Monday, 24 February 2014

Critical Week: Send up a flare

This past week, the British Film Institute staged its annual programme launch event for the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, which kicks off its 28th edition on March 20th. But the big news this year was that the festival is changing its name to BFI Flare. The launch party was great fun, as always, attended by filmmakers, journalists and industry bods who become like a family this time of year.

As for screenings, we had Kevin Hart and Ice Cube in the occasionally entertaining action comedy Ride Along, Liam Hemsworth in the preposterous but sleek thriller Paranoia, the cleverly freaky indie revenge drama Blue Ruin, Del Shores' astute filmed play Southern Baptist Sissies, the marriage documentary 112 Weddings and the Canadian digital series Coming Out, watched in one go. I also saw a few films that will be at BFI Flare next month.

This coming week I will catch up just in time with three Oscar nominees: Hayao Miyazaki's acclaimed animated epic The Wind Rises and the buzzy docs 20 Feet From Stardom and Dirty Wars. (This leaves only one Oscar-nominated feature I won't have seen on Sunday night: foreign-language nominee Omar.) Also this week, we have the sequel 300: Rise of an Empire, the animated Wrinkles and three more docs: Bridegroom, Next Goal Wins and Errol Morris' The Unknown Known.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Critical Week: Caught in the act

This week's big press screening in London was for Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won a top award at Berlin last weekend and is far and away my favourite film of 2014 to date. It may only be February, but this is Anderson's most accomplished film yet, with a terrific ensemble including Ralph Fiennes and promising newcomer Tony Revolori and a story that's funny, scary and ultimately moving. Another pleasant discovery was Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, a dreamy horror movie starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien devouring men in Scotland - it's simply stunning.

The only other A-list film was much more problematic: A New York Winter's Tale (original title Winter's Tale) stars Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay and Russell Crowe in a magical romance that's infused with brutal violence. This week we also saw the low-key but inventive British black comedy 8 Minutes Idle, the uneven and undercooked German thriller The Passenger and the utterly charming doc A Story of Children and Film. And we saw another Berlinale entry, the oddly dull French biopic Yves Saint Laurent, worth seeing for the performances and, of course, super-stylish production design.

Sunday night in London, the British Academy Film Awards - better known as the Baftas - were held in the Royal Opera House, spreading out the trophies among the nominated films. 12 Years a Slave won best film and actor, but Gravity picked up six awards including British film and director. The host for the evening was Stephen Fry, who pretty much just recycled his knowing schtick from eight previous turns as host. It's time for fresh blood. The red carpet was awash in glamour, with Lupita Nyong'o, Amy Adams and Helen Mirren taking the fashion prizes. Mirren was the classiest winner, giving a witty, erudite speech as she accepted her Bafta Fellowship.

Screenings coming this week include the comedies Hairbrained and Southern Baptist Sissies, the offbeat Odd Thomas, the festival film Blue Ruin and something called 112 Weddings. I'm also in the midst of screenings for the upcoming London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival - full coverage of those films next month.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Critical Week: But is it art?

The week's big film was George Clooney's The Monuments Men, which quickly answered questions about why its release was shifted outside awards contention and why it wasn't screened for the press until just a few days before release: it's only ok. The story it tells is certainly essential, but it's mainly watchable because the strong cast inserts engaging detail into thinly written characters. Speaking of whom, the gang descended on London for Tuesday's press junket and premiere: Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Dmitri Leonidas, plus author Robert Edsel and surviving Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger. Alas, no Cate Blanchett or Hugh Bonneville.

Another very late screening was for the remake of RoboCop, screened the night before it opened. It's not half bad, thanks to a solid performance from Gary Oldman. There was also the tepid remake of another 1980s movie, the romance Endless Love. And we also caught up with Craig Fairbrass in the rather clunky LA thriller The Outsider as well as the latest in Peccadillo's shorts collections, Boys on Film 11: We Are Animals. But the film of the week, hands down, was The Lego Movie, a hilariously inventive animated romp that landed atop the box office in America and is likely to do the same thing in Britain this weekend.

