Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Year in Shadows: 2014

34th Shadows Awards: Happy New Year!

After much agonising, I've finally assembled my annual best of the year lists. As much as I resisted, I was unable to deny that Boyhood was my film of the year. I hate going along with the mob, but this really is one of the most extraordinary movies ever made - it's far more than a 12-year filmmaking experiment. These are just the highlights: there's rather a lot more on the WEBSITE.

  1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
  2. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
  3. Mommy (Xavier Dolan)
  4. Selma (Ava DuVernay)
  5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
  6. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
  7. Rosewater (Jon Stewart)
  8. Pride (Matthew Warchus)
  9. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
DIRECTOR: Ava DuVernay (Selma)

SCREENWRITER: Andrey Zvyagintsev & Oleg Negin (Leviathan)

ACTRESS: Julianne Moore (Still Alice, Maps to the Stars)

ACTOR: David Oyelowo (Selma, A Most Violent Year, Interstellar)

SUPPORTING ACTRESSEmma Stone (Birdman, Magic in the Moonlight)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For)

  1. Tammy (Ben Falcone)
  2. Bad Johnson (Huck Botko)
  3. Pudsey the Dog: The Movie (Nick Moore)
  4. Endless Love (Shana Feste)
  5. Annie (Will Gluck)
  6. Hector and the Search for Happiness (Peter Chelsom)
  7. Earth to Echo (Dave Green)
  8. Sabotage (David Ayer)
  9. Jimi: All Is by My Side (John Ridley)
  10. Dumb and Dumber To (Peter & Bobby Farrelly)
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I only saw three films this week: James Franco and Seth Rogen in media-storm comedy The Interview, which was about half of a very funny movie; Jake Gyllenhaal in the clever but fiercely artful doppelganger mystery Enemy; and the stunningly well-observed Swedish Oscar-contending family drama Force Majeure.

Critics' screenings don't begin until Monday - with Liam Neeson in Taken 3 - but I have a few more discs I want to catch up with between now and then, as year-end voting continues.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Critical Week: 'Tis the season...

London's film critics entered awards season this week with the announcement of our nominations for the 35th London Critics' Circle Film Awards, which will be handed out at a ceremony at The May Fair Hotel on Sunday 18th January 2015. This is my third year as chair of the awards committee, so there I was last Tuesday helping announce our nominations at the May Fair. In the photo above, that's Anna Smith (chair of the Critics' Circle Film Section), Jeremy Irvine and Phoebe Fox (stars of the forthcoming The Woman in Black: Angel of Death), and me (chair of the Film Awards and vice chair of the Film Section). Jeremy and Phoebe offered a bit of star power and beautifully announced our nominations to a gathering of journalists. Check out the FULL LIST OF NOMINEES.

I only saw two films this past week: Man Up is a smart, lively British rom-com starring Lake Bell and Simon Pegg and a superior supporting cast including Olivia Williams, Rory Kinnear, Ophelia Lovibond and Ken Stott. It opens in April. The only CC-nominated film I hadn't seen, Night Will Fall is a documentary about lost footage of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps after WWII, which no less than Alfred Hitchcock was editing into a documentary when the film was shut down by the UK government, afraid of shaming the German public. The never-seen footage is seriously unnerving - and essential.

This coming week I have several films that I need to catch up with, including Sweden's Force Majeure, which made the shortlist for an Oscar nomination this week (I've seen four others from the nine remaining contenders). I'll also finally be catching up with Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy, plus Stephen Daldry's Trash and Gregg Araki's White Bird in a Blizzard. Plus lots of television that's been backing up lately. And of course plenty of socialising.

I'll be back next week with my best and worst of the year. In the mean time, Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Critical Week: The silence of the lambs

Well, it's that time of year: school holidays are coming, so adult critics are made to sit through screenings packed with sugar-infused children. Best of the lot this past week was the Shaun the Sheep Movie, an utterly charming silent stop-motion adventure based on the Wallace & Gromit spin-off TV series. We also had the sequel Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and the musical remake Annie, both of which have their moments but never quite become anything special.

We also caught up with awards contenders including the sensitive drama Still Alice, featuring a staggering performance from Julianne Moore (she's almost certain to win the Oscar) as a woman with early onset Alzheimer's. And two documentaries managed to scoop nominations in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, the event I chair which announced its nominees today: Citizenfour is the important and gripping story of Edward Snowden, while Manakamana observes life in Nepal with an unblinking eye and a witty smirk. And Wild Tales is Argentina's entry for the foreign-language Oscar, a nerve-rattling black-comedy anthology with six stories of people who stop playing nice.

And then there was Ridley Scott's ambitious Exodus: Gods and Kings, which retells the Ten Commandments story with less emotional resonance but much more impressive visuals. Dumb and Dumber To reunites Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels 20 years later for even more idiotic mayhem, if that's possible (surprisingly, it is). And Wasp is a very clever low-budget British drama about three people on rather overcrowded romantic holiday in the South of France.

