Monday, 31 December 2012

A Year in Shadows: 2012

Friday, 28 December 2012

Parental Guidance

Parental Guidance
dir Andy Fickman; with Billy Crystal, Bette Midler 12/US ***
There's not much to this silly, sentimental comedy, but it goes down easy as a bit of undemanding, unoriginal nonsense. Crystal and Midler don't stretch themselves at all in their roles as grandparents taking care of the three lively children of their uptight daughter (Marisa Tomei). Life lessons are announced early on, so there are no surprises there. And the continual stream of wacky slapstick set pieces is unimaginative and predictable. But there are some nice moments along the way, mainly in Crystal's snappy delivery of usually obvious one-liners. It all turns unnecessarily sentimental in the end, by which time we have nearly been lulled to sleep, so we're vulnerable to the manipulative warm-fuzzy interaction. None of the actors breaks a sweat, there's nothing to stimulate thought and Fickman's direction is functional at best. And yet, in the end it leaves us feeling happy and mildly entertained. And it makes us wonder why Crystal doesn't get better scripts than this.

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I've only seen one other film in cinemas in the past week, and that was a family outing to Les Miserables, my second look at the film. It's still a surging emotional experience, although the flaws are more visible on a repeat viewing, including Tom Hooper's bludgeoning direction and the rather odd stage-bound street sets. Otherwise we've been watching lots of holiday movies on TV, including the best of them all, It's a Wonderful Life, which is always more engaging than we remember it being. And the there were the three Santa Clause movies starring Tim Allen, with their ever-diminishing returns, and Allen also stars in Christmas With the Kranks, an enjoyably corny holiday comedy. Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn just bout maintain their charm through the uneven Four Christmases, but even Jim Carrey can't keep us smiling through Ron Howard's eerily mean-spirited How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Where was Bad Santa when I needed it?

Back to London on Sunday, with a stack of screeners to watch before casting final votes in the Online and London critics awards - including Compliance, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and The Invisible War.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Guilt Trip

The Guilt Trip
dir Anne Fletcher; with Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand 12/US ***
With a surprisingly low-key tone, this road comedy is more gentle and sentimental than it looks in the trailer. But it's consistently enjoyable and has a couple of strong moments along the way thanks to an off-handed turn from Streisand that never goes over the top. She plays a Jewish mum who won't stop meddling in the life of her only son (Rogen). He has his own reasons for inviting her along on a business trip driving from New Jersey to San Francisco. Incidents along the way are amusing if never hilarious, and the message about paying attention to the needs of those around you while tempering your own impulses isn't terribly deep. But Streisand gives a beautifully layered performance that mixes broad comedy with internalised drama. So if the filmmakers avoid all of the story's potentially interesting edges, we don't mind too much.

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I'm enjoying being in Southern California for the holidays - it's a bit chilly but the sunshine and ocean views are great. Film-wise this is the first new one I've seen in over a week. I rewatched Magic Mike on the plane (just as enjoyable, same narrative problems) and then took my parents to see Life of Pi, which is just as astounding the second time and likely to unseat Rust and Bone as my best of the year in my lists next week.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Critical Week: Taking aim

London critics finally caught up with the last of the season's awards contenders this week, mainly because the deadline for nominations in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards is this Friday night. The biggies included: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, an entertaining and very pointed Western starring Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx; Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, a gritty and troubling military drama; and Christopher McQuarrie's Jack Reacher, a smart and entertaining mystery thriller starring Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible mode.

We also got to see Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, projected for us in 3D and 48 frames-per-second, which essentially turned one of the biggest cinema screens in Europe into a gigantic flat-screen TV. But it's our eyes that aren't used to the staggering realism - and the film is an enjoyable beginning to an epic journey (OK, so it wasn't quite this epic in the book).

Finally, two smaller films: the harrowing documentary The Central Park Five, which skilfully traces a vile miscarriage of justice in the American legal system; and Carlos Reygadas' surreal collage Post Tenebras Lux, which explores the human animal with artistry and emotion even if it makes little logical sense.

Later this week I'm heading to Los Angeles for the holidays with family and friends. Films I hope to catch out there include the Seth Rogen/Barbra Streisand road comedy The Guilt Trip, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in Parental Guidance and the David Chase drama Not Fade Away. I'll comment on those and others (I still have screeners to watch) as I see them. And I'll post my Best of 2012 - aka the 32nd Shadows Awards - in the first few days of January.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Critical Week: Tiger taming

London critics have finally been able to catch up with some big awards contenders this past week, including Ang Lee's remarkable Life of Pi, a staggeringly beautiful film with rich, moving themes. Frankly it's difficult to believe that such a complex, delicate film made it through the Hollywood system. Even bigger is Tom Hooper's film of the long-running musical Les Miserables, with a powerhouse cast including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried. It's a bit too much to fit in a movie, frankly, and rather exhausting. But also unmissable.

More award hopefuls appear in Hitchcock, an enjoyable, lightweight look at Alfred Hitchcock's battles to make Psycho. Anthony Hopkins plays the title role exactly like Hitch's screen persona, but Helen Mirren steals the show as his wife. There's probably no chance of awards attention for The Man With the Iron Fists, a messy 1970s-style kung fu romp cowritten, directed and scored by and starring RZA. Genre geeks might enjoy it, but not many others will. And finally there was the doc Ballroom Dancer, following a world champion's attempt at a comeback while he alienates everyone around him. Compellingly dark but not easy to watch.

This coming week I've got screenings of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher and Carlos Reygada's Post Tenebrus Lux, among other things. It'll also be voting time at the end of next week for a couple of critics awards - my own meagre contribution to the awards-season hubbub.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Critical Week: Field of dreams

UK critics were this week finally shown Clint Eastwood's new film Trouble With the Curve, and the delayed screening was probably due to the fact that baseball-themed films never do well here. The bigger problem though is that the film is only superficially dramatic and sentimental. More interesting was the overwrought and very dark British neighbourhood drama Broken, starring Tim Roth and Cillian Murphy. Speaking of overwrought, Bernard Rose's latest modernisation of Tolstoy starring Danny Huston is Boxing Day, a clever but relentlessly pushy drama.

