Thursday, 31 December 2015

A Year in Shadows: 2015

35th Shadows Awards: Happy New Year!

There were two films this year that got deep under my skin, and ultimately it was Charlie Kaufman's extraordinary Anomalisa that demanded the top spot on my best of the year list, with Andrew Haigh's 45 Years in close second. (Note that Anomalisa doesn't come out in the UK until March, so won't feature in British awards until next year.) Here are my top picks in the main categories, and as usual there are full top 10s and a lot more on the site...

  1. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman)
  2. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
  3. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
  4. Tangerine (Sean Baker)
  5. Carol (Todd Haynes)
  6. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
  7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams)
  8. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
  9. The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)
  10. The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)

Andrew Haigh (45 Years)

Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs)

Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Alfredo Castro (From Afar, The Club)

Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy, Pitch Perfect 2, Magic Mike XXL, Mockingjay Part 2)

Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

  1. Absolutely Anything (Terry Jones)
  2. Unfinished Business (Ken Scott)
  3. Pixels (Chris Columbus)
  4. The Gallows (Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing)
  5. Accidental Love (Stephen Greene)
  6. The Cobbler (Tom McCarthy)
  7. Ratter (Branden Kramer)
  8. The Visit (M Night Shyamalan)
  9. The Scorch Trials (Wes Ball)
  10. Buttercup Bill (Emilie Richard-Froozan, Remy Bennett)

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Critical Week: My head hurts!

I caught up this week with Will Smith's new film Concussion, a true drama that's very well shot and acted, and also relentlessly "Important!" Hopefully it'll finally give traction to the dangers of brain injury in America's favourite sport, which has suppressed medical findings for decades. Long delayed here in the UK, Ramin Bahrani's 2012 film At Any Price will be released in the wake of the filmmaker's 2014 drama 99 Homes. This is a similar story of the American dream gone sour, and it gives Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron (astutely cast as father and son) unusually meaty roles.

Vincent Cassel is terrific as the patriarch in Partisan, an elusive drama about a commune in an isolated country (it was shot in the Georgian Republic) where one of his children begins to doubt the nature of this created reality. It's clever and startlingly involving. And from Denmark, A War cross-cuts between life at home and on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Shot like a documentary, the film feels rather derivative (see Restrepo for the real thing) but carries a strong kick in the moral dilemma of the final act. I also caught up with two previously released awards contenders:

Hard to Be a God
dir Aleksey German; with Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko 13/Rus ****
With a virtually plotless structure and nearly three-hour running time, this Russian epic will test the patience of even the most ambitious moviegoer. But there's so much going on in every extraordinary frame that it's never boring. Violent, silly and utterly bonkers, the premise is that a group of scientists has travelled to help a distant planet that's stuck in its middle ages, unwilling to move into a renaissance. Shot in vivid black and white, the film follows one of these men, Don Rumata (Yarmolnik), through an odyssey of mud and blood. Details are observed in long takes by the bravura camerawork and jaw-dropping production design. It may ultimately be a meandering and bleak look at the tenacity of human ignorance, but it's utterly dazzling. (Nominated for Foreign-Language Film of the Year by the London Critics' Circle.)

dir Tom Browne; with Richard Johnson, Gemma Jones, Daniel Cerqueira 14/UK ****
A beautifully played three-hander, this astutely written, shot and acted film centres on Daniel (Cerqueira) who finds that he needs to travel more often out of London to visit his parents as their eccentricities increase. Leonard (Johnson) has confined himself to the sofa, while Maria (Jones) keeps herself unnecessarily busy. In very different ways, both are extremely demanding, and Daniel struggles to adapt to this new paradigm in which he is their primary caregiver. Each scene is packed with astute observations, played to perfection by the sharp cast with an offhanded sense of humour. And the emotional kicks, when they come along, are potent. (Nominated for Breakthrough British Filmmaker by the London Critics' Circle.)

I still have a few more screeners to watch before I cast my final votes in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards and make my nominations in Galeca's Dorian Awards. And I also need to finalise my own year-end lists, which I'm planning to post on Thursday.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Critical Week: A winter's tale

Quentin Tarantino's latest epic The Hateful Eight has finally bowed to critics, and it's an oddly uneven film - an intriguing idea with moments of skilful inventiveness and a solid cast, but the nagging sense that it's all rather pointless and indulgent.

