Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Olympics Day 4: Go ahead, jump

London turned grey and cool this morning, with threatening skies and weather forecasts that have begun to sound far too familiar this summer: temperatures well below the seasonal average and more rain than normal. So apparently last week's gloriously hot summer days were an anomaly. Sigh.

I stayed out of the Olympics' way today, only catching up on a few things on TV and reading results online since I've been reporting all day on the events. I also made one trip across town to a film screening - an uneventful journey with fewer tourists than normal for a London summer. Clearly all the visitors are in the venues!

The big Games news today was Michael Phelps' unprecedented 19th Olympic medal - his first gold here in London - making him the most decorated Olympian in history. And he still has a few swimming events left here. Also, Britain won equestrian silver, but has yet to earn gold in these Games. Thankfully, several more hometown favourites are coming up in competition.

CRITICAL WEEK: Film-wise this week, I've caught screenings in between Olympic responsibilities. Two notable Cannes films were finally shown to UK critics, and I loved both of them: Ben Wheatley's Sightseers is yet another genius blending of genres (this is a road movie romance with a serial killer twist), and Leos Carax's Holy Motors is an indescribably strange and wonderfully wacky odyssey about fate and humanity. I also saw Step Up: Miami Heat (aka Step Up Revolution), the fourth entry in the throwaway dance mash-up series with cut-and-paste scripts and sexy cast members; Brit Marling in the moody but unsatisfying semi-sci-fi drama Sound of My Voice; and Ron Fricke's super high-def non-narrative globe-hopping exploration of humanity Samsara.

Coming up, there's every action hero you can name in The Expendables 2, Ben Stiller in the alien-invasion comedy The Watch, Tahar Rahim in the French romantic drama Our Children, and the restored and re-scored version of Alfred Hitchcock's silent classic The Lodger.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Olympics Day 3: Surprise surprise

One of my favourite things about the Olympics is the way so little goes according to expectations. The world's top competitors arrive confident of adding to their already impressive collection of medals, but go home empty-handed. Sometimes this allows someone unexpected to sneak onto the top of the podium, and other times it's heartbreaking.

Over the last few days British hopes have repeatedly been dashed. In Saturday's men's road cycling race, everyone expected Mark Cavendish and recent Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins to medal in the event, but they were knocked way back in the field. Today it was the turn of the Olympics poster boy Tom Daley (right) in synchronised platform diving, but he and his partner Peter Waterfield came in an agonising fourth.

Conversely, in the women's 100m breaststroke, 15-year-old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte shocked everyone by winning gold, beating the American world champion in the process. Her stunned face while receiving the gold medal (with the president of Lithuania cheering her on) was priceless.

Meanwhile, London's transport system has held up for three days without any severe problems. No one expected it to last that long. Yesterday, two of three trains I took went to different destinations than announced. It's not too difficult for a Londoner to get back on the right route, but tourists must find that kind of thing bewildering. Ah well, almost everyone in the Underground looks bewildered at the moment! But that's not unusual for summer time.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Olympics Day 2: Smackdown

Today was my first time inside the London 2012 Olympic zone, as I headed to Earls Court to watch volleyball. I ordered my tickets at the last minute - they released a bunch of cheap seats two weeks ago - so I had to collect them at the box office. They warned me to get there two hours early for airport-style security, so I went two and a half hours early ... and of course it took me about 30 seconds to get my tickets and about another 30 seconds to walk through the admittedly severe security (with friendly Scottish soldiers manning the metal detectors).

Then I had more than two hours to kill inside the venue. So I ate lunch (not too expensive and rather delicious too), watched the people, spied through the doorway at the Germany vs Russia match that was still going on, watched other events on a big screen, then took my cheap seats for two matches: Argentina beat Australia and then the USA beat Serbia. (Above is the view from my seat, right is an Instagram version of that pic.)

The atmosphere was great fun - one of the things I love about the Olympics is the way the crowds cheer for great plays no matter who made them. The underdog usually gets the most sympathy (this is even stronger with a British crowd). And the arena is refreshingly free of corporate branding.

