Monday, 31 December 2018

A Year in Shadows: 2018


This year's stars, who appeared on two covers: Cate Blanchett, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Dwayne Johnson, Eddie Redmayne* (once as a plasticine caveman),  John C Reilly* (once as a videogame character)

On one cover on their own: Aml Ameen, Chadwick Boseman*, Cher, Glenn Close, Tom Cruise, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Ryan Gosling, Lily James, Mindy Kaling, Daniel Kaluuya, Rami Malek, Chloe Grace Moretz, Liam Neeson, Evan Peters, Rosamund Pike, Ryan Reynolds*, Amanda Seyfried, Jason Statham, Tilda Swinton, Charlize Theron, Emma Thompson, Alicia Vikander

On one shared cover: Adeel Akhtar, Jack Black, Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Colman, Steve Coogan, Bradley Cooper, Sandra Bullock, Rob Brydon, Jim Carter, Sam Claflin, Akwafina, Michael Douglas, Alden Ehrenreich, Chris Evans, Laurence Fishburne, Ben Foster, Lady Gaga, Gael Garcia Bernal*, Rupert Graves, Walton Goggins, Anthony Gonzalez*, Stephen Graham, Danai Guria, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Anne Hathaway, Scarlett Johansson, Hannah John-Kamen*, Jake Johnson*, Anna Kendrick, Jude Law, Evangeline Lilly, Blake Lively, Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie, Daniel Mays, Shameik Moore*, Sarah Paulson, Michael Pena, Chris Pine, Michelle Pfeiffer, Joaquin Phoenix, Chris Pratt, Jonathan Pryce, Florence Pugh, Koyu Rankin*, Rihanna, Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo*, Ekaterina Samsonov, Sarah Silverman*, Justice Smith, Hailee Steinfeld*, Emma Stone, Joonas Suotamo*, Thomas Turgoose, Owen Vaccaro, Rachel Weisz

Twice on one cover: Tye Sheridan (once animated)

Nine times on one cover: Jimmy Kimmel

Plus: a pig, a dinosaur, a shark, nine dogs and a crowd of animated Disney princesses.

* includes animated or face-obscured characters

The Best of 2018: 38th Shadows Awards

These are films I saw in 2018, regardless of their release dates. All were seen by public audiences in cinemas - either on general release, specialty screenings or at festivals, during the past 12 months. These were especially difficult lists to narrow down!

A far more extensive version of this is on the website at 38TH SHADOWS AWARDS, for those who can't get enough of this sort of thing: longer lists, many more categories, trivia-o-rama.

My top film this year is not only a bracingly ripping true story, but it captures and confronts the current cultural mood with skill and invention. It's also a wonderful return to fighting form for filmmaker Spike Lee, who last won my best film prize in 1989 for Do the Right Thing.


  1. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
  2. Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski)
  3. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
  4. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
  5. Generation Wealth (Lauren Greenfield)
  6. Capernaum (Nadine Labaki)
  7. We the Animals (Jeremiah Zagar)
  8. Colette (Wash Westmoreland)
  9. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda)
  10. Sofia (Meryem Benm'Barek)

  1. Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)
  2. Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
  3. Ari Aster (Hereditary)
  4. Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk)
  5. Nadine Labaki (Capernaum)
  6. Bart Layton (American Animals)
  7. Chloe Zhao (The Rider)
  8. Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
  9. Jeremiah Zagar (We the Animals)
  10. Meryem Benm'Barek (Sofia)


  1. Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk)
  2. Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki (Cold War)
  3. Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Colette)
  4. Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara (The Favourite)
  5. Daniel Kokotajlo (Apostasy)
  6. Bart Layton (American Animals)
  7. Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)
  8. Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting)
  9. Alex Garland (Annihilation)
  10. Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek (The Breaker Upperers)


  1. Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
  2. Joanna Kulig (Cold War)
  3. Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place, Mary Poppins Returns)
  4. Agnes Jaoui (I Got Life!)
  5. Eva Melander (Border)
  6. Toni Collette (Hereditary, Hearts Beat Loud, Madame)
  7. Anna Brun (The Heiresses)
  8. Natalie Portman (Vox Lux, Annihilation)
  9. Claire Foy (Unsane, First Man)
  10. Rosamund Pike (A Private War, Beirut, Entebbe)


  1. Michael B Jordan (Black Panther, Creed II, Fahrenheit 451)
  2. Brady Landreau (The Rider)
  3. Rupert Everett (The Happy Prince)
  4. Tomasz Kot (Cold War)
  5. Marcello Fonte (Dogman)
  6. John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman, Monsters and Men)
  7. Zain Al Rafeea (Capernaum)
  8. Steve Carell (Beautiful Boy, Vice, Welcome to Marwen)
  9. Alex Lawther (Freak Show, Ghost Stories)
  10. Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)


  1. Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
  2. Florence Pugh (Outlaw King)
  3. Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place)
  4. Sarah Perles (Sofia)
  5. Cynthia Erivo (Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale)
  6. Sissy Spacek (The Old Man & the Gun)
  7. Danai Gurira (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War)
  8. Sakura Ando (Shoplifters)
  9. Molly Wright (Apostasy)
  10. Elizabeth Debicki (Widows, The Cloverfield Paradox)