Screenings will slow down now for the holidays, but I have several discs to watch - I definitely want to catch up with the only film nominated for a Critics' Circle award that I haven't yet seen: Hitchcock's lost WWII documentary Night Will Fall. And I also have a screening of the Simon Pegg rom-com Man Up. But my main job is to prepare those year-end best and worst lists ... watch this space!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Critical Week: Let the race begin

Awards season officially kicked off this week with a flurry of accolades including the New York Film Critics and the British Independent Film Awards. I've been voting already, and have more to do in the coming weeks. In my last few days in California, I caught up with a few more contenders, including Angelina Jolie's biopic Unbroken, starring Jack O'Connell as Olympic runner Louie Zamperini, who later survived 47 days adrift at sea before being captured by the Japanese during WWII. It's a staggering story of resilience, made with unexpected subtlety. Tim Burton's Big Eyes is another gorgeously made biopic. It stars Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, who painted all of those sad-eyed children in the 60s and 70s while her husband (Christoph Waltz) took the credit. It may look sunnier than most of Burton's films, but it's just as gleefully deranged, and it carries a big emotional kick.

But of course the biggest film screened to the press this past week was Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, another enormous epic of a film, packed with lively characters, first-rate effects and huge, expertly staged action sequences. Frankly, until some engaging personal drama emerges in the second half, it's a bit exhausting. Somewhat smaller films included The Face of Love, a gimmicky, melodramatic romance starring Annette Bening and Ed Harris. And The Great Museum is a riveting fly-on-the-wall doc about the backstage workings of Vienna's national gallery.

Coming this week: Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Quevenzhane Wallis in a remake of the musical Annie, Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Aardman Animation's Shaun the Sheep Movie, the acclaimed Spanish anthology Wild Tales and the British drama Wasp. I'll also finally catch up with the sequel Dumb and Dumber To, although frankly I'd rather not.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Critical Week: Postcard from La-la Land

In rainy Los Angeles, I've been able to catch up with several awards-season contenders at Oscar-consideration screenings around the city. The highlight was a raucously enjoyable screening of Into the Woods at the Writers Guild, including a spontaneous mid-film applause break after the show-stopping princely duet Agony. With an up-for-it all-star cast (Anna Kendrick is the film's soul, Chris Pine is the scene-stealer, Meryl Streep [above] gets the big numbers), the film is pure joy - then turns satisfyingly serious for the post-happy ending final act. Side note: the stage musical was my first-ever Broadway show, on a visit to New York back in the late-80s. 

The other highlight was a screening of Selma at the Directors Guild, followed by a memorable Q&A with director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo, both of whom deserve serious awards recognition for a remarkably grounded, resonant, relevant drama about three momentous months in the life of Martin Luther King. There were at least four standing ovations! Also this week: Bradley Cooper is excellent as a real-life military marksman in Clint Eastwood's grippingly stark American Sniper, and Mark Wahlberg is solid as an irritatingly unlikable guy in Rupert Wyatt's remake of The Gambler.

This coming week, before I return to London this weekend, I am planning to catch Angelina Jolie's inspirational true drama Unbroken, Tim Burton's painting-scandal biopic Big Eyes, and Peter Jackson's final Tolkien film The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Then back in London I'll have one week to see the rest of this year's contenders before voting deadlines in the four awards I participate in: London Critics' Circle, Online Film Critics Society, Fipresci and Galeca's Dorian Awards.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Critical Week: Under the sea

Before I left London last Thursday, the biggest film screened was Kevin Macdonald's submarine thriller Black Sea, starring Jude Law as an unemployed guy trying to reclaim some dignity by salvaging Nazi gold out from under the Russian fleet. It's fast-paced and enjoyably ludicrous. Horrible Bosses 2 is a sequel no one asked for, and the writers haven't bothered to be even remotely clever, but there are some decent gags and a solid cast (Chris Pine steals the show, randomly). Much better, JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year is a clever vice-grip of a drama set in 1981 New York starring the excellent Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. An inventive, soft-spoken spin on the mob thriller, the film is clammy and haunting.

And on the flight over to Los Angeles, I caught up with the enjoyable doc Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, following the indefatigable showbiz veteran through her paces in both TV and theatre (the film was completed before her death in July). I also revisited Moulin Rouge, as you do, one of my all-time favourites and one of those rare films that I can get caught up in completely every time I see it. And once here I  rewatched The Theory of Everything, marvelling even more at Eddie Redmayne's astonishing performance as Stephen Hawking.

Here in California for a couple of weeks, I am hoping to catch up with the animated spin-off Penguins of Madagascar,  the idiotic sequel Dumb and Dumber To, the all-star musical Into the Woods, Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper and the civil rights drama Selma.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Critical Week: Take to the sky

It's been a very busy week here, as awards-contender screenings have started for the season and I'm getting ready to travel for a couple of weeks. Oscar-buzzy contenders have included Alejandro G Inarritu's astonishing Birdman, starring Michael Keaton as an actor trying to have a comeback; Paul Thomas Anderson's chaotic Inherent Vice, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in a series of hilariously raucous scenes loosely connected by an impenetrable plot; and the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything stars a seriously stunning Eddie Redmayne.

