Monday, 21 December 2009

Critical Week: King of the world

Honestly, I wasn't much looking forward to James Cameron's Avatar. The trailers and clips looked iffy, Cameron's interviews were obnoxious and 3D had never quite worked properly. But on Monday morning I enjoyed virtually every moment of the film, which has gone on to rule the world's box offices much as Titanic did 12 years ago. Not only is the fairly simplistic story thoroughly engaging, but the 3D is utterly gorgeous, concentrating on creating an immersive depth of field rather than gimmicky dizziness. And after 2 hours 42 minutes, I could have watched it all over again.

Also last week, we had Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor in the rather terrific black comedy I Love You Phillip Morris, by the writers of Bad Santa, as well as Miyazaki's latest gorgeously surreal and elusive anime Ponyo and the slightly clunky Thai basketball-meets-kickboxing thriller Fireball. I also finally caught up with three British films: the astounding, unmissable Zimbabwe doc Mugabe and the White African, which plays like a riveting thriller; the excellent doc Afghan Star, about Afghanistan's improbable and rather dangerous version of The X Factor; and the superb low-budget indie Shifty.

On Monday, the London Critics' Circle releases the nominations for its 30th Film Awards, and my only screening is a restored version of the 1949 cult classic The Queen of Spades. But I'll also be watching several discs of contenders for other awards (Trucker, Big Fan, The Stoning of Soraya M) as well as other upcoming films (Still Walking, Post Grad, Spread) over the holidays.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Critical Week: Elementary, my dear

In a week of big screenings, the capper was a showing of Guy Ritchie's whizzy action version of Sherlock Holmes, which oddly feels more genuine than the more stodgy depictions of the Victorian detective that we're used to. Then on Monday morning I attended the junket at the Freemasons Hall at London's Grand Lodge - a perfect venue - with Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Kelly Reilly, Mark Strong, composer Hans Zimmer, and producers Joel Silver, Susan Downey, Lionel Wigram and Dan Lin. Yes, it was another raucous Warner Bros press conference - energetic and great fun.

Also screening this week for year-end awards consideration were Peter Jackson's big-budget The Lovely Bones (great acting but too big-budgeted), Rob Marshall's Fellini-based musical Nine (the amazing cast spices up some rather dull songs), Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela drama Invictus (gripping and astoundingly inspirational), Meryl Streep in the romantic-triangle comedy It's Complicated (enjoyably funny but nothing special) and Disney's hand-drawn The Princess and the Frog (gloriously beautiful animation and an engaging, simple story). In addition, we had the non-contending Hugh Grant in the rather clunky rom-com Did You Hear About the Morgans? and Chris Pine in the corny post-apocalyptic thriller Carriers.

This coming week sees the final puzzle pieces in the awards season as I get ready to vote for the London Critics' Circle Film Awards (deadline Friday) and the Online Film Critics Society Awards (in two weeks). Contenders ready? Here come James Cameron's Avatar, Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo and the acclaimed British docs Afghan Star and Mugabe and the White African, among several other things I'll catch up with on screener discs. I also have a screening of the Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor rom-com (based on a true story) I Love You Phillip Morris and something called Firewall.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Critical Week: The remakes

This past week was even slower than I'd expected, as far as press screenings go (it was busier in every other way). And it was interesting that the two biggest films we saw were both remakes of European movies: Jim Sheridan's Brothers, starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal, is a remake of Susanne Bier's Brødre (Denmark, 2004). And Kirk Jones' Everybody's Fine, starring Robert DeNiro, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell, is a revamp of Guiseppe Tornatore's Stanno Tutti Bene (Italy, 1990). It goes without saying that neither remake is quite up to the original. Both are watchable and have moments of real power, with strong performances, but they both magnify the source films' problems and create some new ones.

The other two films I watched are both building awards-contention buzz at the moment. Jeff Bridges gets a gift of a role in Crazy Heart, an involving drama that in many ways feels like a revisit to the themes of producer-costar Robert Duvall's 1983 Oscar-winner Tender Mercies. And the riveting documentary Food Inc digs unflinchingly into America's food-production industry, which puts profits over health in some pretty scary ways; it's an intriguing blend of the themes in the drama-doc Fast Food Nation and Michael Moore's recent Capitalism: A Love Story.

This week is much busier in the screening room, with Clint Eastwood's South African drama Invictus (talk about a gift of a role for an actor: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela), Peter Jackson's dark drama The Lovely Bones, Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes, Meryl Streep in It's Complicated, Hugh Grant in Did You Hear About the Morgans?, a stage-full of Oscar winners in the musical Nine, Disney's animated The Princess and the Frog, and the post-apocalyptic road movie Carriers.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Critical Week: I think I love you

Last week's big press screening in London was of Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic book Where the Wild Things Are, which proved to be an intriguing combination of the two men's imaginations. With Jonze's loose, free-spirited filmmaking and Sendak's darkly clever insights, it's the kind of film that feels a bit too strange on first viewing - but it will no doubt become a favourite in years to come.

I also saw Sandra Bullock's involving true drama The Blind Side, another great performance from Thomas Turgoose in the unsettling British drama The Scouting Book for Boys, and the offbeat but nicely original sci-fi animated 3D adventure Battle for Terra.

This slow stretch looks like it's coming to an end, as awards-consideration screenings start to get much busier over the coming weeks - along with regular press screenings for some of the big year-end blockbusters. Over the next seven days, we'll be seeing the Jeff Bridges Oscar-contending Crazy Heart, Michelle Monaghan's acclaimed performance in Trucker, the starry Hollywood remake of the Danish war drama Brothers, Robert DeNiro in Everybody's Fine, and a trio award-buzzy of British docs: Afghan Star, Only When I Dance and Mugabe and the White African.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Critical Week: No shirts required

OK, no one's hugely surprised at the massive success of the Twilight sequel New Moon - especially since they have so blatantly pandered to their pre-teen girl audience by having all of the boys continually remove their shirts and flex their abs. They finally showed it to the press a few days before its release, and while it's much soapier and mopier than the first film, it at least builds a great sense of moody atmosphere. And the third film is bound to be better simply because David Slade is directing it. But we'll have to wait until the summer to find out.

Also screened this past week were the colourful and cluttered Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Michael Moore's entertaining and blood-boiling Capitalism: A Love Story, the surprisingly involving biographical doc Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, and the surprisingly enjoyable Depeche Mode fan doc The Posters Came from the Walls.

This week I've got Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, Sandra Bullock in the true drama The Blind Side, Thomas Turgoose in the British drama The Scouting Book for Boys, and the 3D sci-fi animation Battle for Terra.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Critical Week: Push the button

It was another slow movie week for London critics - I only saw seven films. One of the biggies was Richard Kelly's new Donnie Darko-esque thriller The Box, with Cameron Diaz facing a moral dilemma about whether or not to push that button. Alas, Kelly dodges the morality fable to instead dive down another of his bizarro sci-fi rabbit holes. The result is fitfully entertaining but ultimately a little annoying.

The week's other major film was another disappointment: Mira Nair's biopic Amelia, starring Hilary Swank as aviation pioneer Amelia Earhardt, should have been a riveting story of a maverick who pushed every boundary she came up against. Instead, it's an earnest, worthy, way over-designed period piece that fails to give its strong cast material they can run with.

Last week I also saw the enjoyable animated sci-fi romp Planet 51, the riveting if a little dry Battlestar Galactica movie The Plan, the silly but ultimately charming holiday comedy Make the Yuletide Gay, the rather aloof Korean childhood drama Treeless Mountain, the entertaining philosophy doc Examined Life.