  1. Brian Tyree Henry (Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk, White Boy Rick, Hotel Artemis)
  2. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Outlaw King)
  3. Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther, Widows)
  4. Timothee Chalamet (Beautiful Boy)
  5. Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite)
  6. Jonah Hill (Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot)
  7. Richard E Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
  8. Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, That Good Night)
  9. Barry Keoghan (Black '47, American Animals)
  10. Jude Law (Vox Lux, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald)

  1. Mile 22 (Peter Berg)
  2. The Strangers: Prey at Night (Johannes Roberts)
  3. Truth or Dare (Jeff Wadlow)
  4. Midnight Sun (Scott Speer)
  5. Fifty Shades Freed (James Foley)
  6. Life Itself (Dan Fogelman)
  7. Strangeways Here We Come (Chris Green)
  8. The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood)
  9. Venom (Ruben Fleischer)
  10. Action Point (Tim Kirkby)

N O N - F I L M   D I V I S I O N


  1. Pose (FX)
  2. Schitt's Creek (CBN)
  3. Fleabag (BBC)
  4. Everything Sucks! (Netflix)
  5. Killing Eve (BBC)
  6. The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Prime)
  7. Patrick Melrose (Showtime)
  8. A Very English Scandal (BBC)
  9. Atlanta (FX)
  10. Trust (FX)


  1. This Is America (Childish Gambino)
  2. Nothing Breaks Like a Heart (Mark Ronson & Miley Cyrus)
  3. One Kiss (Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa)
  4. Shallow (Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper)
  5. Promises (Sam Smith & Calvin Harris)
  6. Happier (Marshmello & Bastille)
  7. Make Me Feel (Janelle Monae)
  8. Better Now (Post Malone)
  9. Ruin My Life (Zara Larsson)
  10. This Is Me (Keala Settle)

Friday, 28 December 2018

Critical Week: Dynamic duo

There were no screenings this week due to Christmas, but I have had a few screeners to catch up with at home before voting deadlines. I also had to buy a ticket to see one film in the cinema, due to the lack of press screenings. Holmes & Watson is a rather broad, silly take on a tired, overused character. There are some funny moments scattered through the film, but they're too far apart to properly take advantage of Will Ferrell and John C Reilly's strong chemistry. And here are short reviews of other things I've seen, both catch-up titles that were released while I was away...

Bad Times at the El Royale
dir-scr Drew Goddard
with Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny
18/US 2h21 ***
Stylish and ambitious, this epic-length thriller is a series of stunningly staged set-pieces that ooze insinuation and intrigue. The El Royale Hotel is a vintage glamorous hideaway on the California-Nevada line outside Tahoe that last had some swing in 1966. Like an Agatha Christie story, this isolated place draws together a priest (Hamm), singer (Erivo), salesman (Hamm) and hippie (Johnson), welcomed by receptionist-barman Miles (Pullman). Each person has a but secret. Some of them looking for something buried under the floorboards 10 years earlier. All are willing to resort to violence if needed. Scenes develop with unexpected twists and turns, flashbacks that offer back-stories and connections, and some remarkable emotional subtext in each person's sense of desperation. Writer-director Goddard could easily have trimmed and tightened this snaky, witty script, which continually shifts back and forth within the story. But it's superbly assembled, cleverly directed to play on the layers of secrets the characters are carrying with them. And the cast is excellent across the board, including Hemsworth, who arrives properly about 90 minutes in and takes things in a brutal new direction. Erivo is the standout, bringing a soulful yearning that adds gripping depth beneath the increasing swirl of violence and the nagging feeling that underneath the gorgeous surface, this is yet another movie about desperate people and a bag of cash.

The Other Side of the Wind
dir Orson Welles; scr Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
with John Huston, Oja Kodar, Bob Random, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Lilli Palmer
18/US 2h02 ****
Not many films have this kind of production history: returning to Hollywood after a 20-year exile, Orson Welles started filming this in 1970 and carried on for six years, followed by a decade of editing before his death. More than 30 years later, the film was finished by a team working from Welles' notes and 100 hours of footage. Ironically, it's the story of famed filmmaker Jake (Huston), hounded by the press as he makes his latest epic, shooting as usual without a script. Critics say Jake has lost touch with culture, and he's having problems with cool young star (Random). As the leading lady, Kodar spends rather a lot of time naked, but generates a strong sense of mystery. Narrating the story as Jake's protege, Bogdanovich offers a sparky performance as a fast-talker who seems to steal his personality from everyone he meets. Stylish and bold, this is a striking look at the industry, mixing colour with black and white to blur the lines between movies and reality. The jazzy tone, skilful camerawork and energetic performances are fascinating as well as raucously entertaining. This twist on Felliniesque comedy-drama is perhaps a bit too loose and unfocussed to properly grab hold or build up a sense of narrative momentum, but it's packed with fiercely inventive touches and dazzling imagery. And its knowing approach to the process of filmmaking is lacerating. This is Welles' love/hate letter to cinema. And it's bound to be revered by generations of film students to come.

