Thursday, 15 February 2018

Critical Week: Brotherly love

It's been a meagre week, screening-wise, mainly because I've already seen virtually everything that's being shown to the press at the moment (thanks to autumn film festivals and awards-season screenings and screeners). I did manage to catch up with Owen Wilson and Ed Helms in Father Figures, which wasn't screened to the press, and now I know why. It's a bizarre mix of gross-out comedy and brotherly bromance sentimentality. Another set of fraternal twins feature in The Lodgers, an atmospheric Irish freak-out starring Charlotte Vega and Bill Milner as siblings keeping watch over their collapsing family manor by day, then hiding from marauding nastiness at night. It turns genuinely creepy when two interlopers upset the balance. There was also the sensitive Brazilian drama About Us, which has a ring of autobiography in its introspective exploration of a past, pivotal relationship between a filmmaker and an architect. And I watched this documentary to take part in a rather strong TV panel discussion...

Saving Capitalism
dir Jacob Kornbluth; with Robert Reich 17/US ***.
One of those blood-boiling documentaries that leaves the audience feeling helpless, this film skilfully holds the attention with its disarmingly gentle tone and likeable central figure. Robert Reich was Labor Secretary under Clinton, and is now travelling around America to understand how average people feel about being squeezed by rising inflation and falling wages. He explains that this is happening because corporations are draining the system, shifting money from workers to top-tier executives while at the same time siphoning off tens of billions from the government in tax breaks and incentives, plus special laws and loopholes as the result of lobbying. Reich argues that this is just another form of regulation, promoting capitalist business with socialist hand-outs. It's hard to fault his logic, because he articulately states the case and backs it up with both clear facts and historical precedent. And filmmaker Kornbluth assembles this in a riveting, entertaining way. Most telling is that this same situation developed in the 1890s and was corrected with extensive limits on corporate power. But Reich admits this will only happen if voters stop putting populists in office and let government do its job to protect people from companies that are literally stealing money then blaming the government for the problem. And without limits on campaign donations, it's only going to get worse. No wonder so few people trust politicians. And no wonder the usual urgent plea to vote and protest feels like a drop in the bucket.

Strictly Ballroom: The Musical
Based on the 1992 sleeper hit movie, which launched Baz Luhrmann's career, this Australian stage musical is heading for the West End in March. At its launch event this week at the Cafe de Paris, we were treated to a few musical numbers by cast member Will Young, a fiery flamenco performance from veteran actor-dancer Fernando Mira, and lively speeches from director-choreographer Drew McOnie and Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin. There was also more dancing from the show's stars Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen and the company. It was a colourful morning, properly whetting the appetite for a show based on a film that lingers in the memory. I don't think I've watched it all the way through since it was in cinemas 25 years ago, so I'm looking forward to seeing this on-stage, with its mixture of deranged Aussie humour and pointed social commentary that feels even more timely today. And of course because it launched a global sequin-bedazzled ballroom craze that's stronger now than ever.
Previews begin at the Piccadilly Theatre on 29th March, more info is HERE.

Screenings of new movies are still slow, but I have a few things in the diary over the next week, including Toni Collette in Madame, Taraji P Henson in Proud Mary, the Justin Chon drama Gook and the programme launch event for the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, which takes place 21 March to 1st April.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Critical Week: Stardust memories

It's been another random week of screenings, topped by a surprise Netflix release and a starry film premiere. The surprise was The Cloverfield Paradox, the latest loosely connected film in JJ Abrams' franchise. This one's a sci-fi thriller with some nicely deranged touches but a general air of randomness about it. The premiere was for Black Panther, Marvel's latest game-changer, a thumpingly entertaining adventure with a properly African sensibility and some wonderfully pointed themes. It's also swamped with too much digital extravagance.

Clint Eastwood's new film The 15:17 to Paris stars the actual three heroes who thwarted a gunman's attack on a train in 2015. They have presence, but the film feels meandering and pointless apart from the momentous 10 minutes. Becks is a beautifully written and performed story about a musician trying to rebuild her life, although it kind of chickens out in the final act. Just Charlie is a gorgeous British drama about a pre-teen who begins a male-to-female transition that's never simplistic or preachy. Revenge is a gleefully blood-soaked thriller about a woman turning the tables on three tough guys, although it kind of mixes its messages by fetishising her. The Canadian drama Sebastian has some charm, but is undermined by inexperienced filmmaking. And Ingmar Bergman's underrated, remarkably complex 1971 romantic drama The Touch gets a stunning digital restoration. And then there were these two...

