Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Year in Shadows: 2013

Friday, 27 December 2013

Critical Week: 33rd Shadows Awards

Here's my top 10 films of 2013, and my top 5 picks in the other major categories. Full lists and a lot more are on the website...

T O P   1 0   F I L M S  

  1. American Hustle (David O Russell)
  2. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
  3. Filth (Jon S Baird)
  4. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
  5. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)
  6. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
  7. In a World... (Lake Bell)
  8. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
  9. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
  10. Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)

D I R E C T O R  

  1. Jon S Baird (Filth)
  2. David O Russell (American Hustle)
  3. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
  4. Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell)
  5. Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty)


  1. Lake Bell (In a World...)
  2. Asghar Farhadi (The Past)
  3. Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
  4. Eric Warren Singer, David O Russell (American Hustle)
  5. Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda)

A C T R E S S 

  1. Emilie Dequenne (Our Children)
  2. Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour)
  3. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
  4. Paulina Garcia (Gloria)
  5. Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)


  1. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
  2. James McAvoy (Filth, Welcome to the Punch, Trance)
  3. Matt Damon (Behind the Candelabra, Elysium, The Zero Theorem)
  4. Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown)
  5. Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Saving Mr Banks)

S U P P O R T I N G   A C T R E S S  

  1. Margo Martindale (August: Osage County, Beautiful Creatures)
  2. Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives, The Invisible Woman, Looking for Hortense)
  3. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
  4. Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy, Stoker, The Railway Man)
  5. Pernilla August (Call Girl)

S U P P O R T I N G   A C T O R 

  1. James Franco (Spring Breakers, As I Lay Dying, The Iceman, Homefront)
  2. Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings, The Place Beyond the Pines, Jack & Diane)
  3. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
  4. David Oyelowo (The Paperboy, The Butler)
  5. Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

W O R S T   F I L M 

  1. Grown Ups 2 (Dennis Dugan)
  2. R.I.P.D. (Robert Schwentke)
  3. G.I Joe: Retaliation (Jon M Chu)
  4. Bula Quo! (Stuart St Paul)
  5. Run for Your Wife (Ray Cooney, John Luton)

I've only seen a couple of documentaries in the past week to fill in some viewing gaps - namely The Square, about the ongoing Egyptian revolution, and The Missing Picture, about the killing fields in Cambodia. I'll have a few more things to catch up with next week, but in the mean time I'm enjoying a bit of a holiday from the movies. or at least the ones that put me in work mode. Happy New Year!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Critical Week: King of the world

The final week of press screenings for 2013 brought us Martin Scorsese's barnstorming new comedy-drama The Wolf of Wall Street, which we saw just in time to vote (it got 4 nominations from the London Critics: film, actor, director and screenplay). It's a fiendishly entertaining, full-on romp. And it carries a strong punch. It seems cruel to compare it with the other big press show: Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie, which uses state-of-the-art technical and scientific skills and then adds one of the most inane, trite dialog tracks imaginable. For very young kids only. 

Although it seems aimed at young kids, adults are likely to enjoy the French-German animated adventure Moon Man even more than the children. The sophisticated writing contrasts with simple but clever animation work. And there were also two docs: Penn and Teller explore the art world with Tim's Vermeer, the fascinating tale of an inventor who sets out to prove Vermeer's genius in an unexpected way. And How to Make Money Selling Drugs has garnered controversy for its sarcastic approach to America's disastrous war on drugs - but it's witty, telling and frighteningly important.

SHORTS ON TAP: This week I also participated as a juror for the second Shorts on Tap event, which this month was themed "Through Challenge and Change". We watched 11 short films, all introduced by their directors, who stuck around to answer questions. And we awarded our top 3 films to:

Beached by Graham Austin and Dave Walker: a witty romp set on a snowy beach, where a man and his dog find themselves in an unexpectedly twisty situation. It's especially well shot and played, with a terrific final shot. And it's even more impressive since it was filmed in one day.

Driftwood by James Webber: a gorgeously shot and edited story about a young swimmer who has a series of encounters that add to his stress levels in a variety of ways. The film expertly crosscuts between three scenes, building a sense of drama and suspense before turning in unexpected directions. Especially strong acting too.

I'm Christian Okoli by Cyrus Trafford: frankly this shouldn't work at all, as it's just one guy (Okoli) sitting on a stool on a stage telling a story. But he's a seriously great storyteller, and filmmaker Trafford keeps the camera prowling suggestively, adding impact to every element of Okoli's tale, which builds to an astonishingly strong final punch, literally and figuratively. It's very dark, but utterly unforgettable.

Honourable mention goes to Darren Bransford's Dust & Waltz, a beautifully made and skilfully brief short about a couple coping with a difficult situation, and Chris Lee and Paul Storrie's The Hedgehog, a surreal little exploration of a young boy and an older man, whose connection drifts from darkly whimsical to wrenchingly emotional. Shorts on Tap takes place monthly at Juno in Shoreditch.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Requisite Blog Photo: Menaced by dinosaurs

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Critical Week: Mountain-top experience

Year-end screenings continue as distributors try to show us their films before voting deadlines (London Critics' Circle votes for nominees on Friday; Online Film Critics Society votes in the final round on Saturday). This week's big hitters included Ben Stiller's remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, an earnest movie about life choices; Out of the Furnace, a gritty Rust Belt drama starring Christian Bale and Casey Affleck; and Spike Jonze's lovely romantic drama Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with his computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and we believe it.

The other big one was Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, the silly 10-years-later sequel to WIll Ferrell's cult classic. We also had the late-scheduled press screening for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the livelier and more involving sequel to last year's An Unexpected Journey, which ends in a cliffhanger until next year's There and Back Again. I also caught up with Paolo Sorrentino's gorgeous Fellini anthem The Great Beauty, as well as the German drama Two Mothers, an engaging, personal story of two women grappling with inequality in fertility treatment.

Next week things start to slow down for the holidays, although I still need to catch Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, and there's also Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie, the acclaimed doc Tim's Vermeer, and Mark Cousins' Albanian road movie Here Be Dragons. I'm also on the jury panel for a Shorts on Tap event on Tuesday evening in Shoreditch!

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Critical week: More than movies

I've only seen one film since Sunday's report from L.A., but it was a doozy: David O Russell's American Hustle not only features an enticing ensemble cast in full-on 1970s regalia, but it's also based on the real events surrounding Abscam, when the FBI used low-life con-men to entrap big-time mobsters and politicians. Everything is unmissable - cast, script, direction, music, costumes and especially hair. It's hardly surprising that it won the New York film critics' best of the year award.

Now back in London, I have a few screenings beginning to pop up, filling in the final candidates before I vote in both the online and London film critics' awards. These include The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, Spike Jonze's Her and Will Ferrell's triumphant return for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~

And here are some comments on film tie-ins that have crossed my desk this month, just in time for Christmas...

