Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Critical Week: A trick of the mind

There haven't been any press screenings in London over the past week, so I've been catching up with things on the small screen. Well, one TV show had a big-screen event opening: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were back on New Year's Day for Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, a film so relentlessly, almost exhaustingly clever that it felt a bit too much like Inception. But the cast is terrific, and a sharply evocative visual sensibility kept it riveting. Also, I wanted to revisit Star Wars: The Force Awakens when I wasn't working, and it was fun to see it again with a boisterous crowd in a local cinema to watch it again (although I didn't enjoy the boisterous snack-rustling and constant phone-use). Yes, the film holds up to a second viewing, as the box office bonanza is proving.

The only other new film I watched was the Ecuadorian coming-of-age drama Holiday, a sensitive story beautifully shot in the country I grew up in (homesickness alert!). And I also caught up with the final two awards nominees I hadn't yet seen - both British-made docs...

A Syrian Love Story
dir Sean McAllister; with Amer, Raghda, Bob, Shadi 15/UK ****
Beautifully assembled, this strikingly involving documentary follows a Syrian family through four years of upheaval. British filmmaker McAllister first starts videotaping Amer and his children while his wife Raghda is being held in prison in 2011, then follows them as they flee to Lebanon and eventually get refugee status in France. Along the way, they watch their country reduced to rubble by a government willing to massacre its own people rather than allow them to have a democratic vote. But it's the film's personal touch that makes it compelling, tracing Amer and Raghda's difficult relationship, often through the eyes of their precocious young son Bob. (Nominated for Documentary of the Year in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards.)

dir Cosima Spender; with Gigi Bruschelli, Giovanni Atzeni 15/UK ***.
Gorgeous cinematography and clever editing set this documentary apart. The Palio is a bareback horse race that has been run around Siena's Piazza del Campo since the 14th century, pitting the city's districts against each other. Filmmaker Spender lets the participants tell the story, which seems to make the city properly medieval for two races each summer. Rivalries are out of control, the money passing around is absurd, and both the horses and the jockeys are crowned as heroes or vilified as losers. By having three generations of jockeys narrate the film, it unearths all kinds of fascinating, unexpected details. Although the relevance of all of this outside Siena is rather tenuous, it's a sharply well-observed exploration of one of Europe's most colourful traditions. (Nominated for Documentary of the Year in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards.)

Screenings are cranking up very slowly so far this year, but I have Kristen Wiig's festival film Nasty Baby in the diary, plus the gospel singer documentary Mavis! More are sure to come along soon...

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