Thursday, 5 December 2019

Critical Week: On the run

Awards screenings continued this week with several strikingly good movies. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner Smith star in the superb, pointed, involving road movie Queen & Slim. George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman star in Sam Mendes' bravura WWI adventure 1917, which also features cameos from Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Colin Firth. Mark Ruffalo takes on an evil corporation in Todd Haynes' riveting true drama Dark Waters. And Paul Walter Hauser is stunning as the title character in Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell, the true story of a man whose life was ruined by media sensationalism in 1996.

Not looking for awards are Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan, back with all their friends for the lively, silly Jumanji: The Next Level, which has a bit mote texture than the first one. And John Cena and John Leguizamo lead the charge as firefighters in Playing With Fire, a dim but rather enjoyably ridiculous mix of comedy and action.

Further afield, Jennifer Reeder's unhinged Knives and Skin is an enjoyably deranged mystery-thriller with blackly comical edges set in small-town America. And Helen Hunt leads the horror thriller I See You as a doped-up housewife whose already strained life is upended by what seems like a ghost in the family home. There was also this important reissued drama from 1985...

dir-scr-prd Arthur J Bressan Jr
with Geoff Edholm, David Schachter, Damon Hairston, Joyce Korn, Billy Lux, David Rose, Libby Saines, Susan Schneider, Tracy Vivat
release US 12.Sep.85 • reissue US 21.Jun.18, UK 6.Dec.19 • 85/US 1h21 ****

Digitally restored to a pristine state, this is one of the earliest dramas about Aids, made as the epidemic was only just starting in 1985. It's one of the most humane treatments of the topic, centred around a friendship between two young men who are facing their mortality in very different ways. Filmmaker Arthur Bressan has some tricks up his sleeve, but his storytelling is disarmingly simple, which makes the characters and situations deeply engaging.

As a volunteer for a gay community centre, 25-year-old David (Schachter) introduces himself to 32-year-old Aids patient Robert (Edholm), who is in hospital with no real chance of recovery. David is nervous, and Robert is confrontational, but as they get to know each other, barriers come down and they share their very different personal journeys. David sneaks some porn into the room, while Robert challenges David to get involved in pushing the government to end its silence and stop a disease that is killing a generation.

While the film's tone feels simplistic and old-fashioned, there's a sophistication to the characters and issues that is far ahead of its time. Even three decades later, this is a bracingly complex exploration of the Aids epidemic, the political cruelty that sparked it and the social opinions that exacerbated it. So the way the film presents David and Robert as normal guys just trying to live their lives has an everyday quality to it, as well as something revolutionary. It's beautifully acted by both Schachter and Edholm, who bring sharp humour and warm emotion to every scene. The other cast members remain mainly just out of sight, because this isn't their story. So not only is this a vital document of a place and time, but it's also a remarkably involving, provocative drama that needs to be seen today.
 4.Nov.19 • Berlin

This coming week I'm hoping to get into a screening of the animated adventure Spies in Disguise, and there are also Justin Long in After Class and Gary Oldman in The Courier, plus catching up with the animated film Missing Link, the footballer doc Diego Maradona and the Tarantino doc QT8: The First Eight.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Stage: Detoxifying masculinity

choreography, producer Joe Moran / Dance Art Foundation
lighting Beky Stoddart • costumes Tom Rogers
with Andrew Hardwidge, Alexander Miles, Sean Murray, Erik Nevin, Christopher Owen, Yiannis Tsigkris, Temipote Ajose-Cutting
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, London • 28-29.Nov.19

A provocative exploration of physical interaction, Joe Moran's dance choreography continually challenges the audience with its shapes and spaces. There's no music, so the performance often resembles a sporting event, especially with the gymnasium-like atmosphere in the Lilian Baylis Studio. And in Arrangement, the six male dancers are dressed in sports-casual wear (with some added nightclub touches like mesh shirts and a leather kilt). The one-hour performance is broken into a series of shorter pieces that work together on a thematic level to subvert stereotypes about masculinity.