Further off the beaten path was the American Christmas comedy Walk a Mile in My Pradas, with a clever variation on the body-swap genre as two men trade sexualities. It's too silly to say much, but is enjoyable enough. And there were two documentaries: a chilling exploration school-bullying in a beautifully made, heart-wrenching Bully, and the official film of the 2012 Olympics, First, which plays like a corporate promotional video but contains some genuinely inspiring stories.

This coming week I'll finally catch up with awards contender Life of Pi as well as the not-so-acclaimed The Man With the Iron Fists. And then there's the documentary Ballroom Dancer and the festival favourite Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Plus a few other things as they come....

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Critical Week: Smash it up

Press screenings for London critics this past week included Disney's energetic new animated comedy-adventure Wreck-it Ralph, which is already out in the US but won't open here until February. We also finally caught up with Chris Smith's astute Indian drama The Pool, which inexplicably took six years to reach UK cinemas; the hugely engaging Canadian comedy-drama Starbuck; the involving Oscar-nominated Belgian drama Bullhead (starring Rust & Bone's Matthias Schoenaerts); the hilarious micro-budget sci-fi comedy pastiche Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same; and the dense and creepy Japanese horror X Game. And I actually bought a ticket to see Breaking Dawn: Part 2 at midnight last Thursday with a cinema full of teenagers and middle-aged women. The film is utterly bonkers - and more fun than the other four parts of the franchise put together.

As for awards-consideration screenings, we had Judd Apatow's hilarious extended sitcom This Is 40, starring the wonderful Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann; Daniel Day-Lewis' measured and astute performance in Steven Spielberg's epic political argument Lincoln; and Matt Damon's reunion with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant for the beautifully assembled Promised Land.

This coming week, the screening schedule is still in flux. In the diary already are: Clint Eastwood in Trouble With the Curve, the acclaimed British indie Broken, the Muslim stand-up comedy drama Material, the school bullying doc Bully, and the indie Christmas comedy Walk a Mile in My Pradas.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Critical Week: Nasty turbulence

Things continue to be a bit odd for London-based film critics at the moment, with a blinding combination of press screenings and awards-consideration screenings - all of which carry differing embargo rules. It's a minefield. The biggest film I saw this past week is also heavily embargoed, despite the fact that it's been in US cinemas for two weeks already. So even though there are more than 500 reviews online for Flight, starring Denzel Washington and directed by Robert Zemeckis, I can't tell you what I thought of the film until February. I also saw Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz in the funny but uneven Gambit; and the action-packed, visually thrilling animated action ensemble Rise of the Guardians.

Further off the beaten path, we had Toni Collette's reunion with Muriel's Wedding director PJ Hogan for the sharply pointed and often very funny Aussie black comedy Mental; Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the slightly unconvincing alcoholism drama Smashed, the effectively icky body modification thriller American Mary, the beautifully made dark Spanish thriller Sleep Tight, and the awkward but endearing American indie romance Elliot Loves.

Awards screenings this coming week include Judd Apatow's Knocked-up spin-off This Is 40, a rescheduled screening of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Gus Van Sant's reunion with Matt Damon in Promised Land. We also have the retro Disney animation Wreck-it Ralph, the Belgian award-winner Bullhead, the Canadian comedy-drama Starbuck, Chris Smith's Indian drama The Pool (made in 2007 and only just not getting a UK release), the 2012 Olympics doc First and the Japanese horror X Game.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Requisite Blog Photo: Mythical creatures

Early Sunday morning screening of a raucously engaging action movie; although it looks like I could have used more assistance from Sandman last night.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Critical Week: Call the police

It was an odd week for London critics, mainly because two major studios uninvited us from two very high-profile film screenings, saying we could watch them later because they had more important people they wanted to see the film (usually their friends and bloggers who are easily impressed by free movies so never say anything remotely critical about the film). This is happening with alarming regularity here, to the point where normal working journalists will not be allowed to see the final Twilight movie at all.

Anyway, the films we did see this past week were all off the beaten path, including the seriously offbeat (and slightly uneven) British black comedy May I Kill U starring Kevin Bishop (pictured), the clever and involving Norwegian comedy-drama Happy Happy, and the moody and moving Israeli sequel Yossi. There were also four docs: Hit So Hard is a lively exploration of drummer Patty Schemel's journey through drugs; We Are Legion energetically explores the hacktivist movement; McCullin follows the noted British photojournalist through a series of harrowing assignments; and Tempest is a rather fragmented look at an urban theatre group's take on Shakespeare.

This coming week, if we're not unvited, we'll be seeing Colin Firth in the Gambit remake, Denzel Washington in Flight, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Toni Collette in Mental, Aaron Paul in Smashed, plus a few films with more than one word in the title: the animated ensemble adventure Rise of the Guardians, David Chase's 1960s drama Not Fade Away, and Luis Tosar in Sleep Tight.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Critical Week: Everyone play nice

It's been an odd week of screenings for London critics, with a variety of offbeat movies that probably have very specific audiences. The starriest one was A Late Quartet, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walker, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir play a long-time string quartet whose tenuous bond is shaken by a few unrelated events. It's beautifully made and acted, although a bit dull. And if you have a problem with actors pretending to play instruments, look away now. The other semi-mainstream offerings were the Halloween-themed Fun Size, a resolutely unfunny comedy romp, and the somewhat better For a Good Time, Call...,  an underdeveloped friendship comedy-drama. At least the films were livened up by Chelsea Handler and Justin Long, respectively.

