies (who argued opposite sides before the Supreme Court over the Bush v Gore election in 2000). And along with a hugely engaging narrative, this is one of the clearest depictions yet about why this isn't actually a religious or political issue.

dir-scr Tim Sutton; with Willis Earl Beal, Lopaka Thomas 13/US ***
While this swirling odyssey of a movie is beautifully shot and scored (by its star), it's also relentlessly indulgent, wallowing in the artistic process without properly bringing viewers in. Which leaves it as a fascinating exploration of creativity without anything meaningful to grab hold of. The film follows Beal as he roams around Memphis, mixing with locals, old friends and a lot of people who are never defined (family? friends? kind strangers?). He has just made it big, and lives in a mansion he hasn't yet made a home, driving around town in a huge white Cadillac. Most of these relationships feel unsatisfying, but Beal's biggest problem is coming up with material for that dreaded second album. There are clever elements of Beal's self-examination in this film - from working out his most optimal conditions to be creative to wondering whether he had any talent to begin with. But the film is resolutely experimental, refusing to add any coherence to help the audience follow along. We can absorb moods and ideas and emotions, but without any idea who these people are, it's impossible to engage with Beal or his quest.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Sundance London 1: Fine dining

The 3rd Sundance London Film and Music Festival kicked off tonight at the O2 in North Greenwich. Of course, the press has been here all week watching movies and attending special events (like a breakfast yesterday with the filmmakers), but there was a marked gear-shift today with the extremely noticeable arrival of an army of Americans brandishing lanyards. It'll be fun getting to know them over the next three days, and I've already recognised some from last year's festival. Although this year's event is a day shorter and I won't spend quite as much time over there. Here are some highlights...

The Trip to Italy
dir Michael Winterbottom; with Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan 14/UK ****
As with 2010's The Trip, this spoof doc sends Brydon and Coogan (pictured above) on a journey to visit and review a series of high-end rural restaurants, this time tracing the steps of Byron and Shelly in outrageously picturesque Italy. As before, it's being shown on British television in five 30-minute episodes, so I'm choosing to watch it that way instead of as a 108-minute movie at the festival. So I'm not quite at the end yet. But so far it's great to see these guys recapture that chemistry on-screen as heightened versions of themselves trying to out-do each other with their impersonations of iconic stars. Including each other. At the start, Coogan vows not to do any impressions and not to drink any wine. The first vow sticks for about 15 minutes, until a situation that simply demands Michael Caine. The second vow lasts into the second episode. Genius.

Blue Ruin 
dir-scr Jeremy Saulnier; with Macon Blair, Devin Ratray 13/US **** 
There's a moral complexity to this brutal, low-key revenge thriller that gets under our skin, even if the characters feel somewhat simplistic. But then, these are people whose reactions are based on emotions rather than deep consideration. And filmmaker Saulnier takes us into their world in some extremely harrowing ways... FULL REVIEW >

Drunktown's Finest
dir-scr Sydney Freeland; with Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore 14/US ****
Filmmaker Freeland clearly knows the importance of the subject matter of this three-pronged drama, which skilfully explores a range of issues in a Native American community through stories that are easy to identify with. And the deep human connections bring this scruffy movie come to life, thanks to some understated performances and real-life interaction. Set on the edge of a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, the characters give insight into hapless crime, issues of identity and birthright, community connections, and even gender issues. But all of this emerges organically through characters that get under our skin simply because they seem just like people we know. So it's a bit surprising as the storylines continue and intersect to discover that the film has some bracingly strong things to say about America.

Finding Fela
dir Alex Gibney; with Fela Kuti, Bill T Jones 14/US ***
This documentary tells such an important story that it's impossible to dismiss it just because the structure is so out of balance. As with The Armstrong Lie, filmmaker Gibney seems to lose the grip on his subject matter, trying to tell too many stories at the same time while failing to punch the most important notes. Above all, this is the story of Fela Kuti, one of the most important men in Africa over the last century: a musician and revolutionary who boldly stood up to Nigeria's oppressive government. As a result, the film is also a sharp outline of the past 50 years of the nation's history since independence. But it's told through the prism of a Broadway theatre group mounting a musical stage production on Fela's life. All of this is fascinating, and the stage sequences are terrific for adding musical moments and vivid depictions of some staggering events, which are also shown in extensive archival footage and stills. Then after taking nearly two hours to trace Fela's rise to fame, the film rushes through his final decade in a montage and never quite explains his legacy on the continent or around the globe. It seems oddly fudged for a skilled filmmaker like Gibney, and makes us wonder if there's a complete three-hour version out there somewhere.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Critical Week: Side of beef