Now That's What I Call Movies is a three-disc set of 58 film songs with an emphasis on 1980s power ballads like I Will Always Love You, (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, Take My Breath Away, Up Where We Belong, Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now and, of course, My Heart Will Go On. Newer songs come from Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Lana Del Rey (The Great Gatsby) and Maroon 5 (Love Actually). And there are also classics like Nat King Cole's Stardust and Tony Bennett's The Way You Look Tonight, plus Brown-eyed Girl, Unchained Melody, Stuck in the Middle With You, You Sexy Thing and even White Wedding. Alas, there are no Bond themes, but all the big title songs of the 1980s are present: Fame, Flashdance, Ghostbusters, Footloose, 9 to 5, Against All Odds, even The Never Ending Story. It's a strong hit-to-dud ratio, and most of these songs are pretty essential.

Series aficionados may also want to take a look at the all new 2013 Now That's What I Call Christmas compilation, another three-disc set containing 62 holiday classics. All the expected songs are present, from Dean Martin to Coldplay, White Christmas to Blue Christmas, and both the original and 20-years-later versions of Do They Know It's Christmas. And there are lots of surprises too.

To tie in with the release of Saving Mr Banks, those savvy Disney folk have released a 50th Anniversary edition of the Mary Poppins soundtrack. This includes the 26 tracks from the film, as well as a second disc with four never-heard demos and early recordings performed by composers Richard and Robert Sherman, plus 21 snippets from the story meetings depicted in Saving Mr Banks - yes, conversations between the real PL Travers, the Sherman brothers and screenwriter Don DaGradi. Finally, there's a 16-minute track in which the Shermans reminisce about their work on the movie. All pretty indispensable for any Mary Poppins fan.

We also occasionally receive books! Cher: Strong Enough is a biography by Josiah Howard, tracing the Oscar/Grammy/Emmy-winner's career through five decades with a special emphasis on her 1975 TV variety series. It's packed with telling anecdotes and accounts of her various career reinventions over the years. There are even a few photos, but not nearly enough. By contrast, Joanna Benecke's 100 Reasons to Love Ryan Gosling is completely centred around photos of the outrageously photogenic actor. Most of these reasons relate to his way with the ladies - and the men. Many of them are dreamy hero-worship: he's a dog whisperer (58), he likes knitting (72), he makes deaf kids happy (79). Others are hilariously breathless: public displays of torso (10), he has tiny cute little ears (39), even super-cool actresses get star-struck when kissing Ryan (83). And you don't have to agree with reason number 9 (The Notebook) to find this book entertaining.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

On the Road: Frozen, alone and fearsome

After only watching two films in the past two weeks, I had a bit of a flurry this weekend in Los Angeles, starting with Disney's new animated movie Frozen, about two sisters (voiced by Kristen Bella and Idina Menzel) struggling with what seems to be a family curse. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, the plot has some real weight and the characters are unusually strong, offering a strong twist on the usual Disney formula . Although the filmmakers couldn't resist filling the screen with silly jokes and comic relief characters, the animation is gorgeous and the themes are handled with a refreshing lightness,

I also had a couple of awards-consideration screenings on Saturday, my first two in Los Angeles. Both were pretty harrowing films, for different reasons. First was the true thriller Lone Survivor, in which Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch get into serious trouble on a mission in Afghanistan. It's riveting and exhausting, and a bit too rah-rah heroic for its own good. But it's also electrically charged and sharply well made. Second was the dysfunctional drama August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep as a fearsome matriarch who locks horns (and then some) with her equally tetchy daughter Julia Roberts. The ace ensemble includes Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson. And the insights from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts are startlingly honest. It sometimes feels hugely over-dramatic, but every scene strikes a nerve.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

On the Road: Oldboy and coming attractions

For me, one of the most important things about being on vacation is not seeing movies! But of course with my job I'm always needing to see things to fill in gaps since I'm missing London press screenings by being away. And at this time of year there are also awards-consideration screenings to keep in mind - so I may try to catch some of those in Los Angeles this weekend.

Today I saw Spike Lee's remake of Park Chan-wook's 2003 fan favourite Oldboy, which opened today in America and hits Britain next week. It's the twisty story about a man (Josh Brolin, pictured) inexplicably imprisoned for 20 years and then released without warning, then trying to figure out who did this and why. Brolin is good, as is his guardian angel Elizabeth Olsen. But Lee's direction is so overstated that it flattens the film's snaky plot. This includes the frustratingly obvious score, pushy emotions and strangely broad performances by the villainous Samuel L Jackson and Sharlto Copley (oddly channelling Darren Brown). In other words, this is the kind of movie that needs the edgy Do the Right Thing-era Lee rather than the bland technical skill of Inside Man-era Lee.

There were eight trailers before Oldboy - which was cool since I so rarely get to see them on a big screen. I'd seen the teaser for Pompeii before (looks over-serious but fun), and also the latest, more detailed look at Scorsese's The Wolf of a Wall Street (can't wait to see all three hours of it). It was fun to get some more detail on David O Russell's star-packed and apparently unmissable 1970s drama American Hustle (including both Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams with their hair in rollers). 

On the other hand, the more detailed trailer for Walking With Dinosaurs gave me pause: despite the photo-realism, these are comical talking dinosaurs, so expectations are down a big notch. And That Awkward Moment doesn't look like nearly as much fun in its cleaner green-band trailer, but I still like Zac Efron, Michael B Jordan and Miles Teller enough to look forward to it.

Otherwise, I hadn't yet seen anything from Non-stop, the latest Liam Neeson action romp, which promisingly costars Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery (neither of whom actually does anything in the trailer). It looks like a po-faced thriller that would really benefit from a hive of snakes. Grudge Match looks frankly ridiculous, playing on Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro's boxing movie past for a comedy-drama that looks unsurprisingly uneven (it's also no surprise which actor seems to be taking things rather a lot more seriously). And finally, Devil's Due is a terrific title for a B-movie antichrist horror thriller about a happy couple whose life goes all Rosemary's Baby on them. The movie looks appropriately slick and stupid.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

On the Road: The Book Thief and more

On holiday in rainy Southern California, I've been mainly spending time with my family up to now - very nice! Now over the next week or so it's time to run around the area seeing friends and relatives from  Orange County to Pasadena, from Santa Monica to Palm Springs. Am hoping to catch up with a few more films along the way too - a couple open next week, and there are also some awards-consideration screenings out here to catch. 

I caught one film on the plane flight out here: CBGB, the story of the famed music venue in New York, where punk and indie rock ruled the 70s and 80s. It's an enjoyable slice of history, with a solid performance from Alan Rickman at the centre and lots of big name cameos, but the movie is shot and edited in an annoying comic book style that continually distances us from the characters and situations. 

