Tuesday, 31 March 2009

LLGFF 5 & 6: Activists and dreamers

The BFI's 23rd London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival continues on the Southbank, with packed cinemas and lively bar discussions after the films finish. It's a great atmosphere, and there are some superb films scattered in there as well. The photo is from Lion's Den (Leonera), one of my favourites from the festival (see below). Here are a few from the last couple of days...

The Lost Coast ***
Oozing in moody emotion, this artful drama follows four friends over a fateful Halloween night in San Francisco as they reminsce about a trip up the coast and the momentous events of high school, which seem to have heavy implications for a couple of them. It's vague and indistinct, gorgeously photographed like a dream flickering between the city, woods and shoreline. It takes awhile to find out what all the fuss is about, and in the end it's rather a lot of angst about nothing. But even this is a realistic and palpable emotion, and with acting and directing this strong, it's still worth seeing.

Born in 68 ****
The latest film from Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (Cockles and Muscles) is another shift of genre, this time a 40-year multi-generational epic tracing the fall-out of the 1968 Paris student riots. It's a fascinating film, packed with amazing characters and situations, and loaded with huge themes and provocative issues. It also feels like it should really be at least six hours long in order to properly tell the story of all of these people. This film is three hours long, and apparently there's also a four-hour version out there that was shown on French TV. But this is so well written, directed and played that it leaves us wanting to fill in all the gaps and actually spend more time with these fascinating people.

Sex Positive ****
This is a relatively straightforward documentary, but it opens the book on a fascinating chapter of HIV/Aids in North America, telling the story of Richard Berkowitz, an ex-hustler who became one of the most outspoken people in the gay community and was harshly criticised for suggesting that gay men needed to deal with the issue of promiscuity. He was also one of the first propoments of safer sex, which no one wanted to hear. Yet despite being under constant attack, Berkowitz continued to speak out, and the film is a remarkable story of a man who tenaciously refused to give in to outside pressure. It also features a fascinating collection of witnesses to tell the story, including writers Larry Kramer and Edmund White.

Lion's Den ****
This riveting, harrowing film from Argentina is so realistic that it's often hard to watch. It tells of a young woman (Martina Gusman) who can barely remember the violent events of one fateful night, but she's convicted and sent to prison. Since she's pregnant, she's assigned to a maternal cellblock, and the film is the story of her friendship with a fellow inmate as she gives birth to the child and then battles her mother for custody. The film has everything you would expect from a gritty prison drama, but it's also infused with hope and love. It's also beautifully well-directed by Pablo Trapero, and packed with performances that make the characters spring remarkably to life.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

LLGFF 3 & 4: Retrospectives

I've spent much of the weekend so far watching revivals of old classics that I'd never seen. The great thing about the BFI is the way they restore and revive old films, letting us watch them on big screens rather than video. At this year's festival, a number of seminal works have been restored (the photo is from Nighthawks), and others are getting extremely rare screenings and discussion events. I haven't caught up with the Stonewall movies yet, but I have seen...

LA Plays Itself (1972) ****
This striking 55-minute experimental film is made with remarkable skill even though filmmaker Fred Halsted insisted that he had no training or influences. The sound is disconnected from the images, and the film is made up of two distinct halves: in the first we see (and hear) a couple of men who meet up in an idyllic mountain wilderness, and in the second another two men (a hustler played by Halsted and a Texan just off the bus) meet on the mean streets of Hollywood and get into a series of increasingly unsettling bondage scenarios. There's a clear sense of paradise found and lost here, showing how the city can eat away the soul and make it impossible to find satisfaction. It's pretty full-on, but also seriously important for anyone interested in film.

The Sex Garage (1972) ****
A companion piece to LA Plays Itself, this 35-minute short was shot in just six hours (as opposed to the longer film's four years!), and continues the themes of nature vs culture as a young mechanic has sexual encounters with a hippie chick, a rich kid customer and then a long-haired biker, who gets bored turns to his motorbike for sex instead. It's shot and edited with serious inventiveness, complete with asynchronous sound and a variety of musical types. It's interesting to note that this and LA Plays Itself are the only two explicit sexual films in the permanent collection at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

(1978) *****
Ron Peck's landmark gay drama is strikingly realistic, avoiding all sensationalism and stereotypes as it follows a schoolteacher through his day-to-day life in London. He's looking for a serious relationship, but has to settle for meaningless one-night stands instead mixed with workplace friendships. It's often painful to watch his loneliness and even panic at the thought of being alone forever. All of this is shot and edited with a gritty authenticity, and the dialog is wonderfully unfussy, full of smalltalk and throwaway moments of humour and real emotion. It's also a little eerie that 30 years later it's still so true to life - well, except for the 1970s clothes and music.

