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FESTIVAL IN THE BIG SMOKE
The last month has been crazy so this is the first chance I’ve had to put a post up about the London Film Festival, which ended at the end of October. Because I was freelancing and then away, I didn’t go to many films this year. The LFF, unlike Cannes and Toronto, is not a film market and one of its main purposes is to showcase film for the cinemagoing public. It has also created buzz for a number of significant British films the last few years: Slumdog Millionaire and An Education were helped by their showings at the LFF. It is a fantastic festival and I look forward to attending it each year.
The first film I caught was The King’s Speech, a drama starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter and directed by Tom Hooper. Now Firth, while a likeable actor, usually just bumbles through his roles but here as the future King George VI, afflicted with a terrible stammer, he is playing against type. Geoffrey Rush plays antipodean exile Lionel Logue, who is brought in by George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, to try to help him overcome this problem. Bonham-Carter as Elizabeth is actually quite good, acting as a decent foil for Firth. TV veteran director Hooper (Cold Feet, Elizabeth I) brings an assured touch here, humanising the Royals and with a perfect eye for period detail, thanks to Eve Stewart’s sumptuous production design, lifts The King’s Speech above more than just the usual Royal-focused film with an eye to attracting American audiences. Rush is superb as the man who becomes George’s friend, determined to help him out despite the protestations of the Archbishop of Canterbury and King George himself. Guy Pearce, who plays Edward VIII, the monarch who resigned and went to live with Mrs Wallis Simpson, makes his role go a decent way and his arrogance is a nice counterpoint to George’s warmth. There is talk of Oscar nods for The King’s Speech and it would certainly be warranted…
Next up is Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. This is a film that has attracted much speculation and divided audiences who have seen it. Portman plays Nina, a classical dancer who is offered the role of the prima ballerina in a new production of Swan Lake after their principal dancer Beth Macintyre (Ryder) leaves. Vincent Cassel is svengali Thomas Leroy, the head of the ballet company, who isn’t convinced that Nina is capable of playing both the White Swan and the more evil counterpart, the Black Swan, in Swan Lake. So Nina becomes obsessed with trying to pin down the other role, with her life seemingly falling to pieces around her. Black Swan looks incredible, dark and menacing, but the problem here is that Portman’s Nina is an obnoxious, narcissistic and unsympathetic character, so when the film ends on a low note, because the audience can’t empathise with her, it leaves you feeling quite cold. None of the other characters are particularly likeable either with Cassel a bit of a shit who had a fling with Beth before the company got rid of her and only Lilly (Kunis), who befriends Nina, comes across as remotely human. So Black Swan works as a technical exercise and there’s no denying Aronofsky’s prowess as a director but it’s clinical and rather portentous in places with a protagonist that you never really get to care about.…
Finally there’s 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle with James Franco, Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn. Boyle is an incredible director, able to turn his hand to everything from hedonistic drama (Trainspotting) to post-apocalyptic zombie horror (28 Days Later). He is a very stylish director who knows how to entertain his audience. 127 Hours recounts the true-life story of Aron Ralston (James Franco) an American adrenalin junkie who decides one weekend to take a biking, hiking and climbing trip out to the middle of nowhere in Utah but comes unstuck when he gets trapped in a canyon when a rock falls and pins his arm. It’s interesting that 2010 has seen the release of this as well as Buried but the two films are approached in a very different way. Only Danny Boyle could make a film about a man trapped in a canyon for several days and still make it entertaining. 127 Hours looks fantastic with the Utah scenery captured incredibly on camera, thanks to the cinematography of Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle (the latter he worked with on Slumdog Millionaire). James Franco, on who this film stands or falls, is also pretty convincing as he transforms from a man only interested in making himself happy to someone a little more aware of his friends and family. Boyle could have made a crowdpleasing followup to Slumdog after the worldwide success of that film but it is to his eternal credit that he picked what comes across as a very personal project. The world of modern cinema would be a poorer place with Boyle making films in it and 127 Hours is an engaging, tense and ultimately uplifting movie…
I was lucky enough to go to the press conference for 127 Hours so here’s a few shots from that…

