Thursday, 18 December 2008

Critical Week: Winding down

It's that time of the year when awards-grabbing movies really go for broke. And in the USA, especially, the release schedules (in Los Angeles and New York) are packed with prestige movies, while critics and awards voters crowd into darkened screening rooms to make sure they see all of the contenders in time for voting deadlines.

Well, my deadline for the London Film Critics was on Tuesday, so I feel like 2008 is a wrap for me. Although I am still watching late-entries before voting as an Online Film Critic next week. The big guns I've seen since the last post include David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Will Smith's Seven Pounds and Stephen Daldry's The Reader - all worthy films with plenty to recommend about them. But the best of this late bunch is, hands down, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. I have no idea how he does it, but he consistently shows up right at the end with one of the best films of the year, and this is one of his best films ever - both as a director and actor (he even sings the theme song, which he wrote!).

Stirred in between those high-profile things were lower-denominator fare like Adam Sandler's not-too-funny Bedtime Stories, Jim Carrey's not-so-funny Yes Man, Keanu Reeves' not-so-good The Day the Earth Stood Still. These are the films that will make all the money, alas.

Better have been the gloom-and-doom docs like I.O.U.S.A. and The Age of Stupid - neither is very hopeful, but if they wake us up they're worth the effort. And The Tale of Despereaux is a surprisingly lovely bit of animation. I'm also catching up with year-end contenders like Tilda Swinton's Julia and the Swedish favourite Let the Right One In. And I have my last actual press screening of the year this morning. Whew!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Critical Week: The big guns

Movies don't get much bigger than Baz Luhrmann's Australia! (No, the title doesn't actually have an exclamation mark in it, but it should.) Massively sweeping at 2 hours 45 minutes, it wallows happily in camp and cheese and sentiment, and is so thoroughly entertaining that you don't want it to end. So few filmmakers have the nerve to make movies like this anymore that you can't help but sit back and love it. And both Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman simply ooze movie star chemistry and presence. Whether it connects with awards voters is another issue altogether - they haven't quite known what to do with Lurhmann's previous stabs at genius.

Otherwise, over the past week I've had a break from worthy year-end movies, although it's all about to crank up again soon. This past week has gone to the dogs: Bolt and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, to be specific. Both films overcome their limitations to offer genuinely enjoyable entertainment. Slightly more serious is Yoji Yamada's terrific third samurai drama, Love and Honour, and the astonishingly engaging steroid documentary Bigger Faster Stronger, which gets far deeper into its subject matter than we expect.

Today I'll be at the press conference for The Spirit with Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes, and upcoming films include Seven Pounds, The Reader, Bedtime Stories, The Tale of Despereaux and The International.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Critical Week: For your consideration

Awards season is clearly in full swing now, as buzz grows for year-end movies that have a chance of grabbing Oscar attention. It's still a bit early, but that doesn't stop the bloggers from sticking their necks out. I'll launch my annual Shadows Sweepstakes next week, trying to keep track of all the brouhaha between now and Oscar night.

In the meantime, I am trying to catch the contenders before my voting deadlines. In the past week I saw Daniel Craig's WWII thriller Defiance (great story but probably only technical awards), Gus Van Sant's emotional/political Milk (could sweep the boards in virtually every category except, ahem, actresses), Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road (terrific acting from Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio), John Patrick Shanley's Doubt (nomination alerts for Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and most notably Viola Davis).

Meanwhile, I also caught up with some documentaries (Trouble the Water and Tis Autumn), foreign gems (Lemon Tree and Moscow Belgium), so-so comedies (Four Christmases and Sex Drive) and box office clout (Twilight). But the most fun I had in the cinema was at what was easily the worse film I saw: Jason Statham's return as monosyllabic, over-muscled driver Frank Martin in Transporter 3. So incredibly stupid, and also a pure guilty pleasure.

Next up: Australia, Seven Pounds, The Reader and Bolt.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Critical Week: After the break

I took a slightly surreal break to recover from the intensity of the London Film Festival: I went to Los Angeles on holiday and only saw one movie while I was there! This is fairly unheard-of behaviour for a British film critic. Usually we indulge in as many movies as possible when we're in the USA, trying to get ahead of the lag in British release/screening schedules. And being in L.A. meant that I could have gone to press screenings out there.

But I didn't, because I was on vacation, which to me means no movies!

That said, I did watch Mamma Mia! for a third time on the flight over there, I caught up with the superb documentary Young@Heart on video at my aunt's house, and I went to the cinema with a friend to see the surprisingly decent Paul Rudd/Seann William Scott comedy Role Models.

Back in London, the holiday's over. In the last two days, I've already seen Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (another surprise: even better than the first one), To Get to Heaven First You Have to Die (a pretty cool Tajik film that's not nearly as gloomy as the title suggests), and Defiance (the all-star WWII Nazi-resistance drama).

And tonight I have one of the year's most hotly anticipated films, Gus Van Sant's perhaps too-timely Milk, which the trailer promises features a startling performance from Sean Penn, as well as more fine work this year from Josh Brolin and James Franco. Also this week I'll catch up with James Marsden and Seth Green in Sex Drive, Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn in Four Christmases, and the Belgian rom-com Moscow Belgium, among other things.

It's certainly the right weather for moviegoing. And with the awards-season buzz starting to crank up (and for-your-consideration screenings getting underway), eyes are starting to focus on February's Bafta and Oscar love-fests. Although as a member of the awards committee of the London Film Critics' Circle, I have my own awards-event madness to attend to before those events. Bring it on...

Friday, 31 October 2008

LFF16: That's all, folks!

The 52nd London Film Festival came to a close last night with the European premiere of Danny Boyle's terrific new film Slumdog Millionaire. Those braving a particularly chilly red carpet last night in Leicester Square included (l to r) Boyle, actors Freida Pinto and Anil Kapoor, co-director Loveleen Tandan, lead actor Dev Patel and writer Simon Beaufoy.

Slumdog Millionaire *****
Danny Boyle injects such a sharp blast of real-life energy to this story that we can't help but be carried away. It's easily one of the most enjoyable movies of the year, and there's some extremely dark and serious stuff going on here as well in this tale of a young guy from the slums (the superb Dev Patel) who somehow manages to become a winner on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Telling his life story through the questions he's asked on the show is extremely clever, and there are some terrific twists that come later on, leaving out hearts pounding with tension and emotion before the cast cuts loose in a closing credits Bollywood number. It's a simply wonderful movie that can't help but gather extrordinary word-of-mouth and awards buzz.

My top 10 films of the fest
  1. Hunger - Steve McQueen's astonishing look at the 1981 IRA hunger strike.
  2. Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle's remarkable Indian drama.
  3. The Wrestler - Darren Aronofsky's expert portrait of a has-been.
  4. The Class - Laurent Cantet's riveting year in a Paris high school.
  5. Of Time and the City - Terence Davies' cheeky and moving ode to Liverpool.
  6. Sugar - Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's engagingly hopeful immigration drama.
  7. Waltz With Bashir - Ari Folman's involving animated documentary about war.
  8. Frost/Nixon - Peter Morgan's bracing take on the collision between two personalities.
  9. The Baader Meinhof Complex - a stunning epic drama about 1970s German terrorism.
  10. Gonzo - Alex Gibney's astute and entertaining look at Hunter S Thompson.
This year's award winners
  • Fipresci Award: Three Blind Mice (Matthew Newton)
  • First feature (Sutherland Trophy): Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy)
  • Documentary (Grierson Award): Victoire Terminus (Barret and De La Tullaye)
  • Satyajit Ray Award: Mid-August Lunch (Gianni di Gregorio)
  • Achievement in Film Award: Ralph Fiennes
As I've said before, London is perhaps the least festive film festival on earth. There's no atmosphere at all unless you're in the VIP circles (which doesn't include any jobbing journalists) - it's all about the movies themselves, and crowds turn out to see big titles before they open or smaller films that will never be seen anywhere else. The festival organisers have a reputation for programming extremely good films, with very few duds, so there's plenty for fans to enjoy.