Next week looks just as light - things won't heat up until awards contenders start crowding the calendar (although I already caught a lot of them at film festivals this year). This week's films include the Twilight sequel New Moon, Michael Moore's new provocation Capitalism: A Love Story, the British rock-scene drama Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the British rock-fan doc The Posters Came From the Walls, the acclaimed drama The Stoning of Soraya M, the Eddie Izzard doc Believe, and I'm catching up with Percy Adlon's 1991 cult classic Salmonberries, just being released for the first time in the UK.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Critical week: Bump in the night

After weeks of hype, Paranormal Activity was finally screened to UK critics this past week. (One day they'll learn to show us films before the buzz starts so we have a better chance of actually enjoying them.) It's very cleverly made but, needless to say, it doesn't live up to to expectations, possibly because the now-familiar home-video thriller genre isn't new anymore. But there's also the fact that this film doesn't really set up suspense properly.

Much better was the independent drama Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. Despite that mouthful of a title, this is a lean, powerfully involving drama that really grapples with some big issues and features a wonderful performance from newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, plus very strong against-type roles for Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz.

Also last week, we had John Malkovich in the searing South African drama Disgrace, the edgy chucklehead stag-night comedy I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and the clever 1960s French superspy spoof sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio.

After the rush of movies during the film festival season, this feels like a holiday. And this coming week even more sparse, with Hilary Swank in the aviatrix drama Amelia, Cameron Diaz in the thriller The Box, the animated sci-fi comedy Planet 51, the Korean drama Treeless Mountain and the education doc Examined Life.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Critical Week(s): Christmas is coming

Over the past two weeks during the London Film Festival, I still had to see all the normal film releases along with the festival things. And it's clear that the studios are preparing for the holiday season as usual, with such offerings as: Robert Zemeckis' eye-popping motion-capture animated version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, starring a very recognisable Jim Carrey as Scrooge, plus Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Robin Wright - plus 3D effects that are among the best I've ever seen. Rather less thrilling was the British comedy Nativity!, with a decent cast that includes Martin Freeman, Mark Wootton and Ashley Jensen but a script that's pretty much bereft of sense or humour until the rousing finale sends us out smiling.

Other movies screened to critics outside the festival included the enjoyable but lacklustre kids' thriller Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant; the thoroughly engaging all-star Tolstoy drama The Last Station, with Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer and James McAvoy; the wacky blurred sexuality comedy Mr Right; the astonishingly good four-hour Japanese rom-com Love Exposure; and one of the most shamelessly raucous entertainments I've seen in ages in the world-destroying mega-disaster epic 2012. As for the Michael Jackson concert-rehearsal documentary This Is It, there were no press screenings at all, so we had to go buy a ticket - imagine that!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

LFF16: That's a wrap

For the closing night of the 53rd London Film Festival, the glitterati took to the Leicester Square red carpet in droves at the world premiere of Nowhere Boy. The charge was led by the film's director and star, Sam Taylor-Wood and Aaron Johnson (pictured), and virtually the entire cast was on hand along with all of London's celebrity community it seems, from Joe Wright to Alison Goldfrapp.

Meanwhile, the awards have been handed out, and the winners are...
  • Film: A Prophet
  • Documentary: Defamation
  • British Newcomer: screenwriter Jack Thorne (The Scouting Book for Boys)
  • First Feature: Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (Ajami)
  • BFI Fellowships: John Hurt (44 Inch Chest/The Limits of Control), Souleymane Cisse (Tell Me Who You Are)
The winners (left to right): Yaron Shani, A Prophet star Tahar Rahim, John Hurt, Jack Thorne, Defamation director Yoav Shamir and Souleymane Cisse.

And finally, here are three film highlights from the last day of the festival...

Nowhere Boy
dir Sam Taylor-Wood; with Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas 09/UK *****
With a plot that's scruffy and chaotic, and remarkably like real life, this biopic of a couple of years in the life of the teen John Lennon (Johnson) is thoroughly engaging on several levels. Not only is it an entertaining film, packed with lively characters and astonishing events, but it also shines a light on a little-known chapter in the life of a young man who had no idea he would go on to change the world. And for a directing debut, it's also a remarkably well-made film, shot with skill and unafraid to go into some very dark places. And if Scott Thomas' role as Lennon's aunt and guardian feels a little one-note, there are some terrific moments later on, and the entire cast is seriously strong.

Don't Worry About Me
dir David Morrissey; with James Brough, Helen Elizabeth o9/UK ***
For his feature directing debut, Morrissey returns to his hometown Liverpool to adapt the stage play by costars Brough and Elizabeth. The result is an interesting story, but it's very difficult to engage with ... REVIEW >

dir Patrice Chereau; with Romain Duris, Charlotte Gainsbourg 09/Fr ***
Adeptly capturing a sense of urban angst, this film follows a very angry young man (Duris) whose world seems to be collapsing around him - although he doesn't think anything is remotely his fault. The problem, really, is why he has any friends at all, since the only thing he does is grump and moan about everyone else. Meanwhile, a stranger is stalking him, vandalising his flat and professing his undying love. Chereau is a very good filmmaker, and he gets the moody tone exactly right, but it's also intensely close-up yet enigmatic . So it's difficult to feel any sympathy for anyone. And even though it's constantly watchable, it feels like a relief when the film ends.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

LFF15: Rising stars

It's the penultimate night of the 53rd London Film Festival, and today Leicester Square was being dressed for tomorrow's closing night event, even though there are two days of movies still to go. The big event tonight was the awards ceremony, attended by a range of actors and filmmakers who had their work on here - Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) is pictured above, with Dominic Cooper (An Education) below. Other guests included Charlotte Rampling (Life During Wartime), David Morrissey (Don't Worry About Me), Stephen Poliakoff (Glorious 39), J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), John Hurt (44 Inch Chest), Hugh Bonneville (From Time to Time), Jordan and Ridley Scott (Cracks), Jarvis Cocker (Fantastic Mr Fox) and Paul King (Bunny & the Bull). The actual award winners aren't announced until tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are some films shown today...

A Serious Man
dir Joel & Ethan Coen; with Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind 09/US *****
The Coen Brothers are back with yet another shift of gear. And this is just about as unexpected as you can get from them - a star-free drama about a Jewish guy in 1967 Minnesota trying to figure out why his life seems so out of control. The film is absolutely wonderful, packed with dry wit and laugh-out-loud absurdity, plus excellent performances from the ensemble case, led by the marvellous Stuhlbarg. And as it progresses, it actually grapples with some extremely profound issues without ever getting heavy about it - right up to the big questions about the meaning of life. Their conclusions may seem a bit snarky, but the film really gets our heads spinning, even as it tells a terrific story.

