Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Critical Week: Family time

These are busy days in the screening rooms, with festival films as well as the usual forthcoming releases. And the awards season has also begun to rear its head with for-your-consideration screenings. It'll be like this for the rest of the year! This week I caught up with the Cannes-winning Parasite by Bong Joon-ho, a staggering drama about a family of con-artists that continually twists and turns to keep the audience gasping. There was the second Shaun the Sheep Movie, Farmageddon, which is just as sweet and hilarious, if a bit more madcap, than the first. Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss all go against type in the thriller The Kitchen, which struggles to find its tone. And Ready or Not is a horror comedy that's funny and very grisly, but not scary at all.

Awkwafina is terrific in a dramatic role in The Farewell, a charming and involving drama set in China. The gifted Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) is back with the important, unnerving and rather long dramatic thriller The Nightingale, set in 19th century Tasmania. Celine Sciamma (Girlhood) is back with the staggeringly good, utterly unmissable period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Richard Kind gets a rare serious role in the gentle, uneven virtual reality drama Auggie. The inventive but messy black comedy Groupers takes on homophobia in ways that will make everyone feel uncomfortable. And this beautiful documentary opens this week...

dir Kristof Bilsen; scr Kristof Bilsen, Xan Marquez Caneda
with Chutimon "Pomm" Sonsirichai, Maya Gloor, Elizabeth Rohner, Martin Woodli,
Walter Gloor, Joyce Gloor, Sara Gloor, Tanja Gloor
release UK 20.Sep.19 • 19/Belgium 1h22 ****

Reflective and intimate, this understated documentary simply follows women who initially seem completely different but reveal layers of common ground between them. Filmmaker Kristof Bilsen cuts between Thailand and Switzerland, quietly observing mothers and children as they connect to each other in unexpected ways. This gives the film a gently involving narrative, allowing the audience to experience these situations and emotions in a vivid way.

Pomm is a care worker from an isolated Thai village. She only gets to see her children when she's on holiday, and feels guilty that she isn't there all the time. Her job is to work with the Western patients at Baan Kamlangchay, an Alzheimer's care centre in Chiang-Mai. One of these is Elizabeth, a smiley woman who occasionally wonders where she is. "You're on holiday in Thailand," Pomm cheerfully reminds her, calling her "granny". Pomm feels that her patients are family, and she uses emotions to communicate with them. Meanwhile in Switzerland, Maya has early onset Alzheimer's at 57, and is being readied by her family to travel to Chiang-Mai. Maya's husband and daughters are sensitive to criticism that they are sending her away, but from their perspective this is a sacrifice, giving up their time with her so she can have a better life and proper care. As Pomm is grieving Elizabeth's death, Maya moves in, and they begin a new relationship.

The film is beautifully shot without ever being pushy about themes, offering remarkable insight into a variety of issues, including a young woman who needs to work two jobs to support a family she rarely sees and also the importance of providing dignified care for Alzheimer's patients. It's fascinating to see how Pomm identifies with women who have lost their past lives. She longs to hug her mother, who takes care of her kids, but the culture forbids it, so she lavishes affection on her patients instead. She's also well aware that if she needed this kind of care, she could never afford it. Yes, this is the kind of doc that makes us think.

Much of my time at the moment is being taken up with festival screenings. The Raindance Film Festival is running right now (18-29 Sep), and press screenings have already begun for the London Film Festival (2-13 Oct). I'll of course have more updates on both of those! And there are also regular movies screening for the press these days, including Naomie Harris in Black and Blue, Juliette Binoche in Non-Fiction, Jamie Bell in Skin, Mathieu Amalric in Sink or Swim and the horror movie The Birdcatcher

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Critical Week: Turn the tables

The women ruled at this week's press screenings. Jennifer Lopez (with Constance Wu, above) chomps merrily on the scenery all the way through Hustlers, a far-too-energetic retelling of a true story about strippers who con Wall Street clients out of their cash. Renee Zellweger is nothing short of astonishing in the terrific biopic Judy, following a few months near the end of the icon's life with passion and emotional power. And Downton Abbey brings those fabulous grand dames to the big screen. The men are there too, but who cares when Maggie Smith is shooting daggers at Penelope Wilton?

Brad Pitt travels into space, and into his own repressed daddy issues, in the muted and rather odd Ad Astra, a gorgeous sci-fi epic that simply fails to resonate. Peter Sarsgaard leads the charge as a quirky-nerdy house tuner in The Sound of Silence, a nutty little drama that's more intriguing than involving. From Colombia, Monos is a ripping dramatic thriller about a group of teens working for some sort of paramilitary organisation, isolated in the mountains and then jungle. It looks amazing, and packs a punch. And there were two documentaries: the harrowing Sea of Shadows skilfully traces the horrors inflicted by humans on the diverse sea life in the Gulf of California, while Mother is a sensitive, powerfully moving look at a carer who works with European Alzheimer's patients in Thailand.

This coming week, there are no press screenings for Sylvester Stallone's franchise closer Rambo: Last Blood, so we'll be at the cinemas with everyone else to see this swan song. But we do have screenings lined up for the comedy-horror Ready or Not, Awkwafina in the comedy-drama The Farewell, Dev Patel in the true drama Hotel Mumbai, the claymation sequel A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, Celine Sciamma's acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the British drama Real. Advance press screenings also start next week for the BFI London Film Festival (which runs 2-13 Oct).

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Critical Week: If looks could kill

Yes, it's been yet another eclectic week in the screening rooms, as film critics scavenged for press previews of movies so we could write about them. Films this week were relatively low-key, a gasp of breath between the summer blockbusters and the early trickle from the autumn film festivals. There was the moody police procedural Night Hunter, starring Alexandra Daddario and Henry Cavill (above) as cops, along with Ben Kingsley as a vigilante. The week's biggest movie was screened to us in nearly three hours of Imax, namely It: Chapter Two. The original kids are back in flashbacks with the likes of James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader playing them as adults. It's grislier than the first film, and a bit more grown-up in its themes, but more fun than scary. And Sarah Hyland stars in the rom-com The Wedding Year, which feels fluffy and genuinely witty as it mixes some deeper ideas into the usual formula.

Off the beaten path there was the sleek, low-budget thriller Empathy Inc, shot in black and white and full of big ideas, some of which go somewhere. Seeds is a brainy freak-out in which yucky monsters menace a flawed man in his old-money family home. Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots is a lively, raucous night in the streets with two gay buddies. It feels scruffy and a little unfinished. From Argentina, Rojo is a strikingly clever drama exploring 1970s politics with a very dark story. And ee also had the programme launch for next month's London Film Festival, which as always will be a glut of great movies across the city's cinemas.

Coming up this next week, awards contenders are starting to rear their heads, as well as some autumn crowd-pleasers: Renee Zellweger is Judy, Brad Pitt goes into space for Ad Astra, the entire Downton Abbey cast reassembles on the big screen, Jennifer Lopez leads a pack of Hustlers, and Sea of Shadows documents environmental issues surrounding fishing.