I also caught The Book Thief (pictured), starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nelisse. It's a great story about the power of words set in Nazi Germany and told from a child's perspective, and the actors are good (particularly Watsona a the gruff but ultimately too-kindly adoptive mum). Sadly, the whole film is glossy and sweet, focussing on Oscar-bait dramatics and cute touches that undermine the horror of the situation. It feels like a magical fairy tale rather than a story set in a real time and place in which thousands were dying. Every day.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Critical Week: The Quarter Quell

The big screening this past week for UK critics was, of course, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second chapter in the saga, which ramps up the stakes considerably with its beefier story, potent cast and bigger effects budget. We were all pretty stunned afterwards - in a good way. Jude Law stars in Dom Hemingway, an offbeat British crime comedy-drama that starts extremely well but takes a mopey turn about halfway in. And I also caught up with Dallas Buyers Club, starring a gaunt Matthew McConaughey in the true story of a man subverting government and pharmaceutical inaction during the 1980s Aids epidemic - an involving, important story.

Further afield, the Italian comedy Tell No One is a warm and engaging coming-out story, while the Aussie drama Monster Pies is a much darker teen drama that also grapples with sexuality issues. And there were two docs: the colourful, fascinating Exposed features full-on burlesque artists, while the clever This Ain't California fictionalises the real story of skaters rebelling against East German control.

Shadows is on holiday over the next two weeks, but I plan to see some films while I'm in America. On my to-see list are Oldboy, Frozen, The Book Thief and Charlie Countryman, and I am also working on possible awards-consideration screenings of things like American Hustle, August: Osage County and others. Watch this space for updates!

In the mean time, below are the Shadows covers for the next two weeks...

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Critical Week: James Franco's eyes

Yes, James Franco goes evil for the new Jason Statham thriller Homefront, about a former government agent hiding out in a Louisiana bayou with his young daughter. Comments on the film are embargoed until it opens in a couple of weeks. Comments are also embargoed for Vince Vaughn's new film Delivery Man, Ken Scott's own remake of his 2011 French Canadian comedy-drama Starbuck, about a guy who discovers he has 533 kids due to a mix-up at a sperm bank.

I can however comment on Ridley Scott's new film The Counsellor, a slickly made thriller with an impenetrable story and characters, which leaves it oddly uninvolving. But Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz are especially good in a cast that includes Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. Free Birds is the Thanksgiving-themed animation that mixes wildly inane storytelling and some hilariously deranged humour.

A bit further off the beaten path, the British comedy-drama Breakfast With Jonny Wilkinson is a charming if somewhat silly farce about a small group of people watching the nailbiting final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup. And then there were three Jewish movies: Cupcakes is Eytan Fox's massively entertaining pastiche of Eurovision mania with a terrific cast and great songs; Fill the Void is an involving drama set within an Orthodox Jewish family; Let My People Go is an enjoyably wacky French comedy about the romantic problems of a young gay man and his particularly nutty Jewish family.

This coming week I only have a couple of screenings in the diary: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire screens to the UK press on Friday 8th November ahead of its world premiere in London on Monday night. And I have an awards-consideration screening of Matthew McConaughey's Dallas Buyers Club. I've also got a number of videos to watch before I fly out next Friday for two weeks with family and friends in Southern California, where of course I hope to catch up with a few other things....

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Requisite Blog Photo: The sky is falling!

Sunday morning press screenings surrounded by hyped-up children: never my preference (but they can be a lot of fun).

Extra credit: Spot the googly-eyes on me in that photo!

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Critical Week: This year's Help

UK critics finally got their first look at Lee Daniels' all-star epic drama The Butler this week. While it plays out essentially a Civil Rights-themed variation on Forrest Gump, it's actually a true story. And an unusually slushy film for Daniels. We had a lot more fun watching the sequel Thor: The Dark World, an oversized blockbuster that's so ridiculous that you can't help but smile. But the best movie this past week was Ryan Coogler's Sundance-winning Fruitvale Station, a shocking true drama skilfully filmed without pushing any sort of message other than this kind of thing must never happen again.

Off the beaten path, there was the surreal adventure thriller Escape From Tomorrow, a fiendishly clever film shot guerrilla-style at Disney theme parks; the British gypsy drama Traveller, which isn't well enough made to overcome its cliches; and the dark gay thriller Triple Crossed, which makes up for its low budget with a twisty plot and intriguing characters. And we also had three documentaries: the rousing Milius exploring filmmaker John Milius' astounding life and work; the harrowing Pandora's Promise looking into the truth about nuclear power an how it's probably the answer to climate change; and the witty but dry Rough Cut remaking scenes from a fake 1980s slasher horror.

This coming week we have Jude Law in Dom Hemingway, the animated adventure Free Birds, the British comedy Breakfast With Jonny Wilkinson, the political thriller Exposed, and the Israeli drama Fill the Void.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Critical Week: Chasing the rat pack

Post-London Film Festival, UK-based critics are now in catch-up mode with current releases, upcoming films and movies that are vying for our votes in year-end awards. Possibly the most starry movie screened to us this week was Last Vegas, featuring five Oscar winners: Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Kevin Kline (pictured above) and Mary Steenburgen. Comments are embargoed until next week on this one. We also finally got to see Harrison Ford's new movie Ender's Game, which opens this week and is a pretty thrilling ride for 12-year-old boys in the audience. It's very watchable for everyone else too.

The rest of the week was pretty eclectic. Idris Elba is impressive in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is a little too clearly designed to be the definitive movie about the great man. And his story is genuinely moving. Ralph Fiennes stars in and directs another biopic, The Invisible Woman, about Charles Dickens' secret romance. It's eye-catching but a bit dull and wilfully repressed. Two other films were the polar extreme: the insanely lively and colourful, but unimaginatively titled Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a lot of fun but a bit less satisfying than the first film. And the oddly gentle Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is packed with rude humour and raucous pranks, then surprises us with its sentimentality.

This coming week we will see the next Marvel movie, Thor: The Dark World, the animated adventure Free Birds, Lee Daniels' presidential drama The Butler, the Israeli comedy Cupcakes, the filmmaker doc Milius, and the nuclear power doc Pandora's Promise. And for awards consideration we have Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor and the Sundance winner Fruitvale Station. Among others....

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Sunday, 20 October 2013

LFF 11: That's a wrap

And so the 57th London Film Festival comes to a close with the world premiere of Saving Mr Banks, attended by Colin Farrell, Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks and Ruth Wilson - who earlier in the day gave one of the more hilarious press conferences I've attended. 

The festival was an odd one this year: it's just as un-festive as always, but there was controversy as this year for the first time they charged journalists a whopping £36 for accreditation (especially painful for freelancers, as it comes out of our pay) without giving us anything more. There weren't even goodie bags this year, for the first time in the 18 years I have covered this festival. But then this isn't a proper premiere festival; aside from tonight's closing film, there were no major world premieres. Instead, this is a catch-up event, presenting the best of the past year's festivals, including the winners of Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and Venice. So it's a great programme for film fans who struggle to catch up with these high-profile arthouse titles. It'll certainly always be a highlight of my cinematic year, fee or no fee.

