Thursday, 14 December 2017

Critical Week: Stop and smell the flowers

It was pretty daring of Fox to release the animated movie Ferdinand this week, but for critics it was a welcome respite from Star Wars mania. The warm-heated core story is still there the beloved 1930s book and short, although it has been expanded with mindless action-comedy chaos. Meanwhile, the big news of course was the single press screening on Monday night of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, introduced by writer-director Rian Johnson. It's a massive, slightly over-intense two and a half hour battle epic packed with excellent characters and surprising connections.

I also caught up with Margot Robbie's excellent performance in I, Tonya, a bitterly comical take on disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. But there's an important point to the tone. Hugh Jackman stars in the colourful musical The Greatest Showman, which tells the story of circus founder PT Barnum with great songs and elaborate choreography. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart reteam for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a somewhat pointless reboot to the franchise, although it's at least energetic. And Liam Neeson continues in mindless action mode for The Commuter, a contrived thriller set on a train.

Further afield, we had the offbeat British indie drama Beast, which tells a twisted story that's part romance and part thriller. And Peccadillo put out their latest compilation Boys on Film 17: Love Is the Drug, nine short films about desire. It's a very strong collection this time, with films made over the past five years.

I only have a couple of screenings over the next couple of weeks, including Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World and Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel. But I still have quite a few awards-season screeners to catch up with as time allows. I'll prioritise the ones that pick up nominations.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Critical Week: The morning news

Awards season is heating up with a flurry of late screenings and screener discs before voting deadlines. Two sets of awards I vote in - London and online critics - have a nominations deadline on Friday 15th December, so there's a lot to see. Although there are so many documentaries this year that it's impossible to watch them all. Here's what I've watched in the past few days...

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are at the peak of their powers in The Post, Steven Spielberg's expertly made film about the release of Pentagon Papers in early-70s Washington DC. It's startlingly relevant. Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike are excellent in Hostiles, Scott Cooper's remarkably gritty, realistic Western. It beautifully tackles some huge issues. Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss are terrific in the Cannes-winning Swedish black comedy The Square, which unapologetically takes on the art world. It's challenging and fiendishly clever.

Outside awards season, Better Watch Out is a riotously edgy pastiche that plays with cliches of both Christmas and horror movies to create something both entertaining and nasty. Native is an extremely low-key British sci-fi thriller about two officers on a deep space mission who question obedience to their leaders back home. And after seeing The Disaster Artist last week, I had to check out Tommy Wiseau's 2003 bad-classic The Room, which is every bit as terrible as they say, but also has a bizarre charm to it. Finally, there was this doc, which I watched so I could participate in a lively TV discussion programme...


Whose Streets?
dir Sabaah Folayan; with Brittany Ferrell, Bassem Masri 17/US ***.
This documentary takes an intensely personal approach to the aftermath of the shooting of unarmed teen Mike Brown Jr by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Using firsthand interviews and extensive video footage of the events, it traces how the vigil turned into a peaceful march and then an activist movement demanding an end to racially charged policing. And also how this was met with a heavy-handed official response with heavily armed cops in militarised tanks. It's definitely not a one-sided film, condemning the looting and vandalism as well as how the media and police focus on that, ignoring the name of the victim. The springboard is Martin Luther King's statement that "a riot is the language of the unheard". Without ever getting shouty, the film is raw and angry. Although it gets a little bogged down in personal stories. These may be resonant, but they feel a bit off-topic. And as it follows years of investigations, riots, vigils and arrests, it also gets a little repetitive. Which is exactly the point.


This coming week we have the hotly anticipated screening of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, plus Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, British drama Beast, Hungarian drama Jupiter's Moon, Brazilian drama Bingo: The King of the Mornings and the short film collection Boys on Film 17: Love Is the Drug.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Critical Week: Fashion forward

Since I travelled mid-week, my film viewing over the past few days was somewhat limited (I've already seen everything worth watching on the plane!). But before leaving Los Angeles, I caught an awards-season screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a 1950s London dressmaker. It's tricky, twisty and utterly mesmerising. And James Franco's The Disaster Artist is a hugely entertaining look at the making of a terrible movie, which turns into an ode to the importance of following your dreams. The all-star cast is excellent, and a lot of fun.

I also saw the family adventure Kepler's Dream, a rather simplistic TV-style movie that will appeal to undemanding audiences. It's boosted by the presence of Holland Taylor and Sean Patrick Flanery. And then there was the chance to revisit the 1969 Western Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, starring a surprisingly feisty Robert Redford. It's a complex ahead-of-its-time drama set in California's Native American community - riveting, emotional, challenging.

