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.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Critical Week: Jailyard blues

Films were a little more low-key this week, as studios continue their current trend of simply not screening the biggest releases (including Geostorm, The Lego Ninjago Movie, The Snowman, Flatliners, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the forthcoming A Bad Moms Christmas). With some of these, I buy a ticket to see the movie so I can review it. Others I skip even though they feature favourite actors and filmmakers (perhaps I can catch up with The Mountain Between Us on a flight). Either way, it's rather frustrating that distributors are now telling us how to do our job, and sometimes forcing us to lose paying work. Basically, they have forgotten that we are part of the industry and treat us instead as one element in their PR plan. I'm afraid this is only going to get worse.

Anyway, I only saw two films this week that featured mainstream stars. One was the gritty thriller Shot Caller, in which Game of Thrones' Nicolaj Coster-Waldau plays a banker sent to prison, where he becomes a criminal with the help of gang member Jon Bernthal (above). The other was the comedy Crash Pad with Domhnall Gleeson, Thomas Haden Church and Christina Applegate, corny but enjoyably silly.

From Australia, Teenage Kicks is a dark coming-of-age drama with very realistic characters. The offbeat British drama Palace of Fun is an intriguing story of obsession. From Congo, Felicite is a gorgeously made odyssey about a fiercely strong woman. Belgian ensemble romance Even Lovers Get the Blues features a cast of good-looking 30-somethings wrestling with issues of sex and love. And the web series I'm Fine follows a group of cliched but likeable gay men in West Hollywood. Then there was a festival that held its opening night...


12th LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 26 October - 19 November
The Day After
dir Hong Sangsoo; with Kwan Haehyo, Kim Minhee 17/Kor ***.
With a blackly comical tone, Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo tells a witty tale of relational chaos centring around a man caught between the three women in his life. With its improvised dialog and extended takes shot in striking monochrome, this is a loose, entertaining film that continually surprises the audience with its tricky pacing and an elliptical style of storytelling that makes it feel like we've been here before. And the characters are hilariously messy.


Coming up this next week, we have the eagerly awaited sequel Paddington 2, the star-packed remake Murder on the Orient Express, supernatural thriller Sightings, horror action movie Mayhem, Norwegian thriller Thelma, Cuban drama Santa & Andres,  and the Psycho shower scene doc 78/52.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Critical Week: Sister act

It's been nice to only see three films in the three days after the film festival ended (rather than three or four a day). The main event was an epic press screening of Thor: Ragnarok, which is surprisingly funny all the way through while also being packed with eye-catching energy (especially the scene-stealing Cate Blanchett, above), even if the whole Marvel thing is feeling oddly stale, perhaps because there is no suspense left in the formula. But it's a lot of fun. I also caught up with The Snowman, Michael Fassbender's serial killer thriller based on the Jo Nesbo novel, which has deservedly had terrible reviews across the board. There is a huge range of talent on both side of the cameras, yet the script is a mess. And on the smaller side, I caught the British thriller B&B, which touches on some big topics (mainly bigotry) with strong characters and a genuinely unsettling plot. I also had some time for the theatre...


Young Frankenstein
at the Garrick Theatre
Mel Brooks adapts his own classic film (one of my all-time favourites) into this rather nutty musical, which opened in the West End last week. It's basically the movie with added songs that stretch out some of the more iconic moments, and the characters are all played by a skilled singing-dancing cast exactly like their big screen counterparts. Perhaps the film is so indelible that there's no other way to play these roles - they wouldn't be as funny it they didn't hark back to the great Gene Wilder, Madeleine Kahn, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman. The material is robust enough to handle this transition - the film's best jokes are still funny on stage. And the emotional kick is here too, even if it's somewhat diluted by the extra razzle dazzle. I'll probably go see it again.


Graeme of Thrones
at the Charing Cross Theatre
The subject up for satire is obvious, but this fringe show takes an amusingly fresh approach that is actually poking fun at fringe shows themselves. The three-person cast is up for quite a lot of riotous silliness, with physical slapstick, wordplay and lots of sight gags. Their rendition of the series' opening titles is impeccably ridiculous. Fans of the TV show will get all of the jokes, which include spoilers right up to the latest season. And there are plenty of gems thrown in all the way through for a wider audience, especially the performance art pieces that come out of nowhere with their delirious absurdity. Some of the humour strains a bit, but most gags hit the target astutely. And by the end, the sloppy "let's put on a show" vibe means that we're rooting for all three of these scruffy actors (plus one game audience member) to claim the Iron Throne.