One section feels like a rugby scrum, as the men push both against each other and into each other, forming a knot of limbs straining in tension. And then there's a witty dance on their hands as they jostle for position against the back wall. At other times, they are working together, forming a sort of six-man ball rolling across the stage toward the audience. The most effective sequence is more like an athletic game, as one man dances and the others try to stop each other from pushing him into various positions. And some of it feels remarkably free-form, as each dancer performs his own piece, eerily echoing each other with repeated movements.

Through all of this there's a cheeky sense of interaction with the audience, including an amusing section in which the dancers take turns standing centre stage for an improvised Q&A session that takes a few unexpected turns. This is not the kind of piece that makes its themes obvious, but there are big ideas swirling everywhere, pushing viewers to examine preconceptions about physicality, interaction and the way men, specifically, are expected to contend against each other on various planes, and also work together to create something remarkable.

The hour-long Arrangement is preceded by the 12-minute Decommission, featuring the remarkably athletic Temipote Ajose-Cutting, whose demanding performance cuts across moments of complete blackout. It also features several extremely long-held poses that require unusual strength and calm, commenting on the limits of the body while playing with ideas of space, time, weightlessness and, yes, patience.
Photos by David Edwards •

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Critical Week: A warm embrace

Press screenings are slowing down as usual for this time of year, as journalists try to catch up with things they haven't seen yet. Attending the London Film Festival put be ahead of the curve, but there are some late-season releases I'm still chasing. I only had four screenings this past week: the staggeringly powerful drama Waves with Kelvin Harrison Jr and Alexa Demie (above), plus Lucas Hedges, Sterling K Brown and rising star Taylor Russell. The Brazilian drama Greta is dark and sometimes a little too serious, but has some strong things to say about people on the fringe of society. Starring Steven Berkoff and Martin Hancock, The Last Faust is basically a museum piece, an ambitiously artistic telling of both parts of Goethe's epic story, accompanied by paintings, sculptures, photographs and a novella. And I finally caught up with the devastatingly emotional doc For Sama, a deeply personal account of life in wartorn Aleppo.

Outside the screening room, it was a privilege to attend an event at which Peccadillo Pictures placed its archive at Bishopsgate Institute. Peccadillo has released a number of seriously notable films over its 20 year history, with more to come. Their releases over the years have included Embrace of the Serpent, Weekend, The Shiny Shrimps. I'm interviewing the director and lead actor from their upcoming Georgian drama And Then We Danced tomorrow.

Coming up this next week: Sam Mendes' already acclaimed war drama 1917, Todd Haynes' drama Dark Waters, Clint Eastwood's Atlanta Olympics bombing drama Richard Jewell, Daniel Kaluuya in Queen & Slim, and the John Cena comedy Playing With Fire. We also have our annual meeting with the Critics' Circle and the BBFC, always enjoyably informative as they tell us about the year's knife-edge ratings decisions.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Stage: A twisted Christmas delight

Slipped: Cinderella ... Rebooted!
by Paul Joseph and Tim Benzie 
dir Tim McArthur
with Faye Reeves, Grant Cartwright, Robert McNeilly, Jim Lavender, Rich Watkins
Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London • 28.Nov.19-8.Jan.20

This was my first panto at Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and I knew it would be a twist on the formula. Indeed, it's a riotously rude, gender-bending romp featuring the usual tropes, including how it's chirpily addressed to an audience of "boys and girls" while everything is very adult indeed. With a terrific script and nimble direction, plus an engagingly up-for-it cast of cross-dressers, this is a fabulous blast of holiday spirit.

The fairy tale is well and truly fractured. Cinderella (Cartwright) is off to the ball thanks to help from his Fairy Godmother (Reeves), who has some anger issues. But his wicked stepmother Lady Garden (McNeilly) and evil stepsister Pleasure (Lavender) are also in attendance, hoping to catch the eye of the eligible Prince Charming (Watkins). The problem is that the prince ha s a shoe fetish, so he's more interested in that exquisite glass slipper than whoever was wearing it.

