Tuesday, 31 December 2019

A Year in Shadows: 2019


Only one star had two covers to herself: Keira Knightley. Two had one solo cover and a shared one: Brie Larson and Margot Robbie. And these appeared on two shared covers: Christian Bale, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Nicole Kidman, Florence Pugh, Charlize Theron and Bradley Cooper (once as an animated character).

These appeared by themselves on a cover: Antonio Banderas, Jessie Buckley, Judi Dench, Taron Egerton, Idris Elba, Adele Haenel, Linda Hamilton, Nicholas Hoult, Zachary Levi, Ewan McGregor, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Will Smith, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Sophie Turner, Renee Zellweger and Letitia Wright (the only person who appeared on a cover as herself).

Twice on one cover: Samuel L Jackson, Bruce Willis and James McAvoy. And McAvoy is on another shared cover as well, the only actor appearing three times.

On one shared cover: Evan Alex, Mahershala Ali, Yalitza Aparicio, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin, Steve Carell, Jessica Chastain, Emilia Clarke, Toni Collette, Olivia Colman, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Robert De Niro, Danny DeVito, Michelle Dockery, Robert Downey Jr, Colin Farrell, Lady Gaga, Henry Golding, Richard E Grant, Eva Green, Danai Gurira, Bill Hader, Laura Harrier, Finley Hobbins, Anthony Hopkins, Lily James, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Scarlett Johansson, Don Johnson, Dwayne Johnson, Viveik Kalra, Michael Keaton, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Rami Malek, Leslie Mann, Melissa McCarthy, Viggo Mortensen, Jeanelle Monae, Isaiah Mustafa, Kumail Nanjiani, Lupita Nyong'o, Al Pacino, Nico Parker, Himesh Patel, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, James Ransone, Jeremy Renner, Daisy Ridley, Seth Rogen, Saoirse Ronan, Jay Ryan, Eliza Scanlen, Michael Shannon, Justice Smith, Maggie Smith, Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, John David Washington, Emma Watson, Rachel Weisz, Nell Williams.

On one shared cover, but unrecognisably (wearing a mask or voicing an animated character): Tim Allen, Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Bell, Chadwick Boseman, Blake Clark, Joan Cusack, Adam Driver, Justin Fletcher, Karen Gillen, Tony Hale, Tom Hanks, Tom Holland, James Earl Jones, Ally Maki, JD McCrary, Idina Menzel, Jeff Pidgeon, Annie Potts, Chris Pratt, John Ratzenberger, Ryan Reynolds, Paul Rudd, Wallace Shawn, John Sparkes.

Voiced animated or masked characters include lions, Legos, princesses, toys, superheroes, sheep, a farmer, a dog, a Sith lord and a Pokemon. Unvoiced characters: an Oscar, a Bafta, a dog, some plasticine sheep and a flying elephant.

Most crowded cover: Oscar (12), with a three-way tie for second place: Endgame, Toy Story 4 and Knives Out (11 each).

The Best of 2019: 39th Shadows Awards

As always, hacking down the list of some 500 movies I've seen this year to just 10 is tricky business. But it feels like a discipline that specifically goes with this job. I keep a running set of lists each year, and it gets seriously out of control - usually there are around 100 on each list! Note that each film listed here played in a UK or US cinema to a public audience in 2019, although some are yet to go on general release, if ever.

There are longer lists (top 50 films, for example) and a lot more on the website at 39TH SHADOWS AWARDS. My number one movie this year is one of the most bracingly original films I've seen in years - gripping, genre-defying and pointedly timely. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has made some great movies in his career, and this one is masterful, breathtaking cinema. It definitely deserves the attention it's getting in mainstream awards categories this year....


  1. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)
  2. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar)
  3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma)
  4. Wild Rose (Tom Harper)
  5. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov)
  6. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
  7. 1917 (Sam Mendes)
  8. Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas)
  9. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
  10. I Lost My Body (Jeremy Clapin)


  1. Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, 2014)
  2. A Separation (Farhadi, 2011)
  3. Boyhood (Linklater, 2014)
  4. The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2012)
  5. Parasite (Bong, 2019)
  6. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Ramsay, 2011)
  7. Inception (Nolan, 2010)
  8. Fire at Sea (Rosi, 2016)
  9. Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016)
  10. A Fantastic Woman (Lelio, 2017)


  1. Pedro Almodovar (Pain and Glory)
  2. Alma Har'el (Honey Boy)
  3. Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
  4. Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)
  5. Sam Mendes (1917)
  6. Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim)
  7. Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale)
  8. Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood)
  9. Ladj Ly (Les Miserables)
  10. Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro)


  1. Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)
  2. Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim)
  3. Pedro Almodovar (Pain and Glory)
  4. Bong Joon Ho, Han Jin Won (Parasite)
  5. Agnes Varda (Varda by Agnes)
  6. Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman (Booksmart)
  7. Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes)
  8. Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski (Dolemite Is My Name)
  9. Charles Randolph (Bombshell)
  10. Joe Talbot, Rob Richert (The Last Black Man in San Francisco)


  1. Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, Judy)
  2. Florence Pugh (Midsommar, Little Women, Fighting With My Family)
  3. Renee Zellweger (Judy)
  4. Liv Hill (Jellyfish)
  5. Sarah Bolger (A Good Woman Is Hard to Find)
  6. Baran Kosari (Permission)
  7. Lupita Nyong'o (Us, Little Monsters)
  8. Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story, Jojo Rabbit, Avengers: Endgame)
  9. Awkwafina (The Farewell, Jumanji: The Next Level)
  10. Charlize Theron (Bombshell, Long Shot)


  1. Adam Driver (Marriage Story, The Report, The Rise of Skywalker, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote)
  2. Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory, The Laundromat)
  3. George MacKay (1917, Ophelia)
  4. Tom Burke (The Souvenir)
  5. Choi Woo Shik (Parasite)
  6. Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote)
  7. Daniel Kaluuya (Queen & Slim)
  8. Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse, High Life, The King)
  9. Lucas Hedges (Honey Boy, Waves, Ben Is Back, Mid90s)
  10. Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name)


  1. Laura Dern (Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, Marriage Story, Little Women)
  2. Julie Walters (Wild Rose)
  3. Taylor Russell (Waves)
  4. Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame, All Creatures Here Below, Jumanji: The Next Level, Stuber)
  5. Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Dolemite Is My Name)
  6. Allison Janney (Bad Education, Bombshell, Ma)
  7. Tilda Swinton (The Souvenir, Avengers: Endgame, The Dead Don't Die, The Personal History of David Copperfield)
  8. Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit, The King)
  9. Riley Keough (Earthquake Bird, The Lodge)
  10. Idina Menzel (Uncut Gems)


  1. Noah Jupe (Honey Boy, Ford v Ferrari)
  2. Bruce Dern (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Mustang)
  3. Swann Arlaud (By the Grace of God)
  4. Jamie Bell (Rocketman, Skin)
  5. Wesley Snipes (Dolemite Is My Name)
  6. Al Pacino (The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
  7. Baykali Ganambarr (The Nightingale)
  8. Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Out of Blue)
  9. Richard Madden (1917, Rocketman)
  10. Joe Pesci (The Irishman)