So here are three more highlights - including the closing film, the full list of award winners and my 10 favourite films of the festival (linked to reviews). I have a backlog of about 8 films this year that still need to be written up. That's not too bad actually...

Saving Mr Banks
dir John Lee Hancock; with Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks 13/UK ****
After veering dangerously close to becoming an overproduced slush-fest, this film digs deeper and draws us in. This is mainly thanks to a remarkably detailed script and especially sharp performances from Thompson and Hanks. Yes, the Disney spirit (and marketing machine) nearly swamps it, but the film remains lively, moving and thoroughly entertaining... FULL REVIEW >

Gare du Nord 
dir Claire Simon; with Nicole Garcia, Reda Kateb 13/Fr ***
As an exploration of the variety of life seen in a single railway station, this film has certain value for people-watchers. But its narrative strands are only barely developed, and it overstays its welcome when it tries to stir in some twisty plotting and magical realism... FULL REVIEW >

dir Michalis Konstantatos; with Nicholas Vlachakis, Eleftheria Komi 13/GR ***.
Fans of Dogtooth, Attenberg and Alps will be intrigued by this similarly styled Greek drama, which is even more elusive than those relentlessly obtuse films. But patience is paid off as the seemingly unrelated scenes begin to coalesce into something that's genuinely horrific. And when it's over, the film leaves us pondering some pretty big issues... FULL REVIEW >

  • Best Film: IDA
  • Doc (Grierson Award): MY FATHERS, MY MOTHER AND ME
  • First Feature (Sutherland Award):  ILO ILO
  • British Newcomer:  Jonathan Asser (STARRED UP)
  • BFI Fellowship: Christopher Lee

Saturday, 19 October 2013

LFF 10: I'll drink to that

Another big day at the 57th London Film Festival, with red carpet glamour including Anna Kendrick and Joe Swanberg with their film Drinking Buddies (above). It was also the night for the awards ceremony, and the big winner was Pawel Pawlikowski's excellent Ida, which took the best film prize. Here are some film highlights today...

Drinking Buddies 
dir Joe Swanberg; with Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson 13/US ***. 
As an exploration of a specific point in life, this film is authentic and observant. But it has a tendency to preach at us, overdramatising issues rather than letting them play out organically. At least the cast keeps it raw, creating recognisably realistic characters we can identify with... FULL REVIEW >

dir Adam Wimpenny; with Ed Stoppard, Sophia Myles 13/UK ***. 
While playing with every cliche in the haunted house genre, director Wimpenny and writer Hill find an inventive twist in the tale. The key influence seems to be The Shining, with a small family menaced by strange goings-on in an isolated, over-large house... FULL REVIEW >

Cutie and the Boxer 
dir Zachary Heinzerling; with Noriko Shinohara, Ushio Shinohara 13/US ***. 
While this documentary sets out to explore the colourful life of offbeat husband and wife New York artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, it finds its strongest resonance in its observations about marriage itself. It's fascinating to watch their creative processes, especially the long-overlooked Noriko. And their banter is amusing. But it's what holds these opposites together that gets under our skin... [review coming soon]

dir Amat Escalante; with Armando Espitia, Andrea Vergara 13/Mex **** 
This rather grim Mexican drama depicts how the tentacles of the drug trade can irreversibly change innocents who get too close to the danger. With moments of staggeringly awful violence and brutality set against an everyday vibe, this clever and skilfully made film is deeply unnerving... FULL REVIEW >

It's All So Quiet 
dir Nanouk Leopold; with Jeroen Willems, Henri Garcin 13/Ned ***.
The title of this Dutch drama is almost annoyingly accurate: this is a sleepy, almost silent drama about people who are so repressed that it's the height of enlightenment when they crack the hint of a smile. But the film's beautifully observed by writer-director Leopold and actors who have to convey the characters' feelings without many words... FULL REVIEW >

Friday, 18 October 2013

LFF 9: Facing the fans

As the final weekend of the 57th London Film Festival gets underway, a raft of glamorous red carpets and parties were held on Friday night. At the Peccadillo party, I chatted with the directors of Salvo, and the director and stars of Stranger by the Lake. Meanwhile in Leicester Square, Steve McQueen, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor smiled for the camera (above left) at the festival premiere of their film 12 Years a Slave, while Tom Hardy (above right) was on hand to sign autographs at the screening of his new one-man thriller Locke. All of those and two others are among my highlights of the day, including an amazing archival restoration that was performed last night with a live orchestral accompaniment...

12 Years a Slave 
dir Steve McQueen; with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender 13/US ****. 
Based on a chilling true story, this film is much more than an account of slavery in America: it's an exploration of the human urge to control and enslave people. And with fearlessly intense performances and director McQueen's artful eye, we are immersed in the story completely... FULL REVIEW >

dir Steven Knight; with Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman 13/UK *** 
Essentially a one man show, this pseudo-thriller explores the fallout from a single moment of weakness as our hero tries to salvage his marriage, family and career. The pushy set-up is a little hard to believe, but the film is held together by a terrific performance from Hardy as an essentially good guy who has reached his personal Armageddon... FULL REVIEW >

Stranger by the Lake 
dir Alain Guiraudie; with Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou 13/Fr ****. 
What starts out as a subtle drama exploring male sexuality quietly shifts into a Hitchcockian thriller, with big questions about the tension between lust and morality. Set in a gay cruising site at a naturist beach, the film isn't for the faint of heart. But its themes are bigger than the controversial setting... FULL REVIEW >

dir Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza; with Saleh Bakri, Sara Serraiocco 13/It ***. 
With almost no dialog to speak of, this gritty Italian thriller is relentlessly artful, using strikingly skilful photography and a vividly detailed sound mix to tell a story about a heartless young man who has a sudden pang of conscience... FULL REVIEW >

Gone Too Far!
dir Destiny Ekaragha; with Malachi Kirby, OC Ukeje 13/UK ***.
With a strong blast of local humour, this comedy captures the ethnic mix of a South London community using riotous slapstick, knowing dialog and rather nutty characters. It's far too silly to have a proper kick to it, but it's bright and cheeky, and the script touches on some big issues without ever getting heavy about them... [review coming soon]

The Epic of Everest 
dir Captain John Noel with George Mallory, Andrew Irvine 24/UK 1h27 ***** 
In documenting the third expedition up Everest, filmmaker Noel demonstrates a staggering amount of stamina as well as groundbreaking technical and artistic skills. Watching this 1924 film is a mystical experience, revealing the big mountain in ways no one as ever done since. And this digital restoration makes it essential viewing... FULL REVIEW >

Thursday, 17 October 2013

LFF 8: Hello ladies

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was on hand at the 57th London Film Festival this week to present his writing-directing debut Don Jon, looking every bit the dude on the red carpet that his movie requires. There's definitely a sense that the festival is winding down, as film journalists are starting to wake up from their zombie-like states with the thought that they may get to sleep in a few days. Here are some more highlights...