Where this goes is flat-out ridiculous, encompassing a series of amusing musical numbers. Classics like Tomorrow and Especially for You (or rather, Shoe) mingle with more recent hits like Juice, SeƱorita and You Need to Calm Down. Plus a seriously unforgettable rendition of Shallow. The script is littered with pop culture references as well as nods to news headlines that feel so up-to-the-moment that the show will be shifting along with the UK's election campaign. It will definitely be worth revisiting.

And the performers are relentless scene-stealers, trying to win the audience over with individual call-and-response catch-phrases while directly appealing for sympathy at every turn. Each has great stage presence, mercilessly lampooning themselves. Watkins' smirking Prince is sometimes unnervingly slimy, while Reeves and Lavender have a suitably appalling chemistry as the conniving, hairy-dopey baddies. As the heroine, Cartwright is appropriately bland but blossoms as things go on. And the show is well and truly stolen by Reeves, who skilfully channels Megan Mullally on speed as the Fairy Godmother, nailing the show's best gags. She also pops up in various witty side roles, and gets a chance to torment the audience directly (glitter alert!).

Director Tim McArthur takes a freewheeling approach that knowingly riffs on amateurish townhall-style productions. But these are talented professionals who never miss a beat, improvising jokes along with the script's funniest gags while trying to crack each other up. It's charming, hilarious and very rude. There are perhaps too many poo jokes (if that's possible), and the whole thing seems to be reluctant to come to an end. So it leaves us in just the right kind of Christmas mood.

For more info:

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Stage: A naughty Christmas wish

Pinocchio: No Strings Attached!
by Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper
dir Andrew Beckett
with Matthew Baldwin, Jared Thompson, Dami Olukoya, Christopher Lane, Christy Bellis, Shane Barragan, Oli Dickson, Briony Rawle
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 19.Nov.19-11.Jan.20

Olukoya and Thompson
The 11th holiday panto produced by Above the Stag is another impressive production, with witty staging, a lively script, terrific songs and a cast that's expert at milking every bit of innuendo for all it's worth. That said, the show sometimes feels like it plays it a bit safe, relying on reliable old gags instead of inventing something new. But the performers keep it fresh and often raucously entertaining. In fine tradition, the familiar storybook tale has been twisted into something hilariously queer for an adult audience that's not afraid of rather a lot of rude double entendre.

In the Italian fishing village of Placenta, puppet-maker Gepetta (Baldwin), her sidekick Cornetta (Bellis) and their cat Chianti (Rawle) are in hiding, fugitives from a crime spree in Rome. But evil fox Figaro (Lane) suspects something is up with them. One night, part-fairy Fatima (Olukoya) brings Gepetta's puppet Pinocchio (Thompson) to life, telling him not to lie. Bullied at school for being wooden, he's tempted by a funfair on the edge of town, and also by new footballer Joe (Dickson), bought for the local team by Figaro. When Pinocchio runs away with Joe, Gepetta and Cornetta set off to find him, helped by lonely fisherman Pedro (Barragan), who has a thing for Gepetta.

As events progress, the soap-style romantic storylines are enjoyably tangled, boosted by the gender-bent mayhem. Characters are openly lusting after each other, resisting and then falling for each other and swearing like, well, fishermen. When Pinocchio lies, it's not his nose that grows. The actors dive in with gusto, playfully delivering the smuttiest dialog while deploying references to politics, current events and of course the Disney animated classic (including a sharp Jiminy Cricket gag). And each character gets a chance to break out in song and dance, numbers that are snappy and often laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Lane as Figaro the fox
With spotless timing, Baldwin is playing his seventh Above the Stag pantomime dame. He's gifted at engaging with audience members and improvising jokes that are just as funny as the scripted ones. He also generates some surprising pathos even in some of the more ridiculous moments, creating vivid connections with Bellis' sparky Cornetta and Barragan's adorable Pedro. Dickson is also memorable as the puppet come to life, putting in a remarkably physical performance that emphasises his dance skills. Lane has a ball as the predatory Figaro, never shying away from his smirking, gleefully leery nastiness. And Rawle is a gifted scene-stealer, amusingly riffing on quirky cat behaviour even when lurking in the background.