Coming up this week: the Cannes winner The Square, the Hungarian drama Jupiter's Moon, Rupert Graves in Native and the British drama Beast. There are also a number of for-your-consideration awards screenings coming up.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Critical Week: Family time

I've caught up with a few films while I've been out here in Los Angeles, in between binging on food at Thanksgiving time with the family. The best so far is Pixar's Coco, another triumph in both animation and storytelling. It's a riveting adventure with properly pungent emotional undertones and a fantastic sense of Latino culture.

And the other two this week were good as well. Based on the bestselling novel, Wonder is a beautifully made film that grapples with how it feels to be an outsider - a must see for school kids and everyone else too. It features a terrific cast of kids, including Jacob Tremblay and Noah Jupe. And Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is one of the most honest coming-of-age movies in recent memory, a messy, lively, funny, wrenching tale of a teen (the superb Saoirse Ronan) flexing her wings for the first time. Particularly strong support from Laurie Metcalf.

I'm heading back to London this week, so am not sure what films are in store. Am hoping to catch an early screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, as well as James Franco's The Disaster Artist and the holiday horror Better Watch Out.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Critical Week: Another day of sun

I'm in Los Angeles this week visiting my parents for Thanksgiving and enjoying the warm late-November sunshine. There were no movies on the flight's entertainment system that even remotely tempted me, so I just watched TV comedies and documentaries.

I've caught up with one film in the cinema - because I missed the press screening in London. Justice League is the latest DC movie, and it has a refreshing comic book tone that some of the more recent films have lacked. It also centres on characters rather than moody violent spectacle, although there is still too much of that. But at least the actors had more to work with this time, and it bodes well for already in-the-works movies to come. I also watched an awards screener (more of these to come)...


The Hero
dir Brett Haley; with Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon 17/US ***
This gently loping drama never says anything terribly original, but it gives Sam Elliott a terrific role as an ageing actor facing up to both his life and his mortality. It's written and directed in a relaxed style that never challenges the audience, other than the usual cringe at an unlikely romance. But it's nicely shot, beautifully acted, the themes are never overstated, and it ends on a warmly ambiguous note.


There are a few films I'm hoping to catch in cinemas and at screenings over the next week while I'm here, including Wonder, Coco, The Disaster Artist and Lady Bird. But we'll see if I can tear myself away from the sunshine...

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Critical Week: Never surrender

It was a disparate collection of movies this past week. The most obviously prestigious one was Darkest Hour, which chronicles the first month of Winston Churchill's first term as UK prime minister. It's a lavishly made film, anchored by a bullish performance from Gary Oldman. At the other end of the spectrum, Daddy's Home Two reunites Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell (plus Mel Gibson and John Lithgow as their dads) for a holiday comedy that's amusing without doing anything very new. More ambitious, The Dinner features strong performances from Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall, although the film might be too tricky for its own good.

There were also three more true stories. Josh Brolin and Miles Teller lead the firefighting drama Only the Brave, which gets a little too caught up in its heroic machismo. Colin Firth stars in the sailing adventure The Mercy, a riveting tale with an enigmatic core. And The Man With the Iron Heart is a great story of the Nazi resistance, thrown out of balance with its duelling plot-strands starring Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack O' Connell and Jack Reynor.

I'm travelling over the next week or so, and not sure what I'll be able to catch up with along the way. Targeted films include Justice League, Wonder, Thank You for Your Service, The Disaster Artist and The Current War. I'll be posting comments whenever I can...

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Critical Week: You better not pout

It seems rather early, but the holidays kicked off this week with the first festive movie, A Bad Moms Christmas, a sequel to last year's sweetly gross-out comedy with added grandmothers. More of the same, it's kind of the definition of mindless entertainment. There was also a press screening for Paddington 2, which might actually be better than the wonderful original film. It's a pure delight, a great story with superb characters and a range of silly, surreal and razor-sharp comedy.

And I can't remember the last time I was invited to attend a premiere, but tonight I was at the Royal Albert Hall for the world premiere of Kenneth Branagh's remake of the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express. It's a big, classy whodunit with a nice mix of comedy and emotion stirred in to add weight to the characters. The entire cast was at the premiere, including Branagh, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe and Derek Jacobi.

There was also a spin on the zombie genre with the raucous office block black comedy Mayhem, as well as the remarkably straight-faced B-movie style bigfoot thriller Sightings. Plus two foreign films: the involving, mesmerising thriller Thelma from Norway and the movingly personal drama Santa and Andres from Cuba. And two docs: 78/52 gets into lots of enjoyable detail about how Hitchcock created that iconic shower scene, while The Freedom to Marry explores the activists at the centre of the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality.

This coming week we have screenings of Josh Brolin in Only the Brave, Colin Firth in The Mercy, Richard Gere in The Dinner, Jon Bernthal in Sweet Virginia, Lee Pace in Revolt and Virginia Madsen in Better Watch Out.