Sunday, 24 March 2019

Flare: Put on a show

The 33rd BFI Flare continues this weekend, as a million people marched just across the river Saturday trying to stop the chaos of Brexit. Screenings have been busy, packed with a lively audience looking for movies outside the mainstream that deal with more complex issues of identity and humanity. I particularly enjoy the chance to see short films on a big screen. These are busy days for me: I also have my regular weekly releases to watch, so I'll see both Dumbo and Wonder Park on Sunday, then walk back across the river to BFI Southbank for more offbeat Flare fun. Here are some more highlights...

Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life
dir-scr Tomer Heymann; with Jonathan Agassi, Anna Langer 18/Isr ***.
Unapologetic and more than a little disturbing, this graphic documentary follows a porn star through his day-to-day life, capturing amusingly awkward moments with his family along with the sex shows and harrowing drug trips. With this unvarnished portrait, filmmaker Tomer Heymann takes the audience right into an existence most people would find difficult to imagine: there's no glamour at all. The approach is both intimate and dispassionate, which kind of leaves the viewer's head spinning.

Tell It to the Bees 
dir Annabel Jankel; with Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger 18/UK 1h46 **.
Told with perhaps too much warmth, this 1950s romance is sharply written, acted and production designed to create a specific period atmosphere. It's austere and fairly bursting with secret feelings as two women fall in love in a small town. The themes are nicely handled with sensitivity and a light directorial touch, but the melodrama begins to feel somewhat sticky in the final act, pushing the characters in arch directions. And a magical realist element never quite gels.

dir Alex Moratto; with Christian Malheiros 18/Br ****
Produced by a workshop of young people aged 16 to 20, this Brazilian drama takes a bracingly realistic approach to its story of a teen living, in more ways than one, on the margins of society. Addressing economic issues, religion and sexuality, the film never tries to preach, instead offering an open-handed, humane approach that seeks compassion and hope in a situation that is increasingly desperate. It's a remarkable little film, beautifully shot and edited, and deeply moving... FULL REVIEW >

The Heiresses [Las Herederas]
dir-scr Marcelo Martinessi; with Ana Brun, Margarita Irun 18/Par ***.
A startlingly introspective filmmaking style sets this film apart from the usual self-discovery drama, as it allows the audience to simply take a journey with the central character without ever trying to explain anything. This can sometimes make the film feel rather vague, as key events and relationships are left to the imagination, but it also draws us in to properly feel the weight of what happens... FULL REVIEW >

Light in the Water
dir Lis Bartlett; scr Lis Bartlett, James Cude
with James Ballard, Mike Wallace, Morri Spang, Tom Wilson, Charlie Bartel, Michael Mealiffe, Mauro Bordovsky, Paulo Figueiredo, Amy Dantzler 
18/US ****

With its straightforward, informative approach, this engaging documentary tells an important story that's gripping and powerfully moving. There's a wealth of wonderful archive footage and cleverly integrated snapshots, and the film hinges around firsthand interviews, each person recounting a resonant personal story about how they dealt with harsh prejudice by finding like-minded friends and forming a close-knit family. Forced off his school swim team because he was gay, Charlie joined the West Hollywood Aquatic Club to find a place where he wasn't the "other". Hs story is echoed by a range of men and women who found a place where they could participate in their sport while being themselves. Many of these are older athletes who joined the club as it was founded in 1982, when mainstream teams refused to see gay people as capable of competing. Their stories include bullying, abuse, being fired and sidelined, but as a team of close friends they competed in the first Gay Games in San Francisco, then establishing an international swimming championship with a colourful queer flavour. And the way their team triumphed in the Masters is inspiring, breaking down discrimination and setting world records. And by 1994, the Gay Games were actually bigger than the Olympics. "I didn't know it at the time," one says. "But everything we did was making history." This beautiful film is brisk and full of terrific anecdotes, as these men and women recount their world-class achievements in the swimming pools, happy to refute those who doubted them and to crush ignorance about HIV even as Aids took 38 teammates' lives. Today they remain at the forefront of the fight against discrimination in competitive sport. And yes, the team welcomes its straight swimmers too.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Flare: Meeting of minds

The British Film Institute's 33rd Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival kicked off last night on the Southbank with the gala screening of Vita & Virginia, attended by Gemma Arterton, Rupert Penry-Jones, director Chandra Button and several cast and crew members. This is my 21st year covering what is one of London's biggest film festivals, and the most festive film festival I get to attend each year - one where you can mix with the filmmakers and actors, attend parties and casual gatherings alongside screenings and special events. Not only are the films of unusually high quality, but BFI Southbank is always a much more colourful part of the city for these 10 days! I'll be blogging the festival every day or two. Here's the first bunch of highlights...

