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.