Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Critical Week: Visiting Underland

Amid all of the awards excitement in London last week, the biggest press screening was for Tim Burton's new take on Alice in Wonderland - in 3D! On Imax screens! And while the film lives up to the visual hype with its colourful details and outrageous comical characters, the story is the disappointment, as we're actually taken to Underland, not Wonderland, for a sequel to Lewis Carroll's classic tales. But an iffy story won't put off most viewers, and children will especially enjoy the dark shadings and epic-like imagery.

Other big screenings included Roman Polanski's Berlin-winning thriller The Ghost, which is probably too subtle in its filmmaking brilliance; the lively and entertaining, but probably unnecessary, remake of George A Romero's 70s classic The Crazies; and the gripping Swedish blockbuster The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first in a trilogy of thrillers about a journalist and a young woman who has been abused all her life. Also from Sweden came the superbly well-filmed and acted The Ape, and I saw two docs from Israel dealing with sexuality in compelling, engaging ways: City of Borders from Jerusalem and Gay Days from Tel Aviv.

Outside the cinema I caught up with Whoopi Goldberg's film-to-theatre adaptation of Sister Act, a ludicrously camp romp with more sequins than you can possibly imagine. It's also great fun, but would have been even more of a crowd-pleaser if they'd used actual Motown and disco hits rather than original songs that mimic vintage tracks. Also on stage, I saw Megan Mullally live with her band Supreme Music Program - a hugely entertaining show during which we even got a few glimpses of the iconic Karen Walker.

This week's press screening schedule includes Matthew Vaughn's hotly anticipated action-comedy Kick-Ass and Paul Greengrass' anxiously awaited Baghdad thriller Green Zone, plus Ricky Gervais' Cemetery Junction, Neil Marshall's Centurion, the British football comedy The Shouting Men and the British indie prison drama Release.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

More awards: Bafta 2010

Another big movie night in London - the biggest of the year - as the British Academy Film Awards were held at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. A seriously glittering array of stars paraded down the red carpet (that's Carey Mulligan above). But I wasn't there - I was in a theatre about 50 metres away watching Megan Mullally on stage instead - then I watched the BBC telecast of the Baftas later this evening.

The show was the usual collection of embarrassing jokes and deserving winners. As host, Jonathan Ross struggled to deliver even a single funny comment, which makes us wonder if he'll be back next year (well, he's decided not to renew his overall BBC contract). And whoever wrote the script for the autocue should be sacked as well - it was painful to watch the stars struggle to get through the dire introductions. The nadir being poor Mickey Rourke squinting to read an appalling lead-in to the best actress award. Although he did add a tastless barebacking comment, bless him.

Besides six awards for The Hurt Locker, the prizes were spread around, with nice British love in the lead acting categories: Colin Firth gave the night's best thank you speech - clever, smart and grateful - while Carey Mulligan was gorgeous, charming and utterly overwhelmed by her award. The funniest speech was given by Jacques Audiard, receiving the foreign-film award for A Prophet, who mimed in French and waved Tahar Rahim in front of the audience to rapturous applause, then left the stage. The wackiest speech came from Andrea Arnold, collecting British Film with a free-association speech involving a dream about putting up a tent, "and God save the Queen!"

That comment was apparently aimed at Prince William, who is apparently inheriting the presidency of Bafta with the retirement of the ageing Lord Attenborough. He was on hand to introduce the gorgeous Uma Thurman, who presented the Bafta Fellowship to an utterly magical Vanessa Redgrave. No one minded that her thank you rambled on through various topics - she is acting royalty after all. But I couldn't help but be impressed by the fact that Prince William towered above the 6-foot-tall Uma and the 5-foot-11 Vanessa. Who knew?

Other highlights included those who choked back tears to accept their awards, such as Redgrave, Duncan Jones for debut filmmaker, Kristen Stewart for rising star and even Kathryn Bigelow for director. Most glamorous and gorgeous was Kate Winslet, most effortlessly combining sexy and goofy was Robert Pattinson, and most enjoying himself was Terry Gilliam.