But it would be nice if there was a bit more fun on offer. Virtually every other festival on earth has public venues (cafes or bars) where people can mix with the filmmakers after the screenings, rather than having them whisked off in a labelled fleet of cars like London does. These gathering spots create a real celebratory atmosphere, which is completely lacking at the LFF, and is a bit odd since they now have such a nice space for this kind of thing at the BFI Southbank.

Here's hoping that next year the fun can be extended to the public and the press (which also needs much better facilities in which to work). But at least we know we'll have two weeks of amazing movies to sink our teeth into.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

LFF15: Everybody who's anybody

The cast of the new Noel Coward comedy Easy Virtue showed up to support their film at the London Film Festival (that's Kimberly Nixon, Kris Marshall, Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Jessica Biel and Charlotte Riley standing around director Stephan Elliott). But last night all eyes were across Leicester Square as virtually everybody who's anybody in London attended the royal world premiere of the new James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, which then had its first public screening at the LFF. In addition to the whole cast and crew, the rather random selection of stars on the red carpet included: Princes William and Harry, Mayor Boris Johnson, Elle Macpherson, Saint Bob Geldof, kilt-wearing cycling god Chris Hoy and, erm, Harrod's boss Mohammed al Fayed.

Meanwhile, here are a few notes on films from yesterday and today...

Che: Part Two ****
The second half of Steven Soderbergh's epic biopic (subtitled Guerrilla) is a more linear tale than part one, detailing Ernesto "Che" Guevara's year in Bolivia as he gathered and trained rebels in an attempt to ignite a Cuba-style revolution to overthrow the tyranical, US-backed government. Nothing much happens in the film, which follows the scruffy guerrillas through the mountain forests as they try to evade American-trained commandos and drum up support from peasants who are too terrified to trust them. It's a slow-burn movie, building tension gradually and never boiling over into big movie action scenes - most of the time we are just as impatient for something to happen as the rebels are! But it's also bracingly well-made, with strong performances and strongly relevant themes about standing up for justice in an unjust world - no matter what it costs.

The Betrayal ***
Cinematographer Ellen Kuras spent 23 years filming this documentary about a family from Laos that was caught up in and shattered by American intervention during the Vietnam War. Kuras worked with Thavisouk Phrasavath to write and direct his own story - combining family photos, newsreel footage and new scenes shot with his mother and nine siblings, who escaped from Laos and moved to New York, where their life has taken some surprisingly dark turns. It's a beautifully assembled film, perhaps a bit too earnest but also vitally important.

The Good the Bad the Weird ***
From Korea, this unhinged, high-energy tribute to the Western is great fun to watch even as its raucous pace wears us out. The story centres on 1930s three bandits (see the title for clues) who cross paths during an epic train robbery and then chase each other into the wilds of Manchuria while battling Asian gangs and the occupying Japanese army. The story races at full speed from the start, with mind-bogglingly complicated battles and outrageous stuntwork, plus lots of slapstick humour and plenty of surprising twists and turns. It's utterly mad, but thoroughly entertaining.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

LFF14: Serious acting

Ralph Fiennes was on hand at the London Film Festival to collect the Variety UK Achievement in Film Award here. I'm not completely sure what this awards means, but it looks like a very nice chunk of glass.

Meanwhile, out on the red carpet last night were Colin Firth, Jessica Biehl and Ben Barnes for the premiere of their Noel Coward film Easy Virtue; Dougray Scott with filmmaker Richard Jobson for New Town Killers; and Charlie Kaufman for Synecdoche, New York.

Here are a few notes on films in the festival yesterday and today...

Quantum of Solace ****
Yes, the new James Bond film will get its first public screening tonight at the LFF, just after its massive premiere on the other side of Leicester Square (the film opens in the UK on Friday). It's a direct sequel to Casino Royale, picking up the story immediately as Bond seeks answers and revenge after the death of his girlfriend. In other words, it's a much more internalised 007 movie than we're used to - centred more on the drama going on in Bond's head than a megalomaniac (in this case Mathieu Amalric) trying to take over the world. And the action is once again bone-crunchingly rough, sofuccing on stunt work rather than gadgets. This is the kind of action film I love - as it appeals to the heart as well as the gut. But fans who like more mindless action may be annoyed.

Not Quite Hollywood ****
This documentary about Australian exploitation cinema (or "Ozploitation!") is raucous good fun, trawling through nearly 40 years of unhinged movies that gleefully trample all over every concept of good taste. It's loaded with pristine clips from all of these films, plus interviews with filmmakers, actors and big-name fans. From ocker comedies to gross-out horror to marauding road gangs (like Mad Max), this film chronicles an important movement in world cinema that's still influencing what we see now. And it's also fast, crazed and hysterically good fun.

The Beaches of Agnes ****
From the ridiculous to the sublime, this documentary by French filmmaker-photographer Agnes Varda traces her life and work with ironic set pieces, telling film clips, witty dramatic recreations and lots of stories about her encounters with her famous friends over the years. What emerges is a lovely exploration of life, looking back from age 80 and constantly cycling back to the love of her life (filmmaker Jacques Demy) and their children. And it's all linked by scenes shot on various beaches - in her childhood Belgium, France, Hollywood and even a makeshift sandbar on a street in Paris.

The Market ****
British director Ben Hopkins travels to the eastern border of Turkey to tell an engaging story of a man trying to get the most out of the free market system without losing his soul to greed and unethical behaviour. It's a warm combination of family drama and road movie, packed with comedy and emotion, and beautifully filmed and acted. There are also, of course, incredibly relevant themes running right through it, all handled with a deft light touch.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

LFF13: Offbeat rhythms

It was another busy night on the red carpet in Leicester Square on Monday, with the charge led by Rachel Weisz for The Brothers Bloom, accompanied by writer-director Rian Johnson. Also out were Alex Gibney (Gonzo) and the Dardenne brothers (The Silence of Lorna). The festival is beginning to wind down in its final few days, although the pace hasn't slowed down at all.

Highlights from yesterday and today...

Synecdoche, New York ****
Charlie Kaufman moves into the director's seat with this bizarre comedy-drama, which is so surreal that it makes his earlier films (like Being John Malkovich or Adaptation) seem gritty and earthy by comparison. But Philip Seymour Hoffman is so good in the central role that we go with it, and he's surrounded by terrific actresses, including Catherine Keener (again!), the wonderful Samantha Morton, Dianne Wiest and a surprising Emily Watson. What emerges is a sublime and provocative examination of human pride and the fear of death. It's like Woody Allen meets David Lynch - you'll laugh and sigh and have your brain tickled, but you'll have no idea what it's about.