There are no press screenings next week either, but I still have a few discs a and links to watch. The problem is that it feels too good to just relax and NOT watch movies for a change....

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Winter TV Roundup

I look through this list of shows and wonder how I found time to watch all of this over the past three months. But I tend to watch an episode here and there during the day - to take a break from work, to reset my mind after a film, as background while I'm eating lunch. It's a bit scary how much TV I get through like this...


Killing Eve
Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, this is a seriously inventive spy thriller series. Funny and scary, it centres on a befuddled British agent (Sandra Oh) tracking a ruthless Russian killer (Jodie Comer) across Europe. None of the characters behave like the usual stereotypes; these are complex, surprising, offbeat people with their own issues. And the side roles are just as cleverly drawn. Well, any show that features the great Fiona Shaw is unmissable. And Waller-Bridge deserves praise for her willingness to avoid the usual action beats in lieu of character comedy, dark irony and some proper thrills. Plus a great cliffhanger ending.

Snaky and fascinating, this half-hour thriller series is a bit vague, deliberately delaying any revelation that could add clarity to the central mystery. This makes it a challenge to stick with, even as it worms its way under the skin, mainly because the characters are particularly strong, played beautifully by Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James and Shea Wigham. The writing and directing are astute and clever, with terrific moments in every episode, and a clever blurring of the lines between events in the past, present and future. In the end, this is a stark story about some very big issues like the wellbeing of veterans and the abuses of private contractors. So it carries some powerful resonance.

Toni Collette and Stephen Mackintosh are terrific in this offbeat British comedy-drama about a married couple that decides to open their relationship to rekindle the spark between them. It's intriguing that the premise doesn't seem nearly as transgressive as it would have just a few years ago. Even the kids' somewhat outrageous behaviour feels almost normal. Whether this is a comment on our times or on a sliding scale of morality is the provocative question. The point is that this excellent cast is so good at making these people feel honest and real that it challenges us to define what we believe and why. And it keeps us smiling while doing so.

The Little Drummer Girl
The frankly awesome Florence Pugh stars in this adaptation of the John Le Carre thriller, which is snaky and stylish as it throws her character into a late-1970s spy/terrorism mess. Directed beautifully by Park Chan-wook, the series is wonderfully loose and elusive, but with a rivetingly strong edge that digs into the minds of the characters. Pugh is playing an actress with no espionage experience, drafted into a Mossad operation in which her method performance style is very effective, even as she blurs every line around her. Pugh's chemistry with slippery handler Alexander Skarsgard is mesmerising, while Michael Shannon's shady boss offers his own textures.

Vanity Fair
Thackeray's novel is adapted into this lively, colourful period series. It's perhaps a bit too jokey for its own good, knowingly nodding at the camera every chance it gets. But it's also skilfully well-made, with wonderful actors who inject lots of spark into their roles. And the way it's made brings in some nice present-day textures through the use of music and editing, plus themes surrounding the vacuous pursuit of popularity and money. Olivia Cooke has a terrific wide-eyed faux innocence as Becky Sharp, who aggressively attempts to make her fortune against the odds in 19th century England. She's so callous that it's hard to like her, so sympathy lies instead with the people she wrongs.

Definitely not for kids. Jim Carrey is superb as the Mr Rogers-style host of a long-running children's television show who clashes with the programme's producer, his dad (a hilariously exasperated Frank Langella), as he tries talk to kids about serious issues. But since this is from the mind of Michel Gondry, there's rather a lot more going on here. Essentially, this is a wildly inventive exploration of grief and emotional honesty, with terrific performances all round, including Catherine Keener and Judy Greer. It's sometimes a bit freaky, with entire episodes existing in a moment of insanity. But it's also darkly moving, and it carries a powerful kick as Carrey's Mr Pickles struggles with his inner demons.

It's rare for a comedy to explore existential issues, but this offbeat show boldly avoids obvious storytelling to create some quirky situations. Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen star as a couple who, after events in the first two episodes, continue their marriage in the afterlife. The writing isn't as clever or funny as it thinks it is, and it never really says much about relationships, so the premise feels under-imagined. There's also the problem that the show simply never makes sense, even within its own deliberate lack of logic. But the cast is great, and the show's absurd enough to hold the interest as it plays with genuinely huge ideas.

The Bisexual
Desiree Akhavan appeared in Girls, and here she pushes that format even further as an awkwardly over-talking young woman in London trying to appear confident as she works with her ex (Maxine Peake), lives with a lovelorn Irishman (Brian Fleeson) and dodges barbs from her best pal (Saskia Chana). The cast is excellent, and the show's writing is astute, funny and very pointed as it explores issues that have never been confronted quite so straight-on in a TV show. Akhavan writes superbly barbed dialog that refuses to pull any punches, and as an actress she dives into a prickly character with so much gusto that we can't help but love her.

