Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Critical Week: For the boys

One of the most enjoyable films screened to London critics this past week was the Aussie crowd-pleaser The Sapphires, anchored by a terrific performance from Chris O'Dowd. It's the true story of a quartet of aboriginal singers who sing for the troops in Vietnam in 1968, and it's shot and played with a lot of infectious energy. We also had a musical drama from America, the less enjoyable but still watchable Sparkle, featuring the last film role for Whitney Houston. And a lively audience of critics on Friday night laughed all the way through Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis' The Campaign, even though it loses its satirical edge along the way.

With press screenings underway for the London Film Festival (10-21 Oct) and the Raindance Festival (26 Sep-7 Oct) in full flow, the screening schedule is busier than normal. Other mainstream titles included Mike Newell's new version of Dickens' Great Expectations, Liam Neeson's return to the action-revenge genre in the preposterous Taken 2, the energetic and engaging animated monster romp Hotel Transylvania, and Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg in the nicely observed relationship comedy-drama Celeste & Jesse Forever.

Further off the beaten path were the British independent dramas Shell, an atmospheric film set in the Highlands, and Love Tomorrow, a downbeat London romance. There was also the cheesily low-budget American thriller Into the Lion's Den, the provocative and controversial Cannes-winning Danish drama The Hunt, and Poland's gritty and rather insular true rap-group drama You Are God.

This coming week we have the Irish musical drama Good Vibrations, the British wedding comedy The Knot, Stephen Dorff in Zaytoun, the acclaimed Swiss drama Sister, the horror film Excision, the indie drama Laurentie, clown horror in Stitches, the French animation Ernest & Celestine, and the documentaries Everything or Nothing (about James Bond) and West of Memphis (about a miscarriage of justice). Among other things...

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Requisite Blog Photo: One of the undead

It was perhaps a bit early on Sunday morning to face a cinema packed out with hysterical, sugar-overloaded children. So I fit right in with the movie's cast...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Critical Week: Pitch-slapped

The most raucous screening last week was for the musical comedy Pitch Perfect - it's rare to hear film critics laughing so loudly all the way through a film. It stars Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson as members of a very competitive a capella university singing group. Less hilarious was goofy infertility comedy The Babymakers, which has a terrific lead couple in Olivia Munn and Paul Schneider but gets lost in a lame caper subplot. The tense British horror-thriller Tower Block also has a terrific cast led by Sheridan Smith, Russell Tovey and Jack O'Connell, but falls apart due to a hole-ridden script.

Foreign-language-wise, we had Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner Amour, a staggeringly well-observed drama about a couple facing their mortality; Xavier Dolan's Toronto award winner Laurence Anyways, an ambitious gender-bender starring the terrific Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clement; and the genial Swedish political rom-com Four More Years. There was also one doc: Hungarian Rhapsody, which includes rare interviews with Queen followed by a gorgeously shot film of their 1986 Budapest concert. And I caught up with two classics: Pier Paolo Pasolini's stunning version of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Steven Spielberg's timeless adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was simply fabulous to revisit on the Imax screen.

This coming week we have Mike Newell's take on Great Expectations, Liam Neeson in Taken 2, the Ferrell-Galifianakis comedy The Campaign, the Aussie crowdpleaser The Sapphires, the animated horror-comedy Hotel Transylvania, the Polish hip-hop drama You Are God and the British indie drama Love Tomorrow. And on Monday morning, press screenings begin for the 56th BFI London Film Festival (10-21 Oct), so I'll be catching up with the likes of the comedy Celeste & Jesse Forever, the Cannes-winner The Hunt, and the doc West of Memphis, among many others.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Critical Week: Where'd the time go?

Time travel movies always do your head in a bit, although Rian Johnson's Looper isn't as impenetrable as some. No, my problem this past week was recovering from the full-on Paralympics schedule I kept up over the previous two weeks. But I'm starting to feel a bit more normal now, just as meetings are kicking in to organise the Critics' Circle Film Awards in January! Clearly there's no rest for me in the near future.

