Tuesday, 24 November 2015

On the Road: Somebody's watching you

Secret in Their Eyes
dir Billy Ray; with Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Chiwetel Ejiofor 15/US ****
This loose remake of the slick 2009 Oscar-winning Argentine thriller takes a somewhat brainier approach to its story of an FBI agent (Ejiofor) who tenaciously works on a 13-years-cold.botched murder case that has a strong personal connection, then reteams with his old colleagues (Roberts and Kidman) to finally get justice. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems, and the twisty plot holds the interest, even if the film feels a bit dry and dark. It also helps that all three lead actors give profound performances packed with telling nuances, raising the intrigue both in the case and in their complex inter-relationships. Roberts is especially remarkable, stripped of all glamour as she reveals layers of wrenching inner turmoil. And writer-director Ray fills scenes with subtly clever touches that offer telling insight into the characters, who are far more important than the case itself. Sometimes the leaping back and forth between periods can be difficult to follow (hint: watch the hair), but the story has a robustness that offers constant surprises and emotional resonance. This is a rare thriller that appeals to the mind as much as the gut, taking time to build atmosphere rather than rush from set piece to set piece. It's also distinct enough that fans of the original will find something new.

The Night Before
dir Jonathan Levine; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie 15/US ***
There's no real reason why a stoner bromance can't also be a Christmas movie, although this holiday comedy shows that heartwarming sentiment easily drowns out gross-out antics. This is an unexpectedly warm romp about three best buddies (Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Mackie) who have been each others' family at Christmas but find the demands of life pulling them apart. It's a fairly simple premise, packed with effortless charm, fearless physicality and lots of jokes about drugs and genitalia. But it manages to also weave in some festive magic, including a bit of commentary about the nature of growing up and how friends are our family,even when we forget that. The cast is strong, and there are some hilarious gags peppered all the way through the film, carefully placed amid vulgar jokes that fall flat, some expertly undermined sentimentality and two amusing big-name cameos that deliberately wear out their welcome. Oddly, despite all of the rude humour, the film feels rather gentle and sweet, only rarely revving up to full-speed entertainment. But it's the kind of movie that certain audiences will adopt as their very own Christmas classic.

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I headed back to chilly, damp London from sunny Southern California, but slept through the on-board entertainment (mainly because I'd seen all of the films that were available, well at least those I wanted to see!). I arrived just in time for a press screening of Creed, a terrific boxing movie that carries on the Rocky saga with style. Solid filmmaking and acting lift it far above expectations. This coming week I'll catch up with the all-star financial crash drama The Big Short, the holiday horror Krampus, the British comedy Lost in Karastan and the Cannes winning Rams. And I have several others I need to catch up with as year-end awards voting deadlines loom in various groups I am a member of...

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

On the Road: Family time

Love the Coopers [UK title: Christmas With the Coopers]
dir Jessie Nelson; with Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Alan Arkin 15/US ***.
Marketed as a wacky holiday comedy, it's rather surprising that this film strikes a more serious tone right from the start, with Steve Martin's warm, wry narration introducing us to each member of the sprawling Cooper clan as they reluctantly approach a Christmas Eve dinner together. There are plenty of hilarious moments along the way, but the issues each of these people are dealing with are anything but flippant: this is a film about how life is only very rarely like the happy-glowing images we surround ourselves with at the holidays. And things are beefed up by the powerhouse cast swirling around the terrific Keaton and Goodman in the central roles as a couple at the end of their tether after 40 years of marriage. Olivia Wilde and Ed Helms have strong scenes as their conflicted children, Arkin finds some new nuances in his usual patriarchal role, Marisa Tomei gets the film's most complex role as Keaton's drifting sister. With the multistrand approach, the film feels eerily similar to Love Actually, except with everyone directly related to each other (plus outsiders nicely underplayed by Amanda Seyfried, Anthony Mackie and Jake Lacy). And the large cast kind of spreads the depth around between them, never quite pushing any single character too far. But there's something to engage with in each of them, and the nostalgic emotional surge is meaningful and thankfully not overly sentimental.

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I'm still out in California for a few more days - hope to catch a couple of films this weekend, including Secret in Their Eyes (a remake of a favourite film, but the top-notch cast makes it look unmissable) and The Night Before (which looks like it might be mindless fun).

Saturday, 14 November 2015

On the Road: Going underground

The 33
dir Patricia Riggen; with Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche 15/Chl ***.Based on the true story of the 2010 Chilean mining disaster that captured the world's attention, this film starts out like a rather standard B-movie, with lots of corny melodrama and characters that have clearly been ramped up for dramatic effect. Then the astonishing events kick into gear and the film becomes startlingly gripping. Which is unexpected since the outcome is so well-known. But director Riggen, while never indulging in anything very flashy or inventive, quietly keeps the film grounded in reality, deepening the characters and situations by showing the side of the story the news media never reported. She also cleverly indulges in lots of religious imagery, while letting her starry cast do their thing to create engaging characters we can't help but root for. Banderas, Binoche and Santoro all get a chance to shine, as does a rather underused Lou Diamond Phillips. So even if it feels rather like a by-the-books TV disaster movie, the film works its way under the skin. And the final scenes (plus a black and white coda) carry a solid emotional kick.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

On the Road: Nice work if you can get it

Our Brand Is Crisis
dir David Gordon Green; with Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton 15/US ***.
Despite an uneven tone, this breezy political drama touches on several important themes as it freewheels through a scruffy story of American campaign strategists working for rival candidates in an election for Bolivia's president. Based loosely on real people, the film has an authenticity to it that holds the attention, even as it veers wildly between politics, comedy and even slapstick. Of course, Bullock can bridge these gaps effortlessly, and she's terrific as the burn-out reluctantly making a comeback against her fiercest rival, played by an underused Thornton. But then all of the supporting roles are thinly written. This is Bullock's show, and her performance makes the film worth a look. As does what it says about the American political system.  