Above the Stag's original musicals are of such high quality that they'd play well on a West End stage. They fill this small venue perfectly, with inventive production design that sets off the various scenes. Four main sets are vividly imagined, plus a nicely deployed landscape-painted curtain. The sound is, as usual, a bit tricky, with quite a few punchlines inaudible in the back rows (there are only eight). But the energy is unmissable, and there's never a dull moment as these engaging characters take on this big Christmas-themed adventure with plenty of wickedly grown-up sass.

For more info:

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Critical Week: Don't call me angel

It was another mixed bag of movies for me this week, with awards-worthy movies jostling for attention with the usual weekly releases. We had Elizabeth Banks' new take on Charlie's Angels, an entertaining but slightly off-balance mix of comedy and violence. Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced and stars as a detective with Tourette's in Motherless Brooklyn, a beautiful film that's also a bit indulgent. Chadwick Boseman stars in the cop drama 21 Bridges, which looks great but really needed a much better script. And Ophelia retells the story of Hamlet as a teen romance with great performances and production values, but little point.

Aaron Eckhart toplines the cop thriller In the Line of Duty, which is gritty and a bit predictable. Daniel Isn't Real is a fascinating psycho-thriller that never quite finds something to say about mental illness. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a riveting look into the comical magician's fatal heart condition and rather slippery life. And I was able to rewatch the beautifully made British independent drama Into the Mirror on a big screen at a cast and crew screening - great to see it projected instead of on a small screen at home, and really nice to meet the director and writer-actors.

This coming week I have a line-up of acclaimed arthouse movies to see, including Sterling K Brown in Waves, Jennifer Reeder's Knives and Skin, Helen Hunt in I See You, the Chinese thriller Long Day's Journey Into Night, the Brazilian drama Greta and Steven Berkoff in The Last Faust. I also have some more theatre, a special film archive event and the London Critics' Christmas party!

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Contenders: Four docs

Catching up with movies as award season cranks up, this time four acclaimed documentaries. The field of docs is overwhelming this year, and it's simply impossible to watch everything...

American Factory
dir Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
with John Gauthier, Wong He, Cho Dewang, Jimmy Wang, Jeff Liu, Bobby Allen, Rob Haerr, Shawnea Rosser, Jill Lamantia, Fred Strahorn
release UK Jun.19 sdf, US 21.Aug.19
19/US Netflix 1h55 ****

A fascinating exploration of both the world's new financial reality and a collision of cultures, this documentary astutely explores the differences between Americans and Chinese workers in a multinational corporation. Even if it's somewhat overlong, the film is strikingly well shot and edited to highlight differences as well as to find the common humanity. Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert capture this without commentary, including some remarkably emotional moments. And it becomes profoundly important as it focuses on personal perspectives about both changing ways of working and the larger shift in the global economy.

The film opens in December 2008, as GM closes a plant in Ohio, losing 10,000 jobs. Eight years later, Chinese corporation Fuyao reopens it as an automated glass factory, with 2,000 non-union jobs that pay less than half as much as the old ones. As they prepare to move to Ohio, a team of Chinese workers is tutored in American culture; workers from both countries are paired on the factory floor. The film follows a variety of employees as they face this new reality. Many of the locals have never recovered from the plant's closing, having lost their homes. Meanwhile, the Chinese are far from their families, struggling with high expectations and an often incomprehensible culture. Contrasts abound: when American supervisors visit China they are shockingly casual in the meetings (one wears a Jaws t-shirt) and deeply impressed by the efficiency on the line. And after Fuyao's smiling workers perform elaborate company-praising musical numbers, the Americans dance to YMCA.