Taking Woodstock
dir Ang Lee; with Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton 09/US ***
While this feels like an oddly light film from Ang Lee, there's actually quite a bit of serious subtext throughout this light comedy tracing the local side of the story behind the Woodstock festival. The oddest thing about the film is the way it centres around a young guy (Martin) who's not hugely interesting but plays the pivotal role in getting the event up and running. Much more fun are characters who are way over the top (Staunton and Eugene Levy), comically zoned out (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) or just plain hilarious (Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber). The 1960s vibe is extremely effective, which is probably why the film feels so loose and groovy, but a bit more edge might have made it important as well.

dir Chris Atkins; with Max Clifford, Wesley Aubrey 09/UK ***
While this doc is packed with terrific material, it takes a far too scattershot approach, linking the material together with a magician/showman motif that never works and actually feels condescending. The focus is society's obsession with celebrity - both reading about them and becoming one - and Atkins makes some startlingly important observations along the way. The film is full of extremely clever and telling pranks, such as planting false stories that are picked up across the newspapers with no fact-checking. But the film feels fragmented and directionless - and many of the small stories could use their own documentary (such as a look at getting onto reality TV and the harsh analysis of Live 8). In the end, we have learned a lot, but feel unsure what to make of it all. Perhaps this would work better as a multi-part TV series with each chapter fleshed out more meaningfully.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

LFF14: Glorious evening

Stephen Polikoff attended the red-carpet premiere of his pre-war drama Glorious 39, accompanied by cast members including (left to right) Bill Nighy, Juno Temple, Jenny Agutter, Romola Garai and David Tennant. Also out in Leicester Square on this unusually warm evening were Joel and Ethan Coen (below right) with actor Michael Stuhlbarg (for A Serious Man), and Jane Birkin (for Around a Small Mountain).

Only two days left and a handful of films for me to see. I missed another one this morning due to a breakdown on the transport system (sitting in a Tube tunnel for 30 minutes was not part of my plan for today). Here are some highlights from Day 14...

dir-scr Samuel Maoz; with Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran 09/Isr ***
Set entirely within the confines of a tank, it would have been pretty hard for this war drama to avoid an almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia. It may feel somewhat over-constructed, but it's a gripping, harrowing ride ... REVIEW >

dir Roberto Caston; with Joxean Bengoetxea, Christian Esquivel 09/Sp *****
With remarkable insight, this unhurried drama beautifully captures the pace of life in an isolated Basque community in the Spanish Pyrenees. And even more than that, it has some potent things to say about culture and sexuality ... REVIEW >

Glorious 39
dir Stephen Poliakoff; with Romola Garai, Bill Nighy 09/UK ****
Telling a story from a rarely examined period of British history, this pre-war drama is a bundle of suspense, mystery and personal emotion that's beautifully filmed and sharply played by a first-rate cast ... REVIEW >

Sweet Rush
dir Andrzej Wajda 09/Pol ***
Shot with Wajda's usual expert skill, this somewhat difficult film centres on grief and blurs the edges by telling a multi-plane story about a middle-aged actress who delivers oddly disconnected monologues about the death of her husband. Meanwhile, we see the film she is now making, in which she's the one who contracts a fatal disease, and then befriends a 20-year-old boy. And we also get several behind the scenes glimpses of the film crew, all connected by the sweet rushes growing along the river, which smell like life on one side and death on the other. It sounds pretentious, but it's not. It is, however, not an easy film to get a grip on, and is pretty relentlessly sad, as you'd expect from the theme.

Monday, 26 October 2009

LFF13: Independents day

Tonight's London Film Festival premiere was for the comedy-drama Taking Woodstock, and on-hand for red carpet duties were director Ang Lee - pictured with writer James Schamus and actors Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton. There's definitely a sense that the festival is winding down now, as with three days to go the critics are staggering around with dazed looks on their faces (one colleague told me today that he has seen 79 films so far, which beats my 55 by about two full days of movie-watching). I already have one casualty of the system here - I haven't been able to see the acclaimed film Precious, as they made no allocation for press at the screenings I could get to. So I'll have to wait and see it in the coming months instead. Anyway, here are some indie highlights from today...

We Live in Public
dir Ondi Timoner; with Josh Harris, Tom Harris 09/US ****
In documenting the story of one of the internet's chief innovators, filmmaker Timoner explores the profound way online communities have changed Western society. It's a fast-paced, entertaining movie, and it really makes us think ... REVIEW >

Alexander the Last
dir Joe Swanberg; with Jess Weixler, Justin Rice 09/US **
Largely improvised by its gifted cast, this story of relationships stretched to the limits is intriguing enough to keep our attention, even though the characters never really connect with us. At the centre is Alex, an actress rehearsing a role in a stage play that requires considerable intimacy with her costar, which has implications on her relationship with her musician husband and her slightly too-close sister. Fantasy and reality blur intriguingly, but it's not easy to care about these whinging, self-obsessed people.

Trash Humpers
dir Harmony Korine; with Rachel Korine, Brian Kotzur 09/US **
Filmmaker Harmony Korine continues to push viewer's buttons with this deliberately abrasive mock-doc. He says he intends it to be a modern horror movie, but it's more like a geriatric version of Jackass ... REVIEW >

dir Ezequiel Acuna; with Alberto Rojas Apel, Matias Castelli 09/Arg ***
From Argentina, this somewhat vague low-budget film really catches the American indie vibe with its story of 20-somethings told in black and white with extremely dry wit. It's about two school friends who reunite a few years in the future to collaborate on a stage project, and as the film progresses we start to realise why they haven't been in touch for so long (although there are some other revelations in store as well). Filmmaker Acuna acutely captures that experience of growing up and growing apart, and then trying to find new common ground. The humour is very low-key, mainly in meandering, off-topic conversations, but it makes these characters thoroughly endearing.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

LFF12: Red carpet glamour

Eva Green gave the red carpet a blast of movie star glamour on Sunday night in Leicester Square as the London Film Festival entered its final stretch. She was there with the cast and crew of her thriller Cracks, including director Jordan Scott and her dad Ridley. Highlights from Sunday's films...

dir Jordan Scott; with Eva Green, Juno Temple 09/UK ***
Gorgeously photographed, sharply acted and hauntingly moody, this period boarding-school drama keeps our interest even though the story is extremely thin. And there doesn't really seem to be much of a point to it ... REVIEW >

Passenger Side
dir Matt Bissonnette; with Adam Scott, Joel Bissonnette 09/US ***
This road movie has a thoroughly indie tone: it's indulgent and cute and features a great soundtrack. It also has terrifically snarky dialog and a growing sense of mystery that keeps us gripped ... REVIEW >

No One Knows About Persian Cats
dir Bahman Ghobadi; with Hamed Behdad, Ashkan Koshanejad 09/Iran ****
Iranian filmmaker Ghobadi examines the underground music scene in his country by telling a fictional story that's based on "real events, locations and people". The film vividly shows that the young people of Teheran aren't any different from anyone else. Although they have a lot more obstacles ... REVIEW >

Villa Amalia
dir Benoit Jacquot; with Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Hughues Anglade 09/Fr ***
Huppert is terrific as usual in this enigmatic and insinuating drama about a woman who decides to upend her entire life - leaving her job, home, boyfriend, everything, including her identity. The plot is a bit meandering and ill-defined, but there are terrific moments along the way, mainly due to Jacquot's telling direction and Huppert's subtle performance. It also helps that the settings - from urban Paris to an isolated Italian island - are so vividly portrayed. And the idea of escaping from the craziness of life certainly has a strong appeal.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

LFF11: Crime and animation

The entire cast of the British thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed - Martin Compston, Gemma Arterton and Eddie Marsan - took to the red carpet tonight for their London Film Festival premiere. Also out tonight were British actor-turned-director David Morrissey (with Helen Elizabeth and James Brough, writers and stars of his film Don't Worry About Me); French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (with his Cannes-winning A Prophet); and Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton (with his Cannes-winning Samson & Delilah). Here are a few highlights from Saturday...

