Monday, 20 December 2010

Critical Week(s): Family reunion

That slightly too high-octane cast reunites once again for Little Fockers, the second Meet the Parents sequel with a whiff of desperation about it. The cast makes it watchable, but the story is episodic and rather joyless. That sentence also describes the other late-screened Christmas blockbuster, Jack Black's takeover of Gulliver's Travels. And it's not far off the strange concoction that united Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp on screen in The Tourist, also screened a little too late to review in print.

Smaller British titles included the rather oddly truncated Age of Heroes, reuniting Danny Dyer and Sean Bean for what is intended to be a trilogy about the creation of the SAS, and Wake Wood, an enjoyably offbeat creepy-village horror movie.

Critics also got to indulge in the joys (and some disappointments) of year-end awards contenders like the Coen brothers' True Grit, Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, Paul Giamatti in Barney's Version, Reese Witherspoon in How Do You Know, Robert DeNiro in Stone, Kevin Spacey in Casino Jack and the unforgettable killing fields doc Enemies of the People. There are still a few of these to come.

So my votes are already in for the London Critics' Circle Film Awards - the nominations will be announced tomorrow. And my voting deadline is this coming weekend for the Online Film Critics Society nominations. I also plan to have my top 10s (aka The Shadows Awards) ready to unfurl next week, so I can sit back and look forward to the awards mania leading up to Oscar night. For which the stars of Little Fockers probably needn't worry about preparing a thank you speech.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Critical Week(s): Guilty pleasures

It's been awhile since the last entry in this blog, mainly due to the fact that I was in Los Angeles for two weeks visiting friends and family. I also managed to see five films while I was out there, including the almost criminally enjoyable Burlesque, Cher's first film in seven years, which she steals effortlessly from first-time actor Christina Aquilera. It's bad, but it knows it. The other guilty pleasure was Unstoppable, Tony Scott's true-life runaway train action movie, which is lent gravitas by Denzel Washington but never tries to be anything more than a roaring thriller. I also saw Morning Glory (good undemanding fun), Fair Game (slightly too-demanding drama) and Tangled (enjoyably unambitious).

Before leaving London, there were screenings of: the Jake Gyllenhaal / Anne Hathaway romance Love & Other Drugs, which I really enjoyed (and which was followed by a lively interview with Jake, Anne and director Ed Zwick); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, which was more emotional than expected; An Ordinary Execution, a darkly involving French drama about the last days of Stalin; and Men on the Bridge, an intriguing drama about people working on the Bosphorus.

Since returning home, we've had: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the enjoyable but childish third Narnia adventure; Tron: Legacy, the disappointing 28-years-later sequel;Cell 211, the rightly acclaimed gritty Spanish prison drama; and Norwegian Wood, a moody, gorgeously filmed drama from Japan.

And coming up this week are The Tourist (Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp), Rabbit Hole (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), Barney's Version (Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman), Gulliver's Travels (Jack Black), and two films I know nothing about: The Wake Wood and Age of Heroes. Not to mention a growing stack of awards-contender DVDs I have to watch. I think I need another holiday.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Requisite Blog Photo: Into Narnia

Monday, 8 November 2010

Critical Week(s): In the picture

Yes, as usual at a Sunday morning press screening, I was placed into the world of Megamind yesterday morning. And the film wasn't too bad either. It's been a busy week or so since the London Film Festival wrapped up, as I've been catching up on screenings and doing rather a lot of writing as I get ready to take a break next week. And it's been such a strange mix of films that I've stopped trying to get in the right mood before a screening. Not that I really do that...

I'll start with the high-minded fare - the better quality movies that make me happy to do this job. I quite enjoyed Clint Eastwood's new drama Hereafter, a moving and thoroughly involving drama that's an intriguing departure for him as a director (and for Peter Morgan as a writer). Peter Weir's The Way Back is a beautifully made epic adventure with an amazing story and a solid cast. Fernando Trueba's Chico & Rita is a stunningly animated epic romance from Cuba that really gets under the skin. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu's new film Biutiful is a little more problematic - Javier Bardem's performance is razor sharp, but the film's a little too dense and gloomy. Even more troubling is Rowan Joffe's remake of Brighton Rock, inventively filmed but too bleak to connect with.

There were also a few ambitious little films. One documentary held the interest effortlessly while telling a disturbing story: Into Eternity is an ethereal exploration of how we protect the distant future from our toxic nuclear waste. The internet thriller Chatroom is a great idea but doesn't quite work, while the Indonesian war drama Red & White is inspirational but derivative.

Moving to the more low-brow offerings, we had Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianakis on the road in the angry and strangely unfunny Due Date, which will no doubt make more money than every other film I've mentioned today. Zombies of Mass Destruction is a riotous satire of both zombie movies and American politics. And then there was Jackass 3D, which was exactly what we expected from these boneheads. Pity they didn't let us put ourselves into a still from that one!

Only a few screenings ahead for me this week: Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway star in Love and Other Drugs; Cher and Christina Aguilera give it their all in Burlesque; An Ordinary Execution is about the last days of Stalin; Men on the Bridge is a documentary about people working on the Bosphorus; and then there's a little movie called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

LFF16: Out with a bang

Aleksei Popogrebsky receives the Best Film prize from jury president Patricia Clarkson at last night's London Film Festival awards ceremony at LSO St Lukes. Other prizes included best documentary (the Grierson Award) for Armadillo and two awards for Clio Barnard's The Arbor: best first feature (the Sutherland Award) and British newcomer. In addition, Danny Boyle, director of tonight's closing film 127 Hours, was awarded a BFI Fellowship. The starry ceremony was attended by virtually every filmmaker and actor in London at the moment, including Martin Scorsese. Alas, mere journalists weren't invited to cover it.

Here are three more highlights from today: the closing night film, the big winner and my last film at this year's festival...

127 Hours
dir Danny Boyle; with James Franco, Kate Mara 10/UK *****
Danny Boyle brings his considerable filmmaking energy to bear on this claustrophobic true story, and the result is a bracing thriller that puts us right into the mind of a man trapped in an unthinkable situation... MORE >

How I Ended This Summer
dir Aleksei Popogrebsky; with Grigoriy Dobrygin, Sergei Puskepalis 10/Rus
Gorgeously shot and edited, this subdued dramatic thriller closes in on us through skilful filmmaking, sharply believable performances and an astonishing use of a natural setting that's both expansive and claustrophobic. It's about two scientists at an isolated Arctic outpost - one is young and bored and the other is more experienced and annoyed. Their interaction is a thoroughly engaging mixture of comedy and tension, and as the story progresses things get surprisingly emotional and scary, even though the film never abandons its earthy, realistic tone. These two men are so different that we wonder if they can ever connect on a meaningful level, and clearly they are beginning to feel the same.

Inside Job
dir Charles Ferguson; with Barney Frank, Eliot Spitzer 10/US ***
Easily a contender for the year's most depressing documentary, at least this film is sharply well made. It's also the first of the docs about the financial crisis that actually helps us understand what has happened and what is going on now. This is a lucid and thoroughly researched exploration of the economic system that caused this global mess, and as we begin to understand it we wonder why the people responsible aren't in prison, frankly. But no, they're still either earning multi-million dollar bonuses at still-thriving financial institutions or working at the very highest offices of politics. Meanwhile, the entire system is slanted to take money from the hard-working middle classes and give it to the most wealthy - thanks to laws enacted by Reagan and both Bushes and inaction from Clinton and Obama. Which is why America now has the largest disparity between rich and poor in the industrialised world. In other words, this is a film that gets our blood boiling in all the right ways - and it's not a polemic: it's all too true.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

LFF15: The ladykillers

Alejandro González Iñárritu and Javier Bardem take to the red carpet at the London Film Festival last night for their film Biutiful, which has won awards at various other festivals this year. Strangely, the film wasn't shown to the press here. Along with a lot of other critics, I tried to get into various public screenings of the film, but they were all sold out. So I'll catch up with it after the festival ends.

