Thursday, 30 August 2012

Paralympics: Whirling dervish

The London Paralympics kicked off last night with a dazzling ceremony that was heavily populated by disabled artists, athletes and performers. Opening with with Stephen Hawking, the tone was set for an exploration of art and science, with heavy overtones about human rights and inclusion in society. Much of it felt a bit dull - the music leaned to the classical side with the notable exception of Ian Dury's potent anthem Spasticus Autisticus, which kicked the event into a much more emotional gear. It was also notable that Ian McKellen performed scenes from The Tempest, providing a link to both Olympic ceremonies. And the closing performance of I Am What I Am by Beverley Knight was perfect.

Today I attended two events - sports I've never seen before. Well, I had seen wheelchair basketball immortalised in the terrific documentary Murderball, but I'd never seen it in person, and it's pretty intense! Then I watched two goalball matches, in which all contestants are blindfolded to equalise their sight advantage, then they throw a heavy ball with a bell inside it at each other trying to score. Amazingly, the scores are pretty low as the guys throw themselves in front of the ball. And it's made even more riveting by the fact that the audience has to be completely silent while the ball is in play.

CRITICAL WEEK: A wide variety of films screened to London critics this past week, and no two were in the same genre. Most appropriate to the Paralympics was Untouchable [aka Intouchables], a French drama starring the superb Francois Cluzet as a paraplegic who hires a rough urban type (the equally engaging Omar Sy) as his carer. The biggest film was the futuristic action remake of Dredd, which pretty effectively abolishes all memory of the Sly Stallone version.

For a comedy, we had Bachelorette, a silly comedy that plays like a cross between Bridesmaids and Sex and the City (I kind of liked it!). The indie drama was The Myth of the American Sleepover, a mumbly, mopey coming-of-age film that has moments of bracing honesty. For fans of wacky arthouse genius Guy Maddin, we had his new drama-comedy-thriller Keyhole, a typically nutty mix of arty references, surreal images and offbeat casting (Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini lead the cast). And finally we had a doc, Room 237, in which a group of movie nerds geel out over Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, finding all kinds of clues hidden in each frame. It's a lot of fun.

This coming week, in between the Games, I'll see Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly, Thure Lindhardt in Keep the Lights On, Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the low-budget sci-fi thriller Love, and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. We also have the launch events for the programmes for Raindance and the London Film Festival, both of which take place in October.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Critical Week: Oscar bait

It's that time of year when we start to get a look at those films that are most likely to catch the eye of Oscar voters. Joe Wright's Anna Karenina certainly qualifies, with its epic love story plot and lavish costumes, sets and production design. Critics are just getting a first look at the film in advance of its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in a week or so. A new trailer also gave us a glimpse of Hyde Park on Hudson, which frankly looks like The King's Speech II as it follows King George and Queen Elizabeth (Sam West and Olivia Colman) to America for an encounter with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (Bill Murray and Olivia Williams).

Critics are also seeing David Ayer's End of Watch, a gritty point-of-view thriller about two good cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) in Los Angeles - yes, good cops, a departure for Ayer. Len Wiseman's action-packed Total Recall remake stars Colin Farrell, who is easily the best thing about this film. There are two gritty East End crime dramas: The Sweeney, based on the iconic TV series, stars Ray Winstone and Ben Drew as members of London's elite crime-fighting squad. while Twenty8k stars Parminder Nagra as a lawyer trying to clear her brother's name from two drug-related murder charges.

More highbrow fare was provided in the astounding documentary Five Broken Cameras, through which we see life on the wrong side of the Israel-Palestine border through the eyes of a perceptive, camera-wielding journalist. And it was great to revisit Francis Coppola's newly remastered 1983 drama Rumble Fish, starring the very young Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke (Shadows award winner that year!) and Nicolas Cage.

This coming week includes a long weekend here in Britain, so the pickings are a little slim. We have the American indie The Myth of the American Sleepover, the French comedy-drama Untouchable (aka The Intouchables), Guy Madden's latest film Keyhole, the space-station thriller Love, the Queen concert film Hungarian Rhapsody and the fan-fave doc Room 237, about the lasting legacy of Kubrick's The Shining.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Requisite Blog Photo: Zombie attack!

Actually, critics generally feel like zombies when we attend Sunday morning screenings populated by children hopped up on sugar and "fun in the foyer"....