On the other hand, why are there still scantily clad all-girl cheerleaders at an event like this? It seems tacky at the very least, and it's also insultingly sexist. And getting out of the venue was a bit nasty, with intense crowd control in operation that forced everyone to be very, very patient. But it worked, the Tube station wasn't too crowded, and I got home fairly easily, where I watched other things on TV. As you do.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympics Day 1: Rule Britannia

Filmmaker Danny Boyle did the UK proud last night with an opening ceremony that managed to reflect the nation's history, culture, arts and personality with artistry, humour and spectacle. From the gorgeous set pieces depicting this "green and pleasant land" as well as the devastation of empire and industry, the show pivoted into moments that were absurd (Daniel Craig parachuting into the stadium with the Queen), ridiculous (Mr Bean trying to play along with Chariots of Fire) and sublime (massive appearances from British children's literature characters like Mary Poppins, Lord Voldemort, the Queen of Hearts and Cruella DeVil).

There was a lot of music - perhaps a bit too bewildering in its swirling melange, and Paul McCartney singing Hey Jude was a bit anti-climactic. But it was great to see nods to Britain's social heritage, from women's rights to labour unions to the National Health Service. And the cauldron, combining flames representing each participating nation, is simply breathtaking.

Today saw the doling out of the first gold medals, and China emerged with surprise victories in swimming and shooting to top the medals chart. There's a lot more tomorrow, including the start of the diving competition. And I get to see my first live event tomorrow - volleyball at Earl's Court.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Olympics Day 0: London's on fire

OK, I know Shadows isn't a sports site. But the Olympics isn't that different from a really huge film festival. And my entries here won't bog down in results that you can get anywhere on the internet. I'll be talking about how it feels to have my city invaded by the Games for the second time in my life. And I'll be looking for more entertaining anecdotes, as well as commenting on movies I see as usual.

First a bit of history: I barely remember watching the Olympics as a child. I was vaguely aware of the 1972 Munich tragedy when that happened and of Bruce Jenner being the golden boy in 1976, followed by the American boycott of Moscow 1980. Then this changed drastically, as I was living in Los Angeles when the 1984 Games arrived - a massive event that wasn't nearly as disastrous as everyone predicted. I particularly loved the fact that streets were suddenly filled with people from all over the world; I spend much of the Games roaming around pedestrian areas like Westwood Village (where competitors were living) and around the Coliseum.

I also had a weekend student job working as a TV camera assistant for ESPN. We covered synchronised swimming at USC (its Olympic debut) and water polo at Pepperdine University in Malibu. I also watched the torch run past the end of my road and bought tickets to a few other events.

Cut to 1992: I was living in London and was asked to cover the Barcelona Games with a newly formed news service, mainly because I speak Spanish. I then continued in this role as this group has grown, travelling to Lillehammer 1994 (my only Winter Games), Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. London 2012 is my eighth Olympics, and the second to come to me.

So I've been enjoying the buildup since London was announced as Olympic host city in July 2005. I went into central London yesterday to see the flame relayed down Regent Street. I'll be glued to the TV tonight while reporting live through the opening ceremony. I have tickets to four events. My only fear is for London's notoriously fragile transport system, which takes far too long to recover from even a minor problem. 

So let's see what happens over the next 16 days...

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Critical Week: Setting sail

London critics continue to catch up with acclaimed films from this year's festivals as their UK release dates get closer. One of the main titles from Sundance and Cannes was Beasts of the Southern Wild, an evocative, ambitious drama from Louisiana that features a breathtaking central performance by Quvenzhane Wallis, who was only 6 when the film was made. We also saw Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard's stunning followup to his award-winning A Prophet, which features another heart-stopping central performance from Marion Cotillard. And then there was the sublime Chinese relationship drama A Simple Life, starring Andy Lau.