I did manage to catch a few films today, and at the Howl screening this afternoon, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman gave a terrific Q&A after the film, talking about how they turned the iconic Allen Ginsberg poem into such a groundbreaking film, their first narrative feature. Here are comments on three films showing today and tomorrow...

dir Sofia Coppola; with Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning 10/US ***
Coppola returns to the premise of Lost in Translation with another gentle exploration of celebrity, this time a hot star (Dorff) who lives in Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, flirts with an endless stream of women and spends his free time with his 11-year-old daughter (Fanning). While Dorff isn't hugely engaging, which leaves the film feeling rather cold, his scenes with Fanning are warm and enjoyable. And the overall style of the film still makes it watchable, with its long scenes, unhurried pace, offbeat score and gorgeous Harris Savides cinematography. And even if the closing scenes aren't hugely convincing, there's a strong commentary along thw way about the limbo of fame.

dir Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman; with James Franco, David Strathairn 10/US *****
Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Epstein and Friedman turn their skills to a narrative feature, sort of. This is essentially a movie based on a poem, which is vividly animated in a variety of styles by Eric Drooker. Stirred in with this is a doc-style dramatisation of Allen Ginsberg's life that runs in parallel with both the poem and recreates scenes from the Howl obscenity trial. What emerges is a remarkable look both at the man and his work, and also what makes his work so important more than 50 years later. In Franco's performance, Ginsberg comes to vivid life in a remarkably complex way that balances the beat poetry with wry humour and political controversy. This is fiercely original cinema worthy of one of the 20th century's most fiercely original artists.

The First Grader
dir Justin Chadwick; with Naomie Harris, Oliver Litondo 10/Ken ***
Based on a true story, this drama from Kenya reflects on the legacy of colonialism and tribal warfare in a nation trying to get its feet on the ground. As the government introduces free education for all, 84-year-old Maruge (Litondo) shows up at primary school hoping to learn to read. When a caring teacher (Harris) takes him in, neither suspects that their actions will both ripple around the world and dredge up old wounds at home. The film has a dark undercurrent taken from historical events, but the central story is warm and sentimental, as Maruge bonds with his young fellow students and takes a stand for the importance of education. It's not a hugely complicated film, but it's a real crowd-pleaser.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

LFF14: Glamour puss

Julianne Moore seems to have worn two dresses at once as she took to the Leicester Square red carpet for the UK premiere of her new film The Kids Are All Right at the London Film Festival last night. Of course, she gets away with it because she's so obscenely talented. And her film is currently my favourite from the festival.

And at the Abel screening this afternoon there was a terrific post-film Q&A with director Diego Luna and his young star Christopher Ruiz-Esparza - it was a lively, very funny session in which Luna was open about his interest in making such a personal film about family relationships. We all left just a little in love with both of them. Here are some comments about Abel and two other films today...

dir Diego Luna; with Christopher Ruiz-Esparza, Karina Gidi 10/Mex ****
For his first narrative feature as director, Luna takes an offbeat look at parenthood through the eyes of an unusual child. Abel (the remarkable Ruiz-Esparza) has been in hospital for the past two years and returns home not quite healed: he thinks he's his own missing father and starts parenting his big sister and little brother. His mother (Gidi) goes along with it out of concern for Abel's mental health, but things start getting out of hand. The film stirs together a warm sense of humour with a growing sense of unease about what might happen. It's a constantly surprising story that reveals truths about family interaction in ways that are both endearing and thoughtful.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
dir Jalmari Helander; with Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, 10/Fin *****
Leave it to Finland, "the land of the original Santa Claus", to come up with a fiendishly clever way to twist the holiday legend into something that's both dryly hilarious and more than a little deranged. When a multinational corporation drills into a mountain in Lapland, they make a rather freaky discovery: the original Father Christmas is encased in a buried block of ice. And it will be up to a trio of local farmers and two of their sons to set things right. The problem is that they've all been a bit naughty, and Santa knows it. Endlessly inventive, darkly amusing and startlingly scary, this film has cult hit written all over it. See it before the inevitable half-baked American remake.

The Taqwacores
dir Eyad Zahra; with Bobby Naderi, Noureen DeWulf 10/US ****
Set in a subculture most people would never guess even exists, this important film shatters stereotypes in every scene. It's centred on good Muslim boy Yusef (Naderi) who heads to university in Buffalo, where his Islamic home isn't quite what he expects: his flatmates are a collection of skaters, rockers and anarchists who faithfully attend a mosque in their living room. Their views on sex and drugs are also far from orthodox, but Yusef finds a way to fit in, and they begin planning a party of Taqwacore bands - a musical movement of Muslim punks (think stars of David instead of swastikas). The film has a loose, scruffy tone and lively, likeable characters who continually challenge media portrayals of Islam.

Monday, 25 October 2010

LFF13: Prince of darkness

Yes, that's Britain's infamously Machiavellian political puppetmaster Peter Mandelson on the London Film Festival red carpet last night for the premiere of a documentary about him, Mandelson: The Real PM? The film debunks Mandelson's "evil genius" reputation as filmmaker Hannah Rothschild shadows the then-cabinet minister for eight months, right through May's general election.

Crowds in the venues today were very strong, with people braving the cold weather to catch a glimpse of tonight's red carpet guests and see some offbeat movies too. Here are comments on two films I saw...

The Sleeping Beauty
dir Catherine Breillat; with Carla Besnainou, Julia Artamonov 10/Fr ***
Breillat continues to subvert fairy tales with this riff on the classic fable. Although there's little recognisable in this movie beyond continual references to the original story. Instead, it's more like Alice in Wonderland as a young princess roams through a series of crazy landscapes looking for her lost prince. Is this the dream she's having while she's sleeping for 100 years? Possibly. Although Breillat would never tell us. Instead we get a series of random encounters and adventures that are wonderful simply because they're so strange (children feature heavily in the story as princes and queens, and there are also a few little people to keep us on our toes). But what it's all about is anyone's guess.

dir Gregg Araki; with Thomas Dekker, Juno Temple 10/US ****
As this scruffy coming-of-age sex comedy turns into a horror movie, the combination is completely disarming. It's both silly and creepy, with honest subtext about youthful searching and the complexities of human sexuality. Araki assembles the film with lurid colours and lots of visual trickery to keep us as off balance as the characters, who are young university students trying to figure out who they are when their vivid dreams start invading real life. As the film goes along, the darkly creepy subtext begins to take over. It's funny, unnerving and impossible to predict where it goes from here. And while it's a bit madcap, it's also thoroughly engaging.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

LFF12: In the line of fire

Actors Jamie Michie, Trevor Williams, Andrea Lowe and Mark Womack, producer Rebecca O'Brien and director Ken Loach were on hand to introduce the UK premiere screening of Route Irish at the London Film Festival last night (snapped on my phone from the front row). We've had Q&As at every public screening except one so far in the festival, which is pretty impressive. Here are a few more highlights from today and tomorrow...