It's great to watch the Ohioans bond with their Chinese colleagues, offering new experiences like a Thanksgiving meal or the chance to fire a gun. Meanwhile, the bosses are furious when US Senator Sherrod Brown mentions worker's unions in his grand opening speech, worrying that a union will reduce efficiency so much that they'll be forced to close down. The tension between quality, safety and corporate targets is relentless. The Chinese blame inefficient American workers who complain too much, want more than two days off per month and constantly threaten to unionise. But safety is a serious issue, and Chinese bosses blame their American managers for failing the company. So even though there's mutual understanding on the floor, the threat of unionisation sparks a ruthless crackdown. So in the end, this is a fascinating, nuanced depiction of the struggle to bridge the gap between arrogance and overconfidence.
30.Oct.19 • Sundance

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary
dir-scr Ben Berman
with John Szeles, Anastasia Synn, Ben Berman, Penn Jillette, Criss Angel, 'Weird Al' Yankovic, Carrot Top, Max Maven, Eric Andre, Judy Gold, Simon Chinn, Chad Taylor
release US 16.Aug.19, UK 22.Nov.19
19/US 1h31 ***.

As the Amazing Johnathan, Szeles is a standup comedian and magician known for his outrageous performances. Then at the top of his career in 2014 he was told he had a year to live due to a heart condition. Three years later, he sets out to make a documentary with Berman as he tries to figure out what to do with the time he might have left. So off they go on a comeback tour around America. Although things get a bit complicated when Szeles allows a second documentary crew to tag along. And then Berman learns that another documentary was already in the works before he came along.

Berman lets the story unfold with real-life messiness, as each discovery threatens to derail his project. With a story that's just as involving, Berman is struggling with how he can make this doc stand out from the others, so he weaves in his own life story, complete with home-movie flashbacks. This loose, freeform style makes the film thoroughly endearing, and it also fits well with Szeles' chaotically unplanned approach to taking life as it comes. Indeed, Szeles lives one day at a time in Las Vegas with his wife Anastasia, never doing anything he doesn't want to do. Being preoccupied with his health, it's difficult to concentrate on working. "I'm not supposed to be here," he says, as he comes out of retirement and starts work on a new show, visiting venues he played 20 years ago. He does worry about possibly dying on-stage, but then much of his show consists of him pretending to mortally wound himself.

Clips of his outrageous magic act punctuate the film, intermingled with segments that, for example, follow Szeles back to his childhood home in Detroit. Home videos follow him into his past, including partying and ongoing drug use. Berman cleverly includes footage he knows he shouldn't, pixelating people who don't want to appear on screen and putting black-out boxes to obscure, for example, Szeles' drug use. A witty sequence involves Szeles offering to appear on camera smoking meth if Berman joins him. Berman's struggle to discover the soul of his film adds a fascinating layer both to the documentary and to Szeles' story. One larger question is whether he should ever trust a magician, and this leads the doc itself down a new narrative path that provides a fascinating look at art, perception and the nature of truth.
18.Nov.19 • Sundance

Sid & Judy
dir Stephen Kijak; scr Claire Didier, Stephen Kijak
voices Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jon Hamm, Norman Jewison, George Schlatter, Albert Poland, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
release UK Oct.19 lff, US 18.Oct.19
19/US Universal 1h38 ****

By using real recordings and in-character dramatised memoirs for voiceover narration, this documentary recounts the story of Judy Garland and Sid Luft with remarkably intimacy. Never shying away from the darker side of their life together, the film feels unusually honest for an exploration of such an icon. It also features a fantastic range of never-released behind-the-scenes material.