  1. Rambo: Last Blood (Adrian Grunberg)
  2. Black and Blue (Deon Taylor)
  3. 6 Underground (Michael Bay)
  4. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (Joachim Ronning)
  5. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Michael Dougherty)
  6. Escape Plan: The Extractors (John Herzfeld)
  7. Killers Anonymous (Martin Owen)
  8. Ecco (Ben Medina)
  9. Triple Frontier (JC Chandor)
  10. Cats (Tom Hooper)

N O N - F I L M   D I V I S I O N

  1. Fleabag (BBC)
  2. Schitt's Creek (CBN)
  3. The Mandalorian (Disney)
  4. Years and Years (BBC)
  5. Special (Netflix)
  6. Call My Agent (Netflix)
  7. Chernobyl (HBO)
  8. Killing Eve (BBC)
  9. Jane the Virgin (ABC)
  10. The Good Place (Netflix)

  1. Juice (Lizzo)
  2. Circles (Post Malone)
  3. Slide Away (Miley Cyrus)
  4. Play God (Sam Fender)
  5. Bad Guy (Billie Eilish)
  6. Giant (Calvin Harris, Rag'n'Bone Man)
  7. Own It (Stormzy, Ed Sheeran, Burna Boy)
  8. Watermelon Sugar (Harry Styles)
  9. Orphans (Coldplay)
  10. Harmony Hall (Vampire Weekend)

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Contenders: Another grab bag

Here are four more films I caught up with - things I missed on their cinema release. It's impossible to see everything before drafting my best of the year lists, but I try to listen to recommendations...

The Cave
dir Feras Fayyad; scr Alisar Hasan, Feras Fayyad
with Amani Ballour, Salim Namour, Samaher, Alaa, Farah, Amer, Mahmoud
release US 18.Oct.19, UK 6.Dec.19
19/Syria 1h47 ****

This documentary explores the five-year siege of Al-Ghouta, a Damascus suburb viciously attacked by its own government forces with help from Russia's military. It's a haunting, provocative film that focusses on a doctor in an underground hospital known as The Cave. In addition to the falling bombs, she has to cope with patients who are both wounded and dealing with serious illness, plus a misogynist culture that belittles women.

As Syria's president Bashar wages this horrific assault, Al-Ghouta's millions of residents flee to refugee camps or hide in tunnels under the city. In the hospital, paediatrician Dr Amani not only tends to the children but has also been selected as hospital manager by her staff. She works alongside surgeon Salim amid the constant roar of warplanes and explosions, trying to fortify above-ground parts of the building. But men continually insult her for working, rejecting her as both doctor and manager. Back in her hometown, her parents understand the risks she's braving. So they're both worried and deeply proud of her, the people she has saved and the women she has employed, flouting convention to help them take care of their families.

"Since you were born, you never let anyone tell you what to do," her parents say on one of their FaceTime chats. "You really should have been born a boy!" Using fly-on-the-wall camerawork, the film follows her through situations such as evacuating children to a tunnel playground or dealing with things like chemical attacks and power cuts. It's astonishingly intimate footage, beautifully shot up-close to capture real people in a harrowing situation. Her colleagues include Samaher, a cheeky nurse who is forced to do all the cleaning and cooking (after refusing to help, men complain about the food). She also plots a surprise 30th birthday party for Amani, although the smell of popcorn gives it away.

Yes, filmmaker Fayyad balances the trauma with humour and quiet moments of honest humanity. And the cameras capture strikingly powerful moments, such as when Amani asks a young girl patient what she wants to do with her life, maybe something important like a doctor or teacher? Or when Amani makes a house-call to a desperate single mother who's not allowed to work to feed her four malnourished children. "Religion is just a tool for men to do what they want," Amani observes. "It wouldn't diminish them if women could make their own decisions and contribute." Of course this begins to get to her. As does the fact that her own government is trying to kill her. Fear, exhaustion and hope against hope are vivid in each person's eyes, highlighting the powerful emotional truth of what the world is allowing to happen in Syria.
22.Dec.19 • Toronto/London

dir-scr Pella Kagerman, Hugo Lilja
with Emelie Jonsson, Arvin Kananian, Bianca Cruzeiro, Anneli Martini, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Emma Broome, Jamil Drissi, Leon Jiber, Juan Rodriguez, David Nzinga
release Swe 1.Feb.19, US 17.May.19, UK 30.Aug.19
18/Sweden 1h46 ****

Based on a Swedish poem, this inventive sci-fi drama explores the nature of humanity and mortality with sharp insight. It's a remarkably clever idea, instantly involving and skilfully shot in a way that centres on the people, keeping the effective visual flourishes in the background where they belong. This allows the story to move through some exhilarating moods as is tips toward horror.

Following the collapse of Earth's ecosystem, humans flee to the outer-space cruise ship Aniara. During their three-week journey to Mars, passengers spend time shopping, playing games, visiting cafes, clubbing, exploring the ship. Joining the crew is MR (Jonsson), who hosts the Mima attraction, which creates a wilderness experience based on memories. But on day one, the ship is knocked off course. The fitness-obsessed captain (Kananian) says it will take years to correct this, but MR's astronomer roommate (Martini) knows that will never happen. So can they settle in to this new life?

Filmmakers Kagerman and Lilja expertly observe this slowly disintegrating microcosm. The first cracks are minor, as passengers turn to Mima for the comforts of their home planet, putting more pressure on MR, who tries to assure customers that life on Aniara is more pleasant than Mars. Then the narrative jumps forward three years, as the darker side of humanity infects Mima and brings suspicion on MR. Even later, religious cults form on the ship, and a rendezvous with a probe promises hope.

The knowing script explores all kinds of angles using this premise, including issues of addiction, criminality, suicide, religion and even romance, as MR hooks up with a hunk (Jiber) but develops a crush on aloof, feisty pilot Isagel (Cruzeiro). The film touches on virtually every layer of society without flinching, leading to a chillingly provocative final act that raises all kinds of resonant themes. A haunting, powerful film.
23.Dec.19 • Toronto

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
dir Joe Talbot; scr Joe Talbot, Rob Richert
with Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Danny Glover, Jamal Trulove, Maxamilliene Ewalt, Michael O'Brien
release US 7.Jun.19, UK 25.Oct.19
19/US A24 2h01 ****

With a blast of fresh energy, this film paints a witty, knowing portrait of the Bay Area's shifting social landscape. Warm and engaging, this is a low-key buddy comedy about two friends seeking justice in a world that's out of balance. Filmmaker Joe Talbot takes a gently loping pace through this slight story, concentrating on the characters and their earthy interaction.

Tired of waiting for the bus, Jim and Mont (Fails and Majors) skateboard across town to the house built by Jim's grandfather. Remembering his childhood there, Jim hopes to get it back one day, but the neighbourhood has now been gentrified, and the white occupants (Ewalt and O'Brien) don't like him sneaking in to touch up paint or tend to the garden. After a lifetime of squatting with his dad (Morgan), Jim is living with Mont and his blind grandfather (Glover). Then he launches an audacious scheme to reclaim the family home.

