Sunday 21 October 2018

London Film Festival 2018: Long Day's Journey Into Night by Bi Gan

While the name of Bi Gan does not mean much to many cinephiles, the young Chinese director made a big impact in France with his first film Kaili Blues so there was a certain trepidation when his second film, Long Day's Journey Into Night was announced especially since the film was said to be in 3D, always an intriguing prospect for arthouse cinema.

Rather confusingly, the first half of the film is actually in 2D. In it, Luo Hongwu returns to his hometown Kaili to search for the woman he loved and was never able to forget.

The first half of Long Day's Journey Into Night plays like an oblique, arthouse neo-noir. There are mobsters, mysterious woman and a labyrinthine plot from which most of the narrative clue seems to have been withdrawn from the audience. Sumptuously shot, it is a mystery that it one enjoy getting lost in, free from the shackles of storytelling conventions. So far so good if not particularly new and even Wong Car Wai-esque.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

London Film Festival 2018: Duplicate by Bill Oliver

Genre cinema used to be underrepresented at mainstream film festivals not so long ago, so it is refreshing that is finally being embraced. Here at the London Film Festival, it is mostly (but not exclusively) in the Cult Strand, where Duplicate was presented.

In Duplicate, Jonathan (Ansel Elgort) is a career-minded young man with a regimented life, working in an architectural firm and without any sign of any love life or even friends. We see him communicate via recorded video-tapes with a man called John (also Ansel Elgort), who looks just like him but with a very different and more fun outlook on life. They share a bond on top of their very obvious resemblance, but we do not know what it is at first, and there are no signs of any other interactions between them apart from those messages. That bond is about to be jeopardised however as a series of events threaten their carefully planned daily routine.

Friday 12 October 2018

London Film Festival 2018: Ash Is Purest White by Jia Zhangke

Chinese director Jia Zhangke is a familiar names for cinephiles. His previous film, Mountains May Depart (2015) divided critics however. He is back with Ash Is Purest White, the tale of a doomed love spanning decades.

The Chinese director is able to depict contemporary China like no other, in great details and offering a less than flattering portrayal in the process. He is particularly interested in the way the country has changed so dramatically over the last two decades. In Mountains May Depart he was looking into the future, here he turns back to to the turn of the century, a pivotal moment in which China embraced capitalism and saw its economy grow exponentially.

Monday 6 August 2018

First Reformed by Paul Schrader

First Reformed's opening shot slowly pushes in on an old church with a sense that it’s opening up an old religious text and releasing its teachings into our modern poisoned world. The film takes place in New York at First Reformed church, nearing its 250th anniversary, and is run by Ethan Hawke's Reverend Toller. The church, now more of a tourist attraction, feels out of place, of a world that no longer exists. Schrader cast Hawke, instead of younger more bankable actors, because he felt that Hawke finally had some wrinkles that suggested a lifetime of experiences. Schrader himself has been making movies for decades (notably the writer for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), and this is the film he had to live a lifetime to finally make.

Thursday 2 August 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp by Payton Reed - Review

Reviewed by Andy Zachariason

2018 has already had two of Marvel's biggest films — both financially and culturally — and now comes a sequel starring everyone's favorite hero: Ant- Man. That this movie exists, and is a sequel to a movie about Paul Rudd as a shrinking man, is low-key the best example of what Marvel has accomplished. There's much to criticize in Marvel's filmmaking (or lack thereof), but their narrative railroading is a great feat at this point, and they've been driving so fast for a decade now that they can make movies about Ant-Man and they'll be successful. In the grand scheme of Marvel's superhero highway this might not some seem like an exit worth taking, but it's this outlier status that has made Ant-Man one of Marvel's better set of films.

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Mary Shelley by Haifaa Al-Mansour

Reviewed by Linda Marric 

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour made cinematic history in 2012 when her critically acclaimed film Wadjda became the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first to be directed by a female Saudi director. With the release of Mary Shelley, the director’s second feature and first English language film, Al-Mansour might seem like a million miles away from her humble beginnings, but on a closer look, it’s easy to see what motivated the director to dip her toes into such uncharted territories. Depicting the Frankenstein writer as a bright and angsty teenager with an unbridled lust for life and knowledge, Al-Mansour has managed to inject a real sense of adventure and youthful exuberance to a story which could have easily suffered the same fate as any other hackneyed costume drama biopic were it not for the commendable observational skills of its director.