We also saw two surprisingly good British family movies: Paddington and Get Santa both benefit from their smart-witty scripts, gifted directors and up-for-it casts including Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and the voice of Ben Whishaw, and Jim Broadbent, Rafe Spall and Warwick Davis, respectively. It's rare that two decent holiday movies arrive in such close succession.

Off the beaten path, we had: Wong Kar Wai's gorgeously shot but oddly aloof biopic The Grandmaster; the rude Aussie drug-smuggling comedy The Mule; the corny British rom-com Home for Christmas (not actually a Christmas movie); the corny American rom-com Big Gay Love; and the involving Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, which shouldn't be missed by film fans. Finally, there were two collections of queer shorts: Boys on Film 12: Confession is Peccadillo's latest line-up of gay-themed films, this time looking at youthful longings; and Travis Mathews' In Their Room intimately explores the lives of men in San Francisco, Berlin and London.

Later this week I'm flying to California for the next couple of weeks, where I plan to catch up with several more awards contenders (plus Penguins of Madagascar). But the real question is whether there will be anything showing on the plane that I haven't seen or wouldn't mind watching again. I'll be blogging as I go...

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Critical Week: Bump in the dark

London critics caught up this week with the freak-out sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, set 40 years after the first film, so it has an all-new cast (including Jeremy Irvine and Helen McCrory) facing that eerie ghost at Eel Marsh House. Honestly, why would anyone ever go in there?

The biggest screening this week was for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the thrilling third film in the series starring Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks and so on. It captures the book's intensely grim tone almost too well and is also a terrific exploration of the birth of a leader, setting things up for the more battle-intensive final part, a year from now. The only other starry movie this week was Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman, a gruelling Wild West road movie in which he stars in alongside Hilary Swank and a number of superb A-list cameo players (Meryl Streep!). It's extremely straight-faced and rather bleak, but always involving.

Further afield there were four foreign films: essentially a filmed stage play, the drama Diplomacy chronicles the touchy negotiations between German and French officers at the end of WWII, hinging on terrific performances by Andre Dussolier and Niels Arestrup; also from France, Eastern Boys is an uneven but intriguing drama about the strange relationship between a businessman and a Ukrainian working the streets for money; from Switzerland, The Circle uses documentary and drama to reconstruct the relationship between two men in a rapidly closing free society; and Snails in the Rain is a darkly thoughtful but ultimately simple Israeli drama about a young man whose girlfriend notices that something is up.

This coming week, we have the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, the Jim Carrey-Jeff Daniels sequel Dumb and Dumber To, the black comedy The Mule, the holiday comedy Home for Christmas, the Mexican drama Four Moons, the Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, and the French foreign-student doc School of Babel

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Critical Week: Shake your money maker

It feels like months since I've done a regular weekly blog entry! (It was 7th October.) After the one-two punch of London and Abu Dhabi film festivals, I'm back to normal for three weeks. In the three days since flying home from the UAE, I've only seen four films....

Get On Up is an ambitious biopic about James Brown starring the seriously talented Chadwick Boseman, although the film is a bit too fragmented to properly convey much insight into Brown's own genius. One of the year's most hotly anticipated films, Interstellar is Christopher Nolan's trip into space to seek a future for humanity, featuring strong performances from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and others but a plot that wobbles badly in the middle. Nativity 3: Dude, Where's My Donkey?! is the latest instalment in the silly British Christmas musical series, as another new teacher (Martin Clunes) is tormented and ultimately won over by Marc Wootton's Mr Poppy and his ludicrously adorable students. And X+Y is a remarkable little British drama anchored by a powerhouse performance from Asa Butterfield as an autistic maths-whiz teen.

This coming week, I'll be watching the year's next blockbuster The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, plus Tommy Lee Jones' starry Western The Homesman, Wong Kar-wai's much delayed award-winning film The Grandmaster, the German drama Diplomacy, the French drama Eastern Boys, the Swiss drama The Circle and the Arab Spring documentary We Are the Giant.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Abu Dhabi 6: Heroes and villains

At the closing ceremony for the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival last night, awards were presented from the series of juries who have been working here for the past nine days. Our Fipresci jury handed out two prizes: Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb (narrative) and Nadine Salib's Um Gayeb: Mother of the Unborn (documentary). As for other feature awards, The festival's Black Pearl Awards were presented to Leviathan (narrative), The Wonders (New Horizons), and Virunga (doc). The Audience Award went to The Salt of the Earth, the Netpac award to Iraqi Odyssey and the Child Protection awards to In Her Place (film) and Sivas (script). There were also a range of jury prizes, acting awards, special mentions and prizes for Arab films and filmmakers. The closing night film was Big Hero 6 (above).

I flew back to London this morning, and was happy to find that it's rather warm here - which means that I never used the coat I carried to Abu Dhabi and back home. So I'm going through a stack of post, running a load of laundry and getting ready to take a short nap so I can stay awake tonight and get back on local time (which is now 4 hours earlier, although it was 3 hours when I left - figure that out!). Here are the last few films from Abu Dhabi...

