Thursday, 31 January 2019

Critical Week: Body issues

Cinemas are now absolutely jam-packed with awards movies, leaving people unsure what they should watch. The box office is always ruthless, rarely rewarding the films that actually deserve it. And the awards are skewing populist as well this year. After the producers (PGAs) and actors (SAGs) went all over the place, all eyes are on the directors (DGAs) this weekend to restore a sense of order before Bafta and Oscar arrive. But could Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born and Green Book knock the more ambitious, accomplished films out of the spotlight?

Press screenings this week included the much-anticipated Akita: Battle Angel, which James Cameron developed before handing off the directing job to Robert Rodriguez. It's a big, action movie, with lots of action, flashy effects, some cool themes and, erm, bashing robots. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part has huge shoes to fill, and is thankfully relentlessly hilarious as it rockets through its insane plot with engaging, silly characters, outrageous storytelling, inventively crazed visuals and a nonstop peppering of references to everything, including itself.

A little off the beaten path, Untogether is an artful romantic comedy-drama starring Jamie Dornan, Jemima Kirke, Lola Kirke and Ben Mendelsohn. It's sharply made, observant and a little mopey. Lucid is an independent British thriller about a young guy who learns to control his dreams, sort of. It's intriguing and visually stunning. Wretched Things tells three stories linked by themes about sex and morality. It's inventive and beautifully shot and performed, if a little on the nose. He Loves Me is a fiercely artful Greek drama with no dialog (there's a voiceover) about two men on a beach holiday trying to save their relationship.

And finally, I managed to watch the recent American TV production of Rent: Live, which turned out to be the dress rehearsal, and it showed in the low-energy performances and uneven technical quality. But it was also far too frantic, busy and even a bit dated. Surely a stripped-down update would give new life to this awesome musical.

This coming week, I'll buy a ticket to see How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, as I was unable to attend the only press screening. I also have screenings of Liam Neeson in Cold Pursuit, Penelope Cruz in Everybody Knows and two docs: The Gospel of Eureka and The Sunday Sessions.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Critical Week: Brotherly love

There weren't many press screenings for me over the past week, as I was a bit busy with the London critics' awards. But I did manage to catch up with two coming-of-age dramas. Mid90s is Jonah Hill's writing-directing debut, an involving, realistic drama about a young teen (Sunny Suljic, above right, with Lucas Hedges as his thuggish big brother) who turns to skateboarding to find his place in life. The British film Old Boys has currents of comedy and slapstick as it follows a teen (Alex Lawther) at a posh boarding school caught in a Cyrano-style love triangle. It's a bit goofy, but engaging and inventive.

Even further afield, In Like Flynn is an Australian biopic about Errol Flynn's pre-Hollywood days. Thomas Cocquerel is dashing in the lead role, but the film is far too cliched and corny. The Polish drama Nina is set up as a lesbian coming-of-age drama for a married woman, but the elusive filmmaking leaves the audience on the outside looking in. And ParTy Boi: Black Diamonds in Ice Castles is a gritty documentary about the rise of crystal meth among America's black gay subculture. It's pretty harrowing, cautionary without shying away from telling the whole story.

This coming week we have screenings of the upcoming animated sure-fire hits The Lego Movie 2 and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, plus Christophe Honore's Sorry Angel, and the British independent dramas Lucid, He Loves Me and Wretched Things.

Monday, 21 January 2019

39th London Critics' Circle Film Awards: words and pics...

Yes, it was time for the London film critics to hold their annual gala red carpet event. And for the seventh year, I was the chair of the organising committee, which meant that I was involved in every aspect of the day's events. The 39th London Critics' Circle Film Awards, presented by Dover Street Entertainment at The May Fair Hotel, had a distinct tone this year - awash in diversity almost any way you looked at it. We had fewer high-wattage Hollywood stars, but we made up for that with humour, energy and some properly talented guests in attendance. It was a great celebration of film - and a fantastic party. Here are some photos to help tell the story...

Pedro Almodóvar was awarded our top honour, the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film. Tamsin Greig (left), who starred in the West End production of his classic Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, presented the award to him. At right, Critics' Circle Film Section Chair Anna Smith and I stand on either side of the evening's host, the fabulous British comic Judi Love.