Beautifully shot with attention to detail, the film has terrific actors who play roles that ooze both charm and spiky underlying attitude. Fails and Majors have a thoughtful, likeable chemistry that strikes a strong contrast with the incessant macho bluster of the other young men who hang out in the streets. Not much happens in the plot, and perhaps relationships could have been developed a bit more. But there's plenty of time for the actors to add deeper layers to their characters, including some intriguing side players as Mont stages a perhaps too-pointed play for the entire cast: "Let us see beyond the stories we are all born into."

In addition to taking on themes within the black subculture, most obviously the issue of endemic racial inequality, the script also touches on surrounding topics such as the polluted water in the bay and the viciousness of wealthy land owners. And at its centre, this is a passionate lament for the way gentrification tears the heart out of a neighbourhood, obliterating history while forcing residents further into society's margins. Thankfully, Talbot resists turning it into an angry rant: this is a love letter to San Francisco.
24.Dec.19 • Sundance/London

dir Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov
with Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam, Mustafa Sam, Muzafer Sam, Veli Sam, Ali Sam, Alit Sam, Gamze Sam, Ljutvish Sam, Safet Javorovac
release US 26.Jul.19, Mac 29.Aug.19, UK 13.Sep.19
19/Macedonia 1h30 *****

Spectacularly shot and expertly assembled, this film observes what happens when the peace in a rural corner of Macedonia is disturbed by noisy interlopers. The filmmakers depict the people and events with a terrific attention to detail, capturing lively textures in the interaction. It's a gorgeous film recounting a dramatic story in a way that's profoundly moving.

At 55, Hatidze lives with her stubborn 85-year-old mother Nazife on a farm in the mountains of Macedonia, where she carefully tends to her beehives. She shares her honey with the hive, to encourage them to make more. Then she travels into the big city Skopje to sell her half at markets. One day a family of travellers encamps next door: Hussein and Ljutvie with their six clambering, boisterous children, plus noisy chickens and cows. Hatidze bonds with the family and instructs them in beekeeping. But Hussain is coerced to harvest his honey too early, so his frustrated bees attack Hatidze's hives, creating a feud between them.

Filmmakers Kotevska and Stefanov spent three years chronicling Hatidze's life, bringing out her steely personality set against the very different people she connects with. And no one hides anything from the cameras. Much of what happens is everyday routine, but there are constant quirks, conflicts, misadventures. Hatidze's only luxury is the chestnut hair dye she buys in town. Her mother complains jokingly, "I can't go outside, I've become like a tree. I'm just here to make your life a misery." There's also plenty of local colour, such as a festival at which men wrestle in the fields, something the kids immediately mimic. One of the boys helps a cow give birth ("Please don't be a male"). And then there's Hussein's scorched-earth approach, as he refuses to take responsibility for his harmful actions or have any respect for either nature or other people.

The unfolding story of these neighbours is riveting, recounted in a way that's both strikingly visual and intimate. Watching Hussein push his kids and lie point-blank to Hatidze is chilling. While the way Hatidze protects nature is lovingly observed, as is how she tends to her bees and her mother. The growing friendships between Hatidze and the children are beautifully captured in pointed sequences, noting her own sense of loss at never being a mother, something she confronts her own mother about. In other words, this lovely documentary works beautifully both on a small, personal scale and as an exploration of some much bigger themes about humanity around the world.
24.Dec.19 • Sundance
 > > 40th Shadows Awards: TOP 10 FILM

C R I T I C A L   W E E K : 
The only other films I saw this week were the sumptuous Chinese arthouse odyssey Long Day's Journey Into Night and Transparent Musicale Finale, the offbeat movie musical that wraps up the TV series. This coming week I have a screening of the Polish Oscar contender Corpus Christi, the Japanese animation Weathering With You and a new re-release of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. I'll also be buying a ticket for Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen, as I was unable to attend the only press screening.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Critical Week: Kitties for Christmas

On Tuesday evening I was able to get into two huge press screenings, easily the most surreal double bill of the year. First up was Cats, Tom Hooper's bizarrely imagined adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's already bizarre musical. It looks like nothing you've seen before, awful and brilliant at the same time. Immediately after that, the critics shuffled across Leicester Square for the only press screening of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth film in the 42-year-long movie saga. It's very entertaining, but a little too carefully concocted to be the masterpiece we were hoping for.

Being busy planning the announcement of the London Critics Awards nominations, I didn't have a lot of time for screenings this week. But I did catch up with Ryan Reynolds in 6 Underground, a massively colourful action romp directed by Michael Bay with little concern for plot or character or coherence. The Courier is an odd patchwork action thriller, as it seems like stars Gary Oldman, Olga Kurylenko and William Moseley never met each other. But it's slick and fast. And Daniel Radcliffe continues to defy expectations, playing a real-life 1970s South African hippie activist in Escape From Pretoria, a grippingly straightforward prison-break movie with a political angle.

Over Christmas I'll be catching up with some late-season awards movies, and also binging on the TV series I've fallen behind on. I'm definitely looking forward to some down time, especially a slowdown in the glut of emails relating to the three film awards I vote for.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Critical Week: Drop the mic

Another rather crazy week at the movies for critics, with screenings of forthcoming releases mingled with awards contenders and catch-up screenings of films I've missed this year. Plus the first of my voting deadlines in year-end awards, as big prizes like SAG and the Golden Globes announced their nominees. And also rather a lot for me to do as chair of the London Critics' Circle Film Awards! Plus the UK general election, which tonight will decide the fate of the nation (not feeling hopeful). So it's clearly not just another week.

The biggest new release screened is Spies in Disguise, an action-packed animated spy adventure voiced by Tom Holland and Will Smith. Adam Sandler veers wildly off-type (in a very good way) for the bold, in-your-face drama Uncut Gems, which is unforgettable cinema. Justin Long stars in the prickly but very timely comedy drama After Class. And Hugh Jackman and Zach Galifianakis voice the lead roles in the gorgeously animated global romp Missing Link.

France's official Oscar contender is Les Miserables, a present-day drama about cops patrolling a rough Parisian suburb. It bristles with life, and nails its themes skilfully. Also from France, Amanda is a gentle, rather sweet drama about everyday people in the wake of an unthinkably horrific event. And there were two docs: Asif Kapadia's sharply edited archive bio Diego Maradona and the entertainingly star-packed filmography doc QT8 Quentin Tarantino: The First Eight.

This coming week there are more awards contenders to catch up with before further voting deadlines. These include Isabelle Huppert in Frankie, Jonathan Majors in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the animated Weathering With You, and the drama Long Day's Journey Into Night. As for regular release screenings, there's Daniel Radcliffe in Escape From Pretoria and Gary Oldman in The Courier. And since studios are refusing press screening requests, I'll be at the cinema to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the musical Cats with the fans.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Contenders: A mixed bag

Here are four more films I've caught up with lately as I get ready to vote in a few year-end awards. There are three very different kinds of docs and an animated movie I somehow missed when it was released last spring...