Also screening this week: Robert DeNiro and Zac Efron in the rude road comedy Dirty Grandpa, Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie in the enjoyably edgy rom-com Sleeping With Other People, Matthias Schoenaerts in the fiendishly clever and unsettling Belgian PTSD drama Disorder, and the irritatingly fragmented Romanian sculptor biopic Brancusi From Eternity.

Meanwhile, I still have a bunch of films to watch before the next round of voting in critics awards. Since I have no more press screenings until January 4th, I should have time to catch up with screeners of awards-worthy movies, plus binge-watching TV series I've been saving up. I'll also be finalising my year-end lists over the next week. So it should be a nice Christmas! Hope yours is good too...

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Critical Week: All hands on deck

London critics caught up this past week with Ron Howard's watery epic In the Heart of the Sea, starring Chris Hemsworth. It's an impressive film, based on the story that inspired Moby Dick and plotted like a small indie film rather than the blockbuster it looks like, which may not help its box office prospects. Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell star in Daddy's Home, a comedy pitting a father against a stepdad. It's funny and rather lightweight. Taron Egerton stars in a biopic about Britain's most notorious Winter Olympian Eddie the Eagle, a crowdpleaser costarring Hugh Jackman. And Matthias Schoenaerts continues his stream of superb performances this year in the creepy Belgian PTSD drama Disorder.

And there was just one press screening of the year's most anticipated movie, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the 30-years-later sequel to 1983's Return of the Jedi reuniting stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, plus a terrific collection of young actors including Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. It's a rousing adventure that harks back constantly to the original trilogy. And it relaunches the franchise in energetic style.

Between screenings, most of my week has been spent organising the nominations announcement for the London Critics' Circle Film Awards on Tuesday 15th December (see the FULL LIST OF NOMINEES). This coming week I'll catch up on nominees I may have missed, plus the Jason Sudeikis comedy Sleeping With Other People and two Zac Efron movies: the comedy Dirty Grandpa with Robert DeNiro and the drama At Any Price with Dennis Quaid.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Critical Week: A time for reflection

Press screenings always go slightly bonkers at this time of year as critics try desperately to catch up with everything before casting votes in year-end awards. I vote in three awards - the Online Film Critics Society released its nominees this week (the nominations deadline was last Saturday), the London Critics' Circle Film Awards (of which I'm the chair again) has its nominations deadline this Friday, and Galeca's Dorian Awards nominations are due next month. Anyway, in this flurry of screenings, I've seen what just might end up as my favourite film of the year, Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa, an inventively animated and staggeringly personal exploration of self-image and human interaction.

Other awards screenings included The Revenant, Alejandro Inarritu's bravura and thoroughly harrowing survival tale starring Leonardo Di Caprio; Joy, the nutty and rather wonderful biopic reuniting Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and writer-director David O Russell; and The Danish Girl, a rather too-pretty biopic but strongly pointed starring the excellent Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.

Regular releases screened this week included Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's goofy comedy Sisters, Brad and Angelina Jolie Pitt's handsome but stilted drama By the Sea, Jackie Chan and John Cusack's splintered Chinese action epic Dragon Blade, the charming British holiday romance Sparks and Embers, the rightly acclaimed Everest doc Sherpa,  the introspective American indie drama The Surface, and the offbeat Italian micro-budget drama Water Boys. I also took the time to delight in the starry joys of Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray's holiday extravaganza A Very Murray Christmas.

This coming week, the only movie anyone is talking about is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I'll get to see on Tuesday the 15th, a couple of days before it opens. Also screening: Ron Howard's seafaring epic In the Heart of the Sea, the British Winter Olympics biopic Eddie the Eagle, Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell squaring off in Daddy's Home, and Stephen Dorff in American Hero.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Critical Week: Have a scary Christmas

There was a late press screening of this week's holiday horror comedy Krampus this week, the fourth film this year about the mythical Anti-Claus who terrorises families on Christmas. More family-style holiday pleasures were found in The Peanuts Movie, which nicely captures the tone of the original Snoopy and Charlie Brown cartoons with an updated animation style and a gently hilarious story that grown-ups and young children will enjoy.

I also caught up with The Big Short, Adam McKay's comedy about the financial crisis starring the superb Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. Matthew Macfadyen plays a filmmaker in the knowing pastiche Lost in Karastan, which kind of loses its way about halfway through. And the acclaimed Icelandic film Rams is a fiercely clever exploration of an estranged brotherhood in a style best appreciated by arthouse fans.