Che: Part One ****
Steven Soderbergh's ambitious biopic of Ernesto "Che" Guevara features a terrific performance from Benicio Del Toro as the doctor-turned revolutionary, a journey documented here in Part One (which is subtitled The Argentine). It's a very well-made film, cross-cutting between Guevara's trip to New York in 1964, where he was interviewed by a TV journalist and spoke to the UN, and his role in the Cuban revolution of the late 1950s, with a series of skirmishes in the jungle on the way to Havana. It's bold and relevant and thoroughly engaging. I'm seeing Part Two on Wednesday, and I think it's wise to split them!

Lion's Den ****
This prison drama from Argentine is so realistic that it's not always easy to watch. It picks up after a horrific crime, when woman (Martina Gusman) is arrested for her possible role in a violent murder and discovers she's pregnant. Setting a film in the maternity wing of a prison is especially clever, as it brings hope into a hopeless place. And the film is assembled as a journey that's utterly gripping from start to finish.

The Brothers Bloom ***
Thoroughly entertaining, this film is a bit too wilfully quirky for its own good, combining genres and time periods in extremely odd ways. But the central characters are hugely engaging: con artist brothers Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo, plus their eccentric mark Rachel Weisz and their silent partner-in-crime Rinko Kikuchi. Being a wacky con-man romp, we know there will be a lot of twists and turns in the story, and writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick) certain doesn't disappoint us there. Although we're never quite sure if this is a comedy or a tragedy, so it's difficult to get in sync with the film's peculiar rhythm.

Monday, 27 October 2008

LFF12: Surprise!

The surprise film last night was Darren Aronofsky's Venice-winning The Wrestler, which was one of the films on a short list of possible titles being batted around by us critics. Even though I'd already seen the film, I was happy to watch it again, because it's a real gem. Also, at the end of the screening, Aronofsky and his star Mickey Rourke (who should win the Oscar for this, frankly) took the stage for a long and hilariously raucous Q&A session. Rourke was relaxed and too-cool in his snakeskin jeans, and the banter between the two men was terrific.

Here are some highlights from yesterday and today...

The Secret of Moonacre **
The tone of this fantasy adventure is eerily unsteady, veering from silly slapstick to earnest tragedy and never quite settling down at all. And the plot - about a girl (played by The Golden Compass' Dakota Blue Richards) who discovers that she holds the key to ending a generations-old family feud and saving the planet - is just a bit too wacky for its own good. The production design is also a problem, with sets and costumes that are both overwrought and underaged. At least most of the cast is good.

Hamlet 2 ***
Steve Coogan plays a high school drama teacher in Tucson who writes an ambitious and potentially offensive musical sequel to Shakespeare's classic. The first half of the film is resolutely unfunny, with Coogan overplaying every broad gag to the point where you couldn't laugh if you wanted to. Then something happens: Catherine Keener cuts loose, Amy Poehler shows up, and it gets very funny indeed. By the time his cast is performing the stage production's show-stopper Rock Me, Sexy Jesus, we want to stand up and sing along.

The Wrestler *****
Darren Aronofsky switches styles completely for this doc-style drama about a professional wrestler who's still struggling in the ring two decades after his hey day in the 1980s. Mickey Rourke's astonishing central performance gives the film both a lively sense of humour and a surprising amount of heart - he's a force of nature on screen, and is absolutely superb here. His interaction with Marisa Tomei (as his stripper semi-girlfriend) and Evan Rachel Wood (as his estranged daughter) is simply wonderful. In a fair world this film would be up for every Oscar out there.

Easy Virtue ***
This British class comedy, based on the Noel Coward play, has enough sparky humour to keep us entertained, plus terrific supporting performances from Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth. The central roles are a bit trickier, but Jessica Biehl and Ben Barnes keep them lively and often very funny, if not terribly complicated. And even though the bitterness and passion never boil over like we hope they will, it's still great fun, and has a nice message about how life experiences change us.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

LFF11: Revolutionaries

It was Benicio Del Toro's turn on the London Film Festival red carpet in Leicester Square last night, arriving with Steven Soderbergh for the premiere of their four-hour biopic of Che. Also out last night to support their British films were director Nick Moran and the cast of his rambunctious Joe Meek biopic Telstar, and director Justin Kerrigan with Robert Carlyle for I Know You Know.

Here are some highlights from yesterday, today and tomorrow...

Vicky Christina Barcelona ****
Woody Allen returns with his fourth Euro-film in a row, and this Spanish production is one of his best in decades: the lively tale of two Americans (the superb Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) who spend a summer in Spain and have very different romances with a local painter (Javier Bardem at his most seductive). Then his passionately unstable exwife (Penelope Cruz, on fire) shows up. Hilarious comedy and astute observations about art and love combine into a thoroughly entertaining romp.

Wendy & Lucy ****
Michelle Williams is terrific in this low-key drama about a woman on a road trip to start a new life with her faithful dog, but plans are derailed in Oregon when her car breaks down and her dog goes missing. Like writer-director Kelly Reichert's previous Old Joy, this film is infused with a sense of disappointment in the way society lets people down through self-interest and ignorance, but there's still a glimmer of hope. And Williams gets it exactly right.

Gonzo *****
After his jaw-dropping doc Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney is back with this expertly assembled look at "The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson", the out-there journalist who put himself into the middle of his stories and was almost frighteningly honest about what he saw. His love of guns and drugs made most people label him a "freak", but in his quest for even one honest politician he could support, we realise that we need journalists like him now more than ever.

The Silence of Lorna ***
The Dardenne brothers won yet another Cannes award for this beautiful drama that combines genres to tell a story about an Albanian immigrant (Arta Dobroshi) who gets Belgian citizenship by marrying a junkie (the superb Jeremie Renier), then has serious doubts about the next stage in her handlers' plans for her. This is a harrowing look at both drug addiction and human trafficking, but is told with a deeply personal touch.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

LFF10: London loves...

Crowds braved the chilly weather for a second night on Friday to watch a series of short films on a big screen in Trafalgar Square, accompanied by pianist Neil Brand. The classic shorts, all set in London, spanned the first 50 years of film history. Meanwhile, on the red carpet in Leicester Square, Kelly Reichert presented her new film Wendy and Lucy, Daniel Mays and director Eran Creevy came for the world premiere of their London drama Shifty, Ari Folman brought his animated doc Waltz With Bashir, and Jean-Stephane Sauvaire brought his Liberia-shot war film Johnny Mad Dog.

A few highlights from the festival yesterday, today and tomorrow...

American Teen ***
Shot and edited like a reality TV show, but clearly partly fictionalised, this lively and very clever film follows a group of Indiana teens through their senior year in high school. It's a little too constructed to really believe (especially since cameras catch things that would be impossible in a true doc), but the characters are vivid and likeable. Their struggles and angst are nothing remotely new, but for them, of course, it's like the end of the world.

Frozen River ****
Melissa Leo gives a wonderfully moving performance in this extremely timely tale of a fractured family on the verge of financial oblivion. As she and her sons get creative about making money, we know trouble is looming, but filmmaker Courtney Hunt has some surprises for us, including an intriguing look at the tension between residents of upstate New York and the Mohawk reservation that sits on either side of the icy US-Canada border.

