Monday, 28 December 2015

Top 20 of 2015: 10 to 6

10) Mistress America by Noah Baumbach


 9) Listen Up Philip by Alex Ross Perry 

The former was a great discovery for me, and its director has already shown that he was no one hit wonder, with the incredible and very different Queen of Earth (bound to be on my top 20 of 2016!). The latter was a wonderful effort from a director who has been somehow inconsistent, with his cynicism not always translating as great cinema. Both show that yet again American independent cinema is where it's all about, with a richness of writing, an inspired direction (who knew screwball comedy could be so effortlessly and winningly integrated in a modern film) and some fantastic performances all around. Interestingly, both feature some moderately to completely unlikeable characters (a recurring trope in US indie cinema, mirroring a generation of self-absorbed millennials perhaps?), yet still manage to make them interesting and compelling.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Top 20 of 2015: 15 to 11

15) Enemy by Denis Villeneuve

A mind f*&k of the highest order, Enemy is one of those rare films that keeps the audience guessing, not giving much in terms of narrative clues while never feeling frustrating. This story of a man who discovers himself a doppleganger feels like we are plunged into a permanent yellow stained fog of rarified air, and has layers of meanings and themes that demand to be carefully unpacked, all the way to a terrifying final shot that had the whole audience I saw it with gasping and jumping, and that has kept me wondering about its true meaning ever since. And Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role has rarely been better.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Top 20 of 2015: 20 to 16

First of all I must apologise to my faithful readers (all two of you, including my mum), as I have not written as much as I should have this year, mainly because of a part-time university course which has taken up my time on top of work and other things. To think I use to clock up at forty posts per month when I started! Nearly five years have passed since I have launched this blog, which I didn't expect to last, but I have valiantly carried on, even though nagging feelings of "why do I do this exactly?" have often been at the forefront of my mind. But it would be a shame to give up after all this time, so I intend to write a lot more next year. Anyhow, the time has come to reflect on the previous year and make a list of my favourite films of 2015.

As per previous years, American independent cinema dominates, proving to be in rude health and as versatile as ever.  And as usual, despite often scrapping the bottom of the horror barrel, FrightFest has a film featured, two even. It has also been a great year in Cannes, with two films of this year's edition featuring, and at least two more guaranteed to feature in next year's list. I have sticked to a ranking based on UK release dates (which includes VOD if the film had no theatrical releases) as it makes it easier to compare with other lists.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Closer To The Moon - Romanian heist with a twist

Closer to the Moon, starring Mark Strong and the excellent Vera Farmiga is the new film written and directed by Romanian, Nae Carafil. Set in in Bucharest in the late 1950's it follows the true story of a group of Jewish ex-resistance members who plan and execute a bank robbery from the National Bank of Romania, making it look like they are shooting a film.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

London Film Festival 2015: High-Rise & Bone Tomahawk

Two very different films with a cult-ish vibe, High-Rise and Bone Tomahawk also proved to be some of the festival's worst disappointments.

Bone Tomahawk was given the gala slot of the Cult section, a decision which I find baffling and ultimately proved to be working against it as I am still struggling to understand the cult elements about it. Set in the Wild West, the film charts the quest of Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) to find his kidnapped wife, enlisting a mötley crüe of accomplices, including the town's sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) to help him. They soon realise that the kidnappers are more savage and terrifying than they could ever imagine.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

London Film Festival 2015: Live from New York!

Live from New York was made just on time to coincide with Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary, and will be a very different experience if viewed by an American audience as opposed to a foreign one. A comedy show with a record breaking longevity, and which has seen some of the best talent go through its door, everybody outside the USA has at heard from the show, or is at least familiar with its alumni, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd etc... whereas it is a real institution in its home country.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

London Film Festival 2015: A Shortlist

While not quite up there in the same league as the Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto or even Telluride, the London Film Festival has seen its attendance increase steadily over the last decade, and his exposure grow in the process. It remains debatable how much it means to the outside world but it remains an unmissable event for any fan of cinema in London. The festival has a very large  and wide selection of films (over 230) over ten days, offering anything from prestige awards baits with red carpet glamour alongside it, to the most obscure and experimental films, and anything in between. The atmosphere is informal yet vibrant and passionate, and it also strikes a fine balance, screening most of the titles that had an impact at the major film festivals earlier in the year, while also unearthing its own small gems.

Of course most of the Cannes heavy hitters which I saw and loved are there, and I would obviously recommend them: Carol, The Lobster, The Assassin, Arabian Nights, Cemetery of Splendour... But I have looked further and I am offering you a shortlist of the weird, the experimental, the unusual...

