Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Critical Week: A family affair

It's been a rather thin week for screenings, or maybe I'm just out of the loop because I've been pre-occupied with organising the Critics' Circle Film Awards. The biggest movie I saw was The Odyssey, the French biopic about Jacques Cousteau starring Lambert Wilson, Pierre Niney and Audrey Tautou. It's beautifully filmed and acted, but lacks narrative coherence. The others were independent British oddities: Mindhorn is a somewhat uneven pastiche thriller about an actor asked to re-inhabit his 1980s TV cop character to solve a real murder. It has a terrific cast including Julian Barratt, Russell Tovey, Steve Coogan and Kenneth Branagh. And Spaceship is a swirly arthouse drama about a teen who may have been abducted by aliens, although the plot never quite makes any sense. And then there was a four-hour thriller released next week on DVD in the UK...

Deep Water
dir Shawn Seet
scr Kym Goldsworthy
with Noah Taylor, Yael Stone, Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, Craig McLachlan, Danielle Cormack, Ben Oxenbould
16/Aus SBS 3h40 ***.
This four-part Australian TV series may feel somewhat melodramatic, but it taps into some darkly relevant themes. When a Muslim man is found murdered in his flat overlooking Bondi Beach, detective Tori (Orange Is the New Black's Yael Stone) and her partner Nick (Noah Taylor) begin to discover inexplicable links to a series of unsolved murders from the late 1980s. But these were hate crimes involving gay victims, and the officials simply turned a blind eye at the time. The show is assembled with a soapy emotional flair that kind of ignores authenticity in lieu of flashy plot points, hot potato themes and shifty suspects. This makes it feel like a rather standard television procedural, complete with far too many characters to keep straight and lots of shocking revelations. But the underlying issues are solidly engaging, touching on things in society that perhaps haven't improved as much as we'd like to think they have in the past 25 years. And it's strikingly well shot, with engaging performances from the skilled cast.

This coming week we have screenings of another rather thin, offbeat collection of movies, including the British boxing drama Jawbone, Cristian Mungiu's award-winning Graduation and the doc All This Panic.

Monday, 23 January 2017

37th Critics' Circle Film Awards: words and pictures...

These three ladies were the stars of Sunday night's 37th London Critics' Circle Film Awards, held at the May Fair Hotel. I'm the chair of the event, so spend most of the year organising it with a hard-working committee, lots of helpers and some great sponsors. And we spread the winners around this year. Above: Kate Beckinsale won British/Irish Actress, Isabelle Huppert won both Actress of the Year for Things to Come and the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film, and Naomie Harris won Supporting Actress for Moonlight.

Here's the team: me, our actor-filmmaker hosts Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, and Critics' Circle President Anna Smith.

When Isabelle Huppert was presented with the Dilys Powell Award - an honour we have wanted to bestow on her for years - the audience rose for a standing ovation.

Tom Bennett won Supporting Actor for Love & Friendship, Ken Loach won British/Irish Film of the Year for I, Daniel Blake.

Lewis MacDougall won Young British/Irish Performer for his work in A Monster Calls, while writer-director Babak Anvari won Breakthrough British/Irish Filmmaker for Under the Shadow.

Naomie Harris poses with her award alongside her Moonlight costar Alex Hibbert, who accepted the Supporting Actor award for Mahershala Ali. And on the right, director Brady Hood with his lead actress Jessica Barden - winners of British/Irish Short Film of the Year for Sweet Maddie Stone.

Accepting the Documentary prize for Fire at Sea were editor Jacopo Quadri and producer Donatella Palermo. And here's an intriguing couple: will we see Isabelle starring in Ken's next movie?

Some winners who couldn't be with us recorded video messages. These included Casey Affleck, who won Actor of the Year for Manchester by the Sea, and Andrew Garfield, who was named British/Irish Actor of the Year. Two winners sent written messages: Kenneth Lonergan for Screenplay accepting Manchester by the Sea, and Maren Ade accepting Foreign-Language Film for Toni Erdmann.

Damien Chazelle recorded his video to accept Film of the Year for La La Land on his phone just after landing on a flight to China. Laszlo Nemes sent thanks for Director of the Year for Son of Saul from the middle of pre-production on his new film in Hungary. And cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen thanked the critics for his Technical Achievement Award for Victoria from Montserrat.

Nominees celebrating with us for the evening included Dave Johns (I, Daniel Blake), Sennia Nanua (The Girl With All the Gifts) and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (Sing Street).

More nominees: writer-director Mia Hansen-Love (Things to Come), filmmaker Otto Bell (The Eagle Huntress) and composer Mica Levi (Jackie).

Special guests with us included Love & Friendship costars Morfyd Clark and Emma Greenwell, as well as George MacKay.

And finally, here are a couple of snaps of me - on the left with Kristina Rihanoff and Ben Cohen, and on the right with Kate Beckinsale. The Sun ran this photo hinting that I was her "dapper" date for the evening. Hmmm!

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Critical Week: Muscle power

There were two big decades-later sequels screened to critics in London this week. XXX: Return of Xander Cage returns Vin Diesel to his extreme-sports spy 15 years after he last played him. The movie is just as preposterous, but thankfully has a sense of humour about it. And T2 Trainspotting is a 20-year reunion for the cast and crew of the cinema-changing Scottish drama. Danny Boyle cleverly adapts the film's kinetic style to a new middle-aged vibe, with a resonant running theme about the nature of nostalgia and growing up. And Viceroy's House is Gurinder Chadha's personal account of the independence and partition of India in 1947 (more about the film closer to the release date).

