Tuesday, October 25, 2016

DOCTOR STRANGE


DOCTOR STRANGE is a patchwork quilt of a Marvel movie.  Pleasant enough to watch, but undeserving of a second view, in which almost every character, action sequence or funny line echoes another film, and the only originality comes not from the central character but from Tilda Swinton.  It's visually arresting but emotionally hollow mid-tier Marvel of a kind that - with a release calendar chock full of B-grade comic book characters -  I have become rather bored by. 

As with IRON MAN, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rich materialistic egotistical genius brought low by a severe accident, who supplements his physical healing process with "super powers".   As with SHERLOCK, Strange has a perfect memory and a fondness for being right.  As with StarChild, Strange has a fondness for cheesy seventies hits.  Strange was a successful but cocky surgeon who texts while driving and ends up in an horrific car crash that renders his hands unfit for surgery.  In desperation, he journeys to Nepal where he finds a mystical Jedi Master, sorry, Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who puts him through a training regime straight out of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  I kid you not, there's even a "judge me by my size, do you" sequence. It turns out that, quelle surprise, Strange has a rare aptitude for astral projection and drawing energy from other dimensions of the multiverse to cast magic spells.  He even gets a cool gadget that allows his to reverse time.  (Do you think that will be significant?!) He also gets a HARRY POTTER style set of magical gadgets, including a sentient cloak that actually reminded me a bit of Terry Pratchett's luggage.  So armed, he goes off to fight the Ancient One's former pupil turned evil villain (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to open Earth up to an eviller villain whose name sounds like Dormouse.  Oh yes, I forgot that Strange has an ex-girlfriend played by Rachel McAdams who's also a surgeon but she has nothing to do but simper.  He also has sidekicks at his zen school played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong who exist to show a moral centre and comic relief respectively. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

FREE FIRE - BFI LFF 2016 - Closing Night Gala - Day 12


Ben Wheatley's HIGH RISE may have been one of the most disappointing films of LFF2015 but his quick, scabrous shoot-em-up thriller FREE FIRE is a welcome return to form.  Moreover, after 12 days of melancholy art-house movies, it was the perfect palette cleanser and finale to this year's exceptionally good film festival. 

Short, sharp, cheap and nasty, the movie takes place almost entirely in a dingy warehouse some time in the 1970s.   Brie Larson plays the sole woman in the film and is presumably some kind of arms broker.  The buyers are two IRA terrorists played by Cillian Murphy and Wheatley alum Michael Smiley and the salesman are a South African (Sharlto Copley) and his enforcer (Armie Hammer).  Also present are associated side-kicks and half-wits played Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor and Babou Ceesay.  Basically, this is a bunch of scoundrels, where trust and intelligence are both in short supply. So when a junkie driver brings up an old beef with another moron, shots get fired and pretty soon we're in a full on seventy minute shoot out.  

SNOWDEN - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 12


Jyoti Kalyan reviews SNOWDEN:

If you have a basic understanding of Edward Snowden’s story, don’t expect to learn anything new by watching this dramatised version. Director Oliver Stone had everything to make this film thrilling by immersing audiences into the psyche of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt ), a high level intelligence contractor who leaks millions of classified documents on how the NSA illegally spy on individuals without their consent or knowledge. There were opportunities for gripping audiences by exploring the moral battles being fought by US Intelligence workers, shedding light on the secret yet ‘legal’ Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts or even uncovering the power and influence possessed by those within the hierarchy of these organisations. However, what we do get is a film that touches interesting points but provides no depth.

Stone’s ‘dramatisation’ seems to hit its crescendo within the first five minutes, where we see Snowden locking himself in a hotel room with three hand-picked journalists, ready to hand over the secret documents. But, from then on, it is flat and dragged out. The recurring theme that US Intelligence Agencies spy on all of us is portrayed through many long-winded examples that it begins to bore the audience. The inclusion of Snowden’s girlfriend adds no value and is all too predictable, especially when focusing on the impact his job has on their relationship. As far as casting is concerned, for me no one stand out in the slightest, and let’s not even begin to delve into what Nicolas Cage is doing playing a mentor to potential intelligence agents.

The film does however end with an actual clip of Edward Snowden, conducting a public interview to a large audience from his new home in Russia. For me, this was a rare scene where you could actually get to know the character and should have been longer!

One should not forget that an incredible story underpins this movie. It is the ultimate David vs. Goliath battle which could have captivated millions of cinema-goers around the world. It is a shame Oliver Stone’s representation doesn’t do Snowden justice. You might just find Wikipedia’s version a lot more fun !

SNOWDEN has a running time of 134 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Toronto and London 2016.  The movie opened earlier this year in Israel, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Sweden, Turkey, the USA, Vietnam, Brazil, Germany, Croatia, Portugal, Finland, Lithuania, Denmark and Norway.  It opened earlier in October in Spain. It opens in Spain on October 7th, in France on November 2nd, in Greece on November 3rd, in Belgium on November 9th, in Poland on November 11th and in Italy on December 1st. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