Monday, 17 August 2015

BFI Cult: Blue Sunshine by Jeff Lieberman

In Taxi Driver (1976), the contradictory and unstable Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) - an ill-educated Vietnam veteran and porn-addicted romantic - is a product of the same gutter-level environment that he so despises. Though illiberal and unhinged, in his desire to clean up the streets Bickle is not unlike the idealistic political campaigners with whom he keeps crossing paths - and in the end, while we have seen for ourselves both his psychotic volatility and its bloody consequences, he will be publicly declared a hero. Made just two years later, Jeff Squirm Lieberman's eerie Blue Sunshine plays with similar themes, while inverting Taxi Driver's dynamics.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Theeb - Desert set coming of age story from Jordan

Winner of the best director award at the Venice Film Festival, Theeb (Wolf)  is a powerful story of one Bedouin boy's  journey to manhood, filmed in the stunning area around Wadi Rum and Wadi Arebeh. Part Western / part Lawrence of Arabia and set in 1916, there is a brutal raw honesty to the film, and you can't help but feel that it was made in the 70's. This is the first film from British director Naji Abu Nowar.

Monday, 3 August 2015

BFI Cult: God Told Me To by Larry Cohen

"I grew up at a Catholic Boys' School at the Bronx. Graduated to DeWitt Clinton High School. A year at Fordham University before I joined the force. Where did you go to high school, Harold?" The speaker is Detective Lieutenant Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco), but at this point, at the beginning of Larry Cohen's God Told Me To (aka Demon) all the focus is on his addressee, Harold Gorman (Sammy Williams), who is perched on a building-top water tower and has just shot dead, with eerie accuracy, a number of random New Yorkers in the streets below.

It is only after Harold has calmly explained his outrage with the words "God told me to" and leapt to his death that the film refocuses its attention on Peter - and now that brief introductory bio which Peter had given to Harold, expressly as a measure to humanise himself in the eyes of a killer ("I want you to know me. We don't kill people we know, do we, Harold? Only strangers. That's why I'm coming up, Harold, so you can see my face."), starts to resonate with the film's key themes of faith in crisis. Peter had even told Harold sadly, "We can't bring anybody back to life - nobody can," - suggesting his own conflicted attitude to the central tenets of his Christian upbringing.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Ant-Man by Peyton Reed - Review

Marvel has never been afraid of taking risks, but Ant-Man is the one film that feels like their biggest gamble in a while. This is the first time since Captain America in 2011 that the studio introduces a new character single-handedly carrying a whole film on his shoulders, and one that is not well known from the public at all. And while Marvel has always given the image that they care about their fans, there has been the small matter of original director Edgar Wright walking out of the project due to "creative differences" after years of working on it, which did not go down well at all on the blogosphere.

In Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a small-time burglar, unwittingly finds himself the recipient of a suit that allows him to shrink to the size of an ant while seeing his physical force increased tenfold, making him the perfect weapon. Enrolled by the creator of this technology Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), he must pulls the perfect heist to ensure this invention does not fall into the hand of megalomaniac Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

Saturday, 4 July 2015

BFI Cult: Parents by Bob Balaban

The black-and-white still of a boy's face. Carefree kids playing with a skipping rope on the sidewalk of a utopian suburbia (to the brash, brassy tune of a Perez Prado mambo). A pink-lettered title appearing across the fender of a pristine, pale blue Oldsmobile. Bob Balaban's feature debut Parents (1989) opens with a montage devoted to pure nostalgia. The boy's monochrome image suggests a bygone childhood, the make of car conjures days of old(s), and even the title looks back to the previous generation.

The 1950s were a time of (relative) comfort and innocence, coming after the turmoil of the Second World War but before the social upheavals of the Sixties. It is the decade regarded as most emblematic of American growth and prosperity, of heavily codified conservatism and family values - a sit-com cosmos where Dad goes out to win the bread, Mom stays home to make it, and Junior grows up to be just like daddy. Which is also to say that its iconography comes with a great deal of retrospective camp attached, and is ripe for parody and deconstruction - something which David Lynch showed all too well in the faux-Fifties world of his Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-1). Disembowel the 1950s, and you are challenging the American dream itself - or at least the version of it wherein white middle-class domesticity, conformity and patriarchy rule the roost.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Terminator Genisys by Alan Taylor - Review

Terminator Genisys is the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull of the series. Alan Taylor’s summer blockbuster might not have Arnie hiding from judgement day nuclear blasts in a lead-lined fridge, nor is the film plagued by annoyingly cutesy CG prairie dogs and monkeys, but it does have a weary screen icon looking a bit long in the tooth for all this high-octane drama. The question of age and ageing is, like Indy’s maligned fourth outing, made into a subtheme. Schwarzenegger’s monotone reply to the thorny subject – which becomes a comic retort – is: ‘Old but not obsolete.’