Outside the festival circuit, we had the Farrelly brothers' corny take on The Three StoogesChristian Bale in the Chinese wartime epic The Flowers of War, an astonishing true story that drifts into melodrama; Private Peaceful, a warmly involving but slightly simplistic WW1 drama based on the book by Michael Morpugo (War Horse); the slightly over-egged but thoroughly involving true British ghost horror When the Lights Went Out; the found-footage lost-valley thriller The Dinosaur Project; the serene and understated elite restaurant doc El Bulli: Cooking in Progress; and a chance to catch up with the terrific 1956 Burt Lancaster/Tony Curtis circus drama Trapeze, one of the best ever movie bromances.

This coming week we have two more Cannes premieres: Ben Wheatley's Sightseers and Leos Carax's Holy Motors, plus the dance sequel Step Up 4: Miami Heat (aka Step Up Revolution), Sound of My Voice, the Asian epic Samsara, and restored versions of Orson Welles' F for Fake and Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger.

Note that over the coming two weeks I will be blogging regularly from the London Olympics, commenting on how the city is coping with hosting its third Summer Games and the feeling on the streets and in the venues (I have tickets to four events). Watch this space...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Critical Week: Meryl's sex tips

UK critics were screened quite a sequence of big name movies over the past week (comments are embargoed on most of them), including Meryl Streep's post-Oscar role in Hope Springs, about a middle aged couple (she's married to Tommy Lee Jones) trying to put the zing back in their wedding. It's nice to see Hollywood dealing with the sexuality of characters who are over 50 for a change. Also on the sex theme, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy star in Hysteria, a livelier, sillier comedy about the development of the vibrator in Victorian England. And a much more serious romance was Now Is Good, with Jeremy Irvine and Dakota Fanning.

Action-wise, we were finally screened Chris Nolan's trilogy closer The Dark Knight Returns, an epic novel of a movie that takes awhile to sink in. It's certainly not a fluffy, fun summer blockbuster! But it's an amazing film that will no doubt dominate box offices for months to come. We also caught up with another Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie, Premium Rush, in which he plays a bike messenger caught up in a whizzy series of action set pieces. More independently, I saw the micro-budget British ensemble comedy Turbulence, a charming film about struggling musicians trying to save their local pub. And I caught the small, uneven American drama La Mission, starring Benjamin Bratt as a macho homophobe who simply can't cope with his son's sexuality.

This coming week, we'll be seeing the Sundance winner Beasts of the Southern Wildthe British brotherly WWI drama Private Peaceful,the ghostly British horror When the Lights Went Out, the Jurassic Park-alike The Dinosaur Project, and the cooking doc El Bulli: Cooking in Progress. And of course it's only 10 days until the Olympics!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Critical Week: Moonshine boys

John Hillcoat's neo-Western led the charge for London-based critics with press screening of his Cannes hit Lawless, a 1930s bootlegging drama featuring screen-shredding performances from Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman, plus a decent turn from Shia LaBeouf and another meaty role for Jessica Chastain. We also finally caught up with Disney-Pixar's terrific new adventure Brave, featuring an unusually strong female protagonist and gorgeous Scottish landcapes. And we also saw Dax Shepard's energetic action rom-com Hit & Run, with he wrote and co-directed as well as starring alongside Kristen Bell, Bradley Cooper and Tom Arnold.

Less mainstream screenings included two genre-bending low-budget films: the emotionally potent British drama My Brother the Devil, and the intriguingly offbeat American rom-com Shut Up and Kiss Me. There were three docs: the astonishingly animated "untrue" story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman in A Liar's Autobiography, a more standard bio-doc from obviously family-approved sources in I Am Bruce Lee, and Chris Paine's intriguingly people-centric sequel Revenge of the Electric Car. Finally, I finally caught up with Luis Buñuel's surreal 1972 classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which is not only pure genius, but looks great after a digital restoration for its 40th birthday.

This coming week we have Meryl Streep in Hope Springs, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Hysteria, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, Dakota Fanning in Now Is Good, the British music-scene ensemble rom-com Turbulence and the year's most anticipated film, Chris Nolan's final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
S H A D O W S   O N   T H E   T U B E
I'm only watching three television shows at the moment... 