Route Irish
dir Ken Loach; with Mark Womack, Andrea Lowe 10/UK ***
After the relative whimsy of Looking for Eric, Loach is back in angry political mode for this gritty revenge thriller set around the war in Iraq. The story centres on Fergus (Womack), an ex-SAS officer who's trying to find out what happened to his best friend, who died on Route Irish, the road between Baghdad airport and the Green Zone. But Fergus is such a hothead that it's a wonder he has ever managed to do anything in his life. And his friend's widow (Lowe) also operates on pure emotion. The film starts out extremely well, but gets rather overwrought in the final act, when the script starts piling on clunky plot points. Still, it's nice to see a film about the conflict that centres on the human cost, especially the innocent Iraqis who have been caught in the crossfire.

dir Pablo Trapero; with Ricardo Darin, Martina Gusman 10/Arg ***
Bold and muscular filmmaking lifts this noir-style thriller above the murky nastiness of its storyline. And even though everyone's a little too morally compromised, the cast and crew give us plenty to chew on. The plot centres on a corrupt syndicate of lawyers, policemen, doctors and judges who are all out to defraud the insurance system (and the real victims) of anything they can get. It's a pretty nasty scenario, and we're thrown into it through gritty, saturated filmmaking that immerses us in this world through the eyes of one lawyer (Darin) and one doctor (Gusman) who are trying to keep their hands clean. Fat chance.

dir Thomas Vinterberg; with Jakob Cedergren, Peter Plaugborg 10/Den ****
Grim almost to the point of despair, this is like a Danish version of Requiem for a Dream, except that there's a tiny spark of hope deep inside it. And it's filmed and performed with raw honesty by the cast and crew. The two-part plot centres on two brothers separated by the circumstances of their life and both going through harrowing situations beyond what they can bear. It's quite painful to watch them flail to survive when their decisions contribute nothing but pain and tragedy. But there's a refreshingly mordant vein of humour running through the whole film, and the actors are remarkably sympathetic even when they're not very likeable.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

LFF11: A chill in the air

It was Black Swan night on the London Film Festival red carpet yesterday, as producer Scott Franklin, costars Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis and director Darren Aronofsky lined up for the cameras. The evening was pretty chilly, although Aronofsky's scarf might be a slight overstatement. As we head into the festival's final weekend, there's definitely a sense that things are winding down - only five days to go. And the journalists are beginning to look like the walking dead after 10 days of sleep deprivation and too many movies. Here are two film highlights from this weekend...

The Kids Are All Right
dir Lisa Cholodenko; with Annette Bening, Julianne Moore 10/US *****
Five of this year's best screen characters appear in this comedy-drama about a relatively ordinary family facing some unusual challenges. And while the premise seems extremely offbeat, it's actually beside the point... MORE >

dir Joanna Hogg; with Tom Hiddleston, Lydia Leonard 10/UK ****
A gruelling exploration of middle class angst, this observant film tells its story in a minimalistic, abstract way that may be frustrating for some filmgoers. But it'll chill most audiences to the bone... MORE >

Friday, 22 October 2010

LFF10: Hairdos and costumes

Tim Burton and his wife Helena Bonham Carter win, as always, several red carpet awards (best hair, most amazing outfit) at the London Film Festival premiere of The King's Speech last night. It was a pretty glittering night, with lots of stars braving the frosty autumn evening for the big event. Here are a few highlights from the festival over the next few days...

Black Swan
dir Darren Aronofsky; with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis 10/US *****
Aronofsky comes up with yet another daring cinematic experience, and it's perhaps more Requiem for a Dream than The Wrestler this time, as it dips into some very deep, dark areas of humanity. The film cleverly adapts Swan Lake into a ballet company setting, with Natalie Portman as Nina, the lead dancer who begins to suspect that another dancer (the superb Mula Kunis) is trying to steal her position. The film is a bundle of insinuations and rather insidious suggestions, and as it goes along we are plunged deeper and deeper into Nina's tortured mind. And in the end the film seems to be playing with our own perceptions as well.

dir Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost; with Yaniv "Nev" Schulman 10/US ****
This starts as a documentary about an offbeat online relationship before warping into something much more interesting. It essentially becomes a real-life thriller packed with outrageously amusing observations. It's the story of 24-year-old new York photographer Nev, who begins an online chat with 8-year-old painter Abby Pierce in Michigan then begins to wonder if anything about Abby and her family is real. So he heads to Michigan with his friends to find out. The result is surprisingly funny and also packed with suspense as the showdown approaches - and then it takes a few very unexpected turns. The most clever thing about the film is the way it makes us wonder how much of it has been staged, because it really doesn't matter when it's this entertaining.

dir Aaron Schock; with Tino Ponce, Ivonne Galindo 10/Mex ***
This straightforward doc offers a fascinating profile of a nomadic family in rural Mexico struggling to maintain their old traditions in a world that's shifting dramatically. And it really captures their hopes and fears. The film follows a family that has been in the travelling circus business for more than 100 years and is struggling to cope with changes in both society and within their family. It's a telling look at how the world has shifted in recent years, and the family members provide plenty of humour and drama - plus of course amazing circus acts - along the way.

dir JB Ghuman Jr; with Savannah Stehlin, Sydney Park 10/US **
Rather too mannered for its own good, this colourful teen comedy combines serious subject matter with a silly production style, like the corny, cheap lovechild of Johns Waters and Hughes. It's the story of a 14-year-old who has been nicknamed "Spork" because she's both make and female. And as she finally stands up to the school bully and makes some decent friends, she find the ability to accept who she is. It's nice that the filmmaker has taken such a comical approach to a strong issue, but the film is too hyperactive for us to ever really resonate with it. At least there's a nice range of veteran scene stealers (Beth Grant, Chad Allen, Keith David) along for the ride.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

LFF9: Word of mouth

Director Tom Hooper (left) appeared at today's London Film Festival press conference for his new film The King's Speech along with his lively stars Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. It was a livelier event than most as the panellists all talked openly about some big issues (disabilities, politics, history) while having a good time revealing how they approached playing real-life characters in the film. They clearly seem a bit surprised by all of the awards attention at this point in the process. But then buzz on this film started back in the spring when people started seeing rough cuts. Here are my comments on the film, plus a couple of others from the festival today and tomorrow...

The King's Speech
dir Tom Hooper; with Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush 10/UK *****
Momentous historical events add a remarkable kick to this already fascinating personal drama based on true events. The film also gives Colin Firth yet another meaty role to dive into. He plays Bertie the Duke of York who was suddenly thrust onto the throne when his brother Edward VIII abdicated in 1936. But a debilitating stammer made him terrified of public speaking, something he would need to do in the job, especially as war was declared with Germany. The film traces these big events through a character-based story that is utterly riveting. Firth finds hidden textures in the role, and his interaction with Rush is sharp and often hilarious. Helena Bonham Carter adds a serious kick as Bertie's wife Elizabeth (aka the Queen Mother). In other words, the film has Oscar written all over it, and rightly so for a change.

It's Kind of a Funny Story
dir-scr Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck; with Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis 10/US ***
While this comedy is an intriguing exploration of mental illness, the title is perhaps too accurate: it's only kind of funny. But if the film is somewhat mopey, it's also packed with great moments. It also tells its story in a nicely relaxed, low key way that allows the gifted cast to underplay their scenes and avoid mental hospital movie cliches. Along the way, there are some sharp insights into both mental health and teen angst, and it's astute enough to keep us engaged. Although the sentimentality is a little too heavily laid on to actually move us.

Home for Christmas
dir Bent Hamer; with Reidar Sorensen, Fridtjov Saheim 10/Nor ****
Combining colourful characters with the continual presence of Christmas lights, Norwegian filmmaker Hamer weaves together a series of sentimental but never syrupy holiday tales about generosity. Based on a collection of short stories, the film captures the holiday season on screen in ways we've never seen before (no mean feat!), with the continual presence of Christmas lights and trees reminding us and the characters of their responsibilities, goals, hopes and dreams. And when Hamer stirs in clever references to that first Christmas, as well as Muslim-Christian relations, the film finds surprising resonance.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

LFF8: Go west

Bollywood took over Leicester Square last night as Jimi Mistry, Ila Arun, Zita Sattar, Linda Bassett, Aquib Khan, Om Puri, Lesley Nicol and Emil Marwa lined up on an especially festive red carpet last night for the UK premiere of their film West Is West at the London Film Festival.

