Sunday, 12 November 2017

Critical Week: Never surrender

It was a disparate collection of movies this past week. The most obviously prestigious one was Darkest Hour, which chronicles the first month of Winston Churchill's first term as UK prime minister. It's a lavishly made film, anchored by a bullish performance from Gary Oldman. At the other end of the spectrum, Daddy's Home Two reunites Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell (plus Mel Gibson and John Lithgow as their dads) for a holiday comedy that's amusing without doing anything very new. More ambitious, The Dinner features strong performances from Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall, although the film might be too tricky for its own good.

There were also three more true stories. Josh Brolin and Miles Teller lead the firefighting drama Only the Brave, which gets a little too caught up in its heroic machismo. Colin Firth stars in the sailing adventure The Mercy, a riveting tale with an enigmatic core. And The Man With the Iron Heart is a great story of the Nazi resistance, thrown out of balance with its duelling plot-strands starring Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack O' Connell and Jack Reynor.

I'm travelling over the next week or so, and not sure what I'll be able to catch up with along the way. Targeted films include Justice League, Wonder, Thank You for Your Service, The Disaster Artist and The Current War. I'll be posting comments whenever I can...

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Critical Week: You better not pout

It seems rather early, but the holidays kicked off this week with the first festive movie, A Bad Moms Christmas, a sequel to last year's sweetly gross-out comedy with added grandmothers. More of the same, it's kind of the definition of mindless entertainment. There was also a press screening for Paddington 2, which might actually be better than the wonderful original film. It's a pure delight, a great story with superb characters and a range of silly, surreal and razor-sharp comedy.

And I can't remember the last time I was invited to attend a premiere, but tonight I was at the Royal Albert Hall for the world premiere of Kenneth Branagh's remake of the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express. It's a big, classy whodunit with a nice mix of comedy and emotion stirred in to add weight to the characters. The entire cast was at the premiere, including Branagh, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe and Derek Jacobi.

There was also a spin on the zombie genre with the raucous office block black comedy Mayhem, as well as the remarkably straight-faced B-movie style bigfoot thriller Sightings. Plus two foreign films: the involving, mesmerising thriller Thelma from Norway and the movingly personal drama Santa and Andres from Cuba. And two docs: 78/52 gets into lots of enjoyable detail about how Hitchcock created that iconic shower scene, while The Freedom to Marry explores the activists at the centre of the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality.

This coming week we have screenings of Josh Brolin in Only the Brave, Colin Firth in The Mercy, Richard Gere in The Dinner, Jon Bernthal in Sweet Virginia, Lee Pace in Revolt and Virginia Madsen in Better Watch Out.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Critical Week: Jailyard blues

Films were a little more low-key this week, as studios continue their current trend of simply not screening the biggest releases (including Geostorm, The Lego Ninjago Movie, The Snowman, Flatliners, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the forthcoming A Bad Moms Christmas). With some of these, I buy a ticket to see the movie so I can review it. Others I skip even though they feature favourite actors and filmmakers (perhaps I can catch up with The Mountain Between Us on a flight). Either way, it's rather frustrating that distributors are now telling us how to do our job, and sometimes forcing us to lose paying work. Basically, they have forgotten that we are part of the industry and treat us instead as one element in their PR plan. I'm afraid this is only going to get worse.

Anyway, I only saw two films this week that featured mainstream stars. One was the gritty thriller Shot Caller, in which Game of Thrones' Nicolaj Coster-Waldau plays a banker sent to prison, where he becomes a criminal with the help of gang member Jon Bernthal (above). The other was the comedy Crash Pad with Domhnall Gleeson, Thomas Haden Church and Christina Applegate, corny but enjoyably silly.

From Australia, Teenage Kicks is a dark coming-of-age drama with very realistic characters. The offbeat British drama Palace of Fun is an intriguing story of obsession. From Congo, Felicite is a gorgeously made odyssey about a fiercely strong woman. Belgian ensemble romance Even Lovers Get the Blues features a cast of good-looking 30-somethings wrestling with issues of sex and love. And the web series I'm Fine follows a group of cliched but likeable gay men in West Hollywood. Then there was a festival that held its opening night...


12th LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 26 October - 19 November
The Day After
dir Hong Sangsoo; with Kwan Haehyo, Kim Minhee 17/Kor ***.
With a blackly comical tone, Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo tells a witty tale of relational chaos centring around a man caught between the three women in his life. With its improvised dialog and extended takes shot in striking monochrome, this is a loose, entertaining film that continually surprises the audience with its tricky pacing and an elliptical style of storytelling that makes it feel like we've been here before. And the characters are hilariously messy.