Saturday 19 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Awards and Comments

While it is always near impossible to guess what such different jury members might pick as their awards at the Cannes film festival this year, we all thought this time we had it all figured out. In the year of #MeToo, of political and social injustice around the world, we all assumed the awards would be political. We were also near certain that a woman would win the Palme d'Or, for the second time only in the history of the festival, with two strong contenders: Alice Rohrwacher with Happy as Lazzaro, and Nadine Labaki with Capernaum. The awards however, while including the majority of press favourites, were not quite what we expected, especially not the top prize.

Cannes 2018: Awards Predictions

The Cannes Film Festival truly had the last laugh this year. Before it started, there were some tiresome, angry think pieces who had already deemed it a poor edition before anybody had even watched any films, because of the Netflix withdrawal and lack of big names (especially Americans).

When the festival's line up includes some established directors, it is criticised for always inviting the same people. When it does not, the "where are such and such?" comments are deafening, proving than in the eyes of some, the festival can never get it right.

Yet the festival has delivered what probably is its best edition in decades, an exciting line-up that put the spotlight on world/arthouse cinema in the way no other film festivals ever could. Who cares if we did not get Oscar bait or Netlflix films if this means that left some space for the endlessly brilliant streak of films we saw each day. The big names have delivered some of the best work of their career: Kore-Eda, Lee Chang-dong, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Jia Zhang-ke, Christophe Honoré... as have some of the less established names: Alice Rohrwacher, with her blistering tale of magic realism did not come to play, with her finest film to date, and Nadine Labaki has already become a directing force to reckon with, come what may tonight, not to mention Kirill Serebrennikov, who set the bar very high at the start of the competition with Summer.

Cannes 2018 - Knife + Heart by Yann Gonzales

While the festival has not really featured many genre films over the last few years, apart from their midnight screenings, everything changed this year, with a cornucopia of cult/experimental films in all the strands. The icing on the cake however was the addition of Yann Gonzales's Knife + Heart in the official selection, and in competition when we expected it at Directors' fortnight. The French director made a name for himself with You & The Night, a visual and literary gem. So when we heard the premise for his new film, we all salivated!

In Knife + Heart, Anne (Vanessa Paradis), a gay porn film producer in Paris in the 70's,  is trying to win over her former lover, while trying to find the masked serial killer who is brutally despatching her male cast.

Thursday 17 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Ultra Pulpe by Bertrand Mandico

For a few decades from 70's to about the mid-00's, French cinema seems to concentrate exclusively on content as opposed to form, delivering some very literary films. As for genre cinema, it was barely existent and looked at with suspicion. Thankfully a new generation of filmmakers are changing that, referencing their own, wide cinephile references to infuse French cinema with a breath of fresh genre, experimental air and the Cannes Film Festival is reflecting that this year, with Knife + Heart screening in Official Competition later this week and the presence of Ultra Pulpe by Bertrand Mandico in the Semaine de la Critique.

Bertrand Mandico has made a name for himself with a series of short films that were unlike we've seen before in French cinema, weaving references to some of the most insalubrious genre cinema with a very French elegance. He graduated to feature length with the other-worldly Wold Boys earlier this year and is back to short films with Ultra Pulpe.

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Burning by Lee Chang-dong

South Korean is arguably one of the best in the world and Lee Chang-dong. The director (who was Minister of Culture many years ago!) has achieved an incredible body of work and expectations for his latest, Burning, were high, eight years after the critical hit Poetry.

Burning is adapted from a short story by Murakami, Barn Burning and the prospect of Lee Chang-dong adapting the work of the illustrious Japanese master was intriguing enough, although he has only kept the heart of the story.

