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.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

LFF: Heading out on Day 2

Today was the first full day of films at the 61st BFI London Film Festival, and I'm beginning to feel the strain. But then I've been watching movies for three weeks already, and it's merely getting more intense now! Here are some more festival highlights, with additional twitter updates during the day...

Mudbound
dir Dee Rees; with Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund 17/US ***
There's an epic scope to this Deep South drama that demands attention, although the script hews perhaps too closely to the source novel for its own good. Nonstop voiceover from a variety of characters adds soul but is distracting, as is a surplus of plot detail. But even though it's set in the 1940s, the themes are still vivid, carrying a powerful kick that resonates in uncomfortable ways.

Stronger
dir David Gordon Green; with Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany 17/US ****
A strikingly earthy approach to this true story eliminates any hint of sentimentality from what easily could have become a swellingly sudsy story of hope and inspiration. Instead, director David Gordon Green has crafted a gritty, honest look at a young man who is forced by a shocking event to grapple with elements of his personality he has long ignored. And by refusing to push the themes, the film is genuinely hopeful and inspirational... FULL REVIEW >

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
dir-scr Noah Baumbach; with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller17/US ****
Like a Woody Allen movie, this episodic film chronicles the collisions between members of a lively Jewish family in New York, blending sharp-edged humour with several much darker themes. Much of the film is downright hilarious, as these people rarely listen to what anyone is saying, talking over each other and obsessing over their personal issues. But there's also a lovely sense of what holds them together... FULL REVIEW >

Good Time
dir Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie; with Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie 17/US ***.
With a grimy B-movie vibe, this film propels the audience into a twisted odyssey with a loser who simply can't get a break over the course of one long, nasty night. It's shot and edited with lurid style, accompanied by a pulsing electronic score that makes it feel like it belongs in the 1980s. As events spiral further out of control, it begins to feel rather scripted and contrived. But it's still fascinating... FULL REVIEW >

Loveless
dir-scr Andrey Zvyagintsev; with Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin 17/Rus ****.
As he did in 2014's Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev tells a provocative personal story that reveals layers of painful truth about both Russian society and the whole world. Among other things, it explores how compassion is evaporating from "polite" society, with people more concerned about posting Instagrams of their food than paying attention to where their children are. Beautifully shot and acted, the story and themes get deep under the skin... FULL REVIEW >

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 >

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

LFF: Inhale on day 1

The 61st BFI London Film Festival kicked off tonight with the UK premiere of Andy Serkis' directing debut Breathe (pictured above). I feel like I barely caught my breath in the one week between my trip to the Venice Film Festival and the start of press screenings for this festival. It's been an intense two and a half weeks, and now we have 12 days of even more! The trick isn't watching four films a day, it's finding the time to write about them and keep up to date on my work in general. And I'm too old to skip sleeping! Anyway, here are some highlights from today and tomorrow, including a couple of films I saw in Venice now linked to full reviews...

Breathe
dir Andy Serkis; with Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy 17/UK ****
For his directing debut, Andy Serkis tells the true story of Robin Cavendish, a pioneer who sought independence for the disabled, including himself. With this subject matter, the film is obviously inspirational. But it's nade with splashes of colour and personality, dcatching the imagination to help redefine what it means to lead a fulfilling life. It's also finely shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson and beautifully acted by a sparky cast... FULL REVIEW >

Lean on Pete
dir-scr Andrew Haigh; with Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi 17/US ****.
There's an unusual depth of character to this finely crafted odyssey about a teen who hits the road in a last-gasp effort to find some hope. While there's plenty of potential for bleakness, writer-director Andrew Haigh instead infuses the film with warmth and honesty, facing the darkest moments head-on as the only way to get through them. It's an extraordinarily tough story told with a light touch that brings the viewer right into the journey... FULL REVIEW >

Brigsby Bear
dir Dave McCary; with Kyle Mooney, Matt Walsh 17/US ****
Like a fanboy-infused variation on Room, this darkly comical drama takes on a potent story about a young man rescued from a lifelong kidnapping. The clever script is very funny, keeping the audience laughing brittlely. And the film is also grappling with some rather intense issues in a meaningful way. This is a striking feature debut for director Dave McCary... FULL REVIEW >

Racer and the Jailbird
dir Michael R Roskam; with Matthias Schoenaerts, Adele Exarchopoulos 17/Bel ***.
Filmmaker Michael Roskam reteams once again with Matthias Schoenaerts for this personal drama set against the criminal scene in Belgium. More of an epic romance than a thriller, the film has plenty of emotional moments that draw the audience into the central romance. Although it's all perhaps a bit too dark for its own good, as the film runs out of hope before we're ready to give up on these people... FULL REVIEW >

The Cakemaker
dir-scr Ofir Raul Graizer; with Tim Kalkhof, Sarah Adler 17/Isr ***.
Warm and open, this Israeli-German drama takes a sensitive approach to a complex relationship. Writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer stirs in strong issues without ever losing sight of the internal journeys the characters are taking, and how their interaction helps them move forward. And with its low-key style, the film is beefed up with some powerfully resonant undercurrents... FULL REVIEW >

Roller Dreams
dir Kate Hickey; with James Lightning, Sara Messenger 17/Aus ***.
It may seem like a straightforward documentary about a specific time and place, but this film mixes its frankly awesome archival footage with both a moving narrative arc and powerfully resonant political themes. So it becomes much more than the story of a multi-ethnic community's nostalgia for a lost time. It's also darkly personal journey and a striking chronology of a city's shockingly racist history... FULL REVIEW >

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L   W E E K
I've only had three non-festival films this past week, namely Denis Villeneuve's astonishing sequel Blade Runner 2049, Jessica Chastain in Aaron Sorkin's fast-talking true story Molly's Game, and Josh Hartnett in the true survival thriller 6 Below.