Coming up this next week, we have the eagerly awaited sequel Paddington 2, the star-packed remake Murder on the Orient Express, supernatural thriller Sightings, horror action movie Mayhem, Norwegian thriller Thelma, Cuban drama Santa & Andres,  and the Psycho shower scene doc 78/52.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Critical Week: Sister act

It's been nice to only see three films in the three days after the film festival ended (rather than three or four a day). The main event was an epic press screening of Thor: Ragnarok, which is surprisingly funny all the way through while also being packed with eye-catching energy (especially the scene-stealing Cate Blanchett, above), even if the whole Marvel thing is feeling oddly stale, perhaps because there is no suspense left in the formula. But it's a lot of fun. I also caught up with The Snowman, Michael Fassbender's serial killer thriller based on the Jo Nesbo novel, which has deservedly had terrible reviews across the board. There is a huge range of talent on both side of the cameras, yet the script is a mess. And on the smaller side, I caught the British thriller B&B, which touches on some big topics (mainly bigotry) with strong characters and a genuinely unsettling plot. I also had some time for the theatre...


Young Frankenstein
at the Garrick Theatre
Mel Brooks adapts his own classic film (one of my all-time favourites) into this rather nutty musical, which opened in the West End last week. It's basically the movie with added songs that stretch out some of the more iconic moments, and the characters are all played by a skilled singing-dancing cast exactly like their big screen counterparts. Perhaps the film is so indelible that there's no other way to play these roles - they wouldn't be as funny it they didn't hark back to the great Gene Wilder, Madeleine Kahn, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman. The material is robust enough to handle this transition - the film's best jokes are still funny on stage. And the emotional kick is here too, even if it's somewhat diluted by the extra razzle dazzle. I'll probably go see it again.


Graeme of Thrones
at the Charing Cross Theatre
The subject up for satire is obvious, but this fringe show takes an amusingly fresh approach that is actually poking fun at fringe shows themselves. The three-person cast is up for quite a lot of riotous silliness, with physical slapstick, wordplay and lots of sight gags. Their rendition of the series' opening titles is impeccably ridiculous. Fans of the TV show will get all of the jokes, which include spoilers right up to the latest season. And there are plenty of gems thrown in all the way through for a wider audience, especially the performance art pieces that come out of nowhere with their delirious absurdity. Some of the humour strains a bit, but most gags hit the target astutely. And by the end, the sloppy "let's put on a show" vibe means that we're rooting for all three of these scruffy actors (plus one game audience member) to claim the Iron Throne.


Coming up this next week, we have Nicolaj Coster-Waldau in Shot Caller, Domhnall Gleeson in Crash Pad, British thriller Palace of Fun and Aussie coming-of-age drama Teenage Kicks.


Sunday, 15 October 2017

LFF: Kick back on Day 12

Well, it's all over for another year, so I can start to get back to normal life now. Tonight's closing film is Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (that's Sam Rockwell above), with the usual red carpet premiere and gala party after. But for me it's been about the films, and there have been some great ones (plus a few duds). And as always, there is a long list of movies that I desperately wanted to see but couldn't fit into my schedule. Here are the winners of the festival's official juried awards, my 10 best films (including some I had seen previously), and a final collection of highlights...

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 AWARDS
  • Best Film: LOVELESS
  • Doc (Grierson Award): KINGDOM OF US
  • First Feature (Sutherland Award): THE WOUND
  • BFI Fellowship: Paul Greengrass

MY BEST OF THE FEST 2017:
  1. A FANTASTIC WOMAN
  2. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
  3. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
  4. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
  5. 120 BEATS PER MINUTE
  6. LOVELESS
  7. LAST FLAG FLYING
  8. LEAN ON PETE
  9. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
  10. CUSTODY

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
dir-scr Martin McDonagh; with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson 17/US *****
Writer-director Martin McDonaugh is on blistering form with this fiendishly clever personal drama, which arrives masquerading as a funny, violent police thriller. With take-no-prisoners performances from the entire cast, particularly a storming Frances McDormand, the film tackles our angry world head-on with a surprisingly heartfelt plea for compassion. And it approaches the riveting story and pungent themes with remarkable honesty... FULL REVIEW >

Zama
dir-scr Lucrecia Martel; with Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Lola Duenas 17/Arg ***
This is a fairly difficult movie even by the standards of adventurous Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. An existential odyssey based on the 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, it simply refuses to coalesce into any kind of sensible narrative as the title character's life becomes a swirling nightmare of bureaucracy and cross-cultural messiness. And that's actually the point. At least it's fascinating, beautifully shot and acted, and packed with witty satire... FULL REVIEW >