Vita & Virginia
dir Chanya Button; with Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki 18/Ire **.
There's a refreshingly modern sensibility to this period drama, which allows the actors to create vivid characters. But the script is so wordy that it never lets the audience in. This leaves this as a film that's lovely to look at, and even admire, but it's impossible to crack the surface and genuinely experience the emotions. And the excellent cast struggles to make the dialog resonate with the famous characters they're playing.

dir Craig William Macneill; with Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart 18/US ***.
The sensational true story of Lizzie Borden is told in an intriguingly naturalistic style by filmmaker Craig William Macneill. It's a remarkably thoughtful film, packed with insinuating plot points and earthy performances. And Macneill uses deliberately choppy editing to drop hints and reveal the chain of events out of sequence. It's rather chilly, and very cleverly made... FULL REVIEW >

dir Li Cheng; with Enrique Salanic, Manolo Herrera 18/Gua ****
Earthy and honest, this observational drama deals with big themes without ever getting pushy about them. Chinese-born American filmmaker Li Cheng lets the story develop in an organic way, almost as if he's capturing real events with the camera. This astute style stretches from the busy street scenes to much more intimate moments, grounding the events and emotions in a way that's powerfully resonant... FULL REVIEW >

dir Lukas Dhont; with Victor Polster, Tijmen Govaerts 18/Bel ****
Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont takes a matter-of-fact approach to an extraordinary story, turning a teen trans girl's epic struggles into something that's remarkably easy to identify with. And without a traditional plot, the film builds a gnawing sense of dread that bottled-up feelings will lead to something very dark. Indeed, the climactic scenes deliver a powerful punch... FULL REVIEW >

The Gospel of Eureka
dir Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher; with Lee Keating, Walter Burrell 18/US ****
Beautifully written and edited, this documentary centres on an unusual corner of the world where devout Christians mix with the LGBTQ community. The filmmakers wisely avoid commenting on the issues, cutting scenes together with knowing wit to make an important point, bracingly highlighting the hypocrisy of people who use the Bible to justify bigotry. And the personal stories earn the viewers' tears... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Critical Week: Acting up

Most films I've seen this week have been previews for BFI Flare, the festival that kicks off on Thursday night, so I'll be writing more about them here over the next couple of weeks. Otherwise, I've seen a few movies that will work their way into cinemas over the next weeks and months. These include Madeline's Madeline, a resolutely experimental film that dances around mental illness but features a fascinating introduction to young actress Helena Howard (above with the always superb Molly Parker). Jordan Peele follows up his groundbreaking hit Get Out with Us, an even more audacious riff on the horror genre. It's freaky and often darkly unnerving, and has something powerful going on under the surface. Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger star in Tell It to the Bees, a warm, slightly gooey forbidden romance set in 1950s Scotland. From Argentina, A Trip to the Moon is a quirky coming-of-age film with a terrific set-up, although it struggles to deliver on its promise. And I also caught up with this one...

Triple Frontier
dir JC Chandor • scr Mark Boal, JC Chandor
with Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona
release US/UK 13.Mar.19 • 19/US Netflix 2h05 *.

This is one of those macho meathead movies in which beefy men go by nicknames like Redfly, Pope, Ironhead and Catfish. The plot sees Pope (Isaac) recruiting four ex-military buddies (Affleck, Hunnam, Hedlund and Pascal) for a mercenary mission to steal hundreds of millions in drug money from a kingpin in the dense jungle where Bolivia, Brazil and Peru meet. With this basic set-up and a very limited vocabulary, it feels like an unused script for Expendables 4, but the adept cast does what it can, breathing charm and camaraderie into the blunt roles. Isaac is always watchable, even in a vacuous part like this, and Affleck is charismatic enough to make his world-weary soldier vaguely intriguing, but Arjona is wasted in the requisite thankless female role. As former special ops soldiers, none of them hesitates before killing anyone who looks even remotely shifty, taking a scorched-earth approach to their work then insisting that no man is left behind, as if that makes them humanitarians. Of course, the mission doesn't go as planned, so this feels like two separate movies: an hour of heist and an hour of messy clean-up as greed literally weighs them down. It's a mix of survival thriller and action violence as these tough guys are pushed to the breaking point. Like their murderous impulses, this undermines the film's pushy moral sermon and leaves the biggest action sequences feeling rather dull (not helped by a trite Disasterpeace score). But the real problem is the clumsy plot, which gets increasingly far-fetched as these true blue heroes abandon their principles and make far too many boneheaded decisions. Frankly it's impossible to see JC Chandor's usually smart touch anywhere.

BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival runs on the Southbank until the end of the month, and I'll be covering it here with regular updates and reviews. In addition to rather a lot of festival films, I'll also be catching regular releases including Tim Burton's Dumbo, Judi Dench in Red Joan, Charlize Theron in Long Shot, Mel Gibson in Dragged Across Concrete and the animated adventure Wonder Park.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Stage: A dance to remember

Goodbye Norma Jeane
by Liam Burke • dir Robert McWhir
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • from 16.Mar-7.Apr.19

Essentially a one-man show set over one day, this clever, involving play unfolds as a backstage Hollywood version of A Christmas Carol in which a hungover choreographer is visited by the spirits of seven stars from the studios' golden age. Rooted in a true story, the play inventively weaves in a series of classic dance moves, exploring the magic of the movies from an angle that's initially fascinating and ultimately deeply moving.

The play centres on Jack Cole (Tim English), the creator of theatrical dance as we know it, who on 5th August 1962 is holding a pool party in his West Hollywood home. Then he hears the news that Norma Jeane, aka Marilyn Monroe, has been found dead. As he reminisces about working with her on various film projects, his muses drop in to see him: Gwen Verdon, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Ann Miller, Jane Russell, Rita Hayworth and Norma Jeane herself (all played by Rachel Stanley). What follows is a series of conversations that include fragments of songs and dance numbers, as Jack walks through his career in the context of Hollywood history.

English & Stanley (as Verdon)
Notably for a play with such a heightened premise, this production is remarkably understated. English plays the character with earthy sensitivity, recounting Jack's story conversationally, never indulging in arch melodrama while quietly revealing his chemistry with each of these larger-than-life divas. And Stanley's performance is a marvel of subtle detail that brings each woman vividly to life, with both personality quirks and exhilarating choreography (Verdon is the highlight, and Grable is particularly fabulous).

It of course helps that writer Burke has carefully researched this story while Above the Stag fully invests in the set, lighting, costumes and wigs, all of which bracingly ground the fantasy. And the show's choreography is carefully recreated from routines Cole created for these icons, exploring the very nature of artistic invention and legacy.

The result is a provocative, expertly underplayed drama that pulls the audience into a carefully recreated version of faded old-world glamour. Watching it, we are entranced by each visitation as it evokes yet another indelible movie memory. Then Jack's never-sentimentalised journey into grief makes the play itself unforgettable.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Stage: Into the light

The Thread
choreography Russell Maliphant • music Vangelis
lighting Michael Hulls • costumes Mary Katrantzou.
produced by Lavris Productions, Athens
Sadler's Wells, London • 15-17.Mar.19

This world premiere collaboration between Sadler's Wells choreographer Russell Maliphant and composer Vangelis takes its main cues from Greek culture. So watching it often feels like some sort of cultural presentation, with dancers in baggy costumes moving around the stage taking tiny steps, often holding hands in a line or shoulder-to-shoulder. It's beautifully staged in squares of light around the stage, and expertly performed by a team of Greek dancers. But it isn't always terribly compelling.

Thankfully they occasionally break out into passionate segments, sometimes solo pieces, duets or group numbers in which they stomp and express some punchy emotions. There are also moments in which the rather tight choreography suddenly expands into full-bodied physicality, which is utterly riveting as they perform in various forms of queues moving across and around the stage.

The title refers to the thread that ties humanity together regardless of culture, the connections people feel to each other regardless of their background. The show taps into this in ways that are both individualistic and corporate. Even as it continually reverts to more typical Greek movements, there are continual flurries of internationalism that connect each piece of the performance. Although the costumes remain so floaty that basically we can't see the dancers' bodies from the shoulders down, they create a clever mix of the folkloric and athletic.

And what makes the show worth seeing is the way the choreography, music, performance and lighting combine to make it almost sculptural. The shapes on the stage are simply breathtaking, especially as they emerge from the shadows and cross over into the spotlights. So even if the presentation lacks a deeper visceral connection, it's a vividly engaging exploration of global connections.

Stage: Moonlight through a window

dir Steven Dexter
book/lyrics Barry Harman • music Keith Herrmann
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • from 15.Mar.19

Originally produced on Broadway in 1988, but writer Harmon has given this musical romantic comedy a twist with this production at London's Above the Stag. Like the National Theatre's acclaimed gender-swapped new production of Sondheim's Company, this show is now staged with an all-male cast, which adds some intrigue and resonance to its tangled plotlines.

The show is actually two musicals linked through a yearning for real love. The first act is The Little Comedy, set in early 20th century Vienna, where Valentin (Jordan Lee Davies) has become bored with his wealthy lover, and the playboy Alfred (Blair Robertson) is tired of a string of empty affairs. They meet when they're both pretending to be poor: Valentine posing as a butcher and Alfred as a poet. And they struggle to maintain the deception on a weekend in the country at a fleabag guesthouse far from the luxuries they're used to.

The second act is Summer Share, set in present-day New York as two couples go on holiday together in the Hamptons. Sam (Alex Lodge) and Jeremy (Ryan Anderson) are long-time friends who bring their husbands (Davies and Robertson) along with them. But over one long evening, Sam and Jeremy wonder why they never got together, and they begin to think that tonight might be the night something happens.