The film traces the 13-year romance between Luft and Garland, who met as her marriage to Vincente Minnelli was collapsing, and it also flickers back through Garland's life to chronicle her from birth to death. Along the way, filmmaker Stephen Kijak includes terrific audio recordings made by Garland herself, recounting her story. And of course there's also a wonderful collection of archival footage, stills and animated sketches, including extensive clips from her movies and snippets of iconic songs. One electric sequence weaves together multiple variations on The Man That Got Away from A Star Is Born (1954).

Garland recalls going into show business at age 2, and never stopping. Luft recounts the constant studio pressure that included strict dieting and amphetamines to make sure she maintained the desired energy level. She went through rehab, but the pressure continued, and she attempted suicide. At 28 she had been owned by the studio for 15 years, and they released her from her contract. Later, the TV network was threatening to cancel The Judy Garland Show because of her substance abuse, while Luft tried to hold her together.

The doc traces the personal events in their lives with bracing honesty, including some remarkably moving moments, plus harsh episodes including Garland's abuse by studio heads and a variety of managers. The film also captures her relentless sense of humour. And each sequence is punctuated beautifully by music, often with gorgeous rare recordings. Most intriguing is how the film traces how Garland's legend grew up around her, with each personal setback followed by another triumphant performance. And seeing this through Luft's and Garland's eyes, in their own words, is magical.
28.Oct.19 • London

The Great Hack
dir Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim; scr Karim Amer, Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos
with David Carroll, Brittany Kaiser, Carole Cadwalladr, Paul Hilder, Christopher Wylie, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, Julian Wheatland, Ravi Naik, Emma Graham-Harrison, Gill Phillips
release US/UK 24.Jul.19
19/US 1h53 ****

Beautifully shot and edited, and packed with clever effects that bring out deeper ideas, this chillingly detailed documentary explores how data from our online activity has turned us into a commodity without us even knowing who is mining our details. The problem is that this creates an individually filtered reality that's removed from what's actually going on in the world, playing on fears and apathy. And this has handed power to disruptors and the wealthy who profit from tyrants. For evidence, see the organised-but-invisible campaigns of propaganda and disinformation backing Trump, Brexit and other supposedly democratic movements around the world.

As New York professor Carroll notes, the online world has become our matchmaker, fact checker, personal entertainer, guardian of our memories and even therapist. All of our interactions, credit card payments, searches, movements and even the clicks themselves are linked together to create a virtual version of ourselves that is used to target us with content. Project Alamo spent $1 million per day on Facebook ads to get Trump elected, based on  information from Cambridge Analytica, which had at least 5,000 data points on every voting American. The film documents how their stated aim was to target us with specific information to make us see the world the way they wanted us to see it, and to change our behaviour. Trump's campaign ran nearly 6 million targeted ads on Facebook (compared to Clinton's 66,000). And the Leave EU campaign in the UK did exactly the same thing. As did the Blue Lives Matter movement. And Bolsonaro's campaign in Brazil. And so on.

The film is superbly assembled with a strong narrative flow, as Carroll seeks to find out what data Cambridge Analytica has collected about him. The story is beefed up by investigative journalists Cadwalladr and Hilder, who connected the dots and broke the story. And former Cambridge Analytica employees who blew the whistle on illegal data collection are articulate and honest, including Kaiser, Wylie and Dehaye. Kaiser is a particularly complex case, a human rights activist who struggles to admit what her work did to the world.

It's deeply shocking to see how these companies worked behind-the-scenes to manipulate millions of people, using immoral methods that were often also blatantly illegal. Defining these methods as psy-ops is eye-opening: this is information warfare, and it's going on literally everywhere. The hard truth is that we don't own our own data, and it can be used against us at any time. The scary result of this is that there may never be be another free and fair election anywhere in the world, because it's the richest, strongest, most ruthless campaigns that wield this power. And it will only get worse, and more insidiously underground, until we can legally own our online selves.
3.Nov.19 • Sundance