Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Critical Week: The silence of the lambs

Well, it's that time of year: school holidays are coming, so adult critics are made to sit through screenings packed with sugar-infused children. Best of the lot this past week was the Shaun the Sheep Movie, an utterly charming silent stop-motion adventure based on the Wallace & Gromit spin-off TV series. We also had the sequel Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and the musical remake Annie, both of which have their moments but never quite become anything special.

We also caught up with awards contenders including the sensitive drama Still Alice, featuring a staggering performance from Julianne Moore (she's almost certain to win the Oscar) as a woman with early onset Alzheimer's. And two documentaries managed to scoop nominations in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, the event I chair which announced its nominees today: Citizenfour is the important and gripping story of Edward Snowden, while Manakamana observes life in Nepal with an unblinking eye and a witty smirk. And Wild Tales is Argentina's entry for the foreign-language Oscar, a nerve-rattling black-comedy anthology with six stories of people who stop playing nice.

And then there was Ridley Scott's ambitious Exodus: Gods and Kings, which retells the Ten Commandments story with less emotional resonance but much more impressive visuals. Dumb and Dumber To reunites Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels 20 years later for even more idiotic mayhem, if that's possible (surprisingly, it is). And Wasp is a very clever low-budget British drama about three people on rather overcrowded romantic holiday in the South of France.

Screenings will slow down now for the holidays, but I have several discs to watch - I definitely want to catch up with the only film nominated for a Critics' Circle award that I haven't yet seen: Hitchcock's lost WWII documentary Night Will Fall. And I also have a screening of the Simon Pegg rom-com Man Up. But my main job is to prepare those year-end best and worst lists ... watch this space!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Critical Week: Let the race begin

Awards season officially kicked off this week with a flurry of accolades including the New York Film Critics and the British Independent Film Awards. I've been voting already, and have more to do in the coming weeks. In my last few days in California, I caught up with a few more contenders, including Angelina Jolie's biopic Unbroken, starring Jack O'Connell as Olympic runner Louie Zamperini, who later survived 47 days adrift at sea before being captured by the Japanese during WWII. It's a staggering story of resilience, made with unexpected subtlety. Tim Burton's Big Eyes is another gorgeously made biopic. It stars Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, who painted all of those sad-eyed children in the 60s and 70s while her husband (Christoph Waltz) took the credit. It may look sunnier than most of Burton's films, but it's just as gleefully deranged, and it carries a big emotional kick.

But of course the biggest film screened to the press this past week was Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, another enormous epic of a film, packed with lively characters, first-rate effects and huge, expertly staged action sequences. Frankly, until some engaging personal drama emerges in the second half, it's a bit exhausting. Somewhat smaller films included The Face of Love, a gimmicky, melodramatic romance starring Annette Bening and Ed Harris. And The Great Museum is a riveting fly-on-the-wall doc about the backstage workings of Vienna's national gallery.

Coming this week: Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Quevenzhane Wallis in a remake of the musical Annie, Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Aardman Animation's Shaun the Sheep Movie, the acclaimed Spanish anthology Wild Tales and the British drama Wasp. I'll also finally catch up with the sequel Dumb and Dumber To, although frankly I'd rather not.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Critical Week: Postcard from La-la Land

In rainy Los Angeles, I've been able to catch up with several awards-season contenders at Oscar-consideration screenings around the city. The highlight was a raucously enjoyable screening of Into the Woods at the Writers Guild, including a spontaneous mid-film applause break after the show-stopping princely duet Agony. With an up-for-it all-star cast (Anna Kendrick is the film's soul, Chris Pine is the scene-stealer, Meryl Streep [above] gets the big numbers), the film is pure joy - then turns satisfyingly serious for the post-happy ending final act. Side note: the stage musical was my first-ever Broadway show, on a visit to New York back in the late-80s. 

The other highlight was a screening of Selma at the Directors Guild, followed by a memorable Q&A with director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo, both of whom deserve serious awards recognition for a remarkably grounded, resonant, relevant drama about three momentous months in the life of Martin Luther King. There were at least four standing ovations! Also this week: Bradley Cooper is excellent as a real-life military marksman in Clint Eastwood's grippingly stark American Sniper, and Mark Wahlberg is solid as an irritatingly unlikable guy in Rupert Wyatt's remake of The Gambler.

This coming week, before I return to London this weekend, I am planning to catch Angelina Jolie's inspirational true drama Unbroken, Tim Burton's painting-scandal biopic Big Eyes, and Peter Jackson's final Tolkien film The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Then back in London I'll have one week to see the rest of this year's contenders before voting deadlines in the four awards I participate in: London Critics' Circle, Online Film Critics Society, Fipresci and Galeca's Dorian Awards.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Critical Week: Under the sea

Before I left London last Thursday, the biggest film screened was Kevin Macdonald's submarine thriller Black Sea, starring Jude Law as an unemployed guy trying to reclaim some dignity by salvaging Nazi gold out from under the Russian fleet. It's fast-paced and enjoyably ludicrous. Horrible Bosses 2 is a sequel no one asked for, and the writers haven't bothered to be even remotely clever, but there are some decent gags and a solid cast (Chris Pine steals the show, randomly). Much better, JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year is a clever vice-grip of a drama set in 1981 New York starring the excellent Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. An inventive, soft-spoken spin on the mob thriller, the film is clammy and haunting.

And on the flight over to Los Angeles, I caught up with the enjoyable doc Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, following the indefatigable showbiz veteran through her paces in both TV and theatre (the film was completed before her death in July). I also revisited Moulin Rouge, as you do, one of my all-time favourites and one of those rare films that I can get caught up in completely every time I see it. And once here I  rewatched The Theory of Everything, marvelling even more at Eddie Redmayne's astonishing performance as Stephen Hawking.

Here in California for a couple of weeks, I am hoping to catch up with the animated spin-off Penguins of Madagascar,  the idiotic sequel Dumb and Dumber To, the all-star musical Into the Woods, Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper and the civil rights drama Selma.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Critical Week: Take to the sky

It's been a very busy week here, as awards-contender screenings have started for the season and I'm getting ready to travel for a couple of weeks. Oscar-buzzy contenders have included Alejandro G Inarritu's astonishing Birdman, starring Michael Keaton as an actor trying to have a comeback; Paul Thomas Anderson's chaotic Inherent Vice, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in a series of hilariously raucous scenes loosely connected by an impenetrable plot; and the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything stars a seriously stunning Eddie Redmayne.

We also saw two surprisingly good British family movies: Paddington and Get Santa both benefit from their smart-witty scripts, gifted directors and up-for-it casts including Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and the voice of Ben Whishaw, and Jim Broadbent, Rafe Spall and Warwick Davis, respectively. It's rare that two decent holiday movies arrive in such close succession.

Off the beaten path, we had: Wong Kar Wai's gorgeously shot but oddly aloof biopic The Grandmaster; the rude Aussie drug-smuggling comedy The Mule; the corny British rom-com Home for Christmas (not actually a Christmas movie); the corny American rom-com Big Gay Love; and the involving Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, which shouldn't be missed by film fans. Finally, there were two collections of queer shorts: Boys on Film 12: Confession is Peccadillo's latest line-up of gay-themed films, this time looking at youthful longings; and Travis Mathews' In Their Room intimately explores the lives of men in San Francisco, Berlin and London.

Later this week I'm flying to California for the next couple of weeks, where I plan to catch up with several more awards contenders (plus Penguins of Madagascar). But the real question is whether there will be anything showing on the plane that I haven't seen or wouldn't mind watching again. I'll be blogging as I go...