The Disappearance of Alice Creed
dir J Blakeson; with Gemma Arterton, Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan 09/UK ****
This thriller is so tightly contained that it feels like a stage play with three characters and one set. But director Blakeson takes a cinematic approach, and his use of the camera, editing and sound combine to keep us utterly riveted ... REVIEW >

The Informant!
dir Stephen Soderbergh; with Matt Damon, Scott Bakula 09/US ****
Telling an outrageous true story with humour and irony, Soderbergh crafts an engaging corporate comedy-drama that continually catches us (and the characters) off guard. It's great fun to watch, and has a strongly resonant kick ... REVIEW >

A Prophet
dir Jacques Audiard; with Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup 09/Fr *****
Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, this astonishing prison drama grabs hold of us and never lets go for two and a half hours. It's the story of Malik (Rahim), who has spent his whole youth behind bars - we meet him when he's transferred to an adult prison at age 19. Over the next few years, he learns his way through the system, transforming before our eyes from a nice, frightened young guy into a confident, clever criminal kingpin. The way Audiard keeps the film tightly within his perspective makes it much more introspective than most prison dramas, and the way he refuses to shy away from the gritty realities makes the film utterly unforgettable.

Astro Boy
dir David Bowers; with Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage 09/US ***
A vaguely Americanised version of a Japanese manga, this film uses a computer-aided variation on traditional Asian-style animation. It's much simpler visually than what Hollywood produces, but features some truly deranged touches that make it thoroughly engaging in its own right. The plot is a bit nutty - a futuristic Pinocchio-like tale about a scientist (voiced by Cage) who builds a robot to replace his dead son (Highmore), with world-changing resultsAlthough the especially strong vocal cast (including Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Nathan Lane, Samuel L Jackson, Bill Nighy, Kristen Bell) feels strangely flat, the story's strong enough to keep us interested.

dir Tarek Saleh; with Vincent Gallo, Juliette Lewis 09/Swe ****
This Scandinavian co-production is animation like we've never seen before. Filmmaker Saleh uses photographs as a starting point, capturing the textures of settings and people then pinching and stretching the characters to turn them into something truly original - it looks like a blend of Terry Gilliam cut-out cartooning and Tim Burton stop-motion. The story, meanwhile, is a Matrix-like tale set in the future, when Europe is linked by a gigantic metro system and the transport company has figured out a way to get into the heads of its passengers using a sinister (and ubiquitous) brand of shampoo. And when young office worker Roger (Gallo) starts sensing that something is wrong, he stumbles into a series of secrets no one should know about society. The present-day relevance is obvious, but it's the film's astounding visual creativity that makes this a must-see.

Friday, 23 October 2009

LFF10: Lush and insinuating

There were two London Film Festival premieres on Leicester Square tonight - for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (star Gabourey Sidibe is pictured here) and for the offbeat British road movie Bunny & the Bull, at which the cast and crew were joined by people dressed as fish and crustaceans for some reason. Glamorous documentarian Ondi Timoner was also on hand for the premiere of her film We Live in Public, which was followed by the first (and probably only) party I was invited to during this festival - a relaxed gathering of arty people at an underground bar on Trafalgar Square. Here are some Friday film highlights...

dir Atom Egoyan; with Julianne Moore, Amada Seyfried 09/Canada ****
This lush, insinuating remake of the rather muted French film Nathalie benefits from a much more emotionally charged script and lively, layered performances. It also has director Egoyan's playful skill at exploring images and perceptions ... REVIEW >

dir Heitor Dhalia; with Vincent Cassel, Laura Nieva 09/Brazil ***
Seductive and dark, this beach holiday drama tells its story from the perspective of 14-year-old Filipa (Nieva), who feels like she's a grown-up and gets increasingly frustrated with her friends (both boys and girls) and her parents, none of whom seem to be behaving by the rules of relationships as she sees them. Worst of all is the fact that her father (the superb Cassel) is carrying on with another woman. Of course, this is a story about how children can't possibly understand the subtleties of an adult world, and that's laid on a bit thickly as the film progresses. But it's shot and acted with a sun-kissed glow and earthy honesty that makes it thoroughly watchable.

Bunny & the Bull
dir Paul King; with Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby 09/UK ***
With its homemade effects and strong emotional kick, this film feels almost like a Michel Gondry movie. Although a deranged sense of humour makes it thoroughly British. It's an odd concoction, but it gets under the skin ... REVIEW >

Thursday, 22 October 2009

LFF9: Beauty and brains

It was Julianne Moore's turn on the London Film Festival red carpet tonight, appearing with director Atom Egoyan, costar Amanda Seyfried and producer Ivan Reitman for the premiere of their film Chloe. The press conference this morning was a thoroughly entertaining one - with lively chat and surprisingly thoughtful comments from all four. Tonight was also the night of a screening in Trafalgar Square - and the weather cooperated for a change: even though it was very cold, it was a gorgeous clear evening.

Meanwhile, I feel that on Day 9 I've hit a bit of a wall. I'm not getting enough sleep - nor do I have enough time to write about everything I see. I know nobody has sympathy for someone who watches movies all day, but I do feel like the walking dead tonight! I need to take it a bit easier over the next few days and build up some strength for the final push to closing night next Thursday. Here are some highlights from today...

dir Robert Connolly; with Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac 09/Aus *****
This provocative, powerful true story is well-known in Australia but not anywhere else. And it's the expert filmmaking that makes this both an important account of the events and a gripping, shattering thriller ... REVIEW >

The White Ribbon
dir Michael Haneke; with Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch 09/Aut ****
Grim, long and very bleak, Haneke's Cannes-winner isn't the most accessible of his films. But it's strikingly well-made, with a riveting series of events and a growing sense of depth that makes it disturbingly relevant on several levels ... REVIEW >

London River
dir Rachid Bouchareb; with Brenda Blethyn, Sotigui Kouyate 09/UK ****
Kouyate won the acting prize at Berlin, and you can see why for his serene performance here, but it's Blethyn who catches us with another memorable emotionally vulnerable character. They play parents who are searching for their children in the aftermath of London's 7/7 bombings in 2005. But the film deals with the serious themes in a subtle way, focussing on the intensely personal journeys of these two parents who don't know their children very well and aren't sure what to do with each other. It's a somewhat slight film, but the acting makes it worth a look. As does the sensitive handling of the big issues.

dir Lindy Heymann; with Kerrie Hayes, Nichola Burley 09/UK **
Two Liverpool teens freak out when their beloved football star is traded to Madrid, but instead of just sobbing themselves to sleep, they concoct a drastic plan to change his mind, kidnapping him and taking him to an abandoned caravan. From here, the film turns into a low-key thriller, as these girls don't quite know what to do next with the man they have loved so long from afar. The problem is that the film feels a bit made up as it goes along too - with contrived plot elements and no real sense of pace. But the three central cast members (Hayes, Burley and Lee Doyle) are very good.

About Elly...
dir Asghar Farhadi; with Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini 09/Iran *****
Bursting with energy that shifts from warmly comical to eerily intense, this ensemble drama from Iran tells the story of a group of friends in their late-20s who take a holiday to the seaside. But one of them has a secret relating to the one stranger in the group, Elly. As events shift and twist, the tension gets pretty potent, and it's all sharply well-played by a terrific young cast, while writer-director Farhadi holds things together with both humour and dark emotions. A must-see.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

LFF8: Boys' night out

The London Film Festival tonight featured the premiere of the Australian drama The Boys Are Back - that's director Scott Hicks between actors George MacKay and Clive Owen. All three spent the day doing press for the film in advance of the big party tonight. Other red carpet entrances were on hand for Michael Haneke (his Cannes-winning The White Ribbon); Thomas Turgoose, Susan Lynch and director Tom Harper (The Scouting Book for Boys); and the lively ensemble cast of 1 Day, including director Penny Woolcock. And here are some of the day's highlights...

