Sunday, 22 April 2018

Requisite Blog Photo: On the case


Thursday, 19 April 2018

Critical Week: Own it

Among films screened to the London press this past week was Amy Schumer's new film I Feel Pretty, which is bound to get a mixed response for a variety of reasons. It may not quite be funny enough, but its message is complex and empowering. Less complex, the latest weepy teen romance is Every Day, which at least has a premise that catches the imagination. And it's a solidly made movie for what it is. And then there's Show Dogs, a talking dog action comedy that's flat-out ridiculous and knows it. So it's rather a lot of silly fun.

More serious fare included the true drama Entebbe, recounting the hijacking and commando raid in 1976 Uganda from so many perspectives that the overall effect is somewhat dulled. The intense French drama Jeune Femme features a fierce performance from Laetitia Dosch. And there were two docs: Studio 54 features amazing footage and photographs as it tells, for the first time, the firsthand account of the friends who founded the iconic disco, and Time Trial is an immersive, superbly shot and edited look at cyclist David Millar's attempt at a comeback.

Coming up this week, we have the seriously anticipated Avengers: Infinity War, starring pretty much everyone in the Marvel universe, plus Charlize Theron in Tully, John Hurt in That Good Night, the animated comedy Sherlock Gnomes, the horror thriller The Strangers: Prey at Night and Bruce LaBruce's The Misandrists.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Critical Weeks: Stop playing games

There were a couple of big releases screened for the London press this week. The latest Blumhouse horror movie Truth or Dare (above) is a contrived collection of cliches with a preposterous plot. It's slickly made, but only watchable because of its bright, young cast. Dwayne Johnson kicks into action in Rampage, a videogame adaptation that's a proper guilty pleasure: stupid but funny, and full of mindless mayhem.

The longest title of the year award goes to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, based on the novel about a WWII book club. It's lovely and very British, easy to just go along with even if it feels rather over-sweet. The skilfully made documentary McQueen traces the designer's career with plenty of style as well as a strong emotional kick. And from Belgium, Cas is a 50-minute mini-feature that's getting a release due to its finely produced, complex story of a couple who brings a stranger into their relationship.

Coming up this week, we have Amy Schumer in I Feel Pretty, the canine comedy Show Dogs, the drama Every Day, the French comedy Jeune Femme, the 1970s doc Studio 54 and the Tour de France doc Time Trial.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Spring TV roundup

I continue to use television as a reset in between film screenings, so I manage to catch quite a few series along the way. Here's what I watched through the winter months...

NEW AND NOTABLE

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
The decision to tell this story out of sequence, essentially moving backwards through the narrative, eliminated any sense of momentum from the overall series. The only real way to watch it is as a group of stand-alone episodes that are loosely connected but lack any dramatic kick. That said, there's real power in the story itself, and it's very well shot, edited and acted by a first-rate, unapologetic cast. Darren Criss is superb as the psychopathic central character, and Penelope Cruz is remarkable as a deeply unlikeable Donatella. But by the final episode, when it circles back to where it started, there's an odd lack of emotion or tension, leaving the series admirable but not particularly satisfying.

Everything Sucks!
Set in the late 1990s, this smart comedy follows a handful of teens through the misery of high school, during which their burgeoning hormones cause quite a few problems. Basically, this is Stranger Things with nerdy kids facing more everyday horrors like the idea of your principal dating your mother. Discovering that you're not like the other kids is both terrifying and liberating. And the show is so freshly written and played that it frequently takes the breath away, and not only because the events are so resonant. These are all vividly realistic, flawed people trying to do their best against the usual odds everyone faces. So the humour bristles with earthy honesty, and quiet revelations are powerfully moving. 

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
A blast of fresh air, this lively series rightly won awards across the board. Rachel Brosnahan is fantastic as the title character, a 1950s New York society housewife who finds herself suddenly single and nowhere near as helpless as everyone thinks she should be. A force of nature, Midge is smart and absolutely hilarious, so her budding career as an edgy standup comic feels just about right. It helps that the writers give her jokes that are actually funny. And the show's recreation of the period is strikingly well-done. But it's the characters who make this show unmissable, including Alex Borstein as Midge's sardonic agent, Michael Zegen as her hapless ex, and Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub as her eye-rolling parents. 

McMafia
This eight-part British series struggled to build up a head of steam in its tale of Russian mafia business dealings. James Norton anchored the series ably, although his character was far too repressed to really spring to life or garner much audience sympathy, especially as his story arc took him to some very, very dark places. The more engaging character was David Strathairn as a shifty Israeli dealmaker, although he was left on the sidelines. There may be a more intriguing story in here about business ethics in a slippery moral climate, but this show concentrated on the sinister mob underworld, which was watchable but never terribly compelling.