Don Jon 
dir Joseph Gordon-Levitt; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson 13/US **** 
Gordon-Levitt catches us off-guard with this remarkably assured writing-directing debut, which also gives him a chance to go against type as an actor. It's a warm and raucous comedy that wins us over as it reveals the soft side of a dedicated hard-man... FULL REVIEW >

Kill Your Darlings 
dir John Krokidas; with Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan 13/US ***.
Based on a shocking true story about celebrities before they were famous, this dark drama is strikingly written, directed and acted to recount a series of unnerving events while evoking a mood that would later grow into a movement. It's a clever approach to a complex group of artists, even if it feels somewhat mannered... FULL REVIEW >

dir Peter Landesman with Zac Efron, James Badge Dale 13/US **.
With a documentary sense of detail, this film recounts JFK's assassination from a variety of previously unseen angles. It's skilfully made but lacks any sense of focus that might draw us in. There isn't a single well-developed character, and it oddly doesn't even centre on the hospital that gives the film its name... FULL REVIEW >

Blue Is the Warmest Colour 
dir Abdellatif Kechiche; with Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux 13/Fr ****. 
Food, art and sex are the three elements of life in this evocative French drama, which takes a generous three hours to tell its story. This is an almost unnervingly honest film that holds us in rapt attention, shaking us even if we have nothing in common with the characters. Because it's about something much deeper than what's on screen... FULL REVIEW >

dir John Curran; with Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver 13/Aus *** 
As an account of an incredible journey, this film can't help but hold our interest, especially when the central figure is so beautifully played. But director Curran opts for glossy warmth rather than expansive nature, which leaves it feeling more like a movie and less like real life. [review coming soon]

dir Sebastian Lelio; with Paulina Garcia, Sergio Hernandez 13/Chl **** 
This Chilean comedy-drama may have a rather meandering narrative, but it's packed with memorable scenes that bring its characters vividly to life. It's also a rare film that centres on a 50-something woman trying to make the most of life on her own terms... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

LFF 7: True stories

It was duelling red carpets on Leicester Square tonight at the 57th London Film Festival, as one side hosted Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (pictured) for Philomena while across the square fans and paparazzi were lined up for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his film Don Jon. Yes, another day of too many films and lots of rain. I'm glad there are only four days to go. More highlights...

dir Stephen Frears; with Judi Dench, Steve Coogan 13/UK ****
A shameless crowd-pleaser, this warmly engaging drama is based on a remarkable true story. And it also offers Dench and Coogan the chance to create complex, involving characters we can identify with. The film sometimes feels harshly edited, zipping through serious scenes with an emphasis on sentimentality. But it still wins us over. FULL REVIEW >

The Past 
dir Asghar Farhadi; with Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim 13/Fr **** 
Farhadi brings his surgically precise filmmaking to Paris with an interpersonal drama that, like A Separation, fills the screen with almost frighteningly complex characters who are struggling to get on with their lives together. Or apart, for that matter. Farhadi isn't one to let old wounds heal slowly; he'd rather rip off the plaster and pick away the scab FULL REVIEW >

The Armstrong Lie 
dir Alex Gibney; with Lance Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey 13/US ***. 
Gibney takes his usual detailed approach to this documentary about Lance Armstrong's stellar cycling career and notorious fall from grace. But it's an oddly assembled hybrid, as much of the material was shot for a very different doc about his comeback in 2009. And wile it's great footage, it throws the film somewhat off-balance. FULL REVIEW >

We Are the Best! 
dir-scr Lukas Moodysson with Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin 13/Swe **** 
After dipping into more experimental filmmaking, Moodysson returns to the lively improvisational style of Show Me Love and Together. He coaxes energetic, utterly charming performances from his three pre-teen leads, while exploring youthful rebellion from a cleverly askance angle FULL REVIEW >

Floating Skyscrapers 
dir Tomasz Wasilewski; with Mateusz Banasiuk, Marta Nieradkiewicz 13/Pol ****
Exploring a very dark side of Polish society, which echoes in many parts of the world, this drama is compelling and involving. As well as rather overwhelmingly bleak. But it's so beautifully shot and edited, with sharply naturalistic performances, that we can't help but be drawn in.

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K
Yes, I also caught some non-LFF movies this past week, including: the Arnie/Sly action thriller Escape Plan, Danny Dyer in the crime drama Vendetta, Sheridan Smith in the girly comedy Powder Room, the British mystery-spoof World of Hurt, and the arty American drama Five Dances. None of them were great (to put it mildly), but they were a nice contrast to the intensity of the festival films.

Coming this next week outside the LFF: the comedy Last Vegas, the biopic Mandela, the Dickens drama The Invisible Woman and the sequel Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. Among other things...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

LLF 6: That scene-steaing cat

The big red carpet premiere tonight at the 57th London Film Festival was for the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, attended by Joel & Ethan Coen, Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman. But as far as I know, the film's feline scene-stealers weren't in attendance. Here are six more highlights...

Inside Llewyn Davis 
dir Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; with Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan 13/US **** 
In a whimsical mood, the Coens explore a musical movement through the eyes of someone who thinks he should cut his losses and run. On the other hand, he has nothing left to lose. Anchored by a hugely engaging performance by Isaac, the film is a meandering odyssey that's packed with great ideas and wonderful characters, leaving us smiling rather than thinking... FULL REVIEW >

Night Moves 
dir Kelly Reichardt; with Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning 13/US ***. 
Reichardt takes on eco-terrorism with her usual askance, original approach to filmmaking, avoiding big thrills for introspective drama and provocative moral dilemmas. Every layer of this film is subtle, which is remarkable when such a hot-potato topic is involved. But it's also a bit sleepy... FULL REVIEW >

Tom at the Farm 
dir Xavier Dolan; with Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal 13/Can **** 
Dolan once again impresses with his robust filmmaking style, this time with a creepy twist on the Hitchcockian thriller. In addition to creating vivid, enticing characters, he keeps the atmosphere warm and witty, so we're not sure whether the next scene will make us laugh or chill us to the bone... FULL REVIEW >

Afternoon Delight 
dir Jill Soloway; with Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple 13/US ***. 
A comedy that travels to some startlingly dark, bleak places, this film takes an intriguingly messy look at sexuality and relationships. With solid performances, there are no easy resolutions here, as the characters essentially have to work out their own issues in order to get on with each other... FULL REVIEW >

Short Term 12 
dir-scr Destin Daniel Cretton; with Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr 13/US **** 
With documentary-style realism, filmmaker Cretton offers a bracingly honest exploration of the fallout from child abuse. But even though the film visits some extremely dark corners, it remains clear-eyed and hopeful about the future. Which helps us engage as we get deeply involved with the characters... FULL REVIEW >

The Last Impressario 
dir Gracie Otto; with Michael White, Lyndall Hobbs 13/UK **** 
This lively, engaging documentary profiles a dying breed. No, this kind of independent producer doesn't exist in the days of the multinational entertainment industry. But Michael White has changed the face of the arts with his resolutely progressive approach to projects. This hasn't made him rich, but he has scores of amazing famous friends... FULL REVIEW >

Monday, 14 October 2013

LFF 5: Ready for labour

Kate Winslet and her rather large baby bump braved the chilly red carpet tonight in Leicester Square for the UK premiere of her film Labor Day at the 57th London Film Festival. She was joined by costar Josh Brolin and writer-director Jason Reitman. And yes, the city is crawling with cinema celebrities at the moment. In addition to the Labor Day junket, I also attended a small press conference today for The Family (not showing at LFF) with Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dianna Agron. But then, everyone seems to be in London at the moment. More festival highlights...