This coming week we have a screening of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in The Revenant, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Joy, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the comedy Sisters, Jackie Chan and Adrian Brody in the action movie Dragon Blade, and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

On the Road: Somebody's watching you

Secret in Their Eyes
dir Billy Ray; with Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Chiwetel Ejiofor 15/US ****
This loose remake of the slick 2009 Oscar-winning Argentine thriller takes a somewhat brainier approach to its story of an FBI agent (Ejiofor) who tenaciously works on a 13-years-cold.botched murder case that has a strong personal connection, then reteams with his old colleagues (Roberts and Kidman) to finally get justice. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems, and the twisty plot holds the interest, even if the film feels a bit dry and dark. It also helps that all three lead actors give profound performances packed with telling nuances, raising the intrigue both in the case and in their complex inter-relationships. Roberts is especially remarkable, stripped of all glamour as she reveals layers of wrenching inner turmoil. And writer-director Ray fills scenes with subtly clever touches that offer telling insight into the characters, who are far more important than the case itself. Sometimes the leaping back and forth between periods can be difficult to follow (hint: watch the hair), but the story has a robustness that offers constant surprises and emotional resonance. This is a rare thriller that appeals to the mind as much as the gut, taking time to build atmosphere rather than rush from set piece to set piece. It's also distinct enough that fans of the original will find something new.

The Night Before
dir Jonathan Levine; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie 15/US ***
There's no real reason why a stoner bromance can't also be a Christmas movie, although this holiday comedy shows that heartwarming sentiment easily drowns out gross-out antics. This is an unexpectedly warm romp about three best buddies (Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Mackie) who have been each others' family at Christmas but find the demands of life pulling them apart. It's a fairly simple premise, packed with effortless charm, fearless physicality and lots of jokes about drugs and genitalia. But it manages to also weave in some festive magic, including a bit of commentary about the nature of growing up and how friends are our family,even when we forget that. The cast is strong, and there are some hilarious gags peppered all the way through the film, carefully placed amid vulgar jokes that fall flat, some expertly undermined sentimentality and two amusing big-name cameos that deliberately wear out their welcome. Oddly, despite all of the rude humour, the film feels rather gentle and sweet, only rarely revving up to full-speed entertainment. But it's the kind of movie that certain audiences will adopt as their very own Christmas classic.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
I headed back to chilly, damp London from sunny Southern California, but slept through the on-board entertainment (mainly because I'd seen all of the films that were available, well at least those I wanted to see!). I arrived just in time for a press screening of Creed, a terrific boxing movie that carries on the Rocky saga with style. Solid filmmaking and acting lift it far above expectations. This coming week I'll catch up with the all-star financial crash drama The Big Short, the holiday horror Krampus, the British comedy Lost in Karastan and the Cannes winning Rams. And I have several others I need to catch up with as year-end awards voting deadlines loom in various groups I am a member of...

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

On the Road: Family time

Love the Coopers [UK title: Christmas With the Coopers]
dir Jessie Nelson; with Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Alan Arkin 15/US ***.
Marketed as a wacky holiday comedy, it's rather surprising that this film strikes a more serious tone right from the start, with Steve Martin's warm, wry narration introducing us to each member of the sprawling Cooper clan as they reluctantly approach a Christmas Eve dinner together. There are plenty of hilarious moments along the way, but the issues each of these people are dealing with are anything but flippant: this is a film about how life is only very rarely like the happy-glowing images we surround ourselves with at the holidays. And things are beefed up by the powerhouse cast swirling around the terrific Keaton and Goodman in the central roles as a couple at the end of their tether after 40 years of marriage. Olivia Wilde and Ed Helms have strong scenes as their conflicted children, Arkin finds some new nuances in his usual patriarchal role, Marisa Tomei gets the film's most complex role as Keaton's drifting sister. With the multistrand approach, the film feels eerily similar to Love Actually, except with everyone directly related to each other (plus outsiders nicely underplayed by Amanda Seyfried, Anthony Mackie and Jake Lacy). And the large cast kind of spreads the depth around between them, never quite pushing any single character too far. But there's something to engage with in each of them, and the nostalgic emotional surge is meaningful and thankfully not overly sentimental.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
I'm still out in California for a few more days - hope to catch a couple of films this weekend, including Secret in Their Eyes (a remake of a favourite film, but the top-notch cast makes it look unmissable) and The Night Before (which looks like it might be mindless fun).

