Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Critical Week: Not a word

Alas, an embargo prevents me from saying anything about the big press screening this past week: Sony's animated 3D romp Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. But the screening itself was good fun, with the usual Sunday morning "fun in the foyer" featuring photo ops (see right) and other goodies. The week's other notable screening was just 15 minutes long: namely a special glimpse of several scenes in James Cameron's Avatar, also shown in 3D but on the Imax screen. The film looks extremely impressive on a big scale, although it's not remotely photorealistic, which is a surprise for Cameron. It looks thoroughly animated, with rubbery skin. Although the movements are realistically captured by the computer.

The rest of the week's screenings were much lower profile: the gritty British drama Harry Brown, starring an excellent Micahel Caine; Cristian Mungiu's impeccable five-part black comedy from Romania Tales from the Golden Age; the excessively grisly revenge-torture Aussie horror The Horseman; the WWI fighter pilot adventure The Red Baron, which has thrilling aerial dogfights to make up for the rather dull melodrama; Park Chan-wook's offbeat and thoroughly unsettling vampire drama Thirst; the hugely involving French immigration drama Welcome; the provocative and powerful 15-years-in-the-making photojournalism doc Shooting Robert King; and the Wayans brothers' resolutely unfunny pastiche Dance Flick.

This coming week, I'm looking forward to the award winning Kazakh drama Tulpan, Shane Meadows' latest micro-movie Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee; Philip Ridley's eerie thriller Heartless; Richard Linklater's biopic Me and Orson Welles; and The Final Destination, the fourth in the series but the first in 3D. Less interesting but hopefully surprising are Nia Vardalos' My Life in Ruins, the remake of Sorority Row, and the stack of DVDs on my desk that need watching. We always need hope...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Critical Week: Time after time

OK, so the sleek, weepy film version of The Time Traveler's Wife is kind of lacking the edginess and clarity of Audrey Niffenegger's remarkable best-seller. But it's still thoroughly engaging, and a terrific alternative to the normal bludgeoning of the summer movie season. I'm also secretly hoping that this kicks off a time travelling fad that gives vampire films a run for their money.

Also screened to the press last week were Renee Zellweger's entry into the nutty evil-child thriller genre, Case 39; the warm and funny indie male-bonding comedy Humpday; the fiendishly clever British thriller Jetsam; the gritty indie prep-school drugs drama Afterschool; the London crime thriller (complete with Danny Dyer) Dead Man Running; and the harrowing and riveting dolphin-killing doc The Cove.

This week is even busier, with Park Chan-wook's no doubt original take on the vampire drama Thirst; Michael Caine in the revenge thriller Harry Brown; the Aussie revenge horror The Horseman; the Euro-epic The Red Baron; the French festival winner Welcome; the 15-years-in-the-making photojournalism doc Shooting Robert King; and the Wayan's brothers' probably unfunny Dance Flick. We'll also get to see 16 minutes of James Cameron's Avatar in 3D on the Imax screen - ooh!

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Movie-con: Day 2

The second day at Movie-con II was rather different from the first, although it started the same! Namely, with a visit from Robert Downey Jr, who was back with us to show a making-of doc, then a few scenes from Iron Man 2, which looks both darker and funnier than the first film - and much bigger too.

Next up was a series of trailers from Icon, none of which I'd seen before: Pandorum looks like a dark Alien-like sci-fi horror; Richard Kelly's The Box, with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, looks like a promising Twilight Zone-like morality play; a choppy and too-detailed trailer of The Road is a little worrying, as it seems to feature some unnecessarily massive effects work; and the Blair Witch-like Paranormal Activity looks like the kind of movie that will give everyone nightmares.

Following this was an extended trailer for 9, the Tim Burton/Timur Bekmambetov animation that looks a bit like an action freak-out version of Wall-E. We also had a second scene from The Twilight Saga: New Moon, this one featuring Robert Pattinson's rock-hard abs in a gratuitous shirt-removal scene that looked like it was set in Italy. Then they had another screening, of Greg Mottola's Adventureland, which I'd already seen, so I went outside in the sunshine for a couple of hours.

After lunch it was time for Kim Newman's Quiz, which was utterly fiendish (the tie-break was listing Steven Spielberg's entire filmography as director). Of 60 questions, I got 29 right. But I came up with 25 of Spielberg's 28 UK-released films. Moving right along, we had a colourful, vivid and utterly bonkers trailer for Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo. And then Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal came on-stage to introduce a 12-minute sequence from The Hurt Locker and hold a lively and entertaining Q&A.