Big Hero 6 is an animated Disney/Marvel action-comedy about an orphan who teams up with a gentle-giant robot and a gang of techie nerds to stop a nefarious villain from wreaking havoc in San Fransokyo. Yes, the film has an enjoyably mashed-up Japanese/American tone, even if the characters and plot are extremely formulaic. There aren't any surprises in the story, the characters represent the basic types, and the approach to grief feels sentimental and superficial (namely that grief makes us desperate for violent revenge). But then, this probably isn't the kind of film that should close a festival like Abu Dhabi's, which is packed with unusually complex explorations of big topics. Still, it's a lot of fun, with plenty of whizzy action that's animated with terrific energy (this was the world premiere for the 3D version). And boys will especially enjoy the gadgetry.

The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer's companion piece to last year's award-winning Indonesian doc The Act of Killing, and it manages to be an even more harrowing experience. As the title suggests, this is a more introspective approach, as optometrist Adi asks residents of his hometown about the brutal events around the 1965 revolution and purge, during which his big brother was violently killed by men who are still in positions of authority today. Adi's questions are startlingly bold in a culture that would rather let the past lie. Amid efforts to rewrite history, knowing the truth is an urgent priority. And the way Oppenheimer quietly documents a complete lack of regret is seriously shocking. 

Queens of Syria is a relatively simple Jordanian doc about a group of women who are staging a production of Euripides' The Women of Troy. The hitch is that they are all refugees from Syria who fled to Amman for their lives - some running from violence, others forcibly removed from their homes. In other words, they have had the same experiences as the characters they are playing on-stage, and have in some cases integrated their stories into the dialog. Their accounts are seriously wrenching, especially as they talk about lost loved ones. But the film is never quite cracks the topic, perhaps because the filmmakers are understandably unable to get too deep into the lives of these women who are still unsettled and displaced.

Fevers, from France, is a generational drama about a man who discovers that he has a 13-year-old son whom he needs to care for. Where this goes is very dark: the kid is a thug who challenges everyone, leading to a series of harrowing clashes. The filmmaking is somewhat heavy-handed even as it struggles to make its point clear. Is this a film about the making or breaking of an Arab family that moved to Western Europe? It's hard to tell which, although aside from some warm moments most of what happens is pretty grim. But at lead the performances are so sharp that the characters become prickly and rattling. And even if the story gets even more difficult in the final scenes, it's haunting and thought-provoking.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 5: Politics and religion

In addition to a range of films from the Arab world, the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival has been showcasing award-winning movies from other festivals, including Cannes winners Winter Sleep and Leviathan (above); Venice winners A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, The Look of Silence and Hungry Hearts; Berlin winners Black Coal Thin Ice and Stations of the Cross; Sundance winners Whiplash and 20,000 Days on Earth; plus the likes of Two Days One Night, 99 Homes, Return to Ithaca, The Homesman, '71, Men Women & Children, Miss Julie. It's impossible to see everything, but I've given it a good try!

Meanwhile, the festival is winding down, but the parties haven't let up. The food has been pretty awesome, with a lavish breakfast buffet in the hotel (St Regis) and another buffet for lunch in the press area at Emirates Palace. Each evening's dinner party has been themed, with minor variations of food in even bigger buffets spread out in various areas outside the palace. A Jordanian pop star turned up for Jordan's party, Bollywood Nights offered music and dancing, and there have been Lebanese and even French themed parties. Last night's was the best so far: Arabian Nights, with carpets and kiosks scattered around the palace's beach. A high bar has been set for tonight's closing bash. Here are films from Wednesday and Thursday...

Leviathan has been winning awards since it premiered at Cannes (and won best screenplay) in May. I missed it at the London Film Festival (where it won best film), but knew I'd have a chance to catch up with it here. Worth the wait, this is a staggeringly clever exploration of power, specifically the church and state, with a plot that is clearly inspired by the biblical story of Job. Lyrical photography and open performances make it utterly gripping as the story of a man who calls in an old friend to help when the local mayor decides to demolish his family home. Plot wrinkles abound, making no one heroic. Everyone is deeply flawed, but not everyone pays the consequences. And the themes resonate far beyond the rural Russian setting. It's a stunner of a film that's sure to scoop more accolades before the awards season wraps up.

El Ott, from Egypt, is a noir thriller with a rather aloof sense of plotting. Global star Amr Waked (most recently seen in Lucy) plays the title character, a mysterious thug who takes on a preening gangster who is grabbing street kids and selling their organs on the black market. The film is edgy and grubby, with a plot that should be darkly compelling, but the characters and situations are deliberately undefined, which makes it difficult to get a grip on why anyone does anything. And several scenes feel so oddly set up that they give the film a corny and contrived tone. On the other hand, there's a fascinating undercurrent about power and belief - glimpses of ancient ruins, synagogues, churches, mosques and rave culture - all of which plays into a story about the blurry lines between politics, capitalism and crime.

The Man From Oran, from Algeria, is a period drama set at two points during the nation's struggle for independence. In the late 1950s two friends become involved in the fight against the French colonial rulers, which turns both of their lives upside-down as they rise to positions of power in the new government: one begins making morally dubious decisions while the other struggles to live with past events. This story is involving and complex, but later events set in the mid-1980s are a bit more muddled, partly due to how the screenplay requires previous knowledge of Algeria's culture and history and partly because the timescale is badly handled (apart from some iffy make-up, a child born in 1958 appears to be a surly teen in 1987). But the film is well-acted and shot in a vivid '70s noir style.