Star Trek: Discovery
The oppressive darkness in this show is a little much sometimes, from the violent parallel universe episodes to the ongoing nastiness as people who are meant to be good continually use murder and torture as everyday tools, simply because there's a war on. At least it looks great, and the cast is excellent across the board, with some nice surprises in the supporting ensemble. Although poor Doug Jones needs to redesign his annoyingly rubbery makeup so he can actually move his face. Spoiler alert: as painful as it was to lose the terrific Jason Isaacs and Wilson Cruz from the cast, at least Michelle Yeoh came back with a wild-eyed vengeance.

BACK FOR MORE

This Is Us: series 2
The shameless heart-tugging reached epic proportions over this season, but when a show is this well written and played you don't mind too much. All of the actors are great - including the kids who play the main roles at two earlier stages in their lives. And the producers finally had mercy on the audience by revealing the circumstances around Jack's death, including how it impacted each of the others in a specific way that causes all of the emotional fallout years later (many tissues required). It's contrived and overwrought, but beautifully done.

Love: series 3
The romance between improbable couple Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs continues, and is just as offbeat. Both of these people are damaged, not always likeable and not very easy to root for, so their relationship is a proper mess. Even more interesting in this season was the professional arc of Rust's character, who finally manages to shoot his film. But for every triumph, the screenwriters give him three crises, which is a little exhausting. And the show feels soft and sweet when it should be a lot more prickly. But it's charming enough to hold the interest.

Inside No 9: series 4
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's anthology series is showing a little strain. It's still wildly inventive, mixing a menacing horror vibe with Twilight Zone-style twists, but some of the premises kind of strained for effect, losing plausibility on the way. Still, the swings in tone were remarkable, from the slapstick farce of Zanzibar to the grim nostalgia of Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room. The nastiest episode was also the most gimmicky, Once Removed recounted its murderous tale in reverse order. Thankfully, each episode also has a topicality that makes it resonate. And they also offer a range of juicy roles for Shearsmith and Pemberton.

Grace and Frankie: series 4
A thin idea to begin with, this show has somehow found ways to deepen all of its characters without pushing anyone too far. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are still superb at the centre, with terrific chemistry and impeccable timing. They add unusual pathos and comedy to even the corniest situation. Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston struggle a bit more with their cartoonish roles, but also ground them in realistic thoughtfulness. And it's a rare show that makes us want more time with the side characters: these two couples' four children are pretty ridiculous, but their obsessions and quirks could fuel a series on their own.

Shameless: series 8
It's a rare show that can sustain the quality over eight years, and even rarer for a TV series to get the balance right between comedy and drama. But this remake of the British show is better than ever, pushing its characters into ever-more-intense situations while at the same time letting them grow and change. Sometimes it's a little overwhelming, as the writers never seem to let them catch a break, but there were moments in this season that offered the Gallagher family some welcome moments of triumph amid the usual setbacks. William H Macy anchors the show beautifully as the, yes, shameless Frank. But the entire ensemble is excellent.

The X Files: series 11
After the intriguing return to this story last year, this show continues in a bizarrely comical way that feels more like a pastiche than a new season. The first episode in this series was a downright spoof, and while subsequent episodes have had a certain entertainment value, most have been so ludicrous that they seem to miss the point entirely. Even the series mythology feels like it has lost the plot. So even though Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny continue to have strong chemistry together on-screen, maybe she's right to say that it's time to hang up these characters for good.

I GIVE UP

Bliss: As a fan of Stephen Mangan and creator David Cross, I was looking forward to this offbeat half-hour comedy about a guy trying to maintain two families. But the premise is riddled with implausibilities that began niggling right from the start, leading to some inevitable "twists". By the third episode, I'd had enough.

Action Team: The idea of a spoof action series is a great one, and there are some witty touches in this goofy British show. But both the writing and acting are far too broad and obvious for my taste. I lasted two episodes.

IN PROGRESS
At the moment I'm watching Trust (terrific cast, clever storytelling); The Looming Tower (riveting and scary, like a true version of Homeland); The Santa Clarita Diet 2 (a welcome slice of Drew Barrymore silliness); Schitt's Creek 4 (better than ever); Homeland 7 (has found a new groove); and the revivals of Will & Grace (funny if Megan Mullally is on screen) and Roseanne (eerily up to date humour). And plenty of things are coming up soon.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Critical Week: Watch the skies

I'm enjoying a quieter life this week after the end of the film festival. Screenings have mainly been smaller films like I Kill Giants, a strikingly well-made teen fantasy drama starring Madison Wolfe (above) and Zoe Saldana. Modern Life Is Rubbish is an engaging if somewhat awkwardly structured British romantic drama with cool musical overtones. Baja is a low-concept, low-energy road trip comedy that never quite hits its stride.