Further afield, we had Shock Head Soul, an artful, ambitious but utterly impenetrable doc-drama about psychoanalysis, and London: The Modern Babylon, Julien Temple's dazzling look at the psyche of Londoners - it's utterly essential viewing for anyone interested in history or social culture. Or London, of course. And finally, I turned off all the lights in my flat and stayed in one evening all alone to rewatch Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which is being reissued in UK cinemas this week. I hadn't seen it in 32 years, and it was even scarier than I remembered!

Next week is another random collection of screenings, including Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, the British black comedy May I Kill U, the long-awaited award-winning Romanian film Aurora, the Indian drama The Pool,the musician doc Hit So Hard, and the photojournalist doc McCullin.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Critical Week: Seeking a happy ending

Perhaps due to the London Film Festival, we had a glut of big-star screenings over the last week or so. London-based critics were screened Silver Linings Playbook, an edgy, crowd-pleasing rom-com with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence that's likely to scoop up serious awards attention in the coming months. We also saw Martin McDonagh's anxiously awaited second feature, Seven Psychopaths, with a fantastic ensemble cast making the most of a witty look at screenwriting and small-time criminals. The Impossible is a beautifully made drama about the 2004 tsunami starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor - both excellent, although Watts will get the most attention.

And it doesn't stop there. Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave star in the engaging and shamelessly weepy Song for Marion, Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks star in the enjoyable but awkward assembled-family drama People Like Us, and Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludvine Sagnier star in the offbeat and very creepy French drama Love Crime. Finally, we had three docs: the Rolling Stones celebrate 50 years in the business with Crossfire Hurricane, which only covers their first 20 years;  the Uganda activism doc Call Me Kuchu beautifully highlights the struggle for gay rights in a very violent place; and David Attenborough takes young children on yet another tour of an Antarctic penguin colony in the sharply photographed but unoriginal The Penguin King 3D.

THis coming week we have Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Late Quartet, the comedies For a Good Time Call and Fun Size, the British youth-culture drama Tempest and the artful doc Shock Head Soul.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

LFF 10: Big finale

The 56th BFI London Film Festival came to a close tonight with the European premiere of Mike Newell's new version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, which brought Helena Bonham Carter back out to the red carpet just a night after she and her partner Tim Burton (himself an LFF red carpet veteran from opening night) attended the glamorous festival awards presentation, where they were each awarded the BFI Fellowship. Here are all of the winners:
Here are my own 10 favourites from the festival:
  3. AMOUR
  4. NO
  8. ARGO
Saturday also included Silver Linings Playbook as the surprise film (I'm seeing it on Tuesday) - pictured (right) at the surprise screening are David O Russell, LFF director Clare Stewart and Bradley Cooper.

And here are a few final highlights...

Great Expectations
dir Mike Newell; with Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham Carter 12/UK ***.
Charles Dickens' oft-adapted novel is faithfully transferred to the screen barely six months after another BBC television version. And while this film is very nicely made and played, it's impossible not to wonder why they've done it again so soon... REVIEW >

Celeste & Jesse Forever
dir Lee Toland Krieger; with Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg 12/US ***.
With a snappy script and observant filmmaking, this enjoyable rom-com refuses to fit into the standard movie formula. It also offers both Jones and Samberg the chance to give much more layered performances than usual... REVIEW >

Our Children
dir Joachim Lafosse; with Emilie Dequenne, Tahar Rahim 12/Be, ****.
Based on a true story, this film paints a picture of happy but complicated domestic bliss before quietly shifting into something very unsettling. The understatement is likely to annoy some filmgoers, but it allows the cast to deliver devastating performances... REVIEW >

Ernest & Celestine
dir Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner; voices Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner 12/Fr ****.
Charming and adorable, but not remotely childish, this animated French adventure has a terrific sense of anarchy that will appeal to adults as much as kids. It's also a superb fable about standing up for yourself even when you challenge society's traditions... REVIEW >

Saturday, 20 October 2012

LFF 9: At the movies

I decided to take a day off from the 56th BFI London Film Festival today - it was supposed to be a catch-up day seeing a few films I'd missed, but honestly I can't see everything! Instead I've been home writing. Not sure that was a wise choice - probably should have gone out for a bit of exercise. Anyway,  the red carpet last night featured Gemma Arterton and Terence Stamp at the Song for Marion premiere (below). And today Omar Sharif will attend the special screening of Lawrence of Arabia. There's only one day left in the festival, and the buzzy questions are (1) who will win at tonight's awards ceremony and (2) what will be tonight's surprise film? In the meantime, a few more highlights...

Seven Psychopaths
dir Martin McDonagh; with Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell 12/US ****
Both a freewheeling crime comedy and an astute exploration of the creative process, this clever film teeters on the brink of absurdity. But it's so much fun, and so brilliantly well-played, that it wins us over... REVIEW >

Song for Marion
dir Paul Andrew Williams; with Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave 12/UK ***
After London to Brighton and Cherry Tree Lane, you'd never expect this kind of heartwarming drama from Williams. Maybe he's just cleansing his palate, but at least he injects some dark shadows into a predictable story, even if it feels like a geriatric episode of Glee... REVIEW >

dir Ben Wheatley; with Alice Lowe, Steve Oram 12/UK ****.
As with both Down Terrace and Kill List, director Wheatley playfully bends genres in this romantic-comedy road movie so we never know what might happen next. because this is also a serial killer movie, which adds a jolt of adrenaline that's both entertaining and unexpectedly engaging... REVIEW >

Lawrence of Arabia
dir David Lean; with Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness 62/UK *****
Digitally restored for its 50th anniversary, this film looks jaw-dropping on the big screen with a bright 4K digital image. Yes, this is the epic of epics, a staggeringly big movie that tells a remarkably intimate true story... REVIEW >

Friday, 19 October 2012

LFF 8: Something completely different

There was a mini Python reunion at the 56th BFI London Film Festival as Michael Palin and Terry Jones came out for the premiere of the offbeat Graham Chapman animated bio A Liar's Autobiography. For us bleary-eyed critics, the end is finally in sight as the festival winds down on Sunday. Here are some more highlights...