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THREE FOR TUESDAY

The last couple of weeks have been pretty frenetic. Unfortunately the year-long contract of work I thought I had has ended prematurely now so I’m left having to go back to hustle for freelance work. I have seen three very different films at screenings, all at Paramount’s screening room at their London office at Golden Square, so I thought I’d review them in this latest entry. The first film I caught was Centurion, directed by Neil Marshall, a low-budget British film that shows a Roman legion fighting for their lives against a group of Picts in Scotland in the second century AD. Centurion as a film is a bit of a throwback to the sort of movies we used to make over here in the Seventies: it’s shot in a gritty and very violent fashion. But I’m not criticising it for that: Marshall really uses the English and Scottish settings in a beautiful but rugged way and the action barrels along in an appealing fashion. Michael Fassbender, from the awful Inglorious Basterds, plays Quintus Dias, the Roman soldier who takes up with General Virilus (Dominic West from The Wire) and his Ninth Legion to try to crush the Picts only to find that they have them outnumbered in territory that they know like the back of their hand. West is good value on screen as is David Morrissey and Fassbender makes a good fist of it here too. Whilst its historical accuracy is questionable, Centurion is an enjoyable action yarn with a solid cast and interesting direction…

How To Train Your Dragon is a 3-D animated film from Dreamworks about a teenage viking, Hiccup, in a fictional village who is no good at traditional viking arts like fighting and pillaging who becomes friendly with an injured dragon, which is when his luck begins to change. With the voice talents of Craig Ferguson and the ubiquitous Gerard Butler, this is a very likeable kids film that uses the 3-D to its full effect with some magnificent visual set-pieces. Admittedly the plot, that the dragons attacking the vikings are just misunderstood, is rather predictable but Butler and Ferguson are good choices for the voices and there are some nice touches like the slightly Japanese look of the dragon that Hiccup befriends. Most importantly, How To Train Your Dragon doesn’t outstay its welcome and holds the viewer’s attention during its running time. It’s the perfect Easter holiday treat for children…
Finally, Agora is the new film by director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, The Sea Inside). It’s a visually lavish affair about female philosophy professor Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) who finds herself caught in the middle of a turbulent period in Alexandria, Egypt during the fourth century AD while it was a Roman protectorate. Unfortunately, while it looks fantastic, capturing the feel of an ancient city effortlessly, Agora is let down by wooden acting (Weisz is particularly guilty of this here), a poor script and a plot that really doesn’t amount to anything in the end. The points it attempts to make about the friction between the Christians, Jews and the Pagans in the city are serious but they are so mishandled dramatically that it all feels like a BBC2 drama with all the money thrown at the production side. It’s a film that’s been hanging around for a while and, when you watch it, you can see why it’s been hard for it to find a slot. As a period film, Centurion works better than Agora because it does what it set out to do. File under curio…

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SCIENCE FICTION AND HARD FACT
I haven’t been to see many films at press screenings recently but there were two I saw in the last couple of weeks and so here are my reviews of them.
First up is The Soloist, a drama directed by Brit Joe Wright (Atonement) and starring Robert Downey Jr and Jamie Foxx. This is a film that is already on DVD in the US and they have been waiting for a slot to release it in the UK. Based on a book by Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez, The Soloist is about that journalist, played here by Downey Jr, who befriends a homeless man Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) with a secret past. Ayers was a Julliard student who dropped up and now lives on the streets of Los Angeles. Wright is a very accomplished director, considering that this is only his third feature as director, Downey Jr is likeable on screen while Foxx brings real power to his performance but The Soloist feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be important and relevant. It’s not a bad film but it lacks real impact for the viewer and it makes you think that perhaps it would work better in its original written word form and something has been lost in its translation to the big screen. The script can’t help but portray journalist Lopez as the cliched well-meaning but flawed character, complete with estranged ex-wife. So it’s a film that does keep your attention but nothing would be lost if it was seen on DVD rather than the big screen…
Surrogates is based on a Top Shelf graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Wiedele and I’ll be posting a full review of it up on the TRIPWIRE website. But I’ll give you a little mini-review here. Starring Bruce Willis, Surrogates posits a world where everybody has an artificial avatar or surrogate made of metal and plastic and most of society live their lives through these surrogates. Willis is decent value on screen as ever but it feels like a pilot for a TV series that will never be made…