Perhaps to recover, today was a relatively quiet day at the festival, as there wasn't a major red carpet premiere, although several filmmakers were in attendance. Meanwhile, London-based critics have been watching normal releases as well over the first week of the festival, and my festival schedule has been augmented with the good, bad and ugly (in that order) likes of: Lukas Moodysson's Mammoth, Aussie drama Animal Kingdom, 3D Imax animation Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, the teen comedy Easy A, the Grindhouse spinoff Machete and the comic-based action RED. Meanwhile here are a couple of festival highlights...

dir Peter Mullan; with Connor McCarron, Joe Szula 10/UK ***
Beautifully shot in period style, this 1970s Glasgow teen drama is a harrowing exploration of how gang mentality seduces even the brightest students. The title is an acronym for non-educated delinquents. But while it's an intense story, the only discernible point seems to be that you should consider yourself lucky if you managed to grow up in 1970s Glasgow and are still alive to make a movie about it. Fortunately, Mullan has assembled a large cast of nonactors in the teen roles, and they all give powerfully believable performances, especially the extremely promising McCarron in the central role as a smart guy who is lured over to the dark side.

Robinson in Ruins
dir Patrick Keiller; narr Vanessa Redgrave 10/UK ****
A sequel to Keiller's London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), this is a witty and sharply observant exploration of the English landscape. It's also a fiercely artistic film that's impossible to categorise... MORE>

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

LFF7: Another red carpet

Ruth Sheen, Mike Leigh, Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent were on hand for the Leicester Square red carpet premiere of Leigh's acclaimed new film Another Year last night at the London Film Festival. Tonight's big event was the UK premiere of West Is West, the long-awaited sequel to the 1998 hit East Is East.

Rarely for this festival, I was invited to a party last night for the UK premiere of Ferzan Ozpetek's new film Loose Cannons, which I liked a lot. It was a low-key reception before the screening, hosted by the UK distributor Peccadillo, but it made me feel like I was actually at a festival for a change. Meanwhile, here are some highlights from today and tomorrow...

West Is West
dir Andy DeEmmony; scr Ayub Khan-Din; with Om Puri, Linda Bassett 10/UK ****
It's been 11 years since we last caught up with the Khan family, although only five have passed in their lives. And while this sequel isn't as sharply funny as 1999's East Is East, it has some nice things to say about growing up in a multi-cultural society. Set in 1976, the story leaves England behind as family members travel to Pakistan to reconnect to the old ways and to learn something about themselves. While still comical, this is much more of a drama than the first film, taking a serious look at cultural issues as well as the internal journeys of both father and son (Puri and newcomer Aqib Khan). And at the heart of the film, Puri and Bassett are simply terrific.

Meek's Cutoff
dir Kelly Reichardt; with Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood 10/US ****
With a fierce attention to detail, Reichardt turns her focus on the old West with this evocative drama based on true events. Not only are the characters almost outrageously authentic, but the depiction of the Western frontier is unlike anything we've ever seen on screen. With a minimalistic script, the film traces a harrowing journey across a desolate Oregon landscape as a group of intrepid migrants in 1845 cross unmapped territory and try to figure out whether to trust an indigenous man they encounter at a moment of need. Actually, the film is about issues of trust and fear, and while the plot is a bit untouchable, the film is thoroughly haunting.

The Tillman Story
dir Amir Bar-Lev; narr Josh Brolin; with Pat Tillman, Mary Tillman 10/US ****
This thrillingly assembled documentary traces one family's struggle to find out the truth behind their famous son's death as a soldier serving in Afghanistan. But clearly the US government has no interest in the truth. The shocking facts are plainly laid out by the filmmakers to explore how the Bush administration abused the memory of one fallen soldier (millionaire football player Pat Tillman) for their own political gain. And they clearly weren't prepared for this tenacious family, which decided that the truth was more important than anything else. Along the way the film stirs in us a deep sense of righteous anger. It's a bit strong, but also essential viewing.

Monday, 18 October 2010

LFF6: Sunny skies

The stars of Africa United got their moment on the red carpet last night as the film held its UK premiere at the London Film Festival (left to right: Sherrie Silver, Sanyu Joanita Kintu, Roger Nsengiyumva, Eriya Ndayambaje and Yves Dusenge). The glorious sunny weather in London meant that the streets were heaving with people on Sunday, but the cinemas were pretty full as well. Here are some festival highlights from today and tomorrow...

Another Year
dir Mike Leigh; with Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville 10/UK ****
Even for Mike Leigh, this film feels like a rather subdued slice-of-life in which nothing much really happens. But it's impeccably made at every level, with bracingly sharp performances and a ruthlessly honest script... MORE >

dir Julian Schnabel; with Hiam Abbass, Freida Pinto 10/Isr ***
Inventive camerawork and raw performances bring this powerful true story to vivid life. So it's a shame director Schnabel loses his grip in the final act. It's still an important film, but it lacks the badly needed final gut-punch... MORE >

Loose Cannons
dir Ferzan Ozpetek; with Riccardo Scamarcio, Nicole Grimaudo 10/It ****
Turkish-born Italian filmmaker Ozpetek branches into comedy with this borderline farce about an estabished family struggling to grapple with the issues of the 21st century. It's bright and smart and ultimately surprisingly moving... MORE >

dir Ahmad Abdalla; with Khaled Abol Naga, Menna Shalabi 10/Egy ***
Lively and brimming with youthful talent, this Egyptian drama vividly captures the energy of a group of underground artists in Alexandria. The film is a bit long and undisciplined, but it's also well worth seeing as it takes us into the life of three generations of musical and artistic talent and examines how the region is changing and also stuck in its old ways. Even more telling is the way local politics still have such sway over the art world. And while the characters are all likeable and engaging, a more disciplined editor could have shaped the narrative into something more involving.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

LFF5: George's girls

At the London Film Festival screening of his new film The American, director Anton Corbijn is flanked by actresses Thekla Reuten and Violante Placido. Fairly glamorous, even if George Clooney couldn't make it. The sunny weather on Sunday might have hindered ticket sales a bit, but crowds still gathered for some high-profile movies both at the NFT on the Southbank and at the Vue in Leicester Square, which seems to have been overwhelmed by the festival to the point where crowd flow is on the tipping point.

The Vue's packed lobby and late starts are exhausting for those of us who are there every day, but the general public is clearly enjoying the hubbub, as well as the chance to rub elbows with the stars. Every public screening I've attended has featured an introduction and Q&A with cast and/or crew, which is pretty cool. Here are some highlights from today and tomorrow...

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
dir-scr Apichatpong Weerasethakul; with Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas 10/Thai ***
Stunning cinematography goes a long way to making this surreal, difficult film watchable. Although there are moments of vivid honesty and a continual stream of light comedy, the story is fairly impenetrable for Western audiences... MORE >

dir Errol Morris; with Joyce McKinney, Peter Tory 10/US *****
The events expertly, and entertainingly, chronicled in this documentary not only feature an outrageously twisty story, but they make a serious point about our tabloid culture and the monsters it creates. Or encourages. Errol Morris assembles this film with a sublime sense of style and lets the tale emerge as it goes, and where it's going is impossible to predict as it centres on a former beauty queen who became obsessed with a Mormon missionary and followed him to England, where she kidnapped him. Add in kinky sex and cloned dogs and this becomes one of the most jaw-droppingly outrageous, entertaining docs you've ever seen.

Africa United
dir Debs Gardner-Paterson; with Eriya Ndayambaje, Roger Nsengiyumva 10/UK ****
Even when this film begins to feel a little awkward, sheer energy keeps it afloat, both entertaining us with a lively adventure romp and vividly showing us the realities of life in Africa. While sometimes sentimental, it's refreshingly never preachy... MORE >

Happy Few
dir Antony Cordier; with Marina Fois, Elodie Bouchez 10/Fr ***
While keeping the tone completely naturalistic, this French drama takes a challenging look at a controversial subject. Even if breaking taboos seems to be the whole point of the film, it's compellingly shot and acted... MORE >

Saturday, 16 October 2010

LFF4: Playing for real

At the London Film Festival yesterday, Hilary Swank was joined by the woman she plays in Conviction, Betty-Anne Waters, as well as her costars Minnie Driver and Sam Rockwell. It was a long day of press interviews, junket events and then the red carpet. It was fascinating to hear Betty-Anne talk about how all three actors did in capturing herself, her brother and her best friend on the big screen - and in some ways hearing her talk about her experiences was just as powerful as the film itself.