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Critical Week: The film that shall not be named

Film studios often place embargoes on critics, prohibiting us from talking about a movie until the week of release. And over the past year or so these have evolved into full-on nondisclosure agreements, with multiple points outlining everywhere we're not allowed to express an opinion. Most of the time I don't really mind; I never review a film until it can be seen by an audience. It only gets annoying if we're embargoed from discussing a movie that's already open in the USA - so there are already hundreds of reviews in newspapers, magazines and online, and yet I am prohibited from adding my voice to the mix until the film has its delayed UK release.

But for The Expendables 2, we had something I've never seen: we were told not to even mention the title. (Although I did list it in last week's Critical Week, buried under an Olympic blog entry.) Surprisingly, I enjoyed the film a lot more than its po-faced predecessor. This one doesn't take itself so seriously, so it's a lot more fun to watch.

The other oddity this past week was The Bourne Legacy, which the distributor only screened to us on Monday, the day it opened in the UK. It's a perfectly fine thriller, not up to the adrenaline and emotionally charged levels of the last two Bourne movies, but watchable on its own terms. Otherwise this past week I've squeezed a few other films around the Olympics. Rec3: Genesis is the third entry in the Spanish undead horror series, again enjoyably twisting the genre in new directions, this time adding comedy and emotion. Shut Up and Play the Hits is a fascinating existential concert doc about James Murphy, frontman for LCD Soundsystem, covering the 48 hours around the band's final performance. And I caught two Frightfest titles for which my opinions are, yes, embargoed: the British horror-comedy Cockneys vs Zombies and Scott Derrickson's Sinister.

This coming week: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, Jake Gyllenhaal in End of Watch, the British thriller Twenty8K, the acclaimed documentary 5 Broken Cameras.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Olympics Day 16: Big finale

It feels like the Olympics just started a few minutes ago, and now they're finished. The closing ceremony tonight was another random collection of British cultural influences, from The Who to One Direction by way of the Spice Girls, Take That, Annie Lennox, George Michael and Eric Idle singing the marvellous Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (my personal highlight!). It made no sense, had no discernible narrative and was packed with moments that were wonderfully wacky and thoroughly bewildering.

But of course the best thing is seeing all the athletes clumped together regardless of political or geographical boundaries, celebrating their experiences over the last 17 days. So watching the flame dwindle out is always profoundly moving. It's been a blur of energy, flooding through every part of London in a way that won over most (but not all) of the most die-hard cynics. yes, the Olympics are over-commercialised and ruthlessly corporate, but they also celebrate human achievement at the most simple, honest level. And it's a rare moment every four years when everyone gets together and forgets that they're at war with each other.

I'm looking forward to the Paralympics in a little over two weeks. I've never attended one, and will be covering these Games in an intriguing way that will let me soak up a lot of the experiences firsthand. I'll be blogging about that later.

But now back to our regularly scheduled movie nonsense. The Expendables 2 opens this week, after all...

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Olympics Day 15: Go, Mo!

On the penultimate day of the Olympics, Britain had two of its biggest stars going for medals. And both delivered. There are still events tomorrow, but today it felt like the UK had won the whole Olympics.

First there was Mo Farah's astonishing 5000-meter race, which he really wasn't expected to win. But then he wasn't supposed to win the 10,000 meter race last weekend either. And now he's a double gold medallist. I think the entire nation screamed in unison as he executed a beautiful victory.

Second was poster boy Tom Daley, who dove at Beijing 2008 when he was just 14. Now 18, he had been the face of the Games for the past four years. So no pressure then when he faced off against the formidable Chinese and American divers in the 10-meter final tonight. He won bronze - not gold but still a major achievement.

Of course a lot of other countries won medals today, and so did some other Brits, but these two things sent the home nation into an even more massively celebratory mood. Stephen Daldry's closing ceremony tomorrow night can hardly fail to increase the ecstasy.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Olympics Day 14: Artistic merit

Aside from the usual finals in things like athletics, Friday was a day for the more artistic Olympic pursuits like rhythmic gymnastics, synchronised swimming and diving. The argument is whether these actually belong in a competition whose central slogan is "faster, higher, stronger". Of course, this same argument could apply to most of the team sports contested at Olympic level. And when I think about this logically, I start to wonder.

Tonight the poster boy for the London Olympics, Tom Daley, seemed to struggle with the pressure. At just 18, competing in his second Games, it's difficult to imaging how he's coping with the expectations of the entire nation. And it's also not surprising that he struggled with his dives tonight. At least he qualified for the final, so the nation can sleep easily tonight. Even as he plays each dive over and over again in his mind's eye.