A Liar's Autobiography
dir Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett; voices Graham Chapman, John Cleese 12/UK ***
Using recordings of Chapman reading the book about his life, several teams of animators have ambitiously created a kind of stream-of-consciousness 3D tribute. And his Python partners are on board as well to recreate their surreal journey to stardom. The result is wildly inventive but difficult to engage with, even if you're a fan. This is certainly not a straightforward retelling of Chapman's life story. Every element of this film is infused with the same surreal absurdity that infused Python's comedy: much of it feels like distracted sideroads, there are frequent moments that cross lines of taste and propriety, some scenes go on far too long before reaching their punchlines, and other sequences are simply sublime. This is aggressively experimental storytelling without a proper narrative; instead, what we get is a thematic, stylised sense of a man who with his friends helped change forever what we find funny.

Good Vibrations
dir Lisa Barros D'Sa, Glenn Leyburn; with Richard Dormer, Jodie Whittaker 12/UK ***
A colourful biopic of Belfast's "godfather of punk", this 1970s romp is packed with lively characters, outrageous situations and terrific music. But while its heart is in the right place, the plot is too fragmented to really resonate with audiences who might not already know the story. Good Vibrations is the iconic record store opened in 1960s Belfast by Terri Hooley (Dormer), who despised the religious and political violence around him and just wanted music. And when he discovered punk he started a record label to promote the bands, but he never bothered about the business side of things, and was continually in danger of bankruptcy. It's a colourful film packed with entertaining details of the period, great music and larger-than-life characters. But for those unfamiliar with the real-life events, it feels chaotic and uneven, so it's not easy to keep up with. Even so, it's a warm portrait of a man who did everything for love of the music.

My Brother the Devil
dir Sally El Hosaini; with James Floyd, Fady Elsayed 12/UK ****
Punchy and emotive, this British drama deals with intense themes in its story of two brothers caught between subcultures in northeast London. Even though it gets a bit overwrought, this is a beautifully observed film that gets us thinking... REVIEW >

dir Scott Graham; with Chloe Pirrie, Joseph Mawle 12/UK ****
An impressive feature debut for writer-director Graham, this contained drama creates a vivid sense of time and space in a bleak corner of the Scottish Highlands. And with minimal dialog, he explores hugely involving characters facing their own unexpected internal crises. Shell (Pirrie) is a 17-year-old living with her father (Mawle) at an isolated petrol garage. She knows all the customers, who are perhaps a bit too friendly with her, and there's a young man (Iain De Caestecker) who wants to take her away from all of this. The film is a marvel of observation, catching the tiniest details of interaction between these people. And most impressive is the way we begin to understand Shell's confused, hopeful longings.

Sleeper's Wake
dir Barry Berk; with Lionel Newton, Deon Lotz 12/SA ***
From South Africa, this darkly unsettling drama gets under the skin with its vivid characters and creepy situations. It's often very difficult to watch, as internal problems drive people to do inexplicable things. And the filmmaking is perhaps a bit too taken with some sort of depth of meaning we can't quite access. It's about a man (Newton) grieving over the death of his wife and daughter in a car crash he feels responsible for. He heads to an isolated cabin to get away from his life, and there he meets another grieving family - the father (Lotz, who starred in Beauty) is a fiercely religious man with a hot temper, the daughter (Jay Anstey) is overtly sexual and determined to rebel against her dad however she can. As these people swirl around each other, tension rises on all kinds of levels, all mixed in with the raw beauty and danger of the nature around them. It's gorgeously shot and acted, but perhaps a bit over-directed, which leaves it feeling somewhat stagey as everything boils over.

And finally, as promised: The Rolling Stones from last night's premiere of Crossfire Hurricane - Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Mick Jagger.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

LFF 7: Jumping Jack Flash

The Rolling Stones - Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronny Woods - were on the red carpet tonight for the world premiere of their new film Crossfire Hurricane at the 56th BFI London Film Festival. People had started lining up by noon for a glimpse of them, as well as premiere guests like Liam Gallagher, Anita Pallenberg, Jeff Beck, Bryan Ferry and Bill Wyman. (I'll try to get a photo for tomorrow.) I had four movies today, so am feeling a bit blurry tonight. Thankfully tomorrow is my last early morning screening, and then this weekend is just catch-up time for me. Here are some more highlights...

Crossfire Hurricane
dir Brett Morgen; with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards 12/UK ***
The Rolling Stones commissioned this film for their 50th anniversary, so it's probably not surprising that it never delves too far beneath the surface. What's really surprising, though, is that it only covers the first two decades before stopping abruptly, leaving us waiting for Part 2. But until then, it's a fast-paced, entertaining trip backstage with the bad-boy band. From the 60s to the 80s, we see the Stones largely through home movies (often shot on Jagger's own camera), cavorting back stage and indulging in the rock-n-roll lifestyle, complete with plenty of sex and drugs. On stage footage is equally intimate, and there's also a collection of vintage TV interviews that show us the bandmates growing up through the years. All of this is overlaid with a recently recorded audio track that's like a DVD commentary, as the surviving musicians offer present-day observations on the events. It's certainly a lot of fun, and covers momentous events like the chaotic free concert in Altamont and Richards' life-changing heroin arrest in Canada. Plus of course the death of Brian Jones. But it never touches on their life outside the band. Perhaps that isn't the point, but it leaves the film feeling incomplete.