I also attended screenings of Waste Land and Amigo yesterday that featured extensive Q&As - with director Lucy Walker and artist Vik Muniz for the first film and writer-director John Sayles for the second. Both were lively and enlightening sessions that touched heavily on the serious themes in the films and how these things affect us all. Here are some comments on films showing at the festival yesterday and today...

The American
dir Anton Corbijn; with George Clooney, Violante Placido 10/It ***
Like its central character, this film is almost painstakingly meticulous in the way it sets up every scene. And while it feels like nothing much is happening, there's a lot going on under the surface, and a real sense of suspense growing deep under the surface. Clooney is excellent as a low-key hitman hiding in an Italian village and opening up only to a priest and a hooker. While Corbijn's striking visual style adds layers of meaning and refuses to ramp events up into an action movie, the story feels a little too constructed and deliberate to really move us.

Waste Land
dir Lucy Walker; with Vik Muniz, Fabio Ghivelder 10/UK ****
This thoroughly involving documentary works on two levels, as a profile of an artist and as an exploration of human waste. It's such a clever film that it's entertaining and challenging at the same time. While profiling Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, filmmaker Walker follows him on a major project to involve his subjects in his work and change their life as a result. His project involves creating portraits of workers at Rio de Janiero's dump out of the recycled rubbish they collect, and watching their transformation (and Muniz's) is extremely involving.

dir Olivier Assayas; with Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer 10/Fr ****
Edited down from five-and-a-half hours, this nearly three-hour film still feels like an episodic TV series as it covers two decades in the life of the notorious terrorist. But it's expertly made and very well-acted, and some sequences are sharply involving... MORE >

dir John Sayles; with Joel Torre, Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper 10/Ph ***
Sayles continues his immersive filmmaking by travelling to the Philippines and making a historical drama that takes the style of a Filipino movie. This might be off-putting for Western audiences, but the story is genuinely gripping. It's an early story of American imperialism, set in 1900 when the US forces were trying to win the hearts and minds of Filipinos after unseating Spanish rule. And what happens has eerie resonance through the next century, including Vietnam and Afghanistan. It's great to see these events finally depicted on screen, and the film has moments of real power. But it's a shame that it also feels rather simplistic and schematic.

Friday, 15 October 2010

LFF3: The right ones

Writer-director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) escorted his eerily mature young stars Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) down the Leicester Square red carpet last night for the London Film Festival premiere of Let Me In. The film has a double challenge at the box office: overcoming vampire fatigue and the fact that it's a remake of the great Let the Right One In. Fortunately, it's a strong film all its own.

Here are some other festival highlights on Friday and Saturday...

Everything Must Go
dir Dan Rush; with Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall 10/US ****
Based on a Raymond Carver story, this is a slice-of-life film about an extraordinary situation. There isn't much drama, which might put off some moviegoers, but it's a nicely observed film with a terrific performance by Ferrell... MORE >

Blue Valentine
dir Derek Cianfrance; with Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams 10/US ****
This portrait of a strained relationship is often difficult to watch, simply because it feels so real. Fortunately, the screenplay includes plenty of raw humanity, which gives us a chance to laugh and sigh as well... MORE >

Of Gods and Men
dir Xavier Beauvois; with Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale 10/Fr *****
With very little action, this film builds almost unbearable tension by carefully examining some moral questions in a precarious situation that's based on true events. And in the process, it becomes one of the most important films in recent memory... MORE >

Leap Year
dir Michael Rowe; with Monica del Carmen, Gustavo Sanchez Parra 10/Mex ****
From Mexico, this bold and yet subtle film is so bracingly realistic that at times we begin worrying about the central actress. Without ever making things easy for us, it also has a lot to say about modern life in a big city... MORE >

Thursday, 14 October 2010

LFF2: Never let me in

Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley hit the red carpet last night for the opening film Never Let Me G0, a fine display of rising-star British talent. Then today we had the first full day of the 54th London Film Festival, with screenings both in Leicester Square and at BFI Southbank. Tonight's big premiere was for Let Me In, attended by director Matt Reeves and stars Chloe Grace Moretz and Kodi-Smit McPhee. Here are some films showing at the festival tomorrow...

The Arbor
dir Clio Barnard; with Manjinder Virk, Neil Dudgeon 10/UK *****
With this bracingly original debut feature, artist Barnard creates one of the most involving and moving documentaries in memory. Stylistically mixing filmmaking approaches, she engulfs us in a fiercely inventive movie experience... MORE >

In Our Name
dir-scr Brian Welsh; with Joanne Froggatt, Mel Raido 10/UK ***
This sharply well-made film explores the troubled experiences of soldiers trying to reintegrate into life back home after a tour of duty. It's harsh and realistic for the most part, but starts to feel a little pushy in the final act. Fortunately, the cast is hugely dedicated to their roles, investing them with authenticity and dark emotional resonance, so even when the story becomes a little too orchestrated, the film still holds our attention. Filmmaker Welsh should be commended for highlighting such a serious issue with such bracing honesty.

dir Tony Goldwyn; with Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell 10/US ***
This true story is told with emotion and skill, giving Swank another terrific lead role to sink her skilled teeth into. As a woman desperate to help prove her brother's innocence, she gives us a lot to think about. Rockwell is superb as the shattered convict, and there's fine support from Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis (best she's been in years), Clea DuVall and Melissa Leo. But even with all of the talent behind and in front of the camera, there's a nagging feeling that this is really a TV movie. Although it's the kind that would sweep the Emmys.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

LFF1: Get the party started

The celebrities are returning to that Leicester Square red carpet every night over the next 15 days for the 54th London Film Festival, and it kicked off tonight with the glitzy opening film, Never Let Me Go. Director Mark Romanek, writer Alex Garland and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro were accompanied by cast members Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightly, who had performed for the press earlier in the day.

Of course, as the festival continues, I still have to see normal releases as well, so my viewing schedule is both hectic and eclectic over the next three weeks, with an average of three films a day. I'll be running red carpet photos here every day as well as notes on the films of the day and previews of tomorrow's films. Here's one from tonight and one showing tomorrow to get us going...

Never Let Me Go
dir Mark Romanek; with Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield 10/UK ****
Based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, this haunting drama may be set in a parallel reality, but what it has to say about human hopes and societal ambition is deeply relevant. It's also beautifully directed and acted... MORE >

Let Me In
dir Matt Reeves; with Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz 10/US ****
While there was no way this would recapture the magic of the 2008 original Let the Right One In, this remake is a decent film in its own right. Moody and atmospheric, the film subverts expectations by mixing darkly introspective drama with full-on horror... MORE >

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Critical Week: Cardiff calling

I'm off to Wales this morning for the 4th Iris Prize Festival, where I'll be serving on the jury. This is a competitive event for short films dealing with issues of gender and sexuality, and there are also several intriguing events on the programme, as well as a few features and of course parties.

As for this past week's films, it's been a busy one since press screenings are underway for the London Film Festival, which starts next week. Star power was in force for The American (George Clooney), Conviction (Hilary Swank), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Michael Douglas), Death & Life of Charlie St Cloud (Zac Efron) and Everything Must Go (Will Ferrell). The best of that bunch, surprisingly, was the Will Ferrell movie.

Off the beaten path, we had the rather impenetrable Thai Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the frantic Hong Kong horror Dream Home, the artful doc Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. And my two favourite films were Xavier Beauvais' haunting and powerful drama Of Gods and Men and the young Xavier Dolan's bold romantic drama Heartbeats.

Besides the films at Iris, this coming week I'm looking forward to James Franco in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, Russell Crowe in the thriller remake The Next Three Days and the Mexican thriller We Are What We Are. But first, I have a train to catch...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Critical Week: It's raining again

The 18th Raindance Film Festival kicks off tonight in London, showcasing independent films for an audience that definitely needs to find someplace warm and dry for a few hours. For some reason the press office has limited journalists' access to films this year, so the only ones I've seen are those I saw elsewhere, including the opening night puppet-animation romp Jackboots on Whitehall (hilariously anarchic); the drama Huge, about British stand-up comedy (uneven and difficult); the surreal descent into mental dysfunction that is Ollie Kepler's Expanding Purple World (flashes of insight but ultimately a downer); the low-budget American horror romp Vacation! (a great premise completely falls apart); and the uber-grisly A Serbian Film (oddly intriguing), which is part of a special section on banned or censored films. Full reviews and a list of all the films is on the website.