For Sama
dir Waad Al-Khateab, Edward Watts
with Waad Al-Khateab, Hamza Al-Khateab, Sama Al-Khateab, Afaa, Salem, Wasim, Zain, Naya, Omar, Gaith
release US 26.Jul.19, UK 13.Sep.19
19/Syr C4 1h40 ****

There's a staggering immediacy to this documentary, shot by Syrian journalist Waad Al-Khateab as she documents her life in war-ravaged Aleppo. The personal, firsthand approach adds a powerfully emotional kick, as does the fact that she addresses the film to her young daughter Sama, born in a city under siege by its own government while the rest of the world either stood by doing nothing or dropped bombs on their heads. The situation in Syria is staggering, and it has been documented in many films, but it never gets easy to watch people who live rather a lot like we do have their whole world blown to smithereens. And it shouldn't.

Waad's story is presented out of sequence in a sometimes awkward attempt to create a thematic narrative. The earliest scenes are from 2012, as Waad is studying at university and becomes involved in peaceful protests against the violent, corrupt tyranny of President Bashar Al-Assad, who replied by torturing and murdering scores of protesters then launching all-out military warfare on his own citizens, assisted by Russian bombers. "We never thought this would happen in our city," Waad says at the start of the film. The constant attacks leave public services destroyed, including hospitals and emergency response systems. Meanwhile, Waad falls in love with Hamza, a doctor who builds makeshift hospitals wherever he can. As they marry and set up house, they try to have some semblance of a normal life with their friends, including birthday parties and school (in a basement). And Waad finds herself pregnant, giving birth to Sama in between bombs (one later demolished the hospital, killing 53 people). And when they have to finally make a run for it, the film becomes a tense thriller with real-life peril.

All of this is shot through Waad's eyes, up close and very personal, often capturing extremely harrowing scenes, such as young boys mourning the death of their tiny brother or the struggle to deliver and resuscitate an infant after his mother dies. For these people, there's no time to grieve, and as an audience this isn't always easy to watch. But Waad and Hamza create a lovely home for Sama, including moments of sweetness that are infectious. Chillingly, little Sama doesn't even flinch at the sound of a bomb blast (while Waad jumps in horror).

The film captures the everyday trauma of life in a war zone with matter-of-fact earthiness and a proper sense of moral outrage. "We'll live in dignity or die," is the battle cry of these young professionals fighting for freedom against huge odds. Posted from Aleppo, Waad's video clips have been seen by millions around the world, and she wonders why no one has offered help, instead leaving a vacuum for fanatical Islam to flourish. But Waad has no regrets. "We have done this for our children," she says. They need to know that their parents didn't just accept injustice. Movies don't get much more powerful than this.

Missing Link
dir-scr Chris Butler
voices Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Timothy Olyphant, Amrita Acharia, Ching Valdes-Aran, Emma Thompson
release UK 4.Apr.19, US 12.Apr.19
19/US Laika 1h33 ***.

Laika's wonderfully detailed approach is beautifully deployed in this animated adventure about a frightfully English explorer who yearns to prove the existence of legendary creatures like the Loch Ness monster and bigfoot. While the astonishingly smooth stop-motion imagery is full of humorous detail, the script is just as jam-packed with sharply intelligent gags, including some hilariously well-aimed innuendo.

It opens in 19th century London, as the womanising Sir Lionel (Jackman) discovers a lead to the missing link, which is hiding in the Pacific Northwest. The hyper-posh members of an adventurers club are furious ("We are descended from great men, not great apes!"), so he makes a wager with them that if he finds proof they'll let him into the club. Then in the depths of the Washington forest, Lionel discovers that the creature, Mr Link (Galifianakis), is startlingly erudite and charming, longing to meet a Yeti, who might make him feel less alone. Wacky mayhem ensues, as they are joined by Lionel's angry ex Adelina (Saldana) on their elaborate voyage to the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Fry) is determined to quash this unwanted reality, hiring a vicious hitman (Olyphant).

The film knowingly skewers social and cultural issues of the period, which of course also resonate now, including everything from class divisiveness to the fear of outsiders. Neither Sir Lionel nor Mr Link feel like they fit anywhere, so their blossoming friendship is charming, adding an emotional kick to the free-wheeling plot. Jackman and Galifianakis are recognisable by their voices, and some clever animated tics, which only brings out their personalities even more forcefully. Saldana's Adelina is more simplistic, as is everyone else, but the actors have a lot of fun injecting jagged jokes everywhere. While the comedy is genuinely amusing, mixing it in with action violence sometimes gets rather awkward, with slapstick that's absurdly silly and also eerily deadly. But even if the big action climax feels rather oddly conceived, the film remains thoroughly engaging.

It does help that the animation is flat-out gorgeous, with tactile fabrics and sharply stylised characters in settings that are washed in light and colour. As the story traverses the globe, the animators create a range of spectacular landscapes and set-pieces, from lush forests to expansive oceans to the ice-capped peaks surrounding Shangri-La. And as the story develops, the characters deepen just enough to make us hope a sequel is in the works.

Diego Maradona
dir Asif Kapadia
with Diego Armando Maradona, Maria Maradona, Claudia Villafane, Cristiana Sinagra, Gennaro Montuori, Ciro Ferrara, Fernando Signorini, Corrado Ferlaino, Alberto Bigon, Danel Arcucci
release UK 14.Jun.19, US 20.Sep.19
19/UK Film4 2h10 ****

British filmmaker Asif Kapadia completes a trilogy about iconic figures (after Senna and Amy), taking on the Argentine footballer known as much for his colourful personal life as his sporting success. He's a mythical player, loved as much as he's been hated. Again using archival footage, Kapadia paints a riveting portrait of a person we thought we already knew. The documentary centres on his career in Naples, where Maradona transferred in 1984. Within two years, he took them from the bottom to become Italian champions. Meanwhile, he indulged in cocaine and women, and he refused to claim his illegitimate son with Sinagra, born while his wife Villafane was pregnant with the first of their two daughters. Then his drug use put him in the pocket of Naples' notorious Camorra family.

The narrative flickers back to his childhood in the impoverished slums of Buenos Aires, illustrated with amazing old footage that vividly captures how his life changed at 15, when playing football made him able to support his family. It's fascinating to watch the trajectory to success in Italy and global fame leading Argentina to triumph in the 1986 World Cup, after that epic Argentina-England quarter final just four years after the Falklands war (including his notorious "hand of god" goal). Kapadia never shies away from these kinds of controversies, but he resists dwelling on them. Clips abound of his theatrics during matches, from over-dramatised injuries to dirty play. And of course the next World Cup had its own scandal, as Argentina took on Italy in the semifinal right in Naples itself. It was like war in the stands and on the pitch, and Italy turned against him as a result, including the press, public and police, who caught him in a drugs and prostitution sting when the Camorra stopped protecting him.