CHI-RAQ - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 11


CHI-RAQ is Spike Lee’s most vivid, audacious and successful film since MALCOLM X. It’s a tour-de-force adaptation of Aristophanes Lysistrata set amidst the gang violence of contemporary Chicago - a place with a deal toll higher than that of US forces in the Iraqi and Afghan wars. Both that play and this film posit a world in which the women are so sick of war that they impose a ban on sex until the men make peace. Lee keeps the plays basic plot structure and somehow manages to balance the tonal shifts between raucous sex comedy and domestic tragedy with such confidence and success it makes the head spin to think of it. And so we have Samuel L Jackson cast as the narrator, dressed as a Harlem pimp, complete with cane and crocodile shoes, delivering rhyming couplets with such charisma, panache and, as appropriate, anger, as to make this almost a career-best performance. (It’s edged out for me by DJANGO UNCHAINED). And we have the Trojans and Greeks recast as rival gangs run by Wesley Snipes as Cyclops (a sadly relatively slight role) and Nick Cannon as Demetrius, the most recalcitrant gang member and lover to the modern-day Lysistrata - an outstanding and award-worthy performance by Teyonah Parris. Now wouldn’t that be something? If the Academy overlooked the more conventional dramatic performances that beg for nominations - Amy Adams in ARRIVAL I’m looking at you - in favour of something as balls-out brave, funny, and strong as this role? And while, we’re on the subject of adulation - how about awards for Spike Lee and screenwriter Kevin Willmott in what has to be one of the most intelligent and verbally dexterous modern day adaptations of an ancient text. To the point where I can’t wait to get a copy of the screenplay and indulge in all the in-jokes and clever rhymes I missed in the film because they were coming so fast. To be honest, there’s nothing to criticise in this film. Perhaps it could be a bit shorter in its middle section. But I can forgive a film almost anything if it features THE WIRE’s Senator Clay Davies uttering an on-screen personal best “sheeeeeet”. Thank god for Spike Lee still making films this visually compelling, intelligent, angry and emotional. How much more effective and entertaining to have John Cusack’s priest tell us that “mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow” than watching Ava Duvernay’s dry documentary, 13th. And how angry-making that it took a year for this film to be shown in the UK. If #BlackLivesMatter, can someone - anyone - get this film out there, NOW!

CHI-RAQ has a running time of 127 minutes. The movie was released earlier this year in the USA and played Berlin, Toronto and London 2016. It will be released in the UK on December 2nd.

IT'S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 11


ITS ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD is the least Dolanesque of all of Xavier Dolan’s films. Rather than a three hour epic of melodrama, often with extreme mummy issues and queer themes, set to an 80s synth-pop soundtrack, we get a relatively taught if no less histrionic 90 minute chamber drama. This is because the film is based on a stage play rather than Dolan’s own musings. The film stars Gaspar Ulliel as a famous author returning home to his estranged family after a 12 year absence to tell them he’s dying. But as the family bicker and fight and make-up over lunch, the tension mounts as to whether he’s actually going to do the deed. We sense that his tongue-tied sister-in-law (Marion Cotillard) actually figures out his news early on and tries to facilitate him telling at least his elder brother (Vincent Cassel). And it may be that the elder brother also figures it out near the end and tries to protect their little sister (Lea Seydoux) from the news. The mother (Natalie Baye) meanwhile - gloriously larger than life in typical Dolanesque form - seems to be utterly in the dark. 

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 11


It appears that Tom Ford's sophomore film is controversial - with people either in love with it or damning it as dull and potentially misogynistic.  My view is that it's neither excellent nor terrible, but something far more unforgivable - boring.

Amy Adams stars as Susan - a bored rich Los Angeles art gallery owner who is growing cynical about her perfect life and the pretentious art she surrounds herself with.  Abandoned by her philandering fraudulent husband (Armie Hammer - barely used), she starts reading a manuscript of a novel her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) has written.  She basically left him because he was a romantic loser, and the novel he writes is essentially about an emasculated man who fails to protect his wife (Isla Fisher) and child from some violent slack-jawed yokels (Aaron Taylor-Johnson included).  I suspect that the point of this B-grade revenge plot is to prove that in life as in fiction, the husband was basically weak, but kind of over-came it, depending on what you make of the ending.

Friday, October 14, 2016

BRIMSTONE - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 10


BRIMSTONE is a beautifully photographed and designed western thriller that features Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce in fiercely committed performances.  However, it falls into the trap of seeking to portray and condemn sexual violence against women by basically showing us a lot of sexual violence against women, in such a manner and style that it almost seems to be enjoying it.  The result is a film that looks beautiful and is certainly fiercely focussed on what it wants to achieve, but which jumps the shark at several key moments, and left me wondering whether it was good with occasional misjudgments, or just plain objectionable.

The film is set in the American midwest in the mid 1800s and focusses on a young mute woman (Dakota Fanning) who is a wife and mother to two small children.  In the first of four chapters we see her incite the vengeance of a mean-spiritied judgmental preacher (Guy Pearce) out of all proportion to her apparent crime of having chosen to save a mother over her baby in a troubled delivery.  But still, in this chapter I was convinced this film was going to be a well-acted, tense, taut thriller. That is until a final act of violence so absurd it pulled me out of the film.  But that was ok, because we then moved into the second chapter, and an apparent re-set of the film, as we met a young runaway girl being picked up by Chinese travellers and sold to a brothel keeper.  This was by far the most interesting and successful segment of the film but once again utterly jumped the shark with violence by the end.  And it was notable that at both of these points in the film, a number of people walked out.  Bu the film got really problematic in its third and fourth segment, where the true nature of the relationship between the preacher and the girl is revealed in all its melodramatic, exploitative detail.

What can I say? If this movie had just exercised a little restraint and thought deeply about how to depict violence against women it might have been a really fascinating, genre-bending movie.  But the director, Martin Koolhoven, seems to have zero instinct about what's provocative and what's just offensive.  It's an enormous shame because Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning are clearly going for something high quality here, but there's let down by a director with a tin ear. 