The Conners (aka Roseanne: series 11)
Dumping Roseanne Barr from Roseanne was a rushed over-reaction, and a great shame since this show took such a complex, messy, important approach to American politics. The remaining characters are all wonderful, finely played by the cast. But Barr's unhinged comedy is badly missed, leaving the show off-balance. That said, the approach to issues remains complex and engaging, and each actor brings layers and textures that make this one of the most sophisticated shows on network television. The way it grapples with political and social issues is a blast of fresh air. And Laurie Metcalf is a genius.


Murphy Brown: series 11
Two decades after going off the air, the entire talented cast is back for a reunion series. And while it took awhile to find its stride, it actually feels like the perfect sitcom for our times. The show's style feels a bit quaint, with a punchline carefully placed in every other line, but the topicality of the humour and the feistiness of the characters is thoroughly enjoyable. Adding the now-grown Avery (Jake McDorman) to the mix is just right. It reminds me why this was my favourite show all those years ago: a rare comedy in which the jokes actually mean something, bring out angles on the characters and occasionally find a moment of real emotion.

Shameless: series 9a
The Gallagher family simply won't give up. Each of them seems to have kicked up a gear this season, as increased desperation drives them to bigger, bolder scams. The actors are all so good that it's annoying when they cut away from anyone, but there isn't a weak storyline in here (of about 10 that run full-pelt). That said, the show is far more entertaining when these people are up to their, well, shameless antics than when the writers heap random misery on them undeserved. And there's been quite a bit of that so far this year. 

This Is Us: series 3a
This season continues to tug shamelessly at heartstrings, while exploring new past timelines along with the present-day saga and occasional future forebodings. So even with the occasional downright terrible episode (the fragmented Thanksgiving collage was a mess), the show is unmissable. The addition of Michael Angarano as the doomed Uncle Nick bodes well for future episodes, and both Kate's pregnancy and Randall's political campaign carry some nicely resonant kicks. It doesn't matter where it goes, just that it keeps moving, and that the writers don't work themselves into a corner.

The Good Place: series 3
As before, this season begins with a complete reboot of the premise, again offering the cast members the chance to play merrily with their characters. This series is even trickier than before, continually pulling the rug out from under the audience (and the characters for that matter) as a good-hearted demon (Ted Danson) and his definitely non-robot assistant (D'Arcy Carden) try to keep four hapless humans (Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto) from the Bad Place. Smart, fast, silly and brilliantly well-played.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: series 2
This sharply written and produced series continues the story of the fast-talking 1950s housewife-turned-comic (Rachel Brosnahan). The plotting feels a little looser, abandoning the first season's tight arc for a more open-ended TV series style. This means that they spend a bit too much time following subplots involving Midge's manager (Alex Borstein), parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) and ex-husband (Michael Zegen). Thankfully, the characters and actors are so good that we don't mind much. And the show comes exhilaratingly to life whenever Brosnahan gets behind a mic.


The End of the F***ing World: series 1
Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden are flat-out terrific as teens on the run in this half-hour road-trip comedy adventure. Lawther's James is only going along because he is pretty sure he's a serial killer, and he thinks Barden's manipulative Alyssa would be a decent first victim. But there's an unexpected connection developing between them as they search for her long-lost father, while the police and their parents try to track them down. Based on a series of comic books, it's laceratingly well-written and expertly played by an ensemble supporting cast of frankly brilliant British actors. Bring on the second series.

Fleabag: series 1
Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created a bracingly fresh British comedy, starring as a riotously frustrated woman willing to try just about anything to find some happiness after her best friend and business partner commits suicide. Hilariously inappropriate about almost everything, she remains remarkably likeable even as she upsets the lives of her friends and family (including Sian Clifford as her equally messed-up sister and the fabulous Olivia Colman as her snooty stepmum). But it's the emotional undercurrents, which swell up as the six episodes progress, that make the series memorable. It's impossible to predict where it will go from here.

Future Man: series 1
Josh Hutcherson is terrific as the title character in this wacky, action-packed half-hour comedy. He's the nerdy gamer Futterman, who finds himself travelling through time trying to save the world with two hysterically clueless characters (Eliza Coupe and Derek Wilson) from what he thought was a videogame. The hands of producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are strongly felt in the sharp stoner-style humour and outrageously over-the-top violence. Seriously addictive. The late Glenne Headley (as Josh's mum) will be sorely missed in the second season.


Maniac • After a strong start, this series became increasingly tricky, and by about the mid-point it simply turned itself inside out. Based on a Norwegian show, this is inventively directed by Cary Fukunaga with a Gondry-style playfulness, but it' far too pretentious. I made it through 5 episodes.
Rel • Cast and crew from The Carmichael Show reassemble for this lighter sitcom, which sends its endearing characters through a range of awkward situations. Lil Rel Howery is great in the lead role, but annoying when he plays a guest character in each episode. And while the show tackles some big issues, the buffoonery is wearing. I made it through 7 episodes.
The Deuce (series 2) • Like the first season, this show is somewhat dry and impenetrable, with a huge number of characters and complex situations that aren't fully explained. Shifting forward to the late-70s, it also feels slicker, with more organised criminals and pornographers. Maggie Gyllenhaal isexcellent, but it's hard to care what's happening. I gave up after episode 2.
House of Cards (series 6) • In its final season, this show became far too arch, drowning in cliches as Robin Wright's Claire turned oddly vicious. As good as she is, feels like she lost her grip on the character. The whole cast is superb, but the scripts don't do them justice. And the muddy tone wore me out about halfway into the third episode, when Claire turned to the camera and asked, "Are you still with me?"