Footage is narrated by Maradona, and seeing events through his eyes makes them strikingly personal. He comes across as an observant, cheeky guy who lost control of himself. As Villafane says, "He wasn't Diego anymore, he was Maradona." Accompanying voiceover interviews with friends, family, teammates and journalists reveal how, like most big stars, he was ruthlessly manipulated by people for their own gain, which adds a surprising emotional kick to the film. His fall from grace is wrenching, as is a clip of him crying in a 2004 TV interview about his life.

The film is expertly edited by Chris King, who gives the narrative a quick pace that echoes Maradona's electric personality, enormous attitude and athletic physicality, even as he certainly didn't have the standard physique to be perhaps the best player in history. As one journalist notes, his brain made him a star, not his body. It's an extraordinary documentary that takes the audience on an unexpected journey. And you get the feeling that Maradona would learn a thing or two watching it.

QT8 Quentin Tarantino: The First Eight
dir-scr Tara Wood
with Christoph Waltz, Samuel L Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Robert Forster, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Diane Kruger, Lucy Liu
release US 21.Oct.19, UK 13.Dec.19
19/US 1h41 ****

Described as "an overzealous geek", Quentin Tarantino is such a singular filmmaker that it's unusually revealing to watch a documentary about him. The film is packed with fun details for fans, insightfully shared by a large range of people who have worked with him on his first eight movies as a director. He only appears in this documentary in archival footage and on-screen quotes.

Interviewees include iconic actors who have made a massive impact on cinema by appearing in one or more of his films. They walk through Tarantino's career movie by movie, sharing reactions to the material and a lot of great backstage anecdotes, some of which were captured on film while others are hilariously animated. They begin with the shock of Reservoir Dogs in 1992, the dawn of a bracing new cinematic voice, and conclude with the sophisticated nastiness of The Hateful Eight. These two films echo each other intriguingly, with similar set-ups that also show his evolution as a filmmaker. Several people remark that reading a Tarantino script is like reading a novel. Indeed, his films exist in his own universe, and each moves to its own rhythms and logic. There are also comments on how the characters in his movies are secretly interlinked through their off-screen backstories.

The film is packed with never-seen backstage footage of the films being made, including the scene in which Uma Thurman was badly injured filming a driving stunt for Kill Bill. This leads into an extended section about Tarantino's long working relationship with Harvey Weinstein, which is unnerving on a variety of levels and haunts the film right to the end. Of course, Tarantino is known for making films about very strong women who don't put up with any abuse at the hands of men. There's also a section about Tarantino's film festival in Austin, which explores his overpowering passion for genre cinema. He refuses to play to audience expectations. And he certainly knows the difference between historical accuracy and the magic of cinema.

Tarantino is above all a romantic, notes producer Stacy Sher. Each of his films includes action, thrills, comedy, drama and passion. As the documentary moves through his career, it's intriguing to see how Tarantino has put his stamp on cinema, from the pulsing comical intensity of Pulp Fiction to the impeccable storytelling of Jackie Brown to the bravura expertise of Inglourious Basterds. The doc ends with a very brief glimpse of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, the perfect next step for such a film-obsessed filmmaker. And the fact is that Tarantino makes all of us love the movies even more.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Exhibition: You are the dancing queen!

Like a trip back to the 1970s, the Abba: Super Troupers exhibition is running at the O2 until the end of August 2020. It's a lively, colourful romp through the history of the iconic Swedish band, exploring how its style and sound developed. Intriguingly, it also calls for a more serious exploration of the group's impact on world music, putting its achievements into context with what was happening around the globe. And with the right kind of crowd, this is the kind of museum that encourages you to get dancing - indeed there's both a full-on disco space in the middle, plus a large concert dance floor at the end. (Alas, I saw it with lots of rather subdued press very early on a Thursday morning.)

The first room sets the scene: Britain in 1974, which is when Abba broke out of Sweden with a glittery flourish at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton (Waterloo won). Intriguingly, this was also a time when Britain was dealing with years of austerity and big questions about Europe. From here we travel back to the four bandmates' childhoods and solo careers, their first album Ring Ring (when they were called "Björn Benny Agnetha Frida") and how they developed both the name Abba and that trademark backwards B.

Each room centres on one of their albums with enormous cover art, plus clothes, props, studios, stage sets and even a helicopter from the Arrival cover art. Of course, Waterloo is accompanied with a special Eurovision stage re-creation (including the costumes and star guitar from Brighton, pictured here). The working disco is in the Voulez-Vous room. There's also a look at Abba: The Movie (which was released alongside Abba: The Album). And the final studio album, 1981's The Visitor, offers a jolt of melancholy as their marriages had failed.

Onwards, there are gold and platinum records galore, plus a full-on recreation of superfan Andrew Boardman's Manchester home jam-packed with memorabilia. And before you get to the gift shop, an enormous concert room projects memorable moments from their performances with plenty of space to throw some shapes and sing Thank You For the Music at the top of your lungs.

This is a beautifully curated exhibition, presented in association with Abba: The Museum in Stockholm. It's packed with historical and cultural treasures, interview material, imagery and evocative items, all described on a ludicrously jam-packed audio guide (included with the price of admission). More than a trip down memory lane, it's a reminder of why Abba's music still has such a powerful hold on us. You'll wish you'd worn something just a little shinier.

A few more pics on Insta...

For more information: www.abbasupertroupers.com 

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Critical Week: On the run

Awards screenings continued this week with several strikingly good movies. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner Smith star in the superb, pointed, involving road movie Queen & Slim. George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman star in Sam Mendes' bravura WWI adventure 1917, which also features cameos from Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Colin Firth. Mark Ruffalo takes on an evil corporation in Todd Haynes' riveting true drama Dark Waters. And Paul Walter Hauser is stunning as the title character in Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell, the true story of a man whose life was ruined by media sensationalism in 1996.

Not looking for awards are Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan, back with all their friends for the lively, silly Jumanji: The Next Level, which has a bit mote texture than the first one. And John Cena and John Leguizamo lead the charge as firefighters in Playing With Fire, a dim but rather enjoyably ridiculous mix of comedy and action.

Further afield, Jennifer Reeder's unhinged Knives and Skin is an enjoyably deranged mystery-thriller with blackly comical edges set in small-town America. And Helen Hunt leads the horror thriller I See You as a doped-up housewife whose already strained life is upended by what seems like a ghost in the family home. There was also this important reissued drama from 1985...

dir-scr-prd Arthur J Bressan Jr
with Geoff Edholm, David Schachter, Damon Hairston, Joyce Korn, Billy Lux, David Rose, Libby Saines, Susan Schneider, Tracy Vivat
release US 12.Sep.85 • reissue US 21.Jun.18, UK 6.Dec.19 • 85/US 1h21 ****

Digitally restored to a pristine state, this is one of the earliest dramas about Aids, made as the epidemic was only just starting in 1985. It's one of the most humane treatments of the topic, centred around a friendship between two young men who are facing their mortality in very different ways. Filmmaker Arthur Bressan has some tricks up his sleeve, but his storytelling is disarmingly simple, which makes the characters and situations deeply engaging.