BRIMSTONE is rated R and has a running time of 148 minutes.  BRIMSTONE played Venice, London and Toronto 2016. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

THEIR FINEST - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 10


THEIR FINEST is a handsome and genuinely funny film that also - admirably - does not shy away from the darker aspects of life in London during the Blitz.  German air-raids kill friends - people whisper about the bad news from Poland - enemy citizens have been interned - and there's a desperation to get America into the war.  The war stirs up social conflict too - women have the opportunity to do jobs left empty by conscripted men, but not without causing resentment and facing opposition.  But the over-riding picture is one of a drab and deprived city, filmed and clothed in dingy colours, trying its best to keep its spirits up and win the war.

To that end, the Ministry of Information was charged with making not just informational films but also soft propaganda feature films - authentic and optimistic. And it's on the set of one of these that the events of this romantic comedy take place.   Gemma Arterton (GEMMA BOVERY) stars as Catrin Cole, a secretary turned screenwriter hired at a reduced wage to write "slop" - dialogue for the female characters. She's married to an artist (Jack Huston - BOARDWALK EMPIRE) who resents her financial success and finds herself drawn instead to her co-writer Buckley (Sam Claflin - THE HUNGER GAMES).  Together, they write the screenplay to a movie about Dunkirk - seeking to transform a story about an ignominious British retreat into one of wartime heroism by two plucky young girls who sail their tugboat to rescue British soldiers.  The movie catches the eye of the government who think it might appeal to American cinemagoers and so persuade them to enter the war. The only problem is, American audiences need an American hero, and a less reticent romantic ending.

The first thing to say is that this film is really very funny indeed.  Properly laugh out loud funny.  Bill Nighy is a scene-stealer as the ageing actor reluctant to play anything but the male lead. His arrogance and pomposity are a joy to behold.   He also does things with the word "semolina" when he sees an attractive woman (Helen McCrory - PENNY DREADFUL) enter a restaurent that will stay with me forever!  But Rachel Stirling is also very funny as the gay Ministry producer with some of the most acerbic lines.  Rounding out the comic trio, we have Jake Lacy (GIRLS) as the American pilot who can't act for toffee with some spectacularly good bad acting.  And then - there are wonderful one-liners or cameos from Richard E Grant and Jeremy Irons. Put them together and I laughed an awful lot at this film - maybe more than watching MINDHORN - and I laughed A LOT at MINDHORN!  

The second thing to say is that I do admire the movie's willingness to show the darker aspects to life in wartime, and indeed to tackle misogyny head on.  

But that's not to say that the film is without its flaws. The romance is a bit obvious and well-worn in its development.  The final act drags - the emotional beats are obvious.  But I can forgive any film its flaws when I can remember comic lines hours after watching it.  

THEIR FINEST has a running time of 115 minutes.   The movie does not yet have a commercial release date. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

PLANETARIUM - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 9


There once was a Romanian Jew called Bernard Natan who came to France and took over the legendary Pathe cinema studio.  He was the pillar of the movie industry - a man of power and taste. He even had an air of scandal about him - rumours abounded he had directed, and maybe even starred in, hardcore porn.  But when the Nazis came, power and influence did not protect him. He was accused of fraud, thrown into prison, and released only to be handed over to the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. This could have made an exceptionally interesting movie, a little like CABARET in contrasting the carefree hedonism of the glamorous set with the rise of fascism just at the corner of our vision.  But that is, sadly, not the film that Rebecca Zlotowski chose to make.  Rather, she takes elements of Natan's life, recasts them, and mixes them in with elements of spiritualism and science for a film that contains far too many ideas and not enough focus.

LION - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 9


LION is an emotionally intense human interest story that comes complete with lovely cinematography.  However, a straightforward structure, slack pacing and ho-hum soundtrack prevent it from being truly great, as opposed to a well-made tear-jerker.

The film is based on the memoirs of Saroo Brierley. He was born in a small north Indian town in the early 80s, but through a twist of fate was separated from his family and ended up on a train to Calcutta, 1600km away.  Unable to speak Bengali, or even knowing the name of his hometown, the boy becomes one of many homeless children, and only narrowly escapes a predator to end up in an equally brutal state orphanage. But a kindly social worker intervenes and arranges for him to adopted by a white Tasmanian family, where it appears that he lived a very happy childhood.  However, when Saroo goes to university he finally meets people from India, and this triggers a wave of memories and a desire both to find his birth family, but not to hurt his adoptive parents.  And so begins a needle in the haystack search for a faint memory of a train station with a water tank, without even knowing if he'll find his family at the end of it. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

CERTAIN WOMEN - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 8


Kelly Riechardt (NIGHT MOVES) returns to the London Film Festival with this hauntingly melancholy portmanteau film.  The film tells the story of three different women who have achieved a degree of material success in their lives, and contrasts this with the people who have been left by the wayside.  In each story, the women are living lives that are defined by a failure to communicate, and a lack of self-awareness regarding this failure. They are trapped in their success, unknowing, uncaring. 

In the first story Laura Dern plays a small-town lawyer annoyed by a client who just won't believe when her when she tells him he has no case.  She is frustrated by what she perceives to be his misogyny in refusing to hear bad news from a female lawyer. But the reality is that he is actually very distraught at the loss of his livelihood and desperately lonely.   Jared Harris (MAD MEN) gives a very moving performance as a man on the edge and Dern convinces as the lawyer who sees his breakdown as an inconvenience rather than a cause for empathy.  I also love how Reichardt keeps the final interpretation of whether she has gained empathy open at the end of the film.

KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 8


When I was picking my films for this year’s London Film Festival, I made the decision to watch KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE and CHRISTINE - two films about the on-air suicide of journalist Christine Chubbuck. I’d never heard of Chubbuck before, but the feature film on the subject starred Rebecca Hall - an actress I admire greatly. And so it felt like it was be even more insightful to see another spin on that subject - this time a documentary, with a different actress in the title role.