London critics caught up with the new Zac Efron/Seth Rogen comedy Neighbors (international title Bad Neighbours) this week, but aren't allowed to talk about the film quite yet. Suffice it to say that Zac doesn't like to wear a shirt, for obvious reasons. Also embargoed (until tomorrow) is the Cameron Diaz/Leslie Mann comedy The Other Women, costarring Kate Upton, Nicolai Coster-Waldau and Nicki Minaj. And I need to wait until next week to review Plastic, a British heist movie starring rising-star young Brits Ed Speleers, Will Poulter and Alfie Allen.

But I can talk about: Transcendence, the achingly slow sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany and Rebecca Hall; Pompeii, the wonderfully preposterous Ancient Roman disaster romp starring Kit Harington and a villainous Kiefer Sutherland; Authors Anonymous, a funny but uneven improv-style comedy starring Chris Klein and Kaley Cuoco; Benny & Jolene, an uneven and awkward improv-style British comedy starring Charlotte Ritchie and Craig Roberts; and Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a clever, powerful dramatic documentary about immigration from Central to North America.

This coming week we've got Paul Walker's thriller remake Brick Mansions, Roman Polanski's theatrical drama Venus in Furs, Ozu's classic An Autumn Afternoon and fashionable pensioner doc Advanced Style. I also have a line-up of screenings this week as part of the Sundance London Festival, which runs next weekend. In my diary are, alphabetically: The Case Against 8, Drunktown's Finest, Finding Fela, Hits, Kumiko, Little Accidents, Memphis, The One I Love, They Came Together and The Voices. I'll be blogging and tweeting about Sundance from Friday.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Critical Week: Clean your room

The big press screening this past week in London was for The Amazing Spider-man 2, which opens here three weeks before it hits America. The lavish world premiere was also in Leicester Square this week. As for the film, it's that same mixture of sharply observed comedy-drama and whizzy spidey-swinging action, but the blockbuster plot elements feel invasive and pointless.

There was also the fascinating but diffuse Nigerian drama Half of a Yellow Sun, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton; the devilish but random thriller 13 Sins, starring Mark Webber and Rutina Wesley; the hilarious in-joke Christian music satire Jesus People; and the sensitive but undercooked gay Chicago drama In Bloom. And we also had two music-based docs: SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is the lively, entertaining story of an important and remarkably nice-guy music promoter, while Mistaken for Strangers is the rather slight but enjoyable story of a rock singer on tour with his cheeky little brother, a documentary filmmaker.

This coming week's screenings include Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann in The Other Woman, Zac Efron and Seth Rogen in Bad Neighbours (aka Neighbors), Gael Garcia Bernal's Who Is Dayani Crystal, the award-winning Singaporean drama Ilo Ilo, the Native American musical doc American Interior, and two films starring young British actors: the crime caper Plastic and the romance Benny & Jolene. 

And I'm already bracing myself for the following week, as the Sundance London Festival (25-27 April) begins early for journalists with four days of press screenings - I have 14 films in my diary over six days.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Sidewalk to Catwalk: A morning with Jean Paul Gaultier

It's always a blast of fresh air as a film critic when I get to do something that doesn't involve sitting in a dark screening room. Tuesday was the launch of the Barbican's newest exhibition, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, a suitably extravagant collection of clothes, drawings, photos and other goodies from the lively designer's career. The kind of comprehensive exhibition we usually see at the V&A, the Barbican has outdone itself, taking the traveling show from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and expanding it with Gaultier's special love of Britain.

After the opening speeches, Gaultier settled in for a terrific chat with ludicrously dishy curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot (above), during which Gaultier said that he loves London so much that he would have liked to live here if the fashion world would have let him. "I feel more at home here," he said. "The energy and eccentricity is unique maybe because it's an island. But I'm one-eighth English so I will claim it." He wanted this version of the show to be funny, lively and specifically London-slanted, and drew a sketch on the wall (right) at the entrance to launch the exhibition, which runs until 25th August.