Bright Star
dir-scr Jane Campion; with Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw 09/UK *****
With a sumptuous attention to detail, lush photography and beautifully understated performances, Campion turns real events from the life of a poet into cinematic poetry. It may be too mopey for some audiences, but for others it's pure bliss ... REVIEW >

The Boys Are Back
dir Scott Hicks; with Clive Owen, George MacKay 09/Aus ***
Based on a true story, this emotional drama doesn't have much of a plot, at least not cinematically speaking, as it examines the shifting relationships of a widower (Owen) trying to learn how to connect with his two sons. What makes the film well worth seeing is the fine acting work from the entire cast. Owen has never done anything this raw and open, and his chemistry with the child actors is terrific. It's also nice to see such an honest look at parenting on film for a change, even if the film doesn't seem to have that much to say.

An Education
dir Lone Scherfig; with Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard 09/UK ***
A lively tone and very funny dialog kind of throw us off the scent of this film's starkly serious themes. Beneath the charm and humour is an intriguing story about a time when being a strong-willed young woman just wasn't allowed ... REVIEW >

dir Scandar Copti, Yaron Shan; with Fouad Habash, Shahir Kabaha 09/Isr ****
A searing story of the collision of three religious communities in Israel, this provocative street-level drama feels thoroughly realistic, with vivid characters that cut through the fragmented story structure ... REVIEW >

1 Day
dir Penny Woolcock; with Dylan Duffus, Orhan Whyte 09/UK ***
British director Woolcock takes an especially clever approach to this innercity drama about gang warfare, turning it into a full-on rap musical that really conveys the energy and passion of the characters. So it's a shame that the story is rather contrived, and the filmmaking rather rough around the edges. It's also so thoroughly urban that it might lose viewers who struggle to understand the slang-infused dialog. But you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen, especially when three colourful baby mamas corner the lead character for a "chat".

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

LFF7: Out in the square

The red carpet in Leicester Square was busy again tonight, as rising star Carey Mulligan came out with costars Dominic Cooper and Emma Thompson to support her breakout film An Education for its London Film Festival premiere. Also strolling through the clamouring fans were Kerry Fox and director Hans-Christian Schmid (here with Storm); Anthony LaPaglia and director Robert Connelly (with Balibo); and Julie Sokolowski and director Bruno Dumont (with Hadewijch). Here are some film highlights from today...

dir Hans-Christian Schmid; with Kerry Fox, Anamaria Marinca 09/Ned ****
An intriguing legal thriller, this tense Euro-drama takes a female perspective as it examines a horrific situation. It's a bit talky and office-bound, but is full of relevance as it looks at the thorny issue of justice in a politically charged situation ... REVIEW >

dir Bruno Dumont; with Julie Sokolowski, Yassine Salime 09/Fr ****
Instead of his usual confrontational style, Dumont infuses this reflective drama with raw tenderness. But he's as provocative as always. Which is probably unavoidable with a film about religious devotion (the title refers to a 13th century Flemish poet) ... REVIEW >

The Milk of Sorrow
dir Claudia Llosa; with Magaly Solier, Susi Sanchez 09/Peru ****
The Golden Bear-winner at Berlin, this gorgeous Peruvian drama takes us into the soul of a culture for a story with mythical roots, and yet it's so beautifully told that we can't help but identify and reach out to the central character, a young woman grappling with her past, played with raw authenticity by Solier. Director Llosa also draws on expert photography and editing to capture the rhythms of life - both in the setting and within the characters. Involving and strongly moving.

Mic Macs
dir Jean-Pierre Jeunet; with Dany Boon, Andre Dussollier 09/Fr ***
Back in Amelie mode, Jeunet creates this playful adventure with his usual expert filmmaking--a strong, quirky sense of people and places that includes lots of telling, quirky details. The plot centres on a young man (Boon) trying to make sense of his past, which has been forever changed because of two rival arms dealers. So why not try to get them fighting with each other? With the help of a gang of misfits and a pile of rubbish, their caper is increasingly madcap - silly slapstick mixed with just a whiff of a serious theme. Thoroughly entertaining, if a little silly.

Monday, 19 October 2009

LFF6: Another bright night

Ben Whishaw and Jane Campion led the charge tonight up the red carpet in Leicester Square for the gala screening of their exquisite John Keats biopic Bright Star, which happens to be my favourite film of the festival so far. They were joined for the screening by a slightly random array of London celebrities, including Mayor Boris Johnson.

I had another busy day at the London Film Festival running from screening to screening, and managed to take a long enough break between two films to have a hot lunch (badly needed as the weather has turned very chilly). Here are three films that were on today...

The Limits of Control
dir Jim Jarmusch; with Isaac De Bankole, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt 09/Spain ****
While it's probably too meandering and vague for mainstream cinemagoers, this offbeat thriller is a terrific example of Jarmusch's subtly cheeky tone, plus gorgeous Christopher Doyle cinematography and a terrific cast ... REVIEW >

Life During Wartime
dir Todd Solondz; with Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson 09/US ****
Typical of Solondz, this film is a surreal spin on his 1998 hit Happiness, with the same characters portrayed by a very different cast several years later. Blackly hilarious, the film features superb performances by an eclectic cast that includes Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens and Ciaran Hinds, and dialog that's both laugh-out-loud funny and sharply observant. The central idea is forgiveness, and whether we ever really get over our upbringing, past sins and deep prejudices. Pretty amazing, but much more edgy and anarchic than it looks.

Blue Beard
dir Catherine Breillat; with Dominique Thomas, Lola Creton 09/France ***
Taking her typically girl-power view and applying it to a fairy tale, Breillat creates a deeply undettling period tale about two sisters who are obsessed with the story about the resident of the nearby castle - and expecially the way his wives have all gone missing. When they get a chance to meet him, they play it as an audition, and sure enough, one is chosen as the next wife. But things don't go as expected - or maybe they do - as tables are turned and promises are broken. It's a tricky, difficult film to unpack, but there's some fascinating stuff inside.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

LFF5: Flying high

Anna Kendrick, Jason Reitman and Vera Farmiga hit the red carpet tonight for the premiere of their film Up in the Air. Alas, George Clooney couldn't stick around for this one - after two appearances at the London Film Festival last week (for Fantastic Mr Fox on Wednesday and The Men Who Stare at Goats on Thursday), he jetted off to Rome for the festival there. Also walking the red carpet on Sunday were the child stars of Julian Fellowes' British drama From Time to Time, Cold Souls star Emily Watson, French filmmaker Jean Pierre-Jeunet and Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu. Here are some film highlights...

Up in the Air
dir Jason Reitman; with George Clooney, Vera Farmiga 09/US *****
Clooney is perfectly cast in this terrific downsizing comedy-drama, which manages to keep us laughing even as it examines the darker underside of both the recession and a corporate lifestyle in which you fly high and travel as light as you can. Reitman's direction is bright and edgy, while Farmiga and Anna Kendrick develop strong female counterpoints that bring surprising depth to a film that refuses to become sentimental.