Telstar ****
The story of music pioneer Joe Meek is told in period style, as a madcap 1960s comedy-drama tracing his outrageous rollercoaster career as the guy who produced the first British record to go No 1 in America. The film, directed by actor Nick Moran, had so much energy that it's almost exhausting, but it also keeps us thoroughly entertained with the antics of Joe and his merry band of musicians. And when it all goes horribly wrong, Joe's descent into paranoia is truly terrifying.

The Baader Meinhof Complex *****
The late-60s and early 70s in Germany were extremely turbulent times, mainly due to the activities of activists like Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), and this film expertly follows their tense partnership and rise to prominence, and then the even more virulent group of terrorists who took on their name after they were arrested. The film pulsates with energy and authenticity, packed with gripping dialog and daring escapes while finding present-day parallels that are extremely chilling.

Friday, 24 October 2008

LFF9: Press the flesh

Josh Brolin braved the gloomy weather last night to attend the London premiere of W, taking time to sign autographs along with Oliver Stone, Elizabeth Banks, Toby Jones and Thandie Newton. Also out last night were Paul Bettany (again) with Sophie Okonedo and director Gina Prince-Blythewood for The Secret Life of Bees, and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck with their new star Algenis Perez Soto for Sugar. Meanwhile, around the corner in Trafalgar Square, pianist Neil Band performed live accompaniment for the film High Treason on a large public screen.

Here are notes on films from yesterday and today...

W ***
Oliver Stone's biopic is thoroughly entertaining, but doesn't seem to go quite far enough as a portrait of the man who has shaped our world more than anyone else at the moment. Parts are played as an almost circus-like comedy, while the film's through-line is a fairly standard father-son movie dynamic. That said, the acting is first-rate - most notably from John Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, James Cromwell and Toby Jones.

Waltz With Bashir ****
Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman has made perhaps the world's first animated documentary, using his and his friends' recollections of their military service in the 1980s to reconstruct a powerful and thoughful examination of the pointless of war. And the animation is utterly magical, allowing him to go much further that he would have be able to do with historical footage. A real achievement.

Sex Positive ***
This straightforward documentary is fascinating on two levels: as a chronicle of the early days of Aids/HIV in America and as an examination of a man who went against the system to face a serious issue head-on. This is a story that has rarely been told, and while there are still some holes in this account, it gets much further under the surface than anything we've seen before, especially in the way it looks at the notorious Richard Berkowitz's life and work.

The Other Man **
An odd misstep from filmmaker Richard Eyre, this slick drama stars Liam Neeson as a man obsessed with learning more about the man (Antonio Banderas) he has discovered was having an affair with his wife (Laura Linney) before she left him. The problem is that the film can't decide whether it's an obsessive thriller, a family melodrama or an ode to lost love. And the script manipulates us so badly by withholding key plot information (for no discernible reason) that it leaves us seriously annoyed.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

LFF8: Homegrown talent

Paul Bettany turned up at the London Film Festival last night, laughing about the bald head he's sporting as part of the now-filming Darwin drama Creation. He was supporting a small British film he's in, Broken Lines, accompanied by his costar (and the film's cowriter) Doraly Rosa and director Salli Aprahamian. Their post-film Q&A (picture snapped with my phone) was lively and entertaining. As we left the cinema, the red carpet was in full swing for Michael Winterbottom's new film Genova, starring Colin Firth (pictured with Winterbottom), who was accompanied by his costars Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine. Their film was introduced by London Mayor Boris Johnson. They had a big party last night, but as usual, mere journalists weren't in on the festivities.

The big gala tonight is the British premiere of Oliver Stone's W, which I'm seeing this morning. And here are some film highlights from yesterday and today...

Achilles and the Tortoise ***
Takeshi Kitano's latest look at art and commerce is another offbeat bit of nuttiness about the life of a painter who can never quite achieve fame, despite a prolific output. The title refers to an ancient story about how, in a footrace, the lightning fast Achilles can theoretically never catch up with a tortoise, and Kitano is clearly riffing on the elusiveness of fame and fortune. The film is thoroughly enjoyable, but never quite comes together

Broken Lines ***
This low-budget British drama examines one of the festival's recurring themes: how grief can create big changes in our lives. It's the story of two couples (cowriter Doraly Rosa and Paul Bettany, and cowriter Dan Fredenburgh and Olivia Williams) who are in the middle of crises that stir both journeys of self-discovery and relationship re-evaluation. It's a dark, moody, beautifully shot film with some very strong acting, but it's also a bit overlong and indulgent.

Sugar *****
Instead of using their first hit Half Nelson as a springboard into mainstream Hollywood, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck go somewhere far more interesting, following a baseball player (Algenis Perez) from the Dominican Republic on his quest for fame and fortune in America. The film is lushly shot, but assembled like a documentary, which gives the filmmakers the flexibility to be truthful rather than formulaic. Audiences may want to standard plotline, but this is far more interesting. And a seriously lovely film.

The Secret Life of Bees ***
Speaking of warm and fuzzy, this honey-glowed drama from the American South stars Dakota Fanning as a teen who flees her indifferent father (Bettany again) and moves in with a houseful of wise women led by Queen Latifah. The strong cast features Jenifer Hudson, Sophie Okonedo and Alicia Keys, and while the film is over-designed and far too sweet, it also has a nicely raw underdurrent of painful emotion to keep us interested.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

LFF7: On the carpet

It was Penelope Cruz's turn to bring some starry glitz to the London Film Festival red carpet last night for the gala screening of Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona. Although with the weather turning suddenly icy, she must have been freezing in that frock. Keanu Reeves was also at the LFF last night, out to see the music doc Anvil, along with the band's metal-legend members Lips Kudlow and Robb Reiner.

Here are a few highlights from yesterday and today...

Tokyo! ****
This triptych is made up of three 40-minute films that bring the Japanese monster movie into the 21st century. Directors Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho supply first-rate production values and plenty of inventively surreal touches to their fables, and each one is witty, involving and ultimately resonant. And a lot of fun too.

Two Lovers ***
Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as a guy who's either obsessive-compulsive or bipolar or both, but he's also extremely likeable, even when he's drifting into stalker mode over an intriguing neighbour (Gwyneth Paltrow) or accidentally blundering into a sweet romance with a nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw). While slick and efficient, the film is made with no discernible style, and even the plot gives in to easy solutions to complex problems.

Let's Talk About the Rain ***
Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri (Look at Me) assemble this comedy-drama with sharp insights and some terrific characters, but it's all a bit rambling and loose as it follows a film school graduate (Jamel Debbouze) trying to make a documentary about a successful business woman. The film cleverly uses this set-up to examine issues of racism and sexism, but it never quite comes together.

Genova ****
Michael Winterbottom continues with the hand-held video approach from A Mighty Heart for this introspective drama about a widower (Colin Firth) who moves his two daughters (Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine) to Italy to get a fresh start after his wife (Hope Davis) dies in a car accident. The two girls are especially good in this film, which inverts Roeg's Don't Look Now by having a child ominously seeing the ghost of her mother in the narrow Genovan streets. And if it feels a bit slight in the end, there's plenty of strong emotion too.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

LFF6: The backlog

OK, I know it's only Day 6 of the London Film Festival, but the dreaded festival backlog has already set in. This is the point where you realise you're spending too much time watching films and not enough time writing about them - I have about 15 films that I've seen but haven't yet written reviews of. And I have four more films today - when will I be able to write? Of course, it'll only get worse over the next 10 days, but that's the point, eh?

