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 family movies: Paddington and Get Santa both benefit from their smart-witty scripts, gifted directors and up-for-it casts. And then there's Horrible Bosses 2, a sequel that's even thinner than the original but will please fans of mindless silliness, plus Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald's gritty submarine thriller starring Jude Law.

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...

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Critical Week: Bump in the dark

London critics caught up this week with the freak-out sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, set 40 years after the first film, so it has an all-new cast (including Jeremy Irvine and Helen McCrory) facing that eerie ghost at Eel Marsh House. Honestly, why would anyone ever go in there?

The biggest screening this week was for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the thrilling third film in the series starring Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks and so on. It captures the book's intensely grim tone almost too well and is also a terrific exploration of the birth of a leader, setting things up for the more battle-intensive final part, a year from now. The only other starry movie this week was Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman, a gruelling Wild West road movie in which he stars in alongside Hilary Swank and a number of superb A-list cameo players (Meryl Streep!). It's extremely straight-faced and rather bleak, but always involving.

Further afield there were four foreign films: essentially a filmed stage play, the drama Diplomacy chronicles the touchy negotiations between German and French officers at the end of WWII, hinging on terrific performances by Andre Dussolier and Niels Arestrup; also from France, Eastern Boys is an uneven but intriguing drama about the strange relationship between a businessman and a Ukrainian working the streets for money; from Switzerland, The Circle uses documentary and drama to reconstruct the relationship between two men in a rapidly closing free society; and Snails in the Rain is a darkly thoughtful but ultimately simple Israeli drama about a young man whose girlfriend notices that something is up.

This coming week, we have the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, the Jim Carrey-Jeff Daniels sequel Dumb and Dumber To, the black comedy The Mule, the holiday comedy Home for Christmas, the Mexican drama Four Moons, the Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, and the French foreign-student doc School of Babel

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Critical Week: Shake your money maker

It feels like months since I've done a regular weekly blog entry! (It was 7th October.) After the one-two punch of London and Abu Dhabi film festivals, I'm back to normal for three weeks. In the three days since flying home from the UAE, I've only seen four films....

Get On Up is an ambitious biopic about James Brown starring the seriously talented Chadwick Boseman, although the film is a bit too fragmented to properly convey much insight into Brown's own genius. One of the year's most hotly anticipated films, Interstellar is Christopher Nolan's trip into space to seek a future for humanity, featuring strong performances from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and others but a plot that wobbles badly in the middle. Nativity 3: Dude, Where's My Donkey?! is the latest instalment in the silly British Christmas musical series, as another new teacher (Martin Clunes) is tormented and ultimately won over by Marc Wootton's Mr Poppy and his ludicrously adorable students. And X+Y is a remarkable little British drama anchored by a powerhouse performance from Asa Butterfield as an autistic maths-whiz teen.

This coming week, I'll be watching the year's next blockbuster The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, plus Tommy Lee Jones' starry Western The Homesman, Wong Kar-wai's much delayed award-winning film The Grandmaster, the German drama Diplomacy, the French drama Eastern Boys, the Swiss drama The Circle and the Arab Spring documentary We Are the Giant.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Abu Dhabi 6: Heroes and villains

At the closing ceremony for the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival last night, awards were presented from the series of juries who have been working here for the past nine days. Our Fipresci jury handed out two prizes: Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb (narrative) and Nadine Salib's Um Gayeb: Mother of the Unborn (documentary). As for other feature awards, The festival's Black Pearl Awards were presented to Leviathan (narrative), The Wonders (New Horizons), and Virunga (doc). The Audience Award went to The Salt of the Earth, the Netpac award to Iraqi Odyssey and the Child Protection awards to In Her Place (film) and Sivas (script). There were also a range of jury prizes, acting awards, special mentions and prizes for Arab films and filmmakers. The closing night film was Big Hero 6 (above).

I flew back to London this morning, and was happy to find that it's rather warm here - which means that I never used the coat I carried to Abu Dhabi and back home. So I'm going through a stack of post, running a load of laundry and getting ready to take a short nap so I can stay awake tonight and get back on local time (which is now 4 hours earlier, although it was 3 hours when I left - figure that out!). Here are the last few films from Abu Dhabi...

Big Hero 6 is an animated Disney/Marvel action-comedy about an orphan who teams up with a gentle-giant robot and a gang of techie nerds to stop a nefarious villain from wreaking havoc in San Fransokyo. Yes, the film has an enjoyably mashed-up Japanese/American tone, even if the characters and plot are extremely formulaic. There aren't any surprises in the story, the characters represent the basic types, and the approach to grief feels sentimental and superficial (namely that grief makes us desperate for violent revenge). But then, this probably isn't the kind of film that should close a festival like Abu Dhabi's, which is packed with unusually complex explorations of big topics. Still, it's a lot of fun, with plenty of whizzy action that's animated with terrific energy (this was the world premiere for the 3D version). And boys will especially enjoy the gadgetry.