The Men Who Stare at Goats
dir Grant Heslov; with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor 09/US ****
Based on true events as recounted in the Jon Ronson book, this freewheeling war comedy is deeply entertaining due to the crazy-but-believable premise and wonderfully outrageous characters. ... REVIEW >

dir Brillante Mendoza; with Coco Martin, Maria Isabel Lopez 09/Philippines ***
Surprise winner of the directing prize at Cannes, this restless and grim drama explores endemic police corruption through the harrowing personal odyssey of a young cop-trainee who is dragged along with several off-duty officers on a night of unspeakable brutality. The loss of innocence is palpable, and the film is thoroughly, effectively unnerving with its skilful camerawork and sharp editing. But it also feels just a little simplistic.

Cold Souls
dir Sophie Barthes; with Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson 09/US ****
Like a collision of Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen, this dark comedy is a surreal gem, astutely examining the issue of identity. And it gives the cast, especially Giamatti, terrific characters to sink their teeth into. ... REVIEW >

Saturday, 17 October 2009

LFF4: Sharp suits

Here's another photo from yesterday - as the rather obscenely beautiful quartet of Nicholas Hoult, Tom Ford, Colin Firth and Matthew Goode arrive for the premiere of their film A Simple Man. I suspect that, in addition to directing and cowriting the film, Ford also designed the suits they're all wearing.

Today was a more relaxed day for me - a decent night's sleep, just one movie and a walk through chilly North London - it feels like I'm on holiday! Well, briefly at least. And except for the North London bit. Sure, attending a film festival is great fun for movie fans (and critics should be the ultimate movie fans), but it is also a lot of work. I need to write reviews of every movie I see, and seeing three or four films a day tends to build into a massive backlog. I caught up a bit today but still have a long way to go. And more movies to watch tomorrow. Here are a few highlights from today's programme...

44 Inch Chest
dir Malcolm Venville; with Ray Winstone, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt 09/UK ***
With its limited setting, contained cast and existential plot, this feels more like a play than a film. So while it's well-acted by a first-rate cast, it also feels somewhat indulgent and oddly unsatisfying ... REVIEW >

dir Claude Chabrol; with Gerard Depardieu, Clovis Cornillac 09/France ***
Playful and intriguing, but too word-bound to make the central mystery work on screen, Chabrol's oddly lightweight film is most effective when it's examining the fascinatingly stubborn central character, played to comical perfection by Depardieu ... REVIEW >

Tales From the Golden Age
dir Cristian Mungiu, Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Hofer, Constantin Popescu 09/Romania *****
After the riveting 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu is back with five more stories from Romania's "golden age". But these tales replace that earlier film's brilliantly bleak chill with light-hearted irony ... REVIEW >

Friday, 16 October 2009

LFF3: Serious men

Viggo Mortensen was on press conference duty on day 3 of the London Film Festival, out promoting his new film The Road with director John Hillcoat and writer Joe Penhall. It was a much more serious press conference than the previous two days, as the thoughtful, articulate Mortensen led an intense and thoroughly engaging discussion of the themes in the film. Later in the evening I walked past him as he was patiently signing autographs in the crowd outside the Vue Cinema on Leicester Square, chatting with fans and clearly in no rush to leave. I also spotted Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley on the red carpet tonight. Firth was there for his film, Tom Ford's A Single Man, for which Firth recently won the best actor award in Venice...

The Road
dir John Hillcoat; with Viggo Mortenson, Kodi Smit-McPhee 09/US *****
Another Cormac McCarthy novel becomes one of the best films of the year. This startling post-apocalyptic adventure is almost relentlessly grim as it follows a father and son across an American landscape totally bereft of humanity or civilisation. But in each encounter, we discover things about these characters, and we see a very tiny glimmer of hope for the future. A stunning allegory, the film boasts spectacular cinematography and some truly unforgettable performances.

A Single Man
dir Tom Ford; with Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult 09/US ****
It's no surprise that this film is exquisite to look at; Ford knows how to capture an image, and we want to fall into every frame of the almost too-perfect 1962 Los Angeles setting, with its modern lines, gleaming cars and form-enhancing clothes. The story centres on one pretty terrible day in the life of a university professor (Firth) as he tries to quietly come to grips with the death of his boyfriend in a society in which he's not allowed to even have a boyfriend. Firth captures something untouchable in his performance, making us feel this man's despair and also his wry understanding that his life might not be over. And Moore shines in a showy role that she turns into something quietly profound.

Paper Heart
dir Nicholas Jasenovec; with Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera 09/US ****
An ingenious blending of rom-com and doc, this charming film worms its way under our skin from the start, keeping us laughing as it explores love and relationships from a strikingly original angle ... FULL REVIEW >

Thursday, 15 October 2009

LFF2: Staring at the stars

Howdy from Day 2 of the London Film Fest. Another long day featuring three movies and a press conference. I started out with more of George Clooney, who appeared with Kevin Spacey (above), director Grant Heslov and author Jon Ronson for their film The Men Who Stare at Goats, which also had its starry premiere in Leicester Square tonight. Here are some other films that screened today...

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
dir Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea; with Romy Schneider, Serge Reggiani 09/France ****
Intriguingly combining footage of Clouzot's unfinished film L'Enfer with re-enacted scenes and documentary interviews, this artistic doc pieces together the story of a masterpiece that never was. It's perhaps a little overworked, but cinephiles will love every glorious frame ... FULL REVIEW >

Around a Small Mountain
dir Jacques Rivette; with Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto 09/France ***
Quirky and warm, this gently surreal comedy drama shows that the iconic director still has a playful side, as he orchestrates a momentous encounter between a travelling Italian businessman (Castellitto) and a French circus at precisely the moment an ex-highwire walker (Birkin) returns after 15 years in exile. Lots of lives are sorted out along the way, with plenty of gentle humour and a bit of offbeat romance. The cast are natural and funny, even if the film itself is enigmatic and elusive on all fronts.

From Time to Time
dir Julian Fellowes; with Maggie Smith, Alex Etel 09/UK ****
Obviously based on a children's book, this gentle period drama tells its story on two fronts, as a teen (Etel, all grown-up since Millions) goes to stay with his grandmother (the fabulous Smith) in 1944 and stumbles into old family secrets in the form of ghosts from 1809 wandering around the family manor. It's an involving story, a fun mystery and a very nicely observed look at Britain. It also has an ace supporting cast that includes Timothy Spall, Hugh Bonneville, Dominic West and Pauline Collins.

Enter the Void
dir Gaspar Noe; with Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta 09/France ***
Notorious filmmaker Noe finally followed up his controversial hit Irreversible - and it's another slightly gimmicky approach: using only subjective point of view to tell the story of a nice-guy American drug user (Brown) in Tokyo who is caught in the crossfire of a police raid, dies and haunts his friends and sister (de la Huerta) in the days and months that follow. As expected, Noe's filmmaking is astoundingly skilful, packing the movie with telling details, wry humour and vivid characters. It's also extremely indulgent; at least 30 minutes could easily be cut out of the meandering narrative. Noe was on hand to introduce the film tonight and then held a long and hugely informative Q&A afterwards.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

LFF1: Celeb-tastic!

The 53rd London Film Festival kicked off tonight in Leicester Square with a far more glamorous opening night than we've ever seen: a star-studded world premiere for Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox (comments below). The film was shown to the press early this morning, followed by a press conference with (left to right) Eric Anderson, Bill Murray, Wes Anderson, George Clooney, Jason Schwartzman, Wally Wolodarsky and Jarvis Cocker. They're sitting at the table with the figures of their characters in the film. And yes, it was a pretty raucous session, with the always likeable Clooney fielding most of the questions and the hilariously deadpan Murray keeping everyone laughing.