Left to right: Richard E Grant accepts Supporting Actor for Can You Ever Forgive Me; writer-director Michael Pearce wins Breakthrough Filmmaker for Beast; producer Nicolas Celis accepts Film of the Year for Roma.

Pawel Pawlikowski's gorgeous Cold War won both Foreign-Language Film and the Technical Achievement Award for Lukasz Zal's cinematography; Rupert Everett sent his friend and costar Emily Watson to pick up his award for British/Irish Actor for The Happy Prince; Yorgos Lanthimos collects the prize for British/Irish Film of the Year for The Favourite.

One of my jobs was to chase down video thank yous from winners unable to be present (I knew the winners before anyone else). Both of these were shot in dressing rooms: Olivia Colman was on set filming The Crown and gave a witty thank you for Actress of the Year in The Favourite, and Ethan Hawke is in a play on Broadway, and made some clever, thoughtful observations as he collected Actor of the Year for First Reformed.

Alfonso Cuaron sent a video greeting as he won Director of the Year for Roma, while Agnès Varda spoke for herself and co-director JR to accept Documentary of the Year for Faces Places.

Rachel Weisz spoke from her kitchen to accept Supporting Actress for The Favourite, while Jessie Buckley was also stuck on-set on Sunday, offering a heartfelt thank you for British/Irish Actress in Beast, and hoping she'd finish early enough to come join the party (sadly, she couldn't).
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara were on-hand to collect their award for Screenwriters of the Year for The Favourite, as were director Lara Zeidan and producer John Giordano, who won Short Film of the Year for Three Centimetres.

Molly Wright was wonderfully surprised when she won Young Performer of the Year for Apostasy (she also helped read out our nominations when they were announced last month); her director Daniel Kokotajlo was a nominee for Breakthrough Filmmaker; while Liv Hill was up for Young Performer for The Little Stranger.

Fionn Whitehead was nominated for Young Performer for the second year running, this time for The Children Act; Anya Taylor-Joy was also up for that award for her work in Thoroughbreds; and writer-director Deborah Haywood was up for Breakthrough for Pin Cushion. (She was one of three women we nominated for directing, along with Debra Granik and Lynne Ramsay in the Director category.)

Other guests included Gonzalo Maza, screenwriter of Foreign-Language Film nominee A Fantastic Woman; actress Muna Utaru (The Keeping Room); and filmmakers and diversity activists Hannah and Jake Graf.

I have spent the last six months working on this event, and it has completely taken over my life over the last six weeks (with a bit of a breather when all the publicists' offices closed over the holidays!). After we have a debrief and work out what we can do even better next year, we'll be able to forget about all the chaos until it begins cranking up again next summer. The 2020 event will be our 40th anniversary, so I think we need to plan something unexpected.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Critical Week: Plot your escape

I caught up this week with three films that are circling in awards season this year, but are only just now being screened for London critics. The documentary Minding the Gap is a provocative look at three childhood friends in Rockport, Illinois. It's relaxed, entertaining and darkly moving. A more artfully poetic doc, Hale County This Morning, This Evening explores similar themes, focussing on young men who dream of escaping their close community in rural Alabama. It's sumptuously shot, and remarkably introspective. And the Italian drama Happy as Lazzaro is a masterful fable about how humanity hasn't really changed with modernisation. This is told through the magical tale of an engaging young farmhand who simply never has a mean thought in his head.

The one big movie I saw this week was M Night Shyamalan's Glass, which brings together two of his earlier films (2000's Unbreakable and 2017's Split) to deconstruct superhero mythology. It's creepy and almost startlingly serious, with meaty performances from leads James McEvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson. Tom Everett Scott stars in the high-concept comedy I Hate Kids, which is amusing but never very funny. James Franco has a brief role in Don't Come Back From the Moon, an elusive but compellingly well-made drama set in the California desert. The Hole in the Ground is an Irish horror movie that's scary but a bit thin. And Pond Life is a lushly shot British drama featuring a superb ensemble of teen actors over a summer of yearning.