Meanwhile, critics were shown two anxiously awaited biggies: the pre-teen vampire horror Let Me In and the Facebook biopic The Social Network. Even though both films are out elsewhere, British critics aren't allowed to say anything about them yet - I'll just mention that I liked one a lot better than the other.

Also screening were two horror films (the unhinged and very black Aussie comedy The Loved Ones and the much darker and creepier Irish freak-out Outcast), two small intimate movies (the British war veteran drama In Our Name and the Mexican sex-and-depression drama Leap Year), and two docs (homeless disabled musicians in the Congo in Benda Bilili! and an artful essay on economic decay in Robinson in Ruins).

This coming week we have Michael Douglas in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, George Clooney in The American, Zac Efron in Charlie St Cloud, Hilary Swank in Conviction, the Thai Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and the Hong Kong horror Dream Home. And then there's next week's film festival - the Iris Prize in Cardiff - for which I'm on the jury this year.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Critical Week: Secrets of success

Animation ruled this week, as two of the most enjoyable films I saw at press screenings were cartoons, namely the raucous and very silly 3D romp Despicable Me and the more intriguingly subtle and artful Oscar-nominee The Secret of Kells (pictured).

Three Hollywood movies were less successful simply because they were more formulaic and had most real life polished right out of them. Ben Affleck's The Town was well above average, as it at least has a genuinely introspective tone and enjoyably earthy action. Worst was Julia Roberts in the far too glossy find-yourself travelogue Eat Pray Love. Somewhere in between was the Heigl-Duhamel rom-com Life As We Know It.

And then there was the usual mixed bag of offbeat movies: Julian Schnabel's Israel drama Miral holds us enthralled until an abrupt final reel; British indie The Be All and End All honestly looks at mortality from a teenage perspective; and the lively road movie Africa United follows a group of kids hitchhiking from Rwanda to South Africa in the name of football while dealing off-handedly with some of the world's biggest issues. But the best film of the week, hands down, was the small French comedy My Afternoons With Margueritte, in which Gerard Depardieu gives a disarmingly astute performance as a simple middle-aged man discovering his own intellect for the first time.

This coming week, London critics will be watching the vampire remake Let Me In, teen horror-comedy The Loved Ones, Irish horror Outcast, British comedy-drama Fit, world music fairy tale Benda Bilili and British cinematic essay Robinson in Ruins.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Critical Week(s): Censored!

Sorry about the delay, but sometimes you just need a holiday (and I needed sunshine after spending the summer months inside a cinema). And no, my sudden silence wasn't caused from watching the notoriously banned A Serbian Film (pictured), which the UK censors wanted to chop so harshly that it was pulled from last month's FrightFest. Yes, it's extremely full-on, taking a very graphic approach to its story, but it's also a surprisingly insightful horror movie.

More contained thrills were to be had with Buried, which locks Ryan Reynolds in an underground wooden box for 90 minutes of real-time squirming, although it's a little too mannered perhaps to really work. Burning Bright, meanwhile, traps Briana Evigan in a boarded-up house with a live tiger - all the more impressive and scary since it's not computer-animated.

From abroad, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest cleverly ties up the loose ends of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy; Olivier Assayas' ambitious Carlos tells the story of the notorious 70s terrorist with skill and detail (although at three hours long, I wondered if the full five-hour version told us even more); Chow Yun-Fat plays Confucius in a massive Chinese biopic that struggles to turn the philosopher into an action hero; and from Iran The Hunter is a chilling drama about urban angst.

But even with all of these thrills, Chris Smith's sharply well-made Collapse wins the award as the week's (or even the year's) most horrific film: a documentary that holds very little hope for the future of Western civilisation. So thankfully we also had the restored and reconstructed version of Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis to make us gasp with wonder.

Coming up this week: Ben Affleck's The Town, Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, Julian Schnabel's Miral, animated hits Despicable Me and The Secret of Kells, festival fave Africa United, and Brit indie The Be All and End All.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Critical Week: Guilty pleasures

Finally, the summer produces a gleeful, guilty-pleasure action comedy. Against all odds, The Other Guys is enormous good fun, with terrific chemistry between Will Ferrell and Mark Walhberg and a sharp, smart script. The week's other surprise was the Eli Roth-produced thriller The Last Exorcism, which is much more cerebral than expected, and scarier as a result. Sure it's another Blair Witch-style handheld horror, but it's thoughtful enough to keep our minds engaged even as we're being freaked out.

Rather less exciting was the violent heist thriller Takers, which wastes its decent ensemble on incoherent action. Jonah Hex lays waste to its source material and a strong cast by being merely loud and chaotic. And Vampires Suck only mimics Twilight without coming up with anything remotely clever, although it's strangely more engaging than the Twilight movies simply because the cast seems to be having fun. And finally, The Special Relationship is the third in Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen's Tony Blair trilogy (after The Deal and The Queen), insightfully tracing the Prime Minister's interaction with Bill Clinton. But by ending just as George W enters the frame, the TV movie misses the chance to say something really interesting.

Coming up this week: Ryan Reynolds gets Buried alive, documentary filmmaker explores the financial Collapse, a wild tiger is Burning Bright for Brianna Evigan, Chow Yun-Fat takes an epic journey as Confucius, Oscar-nominee The Secret of Kells finally hits Britain, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis gets restored.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Critical Week: Take a bite

The surprise of the week for journalists is that Piranha 3D is one of the most enjoyable action movies of the summer - irreverent, smart and very silly. Oddly, the Weinstein brothers opted not to screen the film for critics in the USA, but we in the UK got one screening, and the riotous laughter was constant.

Less successful was the week's big blockbuster screening, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, which is witty and visually snappy but sacrifices story and characters along the way. By contrast, two female-led thrillers kept us much more entertained. Angelina Jolie confirmed her action-hero chops with the skilfully made Salt, while Noomi Rapace continued to seduce us as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Played With Fire.

Off the beaten path, we had the charming and seriously engaging road movie Wah Do Dem, and the blackly hilarious Chilean film The Maid. I also managed to catch up with Banksy's enjoyably untrustworthy feature debut, Exit Through the Gift Shop, a rather brilliant look at the art world that comes out soon on DVD.

This coming week we have the bank robbers thriller Takers, the Will Ferrell comedy The Other Guys, Josh Brolin in Jonah Hex, and the indie horror thrillers The Last Exorcism, Burning Bright and Splintered. So what is it with all the horror at the moment? Perhaps it's a reaction to the economic situation...

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Critical Week: Say cheese

Actually the pictured film, Cyrus, was one of the less-cheesy films in a week that seemed oddly packed with gimmicky movies. But at least this one subverts the rom-com formula with a sharp story of two men (son Jonah Hill and boyfriend John C Reilly) fighting over a woman. Complex characters and an offhanded sense of humour help a lot. By contrast, Dinner for Schmucks wasn't quite so subversive or complex, but the silliness was made watchable by Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, plus a hilarious supporting cast.

But by far the cheesiest film screened for London critics this week was Marmaduke, which even a likeable cast couldn't rescue. And speaking of rescue, no help was in sight for the characters in Frozen, which traps three decent young actors in a chairlift for a few days of dangling, jangling yuckiness.

As usual, the week's more interesting offerings came from abroad. Certified Copy is an Italian-French exploration of originality and creativity from Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostrami and Cannes-winning actress Juliette Binoche. Also from Italy, Ferzan Ozpetek turns his usually dramatic hand to farce with the lively and thoughtful ensemble comedy Loose Cannons. And from Sweden we had Involuntary, an artfully made five-strand exploration of peer pressure.