Cannes 2018 - Under The Silver Lake by David Robert Mitchell

David Robert Mitchell made a big impact in Cannes in 2014 with its It Follows, and you cannot accuse him of resting on his laurels and repeating himself: just as he switched from romantic comedy  to horror between his first and second films, he now tackles the film noir genre.

In Under The Silver Lake, Sam (Andrew Garfield), a thirty-something in L.A., meets an enigmatic and kooky new neighbour, Sarah (Riley Keough), with whom he shares a few hours of burgeoning connection and flirtation, only for her to vanish the very next day, having emptied her flat overnight. Suspecting foul play, he embarks on his own investigation in the city of angels, filled with conspiracies, mysteries and odd characters.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Solo by Ron Howard

Previous Star Wars films such as Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith have screened at the Cannes Film Festival, but this is the first time Disney brings one of them to the Croisette since the studio took over the franchise, and one has to wonder if they are trying to deflect the attention from all the rumours of a troubled production that have been flying around for months. There was the departure of the two original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were replaced by Ron Howard, said to have reshot as much as 70% of the film. Then the studio was reportedly unhappy with Alden Ehrenreich's performance, and an acting coach was recruited.

Solo is far from being the only blockbuster with a few bumps along the way however, and this should not matter to the audience if the finished product delivers. So does it?

Cannes 2018 - The House That Jack Built by Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier is back on the Croisette this year with The House That Jack Built, seven years after the Melancholia's press conference debacle, that earned him a persona non grata status, which was recently revoked (although the film is being screened out of competition). I would guess the first reactions his film are eliciting today are exactly what Lars Von Trier had hoped for, from a commercial point of view, and because he just loves annoying people, as well as what he feared, since his film is being seemingly misunderstood after its first two world screenings.

We follow serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon, never better) over the years through flashbacks, as he converses off-screen with an unseen figure (Bruno Ganz), going through his "work". It becomes obvious as the film unfolds, that Lars Von Trier is Jack, whom he presents as some kind of monstrous artist, who is allowed to gets away with, well, murder. Indeed Jack keeps mentioning how amazed he is that he never gets caught by the police throughout his killing spree, and the same thing could be said about the director, feted by art institutions the world over despite his increasing provocations.

Monday 14 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Shoplifters by Kore-eda Hirokazu

In Shoplifters,  Osamu presides over a family of shoplifters, in which every member, including the son and grand-mother have some illegal scheme going to to keep them at flow. Until the day in which the unexpected arrival of a little girl they decide to rescue from their abusive parents disturbs the fragile balance of their lifestyle.

We might have unfairly taken prolific Japanese director Kore-eda Horikazu (or simply Kore-eda as he is mostly known) for granted over the last few years. He has arguably made some of the best films of the last few decades with After Life, Still Walking and Air Doll, as well as having achieved worldwide recognition with Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Prize in Cannes 2013, from the hands of jury President Steven Spielberg who had expressed an interest in remaking it, yet his more recent output made fewer waves, and as a Cannes regular, he even found himself relegated to the sidebar selection Un Certain Regard After The Storm.

Cannes 2018 - Murder Me, Monster by Alejandro Fadel

This year's Cannes edition truly is genre-tastic across its selections, what with Climax, Knife + Heart, Ultra Pulpe and this mystifying Argentinian gem: Murder Me, Monster. Set in the Mendoza region, usually more famed for its wines than supernatural shenanigans, the film follows the investigation into some brutal murders, with the victims decapitated in what appears to be the work of a monster for some in the village.

Sunday 13 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Climax by Gaspar Noé

In Climax, a group of dancers gathers in an isolated building to rehearse then party. A spiked sangria leads to a night of hell.

Gaspar Noé took us by surprise when Climax was announced as being finished and ready for Cannes earlier in the year, even before we knew anything about this project, and we entered the screening without having seen as much as a still still or even a list of the cast, just a vague promise of a new nightmare.

Saturday 12 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Los Silencios by Beatriz Seigner

Having fled the Colombian conflict, in which her husband was killed, Amparo (Marleyda Soto) moves to La Isla de la Fantasia at the border of Brazil, Colombia and Peru with her two children to start a new life. They soon discover that the spirits of the dead roam around freely in their new surroundings.