The Prince of Nothingwood
dir Sonia Kronlund; with Salim Shaheen, Sonia Kronlund 17/Fr ****
A fly-on-the-wall look at prolific Afghan filmmaker Salim Shaheen, this documentary is both playful and chilling in the way it explores the life of a colourful man and a nation's momentous history. French-Swiss journalist Sonia Kronlund follows Shaheen into some rarely seen parts of Afghanistan, which he calls "Nothingwood" due to his no-budget filmmaking style. It's an entertaining and eye-opening film.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco
dir-scr James Crump; with Bill Cunningham, Jessica Lange 17/US 1h30 ****
A fast-paced, skilful portrait of an artist who isn't very well-known outside fashion circles, this film is infused with the sensuality of its 1970s period. Through lively, expressive interviews and a wealth of footage and stills, Antonio Lopez springs to life before our eyes, making us wish we had a chance to get to know him, because he seems like someone we'd probably fall in love with just like everyone else did.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

LFF: Do the right thing on Day 11

It's the penultimate day of the 61st BFI London Film Festival, and tonight's gala will see Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix walking the red carpet in Leicester Square. There will also be a flurry of celebrities attending tonights awards ceremony, hosted by James Nesbitt, at which Paul Greengrass will receive the prestigious BFI Fellowship. I'll list the winners, as well as my own best of the fest, tomorrow. Here are more highlights...

You Were Never Really Here
dir-scr Lynne Ramsay; with Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts 17/UK *****
This singular thriller by Lynne Ramsay is like a slap across the face, a fresh approach to the genre. It's also unapologetically an arthouse film, demanding a lot from the audience as it presents a swirl of imagery and sound that says a lot about the central character without being obvious about it. Anchored by a burly-bear performance from Joaquin Phoenix, it's definitely not an easy film, but it isn't easy to shake.

Let the Sun Shine in [Un Beau Soleil Intérieur]
dir Claire Denis; with Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois 17/Fr ****
An exploration of the yearning to find that elusive one true love, this astutely observed film is funny, charming, beautiful and sad. But it's never remotely sentimental, thanks to filmmaker Claire Denis' razor-sharp approach. It's also elevated by a sharply honest performance from Juliette Binoche as a woman seeking the love of her life.

Nico, 1988
dir-scr Susanna Nicchiarelli; with Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair 17/It ****
This biopic about the final years of the iconic German-born musician-actress strikes an intriguing tone, diving into firsthand accounts of people who worked with her. It feels remarkably personal, with a bold, gritty edge that echoes the intensity of both Nico's singing and Trine Dyrholm's thunderous performance. Some elements feel a little undercooked, leaving the audience perhaps misled about details. But it's an involving film packed with rivulets of emotion... FULL REVIEW >

This Is Our Land [Chez Nous]
dir Lucas Belvaux; with Emilie Dequenne, Andre Dussollier 17/Fr ***.
With an earthy sense of authenticity, this drama takes a controversial approach to French politics. There's an urgency to the premise that shifts this from a gently pointed drama into something rather darker and scarier. All of which makes it perhaps a little muddled, but the film highlights the insidious idea that both politicians and bigots are happy to change strategies if they have a chance of winning, but they'll never change their goals.

Strangled [A Martfüi Rém]
dir-scr Arpad Sopsits; with Karoly Hajduk, Gabor Jaszberenyi 16/Hun ***
Based on a true story, this dark, stylish thriller builds dramatic suspense as it chronicles a serial killer in a small Hungarian town. Revealing the cold-blooded murderer from the start, the film sometimes feels a bit draggy as we wait for the cops to connect the dots, but it's packed with terrific characters who are conflicted and relatable.

The Nile Hilton Incident
dir-scr Tarik Saleh; with Fares Fares, Mari Malek 17/Swe ***.
This Cairo-set police thriller is perhaps too elusive to properly grip the audience, but it's a striking portrait of a culture that seems to ignore every rule of law. Shot in an offbeat style, the story's most momentous moments are shot in an almost throwaway style, which makes it an intriguing challenge to know who or what is important. This also provides some nasty gut-punches along the way to the requisite shocking finale.

Friday, 13 October 2017

LFF: Share a snack on Day 10

The 61st BFI London Film Festival powers into its final weekend with a flurry of world premieres, red carpet galas and lots of great little films packed into the edges of the programme. I have no more press screenings, but there are several movies I'm hoping to catch at public screenings over the weekend, so watch this space. And here are some more highlights...