There were two films from Germany: Shelter is a cleverly subtle espionage thriller with very strong characters; and Western sharply explores personal and cultural issues between German workers and locals in rural Bulgaria. From Spain, The Night of the Virgin is a bonkers horror comedy with excessive grisliness and some wobbly storytelling.

Coffee House Chronicles is a multi-strand relationship comedy based on a web-series and featuring a huge number of characters in witty/corny little sketches. And I also managed to catch the live American broadcast version of one of my favourite musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar, a fairly straightforward version of the Webber & Rice classic featuring terrific musicians. John Legend was superb in the title role, but the show-stealing performance came from Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas.

This coming week I'm watching Dwayne Johnson in Rampage, Lily James in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, teen horror Truth or Dare, designer documentary McQueen, and the Basquiat doc Boom for Real.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Flare 7: Send up a flare

So BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival is over for another year, although the British Film Institute continues Flare-themed events year-round, including a special section on BFIPlayer. This was the 32nd year for this festival, one of the largest queer-focussed cinema events on earth. And it's the 20th year that I have been accredited to cover it, so it's always great to reconnect with my Flare buddies every year, hang out with the filmmakers and get some inspiration to make movies myself. Not counting revival screenings, I saw 24 feature films and 26 shorts in this year's festival. All of the features have been covered on this blog, with full reviews en route (Shico Menegat from Hard Paint is pictured above)...

MY BEST OF THE FEST

  1. 120 BPM (Robin Campillo, Fr)
  2. Hard Paint (Filipe Matzembacher & Marcio Reolon, Br)
  3. Malila: The Farewell Flower (Anucha Boonyawatana, Tha)
  4. The Wound (John Trengove, Sa)
  5. Postcards From London (Steve Mclean, UK)
  6. Sidney & Friends (Tristan Aitchison, UK)
  7. The Happy Prince (Ropert Everett, UK)
  8. Conversations With Gay Elders (David Weissman, US)
  9. My Days of Mercy (Tali Shalom-Ezer, US)
  10. Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, US)

Special mention: Freak Show. Rift. Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco. Good Manners. Stumped. Love, Scott.

FLARE SHORTS

Watching films on a big screen with an audience is the best way to watch any film, really, but it's rare to get the chance to see short films like that. So I love catching as many as possible at film festivals. Here are my 10 favourites from the range I caught at this year's Flare...

  1. Vertical Lines (Kyle Reaume, Can 14m) • There's an uncanny authenticity to this little film, which centres on a bedtime conversation about the meaning of body scars as a young couple gets to know each other. While remaining light and relaxed, the deeper themes are profoundly moving - and very important.
  2. Calamity (Severine de Streyker & Maxime Feyers, Bel 22m) • A hilariously deadpan tone accompanies this sharp-edged comedy about a young man reluctantly introducing his trans girlfriend to his idiotic family.
  3. The Sermon (Dean Puckett, UK 12m) • In the style of an exploitation film, this British short hilariously skewers blind religiosity with skill and wit.
  4. SununĂș: The Revolution of Love (Olivia Crellin, UK 25m) • The remarkable story of the first trans political candidate in Ecuador, this warm doc follows a young couple as they prepare for the birth of their first child while setting out to change their country.
  5. Half a Life (Tamara Shogaolu, Egy 12m) • Narrated by a young activist, this animated doc artfully and pointedly explores both the Arab Spring riots and the current social situation in Cairo.
  6. Ursinho (Stephane Olijnyk, Br 45m) • A mini-feature, this drama follows a lonely man in a Rio favela who has an encounter with an almost fantastical stranger on Copacabana.
  7. Cas (Joris van den Berg, Ned 48m) • Another rather long short, this drama centres on a happy couple whose relationship is strained by a houseguest who stays around a bit too long.
  8. Blood Out of a Stone (Ben Allen, UK 14m) • There's an earthy authenticity to this British short about two young guys trying to connect on an offbeat date.
  9. Landline (Matt Houghton, UK 13m) • Artfully shot and edited, this quietly powerful short doc uses recordings and dramatisations from a helpline for gay farmers.
  10. Edmund the Magnificent (Ben Ockrent, UK 14m) • It may be a bit arch and ridiculous, but this heightened comedy, narrated by Ian McKellen, recounts the story of a farmer (David Bradley) trying to breed his prized gay pig.