Unfortunately, my idea backfired. The actress Kate Lyn Shiel may well be as talented as Hall, but the documentary KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE feels badly put together and a little amateur. Director Peter Greene essentially follows Kate around as she researches the role. We see her get a fake tan, get brown contact lenses, get a wig, get dresses that approximate what Christine wore. But the final look is kind of cheap and high school play rather than a convincing approximation of the real life journalist. And when we watch Kate play out certain scenes from Christine’s life, straight after interviewing people about those events, it feels really staged and fake. Watching this documentary, I felt like I was watching a mediocre actress scrambling to get insight into the death of a tragic woman, but failing either to get any, or indeed to convey any to me, sitting in the audience.

A QUIET PASSION - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 8



A QUIET PASSION is a beautiful, deeply sympathetic portrait of the iconic American poet, Emily Dickinson.  It portrays her as a smart woman, hugely sensitive to the constraints placed upon her by society for being a woman, and an ugly one (by her own account) at that.  She is also at odds with convention by virtue of her complex relationship with religion. She believes she has a soul and fiercely guards its independence. She won't be forced into some outward piety, and searches for some kind of spiritual contentment.  As she grows older, she becomes more despairing and bitter - about the fact that only a few of her poems have been published, and that they have been altered by her editor - about the fact that all those she loves leave her - about her loneliness and simultaneous fear of connection.  In fact, in Cynthia Nixon's desperately sad and moving portrayal of Emily Dickinson, I saw echoes of Rebecca Hall's similarly affecting portrayal of the journalist Christine Chubbuck, living a century later.  Both were smart and uncompromising women who sought love but also recoiled when it was offered.  The key difference is that where poor Christine could not resist her depression and fell into despair and suicide, Emily Dickinson somehow has the courage to persist, and to survive and to write, even though she does retreat into an utterly private world - self-confined to her beloved home. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

THE BIRTH OF A NATION - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 7


THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a film that comes to us laden with controversy. And while I tried to watch it and assess it purely on its own terms, for reasons I will go on to explain, this was impossible. Accordingly, it’s hard to defend this as an objective review of a work of art - rather, it’s a summation of my thoughts on the work and its political context.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION is itself a provocative title for a film. It refers, of course, to D.W.Griffiths’ film, released a century ago. That silent film told the story of a noble Southern family who suffered during the Civil War, and a protagonist who joined the Ku Klux Klan to keep his sweetheart safe from the ravening predatory bestial freed slaves. The film - which I watched earlier this year at the BFI Southbank - is disturbingly good. Like watching a good production of Wagner’s Ring, you find yourself swept up in the artistry and carried along in a wave of emotion in spite of your awareness of the noxious political beliefs held by the creator and woven into the fabric of the work. In the case of the Griffiths’ film, the infamous presidential review - that it is “history written in lightning”, holds true. The images of gallant knights riding to rescue fair maidens of burning crucifixes - of a young heroine jumping to her death to avoid rape - these remain potent symbols. Great art moves people and BIRTH OF A NATION moved them to join the KKK and cemented and exacerbated prejudices. It’s simultaneously a technically brilliant and horrifying film.

PATERSON - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 7


Move over LA LA LAND. Lovers of romance have a new movie to watch - the quietly beautiful and unassuming love-letter, PATERSON.  Directed by Jim Jarmusch, the film stars Adam Driver (THE FORCE AWAKENS) as a mild-mannered bus driver called Paterson, who also happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey.  As he drives the morning shift, he smiles wistfully to himself as he listens to the funny conversations of his passengers.  Some of things he notices and sees find their way into his poetry (written by real-life poet Ron Padgett), much of which is addressed to his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).  She is a creative soul too - decorating their house, her clothes and cupcakes in abstract black and white patterns.  She utterly supports her boyfriend in his poetry and he her wide-eyed dreams of success.   At first they seem somewhat naive, but this is a loving relationship played without irony.  I suddenly realised how rare this is to see on screen - a couple quite simply in love - accommodating of each other's foibles - supportive.  

ARRIVAL - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 7



ARRIVAL is a handsome, intelligent sci-film with stunning visual and aural design and great performances. It's a little bit lit down by thematic and plot similarities to some other recent sci-fi films, but remains a superb film.

The film stars Amy Adams as a linguist called in by the US government to interact with aliens that have landed 12 spaceships all over Earth.  As the movie opens, each host country is co-operating with the other and sharing research - learning that the Heptapods communicate visually and slowly translating their non-linear speech.   But pressure is on - the Chinese is leading a group of nations who interpret their messages as threatening - withdraw from co-operation and are potentially about to launch a first strike.  This leaves Adams' character in a race against time to have the spirit of scientific co-operation trump that of nationalistic belligerence. 

This straightforward plot is complicated by a thesis about the nature and power of language itself.  In an early scene, Adams' character hypothesises that the specific language that we learn affects not just the way in which we think, but the actual neural wiring of our brains.  And so, by extension, to learn a new language could be to rewire the brain.  Accordingly, we have an intellectual idea being explored here - one that posits that by learning the aliens' non-linear language - one that exists outside of conventional time - that Adams' character might herself learn to think, behave and experience life in a non-linear fashion.

Monday, October 10, 2016

PERSONAL SHOPPER - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 6


When I was at university, essays were graded on the greek alphabet.  There was a unique grade for work that was simultaneously brilliant and terrible - uniquely provocative but failing to answer the question - and that grade was an "Alpha-Gamma".  Well, dear reader, I feel we just found the first Alpha Gamma film of this year's London Film Festival.