I've also been watching lots of short films, which is great fun in a big cinema with a lively, reactive audience. And here are a couple of others over the past two days...

I Can't Think Straight **
A decent plot and strong characters can't quite overcome the limitations of this low-budget British film, mainly because the director struggles to inject much energy or spark into the story. But there's enough in the premise to make it worth seeing - namely in the characters themselves. It's a romance between two women: one is a Christian from Jordan and the other is a Muslim from India. Both obviously have big family issues to deal with, but the film seems a little unsure whether to play it as a romantic comedy or a cultural drama, and opts for something a little too simplistic, never really digging into the big themes its raises.

Patrik, Age 1.5 ****
This Swedish drama has a breezy tone that keeps us from ever really wondering how it'll end up, but the characters and situations are involving and entertaining. It's about a gay couple preparing to adopt an 18-month-old baby, but then realising that the adoption agency got the decimal in the wrong place when a surly, homophobic 15-year-old boy turns up. this is a warm and relaxed film - it does go through some serious plot turns, but also takes the time to grapple with the issues without wallowing in them. And it's nice to see a film in which characters actually develop and learn to relate to each other in positive ways. And the whole issue of gay parenthood is never simplified.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

LLGFF 1 & 2: Coming of age

The British Film Institute's 23rd London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival kicked off last night with a screening of the Czech film Dolls and a very lively party afterwards. Over the next two weeks, the festival will focus on films addressing issues of sexuality from every conceivable angle, including quite a number of documentaries and dramas looking at gender issues and family structures. A few films from days one and two...

Dolls ***
From the Czech Republic, this intriguing film follows three 18-year-old girls who decide to hitchhike to Holland for the summer, only to be saddled with the 14-year-old brother of one of them. What follows is an examination of their growing self-discovery, mainly centred on sexuality - with lots of firting with strangers (and with the little brother), and one girl harbouring a not-so-secret crush on one of her friends. The film is a bit scruffy and meandering, going in circles without resolving much, but the cast is superbly natural and it's extremely well shot and edited.

The Naked Civil Servant (1975) ****
An Englishman in New York (2009) ***
John Hurt plays Quentin Crisp in these two films made 34 years apart, and watching them is a pretty astonishing experience, as Hurt completely immerses himself in Crisp's flamboyant clothing, hairstyles and mannerisms. Seeing him as both the young and old Crisp is absolutely essential. Both were clearly made for television, with slightly cheesy production values, but Hurt transcends this, as does the material itself. Crisp's unapologetic approach to life is especially moving in the first film, when the simple fact of his existence was against the law, and yet he refused to back down. The second film finds an intriguing conflict in the in-fighting among his own supporters when he begins to make bold statements (as he had done all his life) that were considered a bit un-PC. Crisp was such a remarkable man that he makes these fairly simple films vitally important.

Doubt ****
John Patrick Shanley's film version of his play, which received Oscar nominations for all four cast members, gets five screenings for an appreciative audience at this festival. The film makes some extremely strong comments about sexuality through Viola Davis' character, a mother who takes an emotionally realistic approach to her troubled son in the face of the emotionless priest and principal (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep) at his school. Amy Adams provides the conscience as a young nun. It's a bit talky and obvious, but the acting and the heavy ideas it stirs up make it well worth seeing.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Critical Week: Sweet, sweet hangin'

It wasn't a bad week at all for me in the screening room, including the chance to see the funniest film of the year so far, I Love You, Man, a "bro-mance" starring Paul Rudd, who puts an hilarious spin on every line he delivers in the film. Also entertaining were the snazzy Duplicity, which is lit up by the chemistry between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts; the darkly involving Fireflies in the Garden, which costars Ms Roberts in a much less flattering role; Is Anybody There?, an extremely well-played drama about a young boy (Bill Milner) who befriends a cantankerous old magician (Michael Caine); Waveriders, an intriguing doc tracing the roots and future of surfing back to, erm, Ireland; and a big-screen restoration for Francois Truffaut's classroom classic The Four Hundred Blows.