Davies & Robertson
Both halves of the show unfold in song with surreal touches. In the first, the story is told as a series of letters written by Valentin and Alfred to friends abroad, and their false identities are depicted by Lodge and Anderson in masks. In the second, Davies and Robertson appear as versions of their characters imagining what might happen if their husbands ever had an affair.

It's this element that brings Summer Share to particularly vivid life, as it adds a swirling range of emotionality to all four of the characters, making the songs much more intensely engaging and darkly moving. By contrast, The Little Comedy feels almost gimmicky, with its jaunty tone and lavish costumes. Although making these men gay does add a certain zing to the premise, which intriguingly echoes fake dating app profiles.

Lodge & Anderson
As always, the Above the Stag team outdoes itself with simple but effective sets, lighting and a superb on-stage orchestra. Performances are strong from all four actors, each of whom has a distinctively belting singing voice and plenty of stage presence. Although some of the songs are a bit of a challenge. In the first half, Davies steals the show with a lively, detail-filled turn that's continually hilarious. But it's Anderson's quietly devastating role in the second half that becomes the most memorable. His naturalistic performance vividly brings out the show's universal themes about love and lust, longing and loneliness, cutting through the absurdity of everyday life to take a much more complex look at love than most musicals dare.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Critical Week: Sing it loud

It's the week between blockbusters (Captain Marvel last week, Us next week) so there's an eclectic collections of films in the cinemas, apparently the ones distributors had no idea what else to do with, hoping they don't suffer too much in the shadow of a megahit. Meanwhile, I'm watching my usual offbeat set of press screenings. Far and away, the best this week (and so far this year) is Wild Rose, a British drama about a Glasgow girl (the staggeringly good Jessie Buckley) with a gift for country music, and an otherwise messed up life. Along with Buckley, the film features awards-worthy work from Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo. Please remember this next awards season (I will)!

The week's even starrier offering was Ben Is Back, starring a superb Julia Roberts as a mother who spends 24 hours trying to protect her teen son (the always excellent Lucas Hedges) while he's on a break from rehab over Christmas. The plot is a little corny, but the relationships are beautifully played.

Further afield there was Paolo Sorrentino's Berlusconi fantasia Loro, a 2.5-hour odyssey that's packed with magic even as it wears us out. Iceman is about a Neolithic man on a quest for revenge after his clan is massacred. It's strikingly well-made, although the plot is rather blunt. Bruce!!!! is a comedy that suffers badly because its hero (played by writer-director Eden Marryshow) is an insufferable jerk. And there were three docs: Last Breath is a riveting, skilful mix of real footage and recreations to create a thriller about North Sea divers. Silvana profiles the queer Swedish rap sensation with terrific intimate footage that almost breaks the surface. And everyone was talking about this one...

Leaving Neverland
dir Dan Reed
with Wade Robson, James Safechuck, Joy Robson, Stephanie Safechuck, Laura Primack, Lorraine Jean Cullen, Chantal Robson, Shane Robson
release US 3-4.Mar.19, 
UK 6-7.Mar.19
19/US C4 4h00 ***
After premiering at Sundance, this controversial and compulsively watchable documentary arrives in two parts. It's assembled in an unflashy style, with archival film, snapshots and some new drone footage framing interviews with the now 40-ish Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who knew Michael Jackson when they were young boys and now claim that he sexually abused them. The first half is a little unconvincing, as they feel oddly scripted and director Dan Reed pointedly omits key facts, such as that Robson and Safechuck are working together to sue the Jackson estate for millions. So the film's depiction of them coming out in the open separately for benevolent reasons will ring hollow to sceptics. In the second half, the interviews with their mothers, wives and siblings bring things into sharper, more emotive focus, especially as they talk about why they waited so long to speak up. Even after testifying in earlier trials that nothing happened, their psychological situations make sense, which gives the doc a compelling power. And Reed's camera work is skilful, sharply well-edited together to tell the story in a clear-eyed, chronological way that pulls the viewer in. It's what he leaves out that niggles, and not just that Robson and Safechuck are seeking to make a fortune here. There's no mention of the years-long police investigations into Jackson that completely exonerated him. And no one outside the Robson and Safechuck families is on the record, even though there are many who tell different stories. It's a horrible thought that these two men may be making up these allegations, especially as it's so important that these cases are taken seriously. But films this explosive need to be watched with a critical eye, and the story behind the scenes is important.

Coming up this next week, we have Jordan Peele's Us, Anna Paquin in Tell It to the Bees, Jafar Panahi's Three Faces, the Argentine coming-of-age drama A Trip to the Moon, and the documentary Making Montgomery Clift.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Critical Week: Teacher's pet

This week's line-up of press screenings was refreshingly female-oriented, offering a respite from the usual masculine bravado that's trumpeted on the big screen. Maggie Gyllenhaal is terrific in the understated drama The Kindergarten Teacher, which is remarkably sympathetic for how creepy the story turns. Brie Larson storms the superhero genre in Captain Marvel, an unusually engaging character-based action thriller with a cool 1990s vibe. Keira Knightley is at the centre of The Aftermath, a post-war romantic melodrama that's finely shot and acted but let down by a drippy script. And the bracingly original Icelandic comedy-thriller Woman at War focusses on a mother-to-be trying to protect the planet from abuse.