I attended the event at which the British Board of Film Classification announced its new guidelines this week. Every five years they canvas more than 10,000 people around the country to update what people expect from the UK's film ratings system. The changes are intriguing, with harder lines taken toward sexual violence and discriminatory language and imagery.

This coming Sunday is the 39th London Critics' Circle Film Awards, which I chair. I've been rather swamped with organising that over the past few months, and especially this week. Look for a report with pics next week. I also have some screenings lined up, including Jonah Hill's Mid90s, Alex Lawther in Old Boys, the Polish drama Nina and a doc called ParTy Boi.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Critical Week: Heat and dust

Screenings are only just starting up in the new year, so I've only seen a few things this week. Although much of the attention for film critics centred around reacting to Sunday's rather odd line-up of Golden Globe winners and Wednesday's just as bizarre collection of Bafta nominations. Meanwhile, I saw Love Sonia, a powerful Indian drama about a 17-year-old (Mrunal Thakur, above) who is trafficked from her small village to Mumbai and beyond. It's pretty harrowing, but strikingly well made and urgently important. Instant Family is a rare comedy with a more serious, meaty theme, as Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play a couple that fosters three siblings. It's played for laughs, but also remembers that the events carry weight as well.

Jellyfish is a small British drama about a feisty 15-year-old (the amazing Liv Hill) who takes care of her two younger siblings as well as her clearly unwell mother. It's superbly well written and directed, with a bracing realism that brings out the deeper themes. Robert Guedigian's ensemble drama The House by the Sea is very French: lots of people sitting around agonising about their lives, relationships, the changing world. But it's beautifully assembled and full of moving moments.

The screening schedule is picking up now, and over the next week I have M Night Shyamalan's Glass, Tom Everett Scott in I Hate Kids, the sinkhole horror The Hole in the Ground, the acclaimed Italian drama Happy as Lazzaro, and the coming-of-age drama Pond Life. I'm also in the final week of prep as chair and chief organiser of the 39th London Critics' Circle Film Awards. So it'll be a busy one!

Friday, 4 January 2019

Critical Week: Winter bites

For a film critic, it's not about screenings at the moment, it's about awards! Over the past few weeks, three groups I vote in announced their nominees: London Critics (I'm chair of their awards), Online Critics and the Dorian Awards. The Online Critics also announced their winners this past week, Dorians next week. And our London Critics' Circle Film Awards is coming up on 20th January, so I have a lot of work to do getting that all lined up in just over two weeks.

Meanwhile I'm also watching movies. In the past week I watched the Norwegian true WWII thriller The 12th Man, which has a terrific sense of energy to it, and a nice focus on the heroism of average people, Sgt Will Gardner is a gritty, gruelling drama about an Iraq veteran (played by writer-director Max Martini) trying to overcome a brain injury and reconnect with his life. It's powerful and important. Scaffolding is an engaging Israeli drama about a young guy who realises that maybe there's more to life than behaving like a macho thug, as his father and peers have taught him. And on British television, The Queen and I is a rather lazy satire about turning the royal family into ordinary citizens, augmented with lots of silly slapstick and easy jokes. David Walliams goes for broke as the villainous new prime minister. I also caught these three gems - a streaming hit and two awards-worthy docs...

Bird Box
dir Susanne Bier; scr Eric Heisserer
with Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, Danielle Macdonald, Tom Hollander, Lil Rel Howery, Colson Baker
18/US Netflix 2h04 ***.
Without any hesitation, this apocalyptic thriller dives straight into an inexplicable nightmare, which helps paper over some audacious lapses in logic and a nagging feeling that the script is rather thin. After a freaky prolog that frames the story, the narrative cuts back five years to the arrival of some sort of phenomenon that gives people a vision that pushes them to suicide. As chaos erupts, a handful of survivors huddles together, understanding that whatever it is, it only takes a brief look at it to spark the urge to end it all. The title refers to a journey downriver in a boat as Bullock and two children try to reach safety, keeping two birds in a shoebox as a warning device. Director Susanne Bier does a terrific job building suspense with a cast playing strikingly realistic, engaging characters who are at the end of their rope. Each of the actors is terrific, playing their roles without compromise. Even a rather unnecessary romance avoids being irritating, simply because the actors sell it. Bier also cleverly resists a clear depiction of whatever it is that's causing this horror, putting us in the characters' perspective with glimpses of its effects that are frightening enough. So it's a little frustrating that the plot descends into little more than a slasher thriller - albeit a pretty terrifying one - as these likeably messy people are picked off one by one. A twist involving mental illness adds an intriguing wrinkle, and the production is skilfully assembled, shot in ways that keep the suspense levels high and the characters at the centre. If only it had somewhere more interesting to go, or something more profound to say about the world we live in right now.