This coming week will bring us more from Sweden with the middle part of the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, plus another big American action comedy in Scott Pilgrim vs the World. I'll also catch up with a late screening of Angelina Jolie in Salt, the schlock of Piranha 3D, the American indie drama Wah Do Dem and the acclaimed Latina drama The Maid.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Critical Week: Meatheads unite!

Yes, the big press screening this week was Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables, which is even louder and dumber than we could have hoped. Action fans will adore it, and not just because of that astonishing cast list. Two other big-name movies will have wider appeal: the Drew Barrymore-Justin Long romantic comedy Going the Distance, tracing a long-distance love story, and Stephen Frears' romance-novel romp Tamara Drewe, which stars the terrific Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper and Roger Allam.

From France we saw Le Refuge, one of Francois Ozon's more challenging films, mainly because it's so light-handed. And the Belgian animated comedy A Town Called Panic is simply impossible to describe: it uses toy figures to tell a nutty tale that keeps us giggling even though we don't know why.

Independent films included the revenge horror The Final, which starts extremely well before becoming rather pointless; the Canadian prison drama Dog Pound, which uses its edgy cast to unsettling effect; and the startlingly good Down Terrace, which cleverly reinvents the British crime drama as a black comedy set almost completely in a Brighton house.

This coming week we have John C Reilly and Jonah Hill in Cyrus, Steve Carell and Paul Rudd in Dinner for Schmucks, Owen Wilson voicing Marmaduke and the chair-lift horror Frozen, plus entries from Italy (Ferzan Ozpetek's Loose Cannons) and Sweden (Involuntary).

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Critical Week: Dancin' atcha!

The big press screening this week was, ahem, Step Up 3D, the latest instalment in the street dance series and the first one in 3D. (Although of course the British hit Streedance beat them to the punch few months back.) This is the most entertaining Step Up movie yet, but that isn't saying much: it's an unashamedly clunky plot strung together by rather fantastic dance scenes.

From Hollywood, we had the ham-fisted men-as-boys Adam Sandler and pals comedy Grown Ups and the Jerry Bruckheimer action-comedy extravaganza The Sorcerer's Apprentice, with Jay Baruchel and Nicolas Cage in an overwrought, effects-heavy bit of eye-catching nonsense. At least it wasn't in 3D. On the other hand, Joe Dante's The Hole is one of the finest uses of 3D we've seen since Avatar, subtly using it to make the imagery deeper rather than gimmicky in this old-style kid's adventure-thriller. More adult thrills came in the British horror F, about a gang of terrifying hooded students, although there isn't much to it. More horror came in the British-Dutch ick-fest The Human Centipede, which makes me queasy just thinking about it.

But by far the best and most original film of the week (if not the year) was the British biopic The Arbor, which blurs fiction and documentary to tell the life story of young playwright Andrea Dunbar. It's a stunner.

This week's offerings include Francois Ozon's Le Refuge, the crime drama Dog Pound, the British comedy A Town Called Panic and the British gang drama Down Terrace. Sadly, with this week's announcement of the abolishment of the UK Film Council, we probably won't have quite as many British films this time next year.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Critical Week: Knight and dogs

The studio took its time showing the Cruise-Diaz reunion romp Knight and Day, and you couldn't really blame them after the thumping it took by American critics. Yes, it's startlingly lazy filmmaking, but it's also rather undemanding good fun. It also fares well compared to this week's other Hollywood offering, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, a rather frantic sequel to the sleeper hit from, erm, 2001.

Much more interesting were Mike Leigh's London drama Another Year, featuring ace performances from Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen and a barnstorming one from Lesley Manville, and Bong Joon-ho's gorgeously directed Mother, a very dark look at maternal love. In addition, Guiseppe Tornatore gave us another golden-hued epic paean to his childhood, and then some, with Baaria; Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys' quirkily surreal Separado! takes us on a search for a distant relative in Argentina; and the British crime drama Bonded by Blood retells a familiar true story for at least the third time (and it's not the charm).

On the other hand, Juliette Binoche's Cannes-winning Certified Copy failed to materialise due to problems with the digital projection, so I'll have to catch up with that next week. I'm also catching up with Nicolas Cage in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the dance sequel Step Up 3D, the British drama The Arbor, and horror films from Canada (Joe Dante's The Hole in 3D) and Britain (F).

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Critical Week(s): Brain drain

Frankly, Christopher Nolan's Inception was the only movie I was actually looking forward to this summer, and it certainly didn't disappoint. I saw it last week at a press screening and found it an exhilarating experience: a rare summer blockbuster that actually engages the brain. Then last night went to see it again at an Imax screening - and I have to say it's a film that gets even better with a second look, especially with that massive, clear image and razor-sharp sound.

Otherwise, it's been business as usual since returning from Edinburgh two weeks ago. The other biggie this month, of course, has been the third Twilight mope-fest Eclipse, which most critics have been far too kind to. Much better was the pulpy thriller Splice with more humour, better effects and proper acting from Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. Brody also added some oomph to Predators, although the action romp kind of falls apart halfway through. And even worse was The A-Team, which should have been good fun, but wasn't.

Smaller blockbusters were more enjoyable, including The Karate Kid, a mis-titled remake that wobbles a bit in its central casting of Jaden Smith but gives Jackie Chan one of his best roles yet. New York, I Love You is the next in the Cities in Love anthology series (after Paris Je T'Aime) and has some great shorts, even if it feels a bit too homogeneous to properly represent the Big Apple. And The Switch nicely teams Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman for an offbeat rom-com.

Foreign films were a lot more challenging and lingering. Claire Denis' White Material stars the magnificent Isabelle Huppert and is predictably difficult, but well worth the effort. The biopic Gainsbourg is packed with bold filmmaking, some of which works effectively. The terrific Nouvelle Vague documentary Two in the Wave follows the relationship between Truffaut and Godard over three decades, although only true film fans can keep up with it. And the three-and-a-half hour award-winning Mexican epic Raging Sun, Raging Sky really pushes its audience to the limit, but there's some real beauty within the pretentious filmmaking.

Coming up: Cruise and Diaz in Knight and Day, cats and dogs in, well, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Mike Leigh's Another Year, Juliette Binoche in the Cannes-winning Certified Copy, Bong Joon-ho's Mother and Gruff Rhys' Separado!

Monday, 28 June 2010

EIFF final: The winners

Yes, that's Ugly Betty herself, America Ferrera who turned up with fiance Ryan Piers Williams, who wrote and directed The Dry Land and took home an award at the final festival ceremony in Edinburgh on Saturday night. Here are the winners...

Michael Powell Award (New British Feature): Skeletons
International Feature: The Dry Land
Feature Documentary: The Oath
Audience Award: Get Low
New Director Award: Gareth Edwards (Monsters)
Performance in a British Film: David Thewlis (Mr Nice)
New British Animation: Stanley Pickle
British Short Film: Baby
International Short Film: Rita
Scottish Short Documentary: Maria's Way

My own top 10 favourites (of the 53 festival films I saw)...
  1. The Secret in Their Eyes
  2. Winter's Bone
  3. Toy Story 3
  4. Get Low
  5. Monsters
  6. Restrepo
  7. Heartbreaker
  8. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
  9. The Illusionist
  10. Mr Nice
And here are some comments on a final handful of films I saw over the past two weeks...

The Dry Land
dir Ryan Piers Williams; with Ryan O'Nan, America Ferrera 09/US ****
Newcomer O'Nan gives a compelling performance in this post-traumatic stress drama as a soldier just back from a tour of duty in Iraq and struggling to return to life with his wife (Ferrara). The film has strong echoes of Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss in its structure and themes, but is a smaller, scruffier film, which gives it a kick all its own. It also features strong supporting roles for Melissa Leo, Jason Ritter and Wilmer Valderrama.