Full reviews of features and short reviews of the shorts will be on the main website, linked to my BFI Flare page.





Saturday, 31 March 2018

Flare 6: Face your future

The British Film Institute's 32nd Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival holds its closing night gala tonight, with the premiere of Steve McLean's Postcards From London, featuring rising star Harris Dickinson. I spend a day on the set of the film about a year and a half ago, so it's great to finally see it on the big screen. And the party at BFI Southbank after the screening should be great fun. Then tomorrow there's Second Chance Sunday, when audiences can catch up with the best of the festival all day long for a reduced price (I think that, in my 20 years covering this festival, this is only the second time the final day has fallen on Easter). Here are some final film highlights, and I'll have one more report about short films and my best of the fest...

Postcards From London
dir-scr Steve McLean; with Harris Dickinson, Jonah Hauer-King 18/UK ****
A highly stylised exploration of the nature of art, this colourful British film is set out as an odyssey into a fantastical version of Soho, which has a history of remaining just outside the boundaries of polite civilisation. Boasting another riveting performance from Harris Dickinson, the film may divide audiences with its heightened approach and controversial plot. But it's worth hanging on for the ride, because the film has a lot to say.

Good Manners 
dir-scr Marco Dutra, Juliana Rojas; with Isabel Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano 17/Br ****
An extraordinary fairy tale that mixes comedy, horror and personal drama, this Brazilian film so resolutely challenges expectations that it's almost impossible to describe the plot without spoiling it. Lushly shot and acted with deep emotion, this film provokes the audience as much as it entertains, taking us on an outrageous journey that's both fantastical and properly grounded. It leaves us shaken and oddly satisfied.

Hard Paint
dir-scr Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon; with Shico Menegat, Bruno Fernandes 18/Br ****
There's a raw sensitivity to this Brazilian drama that digs deeply under the surface, pulling the audience into the internal journey of a painfully shy young man at a key moment in his life. While some sequences are painful to watch, the film is warm, humane and very sexy. It's shot in a darkly colourful visual style that continually reveals new details. And the central performance from newcomer Shico Menegat is mesmerising.

Stumped
dir Robin Berghaus; with Will Lautzenheiser, Angel Gonzalez 17/US ****
This sharply observed documentary tells two distinct stories, initially chronicling how a young man turned to stand-up comedy to put his life-altering disability into perspective. And then it shifts into an often startling look at the process of organ transplants, as he goes through a relatively new procedure that would give him a new set of arms. The warm humour and honesty of everyone on-screen makes the film both engaging and vital.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Flare 5: Stand out from the crowd

The 32nd BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival is entering its final days, and there's a sense of exhaustion among the journalists who have been trying to see as many films as possible, starting each morning with a 10am press screening and usually finishing with a bit of a dance at 11pm in the BFI Southbank cafe. But the weather has taken a wet turn, so where else would you rather be? Here are a few highlights (pictured above are Laverne Cox, Abigail Breslin, Alex Lawther and AnnaSophia Robb)...

Freak Show
dir Trudie Styler; with Alex Lawther, Ian Nelson 17/US ****
While it might be a bit arch, pushing to make its point, this film has such a strong message about identity that it's both powerfully moving and deeply important. Anchored by an offbeat, beautifully textured performance from Alex Lawther, it's a story about a colourful teen who simply refuses to fit in at his high school, which leads to both triumphs and serious challenges. And it's gorgeously shot by Dante Spinotti.

Alaska Is a Drag
dir-scr Shaz Bennett; with Martin L Washington Jr, Maya Washington 17/US ***.
Expanded from a 2012 short, this warm drama centres on three people who feel trapped in the middle of nowhere, trying to make life a bit more colourful than it is. It's a gently involving story, with strongly sympathetic characters who are very well-played by a fresh cast. So it's charming and moving. And even with some rather insistent plot points, it raises important issues without ever preaching about them.

Malila: The Farewell Flower
dir Anucha Boonyawatana; with Sukollawat Kanarot, Anuchit Sapanpong 17/Tha ****
This odyssey from Thailand weaves together themes from religion, politics and sexuality as it follows a young man on a profound voyage of self-discovery. It's not a traditional narrative, instead occupying more in a spiritual space, including a touch of magical realism, and it moves at the pace of a slow-flowing river. But it's beautiful to look at, provocative in its ideas and ultimately moving in what it has to say.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco 
dir-scr James Crump; with Bill Cunningham, Jessica Lange 17/UK ****
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... FULL REVIEW >


Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Flare 4: Walk on the wild side

The British Film Institute's 32nd Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival continues on the Southbank, and my main tasks over the past few days has been to watch films and interview filmmakers and actors. So I missed the special screening of Maurice, which reunited Hugh Grant and James Wilby on-stage. There are still a few parties to go, so I'm looking forward to seeing friends and getting to know some more of the guests who are in town. Here are some highlights...