The rest of the week's movies were just as eclectic. The futuristic comedy-drama 2050 is witty and stylish as it explores falling in love with sexbots. Set in a foreboding forest, Devil's Path is a creepy thriller following two men who seem to be hiding secrets. An inventively intense drama from Portugal, Sunburn features four friends on holiday struggling to deal with repressed 10-year-old emotions. Peccadillo's short film collection No Ordinary Boy: Boys on Film 19 is another set of skilfully made mini-dramas exploring, this time, a darker angle on sexuality. And on my flight back to London I revisited the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It's a far more female-oriented version of this story than last year's hit remake, which makes it even more strongly involving and ultimately much more moving. I'm not sure I'd seen it since watching it as a young teen on its original release (I loved it back then too).

Screenings this coming week include Julia Roberts in Ben Is Back, Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose, Paolo Sorrentino's Loro, the black comedy Bruce!!!, the caveman thriller Iceman, and two documentaries: Last Breath, about a stranded deep-sea diver, and Silvana, about the Swedish hip-hop artist.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Stage: Four chairs and a keyboard

Title of Show
dir Robert McWhir
music/lyrics Jeff Bowen • book Hunter Bell
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 13.Feb-10.Mar.19

The intimate space at Above the Stag is a perfect venue for this meta-musical, which is engaging and funny for a general audience and jam-packed with references for theatre fans. Cheeky and just a bit naughty, it's a brisk and likeable show that has a clever rough-around-the-edges feel to it.

At the centre are the composer Jeff (Jordan Fox) and his writer pal Hunter (Michael Vinsen), young guys in New York dreaming of seeing their work on Broadway. With a theatre festival coming up, they decide to create the perfect musical together, struggling against the usual distractions - basically anything is easier than writing. As they settle on developing a musical about two guys trying to develop a musical, they bring in friends Heidi and Susan (Kirby Hughes and Natalie Williams) to play their friends and collaborate on creating the characters and songs. And they have so much fun working on this that they hate to think of it ending.

As it nods to everything from Rent to Carrie, the clever script also takes the time to dig into some deeper themes. Jeff and Hunter understand that they'd have a better chance at success with some stunt casting ("Paris Hilton as Mame!"), and they also face the dilemma between holding fast to their artistic integrity or compromising to bring their work to a larger audience. The sense of their yearning for success is vivid, as is the work they have to do to maintain their friendships. All four cast members explore these edgier elements while at the same time adding constant comical touches. As staged in this space, these are demanding physical performances that make fine use of the knowingly witty songs, scrappy choreography and lively interaction with each other as well as their sardonic keyboardist Larry (played by musical director Aaron Clingham).

Everything unfolds as a knowing pastiche, constantly referring to itself as a musical about a musical, playfully circling around the dialog and dropping punchlines everywhere. It's often very funny, although perhaps not as consistently hilarious as it should be (most notably Williams' Susan, a Megan Mullally type who is amusing but never steals the show). Thankfully each of the characters is strongly sympathetic, easy to identify with and willing to dive into both the big gags and the more subtle wordplay. And the interpersonal drama manages to be touching too. Theatre fans definitely won't want to miss this.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Critical Week: The big night

Well, the 91st Academy Awards threw a few surprises at us on Sunday, handing out Oscars to popular movies like Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody and Black Panther while only offering the occasional nod at more ambitious, artistic films. I'm not disparaging the winners, although I would argue that all three are badly compromised projects, but as usual there was far better work in other nominated (and non-nominated) films last year. The show clipped along without a host, offering a few great moments for the award presenters and winners. Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph did a superb pastiche of an opening monolog. Spike Lee was triumphant and outspoken in a way few winners dare to be. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga recreated their intimate chemistry on-stage in a show-stoppingly cool single-take performance. The askance presenters (A-list outsider fans like Serena Williams and Trevor Noah) were a nice touch. And Olivia Colman stole the show with her heartfelt and very funny thank you speech - one of the best in Oscar history.

I've attended one press screening while I've been in Los Angeles, for Michael Winterbottom's dramatic thriller The Wedding Guest. It's a slow-burn starring Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, with a script that gives very little in the way of character or plot detail. But it's involving, and it's nice to see Patel in a shifty role for a change - he's terrific even if his role is underdefined. I also caught up with last summer's action comedy Tag, starring Ed Helms, Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner, which isn't fine art but is funny and enjoyable for what it is.