Series creator James Cameron might have jumped aboard the promotional bandwagon as head cheerleader for the new film, but it’s abundantly clear from Taylor’s uninspired and occasionally downright goofy direction, that Big Jim should have signed up to get this franchise back on track. The Terminator franchise is in desperate need of a hero to save it from the doldrums.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

BFI Cult: Darkman by Sam Raimi

Darkman is a film about transitions. Mild-mannered scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, showing early promise of the unlikely action hero he would later become) is trying to develop a synthetic skin to help burn victims, but has not quite achieved the breakthrough that will allow the engineered dermal cells to stay coherent for more than 99 minutes. He is also living half the time with his DA girlfriend Julie Harris (Francis McDormand), who is currently considering his marriage proposal. Driven, dedicated and slightly dull, Peyton is an everyman between states, with a brilliant future just beyond his grasp.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

BFI Cult: The Toxic Avenger by Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman

Published in 1949, George Orwell's dystopian allegory1984 imagined that by the time of the titular year, the whole world would have become a totalitarian system constantly at war with itself. In fact, what the real 1984 brought us was The Toxic Avenger, the first foray of indie production company Troma Entertainment from their usual sex comedies into, well, something else. Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, here co-directing (under the name Samuel Weil), co-producing and co-writing, had intended this film to be horror (with the working title Health Club Horror), but what emerged from the creative ooze was an altogether odder hybrid of superhero tropes, lowbrow comedy, adolescent sexual fixations (aka T&A), cheesy romance and extreme gore. There is also, for good measure, some subversive satire of the political dispensation under Reagan, bringing things back full circle to Orwell. For here, beneath all the smiles and sun and buff bodies, is a vision of the US as a place of corruption, pollution, and violent criminality, with the ordinary law-abiding "little people" constantly at the mercy of a toxic American Dream.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Cannes 2015: Calling Occupants of Interplanetary, Most Extraordinary Craft

Guest contributor Katherine McLaughlin (Little White Lies, SciFiNow, The List Magazine...) went to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time this year, and she shares her experience(s) with us:

Just like the best film I saw at the festival, Miguel Gomes’ epic Arabian Nights (more on that later), my first time at Cannes film festival was strange, surprising and unlike anything I'd ever experienced before but ultimately it was invigorating and inspiring.

 On getting confirmation of my Cannes accreditation I tallied up my commissions and to make it work financially I would have to find very cheap digs. I put out a call on Twitter for something affordable and some very helpful people pointed me in the right direction, though even their prices were out of my budget. Eventually I got an email out of the blue from a Canadian film critic who laid out his offer in honest terms. He had a studio apartment 20 mins walk from the Croisette but it would mean not only sharing a room with 3 other people but also a pull out double bed with a complete stranger. I threw caution to the wind and agreed to his proposal. We laughed, we talked, some of us snored…

Insidious Chapter 3 by Leigh Whannell - Review

Insidious's original scriptwriter Leigh Whannell takes over directing duties for the third chapter, and you can't blame him for taking the franchise in a new direction. Shame that he drops everything that had made it so memorable so far in the process. This third film is darker, and somehow scarier, but a lot more generic too. Gone is the haunted funfair vibe, with which some seemed to have a problem with but that I loved, instead we get a possession film that is indistinguishable from the plethora we have endured over the last decade.

Monday, 1 June 2015

BFI Cult: Society by Brian Yuzna

"The rich have always sucked off low-class sh*t like you." This line, coming late in Brian Yuzna's Society, effectively summarises the film's dog-eat-dog - or more precisely pedigree-eat-mongrel - theme. For here, five years after Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and three after Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Yuzna was taking the temperature of the LA neighbourhood's exclusive social set and exploring its vampiric relationship to the rest of America - and the world - via the genre he knew best: horror (Yuzna had previously produced Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, From Beyond and Dolls).

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Cannes 2015: The Winners!