Anyway, back to Looper, which was screened last week to UK critics: we're embargoed from saying much about the film, which stars Joe Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the same hitman character meeting up in a time loop. So what can I write about. We also saw Woody Allen's latest Euro-pudding, To Rome With Love, which is very fluffy but still worth a look. Oliver Stone's Savages is a return to Natural Born Killers nastiness without the bite, mainly due to a pretty dire script that even a terrific cast can't rescue. And it gets worse: Sam Riley and Garret Dillahunt star in Walter Salles' take on the Jack Kerouac novel On the Road, which simply doesn't hold together at all, despite gorgeous production values.

The nicest surprise of the week was British comedy sequel Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger, of which I didn't expect much. It starts in the same annoying vein as its predecessor, but wins us over with an infusion of Christmas spirit that worked on me even on a sunny September morning. Two other independent films held my interest even though they're both flawed: Sally Potter's drama Ginger & Rosa is a dark coming-of-age drama starring Elle Fanning and newcomer Alice Englert. While Jason Biggs is superb in the lively grassroots politics comedy titled, erm, Grassroots.

This coming week is even busier, screening-wise, with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson in the comedy Pitch Perfect, Olivia Munn and Paul Schneider in The Babymakers, the British action thriller Tower Block, the Swedish political comedy Four More Years and the Queen documentary Hungarian Rhapsody, plus a chance to revisit Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Imax screen.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Paralympics: The last hurrah

Last night the London 2012 Paralympics came to a close with a spectacular bang. And it was amazing to actually be in the stadium to see it firsthand - a closing ceremony that actually outdid the Olympics finale. But then it was also the final shout for a summer of extraordinary achievement over about six weeks in London.

Designed as a "festival of flame", the closing ceremony featured rather a lot of fire! It was astonishing to see in the stadium, as thousands of performers worked the stadium floor in gigantic motorised contraptions that took specific roles in the various seasons of the ceremony, while others flew above us in aerial stunts. In the centre of it all, Coldplay did an entire concert, performing 15 of their hits with a bit of help from Rihanna and Jay Z, all while keeping the focus on the athletes who were gathered around them singing along. It was easily one of the most colourful spectacles I've ever witnessed, and also one of the most moving, as it recognised the remarkable achievements of the competitors.

Over the last three days of competition, I managed to achieve my own goal to see something at the Paralympics every day of the competition. On the final morning in the Olympic Stadium, I got up close with the cauldron (via Instagram right) - close enough to feel the heat. On Sunday I watched the final two gold medal matches, in which Australia won the wheelchair rugby and Russia won the 7-a-side football (the players all have cerebral palsy).

Indeed, the past 12 days have been a life-changing experience for me. I will never look at anyone with a disability in quite the same way again, and I can only hope that these talented, skilled athletes continue to get the media coverage they deserve as they continue to compete in their sport. The massive ratings in Britain prove that there's an audience for it.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Requisite Blog Photo: Christmas in September

Yes, on a blazing sunshiny day in Leicester Square, there were donkey rides, trees covered in snow and Christmas songs galore for the critics! Merry merry!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Paralympics: More heroes

This week has sped by in a blur for me, as I have been watching films (see below) and attending the Paralympics every day. And it's been amazing to see how the British public has taken these athletes to heart, creating heroes whose names are just as well-known as the slicker professional sportsmen and women at the Olympics last month. Just over a week ago, we barely new the names of British competitors like David Weir (above), Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock and Sarah Storey, to name just four multiple-medallists.

As an accredited journalist, I have been able to attend anything I want, which is why I am taking advantage of the proximity and going to something every day. And all of it has been inspiring! On Monday, I watched GB vs Japan in wheelchair basketball. Tuesday was sunny, so I headed for the equestrian venue in Greenwich Park, then to the fencing arena in the ExCeL. Wednesday, I watched Britain's opening wheelchair rugby match against the USA. And today was 5-a-side football (right) semifinal between Brazil and Argentina - perhaps the most amazing thing I've seen so far, as the participants are all visually impaired, so they are blindfolded to even the field. These guys make the wheelchair rugby brutes look like sissies! 

There are only three days left, and I have my plans mapped out, although I might divert to check out something I've never seen before. And of course, come Monday I will really miss the roar of the crowds as they support all of the competitors then shift into deafening mode when a Brit appears! I'll also miss roaming around in the Olympic Park soaking up the amazing atmosphere.