The Happy Prince
dir-scr Rupert Everett; with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth 18/UK ****
With lush, deep-coloured production design, this film traces the last three troubled years in Oscar Wilde's life. It's a swirlingly artful approach, shifting around in time to paint a vivid, emotionally charged portrait of a shattered man trying to stoke the embers of his once-grand life. And he's beautifully played by Rupert Everett, who also makes a notable debut as a writer-director.

Becks
dir Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, Daniel Powell; with Lena Hall, Christine Lahti 17/US ***.
Skilfully shot and acted, this warm drama is grounded in an earthy sense of authenticity as it follows a young woman trying to rebuild what's left of her dreams. Even though the plot gives in to structural demands, filmmakers Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell tell the story in an engaging way, quietly bringing out important themes without pushing them...
FULL REVIEW >

Mario
dir Marcel Gisler; with Max Hubacher, Aaron Altaras18/Swi ***.
Gently observant, this Swiss drama uses a gripping, personal story to confront a much bigger issue: the prejudice against homosexuality in football. Thankfully, director-cowriter keeps the approach personal, creating a character-based romance that's genuinely involving even when the politics threaten to take over. So although it feels rather overlong, it's packed with powerful moments.

Pulse
dir Stevie Cruz-Martin; with Daniel Monks, Caroline Brazier 17/Aus ***.
There's an earthy authenticity to this very slightly fantastical Australian drama that catches the attention right from the start. Shot in an urgent, realist style, it never seems like the actors are performing, and some scenes are so raw that audience members feel almost invasive watching them. As it continues, the story becomes formulaic, but the characters remain solidly grounded.

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C R I T I C A L    W E E K

Outside of Flare, I've seen two very nice surprises, genre films that more than live up to expectations, namely the properly hilarious comedy Blockers and the genuinely terrifying A Quiet Place. There was also the somewhat dense financial scandal doc The Outsider, and a fabulous screening of GW Pabst's 1929 silent classic Pandora's Box, starring the incandescent Louise Brooks.

And the only non-festival screening in the diary for next week is the rescheduled one for The Hurricane Heist. But there are a few things I need to catch up with.


Monday, 26 March 2018

Flare 3: Spill your guts

I always enjoy attending public screenings as part of the British Film Institute's annual Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival, because audiences tend to be far more open and curious than those in most cinemas. Watching a movie in this atmosphere is an experience in itself, a collective series of sighs, gasps, laughter and tears. I saw two collections of short films over the weekend with public audiences, and all of them were terrific (more on those later). And I've enjoyed being able to chat with filmmakers about their work, including the directors of three of the films below. Here are some more highlights - a mainstream comedy (that's Nick Robison and Katherine Langford, above) and three docs...

Love, Simon
dir Greg Berlanti; with Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford 18/US ****
A fresh take on the teen rom-com, this film harks back to vintage John Hughes movies with its smart, self-aware characters and realistic situations that are both amusing and thoughtful. Based on Becky Albertalli's novel (cleverly titled Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda), the story also breaks ground by taking the central character's homosexuality in stride. So aside from being hugely engaging and very funny, it also carries a powerful kick.

A Deal With the Universe
dir-scr Jason Barker; with Jason Barker, Tracey 18/UK ***
Tracing some 15 years in the life of a couple, this autobiographical documentary is sometimes startlingly raw, as filmmaker (and former Flare programmer) Jason Barker and his partner Tracey chronicle their yearning to have a child, which led to extraordinary decisions along the way. Assembled as a collection of home movies and video diary entries, the film never embellishes the story. And the honesty speaks to several big issues.

Sidney & Friends
dir Tristan Aitchison; with Sidney, Guillit, Ben, Maria 18/UK ****
Shot over several years, this documentary explores a segment of Kenyan society that's virtually invisible, mainly because it wouldn't be safe for these people to come out in the open. Scottish filmmaker Tristan Aitchison gets sometimes startling access to this community, revealing the day-to-day issues in their lives. The film is beautifully assembled in an introspective way that draws the audience in and challenges our perceptions.