Next up were Paul King and Simon Barnaby on stage to introduce three clips from their new film Bunny & the Bull, which is a British indie that owes a lot to the look of Michel Gondry films. Their Q&A was dry and very funny, but also gave a terrific glimpse into independent filmmaking in the UK. After the announcement of the quiz winners and the awarding of some pretty decent prizes, writer-turned-director Stuart Hazeldine took the stage to talk about his new film Exam, a British horror movie set in one room. He also showed us a 5-minute clip.

And now it was time for Disney's 3D presentation: a behind-the-scenes doc and a few scenes from Robert Zemekis' A Christmas Carol; the Toy Story 3 teaser trailer that we've all seen already; the Alice in Wonderland trailer we've seen before (but not in 3D); a 7-minute sequence from Up; and a pretty fabulous-looking sequence from Tron Legacy, or TR2N as it's written on screen, featuring Jeff Bridges and a ripping light cycle chase.

The final slot was saved for 3D footage from James Cameron's Avatar, which he introduced by a special video message. There were about 4 minutes from the film - two scenes: one of soldiers in a meeting room and then a vividly colourful action scene in a jungle with a blue-skinned and tailed Sigourney Weaver battling a hammerhead dinosaur thing, then a similarly blued Sam Worthington being chased by a vicious rubbery catlike monster. Knowing that they're screening 16 minutes of the film on Friday made this feel a bit disappointing. And ending the day with what was essentially a series of trailers was a let-down after promised new footage from movies like Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland. But overall, Movie-con II was terrific good fun, packed with great surprises and, in just two days, as many Q&As as you'd get at a full film festival.

Evening screenings were popular too - I'd already seen Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker, but I stayed to watch Judd Apatow's terrifically well-written and played but way overlong Funny People, which was introduced by Jonah Hill, who gave a hilarious Q&A before the film. And I definitely hope there's a Movie-con III next summer.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Movie-con: Day 1

Movie-con is run by the BFI and Empire magazine as London's answer to the San Diego Comic-con. Over two days, movie geeks fill the BFI Southbank for previews of coming films, special guests, goodie bags and so on. OK, so we had to check in our mobile phones with burly security guards outside! Today was certainly not a disappointment, with all kinds of pretty spectacular surprises...

The day was hosted by Empire's rather hilarious Chris Hewitt, who kicked things off with a special video message from Peter Jackson followed by a making-of doc, special footage and the trailer for The Lovely Bones. This was followed by a series of Universal trailers: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant looks very cool and a bit nuts; Couples Retreat seems rather silly; Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying looks like it's hilarious; Taking Woodstock seems strangely lightweight for Ang Lee; The Soloist trailer is actually more energetic than the film.

Up next was E1, with a series of scenes from Astro Boy, a 3D anime that looks like great fun, wiht big action sequences and a sharp sense of humour. Sorority Row looks hilariously grisly (and the trailer is stolen by Carrie Fisher); and then we saw a scene from The Twilight Saga: New Moon that ends with Taylor Lautner gratuitously removing his shirt to reveal his outrageously pumped abs. The first special guest on stage was the confident, floppy-haired Jamie Campbell Bower (pictured right), who plays Caius. A couple of trailers followed for two films I've seen: the uber-gothic new Dorian Gray and Luc Besson's free-running mega-action sequel District 13: Ultimatum.

Next on stage were director Daniel Barber and actor Sean Harris to talk about and show three jaw-dropping clips for the new Michael Caine vigilante thriller Harry Brown. Daniel chatted openly about meeting Sir Michael for the first time and working with him; Sean admitted stealing an effective hand gesture from Robert DeNiro. Two more trailers followed: the Saw VI teaser and another vampire movie, the futuristic Daybreakers, which looks seriously stylish and creepy.

Then it was Terry Gillaim on stage, hilariously joking his way through a terrific introduction to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and showed us three tantalising clips plus a superb new trailer. His shark, quick wit kept things very lively through a terrific Q&A as well. And after lunch there were more guests on stage: actors Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jason Flemyng plus film editor Jon Harris came along with a series of terrific scenes from Kick-Ass, including a raucous trailer. Their Q&A was great fun as well - and the film looks pretty unmissable. After them, director Christopher Smith took the stage for a Q&A after an extended scene from his new cruise-ship thriller Triangle.