Pirates of Salė documents the first circus school in Morocco through the eyes of four young students who come from rough backgrounds. For them, this is clearly a potential path out of poverty, and as they prepare for their first big performance they discover the first sense of their own worth, finding joy in artistic expression, physical fitness and the camaraderie of the company. So it's frustrating that the film feels somewhat simplistic in its approach, showing the setting vividly without ever quite cracking the surface of either the students or their teachers. Only one of the teachers emerges as a fascinating character, and he simply vanishes along the way. In addition, the filmmakers oddly opt to chop the colourful circus performances into tiny pieces, never letting us get a feel for the work. This is a real shame, because the snippets we see are pretty amazing.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 4: Past, present and future

Passing the halfway point in the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival, I still have quite a few movies to see before I'm done. We have 16 films on the short list for the two Fipresci awards (for narrative and documentary features), and there are films in other strands that I want to catch as well. Several of my colleagues from London have been arriving over the last two days - it's been fun to hang out in a new context.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the chance to get to know filmmakers like Naji Abu Nowar (Theeb), who was presented with the Variety Arab filmmaker of the Year award on Monday, and Samir, whose Iraqi Odyssey (above) was screened here in 3D to an audience that included about 20 members of his family, most of whom appear in the documentary. And on Tuesday I took advantage of a free morning to visit the Grand Mosque (incredible!) and Central Market Souk here. Comments on films from Monday and Tuesday...

Iraqi Odyssey is a two hour 45 minute 3D documentary that's utterly riveting. Iraqi-Swiss filmmaker Samir ambitiously traces his own family's history in the context of the past century of Iraq's constant regime changes (generally sparked by the British or Americans), in the process not only providing one of the most lucid chronologies of Middle East events but also offering a moving look at a diaspora that has seen more than four million Iraqis abandon their country for a variety of reasons, Samir's relatives are spread from Russia and Europe to America and New Zealand, and as he travels around he collects memories, old photos, footage and details that piece together the family's history. Yes, there are long sequences that don't feel strictly necessary, but it's beautifully shot and edited, with some superb stereoscopic touches.

Return to Homs is a documentary about the young men taking a desperate stand for freedom in their hometown in Syria. Director Talal Derki assembles this with all-original footage shot on the frontline of battle, edited together as a blockbuster war action movie with a wonderfully charismatic protagonist in singing football star Basset. Except that this is all real: people are actually shot and killed on-camera, while others disappear without a trace when detained by the regime. All of which makes watching the film a thoroughly harrowing experience. The central question these 20-ish students-turned-freedom-fighters ask is why their country's president is killing his own people, and more crucially why the military, whose job is to defend the country, is now murdering innocent people and reducing cities to rubble. It's a difficult film to watch, but absolutely essential as a document about both Syria and the nature of oppression and courage.

The Silence of the Shepherd, also from Iraq, is a drama connecting the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s with the US invasion in 2003 as a family struggles with its sense of honour after their daughter goes missing, presumably running off with a man. The truth is known only to a shepherd, who refuses to speak about what he has seen. The story is fascinating, but it's shot in a style that doesn't play well internationally, mainly due to an overwrought, melodramatic acting style reminiscent of a Latino soap opera. There's also the problem that, at the centre, there's a family that would prefer their missing daughter to have been violently murdered than to have married a man she loved, simply to preserve their honour. Which makes most of the characters difficult to sympathise with.

The Valley is a Lebanese drama that takes a minimalist approach to the story of a man who becomes amnesiac after a car crash, then is taken in by a group of people in an isolated valley, where they are manufacturing some sort of illicit drug (meths? generic pharmaceuticals?). Nothing is explained, the characters remain mere hints of human beings and the events are only vaguely defined in this overlong, elusive thriller, which has hints of sci-fi in the final act. It's well shot, and acted with plenty of mystery and internalised intrigue. But its deeply pretentious. And without any context or characterisation, there's simply nothing the audience can properly grab on to. There's clearly some important meaning here, but most audience members will feel left in the dark.

Um Gayeb: Mother of the Unborn is an Egyptian documentary about motherhood, focussing on a woman who has struggled for 12 years to conceive a child with her husband. In this culture she's valued as a cow who takes food but gives no milk: useless. But she has an unusually warm and supportive husband (a likeable stoner dude!) and family around her. The film is shot with real intimacy, as if we are eavesdropping on her conversations, which makes it startlingly honest and revelatory. It's also a hugely a valuable document of a world in which ancient traditions and superstitions sit alongside modern medicine. But most of all, it's a portrait of a strong, witty, likeable woman who is doing the best she can against the odds, which makes the film feel like a universal, resonant exploration of the innate desire most people have to be parents. 