  • Episodes finished its second series with a bit of a wimper. This season wasn't nearly as sharp as the first, although it had its moments, and is still watchable thanks to engaging performances, mainly from Tamsin Grieg, Matt LeBlanc and a sometimes slightly too-clownish Stephen Mangan. If they return for a third series, let's hope the writing gets much edgier. And that they replace that awful opening title sequence.
  • True Blood is charging ahead in its fifth year, throwing as much madness at the screen as possible. The whole premise is a bit stale now, but it's still hugely entertaining thanks to the beautiful, often naked cast members. It's also becoming fun to try to guess which new supernatural being will be introduced next - this week's "fire demon" was pretty hilarious, in a grisly sort of way. And while we always knew they'd being back Russell, his reappearance draws a genuine chill of dread, which is rare for TV.
  • The Newsroom is typical Aaron Sorkin: smart dialog that's deeply overwritten but thoroughly enthralling. The show kind of cheats by being set a couple of years in the past, where it can merrily revise news-reporting history with the same kind of wish-fulfilment that The West Wing provided about the White House. While the backstage melodrama is kind of corny, the newscast scenes are genuinely thrilling. And this week's appearance from Jane Fonda was simply fantastic.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Critical Week: Bedtime stories

Topping the US box office, Seth MacFarlane's raucously funny comedy Ted was screened to UK critics this past week and kept us laughing all the way through (this had nothing to do with the beer and pizza they served to us beforehand). We also caught up with Marc Webb's enjoyable but unnecessary origin-reboot The Amazing Spider-man, of which the best aspect is the teen rom-com between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone;; and the still-entertaining fourth animated adventure Ice Age: Continental Drift, which was preceded by a Simpsons short that's nothing short of genius - The Longest Daycare, a wordless adventure starring Maggie.

We also had an early screening of Bradley Cooper and Dax Shepard in the roady comedy Hit and Run, for which reviews are embargoed. And further off the beaten path were the low-budget British prison drama Offender, an ambitious approach to a rather tired genre, and the British indie thriller In the Dark Half, which is a proper cinematic creep-out.

Coming up this week, I'll catch up with two Edinburgh Film Festival titles I missed while I was there: Disney-Pixar's Scottish epic Brave and John Hillcoat's Lawless. There's also the British drama My Brother the Devil, the American indie Shut Up and Kiss Me, the Monty Python doc A Liar's Autobiography, the green-technology doc Revenge of the Electric Car, and restored versions of Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Orson Welles' F for Fake.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

EIFF 12: Grand finale

This year's EIFF closed last night with Disney-Pixar's Brave, which I still haven't seen, because I was trying to get to London at the time of the screening. They should show it to London critics soon.

On Saturday night, they also announced this year's award winners:

  • Best Film: HERE, THEN (dir Mao Mao)
  • Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature: ONE MILE AWAY (dir Penny Woolcock)
  • Best Performance in a British Feature: ANDREA RISEBOROUGH and BRID BRENNAN (Shadow Dancer)
  • Jury Special Mention: PAPIROSEN (dir Gaston Solnicki)
  • Best Short: DINOSAUR EGGS IN THE LIVING ROOM (dir Rafael Urban)
  • Best British Short: THE MAKING OF LONGBIRD (dir Will Anderson)
  • The McLaren Award for New British Animation: THE MAKING OF LONGBIRD (dir Will Anderson)
  • Student Critics Jury Award: SLEEPLESS NIGHT (dir Jang Kun-jae)

And here are my own picks for best of the festival:

  1. TABU (Gomes, Por)
  3. GRABBERS (Wright, UK)
  4. THE IMPOSTER (Layton, UK)
  5. UNCONDITIONAL (Higgins, UK)
  7. ONE MILE AWAY (Woolcock, UK)
  8. SHADOW DANCER (Marsh, UK)
  9. GOD BLESS AMERICA (Goldthwait, US)
  10. DRAGON - WU XIA (Chan, Chn)
Now I need to get to work writing up proper reviews of the films I saw in Edinburgh, while diving back into the screening schedule in London. It'll be a busy few weeks until the Olympics engulfs me in its embrace at the end of July.