NOW WATCHING: Les Miserables, Mom, Modern Family, Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, The Conners
COMING SOON: The Crown, Victoria, Future Man, Fleabag, The End of the F***ing World

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Critical Week: Hello sailor

Screenings are slowing down for the holidays, so these were my last movies in screening rooms for the year. Welcome to Marwen is ambitious, an introspective true story augmented with clever effects. So Leslie Mann and Steve Carell (above) play part of their roles as remarkably expressive dolls. It's solid, but more thoughtful than entertaining. All Is True has a hefty cast including Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, intriguingly tracing the final years in Shakespeare's life. It's well-made and a bit offbeat. Papillon is a true story remake about a man (Charlie Hunnam) sent to a vile French penal colony in the 1930s. Beautifully made, finely acted, but a bit stiff. And the Argentine drama My Best Friend tells a quietly involving coming-of-age story about a teen who develops an unexpected crush. And I also caught up with these two...

dir Anne Fletcher
scr Kristin Hahn
with Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Luke Benward, Harold Perrineau 18/US 1h40 ***.
Warm and not terribly sophisticated, this gently involving comedy-drama has buckets of charm thanks to its cast and a collection of fabulous Dolly Parton songs on the soundtrack (including new ones written for the film). The seriously gifted Danielle Macdonald stars as Willowdean, who signs up for the beauty pageant her mother Rosie (Aniston) won as a young woman and now runs. This is partly to honour her late aunt, partly to annoy her mother and partly to prove to herself that she isn't bothered by people who make fun of her. But of course there are other lessons she needs to learn. And she also needs to work out her messy relationship with her always preoccupied mother: Rosie loves Willowdean, but dismisses her because of her weight. Macdonald offers a detailed portrait of a bright girl with some dark emotional issues. Her complex mix of confidence and insecurity rings refreshingly true, never simplifying her journey. Although her issues with her mom, best friend (Rush) and the cute boy (Benward) who likes her are less nuanced, leading into the usual teen angst. Of course she sabotages every good chance she gets before ultimately learning to be comfortable in her own skin. Thankfully, it's beautifully played by the eclectic cast (including Perrineau as a drag queen mentor) and directed with enough spark to make it earn the sentiment. It will also offer badly needed encouragement to teens who need it most. As Dolly says, "Figure out who you are, and then do it on purpose."

dir Carlos Lopez Estrada
scr Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs
with Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry 18/US 1h35 ****.
Set in Oakland, this is a comedy with a razor sharp edge to it. Lively and audacious, it touches on a range of big issues with wry humour and snappy characters. With just three days left on probation, Collin (Diggs) begins to worry about his friend Miles (Casal), whose obsession with guns and drugs threatens his freedom. Then he witnesses a cop shooting an unarmed man. But he doesn't dare say anything because it was after his curfew. And he doesn't dare challenge the police. The tension in certain scenes is powerfully intense, and always meaningful on much deeper levels. Actor-writers Diggs and Casal create terrific chemistry between them as young guys just trying to make a living with their moving van, developing their private lives and struggling with a system that's tilted against them. While the script is very funny, it is constantly underscored with serious topics and populated with complex characters, each of whom feels like he or she has a big life off-screen. And director Estrada maintains a lively vibe that's entertaining and provocative. This is a powerful look at a young man desperate to prove that he is more than what society tells him he is: a convicted felon. And while the script touches pointedly on racial issues, it's perhaps an even more potent comment on the broader effects of toxic masculinity and gun culture. This is a bracingly well-observed film that's both hugely involving and vitally important. The climactic scene is devastating cinematic poetry.

There are no more screenings for the rest of the year, but I do have a stack of awards-consideration DVDs and streaming links to watch as I navigate the voting season (two sets of nominations down, one to go, then the final voting rounds) and prepare my own year-end list. Things I still need to catch: Private Life, The Kindergarten Teacher, Bad Times at the El Royale, Shirkers, The Other Side of the Wind, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, and so on...

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Critical Week: Catch the wave

Amid a flurry of last-minute awards-consideration screenings (my first voting deadline is Friday night), I'm still covering movies that are coming into the cinemas at the moment. This week included two blockbusters, a welcome break from the heavier "prestige films" I've been watching. Carrying on from Justice League, Aquaman is an unabashedly corny romp with cartoonish effects and a simplistic script, but lots of fun. The Transformers prequel Bumblebee is even better, maintaining a nice character focus in between the robot-bashing action. The connection between Hailee Steinfeld and her car/alien is as involving as her relationships with her parents and the cute boy next door.