Conversations With Gay Elders
dir David Weissman; with Kerby Lauderdale, David Weissman 17/US ****
Part of a series, this doc is simply a conversation between two men. And it's utterly riveting. Honest and revelatory, it features filmmaker David Weissman (We Were Here) encouraging Kerby Lauderdale to recount his relatively normal story. It's a telling look at the thoughts and feelings of a man who grappled with his sexuality throughout his life. And what he has to say is vitally important in the wider conversation about the topic.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Flare 2: Party and protest

The British Film Institute's 32nd Flare is off and running, heading into its first weekend with a flurry of film programmes, special events and club nights. One of the best things about this festival is that the filmmakers mix very freely with the press and audiences, so there's a chance for real conversation about both the movies and the issues that are being raised in them. I'm planning to see quite a few short films over the weekend - always a highlight. And here are some features, including the special presentation film 120 BPM (pictured above)...

120 BPM (Beats Per 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 >

Uncle David 2
dir Gary Reich; with David Hoyle, Archie Redford 18/UK ***.
In this sequel to his offbeat 2010 black comedy, performance artist David Hoyle basically takes a flamethrower to civilised society, railing against and lampooning superficial values, but always of course with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The film has a loose warmth to it that draws the audience in, fully aware that we're going to get badly burnt. No, it's not for the faint-hearted.

Love, Scott
dir-scr Laura Marie Wayne; with Scott Jones, Sherise Jones 18/Can ****
Canadian filmmaker Laura Marie Wayne puts her close friend Scott Jones at the centre of this intimate documentary, exploring some very big issues from a darkly personal angle. The film has an often dreamy feel to it, exploring thoughts and emotions as it quietly retraces a momentous series of events that started out horrifically but have become a movement for positive change.

The Wound
dir John Trengove; with Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsa 17/SA ****
This finely observed drama from South Africa is 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... FULL REVIEW >

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Flare 1: Don't fence me in

The British Film Institute's 32nd annual Flare: London's LGBTQ+ Film Festival has kicked off on the Southbank, and runs for 10 days with a selection of intriguing, entertaining and provocative film. There seems to be an emphasis this year on controversial movies, with films about politics and religion along with a significant number of features and shorts exploring disability and identity. It was fun reconnecting with my annual Flare buddies at the opening night party on Wednesday - this is my 20th year covering this festival! Here are some highlights from the first days...

My Days of Mercy (opening night film)
dir Tali Shalom-Ezer; with Ellen Page, Kate Mara 17/US ****
Despite having a hugely contentious issue at the heart of its plot, this film remains remarkably centred on its characters, all of whom are played with an earthy authenticity that often feels improvised. Scenes are so raw that they continually take the audience aback. And while the narrative itself is a bit predictable, the character complexity more than makes up for it.

The Revival
dir Jennifer Gerber; with David Rysdahl, Zachary Booth 17/US ***
Adapted by Samuel Brett Williams from his own stage play, this drama is sharply well written and played, with knowing observations about the collision between religion and culture. When the plot kicks in for the final act, the film's honesty begins to feel contrived, badly muddying its message in a series of scenes that may ring true but say all the wrong things about the topics at hand.

Martyr
dir-scr Mazen Khaled; with Carol Abboud, Hamza Mekdad 17/Leb ***
An experimental exploration of masculinity and male friendship, this Lebanese film is very tactile as it follows a young man over the course of a fateful day. While touching on some social issues, the main focus is on his friends, who remain by his side through a very detailed ordeal. There isn't much plot, and very little sense of character for the actors to work with, so it never quite resonates emotionally as it should. But it's darkly involving. [VFF 2017]

Rift
dir-scr Erlingur Thoroddsen; with Bjorn Stefansson, Sigurdur Thor Oskarsson 17/Ice ****
Sleek and dark, this Icelandic thriller gets under the skin quickly with filmmaking that's enticingly mysterious. Writer-director Erlingur Thoroddsen skilfully shoots the film to catch deep colours while positioning characters against stunning landscapes, giving everything a powerfully visual kick while the story develops beneath the surfaces. It's overlong but beautifully made, and packed with fiendishly clever touches. FULL REVIEW >

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K

Films screened this past week included a few big blockbusters. Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One basically shows up virtually all other big effects-based movies for the empty spectacle that they are. This movie is utterly gripping - a great story and superb characters. As if to prove the point, we also saw Pacific Rim: Uprising, a robots-bashing-robots sequel no one really asked for and a movie that would be unwatchable without the wonderful John Boyega. A Wrinkle in Time is a disappointment, an important, ambitious adaptation of the classic Madeleine L'Engle novel that feels overdesigned. Much grittier, Unsane is Steven Soderbergh's edgy mental hospital nightmare thriller starring the amazing Claire Foy. Taraji P Henson brings the rather mindlessly violent Proud Mary to life. Agnes Jaoui is wonderful in the French comedy-drama I Got Life! And Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies, is pretty much what it sounds like: a bit of bonkers, and rather hilarious low-budget mayhem.