Saturday, 14 November 2015

On the Road: Going underground

The 33
dir Patricia Riggen; with Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche 15/Chl ***.Based on the true story of the 2010 Chilean mining disaster that captured the world's attention, this film starts out like a rather standard B-movie, with lots of corny melodrama and characters that have clearly been ramped up for dramatic effect. Then the astonishing events kick into gear and the film becomes startlingly gripping. Which is unexpected since the outcome is so well-known. But director Riggen, while never indulging in anything very flashy or inventive, quietly keeps the film grounded in reality, deepening the characters and situations by showing the side of the story the news media never reported. She also cleverly indulges in lots of religious imagery, while letting her starry cast do their thing to create engaging characters we can't help but root for. Banderas, Binoche and Santoro all get a chance to shine, as does a rather underused Lou Diamond Phillips. So even if it feels rather like a by-the-books TV disaster movie, the film works its way under the skin. And the final scenes (plus a black and white coda) carry a solid emotional kick.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

On the Road: Nice work if you can get it

Our Brand Is Crisis
dir David Gordon Green; with Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton 15/US ***.
Despite an uneven tone, this breezy political drama touches on several important themes as it freewheels through a scruffy story of American campaign strategists working for rival candidates in an election for Bolivia's president. Based loosely on real people, the film has an authenticity to it that holds the attention, even as it veers wildly between politics, comedy and even slapstick. Of course, Bullock can bridge these gaps effortlessly, and she's terrific as the burn-out reluctantly making a comeback against her fiercest rival, played by an underused Thornton. But then all of the supporting roles are thinly written. This is Bullock's show, and her performance makes the film worth a look. As does what it says about the American political system.  

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
There are several other films out now in America that I'm hoping to catch up with, including The 33 and By the Sea, and also - purely for work reasons of course, as they open later in the UK - The Peanuts Movie and Love the Coopers.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Critical Week: One last shot

Yes, UK critics saw another of the year's most anticipated films this week, the final instalment in the franchise: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. The A-list cast and Suzanne Collins' terrific source material continue to make this a superior series, with a epic-sized conclusion that's packed with strongly emotional moments in between the action mayhem. Jennifer Lawrence's usual costar Bradley Cooper leads the cast of the super-chef drama Burnt, which never quite sells either the story or the too-fancy food, but it's watchable enough.

Also this past week, we had a look at two prestige films going for awards-season attention: Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is a superb investigative drama about a news team (led byMark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton) looking into Boston's abusive priest scandal; Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies is a stately period thriller starring Tom Hanks as a negotiator navigating the tricky waters of Cold War Berlin.

At the other end of the spectrum, the nonsensical South African action movie Momentum stars a plucky Olga Kurylenko being chased by a scene-chomping James Purefoy. Somewhere in the middle, The Queen of Ireland is a fabulous, inspiring doc about Rory O'Neill and his iconic drag alter ego Panti Bliss; and the earthy, honest Mexican drama Velociraptor centres on two teens exploring their sexuality as the world is about to end.

I'll be in America over the next two weeks, so hope to catch up with several things that are out there but haven't screened here, including The Peanuts Movie, The 33, By the Sea, Love the Coopers and Secret in Their Eyes. We'll see how that goes! Watch this space...

Thursday, 29 October 2015

A visit to Twin Peaks

Extended until 21st November, The Owls Are Not What They Seem is a Twin Peaks fan experience in Central London that plays on the 25-year-old TV series' now iconic imagery and characters. It's interactive and immersive, with a terrific cast of characters and a range of food and drink inspired by the show.

On arrival, you're given an identity. I had come as my Twin Peaks alter-ego One-eyed Jack, and there I was told I was a "self-medicating divorcee" with a small task to carry out. Ushered into a diner, we were given what looked like a cup of coffee but what actually a coffee cocktail, followed by three courses of rather witty food - from another coffee-themed bowl of soup (with savoury dipping donuts) to a breakfast-style main course and of course cherry pie with a caraway twist at the end.

The inventive food is provided by Blanch & Shock, while the entire experience is created by Lemonade and Laughing Gas. Actors playing variations on the series' characters continually appear to improvise some riotously funny drama, leading us into other areas of the sprawling site, including a cocktail bar with some rather seedy rooms off to the side, and a road house with a live show (including a fire eater). Along the way I was arrested by a thug who had been deputised. And I had several hand-made cocktails courtesy of the sponsor Wild Turkey Bourbon.