Fifty Shades Freed
dir James Foley; scr Niall Leonard; with Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes 18/US *.
Shot back-to-back with the second movie, this trilogy finale features the same dopey writing and directing, remaining resolutely superficial as a preposterous thriller without even a hint of suspense. It's a bit sexier, structured like a soft-porn romp as our heroes can't keep their hands off each other whenever the music kicks in. But the characters are so limp that the actors look like they were drugged and forced to speak this laughably awful dialog. The film opens as Christian and Ana (Dornan and Johnson) have a fantasy wedding, then bicker on honeymoon about going topless on a French beach. As a married couple, their biggest challenges are Ana's hot security guard (Brant Daugherty) and Christian's flirty architect (Arielle Kebbel), before Ana's surprise pregnancy causes some overwrought his-and-her melodrama in between the belt buckles, bubble baths and Ben & Jerry's. Meanwhile, Ana's psychotic ex-boss (Eric Johnson) launches a series of attacks that get increasingly ludicrous until a climactic showdown. All of this is so flimsy that it's difficult to remember why EL James' books created such a fuss in the first place. There's certainly no sense that these two people are in any sort of real-world relationship. In the original film, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel captured a zing of tension and a bit of deranged fun in the characters. But these sequels are wet noodles.

Dropping the Soap
dir Ellie Kanner; with Paul Witten, Jane Lynch 16/US ****
The nutty backstage comedy is set among the cast and crew of the camp soap opera Collided Lives, and features as much bickering off-camera as on it. New producer Olivia (Lynch) is rattling everyone, manly lead actor Julian (Witten) is so deep in the closet that his leading lady (Suzanne Friedline) thinks they're engaged. The show's other female star (Kate Mines) is plotting to out him, but everyone is so caught up in their own worries that they barely notice. The scripts for these 10 episodes (each around 10 minutes long) are hilarious, packed with witty verbal gags and riotous interplay between the actors and their soap characters. It's also made with a snappy pace, a steady stream of funny cameos and a refreshing willingness to under-explain everything that happens. It's out on DVD/VOD, and well worth a look.

There aren't many screenings next week, but I will catch up with Owen Wilson in Father Figures, the British horror The Lodgers, the Brazilian drama About Us and the documentary Saving Capitalism. It's also the run-up week for the Baftas on Sunday 18th February.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Critical Week: She's behind you!

With my time largely consumed by the London critics awards, it was a slower week for screenings, with just one big title: the ghost story Winchester, which is very loosely based on a true story. Helen Mirren adds some star power, as Jason Clarke is solid, but the film is little more than a collection of the usual cheesy scary movie cliches. At least it's good fun.

In fact, all of the films this week were fact-based: The Music of Silence is an Italian drama (acted in English) based on the fictionalised autobiography of singer Andrea Bocelli, starring Toby Sebastian and Antonio Banderas. It's a bit dry, but a strong story well played. Birth of the Dragon fictionally traces the mythical clash between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man in early 60s San Francisco. It's out of balance due to a subplot that takes over, but the fights are great. And Thirsty actually stars Scott Townsend as himself in a dramatised telling of his life, as he grows up to become drag star Thirsty Burlington. It's colourful and entertaining.

Screenings this coming week include Black Panther, The trilogy finale Fifty Shades Freed, Clint Eastwood's thriller The 15:17 to Paris, the family romp Peter Rabbit, the French thriller Revenge, the Canadian drama Sebastian and a restoration of Bergman's 1971 drama The Touch.

Monday, 29 January 2018

38th Critics' Circle Film Awards: words and pics...