Over the next 16 days, there will be more than 300 films and shorts screened at venues around the city. And this year there's an unusual number of massive movies with attending star power. Clooney will be back two more times - for The Men Who Stare at Goats tomorrow and Up in the Air on Sunday. We've got Viggo Mortensen on Friday with The Road, Julianne Moore with Chloe, Clive Owen with The Boys Are Back, and filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noe, Frederick Wiseman, Cristian Mungiu and Tom Ford. to name a few. I'll be blogging every day with comments and reviews - and I'll try to snap press conference/celebrity photos (like the above) whenever I can.

Fantastic Mr Fox
dir Wes Anderson; with George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray 09/UK ***
The beloved Roald Dahl book has been transformed into a Wes Anderson movie complete with wacky capers, silly swearing and a story that centres around a quirky dysfunctional family. That's not to say it's a bad thing! It's great fun to watch, packed with hilarious dialog and witty sight gags. And the stop-motion animation is simply spectacular, harking back to a slightly jerkier age when things looked a bit more stiff, and yet were much more full of character detail, emotion and pure visual invention. But by shifting Dahl's tone, the film feels far more pleased with itself than it should be - sunny and silly and ultimately rather weightless.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Critical Week(s): Stuck in Zombieland

Simon Pegg and pals (above) have a lot to answer for. Five years after Shaun of the Dead brilliantly combined zombie horror with comedy, we're in an epidemic. There's also the fact that I feel like a zombie at the moment with an overload of movie screenings - but that's usual for this film-packed time of year when Raindance and the London Film Festival converge on us critics like an inexorable, undead force. Soon we're left with sunken eyes and wobbly legs, barely able to remember which film we saw an hour ago, let alone last night.

As a result of this, I missed a week in this blog, and I saw 21 films in the past fortnight. Zombies featured in five of those (Zombieland, Colin, Jennifer's Body, Surviving Evil and The Descent Part 2) - six if you include Nicolas Cage's nutty performance in The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans.

The best of these two weeks were Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare at Goats and Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control; the worst were Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau in Couples Retreat, Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler in Law Abiding Citizen.

And so it goes. The screening frenzy continues here for the rest of the month (I havd 15 films in the diary for this coming week), but I'll switch on Wednesday to a daily London Film Fest blog, with reports on the celebrities parading through Leicester Square and of course the films themselves. We kick off with Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox on Wednesday - can't wait.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Critical Week: Eye-popping!

In a week when I saw nine films in the cinema, it turns out that a 14-year-old animated movie was the best of the bunch. But that's hardly surprising when the film in question is Toy Story, which is about to be reissued in 3D. It's almost like it was made in 3D to begin with - it looks absolutely fantastic even after all these years (except that pesky dog), and the story is so much richer and more engaging than most of what we see now.

I also enjoyed, but not as much as I'd hoped, Ricky Gervais' low-key fantasy-comedy The Invention of Lying. Other films last week can be grouped in groups: futuristic action-horror (the cheesily entertaining Surrogates and the dire Pandorum); low-budget, high-concept horror (the decent Triangle and only ok Exam); and a trio of random documentaries (the cinephile's film history dream Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, the clunky but interesting Vanishing of the Bees, and the far-too enjoyable guitar doc It Might Get Loud).

Another nine movies this week, including four press screenings for the London Film Festival (which starts on 14th Oct), along with three more horrors: the Diablo Cody/Megan Fox terror-comedy Jennifer's Body, the Brit-sequel The Descent Part 2 and the South African romp Surviving Evil - plus a British drama called I Know You Know and Robert Guedegian's war drama Army of Crime.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Critical Week: Blow it up

It wasn't a hugely busy week for press screenings, and the one film I actually wanted to see had no screenings at all - so there I was on Wednesday, buying a ticket at my local Odeon for Gamer, the latest action mayhem from Neveldine/Taylor. I quite enjoyed their Crank movies, but this one felt almost humourless by comparison - just a series of well-staged massive explosions that never made the most of a genuinely intriguing premise.

Other films this week included the surprising Departures, which shocked everyone by winning the foreign film Oscar (over the acclaimed Waltz With Bashir, The Class, Revanche and The Baader-Meinhof Complex) - and watching it, we can see why, since it carries a seriously emotional kick. We also saw the offbeat animated monster movie 9, the skilful and slightly too-quirky London drama Unmade Beds, the awkward gay drama The Art of Being Straight, and the engaging Canadian doc Died Young Stayed Pretty, about the artistic obsessives responsible for vintage rock poster culture.

The schedule is back to overflowing this week, with big movies like Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying, Bruce Willis in Surrogates and Dennis Quaid in Pandorum. There are two British thrillers: Christopher Smith's Triangle and Stuart Hazeldine's Exam, and two docs: Vanishing of the Bees, which is rather self explanatory, and It Might Get Loud, about three electric guitar virtuosos. I have no idea what Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno will be like, although it has been making the festival round this year. And I'm really looking forward to revisiting the original Toy Story in 3D.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Critical Week: Off the grid

There won't be a proper blog this week, as I took drastic action and went to Portugal last week, spending six whole days without email or phones. I also didn't see a single movie. The photo (snapped with my phone) shows the view from the front of the house on the island of Culatra, across from Faro. I need to do this more often!

This week's screenings include the animated feature 9, the British indie Unmade Beds, the action romp Gamer, the rock poster doc Died Young Stayed Pretty, and the Oscar-winning Japanese film Departures. It's a relatively easy re-entry to screenings before the following week, during which I already have eight films in the diary. And then press shows for the London Film Festival start. No sleep until November...

Monday, 7 September 2009

Critical Week: Iconic

Press screenings last week were a bit unusual, as I caught up with several things that are far off the beaten path. The most, erm, iconic film was Chevolution, a fascinating documentary about that ubiquitous photograph, which has become the global logo for people power. The thoroughly entertaining film also tells the story of Che Guevara and the photographer who snapped the pic in 1960.

Also last week, I saw one of my favourite films of the year so far: Tricks, a disarmingly well-made little film by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Jakimowski. There was also Steven Soderbergh's experimental sex/money drama The Girlfriend Experience; the award-gobbling and rather gorgeous French painter biopic Seraphine; the well written and played coming out drama Mulligans; and the surfing doc Bustin' Down the Door, which is fun to watch but pretty much like most surfing docs. And I also caught up with Michael Winterbottom's astonishing debut feature Butterfly Kiss (just reissued on dvd), an unforgettable road movie with a fierce central performance from Amanda Plummer.

In addition, I had time for two theatre nights: Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a rowdy and colourful musical version of the film, and I Bought a Blue Car Today is a one-man show with Alan Cumming singing songs and telling witty stories from his life in film and theatre. Both were great nights out!

And now I'm on holiday for a week - not even taking the laptop - so the blog will take a break next week as well. I'm not even sure what I'll be watching when I get back - I only have two screenings in the diary: the festival favourite Unmade Beds and the animated monster movie 9.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Critical Week: In yer face

Well, it took until the fourth film in the series, the oddly non-titled The Final Destination, for those bright sparks at Final Destination Inc to come up with the idea of using 3D to make their deranged black comedies leap off the screen and into fans' faces. And the film is so much fun (and such a box office success) that it's likely to reignite the franchise.