Meanwhile, last night's red carpet glamourpusses included Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), Gwyneth Paltrow (Two Lovers) and Thandie Newton (W). Some festival highlights yesterday and today...

Sunshine Barry and the Disco Worms ***
Offbeat animation from Denmark, this lively and very silly film has pretty apallingly messy animation, even though the characters themselves are cute. What saves this story of a loser who forms a band with his pals is the music itself: all the classic tunes are here, and keep our toes tapping right through to the big finale.

Uprise [A Zona] ***
Portuguese director Sandro Aguilar's experimental examination of grief and tragedy is an extremely difficult piece of cinema - a virtually silent collection of swirling images that suggest moods and connections without ever making anything clear. This deliberate vagueness will alienate most viewers, although cinema fans will enjoy the ethereal quality of the film, plus the striking cinematography and clever editing.

Anvil: The Story of Anvil ****
Documenting the strange journey of Canada's heavy metal veterans, this film is like a true version of Spinal Tap as it follows two guys (Lips Kudlow and Robb Reiner) who have been hugely influential throughout their business but have never found the fame or fortune that their contemporaries have. It's also thoroughly hilarious, as Lips and Robb couldn't be better movie characters if someone had made them up.

Il Divo ***
This ambitious Italian drama traces government corruption on a grand scale, with a bewildering number of characters and complex interrelationships only a student of 1990s Italian politics could keep straight. But it's also a beautifully made film, with solid acting and some surprising emotional scenes along the way.

Monday, 20 October 2008

LFF5: Talking Italian

It was Italian day at the London Film Festival yesterday, with several filmmakers presenting their new work, including Ferzan Ozpetek (pictured with his lead actress Isabelle Ferrari from A Perfect Day, see below, and their translator, left); Antonello Grimaldi and Nanni Moretti (for Quiet Chaos); and Dino and Filippo Gentili with actors Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Massimo de Sanits (for I Am Alive). Also at the festival wereFrance's Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale), Mexico's Fernando Eimbcke (Lake Tahoe), and the cast and crew of Steve McQueen's award-winning Hunger.

Here are some highlights from yesterday and today...

A Perfect Day ****
Italian filmmaker Ferzan Ozpetek is back with his seventh film at the LFF, and this is a shift in tone for him: a darkly emotional drama that centres on an unthinkable tragedy as it examines several strained relationships. Lyrically filmed and acted with boldness and skill, this is a haunting, moving film.

The Warlords ****
This epic retelling of a true story from the Qing dynasty has serious star power in its three lead actors (Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro), who play three waring leaders who form an uneasy alliance. This is then tested to the breaking point by a series of events, and this moral struggle is the best thing about the film. This is big, raw moviemaking, and also slightly rambling.

Adoration ****
Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan continues his ongoing examination of human communication and community with this internalised drama about a teen who writes a harrowing story about his parents, touching a nerve in everyone around him. Strong acting from Scott Speedman (as his guardian uncle) and Arsinee Khanjian (as his teacher) add to the film's dramatic kick.

Rachel Getting Married ****
Jonathan Demme takes a down-to-earth look at a dysfunctional family by returning the straight-talking black sheep (Anne Hathaway) for her sister's wedding. Hathaway is excellent as a woman fighting against her family's perceptions of her, and Debra Winger is absolutely radiant as her distant mother. And the film's tough, raw honesty make it well worth a look.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

LFF4: Pure class

French filmmaker Laurent Cantet faced the media last night at the gala premiere of his acclaimed film The Class, which has already won acres of awards - with more to come. I'm sure there were a few parties on the festival's first Saturday night, but the London Film Festival doesn't invite mere journalists to these things. Frankly, a few parties would make the festival feel a lot more festive - and it would be nice to stop working for an hour or two. I'm already shattered and it's only day 4.

Anyway, here are some highlights from today's line-up...

Lake Tahoe ****
This quirky and charming Mexican film blends the simplicity of Italian neorealism with the wit and emotion of new Mexican cinema as it follows a young guy on an odyssey to fix his car. And his soul. Beautifully understated, very funny and ultimately very moving.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist ***
This wilfully offbeat rom-com tries far too hard to be this year's Juno, right up to borrowing that film's leading man, the engaging Michael Cera, for this all-night romp through the back streets of New York. There are some genuinely hilarious characters and extremely well-written dialog, but it's so constructed that it never feels remotely real.

Hunger *****
Easily my best film of the festival (and of the year so far), this harrowing drama about the 1981 Belfast hunger strike is directed by Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen with a distinct cinematic language that constantly surprises us with its astute observations. And at the centre, the performance by Michael Fassbender (as Bobby Sands) is truly unforgettable.

I Am Alive ****
From Italy, this riveting and wrenchingly black comedy is another all-night odyssey, this time following a guy who's been hired to watch over a dead woman in her father's house, but is distracted beyond reason. As it progresses, the filmmakers create an intriguing relationship between our hero and the corpse - and let him discover his own inner strength. A gem of a film.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

LFF3: Old-world glamour

Peter O'Toole brought his starry presence to the festival red carpet last night, attending the premiere of his new film Dean Spanley with cast members Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam and Judy Parfitt, as well as director Toa Fraser. And elsewhere last night, we had Laura Linney, Liam Neeson and Romola Garai out for The Other Man, and James Toback for Tyson.

Alas, I had another engagement on the other side of Leicester Square: to attend the first screening in the world of the new James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, which premieres at the festival next week. It's a superb film, even darker and more complex than Casino Royale, shifting the focus away from the megalomaniac villian to focus on Bond's internal journey and deeply personal mission. The action is utterly exhilarating, and the side characters are surprisingly textured, but the best thing is seeing how Daniel Craig has has become Bond inside and out - it's a seriously great performance. (Full review next week.)

Meanwhile, today at the 52nd London Film Festival...

Religulous ****
Bill Maher teams with the director of Borat for a similar style of documentary that sets out to examine religion. The result is mixed on that front, as the people Maher talks to are all pretty ridiculous, but the film is hugely entertaining, often laugh-out-loud hilarious, and underscored with some extremely serious ideas that make us think.

Of Time and the City *****
Terence Davies' ode to his home town of Liverpool is a swirling collage of images and memories that's simply gorgeous. He draws us in with intensely personal observations, expressing his opinions and experiences in an almost poetic way that pulls no punches. And beyond a portrait of a city, the film is a sublime look at age and nostalgia.

Incendiary ***
Michelle Williams stars in this rather uneven drama about a horrific terrorist act in London that changes her life completely. Her performance is the reason to see the film, as her reactions are dark and complicated, and her interaction with two men - Ewan McGregor and Matthew Madfadyen - is brittle and very realistic. But the film itself is far too maudlin to really work.

The Class *****
Laurence Cantet's Palme d'Or winner is a stunning observational tale about a year in the life of a teacher in a Paris high school and his classroom of raucous 13- to 15-year-olds. Bracingly realistic, the film takes a look at teens that we rarely see on screen: smart, opinionated and just as conflicted by what life is throwing at them as the adults around them. Simply brilliant.

Friday, 17 October 2008

LFF2: Red carpet statements

More star power descended on Leicester Square last night. Spike Lee was in town to present his new film Miracle at St Anna (right), wearing a rather unsubtle hoodie - no surprise. Meanwhile, at the premiere screening of the British thriller Franklyn, the film's cast members Ryan Phillippe and Eva Green (pictured) plus Sam Riley made a very different statement as they strolled down the red carpet: namely that a bit of youthful global movie glamour was in town.