There has recently been an epidemic of films that "do" social with no lightness of touch or cinema in them, in which a heavy subject blackmails its audience (and festivals' jury members). No such thing in Los Silencios. This is no social or ethnic tourism, and there is a refreshing lightness of touch despite the subject. Yet we immediately feel invested in the life of the family, their daily struggles, some small but significant, such as when Amparo who, upon registering her son at a new school, finds herself unable to afford the compulsory school uniform Neither her of the film wallow in self-pity, the film approaching these scenes with great dignity.

Friday 11 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski had made a name for himself with a series of gritty, realistic British films (while he was born in Poland, he has lived most of his life in Britain). He returned to his home country to make the stunning Ida (2013) to worldwide acclaim and the film went on to win the Oscar for best Foreign film.

In appearance, Cold War seems similar, a Polish language film shot in black & white. Yet they could not be more different. Ida had a beautiful austerity and restraint to it whereas Cold War lets it all out, even going for a jazzy and boozy vibe as the story moves from Eastern Europe to France.

Cannes 2018 - Arctic by Joe Penna

Survival films are terribly compelling, whether it's the beautiful, wild landscapes they are set in, the man against nature primal theme, or just the soothing schadenfreude of watching somebody exposed to the elements having a terrible time, while in the comfort of a cinema/your own home.

Some directors down the action route, others use the premise as a metaphor about the might and indifference of nature (Werner Herzog!)... In Arctic, Joe Penna chooses the path of realism. The film smartly opens right after the crash of a light aircraft that caused Overgård (Mads Mikkelesen) to find himself alone in the arctic wild, with no other survivors. We are spared the usual introductory scenes, we do not know the first thing about him, giving his plight for survival a raw simplicity.

Thursday 10 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Gräns by Ali Abbasi

A Scandinavian genre film, with a screenplay written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let The Right One In) is a salivating prospect, and indeed Gräns shares some similarities with the Swedish horror classic. In it, Tina (Eva Melander), a border inspector with an uncannily developed sense of smell, lives a lonely life due to her unusual appearance, when a stranger enters her life, one she feels a connection with, without quite understanding why at first.

Gräns is immediately captivating thanks to its inspired visuals and pervading sense of oddness. While the interiors are purposefully pictured as drab and depressing, being houses or workplaces, far from the usual stereotypes of Swedish Ikea living, in contrast nature is filmed beautifully, not in an idealised, elegiac way, but in a very earthy and tactile manner, with crawling insects and soil in close-up, a place not so much accepting as indifferent, and where Tina finds some solace.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Everybody Knows by Asghar Farhadi

In Everbody Knows, Laura (Penélope Cruz) returns to a Spanish village for a big family wedding, having made her life in Argentina. The celebration takes a turn for the worst however, as her teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is kidnapped the night of the wedding. Unable to contact the police due to threats from the kidnappers, the family members tear each other apart as they attempt to solve the mystery and rescue her.

When a director travels to a completely different country to its own, and films in a different language, there is an inherent danger that their style will not translate well, that they might have a superficial outlook over a culture they are unfamiliar with. Of course, it can also works beautifully (see Paul Verhoeven recently, with Elle).

Saturday 7 April 2018

Western by Valeska Grisebach

Armed with an Arri Alexa and a cast of non-actors, Valeska Grisebach crafts Western as exactly the kind of film you’d expect to see in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of Cannes. Naturalistic, unaffected acting? Check. Handheld camera? Check.

Socially-relevant/political plot and thematic content? Check. The socially-relevant plot here follows a group of German men travelling to a village in Bulgaria, tasked with building a new hydro-plant. The men make no attempt to integrate into their new residence. One actually raises the German flag atop their construction site, heedless to how a Bulgarian, especially one with a sense of European history, might read such an act. The men may still be in the EU, but they clearly don’t think of this backwater as worthy of courtesy.