The Florida Project
dir Sean Baker; with Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite 17/US ****
Loose and lively, this free-flowing comedy-drama is set among people living just outside the main gates of Disney World. And its young cast of mainly non-actors is terrific at creating likeable characters with big attitudes. As he did in Tangerine, filmmaker Sean Baker focusses on engaging people touched by the carelessness of loved ones who think they deserve sympathy, but don't... FULL REVIEW >

Downsizing
dir Alexander Payne; with Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig 17/US ***
Alexander Payne eschews his usual organic style of storytelling for something more pointed and constructed. The premise is ingeniously conceived and thought out down to the (ahem!) smallest details, and as the plot develops a variety of big issues make themselves known. This may provide a connection to present-day issues, but it makes the film begin to feel rather pushy. And the ideas themselves become stronger than the narrative... FULL REVIEW >

Sweet Country
dir Warwick Thornton; with Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris 17/Aus ***.
With a gentle pace that echoes the rhythms of life in turn-of-the-century rural Australia, this slow-burning dramatic Western quietly creeps up on the audience. It offers deep themes and detailed characters, plus a vivid depiction of the clash between the Aboriginals and the European interlopers. The film's setting may echo other movies, but the tone is distinctly more internalised, exploring the true nature of justice in a seriously unfair place... FULL REVIEW >

The Forgiven
dir Roland Joffe; with Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana 17/SA ***
This well-produced drama about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission feels somewhat dated, as this kind of story has been told in plenty of movies over the past 20 years. But strong performances from an international cast raise the interest level, and it's a vivid exploration of forgiveness that transcends some rather sentimental storytelling.

A Sort of Family  [Una Especie de Familia]
dir Diego Lerman; with Barbara Lennie, Yanina Avila 17/Arg **.
From Argentina, this dark drama is intriguing enough to hold the interest, but it loses the audience's sympathy along the way. With a central character whose specific issues are only superficially defined, much of what happens feels infuriating, which is a problem for a movie that's straining so hard to be emotionally wrenching. Even so, filmmaker Diego Luna has an eye for characters and settings, so he draws us in to the dilemma and its implications.

Grain
dir Semih Kaplanoglu; with Jean-Marc Barr, Ermin Bravo 17/Tur ***.
With a gorgeous visual sensibility augmented by expansive monochrome cinematography, this Turkish odyssey explores big issues about the future of humanity through a meandering narrative following a man across a dystopian landscape. It's a bit obtuse at times, dipping into allegorical surrealism and arthouse nuttiness, but it's also utterly riveting, both for its epic plot and its big ideas.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

LFF: Look closer on Day 9

Only a few days to go, the press screenings at the 61st BFI London Film Festival are increasingly looking like the parade of the living dead as us journalists push our sleep patterns to the limits to see as many movies as possible. But we're also enjoying every gem we uncover. Here are some more highlights, plus more below...

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
dir Yorgos Lanthimos; with Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman 17/UK ****
Possibly the least surreal thriller yet from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, which isn't saying much, this movie verges on horror as it pushes its characters right to the brink. The story builds quietly, layering in a variety of issues that continually compel the audience to make decisions about the rather unhinged people on-screen. And while the ultimate message is perhaps a little muddled, it definitely gets us thinking.

Journeyman
dir-scr Paddy Considine; with Paddy Considine, Jodie Whittaker 17/UK ***
With a tightly focussed script, this film feels perhaps a bit slight, like a short stretched to feature length. But it skilfully captures a sense of real life for these characters caught in an extraordinary situation. And it avoids the usual boxing movie cliches for something much more internalised. Paddy Considine shines as writer, director and star, but it's a striking supporting performance from Jodie Whittaker that pulls the audience in.

The Boy Downstairs
dir-scr Sophie Brooks, with Zosia Mamet, Matthew Shear 17/US **.
A fairly straightforward rom-com livened up by some structural editing, this film takes the rather tired position that no young woman is complete until she finds the perfect man to grow old with. Otherwise, it's smart and engaging, with characters who are easy to identify with and a nice sense of awkward energy as they try to interact. Easy to watch, and never remotely challenging.

Angels Wear White
dir-scr Vivian Qu, with Wen Qi, Zhou Meijun 17/China ****
A slow-burning lament about corruption and injustice in China, Vivian Qu's dramatic thriller is warm, steely and packed with conflicted characters from a variety of generations. It's sometimes so morally complex that it makes the viewer's head spin, not because we don't know what's right, but because everyone is so good at sidestepping around it.

Custody
dir-scr Xavier Legrand; with Denis Menochet, Lea Drucker 17/Fr ****
A punchy drama that grips the audience with a complex situation and shifting characters, this French film only gradually reveals the truth about the dissolution of a marriage. Writer-director Xavier Legrand and his skilled cast take a bold and intense approach to a story that unfolds through a series of perspective-shifting encounters. It's often painful to watch, building to a confrontation that leaves us deeply shaken... FULL REVIEW>

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L    W E E K
I only saw one regular press screening this week (for a non-LFF film), and that was the British period movie The Man Who Invented Christmas, starring Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens. It's light and entertaining, and once again proves the resilience of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. And then there was this world premiere, which oddly wasn't included in the LFF...