And then there was the high-powered cast of the Dick Cheney biopic Vice, with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell easily transcending the makeup and prosthetics. The glib script is more problematic. The Coens' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a delightful collection of Western shorts, each with great actors and a twist in its tale. Capernaum is a flat-out masterpiece, a Lebanese drama about life on the streets that feels so real that it shakes us to the core. Free Solo is one of the most jaw-dropping docs of the year, following an intrepid climber up an impossible wall of granite. And there was also the generally strong Male Shorts: International V2, a collection of five gay-themed short films exploring intimacy issues (full disclosure: I never saw V1). There were also two film events...

Alita: Battle Angel
Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron's sci-fi action epic was previewed for the press with a collection of about 20 minutes of short scenes and a new trailer, shown to us in Imax 3D with a video intro from Cameron and an in-person Q&A with Rodriguez and producer Jon Landau. The effects are seriously impressive, even if the design work is a little cartoonish - Alita (Rosa Salazar, right) has massive eyes. But it definitely makes me want to see the whole movie when it opens in February.

The Favourite at Kensington Palace
Now here's a brilliant idea: Sandy Powell's insanely clever costumes from the film The Favourite are on display at Kensington Palace until mid-February, set out in the rooms where Queen Anne actually lived. At the press launch this week, it was amazing to be able to walk all the way around these elaborate outfits, marvelling at the stunning textures and layers (and at how tiny Emma Stone is). Meanwhile portraits of royals who lived here are peering down at you from the walls. And one of the story's main events took place right in this very room. Pretty cool. Full information:

This coming week, I have more catching up to do, including Steve Carell in Welcome to Marwen, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in All Is True, Jennifer Aniston in Dumplin', Paul Giamatti in Private Life, the remake of Papillon and the Russian dance drama Polina.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Critical Week: London marches on

London critics caught up with a couple of big blockbusters this week. Mortal Engines is a whopping effects extravaganza from Peter Jackson, so it's surprising to find the story so simplistic. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a whizzy animated adventure with lively characters and plenty of thrilling action.

On the awards-worthy front, we had Hugh Jackman as The Front Runner, the true story of Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign scandal, which tells the story in an oddly straight-arrow style. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe star in Boy Erased as parents who send their son (Lucas Hedges) to gay conversion therapy. It's thoughtful and moving. John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are The Sisters Brothers in Jacques Audiard's refreshing spin on Western vengeance thrillers. And Natalie Portman is terrific as a Gaga-like popstar in the meaty drama Vox Lux.

A bit further afield, Tyrel stars Jason Mitchell as the only black guy on a white dudes weekend in a cabin in the woods. It's superbly insinuating and creepy. Carol Morely's evocative Out of Blue stars Patricia Clarkson as a haunted detective in a film more about her psychology than the serial killer case. All the Devil's Men is a clunky British action thriller starring Milo Gibson as an anti-terror mercenary. And Newly Single is a bracingly abrasive comedy-drama about a hapless filmmaker.

We have a similar mix of genres this coming week, as voting deadlines in the awards I vote for get closer and closer. These include the Transformers prequel Bumblebee, underwater superhero Aquaman, Christian Bale in Vice, the Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, topical drama Blindspotting, and rock-climbing doc Free Solo, among others.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Critical Week: Level the playing field

As the critics groups start handing out their awards, it's clear that we're well into the prestige movie season. And indeed, many of my screenings have been awards-consideration screenings aiming to get my votes as I participate in four awards over the coming months. This week's highest profile films included Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer (above) in the clever, involving Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in the rightfully acclaimed true road movie Green Book, and Elsie Fisher in Bo Burnham's astonishingly realistic adolescent drama Eighth Grade.

Others are both aiming at popular audiences and awards voters. Mary Poppins Returns strains to match the 1964 classic, and at times manages that nearly impossible feat, thanks to Emily Blunt. Ralph Breaks the Internet is as messy but feels even funnier than Wreck-it Ralph. Andy Serkis does a nice job keeping Mowgli faithful to Kipling's The Jungle Book, although it also looks a little cartoonish.

Saoirse Ronan is fierce in Mary Queen of Scots, a slightly over-produced historical drama costarring Margot Robbie as the pox-ridden Queen Elizabeth I. Alicia Vikander leads the all-star cast of another true historical drama, Tulip Fever, which is intriguing but awkwardly edited. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's epic Turkish drama The Wild Pear Tree is a riveting exploration of existence and connection. And Chilean drama Cola de Mono is a strikingly bold exploration of brotherhood and sexuality.

This coming week, we have screenings of the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Hugh Jackman in The Front Runner,  Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased, Jacques Audiard's Western The Sisters Brothers, the indie black comedy Newly Single, Milo Gibson in the British thriller All the Devil's Men, Jason Mitchell in the American indie thriller Tyrel, and the Kosovo drama The Marriage.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Critical Week: Eye on the prize

As awards season arrives, I have a lot of for your consideration screenings alongside the regular upcoming releases, which creates a rather offbeat mix. This week we saw Otto Bathurst's ambitious new take on Robin Hood, starring Taron Egerton and Eve Hewson (above), plus Jamie Foxx and Ben Mendelsohn. Pity it's such a predictable, uneven movie. Creed II was also a disappointment, especially after the high point of Creed. This one should probably have been titled Rocky VIII, because it falls back on the old formula.