Saturday 24 March 2018

BFI Flare 2018: Documentaries

Love, Scott
Dir: Laura Marie Wayne
After a night out in a bar in Nova Scotia, musician Scott Jones was attacked. He was stabbed in a homophobic attack which left him paralysed from the waist down. The courts didn't recognise the attack as a hate crime, sentencing Scott's attacker to 10 years for attempted murder. This documentary, by a college friend of Scott's, picks up with him about a year after the attack, as he rebuilds and tries to find something useful to do in what he call his new normal.

Laura Marie Wayne's film is a tender portrait of a friend. She has access to some archive footage from Scott's childhood, which she pairs with more shot on film material to give an impressionistic feel of the past, like fragments of grainy memories that flash through the film periodically. The first present tense material takes place five days after Scott's attack, when she visits him in the hospital, and while it comes midway through the film, after we have spent plenty of time with Scott as he is now, it feels like the bridge between the past and present tenses. What's striking about this footage is how little of it is of Scott. There are snatches of hospital corridors, the floor, the walls. It's almost as if Wayne can't bear, at least in the first moments, to see her friend in pain, to see him helpless.

Of course, Scott isn't helpless. Not only is he facing up to the challenges of the aftermath of his attack, he's trying to use his voice in helpful, hopeful, ways. He's founded the Don't Be Afraid campaign, named for what he said in hospital when asked what he'd want people to know in the wake of what happened to him. Through that group he leads a choir and does public speaking. We see all of this in the film, from small events like a choir rehearsal to much bigger moments like a speaking event that, in one of the film's most moving moments, becomes the first time Scott stands in public since the attack. Scott seems to have perspective on what happened, but we also see, that that's a process that continues for him, especially in relation to the perpetrator. In another of the film's wrenching moments, Scott reads a letter he's written, asking his attacker - Shane - if they can meet.

This is a moving and inspiring story, told articulately by Scott, his sister Sherise and by Wayne's camera. It's also a beautifully shot film, full of evocative images, whether it's the grainy moments of the past or the sequence of Scott being carried on a friend's back, down to a quiet piece of countryside he thought he'd not be able to access again after his paralysis. It's well worth seeing on a big screen. 

The 34th
Dir: Linda Cullen, Vanessa Gildea
In some ways, it surprises me that the batlle for equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples is one that is so recent - or, in many countries, current. It seems like such an obvious imbalance, and so clear that there would be no demonstrable effect on anyone other than the gay and lesbian couples wanting to be married, that it feels like an argument that should have been had and won generations ago. But that's a view from outside the LGBT communities, from a liberal family.

The 34th covers the battle for full marriage equality in the Republic of Ireland, via the 34th amendment to the country's constitution, beginning with the court case brought by Katharine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, who married in Canada in 2003, to have their marriage recognised by the Government and the tax office and ending with the 2015 referendum on the constitutional amendment.

The film itself is very straightforward: a series of talking heads interviews with the key people in the marriage equality movement, mixed with well chosen archive footage, tracking the 12 year journey to victory in well told and often deeply personal detail. It's an important document of a movement that achieved seismic social change in a country where religion remains so powerful that it seemed very possible that that change would never be allowed to take place.

The 34th is interesting, it's emotional and it has a story worth telling. The last twenty minutes in particular, from a speech by two adult children of gay couples at the constitutional convention to the celebrations after the referendum was won, put a lump in my throat. What it's not is cinema. Produced by an Irish television company, the film never really transcends its small screen feel. The visuals are funtional; they tell the story, but aren't especially striking in and of themselves.  That's not entirely a bad thing, this film will likely land on the BBC's Storyville series, or some similar strand, and it will be well worth watching there, but I'm not sure you need to rush to a cinema for this one. 

Friday 23 March 2018

BFI Flare 2018: My Days of Mercy

Dir: Tali Shalom-Ezer
At every American prison that has them, executions tend to be greeted with two opposing protest groups. On one side are the victim’s advocates groups, who protest in support of the death penalty, on the other the anti death penalty groups, advocating for the prisoners and protesting the use of execution as a sentence. My Days Of Mercy finds two young women from opposite sides - Pro death penalty Mercy (Kate Mara) and anti death penalty Lucy (Ellen Page) - first finding connection and then perhaps love across this political divide. It’s a complicated relationship, all the more so because Lucy’s father Simon (Elias Koteas) is on death row for murdering his wife.