So let's start with the Alpha.  Kristen Stewart follows her amazing performance in Olivier Assayas' last film - THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA - with arguably a career-best performance here.  She plays Maureen - a young woman grieving for her twin brother who died of a heart disease they both share.  It turns out that they were both mediums and that she is convinced she has to wait in Paris to receive a sign from him. This would be almost laughable were it not for the way in which Stewart utterly commits to the role and convinces us of her complete inability to move forward. She is trapped her desire to hear from him, and this desire makes her vulnerable to signs, visions and - as it turns out - a cyber-stalker.

Now for the Gamma.  I don't feel that Olivier Assayas is in control of his material, and that some critics (and evidently the Cannes jury) have given him the benefit of the doubt as trying to deliberately create mystery or ambiguity.  In fact, he has created a film that switches tone and resolves mysteries and issues with an abruptness that borders on the absurd.  The film works best when depicting Stewart as a kind of shadow - walking through the life of her famous employer, picking up her designer clothes and jewels.  I also rather liked the spectral visions.  But the thriller plot is just risible - I felt this wrapped up so quickly and obviously as to have the movie jump the shark.  It never recovered for me.  I also feel that there is something conceptually flawed in having a central conceit that the stalker converses with Maureen via iMessage.  It just felt so banal that I couldn't believe it was sinister. And to be honest, watching someone read and respond to texts for 30 minutes is about as interesting as it sounds.

So, watch PERSONAL SHOPPER for Stewart.  But don't watch it for plot.  If you want a COMPLETE movie about a central character unable to move beyond grief, also featuring a superb central performance but within an entirely brilliant movie, check out MANCHESTER BY THE SEA instead. 

PERSONAL SHOPPER has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated 15. The film played Cannes, where the director won the Best Director prize jointly with Cristian Mungiu for Graduation. It also played Toronto and London 2016. It opens on December 14th in Belgium and France; on January 19th in Germany; on January 26th in the Netherlands; on January 27th in Austria; on February 2nd in Russia; on March 3rd in the UK and Ireland; and on March 10th in the USA.

CHRISTINE - BFF LFF 2016 - Day 6


In 1974, a field reporter on a local TV station committed suicide live on air.  This film, by director Antonio Campos, gives us the context for that notorious act, in a film of rare empathy with its subject - Christine Chubbuck.  Actress Rebecca Hall gives us a portrait of a smart woman of integrity, who volunteers with disabled children and truly cares about social issues.  But  who somehow can't quite connect with the world around her.  Even when people are reaching out to her, she becomes defensive or mishears the complement. And yet she is desperately lonely to the point of not even being able to have a cup of coffee with a co-worker.  And when her boss tells her to change the tone of her news reports to appeal to more viewers, Christine simply can't bring herself to compromise. This is most heartbreakingly depicted in a scene where a co-worker takes her to a kind of culty new-age therapy group where she has to take part in an exercise with another girl.  Christine explains that she's lonely, and so sick that she may not be able to have a child, and that she can't get the promotion she so desires and retain her journalistic integrity.  The other girl asks tells Christine that she should adjust her expectations of life but Christine simply can't comprehend this as an option.  And so we move to the grim finale of the film.

CHRISTINE is a meticulous film. The production and costume design perfectly recreate the mid-70s small-town milieu. I also really loved the almost tangible feel and sound of using clunky old recording and editing equipment.  We get a real sense of what it was like to be a journalist in that era, and more importantly, of Christine's desire to master journalistic techniques and her perfection in how to cut together a segment of television.  But this is first and foremost a nuanced character study by an actress of exceptional talent.  I felt genuinely moved by the film and by her performance and it's testament to the director's respectful tone that even though the suicide is explicitly depicted, it never feels exploitative. Kudos to all involved.

CHRISTINE has a running time of 119 minutes and is rated R.  CHRISTINE played Sundance, Toronto and London 2016 and opens next week in the USA.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

BLEED FOR THIS - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 5


BLEED FOR THIS is a deeply mediocre entry into the underdog boxing genre - a film that feels like it wants to THE FIGHTER when it grows up.  It's a movie filled with caricatures rather than characters, hammy performances, and adds nothing to the august cinematic tradition of shooting boxing matches.  

The film tells the story of real-life 1980s boxing champion Vinny Pazienza, who suffered an horrific car crash and was told he'd never walk again. He eschewed neck fusion for a risky "halo" metal brace drilled into his head.  And while the slightest knock to that brace might have rendered him paraplegic, Vinny disregarded medical advice to train in his basement, brace and all.  He went on to win a title bout in his hometown, coming from behind, surviving ten rounds.  

The problem is that no-one in this retelling feels like a fully fleshed out authentic character.  Vinny's mother is simply a prayerful nervous Catholic - his sister is simply a nagging wife - his brother-in-law is just a dumbfuck - his dad is a cigar-chomping vulgarian - all the family scenes feature a loud Italian family eating lasagne and talking over each other.  This is the stuff of deep deep cliche.  The women Vinny dates get short-changed too - they're just interchangeable totty. The director is only interested in them insofar as he can relive some kind of sub-Scorsese vision of Vinny showering them with casino chips.  The lead characters don't fair any better.  Vinny's coach is a washed-up alcoholic whose only motive and purpose is to be Vinny's coach. There's no journey here - no emotional growth or nuance - compare and contrast to Clint Eastwood's character in MILLION DOLLAR BABY.  And what about Vinny himself?  He evidently has a tolerance for physical pain and a single-minded determination to win. But why?  Where did it come from? How does he sustain it through the crash? We never get any glimpse into his emotional life or thought process. And the risible attempt to wrap up his journey with a nice bow in the final interview of the film just makes no sense at all.