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CRITICAL WEEK: Life goes on
Yes, during all the festival chaos, I still have to keep writing my usual reviews and reports on what's happening in cinemas. All of this is on the website. I didn't see any non-festival films in Abu Dhabi, but several are getting cinema releases, including Big Hero 6, Leviathan, Timbuktu and The Look of Silence. And I watched Third Person on the plane - it opens in the UK in November.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 3: Sand and sea

Had a free morning yesterday so took advantage of the slightly cooler weather (only 34C/93F) and went to the beach at Saadiyat island. Gorgeous to swim in the clear salty water of the Gulf. Back into the cinema in the evening, with the premiere of Theeb followed by a lavish Jordanian party starring pop star Omar Abdullat, who sang late into the night (he was still going strong when I left). Here are films from Saturday and Sunday...

Theeb, from Jordan, is set around the time of Lawrence of Arabia as an Englishman (Jack Fox) ventures into the Arabian desert to work on a railway that is having a huge economic and cultural impact on the local culture. The story is told through the eyes of the young Theeb (Jacir Eid, above), who tags along on what will become an odyssey into discovering his own nature. It's a remarkable story told with minimal dialog but a clear sense of a boy developing his own ideas about integrity and identity in a world that is drastically shifting around him. It's also beautifully acted by the young Eid and directed with skill and artistry by award-winning filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar. 

Timbuktu, by Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness), is an oddly quirky story about jihad that sits very uneasily in the present news climate. It's about a gang of fundamentalists who ride into Timbuktu (the film was shot in Mauritania) under an IS-like flag and impose their random laws on the feisty residents. These interlopers are depicted as relatively benign, disorganised opportunists who only slowly become more violent in the face of civil disobedience from locals who don't like new rules banning music, footballs and bare hands and feet. The focal plot thread is about a nomadic cattleman who lives peacefully outside town until his actions catch the attention of the new rulers. It's beautifully observed, nicely played and has a sharp sense of the clash of cultures and languages. But portraying oppressive thugs as relatively reasonable goofballs is rather hard to take.

Memories on Stone is a cheeky drama that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever worked on a low budget movie. It's about a group of filmmakers trying to make a drama about the 1988 Anfal genocide in Kurdistan. The key problems hinge from the difficulties in securing a lead actress - from getting her family's permission to making sure her passport is up to date. But there are issues with equipment, extras, weather and a hilarious diva-like pop star who joins the cast. And behind the comedy is the sobering story they're telling about an atrocity that has been covered up and ignored for decades. That the film's low-yet, deadpan tone never shouts its themes is remarkable. 

A Second Chance is Susanne Bier's return to Denmark (after the part-Danish Love is All You Need and the Czech-American Serena, both also this year) along with Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Bier regular Ulrich Thomsen. It's reminiscent of Brothers with its high-concept premise and morally compromised characters, as well as some plot contrivances and a bit of intense melodrama. But it's extremely well shot and edited, with sharply emotional performances and a proper sense of dread as the story wrenches itself through bigger issues and darker emotions than expected. In the end it's haunting and provocative.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the Swedish winner of the best film award at Venice. It's a surreal collection of vignettes exploring the bizarre ways people deal with thoughts of imperfection and mortality. Filmmaker Roy Andersson mixes constant silliness and absurdity with deeply thoughtful undercurrents as he follows a series of fairly ridiculous characters around a slightly fantastical colour-drained old European city. The most recurrent characters are two depressed door-to-door salesmen trying to flog novelty joke items to help put a bit of fun in their lives. That they have no fun at all in theirs is the point. Yes, it's irony-intensive and perhaps a bit too quirky for audiences who don't enjoy arthouse fare, but it's also unforgettable. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 2: From 18 to 99

The film viewing schedule here at the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival isn't too strenuous for our Fipresci jury (just two or three films per day), but I am also trying to catch a few outside our remit. The festival organisers are feeding us to within an inch of our lives - skipping meals will soon become imperative, I think. And the transitions from hot sunshine to chilly air conditioning have already started me sniffling. Otherwise, this is a fascinating city, and I'm enjoying the chance to see bits of it in between screenings. Yesterday I visited the central souk, a stunning marketplace with a modern design that feels intriguingly classic. I also saw two films...

The Wanted 18 is a documentary by Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan offering a remarkably fresh perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict as it traces the actions of the residents of Beit Sahour, who in the late-1980s bought 18 cows in an effort to gain a bit of independence from the regime (which forbade private enterprise and most other things). These cows became public enemy No 1 to the Israeli security forces, who searched the town as the residents moved them around, continuing the supply of milk. The film's light, comical approach makes all of this into a kind of caper heist, even though it includes references to arrest and torture and essentially is exploring the nature of the intifada, a system of civil disobedience and (mostly) peaceful protest against the occupying Israelis, who were demanding that the oppressed population pay its taxes (even one Israeli official acknowledges how unfair this is). The filmmakers take an inventive, comical approach using interviews, dramatisations, comic book frames and even claymation (giving voices to the cows as rather ridiculous Sex and the City type divas). It's a little fragmented and frantic, but it sharply highlights the absurdity of the situation.