Coming up this next week, we have Nicolaj Coster-Waldau in Shot Caller, Domhnall Gleeson in Crash Pad, British thriller Palace of Fun and Aussie coming-of-age drama Teenage Kicks.


Sunday, 15 October 2017

LFF: Kick back on Day 12

Well, it's all over for another year, so I can start to get back to normal life now. Tonight's closing film is Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (that's Sam Rockwell above), with the usual red carpet premiere and gala party after. But for me it's been about the films, and there have been some great ones (plus a few duds). And as always, there is a long list of movies that I desperately wanted to see but couldn't fit into my schedule. Here are the winners of the festival's official juried awards, my 10 best films (including some I had seen previously), and a final collection of highlights...

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 AWARDS
  • Best Film: LOVELESS
  • Doc (Grierson Award): KINGDOM OF US
  • First Feature (Sutherland Award): THE WOUND
  • BFI Fellowship: Paul Greengrass

MY BEST OF THE FEST 2017:
  1. A FANTASTIC WOMAN
  2. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
  3. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
  4. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
  5. 120 BEATS PER MINUTE
  6. LOVELESS
  7. LAST FLAG FLYING
  8. LEAN ON PETE
  9. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
  10. CUSTODY

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
dir-scr Martin McDonagh; with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson 17/US *****
Writer-director Martin McDonaugh is on blistering form with this fiendishly clever personal drama, which arrives masquerading as a funny, violent police thriller. With take-no-prisoners performances from the entire cast, particularly a storming Frances McDormand, the film tackles our angry world head-on with a surprisingly heartfelt plea for compassion. And it approaches the riveting story and pungent themes with remarkable honesty... FULL REVIEW >

Zama
dir-scr Lucrecia Martel; with Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Lola Duenas 17/Arg ***
This is a fairly difficult movie even by the standards of adventurous Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. An existential odyssey based on the 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, it simply refuses to coalesce into any kind of sensible narrative as the title character's life becomes a swirling nightmare of bureaucracy and cross-cultural messiness. And that's actually the point. At least it's fascinating, beautifully shot and acted, and packed with witty satire... FULL REVIEW >

The Prince of Nothingwood
dir Sonia Kronlund; with Salim Shaheen, Sonia Kronlund 17/Fr ****
A fly-on-the-wall look at prolific Afghan filmmaker Salim Shaheen, this documentary is both playful and chilling in the way it explores the life of a colourful man and a nation's momentous history. French-Swiss journalist Sonia Kronlund follows Shaheen into some rarely seen parts of Afghanistan, which he calls "Nothingwood" due to his no-budget filmmaking style. It's an entertaining and eye-opening film.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco
dir-scr James Crump; with Bill Cunningham, Jessica Lange 17/US 1h30 ****
A fast-paced, skilful portrait of an artist who isn't very well-known outside fashion circles, this film is infused with the sensuality of its 1970s period. Through lively, expressive interviews and a wealth of footage and stills, Antonio Lopez springs to life before our eyes, making us wish we had a chance to get to know him, because he seems like someone we'd probably fall in love with just like everyone else did.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

LFF: Do the right thing on Day 11

It's the penultimate day of the 61st BFI London Film Festival, and tonight's gala will see Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix walking the red carpet in Leicester Square. There will also be a flurry of celebrities attending tonights awards ceremony, hosted by James Nesbitt, at which Paul Greengrass will receive the prestigious BFI Fellowship. I'll list the winners, as well as my own best of the fest, tomorrow. Here are more highlights...

You Were Never Really Here
dir-scr Lynne Ramsay; with Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts 17/UK *****
This singular thriller by Lynne Ramsay is like a slap across the face, a fresh approach to the genre. It's also unapologetically an arthouse film, demanding a lot from the audience as it presents a swirl of imagery and sound that says a lot about the central character without being obvious about it. Anchored by a burly-bear performance from Joaquin Phoenix, it's definitely not an easy film, but it isn't easy to shake.

Let the Sun Shine in [Un Beau Soleil Intérieur]
dir Claire Denis; with Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois 17/Fr ****
An exploration of the yearning to find that elusive one true love, this astutely observed film is funny, charming, beautiful and sad. But it's never remotely sentimental, thanks to filmmaker Claire Denis' razor-sharp approach. It's also elevated by a sharply honest performance from Juliette Binoche as a woman seeking the love of her life.