Monday, 2 October 2017

Shadows on the Screen: Autumn TV Roundup

Television is my escape: something I can watch without getting into film critic mode. Yet while I prefer mindless nonsense on the small screen, I am also tempted by big, quality shows that are currently all over the channels and streaming services. So here's what I was watching this summer. And now that film festival season is upon me, I need trashy TV even more!

EVENT TELEVISION

Game of Thrones: Series 7
Without pausing for breath, this show propelled a large number of people into a variety of conflicts that left our jaws hanging open in shock. After six years, the central characters are all so complex and involving that they almost feel like family: some we love and others we hate. So what happens to them feels like a punch to the gut. Meanwhile, the show's creators just keep topping themselves with exhilarating epic moments that take the breath away. There's never been anything on TV that even comes close to this scale of excitement and adventure. And this season finally brought many the characters together, ready to head into the final series of shows next year.

Top of the Lake - China Girl: Series 2
Jane Campion's haunting mystery series returned for a new set of episodes, anchored by another astonishingly internalised performance from Elisabeth Moss as detective Robin, still recovering from the trauma of the earlier mystery, and events even further back in her history. This season is set in Sydney following the discovery of a body in a suitcase on Bondi Beach, and it features terrific supporting roles for the likes of Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman (who wonderfully goes full Aussie). The main theme here is motherhood, and the labyrinthine threads of the plot come at this issue from so many angles that it's sometimes a little overwhelming. But it's also emotionally punchy and utterly riveting. 

Twin Peaks
After that astonishing mid-season nuclear bomb, this revived series continued to deepen the mystery rather than solve it. Although a much stronger sense of narrative thrust emerged once Kyle MacLachlan's old Dale Cooper finally returned from the dazed wreckage of Dougie. This is a show packed with wonder - funny and scary and impossible to predict. David Lynch loves challenging the viewer to think and feel things in unexpected directions, and this is like nothing else on television. It's also refreshingly nothing like the original series from 25 years ago: the world has changed and so has the show.

SOMETHING NEW

Ozark
A superbly edgy 10-episode thriller created by star Jason Bateman, this constantly spinning story sends an imploding Chicago family into deepest Missouri, where they try to hold things together to survive the mobster who's dangling death over their heads. Bateman and Laura Linney are excellent as the estranged couple who clearly never bothered to properly raise their two teen kids. The tone of the show is dark, twisty and blackly funny. And while the echoes of Breaking Bad are sometimes a little too on-the-nose, this cast and setting keep things fresh. Hopefully the second season will keep the story spiralling organically, rather than starting to insert corny TV series elements designed merely to keep it running.

Friends From College
The pilot episode of this sitcom is so promising that you could forget how lame the title is, setting up some clever dynamics as a group of university buddies once again become neighbours in New York. But from the second episode onward, the writing turned stupid, creating insufferably unlikeable characters who do stupid things that push them into increasingly contrived situations. Every scene has the germ of a great idea, nicely played by an expert cast (including Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage and Cobie Smulders), but the script pushes them over the edge into cornball farce, so the actors look like they're straining desperately for laughs. Which is annoying when there's plenty of material here for something both funny and pointed.

Man in an Orange Shirt
A clever story told in two halves set more than 70 years apart, this BBC drama follows Michael and Thomas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen and James McArdle) as they serve in WWII then split up because Michael chooses to to conform with society and marries Flora (Joanna Vanderham). In the present day, Michael's grandson Adam (Julian Morris) is resolutely single, living with his grandmother Flora (now Vanessa Redgrave) and engaging in casual sex until an image from the past shakes him up. Both halves of this story are compelling, depicting denial and repression in the same country but very different cultures. It's beautifully shot, edited and acted, perhaps a bit oblique but powerful.

Ill Behaviour
The premise of this comedy-drama is not easy to stomach: a just-divorced loser (Chris Geere) talks a friend (Jessica Regan) into kidnapping their old buddy (Tom Riley), forcing him to abandon his holistic healing and take chemo to cure his cancer. All with the convenient help of a hot mess doctor (Lizzy Caplan). Everything about the set-up stretches belief to the breaking point, but it's still compulsively watchable. Where it goes over three parts is fairly absurd, but there are some terrific performances in the cast that make these brazenly unlikeable characters entertaining. The fact is that no one here is very nice. But they're perhaps doing the best they can.