As a volunteer for a gay community centre, 25-year-old David (Schachter) introduces himself to 32-year-old Aids patient Robert (Edholm), who is in hospital with no real chance of recovery. David is nervous, and Robert is confrontational, but as they get to know each other, barriers come down and they share their very different personal journeys. David sneaks some porn into the room, while Robert challenges David to get involved in pushing the government to end its silence and stop a disease that is killing a generation.

While the film's tone feels simplistic and old-fashioned, there's a sophistication to the characters and issues that is far ahead of its time. Even three decades later, this is a bracingly complex exploration of the Aids epidemic, the political cruelty that sparked it and the social opinions that exacerbated it. So the way the film presents David and Robert as normal guys just trying to live their lives has an everyday quality to it, as well as something revolutionary. It's beautifully acted by both Schachter and Edholm, who bring sharp humour and warm emotion to every scene. The other cast members remain mainly just out of sight, because this isn't their story. So not only is this a vital document of a place and time, but it's also a remarkably involving, provocative drama that needs to be seen today.
 4.Nov.19 • Berlin

This coming week I'm hoping to get into a screening of the animated adventure Spies in Disguise, and there are also Justin Long in After Class and Gary Oldman in The Courier, plus catching up with the animated film Missing Link, the footballer doc Diego Maradona and the Tarantino doc QT8: The First Eight.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Stage: Detoxifying masculinity

choreography, producer Joe Moran / Dance Art Foundation
lighting Beky Stoddart • costumes Tom Rogers
with Andrew Hardwidge, Alexander Miles, Sean Murray, Erik Nevin, Christopher Owen, Yiannis Tsigkris, Temipote Ajose-Cutting
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, London • 28-29.Nov.19

A provocative exploration of physical interaction, Joe Moran's dance choreography continually challenges the audience with its shapes and spaces. There's no music, so the performance often resembles a sporting event, especially with the gymnasium-like atmosphere in the Lilian Baylis Studio. And in Arrangement, the six male dancers are dressed in sports-casual wear (with some added nightclub touches like mesh shirts and a leather kilt). The one-hour performance is broken into a series of shorter pieces that work together on a thematic level to subvert stereotypes about masculinity.

One section feels like a rugby scrum, as the men push both against each other and into each other, forming a knot of limbs straining in tension. And then there's a witty dance on their hands as they jostle for position against the back wall. At other times, they are working together, forming a sort of six-man ball rolling across the stage toward the audience. The most effective sequence is more like an athletic game, as one man dances and the others try to stop each other from pushing him into various positions. And some of it feels remarkably free-form, as each dancer performs his own piece, eerily echoing each other with repeated movements.

Through all of this there's a cheeky sense of interaction with the audience, including an amusing section in which the dancers take turns standing centre stage for an improvised Q&A session that takes a few unexpected turns. This is not the kind of piece that makes its themes obvious, but there are big ideas swirling everywhere, pushing viewers to examine preconceptions about physicality, interaction and the way men, specifically, are expected to contend against each other on various planes, and also work together to create something remarkable.

The hour-long Arrangement is preceded by the 12-minute Decommission, featuring the remarkably athletic Temipote Ajose-Cutting, whose demanding performance cuts across moments of complete blackout. It also features several extremely long-held poses that require unusual strength and calm, commenting on the limits of the body while playing with ideas of space, time, weightlessness and, yes, patience.
Photos by David Edwards • www.sadlerswells.com

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Critical Week: A warm embrace

Press screenings are slowing down as usual for this time of year, as journalists try to catch up with things they haven't seen yet. Attending the London Film Festival put be ahead of the curve, but there are some late-season releases I'm still chasing. I only had four screenings this past week: the staggeringly powerful drama Waves with Kelvin Harrison Jr and Alexa Demie (above), plus Lucas Hedges, Sterling K Brown and rising star Taylor Russell. The Brazilian drama Greta is dark and sometimes a little too serious, but has some strong things to say about people on the fringe of society. Starring Steven Berkoff and Martin Hancock, The Last Faust is basically a museum piece, an ambitiously artistic telling of both parts of Goethe's epic story, accompanied by paintings, sculptures, photographs and a novella. And I finally caught up with the devastatingly emotional doc For Sama, a deeply personal account of life in wartorn Aleppo.

Outside the screening room, it was a privilege to attend an event at which Peccadillo Pictures placed its archive at Bishopsgate Institute. Peccadillo has released a number of seriously notable films over its 20 year history, with more to come. Their releases over the years have included Embrace of the Serpent, Weekend, The Shiny Shrimps. I'm interviewing the director and lead actor from their upcoming Georgian drama And Then We Danced tomorrow.

Coming up this next week: Sam Mendes' already acclaimed war drama 1917, Todd Haynes' drama Dark Waters, Clint Eastwood's Atlanta Olympics bombing drama Richard Jewell, Daniel Kaluuya in Queen & Slim, and the John Cena comedy Playing With Fire. We also have our annual meeting with the Critics' Circle and the BBFC, always enjoyably informative as they tell us about the year's knife-edge ratings decisions.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Stage: A twisted Christmas delight

Slipped: Cinderella ... Rebooted!
by Paul Joseph and Tim Benzie 
dir Tim McArthur
with Faye Reeves, Grant Cartwright, Robert McNeilly, Jim Lavender, Rich Watkins
Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London • 28.Nov.19-8.Jan.20

This was my first panto at Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and I knew it would be a twist on the formula. Indeed, it's a riotously rude, gender-bending romp featuring the usual tropes, including how it's chirpily addressed to an audience of "boys and girls" while everything is very adult indeed. With a terrific script and nimble direction, plus an engagingly up-for-it cast of cross-dressers, this is a fabulous blast of holiday spirit.

The fairy tale is well and truly fractured. Cinderella (Cartwright) is off to the ball thanks to help from his Fairy Godmother (Reeves), who has some anger issues. But his wicked stepmother Lady Garden (McNeilly) and evil stepsister Pleasure (Lavender) are also in attendance, hoping to catch the eye of the eligible Prince Charming (Watkins). The problem is that the prince ha s a shoe fetish, so he's more interested in that exquisite glass slipper than whoever was wearing it.

Where this goes is flat-out ridiculous, encompassing a series of amusing musical numbers. Classics like Tomorrow and Especially for You (or rather, Shoe) mingle with more recent hits like Juice, Señorita and You Need to Calm Down. Plus a seriously unforgettable rendition of Shallow. The script is littered with pop culture references as well as nods to news headlines that feel so up-to-the-moment that the show will be shifting along with the UK's election campaign. It will definitely be worth revisiting.

And the performers are relentless scene-stealers, trying to win the audience over with individual call-and-response catch-phrases while directly appealing for sympathy at every turn. Each has great stage presence, mercilessly lampooning themselves. Watkins' smirking Prince is sometimes unnervingly slimy, while Reeves and Lavender have a suitably appalling chemistry as the conniving, hairy-dopey baddies. As the heroine, Cartwright is appropriately bland but blossoms as things go on. And the show is well and truly stolen by Reeves, who skilfully channels Megan Mullally on speed as the Fairy Godmother, nailing the show's best gags. She also pops up in various witty side roles, and gets a chance to torment the audience directly (glitter alert!).