Street Days
dir Levan Koguashvili; with Guga Kotetishvili 10/Geo ****
This story of a low-life junkie on the streets of Tbilisi has an askance charm that continually catches us by surprise as it follows Checkie (the terrific Kotetishvili) through a series of events that squeeze him from every conceivable side - including his wife, the cops, his dealer, a politician's teen son and the scary principal at his own son's school. Fortunately, the film is made with both a gritty sense of realism and an offhanded wit, which combine to draw us into the story and really care what happens to Checkie and the people he is trying to protect.

dir Zach Clark; with Trieste Kelly Dunn, Lydia Hyslop 10/US **
This extremely low-budget American horror comedy had its world premiere at Edinburgh, but it turned out to be one of the festival's more uneven entries. The idea isn't hugely original: four friends take a week-long holiday to a seaside house, where something goes horribly wrong and they completely fail to cope with it. But the film's lurid, leery approach isn't easy to engage with, and the cast members drift wildly over the top. But it's the gaping holes in the script that cause the most trouble.

dir Jeffrey Blitz 09/US ***
The director of Spellbound takes a similar approach with this documentary about lottery winners, following a handful of lucky millionaires who talk about how the money has completely changed their lives. And for each of them, the challenges have outweighed the benefits. This isn't really a surprise, but at least they are all colourful people whose stories are interesting to watch. Intriguingly, none of them are hugely sympathetic, which leaves the film feeling somewhat cold and aloof. So Blitz spices things up with a witty look at the lottery through the ages, with history and stats that are eye-opening in ways the personal stories aren't.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

EIFF 12: Closing night

The stars were out in Edinburgh on Saturday night for the closing event of the festival: the world premiere of the British drama Third Star. (Pictured: lead actors Adam Robertson, JJ Feild and Tom Burke.) Afterwards, everyone went on to the final party at the Caves - a lively event in a sprawling venue. Within about two minutes, I ran across Brian Cox on the stairs, Timothy Spall in the upstairs bar, JJ Feild near the VIP area, Tom Burke in the pub area and David Thewlis outside chatting with the smokers.

Here are some more highlights from the festival - and I'll have one more roundup in another post with the award winners...

Red Hill
dir Patrick Hughes; with Ryan Kwanten, Steve Bisley 10/Aus ***
Kwanten is clearly the draw here, an Aussie actor who's now a household name thanks to True Blood. So it's nice to see him go home and make a gritty little thriller like this (amusingly, the first image we see of him is as he gets dressed, and he keeps his clothes on for the rest of the film). He plays a young cop who moves to a rural town with his pregnant wife, but on his first day at work is thrown headlong into a full on conspiracy-nightmare. The plot is a little obvious, but it's extremely well made, with some genuinely tense moments.

Lucky Luke
dir James Huth; with Jean Dujardin, Silvie Testud 09/Fr ****
Dujardin remains in his OSS-117 spoof mode for this hilarious Western, which has heavy echoes of Blazing Saddles in its story of an ace gunslinger who reluctantly takes a job as sheriff to clean up an outrageously rowdy Utah town. That it's in French is half the joke, as are his sidekicks Calamity Jane, Jesse James and Billy the Kid (hilarious performances from Testud, Melvil Poupaud and Michael Youn). And the visual style is simply gorgeous, recreating the original comic strip images with vivid colour and snappy humour.

Ollie Kepler's Expanding Purple World
dir Viv Fogenie; with Edward Hogg, Jodie Whittaker 10/UK **
This offbeat and extremely ambitious British drama starts promisingly as brainy geek Ollie (Hogg) struggles to cope with a terrible tragedy and literally feels his life spiralling out of control. At first it's great to see Hogg in a restrained, believable performance, but he quickly tips over into nutty mania (as usual) as Ollie's imagination gets out of control. It's an intriguing premise, well played by the cast, but the film is just too repetitive and indulgent to really come together.

dir Javier Fuentes-Leon; with Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona 09/Peru ****
Homosexuality is a very touchy issue in Latin America, and filmmaker Fuentes-Leon takes a beautifully sensitive approach to this story of a fisherman (Mercado) who believes his manliness lies in the fact that he's married, his wife is pregnant and he's a leader in the church and community. The fact that he's in love with his childhood pal (Cardona) is almost irrelevant - but it's also something he can't escape. The story takes a turn that combines strong emotion with magical realism as it looks at how things should be, but aren't. A strong story, lyrically well-told.

Au Revoir Taipei
dir Arvin Chen; with Jack Yao, Amber Kuo 10/Tai ****
One of the rare films in this festival that sends you smiling and dancing out of the cinema, this charming comedy from Taiwan stirs romance and crime into the intertwined lives of its colourful characters. It helps that the cast is almost shamelessly likeable, and the film is strikingly shot - packed with vivid colours and witty camerawork. In the end, the criminal element of the plot gives way to an open-hearted approach that draws both laughter and happy sighs all around. A lovely surprise.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

EIFF 11: Secrets and lies

It was Timothy Spall on the red carpet here in Edinburgh last night for the premiere of his new film Jackboots on Whitehall, in which he voices Winston Churchill (above). Otherwise, it was another day of movies in darkened cinemas and warm Scottish summertime outdoors in between. In the evening, a group of us journalists meet up for our annual bowling extravaganza - to take our minds off film and exercise those tired legs. I managed a respectable 2nd place in both games. Then it was off to the world premiere party for Col Spector's Honeymooner, a fairly subdued event sponsored by a certain brandy (lesson: never make cocktails out of brandy).

Here are some highlights (starting with my favourite of the festival) on the last full day of the festival, which ends with the closing film Third Star and awards ceremony tonight. Tomorrow will be a day of Best of the Fest screenings...

The Secret in Their Eyes
dir Juan Jose Campanella; with Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil 09/Arg *****
Gorgeously filmed with passion and artistry, this is a provocative story of the tenacity of justice as seen through the eyes of a man who can't forget the one that got away. This is literally breathtaking filmmaking on every level ... M O R E >

dir Col Spector; with Gerard Kearns, Chris Coghill 10/UK ***
This slice-of-life drama centres on a young guy (Kearns) in North London struggling with the messy breakup of a relationship and friends who insist he gets back out there. Nothing really happens in the film, but as it follows him over the two weeks that would have been his honeymoon, it's warm and endearing, beautifully played by the whole cast with likeable, realistic characters and some extremely honest conversations.

Cherry Tree Lane
dir Paul Andrew Williams; with Rachael Blake, Tom Butcher 10/UK ***
Britain gets some suburban terror in this horrific home-invasion thriller about a couple whose tense dinner is interrupted by the arrival of a trio of young guys who are determined to teach their son a lesson once he gets home. First though they have to tie up the parents and menace them in unthinkable ways. The events play out in real time, which gives the film a strong kick. And it's especially well directed and acted. But in the end it feels somewhat pointless.

dir Nicolas Philibert 10/Fr ****
On the surface this doc couldn't feel much simpler: the camera merely watches the orangutans at a French zoo, most notably grand dame Nenette, while we hear the ambient noises, including the chatter of visitors watching them in their pens. We also get commentary from Nenette's keepers - including one from her past - who tell telling and often funny anecdotes about her colourful life. The surprise is that, even with this basic structure and 70-minute running time, filmmaker Philibert (Etre et Avoir) not only tells us rather a lot about orangutans, their history and their interaction with humans, but he also gives us an engaging glimpse into the way we interact with the animal world.

Third Star
dir Hattie Dalton; with Benedict Cumberbatch, JJ Feild 10/UK ***
This year's closing film doesn't exactly send us out of the cinema smiling! It's a dark and often very serious drama about mortality centring on four 30-ish guys who head off on a long hike along the Welsh coastline. One of them (Cumberbatch) is dying of cancer and wants to see his favourite beach for the last time. Along the way there are plenty of moments of levity and even slapstick, even as the story seems to repeat itself a bit. The cast is perfection, creating well-rounded characters who interact meaningfully. But be ready for some very heavy stuff in the last act - provocative, thoughtful and extremely moving.