Far more satisfying were Steve McQueen's Widows, a wonderful reinvention of the heist movie starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki. The Old Man & the Gun is a terrific true drama starring Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek on top form. And the Cannes winner Shoplifters is another masterpiece by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda. There was also the scruffy, rather awkward micro-budget gay wedding comedy The Rainbow Bridge Motel, plus two documentaries: the fascinating and beautifully assembled Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, and this one...

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
dir Matt Tyrnauer; with Scotty Bowers, Stephen Fry
release US 27.Jul.18 • 18/US 1h38 ****

As legendary Hollywood party boy Scotty Bowers turns 80, he spills the beans on his decades of procuring men and women for the stars. These stories may be salacious, dropping some of the biggest names in cinema history, but they humanise these celebrities and finally open a door on the industry's long-hidden secrets. After serving in the Marines during the war, Scotty worked as a gas station attendant in Hollywood, where he stumbled into a network of closeted gay and bisexual men for whom he organised discreet trysts. While managing a team of rentboys, he met George Cukor then the likes of Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Cole Porter, Cecil Beaton and on and on. They had to hide their true natures due to morals clauses in their contracts, so they created myths and entered arranged marriages. When questioned about outing dead people, Scotty comments rightly that there's nothing negative about being gay, and it's no longer breaking any contractual agreements. In addition, the film outlines Scotty's childhood, including trading sex for cash from a very young age and being part of Kinsey's research study. It's fascinating to see Scotty now, chatting openly about his experiences and living amid mountains of memorabilia without any regrets at all. So the film becomes an important exploration of culture and history, as well as attitudes toward sexuality then and now.

This coming week's screenings are an eclectic mix, including Disney's sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet, Mahershala Ali in Green Book, Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns, Christian Bale in Vice, Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots, Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex, Alicia Vikander in Tulip Fever and the Sundance hit Eighth Grade.

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Friday, 16 November 2018

Critical Week: An odd couple

Returning from a film festival, it always takes awhile to catch up, not only writing up a backlog of reviews but also tracing down screenings that were missed. This week I've caught up with The Upside, the remake of the French drama Intouchables, starring Kevin Hart and Bryn Cranston. It's lively and entertaining, and of course overly slick. Carrying on the effects-heavy wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald throws Eddie Redmayne in between Jude Law and Johnny Depp in a film that's an entertaining series of set-ups that leave us waiting for the next movie in the series.

Keanu Reeves does his usual slow-burn performance in Siberia, a stylish romantic thriller that's neither romantic nor thrilling. The British horror film Await Further Instructions has a clever premise and solid cast, but an unfocussed script. The documentary Three Identical Strangers traces the amazing story of triplets separated at birth, although the filmmakers indulge in some manipulative editing. And then there's this film, marking a century since the end of the First World War...

They Shall Not Grow Old
dir Peter Jackson; prd Peter Jackson, Clare Olssen
release UK 9.Nov.18, US 17.Dec.18 • 18/UK 1h39 ****
Deploying the remarkable archive of film and audio recordings held by the Imperial War Museum and the BBC, Peter Jackson uses digital technology to tell the story of the Great War in a way we've never seen it. Most impressive is his transformation of vintage battlefield footage by adding colour and normalising the frame-rate, making it feel startlingly present. This is then edited together into a chronological narrative that pulls us right into the experience, starting with untouched news footage of the outbreak of war, enlisting, training, shifting to colour for the battlefield scenes and then returning to black and white for a pointed post-war sequence. This is adeptly accompanied by the moving first-hand reminiscences of soldiers on the soundtrack. The sense of detail, including vivid descriptions of sights, sounds and smells, puts us right in the trenches with these very young men, vividly experiencing events from a century ago. And their comments about how Britain reacted to them when they came home after the war gives the film a provocative kick. This is a notable achievement both for its technical and artistic skill and for how it honours more than a million British and Commonwealth men who died in this conflict. And with the voices of men who were there, it expresses a powerful view of pointless nature of such barbaric warfare.

This coming week we have, among other things, Taron Egerton as a new take on Robin Hood, Michael B Jordan in Creed II, Steve McQueen's heist thriller Widows, Robert Redford in The Old Man & the Gun, Hirokazu Koreeda's Cannes winner Shoplifters and the performance art documentary Being Frank.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

TIFF: King of the castle

Well, we've reached the end of the 59th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and all that's left is to hand out the awards, watch the closing film and have a party! As part of the Fipresci jury, we were asked to watch 27 films and award two international critics' prizes - one for a competition film and one for a first-time Greek filmmaker. Our deliberations weren't too tough this time, and we have our winners, so today we can enjoy the return of the sunshine as we get ready for tonight. I certainly have no intention of going near a cinema until this evening. Prize winners will appear on the website's festival page, as will my best of the fest. And here are a few final films...