Less amazing but still entertaining was the Disney revamp Race to Witch Mountain, which survives only because of Dwayne Johnson's powerful charisma but doesn't even begin to approach the magic of the 1975 original (which has a big place in my childhood!). I also caught up with the terrific documentary Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, about sexuality-swapping porn star Jack Wrangler, and the wonderful 1994 Cuban Oscar nominee Strawberry & Chocolate, which is finally coming out on DVD here in Britain next week.

The screening schedule is a bit thin this week for me, perhaps because I've seen most of this week's press-screened films at festivals. I'm really looking forward to catching up with Henry Selick's 3D stop-motion kids' horror fairy tale Coraline, as well as Richard Jobson's new film New Town Killers, starring Dougray Scott, which I managed to miss at a couple of festivals. And so it goes.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Critical Week: Title of the year

The fear going into the press screening of Lesbian Vampire Killers was that it was a snappy title and a hot comical duo and not much more than that. A couple of hours later, our fears were confirmed, but late-night audiences will love this goofy romp. A less inspired title came with the other big British film shown to the press last week: The Boat That Rocked, the new all-star ensemble comedy from Richard Curtis (Love Actually) about pirate radio in the 1960s. You can't really go wrong with Philip Seymour Hoffman in your movie, plus scene-stealers like Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans and Nick Frost. But it will be interesting to see what audiences make of this one.

More enjoyable were the lower-key films, even when they were gloomy examinations of parent-child relationships and mortality (The Burning Plain, with the fabulous Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger), offbeat comedy-dramas about mental problems (Diminished Capacity), grimly violent dramas about showbiz aspirations (Tony Manero), or meandering heartwarmers about the clash between the old and new worlds (Bottle Shock). And the most fun were the junior Eurovision doc (Sounds Like Teen Spirit) and the latest bit of hilariously energetic DreamWorks animation (Monsters vs Aliens).

This coming week is another offbeat collection, including the Paul Rudd/Jason Segel man-romance I Love You, Man, the Irish surfing doc Waveriders, the Julia Roberts/Clive Owen thriller Duplicity, the Julia Roberts/Ryan Reynolds family drama Fireflies in the Garden, Dwayne "don't call me The Rock" Johnson in Race to Witch Mountain, Michael Caine in the 1980s British drama Is Anybody There? And I'm also looking forward to seeing Truffaut's classic The 400 Blows on a big screen for the first time.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Critical Week: Real heroes?

It was pretty easy to figure out which was the biggest movie I saw last week, since it's the one everyone seems to be hyperventilating about at the moment. It's the excruciatingly long-awaited adaptation of the graphic novel that landed on what's been called one of the 10 best books of the 20th century. And at least Watchmen lives up to the hype, giving us nearly three hours of twisted plotlines, conflicted characters and big effects sequences. For someone who hasn't read the book, it also feels very, very long. But the ambitious filmmaking and complex narrative kept me completely hooked.

Of the British indies, the most impressive was Shank, a raw teen drama made in Bristol by a local cast and crew with an average age of about 21. Bronson is worth seeing for Tom Hardy's career-changing performance as a gleefully hotheaded prisoner. Meanwhile Hollywood presented itself in the watchable but predictable New in Town, starring Renee Zellweger, and the sentimental but solid Marley & Me, with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson.

Otherwise it was a fascinating collection of skilful Scandinavians (Norway's O'Horten and Sweden's Everlasting Moments), lovelorn multi-cultural Londoners (I Can't Think Straight), and straight-to-video novelties (Bruce Campbell's My Name Is Bruce and Paris Hilton in Repo! The Genetic Opera). And my favourite film of the week was the Michael Sheen/Peter Morgan reunion The Damned United.

This week isn't quite so busy, but includes The Burning Plain (Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger), Lesbian Vampire Killers (the Gavin & Stacey guys), Diminished Capacity (Matthew Broderick), Bottle Shock (Chris Pine), Sounds Like Teen Spirit (youth Eurovision doc), Tony Manero (Chilean drama) and possibly Richard Curtis' all-star The Boat that Rocked. I don't really expect any sympathy for being so busy. The problem is that with all these films to watch, when do I find the time to write about them?