While this installation isn't officially linked to Twin Peaks or David Lynch, it's packed with references that will send chills up fans' spines. I particularly enjoyed the long red-curtained corridor, in which I of course had to do a little dwarf dance of joy.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that I was a huge fan of the show in 1990-1991. I first saw the pilot as a movie projected in a vast cinema at the Miami Film Festival, and was glued to the series as it unfolded. In the summer of 1991, I visited relatives in Seattle and took a drive to Snoqualmie, where the show was filmed, seeing that sinister waterfall first hand and having some damn fine pie and coffee at the real Double-R diner. I was also a card-carrying member of Operation Pine Weasel, writing letters and campaigning to save the show from cancellation. We were successful after the first season, but when the show became more obtuse in the second year, nothing we could do would save it.

And now David Lynch is reassembling the cast for a new season that is scheduled to be broadcast in 2017. To prepare for this evening, I binge watched 15 of the 30 shows that were made - and I had forgotten that the red curtained room scenes were set "25 years later", which is now. 


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Critical Week: A cry for help

Jennifer Connelly gives a storming performance in Shelter, written and directed by her husband Paul Bettany and costarring the excellent Anthony Mackie. The film tries to say too much about homelessness, but the drama is involving and the themes important. I've tried to keep this week a bit slow screening-wise, but caught the British comedy A Christmas Star, a goofy romp in the vein of the Nativity! movies - in other words, almost charming enough to make up for its silliness. And The Hallow is an Irish horror about a family that finds sludgy demons living in the woods. It's enjoyably yucky, but not very scary.

But of course the big film of the week was Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed because it combines the darkly personal elements of Skyfall with old-style 007 storytelling. And for sheer wonder, I have binge-watched the entire first series of David Lynch and Mark Frost's 25-year-old classic gonzo mystery Twin Peaks and am now diving into the second, which I know will remember was more troublingly surreal. I hadn't seen the show since it originally aired 1990-1992, when I participated in Operation Pine Weasel to save the show from cancellation! On Wednesday evening I'm attending the London diner/bar experience The Owls Are Not What They Seem - and I'll cover it here later this week.

I'm preparing for a break in November, so have a few films to catch up with over the next week, including awards-season contenders like Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies and Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, as well as the horror comedy Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse, the South African heist movie Momentum and the drag-queen doc Queen of Ireland.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Critical Week: Beardy men unite!

That's Vin Diesel in the photo above. Yes, really. He's going a rather decent Tom Hardy impression in the olde worlde scenes in his new franchise hopeful The Last Witch Hunter, which was screened to London press on Monday only a couple of days before it opens in cinemas. Whether that franchise materialises depends on the audience's appetite for a batty supernatural thriller that mixes Game of Thrones with Underworld. But it got a lot of laughs from the critics!

Most of the films I watched over the previous week were London Film Festival offerings. Some of these have release dates coming up, including Danny Boyle's exhilarating Steve Jobs starring Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet; Jack Black in the manic comedy-horror romp Goosebumps; Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford in the true journalism drama Truth; the artful, surprisingly moving documentary The Fear of 13, about a man on death row; and Jafar Panahi's Taxi Tehran, his superbly mischievous third film as a banned filmmaker in Iran.

Tomorrow comes the first press screening of one of the year's most anticipated movies, Sam Mendes' Spectre, starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. I've also got the British comedy A Christmas Star in the diary, as well as Josh Duhamel in Lost in the Sun and the pre-apocalyptic Mexican buddy movie Velociraptor. I'm also planning to binge watch the entire old series of David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks in preparation for a press trip to The Owls Are Not What They Seem, a themed cafe-club night in a secret London location. Watch this space for a full report!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Shadows on the Stage: Riffing on a classic

dir-scr Phil Willmott
Above The Stag Theatre, Vauxhall • 14.Oct-15.Nov

A loose riff on David Lean's classic 1947 film Brief Encounter, writer-director Phil Willmott's play sets out to imagine the way the story might have unfolded if the movie's gay screenwriter Noel Coward had been able to write it about two men instead. So the whole thing is a bit gimmicky by definition, sometimes straining to make a witty reference or political comment. But it's an intriguing idea with lots of possibility.

It's also an involving story on its own, using present-day scenes to frame a late-1940s story about a doctor (Adam Lilley) and a station agent (Alexander Huetson) whose schedules converge every Thursday afternoon on the platform at Vauxhall (insert inside joke here), so they begin to hang out together, talking about their wives and children and trying not to acknowledge the illicit attraction they feel for each other. Until they do, flinging open a can of worms the original film never even peeks into.

This open acknowledgement of sexuality at a time when being gay was illegal adds a major kick to the story, even though addressing it head on begins to undermine the emotional power. Unlike Brief Encounter, which can leave a viewer in tears even on the 10th viewing, this play only musters a lump in the throat.