My day was a bit removed from all of this though - I had my brain stretched in the morning by Charlie Kaufman's bewildering but rather wonderful Synechdoche, New York, then took a witty and enjoyable journey from Turkey to Azerbaijan in The Market, then escaped the festival briefly for a regular press screening of Samuel L Jackson's underwhelming thriller Lakeview Terrace. In between, I interviewed Kiwi director Toa Fraser and actor Jeremy Northam about their work with Peter O'Toole on Dean Spanley, and then talked with James Toback about his frankly gobsmacking bio-doc Tyson. Which brings us to today's festival highlights...

Tyson ****
Rather than take an objective, documentary approach to the life of perhaps the most notorious sportsman ever, filmmaker James Toback takes us on a trip into Miky Tyson's mind. And the result is strikingly cinematic - as well as revealing and even emotional. On seeing the film, Tyson himself said it was like watching a Greek tragedy.

Better Things ****
British filmmaker Duane Hopkins creates a new cinematic language for this unusual drama about teens in an English village. The result is absolutely stunning - but it's not an easy film to watch.

Dean Spanley ****
This quirky period film centres on the idea that a local priest (Sam Neill) just might be the reincarnation of a dog. But this is actually just a distraction from the central plot, which is a moving and insightful look at the brittle relationship between a son (Jeremy Northam) and his father (Peter O'Toole). Brilliant performances and a light touch make this worth seeing.

1 2 3 4 ***
This shaggy British comedy-drama is about a geeky singer-guitarist who puts together a band and then struggles to make it. The characters are vividly spiky, and their interaction is both hilarious and a bit scary. Sadly, the plot kind of drifts away in the final act.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

LFF1: The kick-off

The 52nd London Film Festival kicked off in high style last night with the world premiere of Frost/Nixon, based on Peter Morgan's award-winning play. Cast and crew arrived by red carpet in Leicester Square, including (left to right) Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Ron Howard, Oliver Platt and Matthew Macfadyen. And David Frost was even there to see himself portrayed on screen.

In the festival today:

Frost/Nixon ****
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella make the most of Peter Morgan's astute script, which draws subtle parallels between the White Houses of 1974 and 2008. Absolutely riveting.

La Belle Personne ****
Christophe Honore's latest slice of Paris life, looking at a series of exceptionally well-played love triangles in a high school. Funny and surprisingly emotional.

Three Blind Mice ***

Intriguing Australian drama about three young soldiers who take an allnight odyssey before going back into service. Strong stuff, but feels a bit stagey.

Flame & Citron ***
Epic WWII drama about two hitmen in the Danish resistance who are caught in a murky situation between the Allies and the Nazis. A little over-ambitious, but a superb true story.

Reviews of films I've seen will be posted at the Shadows Festival, and I'll continue to add thumbnails like this between now and closing night on 30th October.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Critical Week: Screen goddess

Sorry this is late this week - I am in the middle of an annual vortex where the London Film Festival, Raindance and my regular work all collide and send my life completely out of control. I saw 13 films this week. But easily the most fun was last night at Raindance, where I attended a screening of the British zombie-rockabilly mash-up Flick, attended by most of the cast, including movie legend Faye Dunaway, who was clearly loving every minute of being here (and being in such an outrageously silly movie).

Raindance is the big independent movie festival here in London, and it continues through next weekend. Meanwhile, press screenings started for the 52nd London Film Festival (15-30 Oct). And I also saw several films that will open over the next few weeks, including big tickets like Inkheart (a lively fantasy with Paul Bettany, Brendan Fraser, Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent); High School Musical 3 (Zac Efron and gang are back for more colourful choreography); Burn After Reading (the Coens' latest comedy of idiocy); and Eagle Eye (Shia LaBeouf's latest action thriller). There have also been a lot of smaller things from countries like Italy, France, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Korea.

This coming week will carry on the globe-hopping, with more festival films from all over the world, plus mainstream releases like the animated comedy Igor, the British drama Summer, the sci-fi adventure The Mutant Chronicles and the fantasy film City of Ember. I'll also try to get back on schedule here - and of course during the London Film Festival this blog will go daily. Exciting, eh?

Monday, 22 September 2008

Critical Week: Let love rule

Well, it's pretty easy to know which cinematic event was the biggest of the past week for me. I was invited to the Peace One Day celebration at the Royal Albert Hall last night, including a special screening of the new documentary The Day After Peace, in which filmmaker Jeremy Gilley tracks his 10-year process to try to get the UN to back a global cease fire for one day every year (aka Peace Day, 21 Sep). The film's climax is a trip with Jude Law to Afghanistan to begin the process of brokering peace there - with astonishing results. Before and after the film, the night was hosted by Law and Gilley live on stage, with acoustic sets by Peter Gabriel (low-res picture courtesy my phone), Annie Lennox, Lenny Kravitz and Bryan Adams, as well as John Legend and his 10-piece band. Visit the Peace One Day site for more info.

Back to the regular movies now, and it was a very mixed bag: from the tribal rhythms of Chiwetel's fierce performance in David Mamet's Redbelt to the hysterical French spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies; from Ulrich Seidl's harrowing Ukraine-Austria drama Import Export to the utterly ridiculous and surprisingly charming The House Bunny; from the grisly horror of Quarantine, a shot-for-shot remake of Spanish cult gem Rec, to gorgeous Imax 3D animation with a corny story in Fly Me to the Moon. Honestly, it's amazing that I haven't developed some sort of split personality.

And this coming week is more of the same, with a couple of things I'm looking forward to for very different reasons: DeNiro and Pacino squaring off in Righteous Kill, likeable action musclehead Jason Statham in Death Race, Richard Gere and Diane Lane reuniting for Nights in Rodanthe, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen riding the Wild West in Appaloosa, and Brendan Fraser joined in Inkheart by an all-star cast including Helen Mirren, Paul Bettany and Jim Broadbent. Plus I have a little trip around Europe with Richard Jenkins in British freak-out thriller The Broken, Italian political intrigue in Il Divo, 1960s German terrorists in The Baader Meinhof Complex, and Manoel de Oliveira's 40-years-later Belle de Jour sequel Belle Toujours.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Critical Week: My eyes!

It was another busy week in filmland! As the Toronto and Venice film festivals overlapped, I was here in London sitting in darkened screening rooms. A nice place to be while the weather was as gloomy as that - although it perked up nicely for a sunshiny weekend.

Big films for me this past week included the new Fernando Meirelles movie Blindness, with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo navigating a seriously freak-out apocalypse - and a seriously haunting film. The Women featured Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and a cast of only females in a rather light version of Sex and the City. Choke, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel, gave Sam Rockwell another outrageously hilarious role to sink his fangs into. And Barry Levinson's What Just Happened is a savvy, entertaining look under the veneer of Hollywood.

Further under the radar were Partition, with Jimi Mistry, Neve Campbell and Kristin Kreuk telling a Romeo & Juliet tale on the India-Pakistan border in 1947. Gonzo is a terrific doc about Hunter S Thompson, as examined by the filmmaker who gave us the masterful Oscar winner Taxi to the Dark Side. Zombie Strippers is an utterly unapologetic exploitation B-movie - and it's pretty funny too. And House of Usher is a shockingly inept made for cable movie written by a friend of mine - the script is genius, but the acting and directing are, erm, diabolical. And I also found time to rewatch one of my all-time favourites, Hitchcock's Rear Window, which features Grace Kelly at her most drop-dead gorgeous.