Ellen Page and Kate Mara have been offscreen friends for some time, and have apparently been looking for a project to act in together for several years. Some might find it disappointing that their first project (which they also co-produced) isn’t a Tiny Detectives movie, but My Days Of Mercy gives each of them one of their most interesting roles, well drawn characters and a relationship to invest in.

Lucy and her family - older sister Martha, played by the always excellent Amy Seimetz and a younger brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) - are the film’s main focus. As her father’s case comes down to the wire and an execution date looms, their lawyer, Weldon (Brian Geraghty) is hopeful that there may still be avenues to explore for getting Simon, who Martha believes is innocent, more so than Lucy does, off death row and maybe completely cleared. These scenes are my main sticking point with My Days of Mercy. At a script level I didn’t buy the derisive way that Lucy treats Weldon, nor the way that he offers so few caveats when talking about the potential effects of ‘new evidence’ on Simon’s case. I’m not sure, from Geraghty’s performance, how competent we’re supposed to read Weldon as being. 

Outside these scenes though, the family dynamic is believeable. Even when there is tension between them, you get the sense that Lucy and Martha are close, that they love each other and their younger brother. There is an ease about the way Page, Seimetz and Shotwell work together that gives scenes in their RV, as they travel to and from execution protests, the familiar feel of a typical family road trip which, to some degree, they are for these characters.
Ellen Page is an actress I’ve always liked, but I’ve not cared for some of her recent films. My Days Of Mercy, for the first time in a while, uses her really well. Page’s Lucy is tough, smart, witty and loving, often in the same moment. Page often shows us how Lucy is hiding hurt, it’s not just in the moment when she first tells Mercy about her father, we see it throughout, notably in the moment she’s saying goodbye to Mercy after they have spent the night together, and doesn’t want to show her unwell little brother either that she’s hurting, or what her relationship with Mercy really is. Page plays Lucy’s outward emotions well, but it’s the way that she always lets us see under the surface that impresses.

Kate Mara has the smaller part, and Mercy is seen entirely in how she relates to Lucy. It’s here that Page and Mara’s off screen friendship pays great dividends. The two play off each other beautifully, their obvious affection for each other seeming to lift both of their performances. The relationship between Lucy and Mercy grows credibly and patiently. It’s easy to write quirky characters. What’s harder to pull off, what screenwriter Joe Barton does well here, is to give us characters who just feel like real people in a situation that, for most of us, is unfamiliar. Page and Mara have a playful chemistry throughout, one that grows from their first drink together, to a sequence when Mercy, having upset Lucy, offers to drive her home from a protest (several states away), and into their intimate scenes.  Their connection comes across powerfully in some of the smallest moments; the silent goodbye when Benjamin is watching, Mercy taking out the hair tie to tie Lucy's hair back when hers breaks. The sex scenes are frank, but that sense of connection that carries through the entire love story between Lucy and Mercy makes them feel a little less exploitative than they otherwise might.

Director Tali Shalom-Ezer largely keeps things simple, but she finds some nice stylistic touches, like the simplicity of introducing each execution and protest with a static shot of the last meal and captions detailing the prisoner and his crime. Of course this becomes more impactful as the number of executions grows, and when we finally have to go inside the prison in the film’s last act (leading to scenes in which Page and Seimetz, in particular, are devastatingly good). The screenplay combines the political questions with the relationship story effectively, and while I think it’s clear which side the filmmakers eventually come down on, the politics are never hectoring. The way they are represented, in fact, is as more of an outgrowth of experience than of principal, and viewed like that it’s easy to see either side of the issue. This isn’t an issue movie though, and all of the politics feeds into character and most importantly into the relationship that is the heart of the film.

I would expect My Days Of Mercy to see a UK release some time around the end of the year, and it’s worth seeking out when it does.