Labor Day 
dir Jason Reitman; with Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin 13/US ***
While this drama starts off well, with another remarkably layered performance from Winslet and a growing sense of uneasy tension, it slowly transforms itself into a Nicholas Sparks-style sappy romance along the way. To say this is frustrating is an understatement, and by the time we make it to a series of deeply schmalzy epilogues, we wonder what happened to the Reitman of Up in the Air or Young Adult... [review coming soon]

Like Father, Like Son 
dir Hirokazu Kore-eda; with Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono 13/Jpn ****. 
Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda is an expert at telling sentimental stories in a way that's genuinely involving but never remotely sappy. By catching tiny details in characters who are cleverly underplayed by the cast, he draws us into the events in an uncanny way that's utterly disarming. And wonderful... FULL REVIEW >

dir Pawel Pawlikowski; with Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza 13/Pol **** 
With pristine black and white photography and beautifully textured performances, this simple story overflows with big ideas about history and faith. And since the two central characters are so beautifully written and played, they are able to engage us on layers that go much deeper than we expect... [review coming soon]

The Double
dir Richard Ayoade; with Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska 13/UK *** 
Dostoevsky's novella is adapted into a Gilliamesque black comedy that's packed with visual invention but never quite grabs hold narratively. Still, the cast is so good that we willingly go along with them on a surreal odyssey about a young man struggling to make sense of his own identity. And the surprise-packed cast is a lot of fun... [review coming soon]

The Selfish Giant
dir-scr Clio Barnard; with Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas 13/UK **** 
After the brilliantly inventive drama-doc The Arbor, it's unsurprising to find that Barnard takes an original approach to a kids' story. This film was inspired by the Oscar Wilde tale, and the connections are askance at best. But there's such an intense blast of realism that it's utterly gripping, right to the shattering conclusion... FULL REVIEW >

Sunday, 13 October 2013

LFF 4: Meet the filmmakers

I've reached that point in the London Film Festival when my backlog of reviews begins to swell, and my lack of sleep begins to affect my ability to carry on a coherent conversation. But it's been a good weekend of movies, wrapped up with Pawel Pawlikowski (above with festival director Claire Stewart, photo by me on the front row) presenting his gorgeous new film Ida, one of my favourites so far. The stars and filmmakers were out in force over the weekend, enjoying the crisp sunshine on Saturday and the gloomy rainshowers on Sunday. Here are some more highlights...

All Is Lost 
dir JC Chandor; with Robert Redford 13/US ***.
Shot with an astounding attention to detail, this film puts us right in the middle of a life-or-death situation with its only character, a sailor whose boat founders in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But Chandor's remarkable skill as a director is slightly undone by a plot that piles on too many disasters... FULL REVIEW >

Enough Said 
dir-scr Nicole Holofcener; with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini13/US ****
With her usual style of off-handed honesty, writer-director Holofcener gives the rom-com formula a welcome grown-up twist. And even if the story is somewhat simple, the characters bring out layers of insight in every scene. It's smart and often very funny, with brittle, flawed people we can easily identify with... FULL REVIEW >

The Zero Theorem 
dir Terry Gilliam; with Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry 13/Rom *** 
Terry Gilliam updates the look and feel of Brazil to the digital age with this lively and raucously imaginative adventure-drama. So it's a shame that the plot runs out of steam about halfway through, leaving us unable to piece together the big ideas that flood through every corner of the script... FULL REVIEW >

Closed Curtain 
dir Jafar Panahi, Kambuzia Partovi; with Kambuzia Partovi, Maryam Moqadam 13/Irn *** 
Banned filmmaker Panahi continues to work by making movies with other filmmakers and distributing them outside Iran. Packed with clever ideas, this feels more like an expression of his frustration than a fully formed feature. After an intriguingly provocative first half, it turns surreal and far too metaphorical... FULL REVIEW >

dir Matt Wolf; with Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw 13/US **. 
An odd hybrid, this film mixes authentic newsreel footage with fictional re-creations to explore the concept of the teenager, which didn't exist before World War II. But ultimately the film merely traces American and European history from 1904 to 1945, only offering a flash of insight in its final moment... FULL REVIEW >

Saturday, 12 October 2013

LFF 3: London goes starry

The red carpet parade continues this weekend at the 57th London Film Festival. Running the gauntlet tonight at the festival are Julia Jouis-Dreyfus and Nicole Holofcener with their film Enough Said; Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige and Richard Ayoade with The Double; and Charlie Cox, Jodie Whittaker and Christian Cooke with Hello Carter; plus Japanese maestro Hirokazu Kore-eda, French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch and Norwegian actor Pal Sverre-Hagen (of Oscar-nominee Kon-Tiki, below). Here are some of today's film highlights...

Starred Up
dir David Mackenzie; with Jack O'Connell (pictured), Ben Mendelsohn 13/UK ***.
Even though this film deploys just about every cliche in the prison-thriller genre, it continually twists its story in more personal directions, which allows the fine cast to create vividly intense characters. So although the plot has some nagging holes in it, we are gripped to the action unfolding on-screen... [review coming soon]

dir Alexander Payne; with Bruce Dern, Will Forte 13/US ****
Harking back to his own About Schmidt as well as David Lynch's The Straight Story, Payne gently explores Middle America with equal doses of spiky observational wit and soft-hearted sentiment. With bristlingly detailed performances, the film worms its way under our skin as it reveals some awkward truths about family connections... [review coming soon]

Camille Claudel: 1915
dir Bruno Dumont; with Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent 13/Fr ****
Bruno Dumont continues his provocative exploration of religion in society with this true story, which plays out like a sequel to the 1988 biopic. Like the film itself, Binoche plays the title role in a stripped down, unadorned way that forces us to listen to her words and look beneath the surface... [review coming soon]

Hello Carter
dir Anthony Wilcox; with Charlie Cox, Jodie Whittaker 13/UK **
With its charming tone and a likeable cast, this warm British comedy draws us into a gentle story about a young guy trying to get his life back in track. But about halfway in the script pivots suddenly into into implausibility, leaving the characters looking so idiotic that we cease to care what happens to them... [review coming soon]

dir Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg; with Pal Sverre-Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen 12/Nor ***.
The astonishing story of a man who risked his life to prove a scientific theory, this biopic has a strong sense of passion and tenacity that makes it utterly riveting. It's also a staggeringly well-made film, grounded both in the vivid characters and a skilful attention to detail... FULL REVIEW >

Friday, 11 October 2013

LFF 2: Live in the now

The 57th London Film Festival continues at venues all around the city, plus red carpet events in Leicester Square tonight, as filmmakers and stars brave the chilly drizzle. Here are some highlights...