That was the highest-profile film screened to the London press last week, just days before its release. We also saw Heartless, an atmospheric and enigmatic horror mystery with Jim Sturgess; My Life in Ruins, the latest big fat Greek comedy from Nia Vardalos; Me and Orson Welles, an offbeat little period drama from Richard Linklater starring Zac Efron and the amazing newcomer Christian McKay; Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee, an hilarious mock-doc by Paddy Considine and Shane Meadows; Tulpan, a thoroughly engaging rural Kazakh drama; Antarctica, a slightly uneven ensemble romance from Israel; and two horror classic remakes: the less than thrilling demon-baby romp It's Alive and the guilty pleasure rampage of Sorority Row (the screening for which was introduced by a giggling Briana Evigan and Rumer Willis).

This coming (short) week isn't nearly as hectic, with just four screenings: Steven Soderbergh's experimental The Girlfriend Experience, the acclaimed French biopic Seraphine, the Polish thriller Tricks and the surfing doc Bustin' Down the Door. I'll also finally catch up with Michael Winterbottom's noted feature debut Butterfly Kiss, which is being reissued this week, and I even have a free evening that I can give to the theatre, namely the camp stage musical version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. With a front-row seat, it's bound to be in my face indeed...

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Critical Week: Not a word

Alas, an embargo prevents me from saying anything about the big press screening this past week: Sony's animated 3D romp Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. But the screening itself was good fun, with the usual Sunday morning "fun in the foyer" featuring photo ops (see right) and other goodies. The week's other notable screening was just 15 minutes long: namely a special glimpse of several scenes in James Cameron's Avatar, also shown in 3D but on the Imax screen. The film looks extremely impressive on a big scale, although it's not remotely photorealistic, which is a surprise for Cameron. It looks thoroughly animated, with rubbery skin. Although the movements are realistically captured by the computer.

The rest of the week's screenings were much lower profile: the gritty British drama Harry Brown, starring an excellent Micahel Caine; Cristian Mungiu's impeccable five-part black comedy from Romania Tales from the Golden Age; the excessively grisly revenge-torture Aussie horror The Horseman; the WWI fighter pilot adventure The Red Baron, which has thrilling aerial dogfights to make up for the rather dull melodrama; Park Chan-wook's offbeat and thoroughly unsettling vampire drama Thirst; the hugely involving French immigration drama Welcome; the provocative and powerful 15-years-in-the-making photojournalism doc Shooting Robert King; and the Wayans brothers' resolutely unfunny pastiche Dance Flick.

This coming week, I'm looking forward to the award winning Kazakh drama Tulpan, Shane Meadows' latest micro-movie Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee; Philip Ridley's eerie thriller Heartless; Richard Linklater's biopic Me and Orson Welles; and The Final Destination, the fourth in the series but the first in 3D. Less interesting but hopefully surprising are Nia Vardalos' My Life in Ruins, the remake of Sorority Row, and the stack of DVDs on my desk that need watching. We always need hope...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Critical Week: Time after time

OK, so the sleek, weepy film version of The Time Traveler's Wife is kind of lacking the edginess and clarity of Audrey Niffenegger's remarkable best-seller. But it's still thoroughly engaging, and a terrific alternative to the normal bludgeoning of the summer movie season. I'm also secretly hoping that this kicks off a time travelling fad that gives vampire films a run for their money.

Also screened to the press last week were Renee Zellweger's entry into the nutty evil-child thriller genre, Case 39; the warm and funny indie male-bonding comedy Humpday; the fiendishly clever British thriller Jetsam; the gritty indie prep-school drugs drama Afterschool; the London crime thriller (complete with Danny Dyer) Dead Man Running; and the harrowing and riveting dolphin-killing doc The Cove.

This week is even busier, with Park Chan-wook's no doubt original take on the vampire drama Thirst; Michael Caine in the revenge thriller Harry Brown; the Aussie revenge horror The Horseman; the Euro-epic The Red Baron; the French festival winner Welcome; the 15-years-in-the-making photojournalism doc Shooting Robert King; and the Wayan's brothers' probably unfunny Dance Flick. We'll also get to see 16 minutes of James Cameron's Avatar in 3D on the Imax screen - ooh!

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Movie-con: Day 2

The second day at Movie-con II was rather different from the first, although it started the same! Namely, with a visit from Robert Downey Jr, who was back with us to show a making-of doc, then a few scenes from Iron Man 2, which looks both darker and funnier than the first film - and much bigger too.

Next up was a series of trailers from Icon, none of which I'd seen before: Pandorum looks like a dark Alien-like sci-fi horror; Richard Kelly's The Box, with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, looks like a promising Twilight Zone-like morality play; a choppy and too-detailed trailer of The Road is a little worrying, as it seems to feature some unnecessarily massive effects work; and the Blair Witch-like Paranormal Activity looks like the kind of movie that will give everyone nightmares.

Following this was an extended trailer for 9, the Tim Burton/Timur Bekmambetov animation that looks a bit like an action freak-out version of Wall-E. We also had a second scene from The Twilight Saga: New Moon, this one featuring Robert Pattinson's rock-hard abs in a gratuitous shirt-removal scene that looked like it was set in Italy. Then they had another screening, of Greg Mottola's Adventureland, which I'd already seen, so I went outside in the sunshine for a couple of hours.

After lunch it was time for Kim Newman's Quiz, which was utterly fiendish (the tie-break was listing Steven Spielberg's entire filmography as director). Of 60 questions, I got 29 right. But I came up with 25 of Spielberg's 28 UK-released films. Moving right along, we had a colourful, vivid and utterly bonkers trailer for Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo. And then Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal came on-stage to introduce a 12-minute sequence from The Hurt Locker and hold a lively and entertaining Q&A.

Next up were Paul King and Simon Barnaby on stage to introduce three clips from their new film Bunny & the Bull, which is a British indie that owes a lot to the look of Michel Gondry films. Their Q&A was dry and very funny, but also gave a terrific glimpse into independent filmmaking in the UK. After the announcement of the quiz winners and the awarding of some pretty decent prizes, writer-turned-director Stuart Hazeldine took the stage to talk about his new film Exam, a British horror movie set in one room. He also showed us a 5-minute clip.

And now it was time for Disney's 3D presentation: a behind-the-scenes doc and a few scenes from Robert Zemekis' A Christmas Carol; the Toy Story 3 teaser trailer that we've all seen already; the Alice in Wonderland trailer we've seen before (but not in 3D); a 7-minute sequence from Up; and a pretty fabulous-looking sequence from Tron Legacy, or TR2N as it's written on screen, featuring Jeff Bridges and a ripping light cycle chase.

The final slot was saved for 3D footage from James Cameron's Avatar, which he introduced by a special video message. There were about 4 minutes from the film - two scenes: one of soldiers in a meeting room and then a vividly colourful action scene in a jungle with a blue-skinned and tailed Sigourney Weaver battling a hammerhead dinosaur thing, then a similarly blued Sam Worthington being chased by a vicious rubbery catlike monster. Knowing that they're screening 16 minutes of the film on Friday made this feel a bit disappointing. And ending the day with what was essentially a series of trailers was a let-down after promised new footage from movies like Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland. But overall, Movie-con II was terrific good fun, packed with great surprises and, in just two days, as many Q&As as you'd get at a full film festival.

Evening screenings were popular too - I'd already seen Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker, but I stayed to watch Judd Apatow's terrifically well-written and played but way overlong Funny People, which was introduced by Jonah Hill, who gave a hilarious Q&A before the film. And I definitely hope there's a Movie-con III next summer.