The Phantom of the Opera
dir Rupert Julian; with Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin 25/US *****
Written in 1993, Roy Budd's magnificent original score finally had its world premiere some 24 years later, performed live at the London Coliseum by the Docklands Sinfonia Orchestra with a print of the film that has been restored with its original colour-tinting. To call this screening a triumph is an understatement. It was the perfect combination of venue, live music and an iconic film that's still surprisingly freaky nearly a century after it was made.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

LFF: Escape on Day 8

The end is in sight for the 61st BFI London Film Festival, as we cross into the later half of this week with several more starry gala screenings to come. I noticed things felt a little quieter in the press screening rooms today, but perhaps that's because I'd seen some of the bigger films at Venice, so I was catching up on slightly more off-kilter things. It's always tricky finding time to see the more marginal films, but they tend to be the surprises, the ones you remember. Here are some more highlights...

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
dir Paul McGuigan; with Annette Bening, Jamie Bell 17/UK ***.
With a gorgeous visual style and vivid characters, this true story is packed with superb details that bring the people and situations to life. It's an offbeat narrative, rejecting the usual structures as it flickers back and forth in time over the course of about three years, but it offers some sharp comedy and big emotional moments along the way. And a nice comment on how Hollywood discards old actors.

Brawl in Cell Block 99
dir-scr S Craig Zahler; with Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter 17/US ****
After infusing the Western with horrific new life in 2015's Bone Tomahawk, S Craig Zahler is back with a thunderous reinvention of the prison movie. Set in the present day but playing out like a 1970s exploitation thriller, this increasingly grisly story unfolds with choreographed precision, grinding the audience into its emotional depths with several genuinely hideous plot turns. And it's anchored by a superbly thoughtful/fierce performance from Vince Vaughn... FULL REVIEW >http://www.shadowsonthewall.co.uk/17/brawcell.htm

Man Hunt
dir John Woo; with Zhang Hanyu, Masaharu Fukuyama 17/Jpn ***.
John Woo returns to his roots with this rampaging action movie, which also pays homage to the history of Japanese cinema as an innocent man tries to clear his name. Set in the present but shot in cheesy 1970s style, the film is a lot of fun with its convoluted plot and breathtakingly choreographed action scenes. It also features all the Woo trademarks, from shattered glass to fluttering doves. And bullets, lots of bullets... FULL REVIEW >http://www.shadowsonthewall.co.uk/17/fi.htm#manh

A Ciambra
dir-scr Jonas Carpignano; with Pio Amato, Koudous Seihon 17/It ***.
Following on from his 2015 refugee drama Mediterranea, Italian filmmaker Jonas Carpignano switches the focus to catch up with another character, a young Romany teen who is straining to come of age. Shot like a documentary with mainly non-actors, the film is abrasive and pungent, maintaining a close-up perspective on this cocky teen's forays into what will clearly become a hopeless life of criminality.

Beyond the Clouds
dir-scr Majid Majidi; with Ishaan Khattar, Malavika Mohanan 17/India ***.
Iranian maestro Majid Majidi brings his humane filmmaking approach to India with this complex story about makeshift families. While it may be a bit melodramatic and abrupt in its approach, this is a provocative drama set around the moment when revenge clashes with compassion. It's also beautifully shot with a lively, expressive cast.

The Journey
dir Mohamed Al Daradji; with Zahraa Ghandour, Ameer Ali Jabarah 17/Iraq ***
The title of this film may seem weakly generic, but this is a sharply pointed drama that uses an allegorical structure to strong effect. With a range of characters and emotions and a plot that unfolds in real time, this is an engaging, sometimes harrowing profile of a suicide bomber. It maybe somewhat arch, but it's also thoughtful and powerful in its yearning for truth.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

LFF: Have a chat on Day 7

OK, this is the point in a film festival when a critic's brain begins to turn to mush, unable to remember what he saw today, let alone what's in the diary for tomorrow. I'm sure the 61st London Film Festival is a starry parade of red carpet premieres and glamorous parties somewhere, but for me it's an endless stream of press screenings. Well, I shouldn't complain too much, today there were two receptions involving free wine and canapes. So at least I'm feeling fed and watered. Some more highlights...