Heading back to London, I have a few screenings in the diary, including Brie Larson's entry into the Marvel universe as Captain Marvel, Dean Cain in the fantasy satire 2050, the Icelandic comedy Woman at War, the indie thriller Devil's Path, and the short film compilation Boys on Film 19: No Ordinary Boy.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Oscar picks & predictions: Out on a limb

It's that time of year when I try to imagine what the Academy will do on Sunday, while holding on to my personal hopes. This year's awards season has been the least predictable in memory, with the top prizes leading up to Oscar night scattered all over the place: there's no clear consensus winner in any category. And my track record for predictions is rather spotty. Still, there are inklings about who Ampas voters are likely to choose. And as always, I will be cheering any upsets and surprises, while hoping the producers take some risks in the ceremony itself to make it more fun to watch...


Will win: Roma
Should win: BlacKkKlansman
Dark horses: The Favourite or Green Book


Will win: RBG
Should win: Free Solo


Will win: Roma
Should win: Cold War
Dark horse: Capernaum


Will win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Should win: Isle Of Dogs


Will win: Alfonso Cuaron - Roma
Should win: Pawel Pawlikowski - Cold War
Dark horse: Spike Lee - BlacKkKlansman


Will / should win: The Favourite - Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Dark horse: First Reformed - Paul Schrader


Will win: BlacKkKlansman - Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Should win: If Beale Street Could Talk - Barry Jenkins


Will / should win: Olivia Colman - The Favourite
Possible life-achievement award: Glenn Close - The Wife


Will win: Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody
Should win: Willem Dafoe - At Eternity's Gate
Dark horse: Christian Bale - Vice


Will / should win: Regina King - If Beale Street Could Talk
Dark horses: Rachel Weisz or Amy Adams


Will win: Mahershala Ali - Green Book
Should win: Richard E Grant - Can You Ever Forgive Me


Will / should win: The Favourite - Fiona Crombie, Alice Felton


Will / should win: The Favourite - Sandy Powell


Will win: BlacKkKlansman - Terence Blanchard
Should win: If Beale Street Could Talk - Nicholas Britell


Will win: Shallow - A Star Is Born
Should win: When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings - The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


Will win: Roma - Alfonso Cuaron
Should win: Cold War - Lukasz Zal


Will win: Bohemian Rhapsody - John Ottman
Should win: The Favourite - Yorgos Mavropsaridis


Will win: Vice
Should win: Border


Will / should win: First Man


Will / should win: A Quiet Place


Will win: First Man
Should win: Roma

Thursday, 21 February 2019

On the Road: Far from home

Heading from London to Los Angeles for two weeks in February, you'd rightly expect to have warmer weather. Surprise! It's colder and wetter here in California than it is in England at the moment. But at least it's sunny. I've been busy spending time with family, but managed to catch one movie here: the survival drama Arctic, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a man stranded in an endless snowscape after a plane crash. It's a bare-bones thriller, with no backstory and only one other character (who barely speaks). But it's strikingly well directed by Joe Penna, shot with skill to bring the audience right into the character's odyssey. It's hard not to shiver in the cold during the film, wince at the pain and even panic a little over the hopelessness. Even if you know it can't end as bleakly it looks like it will.

The only other film I've watched in the past week is Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), which I revisited on the plane. It's a personal favourite, and its scrappy charm and pungent emotion hold up, as do the iconic songs. John Cameron Mitchell's writing, direction and acting are masterful. And it's great to see the young Michael Pitt in his breakout role, as well as a very young Miriam Shor (most recently seen in Younger).

I'm now bracing myself for Oscar on Sunday, hoping the winners are a list of surprises and that the ceremony takes some risks to shake things up a bit. It's well worth watching that jaw-dropping opening number from the 1989 ceremony, the last time there wasn't a host - which is so increasingly insane that it almost seems sad something like that could never happen again (google: rob lowe snow white oscars - then settle in for 11 minutes of pure "what were they thinking" joy). I'll post my picks on Saturday...

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Critical Week: Fly away

I'm getting ready to get on a plane today and head off to Los Angeles. With this timing, it probably sounds like a glamorous Oscar trip, but actually I'll be there to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday! And as a side benefit I get to watch the Oscars during the day time, instead of staying up all night in London.

This week's screenings included Willem Dafoe's Venice Best Actor winning role as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate, Julian Schnabel's beautifully artful biopic. The awesome Florence Pugh holds her own opposite Dwayne Johnson (grandstanding as himself) in the quirky British comedy-drama Fighting With My Family, based on the true story of a young woman from Norwich who became a WWE champion. Rebel Wilson has a lot of fun in the romcom pastiche Isn't It Romantic, although the lazy script almost scuppers her chances. Still, it's mindless good fun.