Non-festival films coming up include the parent-teen comedy Blockers, the Emily Blunt horror A Quiet Place, the action thriller The Hurricane Heist, the banking doc The Outsider, and a restoration of GW Pabst's 1929 silent classic Pandora's Box.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Critical Week: Fireside chat

London critics watched a few higher profile films this year, including the incoming young adult romantic disease drama Midnight Sun, which like most films in this genre is aimed at 12-year-old girls. Patrick Schwarzenegger and Bella Thorne are the picturesque leads. A more grown up approach sets the new Tomb Raider reboot apart from the last adaptation, including a fierce performance by Alicia Vikander. But fans may bristle at the film's deliberately grounded approach. Wes Anderson's new stop-motion animated adventure comedy Isle of Dogs is a pure, utterly bonkers delight. And Madame is a French farce with a high-profile cast (Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel, Tom Hughes) and a surprisingly meaningful plot.

A little off the grid, My Friend Dahmer stars Disney hero Ross Lynch as the notorious murder before he started killing people. It's a high school movie with a black sense of humour and unusually strong performances. Gook is Justin Chon's lively, artful comedy-drama set around the 1992 Los Angeles riots. They Remain is a very clever low-budget horror movie with sci-fi overtones. From France, My Golden Days is an ambitious look at a man's life and loves, a big exhausting but packed with lovely moments. And from Finland, Screwed is a micro-budget movie about attraction and sexuality, set in lovely locations with a very strong cast.

This coming week there are a few more big ones: Steven Spielberg's complex adventure Ready Player One, Ava DuVernay's take on the classic A Wrinkle in Time, the robot action blockbuster sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, Claire Foy in Steven Soderberg's Unsane, Rupert Everett's The Happy Prince and the French drama I Got Life! BFI Flare kicks off this week too, opening with Ellen Page and Kate Mara in My Days of Mercy. Look for daily updates during the festival's run 21st March to 1st April.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Critical Week: Oscars for everyone

The 90th Oscar ceremony on Sunday night felt unremarkable, running along without incident with a line-up of winners that was never surprising. There were some nice touches along the way, including host Jimmy Kimmel's opening newsreel montage and his dry, sharply pointed opening monolog. Many of the thank you speeches were also topical, touching on key themes of inclusion and diversity. The star moment went to an impassioned Frances McDormand.

Meanwhile, the show was stolen by Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph, who appeared holding their high heels to present a couple of awards. That made as strong a statement as any, and their banter was flat-out hilarious. Clearly the producers worked overtime to compile a diverse list of presenters, with an emphasis on women and ethnicities. Some of the homage sequences were a little odd (looking at war movies through the decades?), and Kimmel's star-packed trip to the cinema next door was clever but rather corny.

Other highlights included powerful performances of all five song nominees and welcome wins for A Fantastic Woman and long-time nominee Roger Deakins. Although the sweep by The Shape of Water felt somewhat excessive. A good film rather than a great one, its message to outsiders was certainly timely. And frankly, if the ceremony was more entertaining, we wouldn't mind if it was longer.

Meanwhile, back in the screening room, Rooney Mara stars in the biblical drama Mary Magdalene, which is a little too reverent to properly spring to life, despite a strong cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tahar Rahim as Jesus, Peter and Judas, respectively. Gringo stars David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton in a lively, funny, entertaining but ultimately pointless action comedy. Peter Rabbit is a fast-paced, genuinely amusing romp mixing photo-real animation with live-action (Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne are adorable) to riff on the classic Beatrix Potter stories. And the documentary Mansfield 66/67 traces the final years of the iconic bombshell, whose notorious friendship with Satanic church leader Anton LaVey sparked rumours of a curse surrounding her death at age 34.

Coming up this week are screenings of Alicia Vikander in the Tomb Raider reboot, Bella Thorne in Midnight Sun, Mathieu Amalric in My Golden Days, the dark drama My Friend Dahmer, the teen drama Screwed and something called Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Out on a limb: Oscar picks & predictions

Here we go again: it's the 90th Academy Awards, and it seems as predictable as always. Hopefully they'll throw some surprises in on Sunday night. So even though I rarely get many of these right, here are my votes, who I think will win and who might sneak in and take home the prize. I'm always hoping for an upset...