MINDHORN - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 5


Fans of Alan Partridge, HOT FUZZ and, of course, the insanely brilliant MIGHTY BOOSH are in for a treat with this new feature length comedy from BOOSH creators Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby.  This British spoof/comedy is an hilariously funny 90 minutes of cinema - pastiching luvvie actors and cheesy 80s cop shows.  Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a washed-up actor who used to play a highly popular fictional detective called Mindhorn, back in the 80s.  When a delusional killer wants to speak only Mindhorn, the real-life cops have no choice but to call Thorncroft in.  A lot of the humour of the piece comes with the politically incorrect actor facing up to his failure, and meeting his old flame (Essie Davis) and acting rival (Steve Coogan) back on the Isle of Man.  But there's also some real heart in this movie, and the final scenes are actually quite touching.  And for Boosh fans, you get the added joy on Simon Farnaby playing some kind of dodgy Dutch stuntman who laughs at his own jokes.  

To sum up, this is a pretty uncomplicated movie - it's a classic British pastiche comedy. But the laughs are consistent and good and unexpected.  There's nothing not to like. 

MINDHORN has a running time of 89 minutes. The film played London 2016 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 5


Kenneth Lonergan (MARGARET) has created a masterpiece in his tragicomedy MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, showing in what is turning out be an exceptionally good year at the BFI London Film Festival for bittersweet drama. The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler - a small-town boy who fled to Boston after a personal tragedy, but is brought back when his beloved elder brother Joe (Kyle Chandler - FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) dies.  Joe leaves a detailed will making Lee the guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges - THE SLAP) and the pair seem ideally suited.  The uncle and nephew have a genuine emotional bond and shared memories, delineated in flashback.  They share the same foul-mouthed sense of humour and seem to understand when the other needs space.  But they are fundamentally different.  Patrick is young and popular - he's on sports teams, he's in a band, he has a bunch of great friends and two girlfriends.  He great good humour make the few moments when we see his grief break through all the more powerful. But Patrick's ebullience also serves as a counter-point to Lee's almost ghost-like presence and a reminder of what he might have been like before his own personal tragedy.  The point of the movie - its emotional struggle - is to show whether Lee can somehow move beyond his past and become the father-figure that Patrick needs him to be.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

TONI ERDMANN - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 4


If the German tragicomedy TONI ERDMANN were a Hollywood film, a lovable old rogue of a father would melt the heart of his career-driven hard-ass daughter with his madcap japes and joie-de-vivre.  It would be like a parental version of the schmaltzy harmless banal comedy THE INTERN starring Anne Hathaway and Robert de Niro.  I am pleased to report that writer-director Maren Ade has created something far funnier, far weirder and far more brutally insightful portrait of a father-daughter relationship in crisis and the desperation of using humour to communicate.

The movie stars Sandra Hueller as Ine Conradi, as a successful management consultant working on a project in Bucharest.  We see her frustrated by casual misogyny at work, belligerent staff in the company she is trying to restructure, and the demands of flattering the client at all hours of the day and night in order to land a contract.  This all rang hugely true of modern corporate life.  Permanently exhausted and pissed off, the only moment where Ine seems to be in control of her life is when she makes demands of her workplace fuckbuddy, demanding sex on exactly her terms.  Otherwise, her life is one of frustration in pursuit of a promotion that is forever one year away.  Still, like most successful copers, Ine is desperate not to let any of this on to her co-workers or family, taking fake phone-calls to avoid difficult situations.  

THE HANDMAIDEN - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day Four


As a huge fan of Chan-Wook Park's work and a huge fan of Sarah Water's novel Fingersmith, I had high hopes for Park's South Korean adaptation of this ingenious erotic thriller, and I was not disappointed.  Park's transposition of the story from Victorian London to 1930s occupied Korea works brilliantly well, while remaining faithful to the construction and emotional arc of the original text. This is a personal and creative but respectful adaptation at its finest.  Park's embellishments only serve to further enhance the thematic concerns of the original, and help create a sensory experience of rare  delight.

The novel and film begin with a con.  The suave Fujiwara poses as a Count to woo the naive heiress Hideko, sending in his ally Sook-hee to pose as her maid and help win Hideko over. The plan is for Fujiwara to woo Hideko, elope with her, take her fortune and then lock her up in an asylum.  But the plans become complicated when the maid, Sook-hee, develops feelings for her mistress - feelings that are apparently reciprocated.  But just how innocent are all the parties involved?  What exactly has Hideko's tyrannical uncle been training her to read in his heavily guarded library.  And just how will Fujiwara and Sook-hee go to gain a fortune?  To say more of the plot would be to ruin one of the most finely and elegantly constructed novels I've read.  Suffice to say that fans of its intrigue won't be disappointed, and that even if you know the big reveals, you'll still be on the edge of your seat.  

TROLLS - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 4


TROLLS is an adorable, heart-warming, smart new animated children’s film from the folk at Dreamworks. It creates a world in which the happy, huggable, fun-loving trolls are on the run from the mean sad Bergens who think the only way they can be happy is to eat a troll. The trolls are supposedly safely in hiding until a super loud fun party arranged by Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) gives away their hiding place to the evil Chef Bergen (Christine Baranski) who wants to cook them for her King (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). This prompts Poppy to go on an adventure to rescue her captured friends with the help of the one unhappy, sarcastic Troll called Branch (Justin Timberlake). But once she finds her friends, Poppy's mission changes. She wants to help a lowly Bergen scullery maid (Zooey Deschanel) find true love with the Bergen King and show all the Bergens that happiness comes from within, rather than from eating a cute little Troll.