This coming week's delectable delights include Chewitel Ejiofor in David Mamet's Redbelt, Ulrich Seidl's Austria-Ukraine odyssey Import Export, the American remake of the cult Spanish film Rec, Quarantine, the 3D Imax animation Fly Me to the Moon, an arthouse oddity called OSS-117 Cairo Nest of Spies and the Peace Day doc The Day After Peace. It's not a bad job to watch all these things - the work comes in figuring out what to write or say about them when the time comes....

Monday, 8 September 2008

Critical Week: Well are you?

The big event for me last week was the RocknRolla junket, presented in fine style on the Southbank with Guy Ritchie, Joel Silver and the whole cast. I even got the t-shirt to prove I was there. (For the full story, read the feature.) Other press events last week included the launch of the British Film Institute's 75th anniversary celebrations this month, and the launch for the upcoming Raindance Film Festival.

But the film screenings were a mixed bunch. Here's what I learned: Disaster Movie was a true disaster; Incendiary demonstrated the danger in letting your story get too heavy; Outlanders showed how difficult it is to make a film about a serious social issue; Bangkok Dangerous proved that Nicolas Cage should avoid po-faced action; 88 Minutes proved that Al pacino should read the script before he accepts the paycheque; and Scar showed that a decent premise and 3D effects aren't enough to rescue the torture porn genre.

Much better news was provided by the ripping Icelandic thriller Jar City, the outrageous Korean black comedy A Bloody Aria, the simply excellent Italian mob drama Gomorrah, and the hilarious Seth Rogen comedy Pineapple Express.

This coming week is another minefield. I've got the Hunter Thompson doc Gonzo, The Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke, the Barry Levinson political comedy What Just Happened, Fernando Meirelles' controversial Blindness, and the Canadian-Indian drama Partition.

I'm also looking forward to the launch party for this year's London Film Festival on Wednesday. At screenings we've been trying to guess which films are going to be in their lineup - and they always have lots of surprises in store. Plus a decent goodie bag. And maybe even a t-shirt.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Critical Week: Meathead alert!

Honestly, you know when Vin Diesel's name is above the title of a dystopian action movie that you're not in for something subtle or thought-provoking. Indeed, Babylon A.D. plays out like a blunt, dumbed-down version of Children of Men. The film wasn't screened at all for American critics, and there were only a couple of press screenings in the UK. Director Mathieu Kassovitz says the film is bad because the studio interferred with production and then re-edited his work. Honestly.

Other films this week were the Noel Coward adaptation Easy Virtue, with some superb performances (Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth) and also some pretty-but-empty acting (Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes). It's entertaining, but also a bit annoying. Which is how I felt about Live!, a slightly stale black satire of reality TV starring Eva Mendes as a ruthless network exec. The Warriors is a meaty historical epic from China with a trio of heavy hitters (Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro) as 19th century military leaders who take a blood oath that's strained to the breaking point. And finally, Eden Lake is a genuinely scary thriller with unnerving subtext, as a couple (Kelly Reilly and fast-rising star Michael Fassbender) is terrorised by a gang of disaffected teens.

For this coming week, I have the stoner comedy Pineapple Express, the Ewan McGregor-Michelle Williams thriller Incendiary, the past its sell-by date spoof Disaster Movie, Canadian-Indian romantic drama Partition, Wong Kar-wai's redux of his 1994 Ashes of Time, the Korean horror A Bloody Aria, and a bunch of crime movies: Al Pacino in 88 Minutes, the 3D kidnapping thriller Scar, the Cannes-winning Gomorrah from Italy, Outlanders from the UK and Jar City from Iceland.

Yes, it's a busy week, and it also includes the RocknRolla press conference, the launch event for the forthcoming Raindance Film Festival and the launch of the British Film Institute's 75th anniversary festivities. I'm tired just thinking about it.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Critical Week: Bigger not better

Howdy from Beijing, where I'm working a non-film freelance job for two weeks. As I've been out and about around the city, I've kept an eye out for two movie-related things: cinemas and bootleg dvds. But I haven't seen any sign of either. Apparently cinemas here are pretty low profile, hidden in the bowels of shopping malls. And bootleg dvds have been swept out of sight by officials cleaning up the city for Olympic tourists. I have seen two film posters - one for Hancock (which opened here in June) and the one pictured here - John Woo's forthcoming historical Chinese action movie Red Cliff (which opened here last month).

Anyway, I'll be back in London over the weekend and back in movie mode. Looking back at my last week before I came here, I had three very big movies - and all of them disappointed me in some way. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor got the earlier film's B-movie tone all wrong, going for mega-budget archaeological thrills in the same summer that Indiana Jones returned. Star Wars: The Clone Wars boasted seriously impressive animation, and some terrific action sequences, but barely enough plot to sustain a 20-minute TV episode. And Guy Ritchie's Rock N Rolla is a roaringly entertaining London crime drama with a superior cast, but it doesn't really add anything new to the genre that Ritchie himself kickstarted with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. By far the best film of the week was Walter Salles' small, sensitive innercity drama Linha de Passe.

Next week I already have a few screenings lined up, and have no idea what to expect from them. Babylon AD looks like pretty mindless action fun. Easy Virtue has a terrific cast and a script based on a Noel Coward play. Live! is an overdue mocumentary about reality television. Gardens in Autumn is a French comedy by a Georgian filmmaker. And The Warlords is a Chinese action epic with Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Looks fantastic, but I really want to see Red Cliff...

Monday, 4 August 2008

Critical Week: Not another comedy!

This past week will go down as the most mixed of the year for me, filmwise. I saw two of the best movies I've seen all year, but the duds nearly drowned them out. The main problem was star-led comedies, all of which had the stale stench of vanity project about them. Here's the hall of shame, in the order I saw them: Mike Myers' The Love Guru mined a bottomless pit of bottom jokes; Adam Sandler's You Don't Mess With the Zohan missed the central joke of his premise; Emma Roberts' Wild Child actually managed to wring a few decent laughs out of a seriously tired premise; Will Ferrell's Step Brothers was a one-gag movie stretched beyond the breaking point; Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder was far too much of a clever thing; and Simon Pegg's How to Lose Friends & Alienate People couldn't decide if it was goofy slapstick or a silly rom-com (and should have been neither).

Much better were the arthouse offerings: Steve McQueen's astonishing Hunger is one of the most original films of the year, with a killer kick of emotion to go with its provocative central theme; Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir is a remarkably inventive animated documentary that emotionally probes the whole idea of war; Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas cleverly looks at Nazi inhumanity from a naive 8-year-old's point of view; and the outrageous Sarah Silverman's Jesus Is Magic shows no fear as it tackles one taboo after another, proving how conditioned our moralistic responses actually are.

Anyway, this coming week is my last full week of movies before I head to Beijing to work at the Olympics for a fortnight. And these are the films that are sending me off: Liv Tyler's horror thriller The Strangers, Brendan Fraser back for third helpings in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Star Wars goes animated in The Clone Wars, Guy Ritchie returns to London crimeland with RocknRolla, and Walter Salles returns to Brazil in Linha de Passe. I'll let you know the verdict next week.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Critical Week: Seriously

The fallout from my holiday is still being felt on two fronts: First, I'm generally more relaxed than normal while facing the ongoing chaos of my daily schedule. Second, my daily schedule is that much more chaotic since I have additional deadlines, writing to catch up on, and a bit more madness since I am going away again (this time on a working trip) for two weeks soon.