As chair of the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, I get to be right on the frontline putting this event together. It's a lot of work, over about six months with especially intense days when voting starts in early December until the big night. Our 38th awards were handed out on Sunday 28th January at The May Fair Hotel, presented by Dover Street Entertainment. And since I have to get up at the start to thank our sponsors, I usually hand out the first award. This year's first honour went to Hugh Grant (above), named Supporting Actor of the Year for Paddington 2. He joked, "Well that's ludicrous. Trump, Brexit, and now me winning this. It's the end of days!"
The ceremony ended on a highlight, as Kate Winslet was presented the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film by her friend Jude Law. She gave an electric speech referencing the Time's Up movement from her own personal perspective. Kate started with, "It almost feels uncomfortable to receive an award at such a time." And she went on to reference the #MeToo issue: "I realised that I wouldn't be able to stand here this evening and keep to myself some bitter regrets that I have about poor decisions to work with individuals with whom I wish I had not."
These three men from Call Me By Your Name were in the house - Armie Hammer came along with his friends, nominees Luca Guadagnino (up for film and director) and Timothee Chalamet, who won Actor of the Year. Timothee thanked Luca ("Who basically gave me my career at this point") and his "tongue-wrestling partner" Armie.
Here's the team running the show: host Steve Oram, Critics' Circle President Anna Smith, host Alice Lowe and Critics' Circle Awards Chair Rich Cline. This was Steve and Alice's third year hosting the show - they're an awesome double act.
Winners for Breakthrough Filmmaker and Young Performer: Francis Lee for God's Own Country and Harris Dickinson for Beach Rats.
Lesley Manville was named Supporting Actress of the Year for Phantom Thread, while producer Daniel Battsek collected awards on behalf of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: for best film, screenwriter Martin McDonagh and actress Frances McDormand.
Writer-director Paul King and writer Simon Farnaby, both nominees for their work on Paddington 2, were in the house. Writer-director Dionne Edwards and producer Georgia Goggin won British/Irish Short Film of the Year for We Love Moses.
Supervising Art Director Paul Inglis accepted production designer Dennis Gassner's Technical Achievement Award for Blade Runner 2049. Noah Jupe (Suburbicon) and Dafne Keen (Logan) were nominees for Young Performer.
More nominees in the house: Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk), Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth), Josh O'Connor (God's Own Country) and Emily Beecham (Daphne).
Emma Willis was a nominee for her amazing hair and makeup in The Love Witch. Other guests included Alec Secareanu (God's Own Country), Jessica Barden and Jack Johns.
Four of our winners sent thank you videos. Clockwise from top-left: Martin McDonagh won Film and Screenwriter of the Year for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Daniel Kaluuya was named British/Irish Actor of the Year for Get Out; Paul Verhoeven won Foreign-Language Film of the Year for Elle; Sean Baker took Director of the Year for The Florida Project.
And finally, our former chair Jason Solomons presented a lovely In Memoriam segment for Barry Norman, one of Britain's best-loved film critics.

The awards were presented this year by Dover Street Entertainment. Our main sponsor was The May Fair Hotel. Award sponsors were Heaven Skincare, Cameo Productions and Millbank and CooperSearle Management. In-kind sponsors were Sacred Gin, Remy Martin, Voss Water and Audi.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Critical Week: Size matters

There were two rather underwhelming sequels to see this past week, neither of which came with very high expectations. Kickboxer: Retaliation is the middle part of a rebooted trilogy starring Alain Moussi and the original star Jean-Claude Van Damme, plus assorted massive meatheads. It looks great, so it's a shame so little attention was paid to characters or story. And then there's the Maze Runner trilogy finale, The Death Cure, with its somewhat messy mythology and bland characters. The film has its moments, but never quite comes to life.

Two small British films at least tried something original. Lies We Tell is a rather choppy crime thriller set in Yorkshire starring a mopey Gabriel Byrne. And Gholam is a riveting, slow-burning London thriller starring the excellent Iranian actor Shahab Hosseini. Even further afield, I enjoyed seeing a big-screen press preview of the restored version of Ingmar Bergman's witty film of Mozart's The Magic Flute. And I watched all of the episodes for the snappy, clever web series Dropping the Soap, which is out soon on dvd. As the title suggests, it's a backstage soap opera spoof. And I also greatly enjoyed this doc, which I needed to see for awards voting purposes...