The Spectacular Now
dir James Ponsoldt;  with Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley 13/US ****
Credit to these filmmakers for creating an adolescent comedy-drama that feels bracingly raw and honest. And their willingness to go places most movies shy away from gives the actors a chance to create fresh characters who are engaging even when they do stupid teenager things... [full review to come]

dir Anne Fontaine; with Naomi Watts, Robin Wright 13/Aus ***.
Infused with a sense of sun-kissed physicality, this drama has a provocative premise that would be hard to take if it weren't shot so beautifully and played with such offhanded authenticity by the solid cast. And despite the Australian surf-community setting, the film has a refreshingly grown-up European sensibility... FULL REVIEW >

Mystery Road
dir Ivan Sen; with Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving 13/Aus ***.
Writer-director Sen captures a vivid sense of life in the Australian Outback in this rural Wild West-style drama. And he cleverly undermines the film's thriller-like plot with low-key pacing and a refusal to indulge in genre cliches. The problem is that this makes the film almost inert, as it never generates even a hint of suspense... [full review to come]

Child's Pose
dir Calin Peter Netzer with Luminita Gheorghiu, Bogdan Dumitrache 13/Rom ***.
Romanian filmmaker Netzer takes a strikingly intimate look at the layers of control within families and society. And while some of the details are a little heavy-handed, witty touches and rippingly honest acting hold our attention. As does the unusually intimate, urgent filmmaking... [full review to come]

The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies
dir Wiktor Ericsson; with Joseph Sarno, Peggy Steffans Sarno 13/Swe ***.
Leave it to a Swedish filmmaker to find the important social relevance in the 1960s sexploitation movies of the legendary Joseph Sarno! But that's exactly what this documentary manages to do while exploring the filmmaker's lengthy career, his enduring marriage and the history of cinema itself since the 1960s... [full review to come]

Thursday, 10 October 2013

LFF 1: Aye aye, captain!

The 57th London Film Festival kicked off last night with the Leicester Square premiere of Captain Phillips, and star Tom Hanks braved the suddenly chilly evening with his wife Rita Wilson as well as director Paul Greengrass and a range of celebrities, from Tom Ford to Terry Gilliam. Tonight it was Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuaron's turn to present Gravity. Here are some highlights from the first day...

Captain Phillips
dir Paul Greengrass; with Tom Hanks, Barkhi Abdi 13/US *****
Coming straight from the headlines and adapted with a documentary-style attention to detail, this fiercely well-crafted thriller would be impossible to believe if it weren't true. And even though we know the end of the story, this film generates so much nerve-shredding suspense that we feel like we need to be debriefed afterwards... FULL REVIEW >

dir Alfonso Cuaron; with Sandra Bullock, George Clooney 13/US ****
Cuaron takes us on a 91-minute thrill ride deploying cutting-edge cinema technology and a harrowing performance from Sandra Bullock to root us in our seats. So even if the plot is rather contrived, the film looks so amazing that we barely breathe as we're hurled here and there just on the cusp of Earth's atmosphere... [full review coming soon]

As I Lay Dying
dir James Franco; with James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson 13/US ***
For his first narrative feature as a director, Franco ambitiously adapts William Faulkner's notoriously grim novel. And what a surprise: the film is relentlessly downbeat, and pretty dull too. Franco may prove that he has a fresh visual eye, but the highly emotive story is oddly uninvolving... FULL REVIEW >

Jeune & Jolie
dir Francois Ozon; with Marine Vacth, Geraldine Pailhas 13/Fr ****
Ozon explores a transgressive side of sexuality in this internalised drama about a teen prostitute. But this isn't the usual trip to the seedy low-life: these are well-off people who seem balanced and intelligent. And it's tricky for us to admit that this is just as realistic as the grimier depictions we see in preachier films... FULL REVIEW >

The Congress
dir Ari Folman; with Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel 13/Isr ***.
A film of two halves, this brain-bending drama/thriller is either a provocative exploration of identity in an increasingly digital age or an indulgent visual kaleidoscope that only the filmmaker can understand. Either way, it's bracingly original and often thrilling to watch... FULL REVIEW >

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Critical Week: She's not human

I'm not feeling massively human myself after such a busy week. The 21st Raindance Film Festival came to a close Sunday night with the creepy British thriller The Machine (pictured), which also won the top prize for best UK feature. Exploring artificial intelligence with an emotional edge, the film features sharp performances and some genuinely unnerving touches. Also at Raindance, I caught up with the Argentine comedy The Critic, which touched a few nerves in its engaging, cleverly told tale of a film critic's messy life.

I saw a couple of independent films outside Raindance: Who Needs Enemies is a low-budget London crime thriller that takes a clever approach to the genre and has a superb cast, but doesn't quite come together. And the comedy-documentary Seduced & Abandoned is a joy for movie fans, as Alec Baldwin and James Toback hit Cannes to sell their Iraq-set remake Last Tango in Tikrit. Pointed and very funny, it's packed with big-name cameos including Bertolucci himself, as well as surprisingly adept raconteur Ryan Gosling. And just last night I attended a massive Ender's Game teaser event with Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld and Ben Kingsley in attendance, but we'll have to wait to actually see the movie.

In continuing press screenings for the 57th London Film Festival, which opens Wednesday night, we caught up with Robert Redford's staggeringly well-made but somewhat over-done solo thriller All Is Lost; the amazing Robin Wright as a version of herself in Ari Folman's striking but confusing live-action/animated The Congress; the warm but implausible Brit-com Hello Carter with the likeable Charlie Cox, Christian Cooke and Jodie Whittaker; the provocative French drama Stranger by the Lake, which morphs from a quiet drama into a Hitcockian freakout on a gay-naturist beach; and the documentary Teenage, mixing terrific archive footage along with matching faked scenes that kind of undermine the entire point.