This coming week we've got Scarlett Johansson as a sexy alien in Under the Skin, Wes Anderson's all-star The Grand Budapest Hotel, the British workplace comedy 8 Minutes Idle, the designer biopic Yves Saint Laurent and the cinema doc A Story of Children and Film. And the British Academy Film Awards hands out the Baftas on Sunday night.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Night at the Museum: Vikings!

Film critics always like to have a night away from the movies, so I jumped on the chance to attend the launch event for the launch of the DVD for the first season of the History Channel's TV series Vikings. The event was especially intriguing as it was held at the British Museum after hours - I had never seen it empty before (there was actually someone buffing the floor when I walked in!) - as the museum is hosting a major exhibition of viking stuff starting next month.

We started with a drinks reception, at which I inadvertently found myself chatting to the night's star guest, series creator and writer Michael Hurst, who casually talked about how he has been striving for historical accuracy in the show, including using real 11th century people as characters. He also talked about a recent trip to Iceland to do some research. And we were joined by George Blagden, a young actor who plays a monk in the series.

Soon we filed into the screening room to watch the series' first two episodes, which set the scene by introducing a vast array of characters led by the charismatic Travis Fimmel. Frankly, it was a little dry, although it was starting to get interesting at the end of the second episode, as the marauding vikings kidnapped Blagden's monk from the English shore and took him back to Norway.

This was followed by a Q&A with Blagden and Hurst (pictured with moderator Dave Calhoun, right). Blagden talked about how having a tonsure shaved into his head and filming in such an isolated location with a monk's costume made it pretty much impossible not to get into character. "It was also interesting to play the clash between two cultures," he said, "the collision between two peoples.We know the history but it's interesting to see more detail and complexity in it."

Meanwhile, Hurst spoke of how he worked to root the drama in real historical events. "For example, unlike what is usually portrayed, vikings were unusually clean for the period," he said. "They washed their faces regularly, combed their hair and even carried a change of clothes with them - Irish women liked that about them!" They were also unusually egalitarian in their treatment of women, far ahead of England and France.

"Whole sequences in the show are based on first person accounts," he added. "Arab traders kept records in incredible detail about the cultures they encountered." But in the end, while it's history, it's also got to be good drama. So they worked to balance the rape-and-pillage legend with a much more sympathetic portrayal of who vikings really were.

Vikings season 1 is on DVD now, while season 2 starts on the History Channel at the end of February.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Critical Week: Who wants off this crazy plane?

The big screening last week was Liam Neeson's latest action blockbuster Non-Stop, costarring Julianne Moore, Downton's Michelle Dockery and Oscar-nominee Lupita Nyong'o. I also caught a very late screening for I, Frankenstein, the rather murky action romp starring Aaron Eckhart as an unusually muscly version of the famous monster battling Bill Nighy's demon prince. And there was also a screening for the 3D animated romp Mr Peabody & Sherman, based on the 1960s cartoon, which is a very different kind of fun for adults than for the kids, thanks to the non-stop visual and verbal gags and riotous pacing.

A bit off the beaten path we had a complete re-imagining of the Mexican cannibal freak-out We Are What We Are - this American version is a horror art-film, extremely well made and very creepy, but are genre fans ready for something this subtle? The Rocket is a gorgeous crowd-pleaser that takes a fable-like turn in its lively story about a cheeky, clever boy in Laos. Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is, like the man himself, no-holds-barred as it explores of Vidal's outspoken approach to art, politics and religion. We don't learn much about the man himself, but we can see why his views are so important. And Beyond the Edge is a strikingly well-shot 3D documentary about the first men who made it to the top of Everest.

This coming week, we have the remake RoboCop, the romance Endless Love (which is not a remake of the notorious 1980s romance), the acclaimed festival film The Motel Life, and a stack of things to catch up with on screener discs. I also have a launch for the TV series Viking. More on that next time...

Monday, 3 February 2014

34th London Critics' Circle Film Awards

It's always my most glamorous night of the year, but Sunday night's 34th London Critics' Circle Film Awards was also the biggest event I've ever organised and hosted myself, with a lot of help of course. This was my second year as chair of the organising committee, but we had some extra challenges that added a lot more work than ever before - and we pulled a fabulous evening out of thin air thanks to the hard working committee, our generous sponsors (The May Fair Hotel, Beluga Vodka, Audi, Cameo, Novikov, Innerplace and Publicity Media) and press management from DDA.

