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.

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