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.