99 Homes is an American drama by Ramin Bahrani set during the housing crisis in 2010. It centres on a Florida builder (Andrew Garfield) who loses his job and is evicted from his cruelly foreclosed home by an estate agent (Michael Shannon) who later offers him a job working with him. The script skilfully highlights the issues, even if the plot feels over-constructed and a bit too reliant on coincidence. It also gets darker and darker, which makes it clear that something is going to have to snap somewhere - and that there will be an obvious moral message to trumpet at the end, which indeed there is! Still, it's well shot and acted with raw intensity by Garfield and Shannon, plus a strong but somewhat truncated supporting turn from Laura Dern (as Garfield's mum). And it's the performances that hold the interest right through the story's creepy progression into a moral quagmire and out the other side. Garfield in particular brings a real emotional kick to the whole film.

> NB. Internet access can be a bit hit and miss here, but I'll keep updates coming whenever possible. I'm also tweeting and posting Instagram photos along the way.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 1: From A to B

This is the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and my first visit to this part of the world. I'm here on the Fipresci jury, which is tasked with giving prizes to two Arab films: narrative and documentary features. 

Last night the festival kicked off with a lavish opening night event, complete with an epic red carpet, ceremony honouring producer Edward Pressman and filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, and then the opening film From A to B, the first film from the Emirates to open the festival. It's a lively road movie with an unusually sharp script that combines character-based humour, introspective drama and a sharp sense of the political scene as three 25-year-olds drive from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, recreating a trip they were supposed to take five years earlier. 

This is a wonderfully involving story, with solid performances from the likeable, camera-friendly cast. The three central characters are very clever - all lifelong expats (from Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) who met at an American school in Abu Dhabi), each with his own personal issues and a distinct sense of humour. After last night's world premiere it should play well at other festivals, and also with at rouse crowds who have probably never seen a film from this part of the world that's so packed with sparky humour.

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CRITICAL WEEK: Life goes on
Yes, during all the festival chaos, I still have to keep writing my usual reviews and reports on what's happening in cinemas. All of this is on the website. Non-festival films seen this week include Horns, Say When (aka Laggies), November Man, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, Extraterrestrial and Stations of the Cross.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

LFF 10: At the end of the war

Brad Pitt invaded London to wrap up the 58th London Film Festival tonight with his World War II batttle epic Fury. He was accompanied by his entire tank team (around Pitt above: Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal) as well as filmmaker David Ayer, and their press conference following the morning screening was a combination of reverence for veterans and brotherly camaraderie developed over the shooting process.

Meanwhile, journalists feel like we've been through a war since press screenings started in mid-September - averaging three or four movies a day since - but it's all over now, and hopefully we can get back to full nights of sleep. Although on Wednesday, I'm heading to Abu Dhabi to serve on the jury of their film festival 23-31 October. But that will feel like a holiday compared to London! Until then, here are some final highlights....

dir David Ayer; with Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf 14/UK ***
Writer-director Ayer makes no attempt to update the rah-rah bombast of the WWII genre, indulging in big action, the usual plot points, faux heroism and "war is hell" rhetoric. The film is sharply assembled and very nicely acted by a terrific cast, but it ultimately feels oddly pointless.

3 Hearts
dir Benoit Jacquot; with Benoit Poelvoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg 14/Fr 1h46 ***.
A twisty love story shot and edited as if it's a dark thriller, this odd film is utterly riveting mainly because it's impossible to predict what the characters are going to do next. At its core, this is a love triangle. But the film is assembled with attention to the most insinuating, creepy detail, confident enough to allow the characters to slip in and out of sympathy along the way.

Second Coming
dir Debbie Tucker Green; with Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba 14/UK **
Beautifully shot with an attention to internal intensity, this low-budget British drama should carry an emotional wallop. But filmmaker Tucker Green infuriatingly refuses to fill in any details, leaving dialog incomplete, the plot blurry and the characters' feelings as mere hints of something bigger. The acting feels raw and very personal, but without having a clue what's happening the film remains maddeningly elusive.

dir Mohsen Makhmalbaf; with Misha Gomiashvili, Dachi Orvelashvili 14/Geo 1h45 ****
Now based in London, exiled Iranian filmmaker Makhmalbaf pulls no punches in this blackly comical political adventure. Set in an "unnamed country" (it was filmed in Georgia), it's a story of political oppression told from perspectives that are rarely represented on screen with this much honesty and warm humour, forcing the audience to consider the themes from unthinkable angles.

Friday, 17 October 2014

LFF 9: A little chaos never hurt anyone

Alan Rickman turned up at the 58th London Film Festival to present his latest directing effort A Little Chaos, in which he stars alongside Kate Winslet, Matthias Shoenaerts and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci (is there any other kind?). Also on the red carpet tonight were James McAvoy with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (which oddly wasn't properly screened for the press) and filmmaker Julius Avery with Son of a Gun (see below). There are just two more days before I sleep. More highlights...

A Little Chaos
dir Alan Rickman; with Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts 14/UK ****
A cracking screenplay and sparky acting go a long ways to making this British period drama, set in 17th century France, thoroughly entertaining. With both spiky politics and swoony romance, the film has something for everyone, but it only works because the writing and directing allow the characters to have their own inner lives. Which makes the silly story surprisingly involving.