But never mind, my first film-filled week back from holiday was an intriguing one, with a couple of summer blockbusters that were actually good for a change. Namely, The Dark Knight, which Christopher Nolan continues to spin into a thinking-person's action movie, with bleak situations and seriously complex characters. The other nice surprise was Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which Guillermo Del Toro pushes a whole lot further than the first film, with even more outrageous displays of pure imagination underscored by strong characters and lots of dry humour.

I also caught up with the disturbing, thought-provoking German drama The Wave; the not great but impossible to criticise documentary Blindsight, about blind Tibetan children climbing one of the Himalayas; the beautifully filmed but still lacklustre new version of Brideshead Revisited; and the only for extreme skiing fans doc Steep. On my own time, I also managed to watch two classic love stories on video, which come from polar extremes of the movie spectrum: David Lean's 1945 masterpiece Brief Encounter and Judd Apatow's 2007 crowd-pleaser Knocked Up.

This week is a much rougher ride, I suspect, with a vast array of dodgy comedies: Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, Mike Myers' The Love Guru, Adam Sandler's You Don't Mess With the Zohan, Will Ferrell's Step Brothers and Emma Roberts' Wild Child. To provide a sense of balance and restore my faith in cinema, I have some acclaimed little films: Steve McQueen's Hunger, Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir and Sarah Silverman's Jesus Is Magic.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Critical Week: After the break

I'm back in London today after nine days in sunny France - visiting Bordeaux (home of the art cinema pictured here), Biarritz, Bayonne, San Sebastian, Pau and St Emilion, among other stops. It was a terrific time to lounge in the sunshine, enjoy local food and wine, celebrate the wedding of friends, and watch not one single movie.

But taking a vacation is always a risky proposition for a film critic, because when you book the trip you know you'll miss something big. I booked this holiday about eight months ago, and it wasn't until the day before I left that I realised that I would be missing all of the press screenings (plus a chance to interview the stars) for my most-anticipated film of the summer: The Dark Knight. I will now need to buy a ticket to see it on the day it opens in the UK (Thursday) and wait until the sold-out period ends in a week or so before I can see it on an Imax screen.

Other screenings I missed, in descending order of annoyance: Hellboy II, Baby Mama and The Love Guru. I should be able to catch up with these, if the distributors put on more screenings, but these things happen.

Meanwhile, the highlight of the week before I left was, oddly enough, the surprise appearance at the Get Smart screening on Friday 11th July of Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne (don't call him The Rock) Johnson and director Peter Segal t0 provide a rather entertaining introduction to the film, which wasn't too bad actually, as long as you understood that they were completely re-interpreting the source material.

Other films that week were Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3D, which was great, stupid fun (although I'm not sure how well it'd work without the 3D); Keira Knightley's new costume drama, The Duchess, which has a terrific plot and a fascinating performance from Ralph Fiennes; and the hysterically silly 1950s beach movie/serial killer satire Psycho Beach Party. There was also, appropriately, a veritable mini-fest of French films: the Liam Neeson thriller Taken, which is actually a typically enjoyable but far-fetched Luc Besson actioner; Jamel Debbouze in Agnes Jaoui's latest rambling drama Let's Talk About the Rain; the Kristin Scott Thomas stunner I've Loved You So Long; a reissue of Bruno Dumont's controversial and still-shocking La Vie de Jesus; and the Dardenne brothers' The Silence of Lorna (OK, this is technically Belgian).

Finally, this week sees a handful of hopefully promising offerings, including The X Files: I Want to Believe, Brideshead Revisited, Steep and festival favourites The Wave and Blindsight. I also hope to catch up with The Dark Knight and Baby Mama. Not that I expect any sympathy.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Critical Week: Here I go again

The last week was fairly normal for me - seven film screenings and one press conference, with all the associated deadlines and hours hunched in front of my computer. But the weather in London was also pretty spectacular, so also I tried to get outside as much as possible.

Most notable was the Mamma Mia press conference on Monday, attended by the entire cast (except for Julie Walters). Meryl Streep has long been atop my list of actors I've wanted to interview, and she certainly didn't disappoint - as in the film, she's a bundle of mischevious energy and raw talent. A nice birthday gift for me, eh?

Other films this week included The Rocker (Rainn Wilson channelling Jack Black), Gravitation (metrosexual manga), The Chaser (astonishing Korean thriller), Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (British teen comedy), Swing Vote (Kevin Costner political comedy-drama), Meet Dave (Eddie Murphy alien romp) and, yes, Mamma Mia again at the world premiere engagement at the Odeon Leicester Square, complete with videotaped introduction from Benny & Bjorn and Pierce Brosnan and clips from the world premiere on Monday night.

The one other moment of surrealness last week was a photo shoot for an article in the Observer (due to run 13 July) on the state of critics. They have lumped me into the blogging group, and we gathered in front of the Tate Modern for a series of group photos that got increasingly surreal as they asked us to strike rather silly poses. I shudder to think which ones will appear in the paper. And I'm kind of glad I'll be on holiday next week when the article appears.

Films this week include: Let's Talk about the Rain, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (3D!), I've Loved You So Long, The Silence of Lorna, Taken, The Duchess, Get Smart and a remastered print of Kurosawa's Ikiru. More on those next week.

My plan is to do a roundup like this every week - so let me know what you think.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

And the winners are...

After the lavish closing night film screening and party for Faintheart last night, Edinburgh celebrated the best of the fest today, presenting its awards at a ceremony hosted by patron Sean Connery (pictured presenting the acting award to Robert Carlyle). And the winners are...

  • Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film: SOMERS TOWN (Shane Meadows)
  • Best Performance in a British Feature Film: ROBERT CARLYLE (Summer)
  • Audience Award: MAN ON WIRE (James Marsh)
  • Best Documentary Award: ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Werner Herzog)
  • New Directors Award: MARIANNA PALKA (Good Dick)
  • Best British Short Film: SON (Daniel Mulloy)
  • European Short Film Award: 2 BIRDS (RĂșnar RĂșnarsson)
  • Scottish Short Documentary Award: CHRISTMAS WITH DAD (Conor McCormack)
  • New British Animation: SPACE TRAVEL ACCORDING TO JOHN (Jamie Stone & Anders Jedenfors)
  • Best British Music Video: HAPPINESS - Goldfrapp (Dougal Wilson)

And finally, here are my 10 best films of the fest:
WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, US)
SOMERS TOWN (Shane Meadows, UK)
OF TIME AND THE CITY (Terence Davies, UK)
THE SONG OF SPARROWS (Majid Majidi, Iran)
GOOD DICK (Marianna Palka, US)
THE VISITOR (Thomas McCarthy, US)
THE BLACK BALLOON (Elissa Down, Australia)
BETTER THINGS (Duane Hopkins, UK)
RED (Trygve Allister Diesen, US)

All of these are reviewed - or will be soon - at Shadows on the Wall. Here's a quick link to the EDINBURGH FILM FEST page, which will eventually link to reviews of all the festival films I've seen. (But I've still got a lot of catching up to do!)