This coming week is pretty much devoted to the LFF with screenings of: Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, Alexander Payne's Nebraska, Jason Reitman's Labor Day, Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem, Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm, Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915, Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best, David Mackenzie's Starred Up, Hong Sangsoo's Haewon, the Berlinale winner Child's Pose, and the sexploitation doc The Sarnos. There's also a screening of two London movies: the crime thriller Vendetta and the comedy World of Hurt. Whew.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Critical Week: Cabin fever

Things always get a bit surreal for critics this time of year, as our usual press screenings are augmented by Raindance (25 Sep-6 Oct) and press screenings for the London Film Festival (9-20 Oct)....

At 21st Raindance Film Festival: Outpost 11 (pictured) is a superbly stylised British thriller set in a parallel steampunk Cold War reality. Claustrophobic and unnerving, it's seriously inventive, and deserves a proper release. Jake Squared is a self-indulgent trawl through a filmmaker's own middle-age angst, with a terrific cast including Elias Koteas, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Virginia Madsen and Mike Vogel. But it's far too gimmicky to work. Dirtymoney is a spin on the usual London crime drama, with a much more introspective approach and a strong central performance from Anthony Welsh. And Whoops! is a pitch-black comedy about an accidental serial killer. Strong characters make up for the goofy plot.

In advance of the 57th London Film Festival (more comments to come): The festival's opening film Captain Phillips is easily one of my best of the year. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon is absolutely hilarious. The Spectacular Now is one of the most realistic teen movies we've seen. Afternoon Delight is a sharp comedy that goes to some very bleak places. Francois Ozon's Jeune & Jolie explores the very touchy topic of teen prostitution from an offbeat perspective that forces us to think. Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie uses the cyclist's 2009 comeback attempt to frame a detailed story of doping and deception. The British thriller Blackwood adds a clever twist to the ghost horror genre. And the Polish drama Floating Skyscrapers tackles machismo and homophobia from a startling angle.

Meanwhile: We had a very late press screening for the disappointing online-casino thriller Runner Runner, starring Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and an underused Gemma Arterton. And I also caught up with the schlocker Sharknado before its UK release next week: funniest bad movie ever!

This coming week, I have at least two Raindance movies: the Latin drama The Critic and the British comedy Convenience. LFF screenings include Robert Redford in All Is Lost, the comedy Drinking Buddies, the British rom-com Hello Carter, the animated/live-action hybrid The Congress, Bernard Rose's SX_Tape, the French drama Stranger by the Lake and the doc Teenage. And for everyday movies, we have the Stallone-Schwarzenegger thriller Escape Plan, the horror remake We Are What We Are and the Alec Baldwin/James Toback doc Seduced & Abandoned.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Critical Week: Riding the rails

London critics got to see Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in the true story The Railway Man this past week - a deeply relevant, perhaps too-emotional drama about reconciliation and understanding. Another highlight was Denis Villeneuve's haunting, exquisitely well-made Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as men who react very differently to a child kidnapping. We also had a chance to see the fractured JFK assassination drama Parkland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in the smart and mature rom-com Enough Said and DeNiro and Pfeiffer going all Besson on us in The Family.

Screenings began this week for the upcoming 57th London Film Festival. The first two were James Franco's bleakly artful but rather off-putting Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying and the surehanded but extremely low-key Aussie thriller Mystery Road. More on those soon. We also saw the sequel to an animated film we'd forgotten about, the goofy but engaging The Reef 2: High Tide, the super-pretentious arthouse hit Leviathan, and the talky, intriguing Argentine gay drama Solo.

This coming week we'll catch up with Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck in Runner Runner, Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now, Sheridan Smith in The Powder Room, Francois Ozon's Jeune et Jolie, the British immigration drama Leave to Remain, the quirky festival film Floating Skyscrapers and Alex Gibney's doc The Armstrong Lie. We were also supposed to see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, but the distributor has uninvited most critics from the press screening for some reason. Finally, the Raindance Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday and runs until 6th October in Piccadilly. Updates to come!

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Critical Week: Going gaga

Yes, London critics were treated to the B-movie spoof Machete Kills this past week. The film essentially places Danny Trejo amid a flurry of wacky star gags including Lady Gaga, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Sofia Vergara, Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jessica Alba, Amber Heard, Vanessa Hudgens and so on. At least they all look like they had fun. We also finally got a look at Naomi Watts as Diana in a film that's sure to spark snide criticism even though it's not actually that awful. It's not that good either. Much better, but equally likely to receive cynical reviews due to its open-handed sentimentality, is Philomena. Based on an extraordinary true story, the film features awards-attention performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

A little off the beaten path, we also had the gritty, especially well-made care-home drama Short Term 12 with Brie Larson, the strained Scottish rom-com Not Another Happy Ending with Karen Gillan, the cleverly constructed mock-doc The Conspiracy, and the eye-opening athletics doping doc 9.79*.

This coming week, we'll be watching Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in The Railway Man, James Gandolfini and Julia Louis Dreyfus in Enough Said, Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Family, Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden in Parkland, the festival winner Leviathan and the animated sequel The Reef 2: High Tide.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Critical Week: Summer's last hurrah

London had a flurry of hot summery sunshine last week before the much cooler weekend arrived with rainstorms and more typically chilly autumnal weather. All hope isn't gone for a bit more warmth, but the effect is likely to be pretty dramatic at the box office! Meanwhile, I caught up with the summery Adore, a beach-town drama from Australia starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as lifelong friends who fall for each others' sons (Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville). It's a strikingly grown-up, startlingly involving movie by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine.

Not only did it open in the US last week, but it features in the line-up for the forthcoming 57th London Film Festival, which was announced last week at a gala launch event attended by Paul Greengrass, director of the opening night film Captain Phillips. The LFF is a festival of festival, with no significant world premieres but lots of amazing movies from other festivals. It runs 9-20 October, but press screenings begin on 23 September.

Other films viewed by UK press last week include: 42, a hugely involving biopic about groundbreaking baseball icon Jackie Robinson; R.I.P.D., a derivative and unfunny ghostly action-comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges; Like Father Like Son, a masterful Japanese drama about parenthood from the gifted Hirokazu Kore-eda;  Cal, a darkly dramatic sequel to the Bristol gang-drama Shank; The Broken Circle Breakdown, a gorgeously made and bleakly emotional Belgian drama infused with bluegrass music; and Fire in the Blood, an urgently important documentary about the injustices of Big Pharma when dealing with the global impact of Aids. I also caught up with two stunning restorations: the trippy 1969 ancient Rome odyssey Fellini-Satyricon and the magisterial 1924 expedition doc The Epic of Everest - watching each of these was like having a mystical experience. Very different ones, I should add.

This coming week, we have screenings of: Naomi Watts in the already notorious Diana biopic, Anna Kendrick in the comedy Drinking Buddies, the Danny Trejo in the B-movie sequel Machete Kills, Brie Larson in the acclaimed drama Short Term 12, the Glasgow rom-com Not Another Happy Ending, the British thriller Harrigan, the thriller The Conspiracy, and a restoration of Herzog/Kinski's gonzo classic Nosferatu.