Just like I was saying on yesterday's post, Cannes awards are even more unpredictable than the Oscars, because of the way they are selected by a jury made of up to nine people at the most, as opposed to a whole academy. And since the jury members are all artists, that often yields some very different results than if the awards were chosen by critics. Indeed the Coen brothers made some snarky comments claiming these were not critic's awards, all the most surprising considering their choices were mostly (bar one very surprising pick!) the critic's favourites!

Cannes 2015: Marguerite & Julien by Valérie Donzelli

At times, it feels as if Cannes' Director Thierry Frémaux can never get it right in the eyes of the press when it comes to putting the official selection together. He is often criticised for every reason under the sun, often by journalist after a cheap, click-baity article, so not an easy task to chose what film will appear in the most prestigious film festival in the world. (For what it's worth, I think he's doing an excellent job). The main, recurring criticism levelled against him by some recently has been the lack of female directors in the official selection, to which he has responded that while he laments this current situation, which is endemic in the world of contemporary cinema, he is opposed to all form of positive discrimination, because the scrutiny is so intense in Cannes that it would not be fair or right. This year the official selection has a few female directors however, including Valérie Donzelli, whose latest film Marguerite & Julien was somehow unfairly lambasted by the press.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Awards Wishlist and Predictions

It is hard enough to guess what the Academy will vote as best film at the Oscars from a list of maximum ten films, a usually consensual choice, so it is impossible to ever predict the Cannes Film Festival awards. They are chosen from a list of usually twenty films, by a small jury of eight people, and as it has become the tradition ever since Isabelle Adjani, then President of the Jury in 1997 for the festival's 50th birthday, requested it, they are all artists. As a result, awards have become perhaps less dry than if chosen by critics for example, with some unexpected, sometimes maddening choices.

It is also pointless exercise to try to second guess what films the juries will have gone for based on their own films, as who knew Steven Spielberg would find himself so moved by Blue Is The Warmest Colour two years ago. Having read the daily interview of each members of the jury on the Cannes Film Festival website, they seem to have thankfully taken their task very seriously and loving the post screening discussions and discovering a certain kind of cinema they are not accustomed to.

Cannes 2015: Chronic by Michel Franco

Chronic feels a bit like those with zero interest in cinema imagine a film presented at a film festival to be: dour, slow, overlong, provocative, abrasive, featuring badly lit naked bodies and bodily fluids, and with an eager willingness to shock. And yes, all of these staples of a certain kind of arthouse cinema feature, which made for a rude experience for many wary film critics on an early morning press screening near the end of the festival. But Chronic is so much more than that.

In Chronic, David is a palliative care nurse whose most recent patient is about to die as the film opens. We know nothing about him, and the film throws a few red herrings about his personality and his past, as we see him attend his latest patient's funeral, or confide to a stranger in a bar that his wife died recently, only for the audience to realise he is actually lying to a certain degree. There are no clues about his private life past or present, or any kind of life outside his occupation. In fact, we see him actively seek more night shifts and swapping some with a colleague, which hint at a lack of any outside activity in his life.

Cannes 2015: Valley of Love by Guillaume Nicloux - Official Selection

It has been a while since Gérard Depardieu has been making the headlines for a film he was involved in as opposed to his personal life, so after his towering return to form in Welcome to New York last year (which was rejected by every selection of the Cannes Film Festival however!), he is back on the Croisette for Valley of Love. This new film has an intriguing premise: divorced couple Gérard (Gérard Depardieu) and Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) travel to Death Valley after receiving some posthumous letters from their recently deceased son with some specific instructions and a promise they would see him there.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Yakuza Apocalypse by Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike is among the most prolific directors around, making Woody One Film a year Allen come across as positively lazy and uninspired in comparison, when the Japanese director usually delivers four films a year. And you truly never know what to expect from him, having recently tackled superhero films (with Zebraman 2, because of course, he would make a film called Zebraman 2), to video games adapation such as Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney, as well as the most austere period samurai film, with Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, shown in the Official Selection in Cannes in 2011. This year he is back on the Director's Fortnight with Yakuza Apocalypse.

In Yakuza Apocalypse, a young Yakuza, Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), is left for dead after a confrontation with a rival syndicate he used to belong to. His boss, who happens to be a vampire, passes on his power to him to allow him to seek his revenge against the syndicate, having to confront some of its weirder members along the way including an English speaking "priest" and a man with psychic powers in a tatty frog costume.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Cannes 2015: The Assassin by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Probably one of the most anticipated films of this year's selection (and so long in the making that some were expecting it to be in Cannes last year), The Assassin is that one film we literally did not know what, being a martial arts film which we knew would be nothing like any we had seen before.