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
dir-scr Ben Wheatley; with Neil Maskell; Sam Riley 18/UK ****
Beautifully observed and played, this often excruciating British drama mines a family reunion for maximum pain. But with each squirm-inducing scene, filmmaker Ben Wheatley and his gifted improvisational cast find the humanity in these flawed people and strained relationships. In other words, even if the film ultimately feels a bit slight, it's impossible to watch without seeing ourselves up there on-screen.

dir Elsa Amiel; scr Elsa Amiel, Laurent Lariviere; with Julia Fory, Peter Mullan 18/Fr ***.
There's a great movie in here, although filmmaker Elsa Amiel resists committing to a perspective, which leaves the narrative feeling constantly distracted by subplots and side characters. A few intensely powerful scenes hint at a striking drama about a bodybuilder who reluctantly unbottles her maternal instincts. But some timid, awkward direction and an out-of-balance cast leaves the audience on the outside looking in. Even so, it's brittly moving.

dir-scr Mia Hansen-Love; with Roman Kolinka, Aarshi Banerjee 18/Fr ***
There's a loose honesty to this film that makes it easy to watch, even if writer-director Mia Hansen-Love never quite manages to sell the story. Springing from a powerfully topical premise, the film instead takes an extended sideroad that stubbornly refuses to get back on track. This means that the central romance involving the title character feels both incidental and unconvincing. And the deeper issue of post-traumatic stress remains essentially unexplored. Even so, it looks seriously lovely.

dir-scr Sudabeh Mortezai; with Anwulika Alphonsus, Mariam Sanusi 18/Aut ***.
There's a documentary urgency to this drama that makes it feel bracingly authentic. In tracing the journey of a young woman who enters a pact to be trafficked from Nigeria to Austria, filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai avoids any hint of a cautionary message: she simply follows the events with clear-eyed empathy. The narrative wobbles a bit in the third act, but what the film has to say is seriously important and darkly moving.

Obscuro Barroco
dir Evangelia Kranioti; with Luana Muniz 18/Br ****
Pulsing with rhythmic energy, this brief documentary is a dream-like trip into the life of the iconic late Brazilian trans performer Luana Muniz, who provides a poetic voiceover. Greek filmmaker Evangelia Kranioti gorgeously captures Rio's people and places through Muniz's eyes, including strikingly evocative footage of the annual Carnival festivities. The words and images offer a visceral exploration of the city's notorious nightlife. And the film is also a remarkable depiction of how each of us must transform ourselves to become who we truly are.

dir Electra Angeletopoulou, Natalia Lampropoulou; scr Sotiris Petridis; with Konstantinos Liaros, Matina Koulourioti 18/Gr ***
An inventive revamp of Hitchcock's classic Rear Window, this Greek thriller uses webcam hacking as the mode of voyeurism for a young man housebound with a respiratory infection. It's a clever idea, and the film has a bright young cast who make it engaging enough to stick with it. Even so, the filmmakers never take the time to develop the characters. This means that the audience is unable to become complicit with them, so we aren't sucked into the suspense of the situation. Nor can we properly feel the wallop of what happens. Still, it's visually involving and has some superb twists and turns along the way. Plus of course nods to a range of vintage horror movies.

Free Subject
dir-scr Stella Theodoraki; with Theodora Tzimou, Dimitris Kitsos 18/Gr ***
An ambitious, epic-length exploration of artistic expression, this Greek drama centres on a classroom of students given free reign in an art project. Their work is woven into the narrative itself, a fascinating tapestry of fact, fiction and fantasy that touches provocatively in the places where life and art mingle. And it also explores how important it is to be transgressive and even alienating if an artist hopes to find the truth. The film is far too long, culminating with a lengthy musical number that feels badly indulgent. But it's an intriguing look at the difference between art for intelligent people and sell-out populism.

Sunrise in Kimmeria
dir-scr Simon Farmakas; with Athos Antoniou, Kika Georgiou 18/Cyp ***
This ramshackle Cypriot comedy definitely has its charms, but it's also badly overstuffed with characters and subplots that extend the running time far longer than necessary. The plot is engaging: about a simple, straight-talking farmer who finds a UFO that is actually a downed corporate space probe its American owners are trying haplessly to recover. Everyone must hilariously navigate local politicians, religious leaders, goons and busybodies. The script lightly touches on topical themes, but Simon Farmakas basically sidesteps any of that. So the movie ends up as a bit of silly fun. Tightening up the editing and trimming perhaps half an hour of irrelevant goofiness would have made it even funnier.

The Mountain Tears
dir-scr Stelios Charalampopoulos; with Loukia Katopodi, Spyros Georgopoulos 18/Gr **.
Soulful but lifeless, this Greek historical drama will certainly resonate with audiences in its homeland, but writer-director Stelios Charalampopoulos never finds the broader resonance in the story. An homage to The Odyssey, it centres on a journey that's both physical and mythical, set over the tumultuous first half of the last century. There are several striking moments, but the film's pace is wilfully dull, as very little happens on-screen and the storytelling is so minimalistic that it's imperceptible to non-Greeks.