Friday, 19 February 2010

30th London Critics' Circle Film Awards

It was a starry night as usual for the annual London Critics' Circle Film Awards, this year celebrating our 30th anniversary. The event was held at the extremely glamorous and rather more intimate Landmark Hotel, which gave the night a lively, enjoyable tone. And we revamped things a bit this year too with a new host: Jason Isaacs (below right). His sharp, often improvised patter kept things moving and kept us all laughing with some rather snappy barbs aimed at the critics who were hosting the evening. The big winner was Fish Tank, which took home four awards - for British Film of the Year, director Andrea Arnold (above left), supporting actor Michael Fassbender (above centre) and Young Performer of the Year Katie Jarvis - accepted in her absence by costar Kierston Wareing (above right), who was nominated for supporting actress.

Our Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film went to Quentin Tarantino (above left), who finished up the evening with a lively and surprisingly brief speech. His Inglourious Basterds leading man Christoph Waltz (above centre) took the Actor of the Year award.

Acting honours included (above left to right), Carey Mulligan as British Actress of the Year for An Education, Colin Firth as British Actor of the Year for A Single Man and Anne-Marie Duff as supporting actress for Nowhere Boy. Special videotaped acceptance speeches were sent in by Mo'Nique as Actress of the Year for Precious and Duncan Jones as British breakthrough film-maker for Moon. And there was a third taped thank you from Francis Ford Coppola for the 30th Anniversary Award, which was given to Apocalypse Now. The award was accepted on stage by the film's cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The only other winner who wasn't present was Kathryn Bigelow, Director of the Year for The Hurt Locker; her award was accepted by the film's sound designer.

And finally (above left to right), here's the surprise winner of Film of the Year, Jacques Audiard for A Prophet; Tomas Alfredson, who won Foreign Film of the Year for Let the Right One In; the most glamorous nominated couple, Sam Taylor-Wood and Aaron Johnson, who were up for British director, breakthrough film-maker and young performer for Nowhere Boy; and the night's best outfit, Olivia Williams, who was nominated for her role in An Education.

Personally, I had a great night. After months working in the background to help make things come together for the event, it was fun to sit back and enjoy it. The celebrities on our table were George MacKay, nominated for The Boys Are Back, and Riz Ahmed of the acclaimed British indie Shifty, who presented the Young Performer award. This year's surreal conversations included a chat with Colin Firth and Jason Isaacs, during which Colin confessed that he, not Tom Ford, actually chose those heavy vintage specs for his A Single Man character and Jason said he'd never host another event like this, even though we told him what a great job he'd done.

I also had an enjoyable lively chat with Olivia Williams and Andy Serkis, who of course starred together in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (for which Andy was nominated). I couldn't help but gush a little over Olivia's amazing performance in Roman Polanski's The Ghost, which I'd just seen two nights before. And of course I had to talk with Andy about getting back into Gollum's skin for The Hobbit - he said he's appearing in both films but won't be spending as many months in New Zealand this time: "I have kids now!"

Monday, 15 February 2010

Critical Week: Missing the mark

You can tell from the poster image for the new remake of The Wolfman that something is up here. Why is it centred on the much smaller character played by Emily Blunt, while the Oscar-winning Benicio Del Toro, in many hours worth of old-style werewolf makeup,is barely there and Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins is nowhere to be seen? Perhaps it's the same reason the film's release was delayed by almost a year, and why it wasn't screened to the press until just a few days before it opened. Namely, that it's neither scary nor silly enough to really work - although if you watch it as a comedy it's rather good fun.

My other two press screenings last week were just as odd: the Irish romantic-comedy Happy Ever Afters and the New York gay romance Lucky Bastards - neither was as romantic as it needed to be. Much better were the festival films I watched, including two Scandinavian ones (Brotherhood from Denmark and The Man Who Loved Yngve from Norway). But the best film I saw was a revisit to see Tom Ford's A Single Man, and most notably Colin Firth's great performance, again as it opened here in the UK.

This week's offerings include Tim Burton's 3D version of Alice in Wonderland, Roman Polanski's political thriller The Ghost, the remake of George A Romero's 1973 cult classic The Crazies, and two films from Sweden: the hotly anticipated trilogy launcher The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the indie drama The Ape.