Hyde Park on Hudson
dir Roger Michell; with Bill Murray, Laura Linney 12/UK ***
This entertaining film takes us on a breezy journey through a pivotal point in 20th century history without any real sense of perspective. And while some of the characters seem oddly uninteresting, a couple of terrific performances make it worth a look... REVIEW >

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
dir Mira Nair; with Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson 12/US ***
Riz Ahmed stars in another complex, provocative film about terrorism, but this one isn't remotely as funny as Four Lions. No, this is a dead-serious drama that holds us gripped by its characters and situations until the story starts to sag under its own weight. And in the end, it feels oddly unsatisfying, simply because the film's structure undermines the point it's making. Ahmed plays Changez, a young Pakistani who attends Princeton in America and becomes a high-flying Wall Street analyst. But a series of events shake him, including 9/11 and subsequent harassment by police, immigration officials and security agents. Returning to Lahore, he becomes a lecturer specialising in violent uprisings. But is he a terrorist? The film frames this story as Changez narrates it to a journalist (Liev Shreiber) before a tense situation breaks out in Pakistan. But the script never quite connects the dots properly, abandoning characters along the way (such as Changez's parents) or distracting us with roles unnecessarily beefed-up for American actors (Hudson as his artist girlfriend, Keifer Sutherland as his boss). Fortunately, Ahmed is so good in the central role that his journey is both compelling and thought-provoking. But it should have been much punchier than this.

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CRITICAL WEEK: Festival schmestival. In addition to all of the movies I've seen at the LFF, I've had to keep up with all the usual movies coming out in cinemas. In the past week, London critics have had a chance to catch up with Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's ambitious multi-strand epic in which their cast members play six roles each. It's such a wildly huge undertaking that the high points outweigh the low ones. We saw the new James Bond movie Skyfall, which is startlingly personal, with great action and no main villainous plot; the incomprehensibly frantic Chinese 3D action epic Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, starring Jet Li; and the rather slow-paced American drama The Seminarian. I also got to see the 1954 classic Creature From the Black Lagoon in a sparkling new 3D digital projection - it looked pretty amazing, and wasn't nearly as cheesy as I remember.

Back to normal this coming week, I have screenings of Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Vanessa Redgrave in Song for Marion and Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Crime, plus a variety of other things I can't recall in my LFF haze.

Requisite Blog Photo: Back to school

If you're in London, be sure to visit the Art of Frankenweenie exhibition in the Southbank Centre. It's free (tickets from the BFI box office), and features several sets and figures from the film, plus other goodies like Tim Burton's artwork and production models. Plus you can have your photo taken peering into the classroom!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

LFF 6: Beard vs beard

Today at the 56th BFI London Film Festival, the red carpet paved the way for filmmakers Ben Affleck (with Argo, above), Michael Winterbottom (Every Day) and Ben Lewin (The Sessions), who were accompanied by their cast members. Oddly, I read about these big gala events, but don't actually get to experience them myself, as I am sitting in press screenings all day, plus the occasional press conference when I have the time. In other words, for most journalists the LFF isn't very festive. But then we do have the films. Here are some more highlights...

dir Ben Affleck; with Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston 12/US ****
Based on an unbelievable true story, this entertaining thriller uses declassified documents to recount a news story from an angle never heard before. Both funny and thrillingly nerve-wracking, it also cements Affleck's status as an A-list director... REVIEW >

Keep the Lights On
dir Ira Sachs; with Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth 12/US ****
This gorgeously shot and edited film is an incisive exploration of two people struggling to make a relationship work over nearly a decade. Its honest perspective makes it thoroughly involving, even if it turns dreary in the final act... REVIEW >

The Sessions
dir Ben Lewin; with John Hawkes, Helen Hunt 12/US ****
Based on a true story, this quietly honest film manages to avoid sentimentality with startlingly earthy performances. And the straightforward filmmaking captures the inner life of the characters without becoming gimmicky... REVIEW >

Every Day
dir Michael Winterbottom; with Shirley Henderson, Jon Simm 12/UK ***
In the style of a fly-on-the-wall doc, this movie traces fictional events over a five-year period. And since it was actually shot over five years, it's a significant cinematic experiment. It's also moving story with very strong performances, although it's limited by the scale of the narrative as it follows a mother (Henderson) in Norfolk, coping with four precocious children on her own while her husband (Simm) serves a prison term. Over the years they learn to live without him, and enjoy being with him when they can. And that's about all there is to the film, which stirs in a few contrived events to liven things up. Without a more compelling plot, the movie is most notable for the fact that we watch the children grow up on screen in 94 minutes. Shot on grainy, hand-held video it looks like a TV doc, but Michael Nyman's surging score makes to feel more like a kitchen sink drama. It's a cool experiment, but it makes you wish more attention was paid to the story.

The Comedian
dir Tom Shkolnik; with Edward Hogg, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett 12/UK ***
This low-key improvised drama has a rather misleading title. Writer-director Shkolnik astutely explores the bleak aimlessness of his central character, drawing knowing performances from the cast. But it's so gloomy that it's difficult to connect emotionally... REVIEW >

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

LFF 5: Dangerous blonde

At the 56th BFI London Film Festival last night, two quartets were joined by their directors for Leicester Square premieres. First there was the quartet from Quartet (below): Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Bill Connelly with the film's director Dustin Hoffman. Then the Sapphires from The Sapphires (far below) appeared: Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell and Jessica Mauboy with Chris O'Dowd, who plays their manager. Tonight's guests include Argo's Ben Affleck, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston. Some more highlights...

In the House
dir Francois Ozon; with Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer 12/Fr **** 
Ozon playfully takes on the nature of storytelling in this black comedy about an unusual teacher-student relationship. Sharply written and directed, the film is a bundle of provocations, forcing us to think about the way we see, or imagine, the people around us. Luchini stars as a teacher who is bewildered by a student (Umhauer, above) who writes unusually riveting stories about a classmate's family. But are these stories true? Or is the student manipulating the teacher and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)? Ozon unveils the story expertly, with sure-handed direction that glides smoothly through the convolutions of the plot, keeping a tight focus on the characters. Yes, it's twisty and surprising, but we are held firmly in his grip all the way through.