The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer's companion piece to last year's award-winning Indonesian doc The Act of Killing, and it manages to be an even more harrowing experience. As the title suggests, this is a more introspective approach, as optometrist Adi asks residents of his hometown about the brutal events around the 1965 revolution and purge, during which his big brother was violently killed by men who are still in positions of authority today. Adi's questions are startlingly bold in a culture that would rather let the past lie. Amid efforts to rewrite history, knowing the truth is an urgent priority. And the way Oppenheimer quietly documents a complete lack of regret is seriously shocking. 

Queens of Syria is a relatively simple Jordanian doc about a group of women who are staging a production of Euripides' The Women of Troy. The hitch is that they are all refugees from Syria who fled to Amman for their lives - some running from violence, others forcibly removed from their homes. In other words, they have had the same experiences as the characters they are playing on-stage, and have in some cases integrated their stories into the dialog. Their accounts are seriously wrenching, especially as they talk about lost loved ones. But the film is never quite cracks the topic, perhaps because the filmmakers are understandably unable to get too deep into the lives of these women who are still unsettled and displaced.

Fevers, from France, is a generational drama about a man who discovers that he has a 13-year-old son whom he needs to care for. Where this goes is very dark: the kid is a thug who challenges everyone, leading to a series of harrowing clashes. The filmmaking is somewhat heavy-handed even as it struggles to make its point clear. Is this a film about the making or breaking of an Arab family that moved to Western Europe? It's hard to tell which, although aside from some warm moments most of what happens is pretty grim. But at lead the performances are so sharp that the characters become prickly and rattling. And even if the story gets even more difficult in the final scenes, it's haunting and thought-provoking.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 5: Politics and religion

In addition to a range of films from the Arab world, the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival has been showcasing award-winning movies from other festivals, including Cannes winners Winter Sleep and Leviathan (above); Venice winners A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, The Look of Silence and Hungry Hearts; Berlin winners Black Coal Thin Ice and Stations of the Cross; Sundance winners Whiplash and 20,000 Days on Earth; plus the likes of Two Days One Night, 99 Homes, Return to Ithaca, The Homesman, '71, Men Women & Children, Miss Julie. It's impossible to see everything, but I've given it a good try!

Meanwhile, the festival is winding down, but the parties haven't let up. The food has been pretty awesome, with a lavish breakfast buffet in the hotel (St Regis) and another buffet for lunch in the press area at Emirates Palace. Each evening's dinner party has been themed, with minor variations of food in even bigger buffets spread out in various areas outside the palace. A Jordanian pop star turned up for Jordan's party, Bollywood Nights offered music and dancing, and there have been Lebanese and even French themed parties. Last night's was the best so far: Arabian Nights, with carpets and kiosks scattered around the palace's beach. A high bar has been set for tonight's closing bash. Here are films from Wednesday and Thursday...

Leviathan has been winning awards since it premiered at Cannes (and won best screenplay) in May. I missed it at the London Film Festival (where it won best film), but knew I'd have a chance to catch up with it here. Worth the wait, this is a staggeringly clever exploration of power, specifically the church and state, with a plot that is clearly inspired by the biblical story of Job. Lyrical photography and open performances make it utterly gripping as the story of a man who calls in an old friend to help when the local mayor decides to demolish his family home. Plot wrinkles abound, making no one heroic. Everyone is deeply flawed, but not everyone pays the consequences. And the themes resonate far beyond the rural Russian setting. It's a stunner of a film that's sure to scoop more accolades before the awards season wraps up.

El Ott, from Egypt, is a noir thriller with a rather aloof sense of plotting. Global star Amr Waked (most recently seen in Lucy) plays the title character, a mysterious thug who takes on a preening gangster who is grabbing street kids and selling their organs on the black market. The film is edgy and grubby, with a plot that should be darkly compelling, but the characters and situations are deliberately undefined, which makes it difficult to get a grip on why anyone does anything. And several scenes feel so oddly set up that they give the film a corny and contrived tone. On the other hand, there's a fascinating undercurrent about power and belief - glimpses of ancient ruins, synagogues, churches, mosques and rave culture - all of which plays into a story about the blurry lines between politics, capitalism and crime.

The Man From Oran, from Algeria, is a period drama set at two points during the nation's struggle for independence. In the late 1950s two friends become involved in the fight against the French colonial rulers, which turns both of their lives upside-down as they rise to positions of power in the new government: one begins making morally dubious decisions while the other struggles to live with past events. This story is involving and complex, but later events set in the mid-1980s are a bit more muddled, partly due to how the screenplay requires previous knowledge of Algeria's culture and history and partly because the timescale is badly handled (apart from some iffy make-up, a child born in 1958 appears to be a surly teen in 1987). But the film is well-acted and shot in a vivid '70s noir style.

Pirates of SalÄ— documents the first circus school in Morocco through the eyes of four young students who come from rough backgrounds. For them, this is clearly a potential path out of poverty, and as they prepare for their first big performance they discover the first sense of their own worth, finding joy in artistic expression, physical fitness and the camaraderie of the company. So it's frustrating that the film feels somewhat simplistic in its approach, showing the setting vividly without ever quite cracking the surface of either the students or their teachers. Only one of the teachers emerges as a fascinating character, and he simply vanishes along the way. In addition, the filmmakers oddly opt to chop the colourful circus performances into tiny pieces, never letting us get a feel for the work. This is a real shame, because the snippets we see are pretty amazing.