Today I had a busy day but I hardly saw any of the action. Although I was reporting on the action from 7.45am to 6.45pm, I only watched bits of the diving on TV and that's about it. I missed all of the athletics, which I'll try to catch up with. I also took a trip into an unusually crowded West End this afternoon - people are really buzzing in London at the moment! The whole city is throbbing with positive vibes. It will be interesting to see how this plays out after the Paralympics end in a month's time.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Olympics Day 13: Running and jumping

Summer weather finally returned to London today with bright sunshine and some actual warmth. And lucky me, I spent the whole day outdoors in the Olympic Stadium watching the athletics. These were tickets I bought in the lottery more than 18 months ago, and they turned out to be great seats at the end of the field, just opposite the cauldron (a slash of light in the photo below right). I bid for them because it was a rare session with no finals in it, so I thought I'd have a better chance! The photo above is the view of the Olympic Park through the ribbons around the edge of the stadium - the velodrome is on the left and the blocks of flats on the right are the Olympic Village.

The main event in the stadium was the decathlon, and we watched the leaders Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee, and everyone else, in their 11-meter hurdles, discus throw and pole vaulting, as well as the women's high jump and the heats for the men's 4 by 100-metre relay, which had a strange wrinkle when two runners clashed, leaving Oscar Pistorius standing there unable to run his leg as part of the South African team, so they couldn't finish. In the end, the judges ruled they had been physically pushed, so they made it through to the final.

It was a long day in the sunshine (actually the seats were shaded all day), and even though the action sometimes faded a bit, it was great fun soaking up the atmosphere. The crowd was astounding - the cheers for the British competitors were a deafening roar.

I came home this evening for another news shift, and I have yet another early start tomorrow. Thankfully, the weekend will be a bit lighter work-wise. And then it's all over on Sunday. Until the Paralympics, that is.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Olympics Day 12: Glory days

London continues to buzz with Olympic energy on Day 12 - even if Britain didn't win any gold medals today, there was plenty to cheer about. In athletics, it seemed like the Americans were winning absolutely everything. And the Brits couldn't even get a break in equestrian showjumping. But the city is packed with happy tourists and fit competitors, and Londoners seem just a tiny but less grumpy than usual.

My day today was a bit dull: I was at home reporting hourly on the Olympics for two four-hour shifts, and in between I had a live radio slot to do. That meant that I only got out of my flat briefly, but I also was able to watch the Games action all day long in the background as I looked for last-minute results and sought out interesting stories.

Tomorrow I'll be back in the thick of things, as I head to the Olympic Stadium early in the morning for the first session of athletics. I applied for these tickets more than 18 months ago, thinking that since it was the only athletics session without a final I had a better chance of getting seats - bingo! Looking forward to being in the Olympic Park again, especially since it's supposed to be a warm, sunny day this time.

CRITICAL WEEK: I haven't had quite as much time for movies this past week, as the Games have kept me busy. But I did manage to catch up with a few things: the all-star action blockbuster The Expendables 2, which I'm embargoed from talking about until Monday; the shockingly unfunny Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn alien comedy The Watch; the creepy/silly independent British horror The Devil's Business; the devastatingly moving Cannes-winning French drama Our Children; and the stunning restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's first Hitchcockian movie, the 1927 silent The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, which has been given a remarkable new score by Nitin Sawhney.

This coming week, there's the shockingly late press screening of The Bourne Legacy, the British indie horror I Against I, the appropriately timely thriller Cockneys vs Zombies, the FrightFest title Sinister, and the music doc Shut Up and Play the Hits.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Olympics Day 11: Go faster

It was another long day for me on Tuesday, with a very early start to head to Olympic Park on the high-speed Javelin train from St Pancras. the crowd control was amazingly efficient, and I never felt like I was actually waiting - always moving, right through security and into the park. So I had some time to wander around and look at all the venues there before heading to the velodrome for the morning session. Note that today all of the photos are my own.

And what a session it was. First up were heats in the men's Keirin, which Olympic champion Chris Hoy (in the front of the pack at right) led in fine style, while always acknowledging the support of the hometown crowd. This is one of the things that makes velodrome competition so exhilarating: the cheers circle the venue with the cyclists. And it's a relatively intimate venue as well - only 6,000 seats, so there isn't a bad view in the place. Both photos at right were taken from my seat, which was quite a way up.