The four-person cast dive in with plenty of personality. Lilley has an offhanded, authentic intelligence and wit as Larry, a doctor with a respectable career and a family that seems happy to everyone but Larry and his stoic wife (Penelope Day, who doubles as the station's sassy newsagent). Opposite him, Huetson brings considerable masculine charm as the likeable railway employee Arthur, although he sometimes overplays his internal feelings. The chemistry between them zings from the moment they meet. The fourth cast member is Chris Hines, who plays both the disapproving priest and an alert police constable.

The nicely crafted set might be too complex for such a small space, representing a wide range of settings with more detail than was strictly necessary. But the black and white design is clever, and the lighting nicely augments the shifting moods. And if the musical underscore sometimes feels somewhat pushy, at least this theatre has finally found a show that incorporates the sound of trains rumbling overhead. And also one that's packed with themes that still echo around this particular corner of London. And the whole world for that matter.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

LFF 12: Sail away

The 59th London Film Festival came to an end this evening with the gala screening of Steve Jobs. But before that, Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier (above) walked off with the award for best film. Annoyingly that was one of the films on my need-to-see list that I didn't manage to see (it's impossible to see everything).

Once again, the LFF proved itself a rather harsh atmosphere for the press - unlike most festivals in the world, we have to pay dearly for our accreditation, and there are no parties, no freebies, just lots of great movies, usually showing five at a time so you have to choose carefully what you see. It's pretty exhausting, but the programme is an excellent compendium of the year's top festivals, so it's a great way to catch up. Here are the prize winners, my favourites, and a couple more highlights...


Doc (Grierson Award): SHERPA
First Feature (Sutherland Award): THE WITCH
BFI Fellowship: Cate Blanchett
BFI Ambassador: Tom Hiddleston

  1. CAROL
  2. ROOM

Steve Jobs
dir Danny Boyle; with Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet 15/US ****.
Whether this film is an accurate portrait of the eponymous Apple founder is frankly irrelevant. This is a storming example of the power of cinema to tell a story with complexity and invention. Every element works together to carry the audience through the narrative using just three key scenes that would actually play well on-stage. But the way it's shot and edited adds layers of depth... MORE >

dir Rob Letterman; with Jack Black, Dylan Minnette 15/US ***
Like Jumanji on steroids, this action-horror romp packs the screen with animated mayhem swirling around an established comedian and a cast of plucky kids. The breathless pace holds the attention, boosted by surprisingly sophisticated gags peppered all the way through. But while working overtime to keep the audience entertained, it undermines every serious point it pretends to make... MORE >

Saturday, 17 October 2015

LFF 11: Surprise us

The surprise film at this year's London Film Festival was Anomalisa, and directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, plus actor David Thewlis, were on hand to present their film to the audience. Alas, I wasn't able to attend this year, so I'll have to wait until the film is screened to the press prior to its UK release. Meanwhile, the parade on the red carpet is continuing with tonight's awards ceremony, at which Cate Blanchett will be presented the BFI Fellowship. The last day of the festival is tomorrow, and it will be all about Michael Fassbender. Here are a few more highlights...

dir James Vanderbilt; with Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford 15/US ****
Cate Blanchett's gives yet another storming performance in this smart, enlightening backstage drama about the 2004 scandal at CBS News, which ended the career of iconic newscaster Dan Rather. Like a populist blending of The Newsroom with Good Night and Good Luck, the film is talky and a bit too obvious in the points it makes, but it's also important...  MORE >

Ruben Guthrie
dir Brendan Cowell; with Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades 15/Aus ****
It seems obvious that an Australian filmmaker would make a movie about alcoholism into a blackly hilarious comedy. What's surprising here is that the serious undercurrents are just as pungent, and that the film never slips into the usual simplistic approach to the topic. As a result, it's both entertaining and thought provoking.

dir Sebastian Schipper; with Laia Costa, Frederick Lau 15/Ger ****.
German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper took a big risk shooting this epic romantic thriller in a single unbroken take, and the resulting film not only wows the audience with its technical audacity but also fully engages the emotions. This story of a young expat's two-hour odyssey is genuinely terrifying, darkly touching and thumping entertainment.

From A to B
dir Ali Mostafa; with Fadi Rifaai, Fahad Albutairi 14/UAE ****
This is a lively road movie with an unusually sharp script that combines character-based humour, introspective drama and a sharp sense of the political scene as three 25-year-olds drive from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, recreating a trip they were supposed to take five years earlier. It's also cleverly timely, connecting with political realities while keeping the audience laughing, then hitting us with an emotional whammy.