And what a show it is! It's packed with iconic clothes we know, from a vast collection of Madonna's cone-bras to memorable outfits for Grace Jones and Boy George (right) as well as Kylie Minogue, Dita Von Teese, Kate Moss and many more. There are also catwalk scenes with eerily animated mannequins showing off both wearable fashions and haute couture (including a metre-high Union Jack mohawk, below).

The show also includes Gaultier's costumes for movies by Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar and Luc Besson, as well as a room dedicated to his special relationship with Britain, including the kitch-classic 1990s series EuroTrash, his Spitting Image puppet and his memorable appearance on Absolutely Fabulous. The show is accompanied by a week of movies in May that influenced Gaultier or feature his work.
The thing that makes Gaultier so singular is, as he puts it, his refusal to accept the stereotype. He designs for all kinds of beauty - any age, ethnicity, size, gender. "I look around and see all kinds of people," he says, "and these characters have an impact on me." He has fun with fashion without ever resorting to satire. "But it's not an abstraction," he adds. "The best thing in the world is seeing people wearing my clothes."

It's hard to imagine another designer who would get a specially made eclair created for him by one of the show's sponsors, Boulangerie-Patisserie Paul (talk about a canny marketing trick!): not only is its design gorgeously simple, but it's also seriously delicious.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Requisite Blog Photo: A Spidey face-off

Critical Week: King of the jungle

There was yet another new movie version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' iconic Tarzan screened for press this week - German animation that has high technical quality but some dodgy artistic and plot elements. Kellan Lutz performs and voices the king of the jungle, and when everything comes together, it's very entertaining. Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff play brothers in The Motel Life, a strong, low-key drama that taps into a real sense of desperation. So it's also rather grim.  Mindless action came in the form of In the Blood, starring Gina Carano as a new bride who kicks into battle mode when her husband disappears. Gorgeous Caribbean scenery helps us ignore the silly script.

Further afield, Robin Weigert is terrific in the drama Concussion, a warm, offhanded exploration of middle-aged desire. The Lisbon-set thriller After the Night takes us into a bustling favela for a fast paced all-night thriller that's low on detail but strong on atmosphere. And the Swedish film The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is an engaging blend of black comedy, dark drama and cheeky history.

This coming week's biggie is The Amazing Spider-man 2, and other screenings include Chiwetel Ejiofor in Half of a Yellow Sun, the comedy Jesus People, and Mike Myers' documentary Supermensch. I'm also attending the launch event for Jean-Paul Gaultier's exhibition at the Barbican, which promises to be a lot of fun combining fashion and film. Watch this space...

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Critical Week: There's gonna be a floody-floody

This past week's big screening for London press was for Darren Aronofsky's biblical flood thriller Noah, which pretty evenly divided critics. While I admired Aronofsky's stunning time-lapse version of creation, I was a bit put off by the fact that these militant vegans wear leather accessories. The other big movies were Arnold Schwarzenegger's gritty cop drama Sabotage and the Emma Thompson-Pierce Brosnan rom-com heist romp The Love Punch, both of which I'm embargoed from discussing quite yet. I also had a chance to interview Arnie and Emma for those films - Arnie was surreally accompanied by British anti-comic Keith Lemon; Emma came with costar Celia Imrie. Both were charming.

Smaller films included Juliette Binoche's storming performance as a photojournalist in the complex Irish drama A Thousand Times Good Night, Kristin Scott Thomas' steely turn opposite Daniel Auteuil in the repressed French drama Before the Winter Chill, and a trio of terrific Guatemalan teens as youngsters trying to travel to California in the astonishingly well-made and rather bleak The Golden Dream. There were also two British comedies: Almost Married is a somewhat under-cooked stag night farce, while Downhill is a superbly telling and very funny doc-style road movie about four middle-aged men walking coast-to coast-across England.

This coming week's movies include Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff in The Motel Life, Gina Carano and Cam Gigandet in the action movie In the Blood, the offbeat drama Concussion, a new 3D animated version of Tarzan, the Lisbon gang thriller After the Night, and the superbly titled Swedish hit The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.