Before the Keirin riders returned for their repechages, the women took to the track for the omnium individual pursuit element - the omnium is like the decathlon of cycling, with six events. At the end of this, Britain's rising star Laura Trott (right) got the biggest cheer of course. And it was great fun later in the evening to see both Hoy and Trott win gold medals in these events.

As for the Olympic Park itself, this is a real stunner. I've never been in this part of East London before, and when you're inside the park, it's hard to imagine that this was derelict land seven years ago when London was awarded the Games. (Although you can see it when you walk outside the park!) And there's no comparison with any of the other Olympic Parks I've seen (Sydney, Athens, Beijing and to a lesser extent Atlanta, where the concept of a park was only starting to emerge) - this is a true place of beauty, with attention to detail in the planting of native, wild plants around a river that runs right through the middle of it. There's plenty of space to sit in the grass and watch the Games on gigantic screens.

It'll be fascinating to see what happens here after the Games. Several venues are temporary, with the stadium, velodrome and a much smaller aquatics centre as the main remaining structures. It's possible to spot where roads are planned to run through here, which will make it much more accessible. It's also right next door to Europe's largest shopping mall, so that's rather handy as well. And the surprisingly large Olympic Village will become rather desirable housing after the Games.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Olympics Day 10: Party in the sand

I managed to get tickets a couple of weeks ago to the beach volleyball quarterfinals at Horse Guards Parade, a venue I had been curious about since they announced it a couple of years ago. And over the last week it has emerged as the fan's favourite venue at the London Games. But going in there at 9pm tonight in a light drizzle I wondered if it would be worth it.

Fortunately, the rain stopped before the matches began. My seats were very good, surprisingly (I took these photos with my phone), and the atmosphere in the stadium was electric, as the announcer put on his cheesiest voice and worked everyone into a frenzy of cheering, clapping and stomping. As for the matches, Germany beat Brazil and Netherlands beat Italy.

I'd been to beach volleyball once before, in Athens, and felt it was oddly cheap and tacky as an Olympic event - not because of the sport itself, which is pretty gruelling, but because of the blaring pop music and sexist cheerleaders. London went a long way to making things classier, of course, even including three male cheerleaders in the squad! And the setting was pretty incredible - Horse Guards Parade is a gorgeous building, with the lights of the London Eye peering in over Whitehall and the knowledge that David Cameron isn't going to get any sleep next door on Downing Street.

Today I also attended a press conference featuring Jamie Oliver at the London Media Centre - he was touting his campaign to improve nutrition in schools as usual. And I experienced my first sense of overcrowding on the London Underground as I entered what was like a bloodclot of people in the arteries around Green Park station - pretty intense. And I think it will be worse tomorrow as I head into Olympic Park for the track cycling at about the same time as 80,000 people are heading to athletics.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Olympics Day 9: Lightning strikes

Another very busy day at the London Olympics, with the big event in athletics tonight: the men's 100-meter final seems to be the most-watched 10 seconds of the Games! And of course Usain Bolt defended his title in blistering style. Although this time the competition was pretty fierce, as he was up against the other three fastest men ever in the final.

After the glory in the stadium yesterday, Britain's performance was much more muted today, with several silvers and bronzes. But there was at least one big gold medal, as Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in the men's tennis singles final. The match was played exactly four weeks after the two faced off in the Wimbledon final - on the very same patch of grass. But this time Olympic fever took hold of the crowd, and all the love was for Murray, who won in straight sets. Olympic gold might be the only prize Federer has never won, but he had to settle for silver today.

And so we're halfway through the Games now. This coming week I've got tickets to three events, so I'm really looking forward to getting out there and soaking up the atmosphere. Tomorrow night it's the beach volleyball quarterfinals in Horse Guards Parade. I suppose I should look up who'll be playing, but frankly it doesn't matter.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Olympics Day 8: Super Saturday!

The middle Saturday is always the busiest days at an Olympics, and there were 25 medal events across London. Trying to watch this on TV with the BBC's 25 live channels was a bit of a challenge. Especially since the British competitors refused to stop winning everything from rowing to athletics to cycling in spectacular style. But one of the most impressive moments came early on when South Africa's Oscar Pistorius became the first athlete to compete at both the Olympics and Paralympics.

Winners from every nation are honoured in different ways. In Britain, gold medallists are pictured in their moment of glory on a first class stamp, issued the next day in their home town, where one of the local red postboxes is painted permanently gold. The Royal Mail has been very, very busy these past few days! In athletics alone today, Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah were an inspiration.