Friday, 16 October 2015

LFF 10: See the world

The gang from Youth lined up on the red carpet last night at the London Film Festival: Paul Dano, Harvey Keitel, Paloma Faith, Rachel Weisz, Michael Caine and director Paolo Sorrentino. I had a slightly slower day today - just two films and a night off at the theatre! Here are a few more highlights...

dir Jacques Audiard; with Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan 15/Fr ***
With a powerfully topical subject, this drama both grapples with big issues and gives in to some oddly slanted politics that seem to convey a rather lopsided message. It's strikingly well made, with a solid cast and a sometimes startling realism. But filmmaker Jacques Audiard seems to get caught up in both the violence and the unrealistic dreams of refugees.

Taxi Tehran 
dir Jafar Panahi; with Jafar Panahi, Hana, Omid 15/Irn *****
Banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi continues to make sharply clever films that manage to just fit within the rules of his sentence (this is his third). Once again cleverly exploring the nature of filmmaking itself, this film also offers a strikingly earthy, funny exploration of Iranian culture. And human nature.

Gold Coast 
dir Daniel Dencik; with Jakob Oftebro, Danica Curcic 15/Den **.
Beautiful landscapes and an artful, almost experimental approach make the most of this rather pointed drama about colonial Europeans in Africa. Packed with big ideas about how humans bend the laws of nature at their peril, the film is ambitious but also self-important and morally simplistic. And the way the story is told eliminates any opportunity for either narrative kick or emotional resonance.

dir William Fairman, Max Gogarty; with David Stuart, Matt Spike 15/UK ****
An unblinking exploration of one of London's more disturbing drug scenes, this documentary plays on both fascination and distaste for sexual activities that go against the flow. It sometimes feels sensationalised, veering perilously close to Reefer Madness territory, but the issue is real. And what it has to say about both addiction and sexuality is hugely important.

Screen Talk:
Todd Haynes

The filmmaker sat down with festival director Clare Stewart to talk about his work in front of an audience of 450 gripped cineastes. The conversation was extremely literate, as Haynes went into his thought processes, methods and experiences while making Superstar, Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I'm Not There, Mildred Pearce and Carol. He discussed running themes (illness, isolation, societal demands) and recurring actresses - he clearly adores both Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett and offered intriguing insights into the different ways they work. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

LFF 9: Don't be shy

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett were the stars of last night's red carpet premiere of Carol, and Blanchett will be out again on Saturday for the premiere of Truth and to be honoured with the BFI Fellowship at this year's London Film Festival. Tonight's red carpet stars include Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano for Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, and Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan and Kevin Guthrie for Terence Davies' Sunset Song. Here are a more highlights...

dir Paolo Sorrentino; with Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel 15/Italy ****
Gorgeously shot in a spectacular setting and edited with cheeky energy, this atmospheric film has a rather freeform plot exploring age and mortality from unexpected angles. But the characters are so witty and offbeat that they can't help but hold the attention, and writer-director Paolo Sorrentino plays engagingly with artistic ambition and romantic passion to keep the film utterly riveting.

Sunset Song 
dir Terence Davies, with Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan 15/UK ****
Adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic 1932 novel, this is a wrenchingly beautiful look at life in rural Scotland, crafted with real artistry by Terence Davies. The film has an unusually period tone, keeping everything bracingly realistic while observing events from a darkly personal perspective.

Closet Monster 
dir Stephen Dunn; with Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams 15/Can ***.
Filmmaker Stephen Dunn takes a strikingly introspective look into the life of a young boy who feels like his life is spiralling out of control. Beautifully shot and edited, the film mixes artfully stylised flights of fancy with earthy themes that cut to the heart of big issues like bullying and self-loathing. But more than that, this is a thoughtful exploration of someone learning to accept his sexuality.

dir Branden Kramer; with Ashley Benson, Matt McGorry 15/US **
Yet another gimmicky found-footage style movie, this feels more like a polemic about the dangers of webcams than a thriller with a cogent story. While it's slick and unnerving, filmmaker Branden Kramer seems so intrigued by his idea that he completely forgets to establish proper characters or situations. It looks cool and has some solid freak-outs, but never seems to have a point.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

LFF 8: Own the moment

It's was the dame's turn to hit the red carpet at the London Film Festival last night: Maggie Smith out for the European premiere of The Lady in the Van. I've kind of hit the wall today - there hasn't been enough time to see all the films and write about them, perhaps because I'm seeing four movies every day! But tomorrow I only have two in the diary, so that should help restore a sense of balance. Here are some more highlights...

dir Todd Haynes; with Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara 15/US *****
With delicate precision, this story unfolds in a way that's both true to its period and fully relevant now. A beautiful companion piece to director Todd Haynes' own Far From Heaven, this is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about two women trying to live their lives the best they can, but finding themselves against the grain of society. And it carries a powerful kick.