Friday, October 07, 2016

LA LA LAND - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 3


Here’s the thing. I love classic Hollywood musicals of the Ginger Rogers - Fred Astaire variety and I love classic tragic Hollywood romances like Casablanca. I even love jazz - and not the smooth jazz muzak that this movie decries but actual jazz. I also thought that Damian Chazelle’s WHIPLASH was by far the best movie I watched in 2015. I was one of the people in the Odeon Leicester Square who gave it a ten minute standing ovation at last year’s London Film Festival and then bounced into the afterparty in a wave of energy inspired by its audacious premise, breakneck pace, astounding acting and cinematography. So to say that I was looking forward to his next feature, LA LA LAND, was an understatement. As we entered the festival, LA LA LAND rolled into town on the adulation and plaudits received at Toronto and Festival Director Claire Stewart announced to the audience that this was the “hot ticket” of the festival.

But, dear reader, I hated LA LA LAND from its opening moments, and while my feelings toward it softened through its two hour run-time, I feel it is a deeply flawed, over-ambitious, uncontrolled, mis-conceived film. I am calling The Emperor’s New Clothes on the critical acclaim.

SIERANEVADA - BFI LFF 2016 - Day Three


Cristi Puiu's SIERANEVADA is a masterpiece of black comedy and social commentary, minutely observed, laugh-out-loud funny and moving by turns.  The near three hour film takes place almost exclusively in a contemporary Romanian apartment as an extended family gathers for the wake of an elderly uncle. As tradition dictates, and although the women have prepared extravagant quantities of food, no-one can eat until the priest has been and performed the remembrance rites.  Except that after an hour of excruciating waiting, once the priests have been and gone, we still cannot eat? Why, because the grandson has to wear the newly bought suit that was blessed by the priest. But it's too big so it has to be altered.  And then there's a massive family argument in which the dead man's son is accused of multiple adultery and half the family won't eat until he's left.  Meanwhile people come and go - one daughter-in-law keeps threatening to go to Carrefour - a mopey teenage daughter turns up with a random drug up friend who proceeds to pass out on the dead man's suit.  And all the while the family arguments build and resolve in tears or laughter.  One son uses dead Uncle Emil's internet connection to show his incredulous cousins conspiracy theories about 9/11.  In the kitchen, a garrulous old aunty reduces a daughter-in-law to tears by telling her that the Communists were right and that all priests should be kicked out.  

A MONSTER CALLS - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 3


A MONSTER CALLS is the best film I have watched this year - a visually stunning, genuinely moving, imaginative and yet profoundly real film about a young boy who retreats into a world of fantasy to cope with his mother's terminal cancer.  The film is directed by JA Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE) using a screenplay by Patrick Ness, based on his own book, all credit is due to the imagination of both.

The create a world in which a boy called Conor O'Malley (Lewis McDougall) lives with his young mother (Felicity Jones - ROGUE ONE) in a house overlooking a spooky looking old church with a giant yew tree in the graveyard.  The boy is plagued by nightmares in which he loses his mother to a chasm that opens up in the graveyard.  One night, at 12:07 he is visited by a monster - the yew tree turned into a kindly/scary old man - and he promises that he will tell Conor three stories,  after which Conor must tell him his story - his truth.  Conor is sceptical about the relevance or power of fairtytales - especially ones as tricksy and dark and conflicted as those told by the monster.  But we soon realise that that monster is there to help Conor understand that in real life there aren't good guys and bad guys and happily ever after.  That belief and love are important but sometimes they aren't enough.  And that sometimes just honestly expressing how you feel is the hardest battle of all.

BFI LFF 2016 Preview - LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD


LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD is a truly exceptional documentary about the life of the intrepid explorer, spy and archaeologist, Gertrude Bell.  A contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia and Gordon of Khartoum, Bell arguably had as much of an influence on Middle Eastern politics a century ago, and perhaps greater insight into the troubling diplomatic and political issues.  

She grew up in a minor aristocratic family with an incredibly supportive and wise further who funded her studies at Oxford - one of the few women admitted - and then her travels in the Middle East, starting with a visit to her Uncle, the British Minister in Tehran.  As an archaeologist and British spy she explored and map territories making her work of huge importance during World War One.  (Moreover, as a sidenote for all Cambridge Spies obsessives, she was the field handler for St John Philby.) After the War, Bell worked with Lawrence at the peace conference to determine the boundaries of the new states of TransJordan and Iraq, and was then a part of the Iraqi government - mediating between the different tribes and between the Iraqi government and the British.  Accordingly she has been blamed for some of the political unrest in the region - such as the Kurds being included as a minority in Iraq - but in her correspondence and essays she clearly foresaw the problems that would be caused by the boundaries and the difficulties of forming stable government in ethnically and religiously heterogeneous region.

This documentary is a fitting exploration of the life of a remarkable woman.  It combines extracts from her letters (voiced by Rose Leslie for the young Gertrude and Tilda Swinton for the old Gertrude) with archive location footage, family photographs and documents.  The directors also have a handful of actors in appropriate costume and shot in a period style commenting on her actions.  The result is a richly textured aural and visual tapestry that forms a deeply insightful picture of her life and motives.  It focuses both on her politics and her emotional life, and is fair and balanced.  It's also interesting how the film manages to be both inspirational - Bell is a woman who defines her own destiny at a time when few could - and depressing - because Bell's insights about Middle Eastern conflict remain relevant and problematic today. 

LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD has a running time of 95 minutes.  Both screenings at the BFI LFF are sold out but there will likely be standby tickets.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

THE 13TH - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 2


Ava DuVernay directed the award-winning feature film about Martin Luther King, SELMA, and she returns to our screens with this documentary, backed by Netflix, about the way in which the US criminal justice system is oppressing black men.  Her documentary's central thesis is that when slavery was made illegal with the passing of the 13th amendment to the US constitution, a crucial clause within that amendment made an invidious exception - one could still be enslaved if a convicted criminal.  The thesis is that this exception has been exploited by the establishment to keep the black man subjugated, and that every superficial step forward in the civil rights struggle has been accompanied by a concomitant but increasingly subtle repressive force.  So, when the 13th amendment freed the Southern states' workforce, the police started arresting black men for trivial crimes in order to take advantage of their labour.  And in order to justify the incarceration, the establishment had to create the myth of the animalistic, savage Black man - a danger to decent white folk, and particularly their women.  It is this image that was so brilliantly and hatefully propagated in D.W. Griffiths' THE BIRTH OF A NATION - a film that revived the Ku Klux Klan.  But it's after the repeal of Jim Crow that the rates of incarceration really jump - and this documentary argues that this is a direct consequence of Nixon's Southern Strategy to win the votes of now alienated white working class Southern voters by recasting appeals to their racism as a platform of law and order.  In other words, rather than going after the black man directly, go after criminals, knowing that those groups can be depicted as one and the same thing.  in a final twist, the documentary argues that big business is now in on the act - that mass incarceration has created a new market for private companies to make profits, but only if they receive a steady stream of inmates.  The result is a corporate backed lobby group proposing legislation that ensures rising incarceration rates and disproportionately impacts young black men.  Worst of all, most will never see a trial because they will opt for a plea deal rather than risk mandatory minimum sentences.

A UNITED KINGDOM - BFI LFF 2016 - Opening Night Gala - Day One


It's London, 1947.  The black King of an impoverished African country falls in love with a white working class girl and against opposition for his Uncle, the Regent, marries her.  They think their battle will be to win acceptance from his tribe, to be ruled by a white woman.  But in fact the greater battle is against the impersonal forces of Cold War foreign policy.  For the country is a British protectorate. And Britain is bankrupt and fearful of Stalin.  She needs Apartheid South Africa's uranium and gold, and so chooses to overlook her hateful racial policies, and her objections to a mixed marriage in a country on her border.  And so this poor star-crossed couple must fight not only the more petty everyday racism, but a larger, political racism, separation and exile, in order to finally stake a claim not only for love, but for independence.

This is a quite astonishing true story, and it's testament to British director Amma Asante's film that I want to learn even more about it. How is it that modern day Botswana (then Bechuanaland) somehow managed to chart a course of relatively stable democracy and affluence, eschewing its destiny to be a political pawn between Britain, Russia and South Africa?  I also wanted to learn more about the fascinating couple at the centre of the story - particularly the wife, Ruth.  How does a working class girl from London have the courage to go to a strange country and apparently, per the end credits, become a fierce political campaigner and advocate for AIDS victims? Actress Rosamund Pike hinted in a red carpet interview that Ruth's experience in World War Two was liberating and defining and I'd love to know more about that.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY


THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY is a fascinating documentary about the collaboration between Vogue magazine and the Costume Institute at the Met - as embodied in the iconic American Vogue editor Anna Wintour and the Met's Curator Andrew Bolton.  While he is an unknown quantity at the start of the film, you soon learn to respect him. He has a passion for costume, and an understanding of how applied art is as important as a means of creative expression, and as a reflection of our economic social and political times.  He also shares an obsessive eye for detail and a faith in his own taste with Wintour.  Together, we see them shape a new exhibition and fund-raising ball, to be themed China: Through The Looking Glass.  For the curator, this is an opportunity to showcase haute couture that has been influenced not just by China, but by the fantasy of China shown to the West through movies and stars such as Anna Mae Wong or Wong Kar Wai.  Indeed, the latter is a designer of the exhibition and helps pull together the sound and visual design of the work.  For Wintour, the main task is to organise the now iconic Met Ball, balancing egos and red carpet stars and their entourages.  We realise that the money raised by this one event keeps the Costume Institute in business for the entire year.  

Together the pair work against tight deadlines and pull of a fantastic show and event.  They battle naysayers.  At the Met, the head of the Asian galleries is justifiably concerned that the fashion and showmanship is going to overshadow his works of art.  And in China, there are concerns that the exhibition is showing a fantasy rather than the reality of engagement with China, and reflecting years of Western appropriation and exploitation. But no-one seems more conscious of those debates than Bolton himself, who is keen to unpack those issues and explore those debates.

I came out of this documentary conscious that it was partly produced by Conde Nast, and so unlikely to show the protagonists in a bad light. Nonetheless, I was surprised at how far it was willing to engage with, and honestly depict the real controversies around the West's engagement with China, and indeed other issues in fashion. For instance, the show uses pieces from a John Galliano show, and the designer explains candidly what drew him back to fashion after he became, in his own words, an outcast, for an anti-semitic rant.  In general, it's the time spent with the designers that's the most fascinating. I loved touring the galleries with John Paul Gaultier - seeing him reminisce about different collections and explain why they worked.  And I guess that reflects the real strength of this doc - which is its access to people.  I loved hearing Galliano and Gaultier comment on design, or being taken inside Wintour's home. All of this makes THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY essential viewing for anyone interesting in art or fashion or the combination of the two.

THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY has a running time of 90 minutes and is rated PG-13. The movie was released in the USA on streaming services in April and is currently on release in the UK in cinemas and on streaming services.