Thursday 22 March 2018

BFI Flare 2018: Short Films Part 1

It’s been some years since I was last at London’s LGBTQ+ film festival, in fact (rather shamefully), my last one was in 2012 before it was rebranded as BFI Flare. Over the years I’ve seen some excellent films there, many of which have never seen any further UK release. This year I’m going back, with a press pass, because I feel like this is an important cinematic niche that I haven’t been exploring enough lately, beyond the limited amount of material that emerges from the festival on to UK screens.

This year I'll be attending the festival largely from home, but hopefully still bringing you plenty of coverage of interesting shorts and features.

Dir: Matt Houghton
In about 1994 my stepfather, who has been involved in farming his entire life, set up Farmline, a kind of Samaritans for Kent farmers. Landline became the first film I watched for this year's Flare because the synopsis made me think - with real pride - of what he did.

Landline is a short documentary based around calls to the Gay Farmer's Helpline, founded in 2010. Each vignette is narrated by a caller as we see beautifully shot images that unfold the story in impressionistic form. There are moments that feel hopeful; a brief story told over images of the aftermath of a party, of a farmer who found more support than he expected when he came out, but more common are the bittersweet stories or the ones that prove just how far we have still to go in terms of acceptance.

The callers speak with candour, and director Matt Houghton treats their stories with a moving tenderness. For me, the story that hit hardest is about a Welsh farmer  who speaks of a man he met in tai chi class. After spending a long time talking after classes, he would have to remind this man to go home to his wife and kids. The image of the two of them sitting together laughing, set against the cut to the farmer sweeping out the animal pens alone, is completely wrenching.

A beautiful film and a valuable one, in that it might help to bring extra publicity to an excellent service, Landline says more in ten minutes than many features manage in two hours.

The Sermon
Dir: Dean Puckett
Nostalgia is everywhere at the moment. Many films are trying to recapture something of the past, but I often find myself feeling that something is missing, that there is a lack of authenticity. In looking to the folk horror of the late sixties and seventies, The Sermon doesn't suffer from that problem. From the texture of the visuals to the choice of aspect ratio, right down to the font chosen for the titles, this could sit alongside something like The Wicker Man and not feel out of place.  

The sermon of the title is being given by the religious leader of what appears to be a very insular, conservative, religious community that has recently discovered that one of its members is a lesbian. The sequences of the woman being taunted, tied to a frame and having fruit thrown at her are straight out of The Wicker Man, but it's some of the more directly horror inflected imagery; the presence lurking in several shots around her young lover Ella (Molly Casey), that really struck me. These brief and creepy shots reminded me of the vampiric character from Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders, but their purpose is a little different here than the entity that wants to seduce and corrupt Valerie.

I don't want to go into what happens, but there is a rumbling tension throughout, accentuated by a pipe organ and synth led score by Bizarre Rituals. The images are striking, with a frequent emphasis on looming figures (the priest, the two boys who see Ella leaving her lover's home, the figure by Ella's side) and the composition is often as beautiful as it is unsettling. The film doesn't firmly locate itself in time, and while the style looks backwards the film's concerns are, in some communities, still current.

This is a striking and haunting calling card for director Dean Puckett, I hope people get to see it projected, and that there is a feature film in his not too distant future.  

Landline and The Sermon both screen in the Altered States shorts programme, on Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th of March

Friday 2 February 2018

Winchester by Michael & Peter Spierig - Review

Nothing fills you more with confidence than a horror film being dumped in February with the reviews being embargoed until the day of release. Winchester has a few more elements going for it than your average low budget rubbish however: an illustrious cast lead by a Dame, and a pair of directors with an interesting pedigree and an infamous mythology. Plus if anything, a few weeks after Insidious 4, Winchester also has an older woman as the lead, a pleasing new trend?