Somehow my committee convinced me to host the ceremony - I've never done anything like that either! It was pretty daunting, especially since it was about 15 minutes before the ceremony started when the news was confirmed about the death in New York of Philip Seymour Hoffman, our best supporting actor last year. So Critics' Circle Film Section Chair Jason Solomons adjusted his opening monolog accordingly - the audience broke in to a spontaneous standing ovation. And after that it was good to celebrate the best in cinema in 2013 together. We opened with a terrific video compilation of the films of the year, then my job was to thank everyone, then keep things moving.

And the first award in our running order was Supporting Actor, won by Barkhad Abdi, who was attending with his director Paul Greengrass (two of the nominees you can see in the photo above). Supporting Actress went to Lupita Nyong'o, who was unable to attend, so her director Steve McQueen (left) read a statement from her to accept. Then the Technical Achievement Award went to Tim Webber (right) for the visual effects in Gravity. 

Here we shifted into our British awards, starting with Breakthrough British Filmmaker, which went to Filth director Jon S Baird, who collected his trophy from Mark Kermode and me (above).

After a montage of British films and performances, we presented Young British Performer to Conner Chapman, who brought his costar (and fellow nominee) Shaun Thomas on-stage with him. British Actor went to James McAvoy, who was in another part of London filming Frankenstein and sent a video thank you (top right) - his award was accepted by his Filth director Jon Baird. British Actress was won by Judi Dench, who sent a video thank you from India, where she's filming The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 - her award was accepted by her Philomena costar and writer Steve Coogan. And finally, British Film of the Year went to The Selfish Giant. Director Clio Barnard, producer Tracy O'Riordan and cast members Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas and Lorraine Ashbourne all took to the stage - presenter Tim Robey and I are there too (below).

Next up was Actress of the Year, which was won unsurprisingly by Cate Blanchett. She sent a hilarious thank you message, which was read out by her Middle Earth costar Andy Serkis (right with presenter Roger Clarke and me). Actor of the Year was also no surprise, going to Chiwetel Ejiofor. He sent a written thank you from New Zealand, where he's currently filming. Then Documentary of the Year went to The Act of Killing, which was accepted by producer Andre Gregory (photo below), who read a statement from director Joshua Oppenheimer about the ongoing issues in Indonesia.

And now it was time for our biggest honour, the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film, which this year went to Gary Oldman. John Hurt (right) was on give a lovely introduction speech and introduce a clip-reel of Gary's best work, followed by a emotive and eloquent thank you from Gary. And lots of hugging.

Next up was Foreign-Language Film of the Year, which was won by Blue Is the Warmest Colour and accepted by an executive from the UK distributor Artificial Eye. Screenwriter of the Year was won by Joel & Ethan Coen, who weren't in attendance. So presenter David Gritten and I, with the help of committee members Pauline McLeod and Hilary Oliver, concocted a rather silly sketch in which the film's feline star Ulysses appeared on-stage to claim the award. Director of the Year went to Alfonso Cuaron, who sent us a video from Italy (pictured above with James and Judi). And finally it was time for Film of the Year, which went to 12 Years a Slave and was collected by Steve McQueen with a lovely speech.

And then it was on to the afterparty with Beluga Vodka cocktails at Novikov, where nominees and winners, as well as the critics and guests mixed in unexpected circles late into the night. I had a particularly nice chat with Howard Cummings, nominated for his Behind the Candelabra production design. And from the below evidence, will we see Barkhad Abdi in Steve McQueen's next movie ... or Andy Serkis in Paul Greengrass'?

Of course, things wrapped up with our now-legendary goody bags (that's mine to the right), thanks to our diligent committee members and some more generous sponsors. Here are a few more photos - of our two most glamorous red carpet stars, nominees Naomie Harris and Lindsay Duncan, and of nominee George MacKay, winner Andre Singer and Reece Shearsmith, star of nominated film A Field in England.

And finally, because it has to be done, Knowing Me Rich Cline, Knowing You Steve Coogan. Aha....
Photos by Dave Bennett