Love, Gilda
dir Lisa D'Apolito; with Chevy Chase, Martin Short, Laraine Newman, Lorne Michaels, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader
18/US 1h28 ****
Warm and intimate, this documentary recounts the life story of the iconic comic Gilda Radner in her own words, as top comedians (like Poehler and McCarthy) read from her journals. Not only is this a vivid exploration of Radner's life, but it's also a remarkable look at how the need to perform expresses itself, sometimes leading to pure magic. Moving along at a quick pace, the doc traces her happy childhood and how she decided to be funny instead of worrying that she wasn't a perfect specimen of femininity. Her early comedy cohorts are a who's whom of 1970s talent, leading to the formation of the very first Saturday Night Live ensemble (she refers to improv as a circus performance without a net). And then there were the usual pressures of fame, which led her into a severe eating disorder. Her one-woman show on Broadway brought her lifetime memories together with a variety of musical-comedy talent, showing her that she longed to be more than just "Gilda Radner". So she took some time to look at herself. Then she met Gene Wilder on the set of Hanky Panky (1982) and the two became inseparable. And her cancer diagnosis forced her to reconsider her identity once again. The film is a treasure trove of unseen clips, backstage footage and iconic TV moments featuring Radner with the likes of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray. It's fascinating to see how she created unforgettable characters like Emily Litella and Roseanna Roseannadanna, and also how celebrity came unexpectedly fast, making her wonder if she would ever find a real relationship with a man. Not only was she a great entertainer, but her tenacious attitude is deeply inspiring. As is her mantra that, "I can do almost anything if people are laughing."

dir-scr Sandi Tan
with Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, Sophia Siddique Harvey, Tay Yek Keak, Grace Dane Mazur, Stephen Tyler, Ben Harrison, Philip Cheah
18/US Netflix 1h36 ****
As a little girl, Sandi Tan believed that she found freedom by escaping into her imagination. Desperate to become a filmmaker, she was overflowing with ideas. Her first moviemaking project with her best pal Jasmine was a freeform Singaporean fantasy thriller called Shirkers, in which she played a 16-year-old serial killer. Now 25 years later, she is trying to figure out what went so bizarrely wrong all those years ago. The story centres on her inspirational film teacher George Cardona, a married man who took her on an unforgettable road trip around America and then directed Tan's script for Shirkers. Then he vanished, taking the film (and Tan's savings) with him. Tan filters her story through her childhood obsession with anything outside the acceptable mainstream. The documentary is shot and edited with a wonderfully deranged sense of juxtaposition, a riot of movie clips, snapshots, home video and various forms of art and animation. This gives the narrative a riveting pace that sparks intense curiosity about even the quirkiest details. The making of the film is packed with hilarious observations (the clips from it are frankly fabulous), so as things begin to turn strange, the doc becomes even more intriguing, with a number of chilling twists in the tale. Tan tried to just move on, but Shirkers wouldn't let her go, and it fully came back into her life two decades later. This is an extraordinary story about creative ambition and villainy, with a terrific mystery to unpick. And it comes to vivid, resonant life due to Tan's passion and skill as a movie lover and filmmaker.

Screenings start up again slowly next week. In my diary I have James Franco in Don't Come Back From the Moon, Freida Pinto in Love Sonia, Robert Guediguian's The House by the Sea and the acclaimed documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It's also the week after the Golden Globes, with Bafta nominations announced on Wednesday, so will push awards season forward dramatically.