CRITICAL WEEK:It's been another eclectic week at the movies for UK critics, but we finally caught up with Cannes hit Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt as a hitman. My opinions are also embargoed for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a teen drama starring Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller. Another Cannes film was the hyperactive and rather unengaging Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. Much, much better were the independent dramas Keep the Lights On, a beautifully filmed and played romantic drama, and Love, an offbeat and atmospheric low-budget sci-fi drama about an astronaut stranded in space. This coming week we have Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart in On the Road, Joe Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in Looper, Sally Potter's drama Ginger and Rosa, and the British comedy sequel Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Paralympics: Adjectives fail me

Had another two amazing days at the Paralympics, and frankly I'm running out of adjectives: amazing, astounding, inspiring, moving. It's impossible to forget, when you're watching these events, that every single competitor is already a winner with a powerful back-story. On Saturday I spent several hours cheering on the athletics action in the Olympic Stadium from the press stand, right on the finish line. This included Ireland's Jason Smyth (above), who smashed a world record to win a gold medal in the 100m. In the mix-zone after he commented that his wife would have never let him in the bedroom that night without a gold medal around his neck!

Later I saw South African legend Oscar Pistorius break a world record in his 200m heat, then was amazed to see what a nice man he is in the mix zone, as he patiently chatted to journalists for nearly 90 minutes while his minders tried to get him to move along. He even stopped to shake hands with me and pose for photos for the photographer I was standing with (like an idiot, I didn't snap my own pic). He talked generously about his sponsors, supporters, family, spectators, and was genuinely moved by the attention heaped on him, as well as the unexpected record. So reports about his little rant on Sunday (after losing the final) should be taken with a grain of salt: they were spoken in personal frustration in the heat of the moment, and he has apologised in a way that is genuinely classy.

On Sunday I attended the Britain-Morocco sitting volleyball match (my Instagram pic is at right) - another overwhelming display of tenacity and talent. These guys are as tough as the Olympics volleyball and beach volleyball players I watched just a few weeks ago. This is a seriously gripping spectator sport too. Afterwards I watched two rounds of powerlifting - more emotion! The biggest cheer was reserved for Chinese lifter Liu Lei, who won gold with a Paralympic record, then came back for a fourth lift just to set a new world record as well. Amazing, astounding, inspiring, moving.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Paralympics: Records fall

Last night I attended the paralympic swimming session in the London 2012 Aquatics Centre, where seven world records were broken in 15 finals. It was pretty astonishing! And it was also almost overwhelmingly inspirational. Just being in a place like this has a way of whittling away at a lifetime of social attitudes toward disability.

There's something seriously stirring about watching someone like the USA's Jessica Long (above) walk out to the start of her race, remove her legs, then dive in the pool and crush her own world record to win a gold medal. She emerged from the pool afterwards with a huge grin on her face, dancing to the music filling the arena. And when she stood on the platform to receive her gold medal, the emotions washing over her were felt throughout the crowd.

The audience cheered on everyone rapturously, bumping up the deafening roar whenever someone from Paralympics GB was competing. Britain didn't win any golds last night, but there were plenty of silvers and bronzes, including brothers Oliver and Sam Hynd, who won silver and bronze in the men's 400m freestyle.

I also spent some time in the mix-zone with the competitors after their races. One of the most inspiring to speak with was Bradley Snyder (right) of the USA, who won gold in the men's 100m freestyle. The 28-year-old was on a tour of duty in Afghanistan less than a year ago when a home-made bomb went off, blinding him. Right after winning the race, he talked about the honour he felt being here representing wounded military personnel. "The motto here is 'inspire a generation', and I suppose my generation is the wounded warriors," he said. "It wasn't that long ago I was laying in the hospital bed. I know it's a tough blow to have something removed from you, and also to be taken out of the fight. Hopefully my presence here can provide some inspiration to those guys so they can get out. It doesn't have to be sport, but just get out of bed, get back into life and get through the barriers that have been presented to them." More than 20 of the US team's 227 athletes here in London are wounded war veterans.