In The Assassin, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is a trained assassin, who was abducted from her family at an early age, and under the wing of a mysterious nun we know little about, who seens Yinniang on various missions, which she accomplishes with a deadly precision. Until the day where she is sent to kill her cousin, and as we find out, her first love, Tian Ji'an, to whom she was promised to. Forced to face her past and long buried emotions, she must chose between remaining faithful to the order of the assassins or to her heart.

Cannes 2015: Love by Gaspar Noé

Love was the hottest ticket of this year's edition. A late addition to the official selection (but out of competition), and with a midnight screening slot (usually reserved for the more violent/trashier/naughtier films), it felt as if just about everybody was queuing to get in the screening, with a terrifying scrum and a palpable excitment once inside, with Thierry Frémaux delivering a rousing introduction of the film.

Gaspar Noé loves to shock, and has always done so throughout his career, which reached his highlight with the difficult to watch but incredibly affecting Irreversible, which was presented in Cannes in 2002, and which caused some audience members to pass out, or so does the legend go.
Its follow-up Enter The Void was a disappointment for me however, as for all its grand claims of a head trip, it really does not amount to much. Past the intriguing premise, the film did not go anywhere. And unfortunately, with Love, Gaspar Noé has slipped down the slope even more.

Cannes 2015: Mountains May Depart by Jia Zangke - Official Selection

Having been noticed with such films as Still Life (2006) and 24 City (2008), Chinese director Jia Zangke made a real impact with his previous film, A Touch of Sin (2013), which tackled corruption and violence in modern China, and won a prize for best screenplay in Cannes. And he is back on the Croisette this year with the poetically named Mountains May Depart.

Mountains May Depart is set in three different time periods. We first meet childhood friends Tao (Zhao Tao), Zhang (Zhang Jinsheng) and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong) in 1999 while in their mid twenties. The trio first appears to be friends, but love rivalry soon emerges, leading to jealousy and even violence. And Zhao is having to choose between her two suitors, the former an ambitious entrepreneur and the latter a miner. Fast forward to 2014 (the Malaysia Airlines is mentioned as if to anchor this part in the present even more) and a lot have changed, relationships have ended, characters have moved on (or not)... Then we skip to 2025, a period during which the repercussions of the character's life choices are now felt by the next generation.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes

Arabian Nights was arguably the most anticipated, or at least the most mysterious films presented at the Cannes Film Festival this year, the new folly of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, who charmed the arthouse scene in 2012 with Tabu. Of Arabian Nights we knew very little, apart that it was to be a loose adaptation of the eponymous Arabian tale(s), transposed to contemporary Portugal, and that its running time was clocking over 6 hours! Rumour has it that it was due to be presented at Un Certain Regard, only to be rejected due to its screening arrangements. So it has ended up at Director's Fortnight instead, and split into three parts.

So how did it turn out, and what kind of film is it? Having watched the three parts (all introduced by a very spirited and entertaining Miguel Gomes, whose regular presence over this short period of time I shall miss), I can confirm that Arabian Nights is a triumph, a sprawling film essay that goes against all current trends of current world/arthouse cinema, a love letter to Portugal and its people, and a staunch anti-austerity tirade, in a way that is really heart-felt and never patronising.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Office by Hong Won-Chan - Midnight Screenings

The Midnight Screenings within the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival seem to have been neglected over the last few years and have a distressing lack of proper genre cinema. There are fewer of them (only 3 this year) and the picks are not always inspired. If anything, it feels as if the Director's Fortnight sidebar selection has been grabbing all the best horror/indie/cult films over its last editions. Still, this year we had Amy which was widely celebrated, and everybody has wild hopes for Love tomorrow. And the third film within the Midnight Screening line-up, Office, was unleashed last night.

In Office, the employee of a big corporation slaughters his family in the shocking opening scene before going on the run. An homicide inspector interrogates his colleagues and superiors trying to understand how a seemingly normal man could commit such an act. But there seems to be a culture of secrecy, and the killer seems to be felt or even seen within the premises.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

In a rather unfortunate chain of events, three directors that we were expected in competition this year in Cannes, have found themselves relegated to Un Certain Regard: Brillante Mendoza, Naomi Kawase and, more surprisingly, former Palme d'or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which made the audience wonder if there was less to expect from the latest of the Thai director.