What They Had is a dark drama with a powerhouse cast including Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and Blythe Danner. It's a bit heavy, but also moving as it explores a family dealing with ageing parents and Alzheimer's. Under the Silver Lake stars Andrew Garfield as a slacker in Los Angeles who gets caught up in an absolutely bonkers mystery. And the Carlos Acosta biopic Yuli is a sweepingly artful exploration of Cuba an dance, with Acosta playing himself in the framing scenes.

Sunday night's Bafta ceremony (or to give it its proper title: The British Academy Film Awards) continues to ripple, with people wondering how it might impact Oscar in just over a week's time. The wild cards now are Rami Malek and Mahershala Ali, clearly loved by their peers as they upset the favourites in their categories (Christian Bale and Richard E Grant). The other question is whether Roma can walk off with the big title, or if they'll go for something more mainstream. No one seems to have a clue, which makes this year's show more interesting than usual.

I have no idea if I'll see any films while I'm away. I have a few streaming links I need to watch, but if past trips are anything to go by, those are doubtful (if I could stream on the plane it would be perfect!). There's nothing in American cinemas I particularly want to catch up with - perhaps Miss Bala or What Men Want.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Critical Week: Cold shoulder

It was Liam Neeson's turn this week to bear the full brunt of self-righteous internet rage, as he told a too-candid story from his distant past, which was then wrenched horribly out of context. He wasn't racist back then; he was just stupid. He said so before telling the story in ill-chosen words as an explanation of how he could identify with the irrational urge for revenge, which he had to play in his new film Cold Pursuit. The film was screened for the press this week, an odd remake made by the original Norwegian director. It's watchable, but lacks the nuance that made the original, 2014's In Order of Disappearance, so memorable.

Asghar Farhadi got Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin to headline his Spanish drama Everybody Knows, which is a bit overwrought but still finely observes human behaviour in extraordinary situations. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World wraps up the trilogy with an involving, often exhilarating adventure fans of the franchise will love. And Christopher Abbot and Mia Wasikowska star in the bonkers horror Piercing, which seems more interested in effects than creating a coherent story. But it's properly freaky.

A little further afield, Christophe Honore's personal French drama Sorry Angel is involving and moving, and bracingly honest. A pair of documentaries are notable for their willingness to embrace conflicting viewpoints: The Sunday Sessions follows a young man as he tries to eliminate his homosexuality, while The Gospel of Eureka profiles a town where a Christian pageant and a lively LGBTQ community coexist and thrive together. I also saw Desire, a collection of six shorts by Thai photographer Ohm Phanphiroj: half are evocative narrative films, while the other three are bracingly honest docs about his work and connections.

Coming up this week, we have Florence Pugh and Dwayne Johnson in Fighting With My Family, Willem Dafoe's Venice-winning/Oscar-nominated turn in At Eternity's Gate, Andrew Garfield in Under the Silver Lake, Dev Patel in The Wedding Guest and Carlos Acosta in Yuli.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Critical Week: Body issues

Cinemas are now absolutely jam-packed with awards movies, leaving people unsure what they should watch. The box office is always ruthless, rarely rewarding the films that actually deserve it. And the awards are skewing populist as well this year. After the producers (PGAs) and actors (SAGs) went all over the place, all eyes are on the directors (DGAs) this weekend to restore a sense of order before Bafta and Oscar arrive. But could Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born and Green Book knock the more ambitious, accomplished films out of the spotlight?

Press screenings this week included the much-anticipated Akita: Battle Angel, which James Cameron developed before handing off the directing job to Robert Rodriguez. It's a big, action movie, with lots of action, flashy effects, some cool themes and, erm, bashing robots. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part has huge shoes to fill, and is thankfully relentlessly hilarious as it rockets through its insane plot with engaging, silly characters, outrageous storytelling, inventively crazed visuals and a nonstop peppering of references to everything, including itself.

A little off the beaten path, Untogether is an artful romantic comedy-drama starring Jamie Dornan, Jemima Kirke, Lola Kirke and Ben Mendelsohn. It's sharply made, observant and a little mopey. Lucid is an independent British thriller about a young guy who learns to control his dreams, sort of. It's intriguing and visually stunning. Wretched Things tells three stories linked by themes about sex and morality. It's inventive and beautifully shot and performed, if a little on the nose. He Loves Me is a fiercely artful Greek drama with no dialog (there's a voiceover) about two men on a beach holiday trying to save their relationship.

And finally, I managed to watch the recent American TV production of Rent: Live, which turned out to be the dress rehearsal, and it showed in the low-energy performances and uneven technical quality. But it was also far too frantic, busy and even a bit dated. Surely a stripped-down update would give new life to this awesome musical.