Son of a Gun 
dir Julius Avery; with Brenton Thwaites, Ewan McGregor 14/Aus ***.
Rippingly entertaining, this Australian thriller never quite breaks the surface but has strong characters well-played by an eclectic cast. And its pacing is so brisk that it holds the interest even if the plot twists and thematic metaphors are all painfully obvious. But without any subtle subtext, it's still a solid guilty pleasure.

Winter Sleep
dir Nuri Bilge Ceylan; with Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen 14/Tur ****.
The extra-long running time may put some viewers off, especially since the film is essentially made up of a series of issue-oriented conversations, but there's never a dull moment. As it explores the issue of justice and conscience in an increasingly economically divided world, the film is relevant, witty and startlingly moving.

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom
dir Jacob Cheung; with Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming 14/Chn **
An epic tale of conspiracy and war combined with a sweeping romance, this film has all the elements to be a classic. But filmmaker Cheung rushes through it erratically, leaving the plot nonsensical, the battles incoherent and the love story utterly flat. While it has plenty of energy, the film feels like a 12-hour miniseries roughly chopped down to 103 minutes: overcrowded, rushed and exhausting. And the 3D doesn't help.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

LFF 8: It's all about parenthood

Steve Carell and filmmaker Bennett Miller were on hand at the 58th London Film Festival today to present their new drama Foxcatcher, based on the true story of John du Pont and his rather outrageously creepy sponsorship of the US Olympic wrestling team. Carell is being mentioned as a sure-fire Oscar nominee for the role, which sees him under several layers of facial prosthetics and body padding - but it's also a remarkably understated performance that sends chills down the spine. They were joined on the gala red carpet tonight by Sienna Miller, and also on hand was Xavier Dolan with his Cannes-winning film Mommy. Here are some more highlights from the festival (I've uploaded several reviews, with more to come)...

dir Bennett Miller; with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum 14/US ****
After Capote and Moneyball, director Miller turns his hand to another true story, although this one is so unnerving that the film is rather difficult to like. But it's strikingly well made, building an almost unbearable sense of creepy tension through characters who are portrayed bravely by actors working beyond their comfort zones.

dir Xavier Dolan; with Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon 14/Can ****.
With his most audacious film to date (which is saying something for the 25-year-old writer-director of films like I Killed My Mother and Laurence Anyway),  Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan creates a whole new cinematic language to explore the astoundingly complex relationship between a mother and son. The film is difficult, confounding and sometimes maddeningly honest.

The Salvation
dir Kristian Levring; with Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green 14/Den ****
A remarkably fresh take on the Western, this Danish film (shot in South Africa) is packed with believable characters in realistic situations. Director Levring captures the genre's recognisable elements without ever falling back on a simplistic cliche, which makes the events eerily easy to identify with, especially where they involve moral dilemmas. FULL REVIEW >

Catch Me Daddy
dir Daniel Wolfe, Matthew Wolfe; with Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, Conor McCarron 14/UK ***
Revealing its story in hints and fragments, and relying on some understanding from a clued-up audience, this dark dramatic thriller is so vividly made that any shortcomings in the uneven cast and jarring narrative are more than made up for in atmosphere. Not only is it genuinely terrifying and emotionally wrenching, but it also touches on a very important current issue.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

LFF 7: The beat goes on

At the 58th London Film Festival today, the gala presentation was the premiere of Sundance winner Whiplash, attended by stars Miles Teller and JK Simmons (above). The film kicked off the critics' day with a breathless 9am screening that certainly got our adrenaline pumping for the rest of the day. Here are some more highlights...

dir Damien Chazelle; with Miles Teller, JK Simmons 14/US ****.
With a literally breathtaking pace and outrageously high energy, this film grabs you by the lapels and shakes you until you're a blubbering wreck. This is about as black as comedies can get, hurtling through the story of a talented young man coming up against a seriously fearsome teacher. And it's so powerful that it takes awhile to recover after the credits roll.

Love Is Strange 
dir Ira Sachs; with John Lithgow, Alfred Molina 14/US ***.
Gentle and almost overwhelmingly bittersweet, this drama is packed with such engaging characters that the weaknesses of the plot don't seem too distracting. It has something powerful to say about extended relationships as it explores a long-term romance in a quietly moving way.

Jamie Marks Is Dead
dir Carter Smith; with Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver 14/US ***.
This soft-spoken film is both a sensitive teen drama and one of the most inventive ghost stories in recent memory. It's haunting and visually stunning, with moments that are deeply moving and genuinely horrific. And at its core it's a thoughtful exploration of adolescent yearning to make sense of unexpected feelings.

dir Bryn Higgins; with Agyness Deyn, Lenora Crichlow 14/UK **.
While this film has enough visual panache to please arthouse audiences, its script is simply too thin to back up the imagery with any resonant meaning. The solid cast never gets the chance to delve deeply into the characters and, in the end, the filmmaker's emphasis on eye-catching flourishes leave everything else feeling rather simplistic and empty.

Next to Her
dir Asaf Korman; with Liron Ben Shlush, Dana Ivgy 14/Isr ****
This offbeat Israeli drama features vivid characters and a series of stunning twists and turns that continually challenge the viewer's attitudes. With a strong sense of realism, director Korman creates a strikingly involving film that touches on big issues while remaining deeply grounded in the characters.