In Cemetery of Splendour, an elderly woman, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) offers her assistance to a military hospital in the Northern Thai countryside, where soldiers are stuck by a mysterious sleeping illness. She strikes an unlikely friendship with one of them, Itt, (Banlop Lomnoi), while a psychic claims to be able to unravel the curse.

Cannes 2015: Green Room by Jeremy Saulnier

One of the best aspects of Cannes is being among the very first audience in the world to discover films, sometimes without having read any reviews, seen as much as a trailer or even a still. Indeed it is often a complaint for some that films who get a rapturous reception in Cannes do not live up to their growing hype by the time they reach cinemas months later. But sometimes the Cannes hype machine gets into overdrive so quickly that watching a film at the festival itself merely a few hours after its first well received screening can also lead to disappointment, and this is what happened to Green Room as far as I am concerned, after enthusiastic words all over Twitter after its first screening of the day.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Tale of Tales by Matteo Garrone

With its striking trailer release just before Cannes (the film is out in Italy on the same day as its festival screening), The Tale of Tales had the audience salivating, with its starry casts and striking imagery. And you cannot accuse Garrone of resting on its laurels and not trying something completely different, with a new film full of fairy tales and monsters after Gomorrah about the mafia, and Reality dealing with, well, reality TV.

Cannes 2015: Asphalte by Samuel Benchetrit

The theme of urban loneliness used to be a recurring trope in indie cinema in the 90's, and was often the scourge of film festivals at the time, with audiences having to sit through yet another ensemble films filled with quirky characters, in a we are all at one with each other, yet we are so far from each other kind of way. So that Asphalte was tackling such a theme, and with a comedic angle, was filling me with a dread, despite the starry cast. Yet how wrong I was...

Cannes 2015: Carol by Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes's last visit to Cannes, in 1998 with Velvet Goldmine, was not the most fortunate, with many critics seemingly expecting another slice of Cool Britannia in the footsteps of Trainspotting, and not the contemplative and melancholic film the American director delivered. I even remember a member of the audience shouting "boring!" at the press screening back then. And now that his career has gone from strength to strength, he is back in the Croisette with Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt.

The film is set in the 50's, and in it, an older woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett), falls for a shy and younger shop assistant called Therese (Rooney Mara). Set in a gorgeously wintery New York, Carol is quite simply sublime. All the talent of Todd Haynes is in evidence, in the way he transcends what could have been a bland and melodramatic period adaption. While the Americana of the time is lovingly evoked, it never overpowers the film. Sets, costumes and period details are absolutely perfect, but they remain firmly at the service of the film and never take over. And the hypnotic score by Carter Burwell add to the film's pervading charm

It might sound like a stereotype, but this is a film in which a fleeting glance, a touch speak volumes, and makes you want to frame every single ravishingly composed shot. The first half of the film is a dance of seduction between the confident and classier Carol, and the confused and timid Therese, who picks up on the signals of the older woman, while not quite knowing what to do with them.

While society at the time did not look so kindly at that sort of union, Todd Haynes is very careful not to demonise Carol's husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). He is a broken man, with conflicting and raging emotions, who is fighting to keep his wife and save his marriage, even though he is fully aware that it is hopeless (we learn that this is not the first time Carol had a fling with another woman!). And there is an unexpected and devastating scene in the couple's lawyer office, during which, for all the bitterness of their dispute, remains of affections between the two emerge.

Cate Blanchett has recently delivered the absolute best and definitive female performance recently in Blue Jasmine, and yet she still manages to come close to this yet again, with a character full of strength, class and poise, with an almost predatory vibe to her but with a beating heart underneath that cover. The Australian actress is quite simply the best and most glamorous film star we have at the moment, following each towering performance with another one that nearly tops it up. And Carol is also the confirmation of the vast talent of Rooney Mara, who manages to express so much conflict and confusion with her trademark sad blue eyes, who always seem to be looking further away than any one of us can see.

Carol is a triumph, and the crowning glory of Todd Haynes's career.

Star rating: 

Carol was presented in the Official Selection, In Competition.

Carol. USA 2015. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson...

Friday, 15 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Irrational Man by Woody Allen

The Cannes Film Festival's love affair with Woody Allen, like any long term relationships, has had its ups and downs, its period of adoration and separation over the years. Although it seems as if the old couple has patched its differences over the last decade or so, and the American director is usually happy to send his films to La Croisette, albeit always out of the competition, even though the programmers tried to convince him to give the competition a go this time, considering the quality of his latest, which boded well.