I, Anna
dir Barnaby Southcombe; with Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne 12/UK ***
Rampling gets yet another terrific character in this dark British mystery-drama, which reveals its secrets very slowly as it goes along. Yes, this gets a bit annoying, since it's merely a filmmaker's conceit to manipulate the audience. But Rampling is so watchable that we go with it. She plays a woman trying to get her life back on track as a mature single woman, attending speed-dating while helping her daughter (Hayley Atwell) care for her granddaughter. And when she meets Bernie (Byrne) she has no idea that he's a cop watching her as part of a murder investigation. Annoyingly, the whole movie is a bit of a cheat, only holding together because the filmmaker lies to us at every opportunity, then pulls the rug out. Although we can see all of this coming. But Rampling never puts a foot wrong, and Byrne has a haunted quality that keeps us gripped.

dir Pablo Larrain; with Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro 12/Chl ****.
Here's another fiendishly clever drama from Chilean filmmaker Larrain that continually subverts our expectations. Like Tony Manero and Post-Mortem, the film uses structure and genre-styles to throw us off its scent, entertaining us while giving us another haunting lesson from Chilean history. Here, it's 1988 and Chile is getting ready for a referendum to ratify Pinochet for another 10 years of rule - a simple yes or no vote. On the yes side of the right-wing establishment is an ad agency boss (Castro), while his top employee (Garcia Bernal) heads up the no campaign seeking freedom of expression and an end to human rights violations. Obviously, "no" doesn't have a chance of winning, but they take advantage of their 15 minutes of nightly television. The film is shot like a 1980s video diary that's been locked away somewhere for all these years, mixing real TV footage seamlessly with the comedy and drama in the script. It's smart, hilarious and utterly unmissable. Not to mention eerily timely.

Dead Europe
dir Tony Krawitz; with Ewen Leslie, Marton Csokas 12/Aus ***
An intensely dark, foreboding tone is the best thing about this perplexing thriller. While playing around intriguingly with issues of race, religion and sexuality, the film gets under our skin even though we are never quite sure what's actually going on. Kind of like the central character himself. That would be Isaac (Leslie), son of a Greek immigrant in Melbourne who travels to the home country against his parents' wishes. There he is caught up in his family's past, including a curse on them all, and his search for the truth takes him from Athens to Paris to Budapest. The film has a fable-like quality, playing with how guilt passes from generation to generation, although it remains enigmatic to the end, playing on the sinister overtones and leaving us a bit shaken.

Kelly + Victor
dir-scr Kieran Evans; with Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Julian Morris 12/UK ***
Based on Niall Griffiths' 2002 novel, this story of violent sexual obsession is too deliberately dark for us to sympathise with the central couple. But it's well-shot and nicely played by both actors. And its cautionary message, while rather heavy-handed, does leave us thinking... REVIEW >

Monday, 15 October 2012

LFF 4: Take a bow

Quartet director Dustin Hoffman and his cast members Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Sheridan Smith are all in London today for their film's gala screening at the 56th BFI London Film Festival as the glamorous festivities continue around the city. Also doing the rounds today are Chris O'Dowd and his four songstress costars (Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailman, Shari
Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell) in The Sapphires. Not that critics get to enjoy the glitz - most of us are stuck in early morning press screenings and overcrowded press conferences.

dir Dustin Hoffman; with Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon 12/UK ***.
The subtle intelligence of Ronald Harwood's script undergirds what's otherwise a rather breezy-glowy drama. And the veteran cast members make the most of this subtext, while director Hoffman adds a spark of humour and a whiff of romantic comedy. It centres on an English retirement home for musicians, which is shaken by the arrival of an iconic soprano (Smith) who had a brief, messy marriage to another resident (Tom Courtenay). As the annual gala performance approaches, someone gets the idea to reunite the quartet from a famed performance of Verdi's Rigoletto, which Jean really isn't up for. The cast is, of course, having a ball - and it's warmly infectious to watch, with just enough spark that it avoids sentimentality and a continual stream of little moments that catch us off guard with earthy humour and raw emotion. In other words, it's a nicely made film that lets us just sit back and enjoy ourselves.

Midnight's Children
dir Deepa Mehta; with Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswami 12/Can ***.
It's usually a risky proposition to let a novelists adapt their own work for the big screen, and this film is a case in point. It's packed with moments that are hugely involving, but Salman Rushdie's (right, on the LFF red carpet) script is badly over-written, filling in way too much detail while indulging in constant literary touches that are fascinating but distracting. In some ways, this is like an Indian Forrest Gump, as Bhaba's central character is born at the stroke of midnight as India gets its independence, then marks key moments of his life along with his country. Along the way we get a running history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh along with a very dramatic life story that relies on a heavy dose of magical realism. It's fascinating and beautifully shot and acted, but far too wordy for its own good.

The Sapphires
dir Wayne Blair; with Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman 12/Aus ****
Based on a true story, this crowd-pleasing comedy is packed with sparky characters and situations, plus powerfully dramatic moments that catch us by surprise. It also uses great music to keep our toes tapping all the way through... REVIEW >

What Richard Did
dir Lenny Abrahamson; with Jack Reynor, Roisin Murphy 12/Ire ****
Even before things take a turn in this beautifully shot and acted Irish drama, we know something is coming (the title's a hint too). Filmmaker Abrahamson is a master at subtle suggestion, taking scenes that feel happy and freewheeling and adding a gentle undercurrent of menace. So when the story gets much more darkly emotional, it's deeply unnerving. Reynor gives a superbly natural, understated performance as Richard, a golden-boy 18 year old with a group of rugby pals, a new girlfriend (Murphy) and very cool parents. But his actions at a drunken house party cut a swathe through his optimism, and as he struggles to deal with the situation, he feels like his whole life is unravelling. Loosely based on a real event, the film never turns into a melodrama despite the potential in the premise: it remains raw and edgy with a lively vein of humour that turns bleaker and bleaker as the story develops. A haunting gem.