BEST PICTURE
Will win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Could win: The Shape of Water
Should win: Dunkirk

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Will / should win: A Fantastic Woman
Could win: The Insult
Dark horse: Loveless

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Will / should win: Coco
Dark horse: The Breadwinner

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Will / should win: Faces Places
Could win: Strong Island

DIRECTING
Will win: The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro
Should / could win: Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Will / should win: Call Me by Your Name - James Ivory
Could win: Molly's Game - Aaron Sorkin
Dark horse: Mudbound - Virgil Williams, Dee Rees

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Will / should win: Three Billboards - Martin McDonagh
Could win: Get Out - Jordan Peele
Dark horse: Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Will / should win: Frances McDormand - Three Billboards
Could win: Sally Hawkins - The Shape of Water
Dark horse: Saoirse Ronan - Lady Bird

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Will win: Gary Oldman - Darkest Hour
Should win: Timothee Chalamet - Call Me by Your Name

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Will win: Allison Janney - I, Tonya
Could win: Laurie Metcalf - Lady Bird

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Will / should win: Sam Rockwell - Three Billboards
Could win: Willem Dafoe - The Florida Project

ORIGINAL SCORE
Will win: The Shape of Water - Alexandre Desplat
Should win: Phantom Thread - Jonny Greenwood

ORIGINAL SONG
Will win: This Is Me - The Greatest Showman
Should win: Remember Me - Coco

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Will win: Blade Runner 2049 - Roger A Deakins
Should win: Dunkirk - Hoyte van Hoytema

FILM EDITING
Will win: Baby Driver - Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos
Should win: Dunkirk - Lee Smith
Dark horse: I, Tonya - Tatiana S Riegel

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Will win: Blade Runner 2049
Should win: The Shape of Water

COSTUME DESIGN
Will / should win: Phantom Thread

VISUAL EFFECTS
Will / should win: Blade Runner 2049
Dark horse: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
Will / should win: Darkest Hour

SOUND EDITING / SOUND MIXING
Will win: The Shape of Water
Should win: Dunkirk
Could win: Blade Runner 2049


Friday, 2 March 2018

Critical Week: Out of the shadows

Amid an unprecedented onslaught of snow and freezing temperatures, London critics caught up with a few big titles this week. Jennifer Lawrence is the main reason to see Red Sparrow, an overlong, rather muddily plotted Russian spy thriller. And Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make the most of a surprisingly smart, funny script in the action-comedy Game Night. Then there were two new sci-fi films by hotshot British filmmakers, released directly to Netflix in the UK: Annihilation is Alex Garland's followup to Ex Machina, and it's a swirling, gripping, smartly obtuse odyssey starring Natalie Portman. Duncan Jones' Mute stars Alexander Skarsgard against type as a shy Amish barman in a Blade Runner-esque Berlin, but the plot gets lost amid its murky gyrations.

Further afield, The Lullaby is a gleefully grisly South African horror film that plays with some deeper, darker themes but never quite digs in to them. From Russian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, A Gentle Creature is a gorgeously shot and cleverly acted Kafkaesque parable about a nation that has lost its own soul. And I tracked down the final two Oscar nominated features I hadn't seen: The Breadwinner is a powerfully moving, flat-out gorgeous Irish-Canadian animated drama set in Taliban-era Kabul, while there was also this best actor nominee...


Roman J. Israel, Esq.
dir-scr Dan Gilroy; with Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell 17/US ***
Denzel Washington gives one of his most enjoyably textured performances yet in this offbeat legal drama, which tells an intriguing story while grappling with some very big issues. Washington is the title character, a veteran lawyer whose life changes drastically when his more-public partner dies. He ends up going to work for slick hotshot George (Colin Farrell) while trying to help some vulnerable clients and taking some dodgy actions that benefit him personally but also put him in danger. The film is gripping as it follows Roman as he begins to emerge from his shell, breaking rules, ruffling feathers, flirting with an unfeasibly gorgeous charity lawyer (Carmen Ejogo) and, when he discovers that George has both a mind and a conscience, begins mentoring him without him even realising it. As it gets increasingly knotted, writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) loses control of the overlong narrative, with some over-detailed tangents and undercooked themes. And the side characters never seem to have a life of their own. But the smart script allows Washington to continually add wit and subtext to each scene. And he makes the film worth watching.

It's Oscar night on Sunday, which here in London means staying up all night to watch the ceremony live from Los Angeles. Naps will be required. And this coming week, I'll catch up with Rooney Mara in Mary Magdalene, Domhnall Gleeson in Peter Rabbit and the documentary Mansfield 66/67, among other things.