By contrast, in the USA, winners are pictured on a box of breakfast cereal, and they have their winning bonuses and even the value of their medal taxed by the government. Meanwhile, Michael Phelps won yet another gold medal in what he says will be his last competitive race ever. What a great way to go out.

Anyway, it was fun to see so much sheer joy today, and we can only hope it continues. I also rode the Tube across London and back this evening for a dinner party, and enjoyed watching the passengers in their colourful outfits, often wrapped in a flag or waving one, everyone in an upbeat mood. I kind of don't want the Olympics to ever end.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Olympics Day 7: The crowd goes wild

There was more gold for Britain today, which has kept the mood incredibly buoyant here in London. And with another sunny, warm day (with a few sudden, short showers, all of which I managed to miss), people are out in the streets en masse. I was out most of the day in the West End, and it was very, very buzzy.

Competition started in athletics today, so cameras are back inside the stadium, giving us an idea of how the cauldron is interacting with the events (see right). I'll be in there next Thursday - can't wait. And on this first day of track and field, Britain even had an athlete to cheer for in Jessica Ennis, who stormed her way through the heptathlon hurdle round so fast that she would have won an gold medal in the individual event at the last Olympics. Add triumphs in rowing and cycling, and Britain was momentarily at No 3 on the medals table (until Korea won another gold later in the evening).

Walking around town, I saw lots of athletes and officials in the streets, tourists snapping silly photos and even the fashion/art event that put hats on several of London's iconic statues all this week. Lord Nelson, atop his column in Trafalgar Square, looks much jauntier with this colourful hat and torch on his head! Apparently it was made by the same hatmaker who made his actual hat in the 17th century.

Tomorrow is the busiest day of the Games, with action in almost every venue. So I plan to lay a bit low. But with the entire city in such a good mood, it's difficult to stay inside. At least I have 25 dedicated BBC Olympic channels so I can watch everything live in high-def!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Olympics Day 6: Golden boy

Today was Britain's most successful day so far, medal-wise, with a series of gold and silver triumphs across the Olympic venues. Chris Hoy won his fifth gold medal as competition kicked off in the velodrome (I can't wait to get in there myself next Tuesday morning!), the kayaking pair Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott delivered gold in an adrenaline charged slalom and Peter Wilson won the double trap shooting event. 

It was pretty nonstop, actually, as the British fans screamed themselves hoarse while the media worked itself into a lather. And rightly so, as by the end of the day Great Britain had moved from 12th on the medals table to fifth place.
One of my favourite news stories broke yesterday and was all over today's papers with photos of London Mayor Boris Johnson dangling over the Victoria Park Olympics Live site, where a zip-line stunt went awry. As he called for help, waving his UK flags, everyone stood and laughed. They also snapped photos which have been doctored all over the internet. You can even buy "dangling Boris" earrings!

My day was pretty busy, as I headed out to our newsroom in Limehouse for a work shift, got involved in a radio programme discussing doping issues and tried to keep track of the results as they poured in. Then I headed into the West End to visit the Global Coaches House, a fascinating venue where coaches past, present and future can gather to escape the Games madness and share their experiences. I'll be out and about tomorrow as well.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Olympics Day 5: Finally golden

It took five days, but British competitors finally claimed gold today in two key events, both in record-breaking style. First, Helen Grover and Heather Stanning won the women's pair rowing, as expected, becoming the first British women to win an Olympic title.

Next up, Bradley Wiggins won the men's individual time trial, carrying on the fine form that saw him win the Tour de France barely 10 days ago. In fact, no one has ever won both the Tour and Olympic gold in the same year. And this gold medal takes his total Olympic medal count to seven, which is more than any other Brit has ever earned. It's no wonder that people in the streets are wearing his trademark red sideburns in tribute. Although he did look ridiculous sitting on that winner's throne at Hampton Court.

The other big event today was the men's individual all-round gymnastics title, which went as expected to Japan's Kohei Uchimura. Less predictable was the scrum of able competitors going for silver and bronze - everyone had at least one key error, which made it a real nailbiter to watch. In the end, Germany's Marcel Nguyen claimed silver and America's Danell Leyva won bronze.

Today felt like a day off for me, as I was able to veg out at home all day and catch up on some film review writing and website updating, watch quite a lot of the competition live, and then work an evening Olympics news shift from home. The weather was nice and warm , with sun shining in the open windows. I hope it stays that way since I'll be out and about all over town tomorrow.