Room 237
dir Rodney Ascher; with Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks 12/US ***.
Subtitled "Being an Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts", movie geeks will love this documentary, which lets five of them expound their sometimes outlandish theories about a seriously confounding film. Not many of their theories hold water, but it's a terrific exploration of filmmaking as art. Stanley Kubrick was a genius filmmaker who never did something by accident, so the quirks and jarring background detail in The Shining must mean something, right? Some of these theories are observant and thought-provoking, while others are just bonkers. In the end, there aren't many ideas here that are terribly insightful (would you be shocked to know that Kubrick wove mythology and fairy tales into his work?), and frankly you could pretty much prove anything by deconstructing a movie frame by frame. But it's a thoroughly entertaining exploration of the extremes of fan culture. And a marvellous look at the repeated images and themes in Kubrick's work.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

LFF 3: Take a swim

Another sunny day (with spots of rain) at the 56th BFI London Film Festival as huge crowds gather around the city to watch movies from off the beaten path. Here are a few Sunday highlights, including Rust and Bone (above), my favourite film of the year so far...

Rust and Bone
dir Jacques Audiard; with Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts 12/Fr *****
With an almost unblinkingly honest approach to relationships, this French drama crushes every cliched romance in its wake. The story and characters are messy, tetchy and fiercely passionate, forcing us to experience the pain and joy in equal measure... REVIEW >

End of Watch
dir David Ayer; with Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena 12/US ****
Off-handed performances and an earthy, gritty style elevate this police thriller above the fray. And it's made all the more watchable since Ayer has abandoned his usual corrupt-cop theme, instead focussing on two realistically complex good guys... REVIEW >

West of Memphis
dir Amy Berg; with Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin 12/US ****
This lucid, harrowing documentary recounts a 20-year miscarriage of justice so thoroughly that it leaves us slack-jawed at the corruption, self-interest and intractability of the Arkansas legal system. It's also sharply well shot and edited to leave us with no doubts about the truth... REVIEW >

Beyond the Hills
dir Cristian Mungiu; with Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur 12/Rom ****
Dark and unsettling, this drama juggles its provocative subject matter and unusual setting in ways that constantly surprise us. Not because we can identify with the situations, but because filmmaker Mungiu is so skilled at finding larger truths in his characters. It's about two young women who grew up in an orphanage but took very different journeys: Alina (Flutur) moved to Germany to find work, Voichita (Stratan) joined a rural monastery. And now Alina has come back to collect her friend, but instead she ends up upsetting the delicate balance of religion and superstition that infuses life in this oddly timeless place where there's no electricity or running water. There are all kinds of social issues at play here, from underfunded hospitals to child abuse. Not to mention the bigger theme of a group of deeply religious people struggling to deal with someone they see as a dangerous interloper. Rather long and repetitive, it's also scary and emotional film that leaves us with a lot to chew on.

dir Eran Riklis; with Abdallah El Akal, Stephen Dorff 12/Isr **.
Lively characters and a series of offbeat events make this movie watchable, except that we never believe anything that happens. The script feels contrived to tell a heartwarming story using a series of corny touches. So there isn't much tension. And no insight into the thorny political situation... REVIEW >

Saturday, 13 October 2012

LFF 2: Nose to nose

A couple more days down in the 56th BFI London Film Festival and sleep-deprivation has already set in. On Friday, I was in cinemas from 9am to 10pm - and three of the films I saw were 2.5 hours long. That's excessive even for a film junkie like me. It's turned quite cold in London, but the rain has held off for the most part, which helps of course with all the red carpet premieres. Stars on hand over the past couple of days have included Quvenzhane Wallis (below, attending with her film Beasts of the Southern Wild); Marion Cotillard (Rust & Bone); Gillian Anderson, Martin Compston and Lea Seydoux (Sister); Jason Biggs (Grassroots); Mads Mikkelsen (Teddy Bear), Elle Fanning (Ginger & Rosa); and Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clement (Laurence Anyways). Here are some film highlights...

Robot & Frank
dir Jake Schreier; with Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard 12/US ***.
A warm tone masks the sharp edges of this film's script. It feels like a heartwarming story about an old man and his mechanical sidekick, but is actually about much more than that. It's often also very funny as it follows feisty retired cat burglar Frank struggling to get used to the robot his son (James Marsden) bought to help take care of him. But as he gets used to the idea, Frank starts teaching the robot his old trade, which sparks his imagine that maybe he can get back in the game as well as perhaps woo the local librarian (Susan Sarandon). The gentle pace understates the comedy and makes it feel a little light and goofy. But it's also engaging and entertaining, and reminds us that getting old doesn't mean giving up on life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
dir Benh Zeitlin; with Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry 12/US ****
With a soaringly introspective style, this eerily dreamlike film is anchored on a thunderous performance from 6-year-old Wallis. Her tight perspective gives themes of inter-connectedness and perspective a startlingly childlike honesty... REVIEW >

dir Stephen Gyllenhaal; with Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore 12/US ***
Based on a true story, this film captures a real sense of underlying anger on the streets of America, as it traces how one offbeat campaign tapped into this passion. The characters are sharply drawn and well-played by a sparky cast, even if it feels a little too tidy in the end. It's set in 2001 Seattle, as Phil (Biggs) helps his rather nutty friend Grant (Moore) run for office against a long-time incumbent (Cedric the Entertainer). Their counter-culture campaign actually takes hold, and as election day approaches, things twist and turn - especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The film has a scruffy energy to it that holds out interest, and the actors are superb (including a nice supporting role for Lauren Ambrose). But the film kind of skirts around politics, never having the courage to nail its flag to the wall. So it's a good thing that, like Grant, the film has its heart in the right place. And that it's chaotic charm wins us over.