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There are several other films out now in America that I'm hoping to catch up with, including The 33 and By the Sea, and also - purely for work reasons of course, as they open later in the UK - The Peanuts Movie and Love the Coopers.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Critical Week: One last shot

Yes, UK critics saw another of the year's most anticipated films this week, the final instalment in the franchise: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. The A-list cast and Suzanne Collins' terrific source material continue to make this a superior series, with a epic-sized conclusion that's packed with strongly emotional moments in between the action mayhem. Jennifer Lawrence's usual costar Bradley Cooper leads the cast of the super-chef drama Burnt, which never quite sells either the story or the too-fancy food, but it's watchable enough.

Also this past week, we had a look at two prestige films going for awards-season attention: Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is a superb investigative drama about a news team (led byMark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton) looking into Boston's abusive priest scandal; Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies is a stately period thriller starring Tom Hanks as a negotiator navigating the tricky waters of Cold War Berlin.

At the other end of the spectrum, the nonsensical South African action movie Momentum stars a plucky Olga Kurylenko being chased by a scene-chomping James Purefoy. Somewhere in the middle, The Queen of Ireland is a fabulous, inspiring doc about Rory O'Neill and his iconic drag alter ego Panti Bliss; and the earthy, honest Mexican drama Velociraptor centres on two teens exploring their sexuality as the world is about to end.

I'll be in America over the next two weeks, so hope to catch up with several things that are out there but haven't screened here, including The Peanuts Movie, The 33, By the Sea, Love the Coopers and Secret in Their Eyes. We'll see how that goes! Watch this space...

Thursday, 29 October 2015

A visit to Twin Peaks

Extended until 21st November, The Owls Are Not What They Seem is a Twin Peaks fan experience in Central London that plays on the 25-year-old TV series' now iconic imagery and characters. It's interactive and immersive, with a terrific cast of characters and a range of food and drink inspired by the show.

On arrival, you're given an identity. I had come as my Twin Peaks alter-ego One-eyed Jack, and there I was told I was a "self-medicating divorcee" with a small task to carry out. Ushered into a diner, we were given what looked like a cup of coffee but what actually a coffee cocktail, followed by three courses of rather witty food - from another coffee-themed bowl of soup (with savoury dipping donuts) to a breakfast-style main course and of course cherry pie with a caraway twist at the end.

The inventive food is provided by Blanch & Shock, while the entire experience is created by Lemonade and Laughing Gas. Actors playing variations on the series' characters continually appear to improvise some riotously funny drama, leading us into other areas of the sprawling site, including a cocktail bar with some rather seedy rooms off to the side, and a road house with a live show (including a fire eater). Along the way I was arrested by a thug who had been deputised. And I had several hand-made cocktails courtesy of the sponsor Wild Turkey Bourbon.

While this installation isn't officially linked to Twin Peaks or David Lynch, it's packed with references that will send chills up fans' spines. I particularly enjoyed the long red-curtained corridor, in which I of course had to do a little dwarf dance of joy.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that I was a huge fan of the show in 1990-1991. I first saw the pilot as a movie projected in a vast cinema at the Miami Film Festival, and was glued to the series as it unfolded. In the summer of 1991, I visited relatives in Seattle and took a drive to Snoqualmie, where the show was filmed, seeing that sinister waterfall first hand and having some damn fine pie and coffee at the real Double-R diner. I was also a card-carrying member of Operation Pine Weasel, writing letters and campaigning to save the show from cancellation. We were successful after the first season, but when the show became more obtuse in the second year, nothing we could do would save it.

And now David Lynch is reassembling the cast for a new season that is scheduled to be broadcast in 2017. To prepare for this evening, I binge watched 15 of the 30 shows that were made - and I had forgotten that the red curtained room scenes were set "25 years later", which is now. 


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Critical Week: A cry for help

Jennifer Connelly gives a storming performance in Shelter, written and directed by her husband Paul Bettany and costarring the excellent Anthony Mackie. The film tries to say too much about homelessness, but the drama is involving and the themes important. I've tried to keep this week a bit slow screening-wise, but caught the British comedy A Christmas Star, a goofy romp in the vein of the Nativity! movies - in other words, almost charming enough to make up for its silliness. And The Hallow is an Irish horror about a family that finds sludgy demons living in the woods. It's enjoyably yucky, but not very scary.

But of course the big film of the week was Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed because it combines the darkly personal elements of Skyfall with old-style 007 storytelling. And for sheer wonder, I have binge-watched the entire first series of David Lynch and Mark Frost's 25-year-old classic gonzo mystery Twin Peaks and am now diving into the second, which I know will remember was more troublingly surreal. I hadn't seen the show since it originally aired 1990-1992, when I participated in Operation Pine Weasel to save the show from cancellation! On Wednesday evening I'm attending the London diner/bar experience The Owls Are Not What They Seem - and I'll cover it here later this week.

I'm preparing for a break in November, so have a few films to catch up with over the next week, including awards-season contenders like Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies and Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, as well as the horror comedy Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse, the South African heist movie Momentum and the drag-queen doc Queen of Ireland.