The Party
dir-scr Sally Potter; with Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson 17/UK ****
A pitch-black comedy packed with equal measures of awkward irony and brittle tragedy, Sally Potter's offbeat film is like a stage play filmed for the big screen. Photographed in black and white with expressionistic lighting and editing that makes it feel almost like a feature-length Twilight Zone episode, it's a rampaging trawl through politics and social connections. It's also deceptively light, but carries a piercing sting... FULL REVIEW >

The Shape of Water 
dir Guillermo del Toro; with Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins 17/US ****
Guillermo del Toro lets his imagination run wild with this engaging and also rather dark romantic adventure. It's a riot of clever production design, witty dialog and heartfelt emotion that carries the audience on a journey along with the vivid characters. The whimsical family-movie tone sits a bit oddly alongside the film's resolutely adult-oriented touches, but for grown-ups this is a fairy tale full of wonder... FULL REVIEW >

6 Days
dir Toa Fraser; with Mark Strong, Jamie Bell 17/UK ***
Muscular direction and an insistent tone maintain a sense of urgency all the way through this fact-based account of a terrorist siege. The quality of the production is very high indeed, although the somewhat on-the-nose screenplay and a pulsing musical score leave this feeling more like a quickly produced TV movie than something 35 years in the works. Still, it's a fascinating account that builds to a superbly staged finale... FULL REVIEW >

Foxtrot
dir-scr Samuel Maoz; with Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler 17/Isr ****
Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz takes an audacious journey into grief and guilt in a drama that's made unsettling by the inclusion of sardonic wit, surrealism and dark irony. With characters who are strikingly well-played, travelling through this gorgeously photographed narrative is like taking an epic voyage into the neglected corners of your soul... FULL REVIEW >

I Am Not a Witch
dir-scr Rungano Nyoni; with Margaret Mulubwa, Henry BJ Phiri 17/UK ****
A fascinating mix of allegory and satire, this offbeat tale from rural Zambia is packed with wonderful characters and surreal touches. It's a story about a group of women who are marginalised as witches and treated with voyeuristic reverence. With her feature debut, writer-director Rungano Nyoni has created a marvellous movie that might not always be easy to watch, but it sparks with artistry and originality.

The Wound [Inxeba]
dir John Trengove; with Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsai 17/SA ****
A finely observed drama from South Africa, produced with sometimes startling honesty as it depicts ukwaluka, the Xhosa rite of passage into manhood. The film is a bracing depiction of a tribal tradition in modern times, packed with vivid characters who are grappling with a range of big questions. What emerges is a striking depiction of masculinity that transcends cultures.

Monday, 9 October 2017

LFF: See the wonder on Day 6

Another busy day at the 61st BFI London Film Festival, with some extra colour in the middle as I attended a meet-the-filmmakers event and got a chance to visit with Takashi Miike (Blade of the Immortals), Anne Fontaine (Reinventing Marvin) and David Batty (My Generation), among others. Here are some more highlights from the festival - note that full reviews will be up on the site as soon as I can get them there. Finding time to write in between films can be a bit tricky...

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
dir-scr Angela Robinson; with Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall 17/US ****
If you've never read about how the Wonder Woman comics were created, you might need to brace yourself for this film. Because in exploring the lives of the Harvard brainiacs behind the first and most popular female superhero, the filmmakers dip into a counterculture lifestyle that would probably have tongues wagging now, let alone in the 1940s. It's also a sharply well written and directed film, with a solid cast that brings depth to the characters.

Thoroughbred
dir-scr Cory Finley; with Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke 17/US ***.
Brittle and very bleak, this black comedy takes a rather unnecessary swipe at the vacuous life of privileged teens, as if there's anything else to say on the topic. Even so, it's strikingly written and directed by newcomer Corey Finley, while rising stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke make the most of the twisted dialog. It also explores an aspect of Millennial culture that's rarely depicted on-screen.

Call Me By Your Name
dir Luca Guadagnino; with Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet 17/It ****.
With a sunny dose of nostalgia, this drama traces a pivotal summer in a young man's life. Characters and situations are complex, challenging the viewer to share the experience. And while this may seem to be a film about sexuality, it's actually more potently an exploration of how important it is to embrace our emotions, even the ones that hurt.

Loving Vincent
dir Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman; with Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan 17/UK ***.
Like Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, this film was hand animated frame-by-frame from live-action footage, although in this case it was done by some 100 artists working with oil paints. A look into the final days of Vincent van Gogh, the exquisitely rendered imagery is a swirling odyssey through his work, echoing characters and settings while exploring his tragic and mysterious death at age 37 in 1890.

Funny Cow
dir Adrian Shergold; with Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine 17/UK ***
This is a sharply well-made drama about a woman going against the current in her culture. It's beautifully filmed and performed with energy and attitude. On the other hand, for a movie about a stand-up comic, it's relentlessly dour. There are some riotous moments along the way, and the acting is riveting enough to hold the interest all the way through, but the overall tone is seriously grim.