And now it was time for the surprise film, which revealed itself with the first title card "Peter Jackson Presents", bringing out a noisy cheer from the audience. I think District 9 was my first choice for this slot, so I was pretty happy - and what a terrific film it is! An alien invasion thriller with a serious twist, relentless pacing and depth both politically and emotionally.

Following this couldn't have been easy, but Warner Bros outdid themselves. We had an extremely grisly trailer for the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street; an even more gruesome trailer for Jonah Hex, a supernatural Western starring Josh Brolin with some pretty nasty facial scarring; a behind-the-scenes look at Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, featuring lots of clips of Jonze, writer Maurice Sendak and cowriter Dave Eggers, plus a new trailer for the film; and a frantically staged, and hysterically blood-spilling climactic fight scene from Ninja Assassin. Finally, to present footage from Sherlock Holmes, we had a special live visit on stage from Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr, who joked and teased each other as they talked about the film and then introduced an extremely long preview trailer.

Whether Empire/BFI can top that tomorrow is anybody's guess...

Monday, 10 August 2009

Critical Week: Not-so-ordinary Joes

Made up of the coolest elements of every summer blockbuster in recent memory, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was the most fun of all my press screenings last week. I just sat back and enjoyed the preposterous story, outrageous action and endless digital trickery. Those rubbery-plasticky body-hugging suits are pretty hilarious too.

The rest of the week was a mixture of pure randomness, from the superb Chinese action biopic Ip Man to the painful Eddie Murphy family comedy Imagine That, from the quirky and endearing British indie Bunny & the Bull to the bloated and murky British period horror take on Dorian Gray, from Michael Keaton's understated directorial debut The Merry Gentleman to the sloppy wackiness of Table for Three. There were memorable moments scattered among all of these films, and some of them are well worth seeing, but none offered as much fun as the Joes did.

This week we have the Renee Zellweger thriller Case 39, the South African aliens-amongst-us thriller District 9, the award-winning buddy comedy Humpday, the anxiously awaited adaptation of the bestseller The Time Traveler's Wife, the British book-publishing comedy The Agent, and the boarding school drama Afterschool.

And next weekend is Movie-con, run by the BFI and Empire in an attempt to bring some of that San Diego Comic-con hysteria to London. I've already seen all of the films they're screening in full (Inglourious Basterds, Adventureland, The Hurt Locker), but it's the preview footage I'm looking forward to! Watch for special daily reports from the Southbank....

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Critical Week: Action mayhem

This week's Sunday morning "fun in the foyer" screening was Aliens in the Attic, a frenetic children's action movie that's actually pretty good fun for grown-ups too. Of course, we were all hopped up on sugar during the pre-screening festivities, which included the green-screen mash-up here. Do I look like I haven't had quite enough sleep for this?

Last week's other juvenile offering was Robert Rodriguez's Shorts, equally frenetic but also a bit frantic. And staying in the guilty pleasure mode, I caught up with the amazingly titled Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, which is rather a lot of fun for a seriously awful film. Much better in the guilty pleasure stakes was A Perfect Getaway, cleverly casting Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich against type for a nutty-twisty tropical paradise thriller.

Brows were rather higher for Jane Campion's John Keats drama Bright Star, which is perhaps one of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen. Katalin Varga is a beautifully made and truly memorable drama from Romania (by first-time British filmmaker Peter Strickland), while the Jamie Foxx-Robert Downey Jr drama The Soloist has a great story but is so worthy it almost hurts. Adventureland is a warmly made, serious-minded take on the same themes as American Pie; The Firm is a much more grown-up look at English football hooligans from Nick Love, but it's still yet another hooligan movie; and Pontypool is a concept horror from Canada that feels strangely uncinematic, perhaps because it's not too different from the radio play it's based on.

Yes it was a busier week than usual, and this week is more manageable, perhaps, with the likes of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (this summer's second toy-based movie), Imagine That (this summer's Eddie Murphy comedy), The Merry Gentleman (Michael Keaton's directing debut), Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes and Colin Firth in Oliver Parker's latest Oscar Wilde adaptation), Bunny and the Bull (offbeat British film), and Ip Man (the true story of Bruce Lee's mentor).