Ginger & Rosa
dir Sally Potter; with Elle Fanning, Alice Englert 12/UK **.
Set in 1962, this intensely personal drama captures the hysterical mood swings of youth in some surprising ways. But the fragmented structure makes it difficult to engage with, especially as the characters descend into dark melodrama... REVIEW >

Laurence Anyways
dir Xavier Dolan; with Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clement 12/Can ***.
With each feature, 23-year-old Dolan gets more ambitious. This third time out, the unusually gifted filmmaker pushes things just over the edge into self-parody, but still tells a powerfully provocative story with a strong emotional undercurrent... REVIEW >

dir Ursula Meier; with Kacey Mottet Klein, Lea Seydoux 12/Swi ****
This riveting, low-key drama has all kinds of dark corners but never feels bleak due to its honest approach to characters who are just trying to do the best they can. And as we get more involved in their life, the film becomes quietly moving... REVIEW >

Thursday, 11 October 2012

LFF 1: Monster mash-up

Tim Burton hit the red carpet in Leicester Square last night, opening the 56th BFI London Film Festival with his new movie Frankenweenie. He was accompanied by cast members Martin Landau, Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara, plus the usual LFF luvvies. (Uninvited, I was at a screening of Argo with most critics.) Here are some highlights today...

dir Tim Burton; voices Winona Ryder, Martin Short 12/US ****.
Expanding his 30-minute 1984 short, Burton has created one of his most enjoyable movies in years. Not only is the adventure thoroughly engaging, but it's packed with references to great monster movies. In other words, it's the kind of classic you can watch over and over... FULL REVIEW >

dir Michael Haneke; with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva 12/France ****Haneke never makes easy movies, and this is no exception. But as he explores the relationship between an ageing couple, Haneke avoids the bleakness that has characterised most of his films. And without even a hint of manipulation or sentimentality, he moves us deeply... FULL REVIEW >

The Hunt
dir Thomas Vinterberg; with Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen 12/Denmark ***.
This provocative, difficult film won three prizes at Cannes, including best actor for Mikkelsen. With its askance approach to the hot potato topic of child abuse, this is not the kind of film you can just ignore. Especially since it's actually about collective paranoia... FULL REVIEW >

dir Prakash Jha; with Arjun Rampal, Abhay Deol 12/India ***.
Since it's from Bollywood, this thriller feels somewhat overwrought and bombastic compared even to Hollywood's most ridiculous blockbusters. But it also has a story that works its way under the skin, daring to explore a complex moral dilemma that has remarkable relevance. Based on a true story, it's about two best pals (Rampal and Deol) who get involved in a grisly fight between police, the government, a multinational corporation and the rebels taking everyone on from their jungle hideout. The hitch is that one is a senior police officer in charge of tracking down the terrorists, and his friend goes undercover to help supply information, only to discover that the rebels are actually only trying to protect poor villagers from government and corporate greed. The emotional story is very punchy, and sometimes a bit corny, but the filmmaking is robust and energetic. There are even a few big musical numbers cleverly worked into the plot.

Dead Europe
dir Tony Krawitz; with Ewen Leslie, Marton Csokas 12/Aus ***
An intensely dark, foreboding tone is the best thing about this perplexing thriller. While playing around intriguingly with issues of race, religion and sexuality, the film gets under our skin even though we are never quite sure what's actually going on. Kind of like the central character himself. Leslie is terrific as an Australian photographer who has never been to Europe to see the old country, and when he finally gets to Greece with his father's ashes, everyone talks about an old family curse. He travels on to Paris and Budapest, discovering bits of information along the way while being haunted by the memory of a young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) he failed to help in Athens. Oddly, the more people explain the situation, the less we feel like we understand it properly. So the conclusion feels enigmatic and more than a little sinister.

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CRITICAL WEEK: Along with festival films, I caught up with a few general releases over the past week, some of which are also in the LFF. These include Paul Thomas Anderson's fascinating but difficult The Master, Ben Affleck's raucously entertaining true thriller Argo, the beautifully played drama The Sessions, the lively black comedy Ruby Sparks, the sharp but uneven neighbourhood comedy-drama The Oranges, the enjoyable film-set documentary Radioman, the creepy-emotional Polish drama Suicide Room, and the spectacular 4K restoration of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

Outside the LFF this coming week I'll also see the Wachowski's generational drama Cloud Atlas, and Chinese action epic The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and, yes, the new James Bond movie Skyfall.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Critical Week: Shaken not stirred

Just in time for James Bond Day on Friday (celebrating the 50th birthday of the film franchise), London critics saw the fast-paced documentary Everything or Nothing, tracing 007 from his creation by Ian Fleming up to the release of Skyfall in a couple of weeks. It puts all of the stories together into an enjoyably comprehensive narrative centred on the bromance between producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. A must for fans. We also saw the appallingly unfunny British wedding comedy The Knot, the clever and very grisly coming-of-age black comedy Excision and the clunky low-budget killer clown horror Stitches.

In advance of the London Film Festival (10-21 Oct), we got to see: Frank Langella in the warm, engaging Robot & Frank; Charlotte Rampling in the unsettling mystery-drama I, Anna; the lively and rather chaotic biopic Good Vibrations, about the godfather of Irish punk; the rather too-tidy Israeli drama Zaytoun, starring Stephen Dorff; the beautifully made award-winning Swiss drama Sister; the charming French animated adventure Ernest and Celestine; and the strikingly involving miscarriage-of-justice doc West of Memphis.

This coming week is another mixed bag, including Paul Thomas Anderson's anxiously awaited The Master, Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, Paul Dano in the literary comedy Ruby Sparks, and the family ensemble comedy The Oranges. And for the LFF, we'll see Francois Ozon's festival hit In the House, Kelly + Victor, The Comedian, and another 50th anniversary film, the digital restoration of Lawrence of Arabia.