A Prayer Before Dawn
dir Jean-Stephane Sauvaire; with Joe Cole, Pornchanok Mabklang 17/UK ****
Based on Billy Moore's memoir, this is a harrowing true account of a young British man's experience in a Thai prison. There isn't much context, actually no background at all, and therefore no real sense of any of the characters. Still, the film is utterly riveting, as director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire takes the audience on a jarring, unforgettable odyssey that leaves us with some big themes to chew on.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

LFF: Visit the seaside on Day 5

It's been another busy day at the 61st BFI London Film Festival, with a range of unexpected movies. I'm thoroughly enjoying the chance to catch up with both some big titles as well as some smaller films from around the world. Although there are so many mainstream movies in this particular festival that it's sometimes difficult to find time to visit out-of-the-way ones. Anyway, here are some more highlights, including a double dose of the great Isabelle Huppert...

On Chesil Beach
dir Dominic Cooke; with Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle 17/UK ***.
Author Ian McEwan adapts his own award-winning novel for the big screen, turning it into another beautifully produced story about those things that the English prefer not to talk about. Namely, class and sex. The film is both provocative and moving as it traces a relationship to a pivotal moment, and the two central characters are performed with raw honesty by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle.

Last Flag Flying
dir Richard Linklater; with Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston 17/US ****
Richard Linklater pays his respects to The Last Detail in a funny and sensitive road movie that hits the emotions without forcing them. It's neither a sequel nor remake to Hal Ashby's 1973 classic, but there are loud echoes. As the central trio, Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne create vivid characters, middle-aged war veterans who have something important to say about patriotism and what it means to be a hero.

Pickups

dir Jamie Thraves; with Aidan Gillen, Antonia Campbell-Hughes 17/UK ***
A third improvisational collaboration between Jamie Thraves and Aidan Gillen, this is a playful comedy about a television star who dives into a dark role in an effort to get over his divorce. It's a meandering, relaxed story assembled from a series of lively, witty scenes, some of which tap into some surprisingly disturbing emotions. Parts of the film feel random or indulgently stretched out, but it gets under the skin... FULL REVIEW >

Happy End
dir-scr Michael Haneke; with Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant 17/Fr ****
This may be as close as we'll ever get to Michael Haneke lightening up. Although even if it's packed with offbeat wit and characters who verge on farce, there's no escaping that this is essentially a comedy about suicidal and murderous urges. Families don't get much more dysfunctional than the one depicted on-screen, and the film also taps into the current economic divide, being a story of the very wealthy in a place known for its population of desperate refugees.

Reinventing Marvin
dir Anne Fontaine; with Finnegan Oldfield, Catherine Salee 17/Fr ***.
The thoughtful story of a young artist's journey to self-expression, this film is sometimes brutally honest about the tension between so-called provincial attitudes and enlightened liberal sensibilities. The film may be in need of some judicial editing, but the material here is resonant and important. And it's also beautifully played by an intriguingly eclectic cast that includes Isabelle Huppert in a witty role as herself... FULL REVIEW >

Blade of the Immortal
dir Takashi Miike; with Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki 17/Jpn ***.
With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Japanese master Takashi Miike brings Hiroaki Samura's manga to life, using a heavy dose of sharp humour to undercut the nonstop grisliness. It's also a remarkably involving story that blurs the lines between good and evil by adding layers of complexity to the characters. It may essentially be a story of revenge with a hint of redemption thrown in, but it's also a classic tale very well told.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

LFF: Challenge the system on Day 4

At one point today, between screenings at the 61st BFI London Film Festival, I walked through a very crowded Leicester Square and spotted Billie Jean King signing autographs for fans before the gala screening of Battle of the Sexes. Sometimes it's fun to see how this festival changes the landscape of the city. Otherwise it was another day of press screenings for me. Need to watch some terrible television tonight to cleanse the pallet I think. Here are more highlights...

Battle of the Sexes
dir Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris; with Emma Stone, Steve Carell 17/US ****
Emma Stone and Steve Carroll are simply terrific in this dramatisation of the events leading up to the eponymous epic showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. Much more than a re-enactment of the match, this is a biopic exploring what drives someone at this level of sport and fame. And it's assembled with a steady stream of knowing wit that keeps the audience engaged... FULL REVIEW >

Ingrid Goes West
dir Matt Spicer; with Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen 17/US ***.
This black comedy pulls very few punches as it follows a social media stalker into her latest obsession. With a fiendishly witty script and a committed lead performance from Aubrey Plaza, director Matt Spicer creates a jaggedly hilarious tone that gets very nasty indeed. Although it dips a little too far into one contrived plot point, the film is both entertaining and a bit freaky... FULL REVIEW >

Dark River
dir-scr Clio Barnard; with Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley 17/UK ****
This is another moody Yorkshire drama from British filmmaker Clio Barnard, and it's also one more beautifully devastating gem. Gorgeously shot and edited, and featuring raw performances from the actors, the film has an almost primal quality to it that never lets the audience relax. There may be the odd plot point (it's inspired by Rose Tremain's novel Tresspass), but the power exists in the connections between the characters and the land. Watching it is darkly moving.