dir-scr Alexandra Dean; with Diane Kruger, Robert Osborne 17/US ****
Based around the discovery of a lost interview recorded on cassette tapes in 1990 when she was 76, this documentary traces the extraordinary journey of movie siren and brainy inventor Hedy Lamarr from her childhood in Austria to her reclusive old age in America. Along the way, she shared the screen with all of Hollywood's biggest stars as the most beautiful woman in movies. But she was always aware that no one took notice of her intelligence. "Any girl can look glamorous," she said famously. "All she has to do is stand still and look stupid." And now it emerges that Lamarr had a secret life of curiosity and scientific ambition, including a working friendship with Howard Hughes and conceiving the idea that would lead to modern communications systems like wifi and bluetooth (the US government never paid her for her patent, which the doc claims would amount to some $30bn today). She also built the first ski resort in Aspen, which was stolen from her by a vindictive ex-husband. Filmmaker Dean assembles this beautifully, using Lamarr's own voice and a wealth of footage and stills. It's a gripping film, packed with emotional kicks and an inspiring final message from Lamarr herself, reminding us that when the world treats us badly, we should give our best anyway.

Much of my time has been spend working on the impending Critics' Circle Film Awards on Sunday night - I'm the chair, so haven't had much spare time to catch up with press screenings. Maybe next week. I've got the Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon in the diary, as well as the Helen Mirren ghost story Winchester.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Critical Week: Somebody's watching

There were three high-profile British films screened to the press in London this week. Ghost Stories is Andy Nyman's clever adaptation of a stage pay that merges three horror subplots into a twisty, nasty comedy-thriller. Early Man is the latest claymation romp from Aardman, a hilariously silly adventure set where the stone and bronze ages meet. And Finding Your Feet is a warm and easy-going romantic drama livened up by excellent performances from Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie.

From America, we had more horror comedy in the shape of Mom & Dad, a gonzo twist on several genres, featuring terrifically unhinged performances from Selma Blair and Nicolas Cage in the title roles. Dance Baby Dance is an extremely low-budget comedy about an aspiring tap dancer, charming but amateurish. And from France, the short film collection French Kisses is the usual mixed bag, and features some very strong clips.

There were also two documentaries: The Final Year is an oddly overslick look at Obama's last 12 months in office, fascinating but scrubbed clean. And 100 Men centres on a Kiwi filmmaker who takes an offbeat angle to explores gay culture over the past few decades.

Films this coming week include the trilogy finale Maze Runner: The Death Cure, the British thriller Lies We Tell, the musical biopic Thirsty and a restoration of the Bergman classic The Magic Flute.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Critical Week: It's a battlefield

Normal press screenings are slowly returning to London, although there are still a lot of awards-season screenings going on for Oscar and Bafta voters to catch up on things. The Bafta nominees came out this week, led by The Shape of Water, and nominated films are beginning to flood the cinemas.

But I'd seen all of those ages ago! So this week, I caught up with Journey's End, a slow-burning WWI drama with Asa Butterfield, Sam Claflin and Paul Bettany. It's moody and intense, and carries a very strong kick. The late Martin Landau gives his last screen performance in Abe & Phil's Last Poker Game, a warm drama costarring Paul Sorvino about two retirees in a rest home trying to have a bit of an adventure.

The micro-budget British drama In Another Life is a fascinating story told through the eyes of a Syrian refugee trying to get from France to England. It's strikingly well shot, and the story is compelling. And there were also two documentaries: The Ice King is the amazing story of British figure skating legend John Curry, a tortured genius whose life is revealed through lots of lost footage. And there was also this one...

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars
dir Lili Fini Zanuck; with Eric Clapton, BB King 17/UK *** 
Low-key and a little dry, this documentary is an intriguing portrait of a guitar nerd who became a rock hero. Fans will love it, certainly not minding its long and meandering structure. Filmmaker Lili Fini Zanuck traces Clapton's life from his childhood in Surrey (including the shock of learning that his sister was actually his mother) to art college and London's 1960s underground blues scene, his key influences (BB King, Muddy Waters, Bismillah Khan) and work with the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers and Cream. It also traces the impact of friendships with Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison, his years battling with addiction and his inability to remain faithful in a relationship. This is assembled from existing footage and interviews, with terrific home movies and performances segments. But the narrative is fractured, dropping key revelations in later on and getting rather distracted by some events while skipping over others. Thankfully it comes back together in a powerful final chapter as Clapton finally seems to have his life in control. Through all of this, his musical genius is indisputable, and that's enough to keep us watching.

This coming week I'll be seeing Aardman Animation's Early Man, the British drama Finding Your Feet, the British horror Ghost Stories and the doc The Cinema Travellers, among other things no doubt. I also have a lot of work still to do as chair of the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, which take place on 28th January.