Winchester is based on (and the term is being used loosely) the true (and stranger than fiction) story of widow and heiress Sarah Winchester at the turn of the last century, who, believing that she was cursed, convinced herself that the only way to escape her supernatural tormentors was to ensure her sprawling house was never finished, adding rooms then having them destroyed. The film expands on this and add the fictional character of Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a drug addicted doctor sent by the board of Winchester to assess her mental health, hoping to take the control of the company back from her. Eric Price finds Sarah being haunted by the ghosts of all the victims of the Winchester firearms, while his own troubled past catches up with him.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

You Should See This: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning (2012)

What Are They All About?
Universal Soldier: Regeneration begins with the children of the President of a former USSR state being kidnapped by a separatist group who have employed Dr Colin (Kerry Shale) and with him one of his new generation of Uni Sols (Arlovski) to help them achieve independence. Unbeknownst to his employers, Colin also has a cloned Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) as an insurance policy. They set up camp in the old Chernobyl power station, threatening to detonate the reactor if their demands are not met within 72 hours. The US army responds to the threat, with the help of their own older Uni Sols, but when that fails they have to draft in Luc (Jean Claude Van Damme), who has spent the past two years with psychologist Dr. Sandra Fleming (Emily Joyce), trying to break his violent programming and retain memories.

In Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, John (Scott Adkins) is woken by his daughter who tells him there are monsters in the house. This turns out to be Luc (Van Damme), who murders John’s wife and daughter. After 9 months in a coma, John wakes, determined to go after Luc, who is now the head of a cult like group that ‘frees’ Uni Sols from their programming.

Sunday 21 January 2018

Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson - Review

Set in London around a decade after WW2, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is loosely about the fashion world, but it's draped in a gothic graveyard that whistles in the distance, beckoning the characters to come closer. It's less an homage to the films of Hitchcock (particularly Rebecca with a dash of Vertigo) and more a perfect re-creation of your favorite TCM movies stirred up in a cauldron of black magic. 10 years after the monumental There Will Be Blood (arguably the century's greatest film), Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis reteam for this film that fittingly is unidentifiable in its tone, or what it's even truly about.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

You Should See This: Jeanne La Pucelle (1994)

What’s It All About?
Jacques Rivette’s two part, five hour and twenty minute, epic documents the last two years of the life of Joan of Arc (Sandrine Bonnaire), from her initial attempts to meet with the Dauphin of France (André Marcon) and convince him that she was sent by God to lead his armies, to her capture and execution.

You Should See It Because
The story of Joan of Arc has always fascinated me; a young woman, just sixteen when she set out, of such faith and conviction that she would put herself not just in harm’s way but insist on being at the head of the army, so certain was she that it was God’s will, and that only she could win this war for the man she saw as the rightful king, and thus God’s representative on Earth. It is no surprise that the story has been repeatedly adapted to film, it is inherently fascinating, dramatic, and provides an irresistibly challenging role for any young actress asked to take it on.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

You Should See This: In A Valley Of Violence (2016)

What’s It All About?
Having deserted the Army, Paul (Ethan Hawke) is making his way to Mexico. He cuts through a town called Denton, where Mary-Ann (Taissa Farmiga), a young woman who helps run the hotel, takes a shine to him and he makes an enemy of and humiliates local troublemaker Gilly (James Ransone), who also happens to be the son of the town marshal (John Travolta). After he’s run out of town, Gilly and his friends show up for revenge, killing Paul’s beloved dog and leaving him for dead. But Paul’s not dead, and that’s not good for Gilly.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

You Should See This: Barely Lethal (2015)

What’s It All About?
Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) has been raised since she was a baby as part of a project known as Prescott, which trains young women to become undercover assassins. She’s always been taught to avoid any attachments but, at 16, 83 just wants a little normality, like what she’s seen in teen movies. When an op goes wrong 83 escapes, using a student exchange programme to become Megan Walsh, from Canada, and to try to have a normal high school experience. Prescott, however, has other ideas.

You Should See It Because
Barely Lethal came out around the same time as Violet and Daisy, which also toplined a talented young star (in that case Saoirse Ronan) as a teenage assassin. Often, when two similarly themed movies are released in quick succession, one will end up hitting reasonably big and the other disappearing. In this case, both movies essentially vanished, neither rating a UK cinema release. For my money it’s Barely Lethal that is worth digging up.