Nico, 1988
dir-scr Susanna Nicchiarelli; with Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair 17/It ****
This biopic about the final years of the iconic German-born musician-actress strikes an intriguing tone, diving into firsthand accounts of people who worked with her. It feels remarkably personal, with a bold, gritty edge that echoes the intensity of both Nico's singing and Trine Dyrholm's thunderous performance. Some elements feel a little undercooked, leaving the audience perhaps misled about details. But it's an involving film packed with rivulets of emotion... FULL REVIEW >

This Is Our Land [Chez Nous]
dir Lucas Belvaux; with Emilie Dequenne, Andre Dussollier 17/Fr ***.
With an earthy sense of authenticity, this drama takes a controversial approach to French politics. There's an urgency to the premise that shifts this from a gently pointed drama into something rather darker and scarier. All of which makes it perhaps a little muddled, but the film highlights the insidious idea that both politicians and bigots are happy to change strategies if they have a chance of winning, but they'll never change their goals.

Strangled [A Martfüi Rém]
dir-scr Arpad Sopsits; with Karoly Hajduk, Gabor Jaszberenyi 16/Hun ***
Based on a true story, this dark, stylish thriller builds dramatic suspense as it chronicles a serial killer in a small Hungarian town. Revealing the cold-blooded murderer from the start, the film sometimes feels a bit draggy as we wait for the cops to connect the dots, but it's packed with terrific characters who are conflicted and relatable.

The Nile Hilton Incident
dir-scr Tarik Saleh; with Fares Fares, Mari Malek 17/Swe ***.
This Cairo-set police thriller is perhaps too elusive to properly grip the audience, but it's a striking portrait of a culture that seems to ignore every rule of law. Shot in an offbeat style, the story's most momentous moments are shot in an almost throwaway style, which makes it an intriguing challenge to know who or what is important. This also provides some nasty gut-punches along the way to the requisite shocking finale.

Friday, 13 October 2017

LFF: Share a snack on Day 10

The 61st BFI London Film Festival powers into its final weekend with a flurry of world premieres, red carpet galas and lots of great little films packed into the edges of the programme. I have no more press screenings, but there are several movies I'm hoping to catch at public screenings over the weekend, so watch this space. And here are some more highlights...

The Florida Project
dir Sean Baker; with Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite 17/US ****
Loose and lively, this free-flowing comedy-drama is set among people living just outside the main gates of Disney World. And its young cast of mainly non-actors is terrific at creating likeable characters with big attitudes. As he did in Tangerine, filmmaker Sean Baker focusses on engaging people touched by the carelessness of loved ones who think they deserve sympathy, but don't... FULL REVIEW >

Downsizing
dir Alexander Payne; with Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig 17/US ***
Alexander Payne eschews his usual organic style of storytelling for something more pointed and constructed. The premise is ingeniously conceived and thought out down to the (ahem!) smallest details, and as the plot develops a variety of big issues make themselves known. This may provide a connection to present-day issues, but it makes the film begin to feel rather pushy. And the ideas themselves become stronger than the narrative... FULL REVIEW >

Sweet Country
dir Warwick Thornton; with Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris 17/Aus ***.
With a gentle pace that echoes the rhythms of life in turn-of-the-century rural Australia, this slow-burning dramatic Western quietly creeps up on the audience. It offers deep themes and detailed characters, plus a vivid depiction of the clash between the Aboriginals and the European interlopers. The film's setting may echo other movies, but the tone is distinctly more internalised, exploring the true nature of justice in a seriously unfair place... FULL REVIEW >

The Forgiven
dir Roland Joffe; with Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana 17/SA ***
This well-produced drama about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission feels somewhat dated, as this kind of story has been told in plenty of movies over the past 20 years. But strong performances from an international cast raise the interest level, and it's a vivid exploration of forgiveness that transcends some rather sentimental storytelling.

A Sort of Family  [Una Especie de Familia]
dir Diego Lerman; with Barbara Lennie, Yanina Avila 17/Arg **.
From Argentina, this dark drama is intriguing enough to hold the interest, but it loses the audience's sympathy along the way. With a central character whose specific issues are only superficially defined, much of what happens feels infuriating, which is a problem for a movie that's straining so hard to be emotionally wrenching. Even so, filmmaker Diego Luna has an eye for characters and settings, so he draws us in to the dilemma and its implications.

Grain
dir Semih Kaplanoglu; with Jean-Marc Barr, Ermin Bravo 17/Tur ***.
With a gorgeous visual sensibility augmented by expansive monochrome cinematography, this Turkish odyssey explores big issues about the future of humanity through a meandering narrative following a man across a dystopian landscape. It's a bit obtuse at times, dipping into allegorical surrealism and arthouse nuttiness, but it's also utterly riveting, both for its epic plot and its big ideas.