In addition, the London Critics' Circle has its 30th annual film awards gala dinner on Thursday night. Most of the nominees are attending, including Quentin Tarantino, who will be receiving our special Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film. So of course I'll be reporting on all of that later in the week.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Critical Week: All-star love

The big screening last week was (and the big release this week is) the mega-ensemble romantic comedy Valentine's Day, which is unlikely to be trumped in star wattage this year. That it's actually a schmaltzy American version of Love Actually is beside the point; it's also an undemanding crowd-pleaser that's bound to make a box office fortune.

A much more polished blockbuster screened to critics last week was Martin Scorsese's mental hospital thriller Shutter Island, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo. And even Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief (to use the UK title) was great fun in an energetically Harry Potter-lite way. We also caught up with some more grown-up fare, including the lively Irish crime comedy Perrier's Bounty, the unsettling remake of the classic Aussie horror Long Weekend, the stylish Mussolini drama Vincere, the seriously unsettling Cannes-winning Greek drama Dogtooth, and the fascinating stand-up comic doc American: The Bill Hicks Story. But the best film I saw was part of a handful of screenings for an upcoming festival: the utterly stunning Canadian mother-son drama I Killed My Mother, written, directed, produced by and starring the remarkably talented 20-year-old Xavier Dolan.

This week's offerings include the big-budget monster movie The Wolfman, the Irish rom-com Happy Ever Afters, the gay drama Lucky Bastard and several more festival films. Hopefully there will be another gem in there somewhere, whether or not it has 20 A-listers in it.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Oscar 2010: War of the worlds...

Yes, it's war at this year's Oscars, as the battle for Pandora pits itself against the war on terror. Avatar and The Hurt Locker have nine nominations each, including the big ones for picture and director, although I'd say The Hurt Locker has the edge since it also has screenwriting and acting nominations.

Whatever happens, having 10 Best Picture nominations throws everything into a spin this year, although it's not quite as radical as it looks. Sure, this is proof that fantasy has officially made it into the mainstream (
Avatar, District 9, Up and, erm, Inglourious Basterds), but there's still no room for comedies or rom-coms.

Note the shut-out for the acclaimed (500) Days of Summer and just one nomination for Julie & Julia (even though Stanley Tucci deserved his nod for this, not The Lovely Bones). And then there's the absence of the year's most winning doc, the comical Anvil! and the fact that acclaimed comedies (and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Monsters vs Aliens) didn't make it into the animated feature shortlist, but The Secret of Kells, which no one has seen, did. OK, it's probably genius.

The one exception is the hugely deserving In the Loop, although under the laughter it's actually a political thriller, so maybe it doesn't actually count.

People we should feel sorry for: Julianne Moore, Christian McKay, Clint Eastwood, Abbie Cornish, Viggo Mortensen and Alfred Molina. Those who should thank their lucky stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Penelope Cruz, the producers of The Blind Side and anyone who did a technical job on Avatar. Bring on March 7th!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Critical Week: Blow 'em away

That's John Travolta blasting his way through the new action mayhem of From Paris With Love, another slice of Luc Bessonian guilty pleasure with far more guns and bombs than are strictly necessary. And this week, London critics also got to see Mel Gibson shooting everything that moved in the slicker but far-too-serious Edge of Darkness, as well as Paul Bettany armed to the teeth with guns and big knives as the Archangel Michael in the enjoyably manic, but legion-free, Legion, and Sean Bean indulging in all sorts of nastiness in the thoroughly entertaining medieval horror romp Black Death.

The rest of last week's press screenings had fireworks of a different kind, from the moody but strangely muted Belfast teen angst of Cherrybomb (featuring Harry Potter star Rupert Grint's first - very tame - love scene), the sharply clever but ultimately somewhat formulaic London Arab-Jewish comedy The Infidel, Tilda Swinton in the extremely sedate and haunting Italian mob family drama I Am Love, and the eerily moody supernatural healing drama Lourdes.

Even more enjoyable was the chance to spend an hour in the presence of Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, who were in London for the premiere of their film Invictus.

This week the excitement continues with the all-star seasonal rom-com Valentine's Day, the teen Greek-god romp Percy Jackson and the Lightning thief, the Irish crime caper Perrier's Bounty, the gritty remake of the Aussie horror classic Long Weekend, the acclaimed Greek drama Dogtooth, the Mussolini biopic Vincere, and the British doc about the US comic American: The Bill Hicks Story. There's also the little matter of the Oscar nominations on Tuesday, at lunchtime in London.