Will
This sassy take on the early career of William Shakespeare (fresh-faced Laurie Davidson) in London has a wealth of possibilities, but the scripts play everything safe, finding the most obvious gags while peppering the dialog with references to anything and everything. It's also unnecessarily violent, complete with a snarling, sadistic villain (Ewen Bremner), which kind of undermines the otherwise jaunty comical tone. The Luhrmann-esque excesses are actually a lot of fun (the characters sing along with pop tunes), and the cast is seriously engaging. But it really should have been much more lusty than this, and far less grisly. When it's playing with the relationship chaos, the show is a lot of fun, even if it's shamelessly misusing Shakespeare's work.

BACK FOR MORE

Victoria: Series 2
Basically Downton Abbey in Buckingham Palace, this soapy history drama is effortlessly watchable, thanks to scripts that weave downmarket trashiness with true events. And lead actors Jemma Coleman and Tom Hughes are excellent at making Victoria and Albert realistic people in a surreal situation. If only the plotting was less melodramatically ridiculous, especially as Victoria finds herself pregnant again so soon after giving birth. The low point was the episode in which the Queen and Prince Albert develop a contrived mutual jealousy and lash out at each other with frightfully bad behaviour. This only makes the series feel like it's stretching to fill out its episode count rather than tell a proper story.

Master of None: Series 2
Kicking off with a witty black and white homage to De Sica's classic Bicycle Thieves, each episode of Aziz Ansari's anthology series is a mini-masterpiece. Some episodes are funnier than others, but all are involving and engaging, packed with hilariously detailed and very messy characters. Through-lines include the offbeat trajectory of Dev's career from Italy to hosting a riotously awful cupcake competition show to working with a celebrity chef (Bobby Cannavale). And there's also a quirky running romance with his engaged Italian friend (Alessandra Mastronardi) that keeps us guessing right to the end. Worth waiting for two years between series.

Insecure: Series 2
Issa Rae is terrific at the centre of this comedy, which is only marred by its relentless undermining of her character. Like some sort of self-fulfilling prophesy, the title hints at all manner of bad luck and crippling self-sabotage. But there's terrific material scattered throughout each episode, and the characters are deepening in intriguing directions, beautifully played by Rae, Jay Ellis, Yvonne Orji, et al. It's also refreshing to see a show that's so honest about sex without ever sniggering about it. So why are the plots so flimsy? And why do the characters do things that feel oddly implausible? It's as if Rae is trying to make her points rather than tell believable stories, which is a problem.

The Carmichael Show: Series 3
It's astonishing how clever this show is, as it uses all of the most obvious elements of a standard sitcom, from the family dynamic to the sets themselves, then subverts everything with sharply topical comedy. Enormous issues rear their heads in each episode, and yet the writers somehow manage to write hysterically funny punchlines even in the middle of a wrenchingly serious scene. The show's heart and soul is Loretta Devine as the outspoken matriarch who has big feelings about everything. And it's refreshing that actor-creator Jerrod Carmichael doesn't try to make his character remotely saintly.

Younger: Series 4
After giving up and skipping the third season, I returned simply because there were so few comedies on over the summer. It's still weak, but the cast is strong enough to hold the interest, especially Debi Mazar and Nico Tortorella. This season opens in a more enjoyable state of conflict, with best pals Liza and Kelsey (Sutton Foster and Hilary Duff) having fallen out. So while the sexuality is painfully simplistic and the publishing world setting utterly fantastical, at least there was scope for some enjoyably barbed dialog. If only the relationships were more adult-oriented; this feels like a high-school soap opera performed by 30-year-olds.

JUST GETTING STARTED

Gypsy
I'm a huge fan of Naomi Watts, but I could only make it through three episodes of this mopey series about a therapist who gets too involved in her patients' lives, while her husband (Billy Crudup) suspects nothing. It just felt indulgent and pointless from the start. Maybe it got better as it went along, but I ran out of patience. I'm not surprised it wasn't renewed for another season.

The Orville
I'm not a Seth McFarlane fan, but a review caught my eye. This sci-fi adventure comedy is so like Star Trek that I suspect at the end McFarlane will have to admit that it's an official franchise show. Never satirical, it's played dead straight, with only the odd snap of comedic dialog between the characters. Everything from the look of the ship and the music to the costumes and plotlines feels straight from the Star Trek universe. Including the moral certainty. I'm not sure how long I'll stick with it.

Star Trek: Discovery
Speaking of which, this new authorised Trek series has a strong cast, anchored by the superbly nuanced Sonequa Martin-Green. Her character's story is the clear through-line here, which is fascinating. But the first three episodes are very talky, establishing a rather too-serious tone that centres on the threat of war and violence rather than the interplay between the crew members or any sense of, yes, discovery. It feels a little like all work and no play, even with the odd humorous touch. The third episode at least has a blast of personality as it establishes the series' premise, so I'll stick with it for now.

Coming up, there's the return of most American network shows, a new season of Transparent, the last season of Episodes, the Pegg-Mitchell comedy Back, and lots of things I haven't heard of yet...