In Irrational Man, newly appointed philosophy teacher and loose cannon Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), suffers a an existential crisis as he takes his new position in a college in Rhode Island. Circumstances and the unexpected eavesdropping of a conversation in a dinner lead him to believe that the most heinous crime can be justified depending on the circumstances, setting off a chain of events that gives him a new appetite for life, as he believes to have committed the perfect crime.

Cannes 2015: The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos

In The Lobtser, single people in a dystopian world are sent to a seaside hotel in which they have forty five days to find a companion and fall in love. If they fail, they are turned into the animal of their choice and released into the wild. And there are severe punishments for those who try to lie about their true feelings.

On paper, The Lobster logically should not have worked. Many promising European directors have had their fingers burned when turning to the English language (or worse, going to Hollywood!). Add to the mix a quirky premise and an international cast with various accents, it sounded like a recipe for disaster or some kind of arthouse Euro pudding (think the godawful Mr Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael). And yet…

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Cannes 2015: Mad Max Fury Road by George Miller

Cannes sometimes has a stereotype attached to it, that it only shows pretentious, slow, arthouse (and for some, foreign films always mean arthouse!) but it has not been true for several decades now, it changed on that electrifying opening night of 1992, for which Giles Jacob had picked Basic Instinct. Since then, genre films (Body Snatchers the following years, the usual Midnight screenings) have found their space in the line up. And what a glorious day indeed when you can watch Mad Max Fury Road in the giant Theatre Lumiere with an audience of over 2000 journalists and industry not hiding their enthusiasm at all.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Cannes 2015: La Tête Haute by Emmanuelle Bercot

With such a different, unlikely choice for their opening film, it is as if the Cannes Film Festival wanted to send a message for the 2015 edition. After years of starry, mostly Hollywood outings with various degrees of critical reception (see the justified mauling of last year's unintentional comedy Grace of Monaco) and criticism for the lack of female directors in the official selection, they have given us the polar opposite of the previous years with La Tête Haute, a tough social drama directed by a woman, Emmanuelle Bercot.

Monday, 11 May 2015

BFI Cult: Eaten Alive by Tobe Hopper

Texan filmmaker Tobe Hooper peaked early. Following his freakout debut with the rarely seen hippie time capsule Eggshells (1969), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) was only Hooper's second feature, but would go on to become an important and influential classic of atmospheric unease, changing the genre landscape forever and cementing Hooper's permanent place in the horror pantheon. For many, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is quite simply one of the greatest horror films ever made, a reputation which of course presents a problem for the budding filmmaker: bloom too early (and too exquisitely), and wilting inevitably follows. Even if Hooper would subsequently helm the odd estimable genre title such as Poltergeist (1982) or Lifeforce (1985), his has been a career of steady decline. By the new millennium, barely a quarter century after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was first digging its hook into stunned cinemagoers, Hooper was directing undistinguished straight-to-video schlock like Crocodile (2000).

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Tears of God by Robert Hillyer Barnett - Review

The first thing we see in Robert Hillyer Barnett's feature debut is a movie camera, filmed head on as though it were filming us. The second thing we see, presumably in reverse shot as the true subject of that initial camera, is a woman (Kate Lyn Sheil), half-lost in shadow but visibly weeping - until the voice of a second woman is heard laughing off camera, and the woman in shot smiles, shakes her head and laughs too. If the first woman's tears are the titular Tears of God, they are also counterfeit - part of an actor's routine, performed for the (or at least a) camera. Before the title itself appears on screen, printed bright red in gothic font, the camera tracks through not just a wintry woodland, but also a dusty old movie theatre (which, it will turn out, is now serving as the church headquarters for a doomsday cult). In other words, whatever else it might be, Tears of God is a film very much concerned with its own status as a film, and with the mystic artifice of cinema itself, able to to capture otherwise forgotten or overlooked truths, and to preserve, even perhaps revive, the dead.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron by Joss Whedon - Review

How do you follow a mega smash hit like Avengers Assemble, with the film being so far the third most successful at the worldwide box office behind Titanic and Avatar? Any other studios would have just safely served us a rehash of the first film and counted the dollars, but not Marvel. The studio has been taking several risks and gambles since Iron Man, at once respecting the fans while playing with their expectations too, and it has paid off big time, with the most incredible run of commercial hits which have made them the envy of all the other studios in Hollywood, who are all busy trying to launch their own universe (rather pathetically in some cases).

In Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Starck's attempt to create artificial intelligence to protect the world against further threats cruelly backfires when his creation, Ultron, turns against its creator and humanity! It is up to the Avengers to team up once again to defeat this formidable foe.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

BFI Cult: Popcorn by Mark Herrier

Popcorn is a hidden gem of 1990s horror cinema. It might have gone direct-to-video without passing Go and collecting £200, but that just makes it ripe for rediscovery and deserving of a second chance with fans of the genre. It is well worth your time and effort tracking this one down.

Set in an old picture palace, a group of students launch a fundraiser for their university film club and stage an all-nighter of cheesy old titles reminiscent of William Castle schlock. They renovate the place – sorting out the electrics – and hire costumes, equipment and memorabilia for the occasion. The films-within-the-film are: Mosquito, The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man and The Stench. Each of these comes with a gimmick that is manipulated by a maniacal killer and used to orchestrate a gruesome – and very real – death. There is another film, too. Something far more dangerous and sinister. An art flick!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Futuro Beach - Brazil and Berlin combine to bring moody love story to the screen

Daring new film by Brazilian director Karim Ainouz, 'Furuto Beach' (Praia do Futuro) starts off slowly, but builds into an intense passion between Brazlian lifeguard Donato (Wagner Moura) and German tourist Konrad (Clemens Schick). Shot against the harsh sunshine of Fortaleza (Ainouz's hometown) and the dark grey of winter in Berlin, this is a story of love and loss that will surprise in many ways.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

While We're Young by Noah Baumbach - Review

In While We're Young, middle aged Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh (Ben Stiller) meet a younger bohemian couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) by chance, and strike an unlikely friendship, seduced by their more carefree and seemingly richer life, finding a renewed energy and excitement, and having a their eyes open to a new world. But how long can this unusual bond last?

While We're Young depict current young people the way us, slightly bitter middle aged people, see them: a lot more focused, confident and successful than we were/are (although I suspect their portrayal will make actual young people cringe). And there is a really funny and well observed gag that goes against stereotypes, and shows middle aged people a lot more comfortable with technology whereas their younger counterpart have rebelled against it, adopting anything vintage, be it watching films on VHS or playing board games.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

BFI Cult: Anguish by Bigas Luna

"My name is Tom Goldman," a voice is heard announcing at the beginning of Bigas Luna's L.A.-set, English-language Spanish-American co-production Anguish (Angustia), "Welcome to our movie. As you've seen in the lobby, we have provided medical service which is free of charge on presenting your ticket stub. Oxygen masks are available…"

As the unseen Tom continues this arch introduction with conflicting advice to enjoy the film but not to hold the theatre legally responsible for what may happen, and certainly not to talk to any strangers during the projection, words appear on the screen declaring: "During the film you are about to see, you will be subject to subliminal messages and mild hypnosis. This will cause you no physical harm or lasting effect, but if for any reason you lose control or feel that your mind is leaving your body - leave the auditorium immediately." Next we see the title, and the film begins - although, of course, the film already has begun.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

SXSW 2015: He Never Died by Jason Krawczyk

He Never Died begins with a day in the life of protagonist Jack (Henry Rollins) - a 'muttering man' of reclusion, routine and relatively few words who spends most of his time alone in his New York apartment, sleeping or zoning out in front of the TV. Visited by his elderly landlady, Jack pays the rent from a chest beneath his bed that is full of hard cash and various antique items (including a visible gun), and in a brief conversation expresses to her his confusion about the precise date and time. He visits the local church - although, it will turn out, for bingo rather than religion, in the apparently incongruous company of senior citizens and retirees. He has a 'discreet' meeting with medical intern Jeremy (Booboo Stewart) in a carpark, paying him in cash for a plastic-wrapped package that ends up in his refrigerator. And he has a meal and a cup of tea, as always, at a diner in Times Square where he either fails to notice or simply ignores the interest shown him by waitress Cara (Kate Greenhouse).

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Spotlight on BFI Flare 2015

Last year the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival became the BFI Flare, a name change that indicated its willingness to widen its focus and target a more diverse audience without losing sight of its core identity. It is an ongoing problem of LGB cinema that it cruelly lacks imagination, and I wish a new formalist and singular director would emerge, like Derek Jarman and Gregg Araki (and the later still going strong!). In the meantime, we'll have to settle for countless identikit coming of age stories and forbidden romance in conservative countries. Thankfully, while the BFI Flare has its fair share of those, you can trust its programmers for looking that little bit further in their line-up. And I am putting the spotlight on five films that I recommend, some I have already seen, others that have piqued my attention.