Director Tim McArthur takes a freewheeling approach that knowingly riffs on amateurish townhall-style productions. But these are talented professionals who never miss a beat, improvising jokes along with the script's funniest gags while trying to crack each other up. It's charming, hilarious and very rude. There are perhaps too many poo jokes (if that's possible), and the whole thing seems to be reluctant to come to an end. So it leaves us in just the right kind of Christmas mood.

For more info: www.vauxhalltavern.com

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Stage: A naughty Christmas wish

Pinocchio: No Strings Attached!
by Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper
dir Andrew Beckett
with Matthew Baldwin, Jared Thompson, Dami Olukoya, Christopher Lane, Christy Bellis, Shane Barragan, Oli Dickson, Briony Rawle
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 19.Nov.19-11.Jan.20

Olukoya and Thompson
The 11th holiday panto produced by Above the Stag is another impressive production, with witty staging, a lively script, terrific songs and a cast that's expert at milking every bit of innuendo for all it's worth. That said, the show sometimes feels like it plays it a bit safe, relying on reliable old gags instead of inventing something new. But the performers keep it fresh and often raucously entertaining. In fine tradition, the familiar storybook tale has been twisted into something hilariously queer for an adult audience that's not afraid of rather a lot of rude double entendre.

In the Italian fishing village of Placenta, puppet-maker Gepetta (Baldwin), her sidekick Cornetta (Bellis) and their cat Chianti (Rawle) are in hiding, fugitives from a crime spree in Rome. But evil fox Figaro (Lane) suspects something is up with them. One night, part-fairy Fatima (Olukoya) brings Gepetta's puppet Pinocchio (Thompson) to life, telling him not to lie. Bullied at school for being wooden, he's tempted by a funfair on the edge of town, and also by new footballer Joe (Dickson), bought for the local team by Figaro. When Pinocchio runs away with Joe, Gepetta and Cornetta set off to find him, helped by lonely fisherman Pedro (Barragan), who has a thing for Gepetta.

As events progress, the soap-style romantic storylines are enjoyably tangled, boosted by the gender-bent mayhem. Characters are openly lusting after each other, resisting and then falling for each other and swearing like, well, fishermen. When Pinocchio lies, it's not his nose that grows. The actors dive in with gusto, playfully delivering the smuttiest dialog while deploying references to politics, current events and of course the Disney animated classic (including a sharp Jiminy Cricket gag). And each character gets a chance to break out in song and dance, numbers that are snappy and often laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Lane as Figaro the fox
With spotless timing, Baldwin is playing his seventh Above the Stag pantomime dame. He's gifted at engaging with audience members and improvising jokes that are just as funny as the scripted ones. He also generates some surprising pathos even in some of the more ridiculous moments, creating vivid connections with Bellis' sparky Cornetta and Barragan's adorable Pedro. Dickson is also memorable as the puppet come to life, putting in a remarkably physical performance that emphasises his dance skills. Lane has a ball as the predatory Figaro, never shying away from his smirking, gleefully leery nastiness. And Rawle is a gifted scene-stealer, amusingly riffing on quirky cat behaviour even when lurking in the background.

Above the Stag's original musicals are of such high quality that they'd play well on a West End stage. They fill this small venue perfectly, with inventive production design that sets off the various scenes. Four main sets are vividly imagined, plus a nicely deployed landscape-painted curtain. The sound is, as usual, a bit tricky, with quite a few punchlines inaudible in the back rows (there are only eight). But the energy is unmissable, and there's never a dull moment as these engaging characters take on this big Christmas-themed adventure with plenty of wickedly grown-up sass.

For more info: www.abovethestag.org.uk

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Critical Week: Don't call me angel

It was another mixed bag of movies for me this week, with awards-worthy movies jostling for attention with the usual weekly releases. We had Elizabeth Banks' new take on Charlie's Angels, an entertaining but slightly off-balance mix of comedy and violence. Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced and stars as a detective with Tourette's in Motherless Brooklyn, a beautiful film that's also a bit indulgent. Chadwick Boseman stars in the cop drama 21 Bridges, which looks great but really needed a much better script. And Ophelia retells the story of Hamlet as a teen romance with great performances and production values, but little point.

Aaron Eckhart toplines the cop thriller In the Line of Duty, which is gritty and a bit predictable. Daniel Isn't Real is a fascinating psycho-thriller that never quite finds something to say about mental illness. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a riveting look into the comical magician's fatal heart condition and rather slippery life. And I was able to rewatch the beautifully made British independent drama Into the Mirror on a big screen at a cast and crew screening - great to see it projected instead of on a small screen at home, and really nice to meet the director and writer-actors.

This coming week I have a line-up of acclaimed arthouse movies to see, including Sterling K Brown in Waves, Jennifer Reeder's Knives and Skin, Helen Hunt in I See You, the Chinese thriller Long Day's Journey Into Night, the Brazilian drama Greta and Steven Berkoff in The Last Faust. I also have some more theatre, a special film archive event and the London Critics' Christmas party!

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Contenders: Four docs

Catching up with movies as award season cranks up, this time four acclaimed documentaries. The field of docs is overwhelming this year, and it's simply impossible to watch everything...

American Factory
dir Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
with John Gauthier, Wong He, Cho Dewang, Jimmy Wang, Jeff Liu, Bobby Allen, Rob Haerr, Shawnea Rosser, Jill Lamantia, Fred Strahorn
release UK Jun.19 sdf, US 21.Aug.19
19/US Netflix 1h55 ****

A fascinating exploration of both the world's new financial reality and a collision of cultures, this documentary astutely explores the differences between Americans and Chinese workers in a multinational corporation. Even if it's somewhat overlong, the film is strikingly well shot and edited to highlight differences as well as to find the common humanity. Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert capture this without commentary, including some remarkably emotional moments. And it becomes profoundly important as it focuses on personal perspectives about both changing ways of working and the larger shift in the global economy.

The film opens in December 2008, as GM closes a plant in Ohio, losing 10,000 jobs. Eight years later, Chinese corporation Fuyao reopens it as an automated glass factory, with 2,000 non-union jobs that pay less than half as much as the old ones. As they prepare to move to Ohio, a team of Chinese workers is tutored in American culture; workers from both countries are paired on the factory floor. The film follows a variety of employees as they face this new reality. Many of the locals have never recovered from the plant's closing, having lost their homes. Meanwhile, the Chinese are far from their families, struggling with high expectations and an often incomprehensible culture. Contrasts abound: when American supervisors visit China they are shockingly casual in the meetings (one wears a Jaws t-shirt) and deeply impressed by the efficiency on the line. And after Fuyao's smiling workers perform elaborate company-praising musical numbers, the Americans dance to YMCA.