Take Me to the River 
dir Matt Sobel; with Logan Miller, Robin Weigert 15/US ***. 
After starting as a gently witty drama, this film turns dark quickly, sending its central character on an unexpected odyssey. The themes it's exploring are so intense that the film feels creepiest when everyone is smiling broadly. And even though the film is flooded with a sense of foreboding, where it goes is utterly unpredictable.

The Ones Below 
dir David Farr; with Clemence Poesy, Stephen Campbell Moore 15/UK ****
As it puts an infant child in jeopardy, this fiercely clever psychological thriller draws easy comparisons with the iconic The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But this is no schlock horror movie; it's a much more subtle exploration of parental paranoia and urban angst in which every moment is soaked in echoes of impending doom. And screenwriter-turned-director David Farr keeps his wits about him, while scaring us out of ours.

Our Little Sister 
dir Hirokazu Kore-eda; with Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa 15/Jpn ****
Exquisitely observed, this warm and gentle drama prowls around generational relationships without too much plot but plenty of resonant impact. Filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda continues his astute depiction of family interaction with characters are remarkably authentic. And the situations are lively and witty without ever tipping over into melodrama.

dir Jonas Cuaron; with Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan 15/Mex **. 
While this strikingly well-made thriller touches on big issues regarding migration, it ultimately settles for being merely violent, almost wallowing in the hideous immorality of right-wing Americans who believe they should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. This lack of complexity leaves the film superficial and pointless. So forget the subject matter - the filmmakers did - and enjoy this as a ghastly horror thriller.

LFF 7: Run for your life

The London Film Festival is now fully in its stride, dazzling audiences with the best films from the year's festivals while keeping the journalists hopping with an intense schedule of press screenings (I am seeing three or four films a day, others are seeing five or six). Somewhere I'm sure there's something festive happening, but I haven't really spotted it, aside from a press drinks hour the other night at Picturehouse Central's gorgeous new members' bar. And most of the films have been great, including these four...

The Lobster
dir Yorgos Lanthimos; with Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz 15/Ire ****
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) makes his English-language debut with this blackly comical satire about how society pressures us into relationships. It's telling and complex, and it feels like two movies mashed together, plus a very dark coda. But an up-for-it-cast brings out layers of meaning while keeping us laughing brittlely... MORE >;

The Lady in the Van
dir Nicholas Hytner; with Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings 15/UK ****
Alan Bennett adapts his own memoir for the big screen, cleverly playing with the idea that he is writing his own story. Yes, a homeless woman really did live in a van in his driveway for 15 years. And since the great Maggie Smith plays her on-screen, the film is not only entertaining, but its message has a spiky bite. 

The Wave [Bølgen]

dir Roar Uthaug; with Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp 15/Nor ****
Structured exactly like a classic disaster movie, this Norwegian dramatic thriller is particularly well-made, with vivid characters and a believable sense of the science behind it. The premise is a picturesque fjord that has long been at risk of a mountainside collapse, which would trigger a devastating tsunami. And in this solidly crafted, only slightly corny movie, an entire village's day has come.

The Endless River
dir Oliver Hermanus; with Nicolas Duvauchelle, Crystal-Donna Roberts 15/SA ****
A harrowing drama about the cycle of violence in South Africa, this film certainly isn't easy to watch as it continually challenges the viewer's preconceptions. Dark and tough, it's evocative and simply gorgeous to watch, even though the story is relentlessly painful. Filmmaker Hermanus finds real resonance using period-style touches in a present-day story. Although it somewhat heavy and over-serious for some viewers.

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K

I only had a few of non-LFF screenings this week, including a very late press screening for Guillermo Del Toro's visually ravishing but otherwise disappointing Crimson Peak; the nutty British werewolf thriller Howl; the offbeat Argentine road movie Jess & James; and the acrobatic documentary Grazing the Sky, which is a must see for fans of physical movement. I have a glut of LFF films to come, and won't be back in non-festival mode until after this coming week.