120 Beats Per Minute [120 Battements par Minute]
dir Robin Campillo; with Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois 17/Fr ****.
There's a striking realism to this epic drama about Aids activists in early 1990s Paris. Filmmaker Robin Campillo sometimes seems too ambitious for his own good, indulging in the intense debates between protesters, but the film's core is a tender love story that's powerfully moving. And it highlights the struggle these men and women went through to gain attention for their cause, saving millions of lives in the process... FULL REVIEW >

Redoubtable [Le Redoutable]
dir-scr Michel Hazanavicius; with Louis Garrel, Stacy Martin 17/Fr ***
Michel Hazanavicius gets a little too clever for his own good with this biopic about Jean-Luc Godard's decade-long relationship with second wife Anne Wiazemsky. It's smart and playful, packed with hilariously inventive touches both in the dialog and visuals that will especially please Godard fans. And it's brightly played by the cast. But its characters are enigmatic and belligerent, wannabe revolutionaries who can't escape their own neuroses.

My Generation
dir David Batty; with Michael Caine, Paul McCartney 17/UK ***.
A groovy trip through swinging 1960s London, this colourful documentary explores the seismic shift in British society as working class artists teamed up to break the rules and become global stars in music, film, art and fashion. Narrated by Michael Caine, its full of enjoyable personal anecdotes, terrific songs and lots of clips edited together into a swirling concoction. It may feel rather gimmicky, but it's packed with entertaining surprises... FULL REVIEW >

Friday, 6 October 2017

LFF: Having an adventure on Day 3

The movie marathon continues, with three or four films per day during the 61st BFI London Film Festival. I know there are star-filled red carpets and lavish parties taking place somewhere, but the vast majority of working journalists never get invited to those. We shuffle from cinema to cinema all day catching what we can in a crowded schedule (usually having to select one of six or seven films screening simultaneously, and missing the rest of them completely). So far I've only missed a few things I wanted to see. Here are highlights tonight and tomorrow...

Wonderstruck
dir Todd Haynes; with Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds (above) 17/US ****.
There's an intricate web of connections at the heart of this ambitious film, gradually building a expanding mystery that quietly sucks the audience in until a goosebump-inducing finale. It takes awhile to get there, but it's well worth the wait, augmented by director Todd Haynes' astonishing attention to detail in two iconic periods. And all of the central performances are powerfully moving.

A Fantastic Woman [Una Mujer Fantástica]
dir Sebastian Lelio; with Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes 17/Chl ****.
With remarkable sensitivity, this drama by Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio (Gloria) tells a vital story that carries a fiercely moving kick. Indeed, it's one of the most important films of the year, exploring a timely issue with dignity and grace: a cry for compassion in a callous world. It's also quite simply beautiful, written and directed with artistry and skilfully well-acted, most notably by Daniela Vega in the title role.

Manifesto
dir-scr Julian Rosefeldt; with Cate Blanchett 16/Ger 1h35 **.
Enormous ideas swirl around this experimental essay in which Cate Blanchett plays 12 distinctly different characters who launch into iconic philosophical rants about art and humanity. There are so many highfalutin words that the movie becomes a bit of a mumbly blur, but it's strikingly shot with sharply created settings that add witty touches all the way through. And filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt's point seems to be that of this arguing is pointless.

Beach Rats 
dir-scr Eliza Hittman; with Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein 17/US ****
Despite a couple of slightly clanking plot points, there's the lovely aura of Gus Van Sant hovering around this loose, introspective teen drama. It's so finely observed that it can't help but draw the viewer deep into the story of a young man struggling to make sense of his identity while surrounded by his lifelong friends. The point of view is so strong that the other characters barely exist... FULL REVIEW >

The Double Lover [L'Amant Double]
dir-scr Francois Ozon; with Marine Vacth, Jeremie Renier 17/Fr ***.
Chameleon-like filmmaker Francois Ozon sets out this movie in the style of Almodovar doing a Hitchcock homage. And the double-layered approach is perfect for a sly, twisty plot adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates novel. Sexy and playful, the film spins around dualities, warping reality to present a story that keeps us both gripped and entertained.

A Moment in the Reeds
dir-scr Mikko Makela; with Janne Puustinen, Boodi Kabbani 17/Fin ****
Earthy and gentle, this drama runs to the quiet rhythms of rural Finland. Writer-director Mikko Makela relishes the natural elements of life in a natural setting, as two young men from very different backgrounds get to know each other without many distractions. Their conversations are profound and revealing, underscored with humour and a lovely sense of mutual understanding that's grounded and complex.