It's great to watch the Ohioans bond with their Chinese colleagues, offering new experiences like a Thanksgiving meal or the chance to fire a gun. Meanwhile, the bosses are furious when US Senator Sherrod Brown mentions worker's unions in his grand opening speech, worrying that a union will reduce efficiency so much that they'll be forced to close down. The tension between quality, safety and corporate targets is relentless. The Chinese blame inefficient American workers who complain too much, want more than two days off per month and constantly threaten to unionise. But safety is a serious issue, and Chinese bosses blame their American managers for failing the company. So even though there's mutual understanding on the floor, the threat of unionisation sparks a ruthless crackdown. So in the end, this is a fascinating, nuanced depiction of the struggle to bridge the gap between arrogance and overconfidence.
30.Oct.19 • Sundance

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary
dir-scr Ben Berman
with John Szeles, Anastasia Synn, Ben Berman, Penn Jillette, Criss Angel, 'Weird Al' Yankovic, Carrot Top, Max Maven, Eric Andre, Judy Gold, Simon Chinn, Chad Taylor
release US 16.Aug.19, UK 22.Nov.19
19/US 1h31 ***.

As the Amazing Johnathan, Szeles is a standup comedian and magician known for his outrageous performances. Then at the top of his career in 2014 he was told he had a year to live due to a heart condition. Three years later, he sets out to make a documentary with Berman as he tries to figure out what to do with the time he might have left. So off they go on a comeback tour around America. Although things get a bit complicated when Szeles allows a second documentary crew to tag along. And then Berman learns that another documentary was already in the works before he came along.

Berman lets the story unfold with real-life messiness, as each discovery threatens to derail his project. With a story that's just as involving, Berman is struggling with how he can make this doc stand out from the others, so he weaves in his own life story, complete with home-movie flashbacks. This loose, freeform style makes the film thoroughly endearing, and it also fits well with Szeles' chaotically unplanned approach to taking life as it comes. Indeed, Szeles lives one day at a time in Las Vegas with his wife Anastasia, never doing anything he doesn't want to do. Being preoccupied with his health, it's difficult to concentrate on working. "I'm not supposed to be here," he says, as he comes out of retirement and starts work on a new show, visiting venues he played 20 years ago. He does worry about possibly dying on-stage, but then much of his show consists of him pretending to mortally wound himself.

Clips of his outrageous magic act punctuate the film, intermingled with segments that, for example, follow Szeles back to his childhood home in Detroit. Home videos follow him into his past, including partying and ongoing drug use. Berman cleverly includes footage he knows he shouldn't, pixelating people who don't want to appear on screen and putting black-out boxes to obscure, for example, Szeles' drug use. A witty sequence involves Szeles offering to appear on camera smoking meth if Berman joins him. Berman's struggle to discover the soul of his film adds a fascinating layer both to the documentary and to Szeles' story. One larger question is whether he should ever trust a magician, and this leads the doc itself down a new narrative path that provides a fascinating look at art, perception and the nature of truth.
18.Nov.19 • Sundance

Sid & Judy
dir Stephen Kijak; scr Claire Didier, Stephen Kijak
voices Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jon Hamm, Norman Jewison, George Schlatter, Albert Poland, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
release UK Oct.19 lff, US 18.Oct.19
19/US Universal 1h38 ****

By using real recordings and in-character dramatised memoirs for voiceover narration, this documentary recounts the story of Judy Garland and Sid Luft with remarkably intimacy. Never shying away from the darker side of their life together, the film feels unusually honest for an exploration of such an icon. It also features a fantastic range of never-released behind-the-scenes material.

The film traces the 13-year romance between Luft and Garland, who met as her marriage to Vincente Minnelli was collapsing, and it also flickers back through Garland's life to chronicle her from birth to death. Along the way, filmmaker Stephen Kijak includes terrific audio recordings made by Garland herself, recounting her story. And of course there's also a wonderful collection of archival footage, stills and animated sketches, including extensive clips from her movies and snippets of iconic songs. One electric sequence weaves together multiple variations on The Man That Got Away from A Star Is Born (1954).

Garland recalls going into show business at age 2, and never stopping. Luft recounts the constant studio pressure that included strict dieting and amphetamines to make sure she maintained the desired energy level. She went through rehab, but the pressure continued, and she attempted suicide. At 28 she had been owned by the studio for 15 years, and they released her from her contract. Later, the TV network was threatening to cancel The Judy Garland Show because of her substance abuse, while Luft tried to hold her together.

The doc traces the personal events in their lives with bracing honesty, including some remarkably moving moments, plus harsh episodes including Garland's abuse by studio heads and a variety of managers. The film also captures her relentless sense of humour. And each sequence is punctuated beautifully by music, often with gorgeous rare recordings. Most intriguing is how the film traces how Garland's legend grew up around her, with each personal setback followed by another triumphant performance. And seeing this through Luft's and Garland's eyes, in their own words, is magical.
28.Oct.19 • London

The Great Hack
dir Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim; scr Karim Amer, Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos
with David Carroll, Brittany Kaiser, Carole Cadwalladr, Paul Hilder, Christopher Wylie, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, Julian Wheatland, Ravi Naik, Emma Graham-Harrison, Gill Phillips
release US/UK 24.Jul.19
19/US 1h53 ****

Beautifully shot and edited, and packed with clever effects that bring out deeper ideas, this chillingly detailed documentary explores how data from our online activity has turned us into a commodity without us even knowing who is mining our details. The problem is that this creates an individually filtered reality that's removed from what's actually going on in the world, playing on fears and apathy. And this has handed power to disruptors and the wealthy who profit from tyrants. For evidence, see the organised-but-invisible campaigns of propaganda and disinformation backing Trump, Brexit and other supposedly democratic movements around the world.

As New York professor Carroll notes, the online world has become our matchmaker, fact checker, personal entertainer, guardian of our memories and even therapist. All of our interactions, credit card payments, searches, movements and even the clicks themselves are linked together to create a virtual version of ourselves that is used to target us with content. Project Alamo spent $1 million per day on Facebook ads to get Trump elected, based on  information from Cambridge Analytica, which had at least 5,000 data points on every voting American. The film documents how their stated aim was to target us with specific information to make us see the world the way they wanted us to see it, and to change our behaviour. Trump's campaign ran nearly 6 million targeted ads on Facebook (compared to Clinton's 66,000). And the Leave EU campaign in the UK did exactly the same thing. As did the Blue Lives Matter movement. And Bolsonaro's campaign in Brazil. And so on.

The film is superbly assembled with a strong narrative flow, as Carroll seeks to find out what data Cambridge Analytica has collected about him. The story is beefed up by investigative journalists Cadwalladr and Hilder, who connected the dots and broke the story. And former Cambridge Analytica employees who blew the whistle on illegal data collection are articulate and honest, including Kaiser, Wylie and Dehaye. Kaiser is a particularly complex case, a human rights activist who struggles to admit what her work did to the world.

It's deeply shocking to see how these companies worked behind-the-scenes to manipulate millions of people, using immoral methods that were often also blatantly illegal. Defining these methods as psy-ops is eye-opening: this is information warfare, and it's going on literally everywhere. The hard truth is that we don't own our own data, and it can be used against us at any time. The scary result of this is that there may never be be another free and fair election anywhere in the world, because it's the richest, strongest, most ruthless campaigns that wield this power. And it will only get worse, and more insidiously underground, until we can legally own our online selves.
3.Nov.19 • Sundance