We also got to see John Waters' "lost" 1970 black comedy Multiple Maniacs in a restored digital projection. It looks fantastic, and is jaw-droppingly unmissable - outrageous even after all these years. And I also caught up with a timely HBO documentary...

Bright Lights
dir Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens; with Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher 16/US ****
Warm and intimate, this documentary traces the close relationship between mother and daughter Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. Anchored largely by Fisher's wry ongoing commentary, the film traces the careers of both actresses, as well as their private lives. It reveals that these two were tight friends who supported each other through the ups and downs of their lives with earthy humour and a fascinating balance of realism and optimism. It's a beautiful portrait of both women, and it also offers a bracing look at the life of Hollywood royalty over the past half century or so. From Carrie's astonishing singing talent to Debbie's unrequited passion to protect Hollywood's legacy, there's plenty in this movie that makes it an important document. But it's also emotionally moving, especially poignant following their deaths. Notably, the film was completed more than six months earlier. A must see for fans of Hollywood's golden age, from Singin' in the Rain to Star Wars.

This weekend I have been consumed with my role as chair of the 37th London Critics' Circle Film Awards, the fifth year I've organised the event. The star-studded ceremony is on Sunday at The May Fair Hotel and I'll have a full report with photos here as soon as possible. I also have screenings this coming week of Mindhorn, Spaceship, The Odyssey and Who's Gonna Love Me Now. I know nothing about any of them.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Critical Week: Say what?

I was able to catch up with the London Film Festival gem Their Finest this week, a lightly handled drama about government-sponsored filmmakers during the Blitz. With a sharp cast anchored by Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy and Sam Claflin and clever direction by Lone Scherfig, it's a telling story packed with engaging detail. Ben Affleck's Live by Night is a great-looking gangster movie, with another superb cast (including Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana), but it's a bit too glacial to grab hold. And James McAvoy plays a man with multiple personalities in M Night Shyamalan's thriller Split. It's unnerving and sometimes full-on freaky, but rather messy.

Outside the mainstream, Bitter Harvest, a chronicle of the horrific Stalin-forced famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33, starring Max Irons, Samantha Barks and Terence Stamp. And Anna Biller's The Love Witch is a hilariously lurid 1960s-style pastiche of magic, romance and murder. Both films are clearly passion projects, and both feel rather overlong due to their choppy editing and in-your-face messages.

This coming week we have the 20-years-later sequel T2 Trainspotting, Woody Harrelson's real-time adventure Lost in London Live, the resurrected franchise XXX: Return of Xander Cage, the British/Indian drama Viceroy's House, the football icon doc Best and John Waters' long-lost Multiple Maniacs.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Critical Week: Follow your nose

In the New Year so far, there have been no actual press screenings, so my movies have been on the small screen. This includes a couple that were made for TV. Benedict Cumberbatch was back for Sherlock: The Six Thatchers, an enjoyable mystery that continued this sporadic series' drift into insufferably smug tricksiness. This includes Sherlock's obsession with Twitter, swiftly abandoned when the plot needs to move. Let's hope upcoming episodes are more focussed on solid storytelling and character development. I also finally caught up with the pilot for The Get Down, directed by Baz Luhrmann. It's a hugely engaging movie set amid the burgeoning rap scene in 1977 New York. There's plenty of whizzy style, as expected, but also a clever depth of character that developed nicely through the following five episodes. I also caught the financial thriller The Crash, which has a starry ensemble cast good enough to make the film watchable despite a startlingly dull script.

My Scientology Movie
dir John Dower; with Louis Theroux, Marty Rathbun, Marc Headley, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter 16/UK ***.
British journalist Louis Theroux seems to fall into the Twilight Zone as he tries to make a balanced and open-minded, sympathetic documentary about Scientology. Despite never setting out to be combative, he keeps running into bizarre roadblocks, inexplicable reactions and aggressive resistance. Even the ex-members he talks to seem to be less than forthcoming. Some elements of this film don't work very well (such as all of the repetitive driving around or hiring actors to play prominent church members like Tom Cruise), but the film paints an intriguing portrait of an organisation that doesn't want any scrutiny at all - friendly or otherwise. And while Theroux goes out of his way to find the positive aspects of their beliefs and practices, Scientology's rather comically intimidating, incessant meddling ultimately makes it impossible for the audience to remain objective. Which of course ends up being the point.

Before the Flood
dir Fisher Stevens; scr Mark Monroe; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Barack Obama, Ban Ki-Moon, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, Alejandro Inarritu 16/US ****
This documentary may be rather pushy, but then it's about what should be the most important issue facing humanity at the moment: climate change. The film follows DiCaprio as he travels around the world for two years as a United Nations messenger of peace, asking questions, talking with leaders and experts, exploring the situation from devastated boreal forests to melting ice caps to burnt-out jungles to the flooded streets of Miami. Scientists have almost never so wholeheartedly agreed on any issue, including what needs to be done to slow the changes and avert catastrophe. And yet idiots (most of whom are paid off by oil company lobbyists) continue to deny that this is taking place, unforgivably jeopardising future generations. This isn't about ignorance, it's about evil. And there's plenty we can do if we can muster up the will. This clear-eyed, beautifully assembled documentary is a bit gimmicky, but it carefully highlights the issue for anyone who wants to know the truth.

Screenings start up again on Monday, and I have the James McAvoy thriller Split in the diary. There's also Ben Affleck's mobster drama Live by Night, the 60s-style thriller The Love Witch and a German drama called Jonathan.