This coming week, I'll buy a ticket to see How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, as I was unable to attend the only press screening. I also have screenings of Liam Neeson in Cold Pursuit, Penelope Cruz in Everybody Knows and two docs: The Gospel of Eureka and The Sunday Sessions.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Critical Week: Brotherly love

There weren't many press screenings for me over the past week, as I was a bit busy with the London critics' awards. But I did manage to catch up with two coming-of-age dramas. Mid90s is Jonah Hill's writing-directing debut, an involving, realistic drama about a young teen (Sunny Suljic, above right, with Lucas Hedges as his thuggish big brother) who turns to skateboarding to find his place in life. The British film Old Boys has currents of comedy and slapstick as it follows a teen (Alex Lawther) at a posh boarding school caught in a Cyrano-style love triangle. It's a bit goofy, but engaging and inventive.

Even further afield, In Like Flynn is an Australian biopic about Errol Flynn's pre-Hollywood days. Thomas Cocquerel is dashing in the lead role, but the film is far too cliched and corny. The Polish drama Nina is set up as a lesbian coming-of-age drama for a married woman, but the elusive filmmaking leaves the audience on the outside looking in. And ParTy Boi: Black Diamonds in Ice Castles is a gritty documentary about the rise of crystal meth among America's black gay subculture. It's pretty harrowing, cautionary without shying away from telling the whole story.

This coming week we have screenings of the upcoming animated sure-fire hits The Lego Movie 2 and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, plus Christophe Honore's Sorry Angel, and the British independent dramas Lucid, He Loves Me and Wretched Things.

Monday, 21 January 2019

39th London Critics' Circle Film Awards: words and pics...

Yes, it was time for the London film critics to hold their annual gala red carpet event. And for the seventh year, I was the chair of the organising committee, which meant that I was involved in every aspect of the day's events. The 39th London Critics' Circle Film Awards, presented by Dover Street Entertainment at The May Fair Hotel, had a distinct tone this year - awash in diversity almost any way you looked at it. We had fewer high-wattage Hollywood stars, but we made up for that with humour, energy and some properly talented guests in attendance. It was a great celebration of film - and a fantastic party. Here are some photos to help tell the story...

Pedro Almodóvar was awarded our top honour, the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film. Tamsin Greig (left), who starred in the West End production of his classic Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, presented the award to him. At right, Critics' Circle Film Section Chair Anna Smith and I stand on either side of the evening's host, the fabulous British comic Judi Love.

Left to right: Richard E Grant accepts Supporting Actor for Can You Ever Forgive Me; writer-director Michael Pearce wins Breakthrough Filmmaker for Beast; producer Nicolas Celis accepts Film of the Year for Roma.

Pawel Pawlikowski's gorgeous Cold War won both Foreign-Language Film and the Technical Achievement Award for Lukasz Zal's cinematography; Rupert Everett sent his friend and costar Emily Watson to pick up his award for British/Irish Actor for The Happy Prince; Yorgos Lanthimos collects the prize for British/Irish Film of the Year for The Favourite.

One of my jobs was to chase down video thank yous from winners unable to be present (I knew the winners before anyone else). Both of these were shot in dressing rooms: Olivia Colman was on set filming The Crown and gave a witty thank you for Actress of the Year in The Favourite, and Ethan Hawke is in a play on Broadway, and made some clever, thoughtful observations as he collected Actor of the Year for First Reformed.

Alfonso Cuaron sent a video greeting as he won Director of the Year for Roma, while Agnès Varda spoke for herself and co-director JR to accept Documentary of the Year for Faces Places.

Rachel Weisz spoke from her kitchen to accept Supporting Actress for The Favourite, while Jessie Buckley was also stuck on-set on Sunday, offering a heartfelt thank you for British/Irish Actress in Beast, and hoping she'd finish early enough to come join the party (sadly, she couldn't).
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara were on-hand to collect their award for Screenwriters of the Year for The Favourite, as were director Lara Zeidan and producer John Giordano, who won Short Film of the Year for Three Centimetres.

Molly Wright was wonderfully surprised when she won Young Performer of the Year for Apostasy (she also helped read out our nominations when they were announced last month); her director Daniel Kokotajlo was a nominee for Breakthrough Filmmaker; while Liv Hill was up for Young Performer for The Little Stranger.

Fionn Whitehead was nominated for Young Performer for the second year running, this time for The Children Act; Anya Taylor-Joy was also up for that award for her work in Thoroughbreds; and writer-director Deborah Haywood was up for Breakthrough for Pin Cushion. (She was one of three women we nominated for directing, along with Debra Granik and Lynne Ramsay in the Director category.)

Other guests included Gonzalo Maza, screenwriter of Foreign-Language Film nominee A Fantastic Woman; actress Muna Utaru (The Keeping Room); and filmmakers and diversity activists Hannah and Jake Graf.

I have spent the last six months working on this event, and it has completely taken over my life over the last six weeks (with a bit of a breather when all the publicists' offices closed over the holidays!). After we have a debrief and work out what we can do even better next year, we'll be able to forget about all the chaos until it begins cranking up again next summer. The 2020 event will be our 40th anniversary, so I think we need to plan something unexpected.