Thursday, 26 November 2020

Critical Week: Stay classy

Over halfway through our month-long Lockdown 2.0, it's clear that everyone is seriously bored with all of this now, longing for a reopening of cinemas, restaurants, pubs, theatres and everything really in time for Christmas. Meanwhile I've had three days and counting without internet, thanks to Virgin Media's astonishing inability to solve whatever the problem is in my neighbourhood. This means that I've had to use my phone's 4G to watch movies this week. And the films were a mixed bag. Ron Howard's new movie Hillbilly Elegy, which stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams. It's watchable but too simplistic to have any kind of kick. David Fincher's biopic Mank, starring Gary Oldman as the screenwriter of Citizen Kane, has equally great performances (especially from Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies), and much more visual panache, although Fincher's perfectionism drains the story of passion.

Lovers Rock • Another Round
Mosul • Happiest Season
Hillbilly Elegy • Buddy Games
The Ringmaster
And then there's the messy romantic comedy Love, Weddings & Other Disasters, a frothy, corny multi-strand affair starring Diane Keaton and Jeremy Irons. Jungleland stars the superb Charlie Hunnam and Jack O'Connell as brothers on a road trip with the always excellent Jessica Barden, but the film is too hushed to come to life. Lost at Christmas is an awkward little holiday rom-com from Scotland, with just about enough charm to win us over. Host is a refreshingly original British horror movie set entirely on a Zoom screen, and it's skilfully terrifying. And The Ringmaster is a sickeningly derivative Danish horror movie that's uber-grisly but not very scary.

There were also two docs: Zappa uses extensive archival material to trace the iconic musician's career, while Markie in Milwaukee is about a 7-foot deeply religious trans woman who decides to live as a man again, then has to face her true nature. I also caught Kevin Hart's new stand-up show, Zero F**ks Given, which has a nicely intimate feel in his house, including some very personal jokes. And then there was The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, a giddy bit of Christmas fluff that felt like just what I needed.

This coming week I'll catch up with Red, White and Blue, the third film in Steve McQueen's Small Axe series, as well as the all-star musical The Prom, Viggo Mortensen's Falling, Diane Lane in Let Him Go, Drew Barrymore in The Stand-In, Margot Robbie in Dreamland, the psychological thriller Muscle and the shorts collection The American Boys.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Screen: November TV Roundup

I'm still watching a bit more television than usual, thanks to lockdown - basically filling the time I would normally be travelling into central London for film screenings. There's been a lot on, and I'm behind with a few series, trying to take them one by one and getting easily distracted when something new pops up (The Crown!). Here's what I've been watching over the last few months, starting with a timely treat...

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special
This animated 45-minute mash-up is an inventive mix of silly comedy and thrilling action. It's set after the nine-film saga as Finn and Poe plan a bustling Life Day party, and a magical Force Key sends Rey on a wildly chaotic journey through space and time, jumbling up the entire franchise. The mayhem is packed with knowing nods to fans, plus hilarious Lego-style gags as that black caped gang (Darth Vader, Kylo Ren and Palpatine) squares off against Rey, Luke and others. The holiday touches are amusing too, including Christmas jumpers, Poe's sentimentality and an unexpected snowfall. It's a lot of nutty fun, but not nearly as daring or ridiculous as the notorious 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. (Disney)

We Are Who We Are
With the pungent subtitle "Right Here Right Now", this strikingly current series by Luca Guadagnino centres around teens living on a US military base in italy. The show has a loose-limbed exuberance to it that's engaging and freeform, allowing it to circle themes and deepen considerably as it spirals in unexpected directions. It also deliberately blurs lines of gender and sexuality in almost every character, which is fascinating as these young people take circuitous routes into their grown-up selves. The central friendship between Fraser and Caitlin is played with unapologetic complexity by Jack Dylan Grazer and Jordan Kristine Seamon. And their parents have their own messy journeys. (HBO)

Lovecraft Country
This ambitious series could have been this year's Watchmen, exploring history and major issues through story infused with fantasy. But it's not nearly as focussed or coherent. Jonathan Majors leads an above-average cast, holding attention even as the characters and plotting become increasingly opaque. Each episode is a combination of intrepid action and mind-bending supernatural freak-outs, all of which feels strangely random, especially as it never comes together to illuminate the bigger mystery. The themes are powerful, but the expository dialog is too dense, the dramatics exaggerated, and whole episodes are extraneous. Curiosity keeps us watching, but interest wanes. (HBO)

The Third Day 
With echoes of The Wicker Man, this series initially follows a man (Jude Law) to the island of Osea, off the Essex coast, where he runs into a freaky ancient cult that's up to something nefarious. And he's the person they're after. The perspective then switches to another woman (Naomie Harris) who arrives in Osea months later on her own private mission. These two plot threads are quickly revealed to be one, and the filmmaking approach skilfully keeps dropping creepy details into scenes, including wonderful performances from Law and Harris, plus Paddy Considine and an on-fire Emily Watson. It's uneven and not terribly convincing, but enjoyably chilling. (HBO)

A twisty plot makes sure that this espionage thriller holds the attention over eight nail-biting episodes. It's about an Israeli agent (Niv Sultan) trying to complete her mission in Tehran while an Iranian security official (Shaun Toub) tries to stop her. Telling the story from both perspectives adds some unnerving nuance, which means that we don't want either side to succeed. Some of the plot points leave gaping holes here and there, and a tit-for-tat kidnapping tilts the story toward melodrama. As does a genuinely sweet romance that might just be part of a spy's job. But it's sharply well made and superbly acted, and it gets increasingly thrilling the events unfold. (Apple)

The Duchess 
London-based Canadian stand-up comic Katherine Ryan based this sitcom on autobiographical elements as a single mother who puts her daughter above everything else. There are some very funny and astute moments scattered throughout this show, and some terrific dialog, especially as Katherine storms around being brutally honest with everyone she meets. But she's not hugely likeable, and she mistreats the people in her life until they snap; and when they do something nasty, they're suddenly the villains. It's a bit frustrating to watch her fail utterly to learn anything from her errors. But it's blackly hilarious, and rather bleak fun. (Netflix)

Someone Has to Die [Alguien Tiene Que Morir]
From Spain, this three-part melodrama centres on a wealthy Spanish family that's infused with outrageously cruel bigotry. This latest conflict starts when prodigal son Gabino (Alejandro Speitzer) returns to Madrid from Mexico after 10 years away, and his father instantly exerts control, furious that Gabino brought a friend (Isaac Hernandez) home with him. The plot is simply bonkers, not only making very little sense in its histrionics, but always settling in on the worst possible things people can do to each other. As always, the great Carmen Maura livens things up as the imperious matriarch. But even her character is essentially thankless. (Netflix)


The Boys: series 2 
Diving straight back in with an all-new pile-up of decapitations, betrayals and Billy Joel tunes, this mis-titled rowdy series barely pauses for breath. The high-energy superhero characters are a mess from the very start, caught in spirals of inner turmoil and frustrated megalomania, which of course gives the actors a lot to work with and provides plenty of interpersonal fireworks. Literally. The various plotlines move in fits and starts, compromised by some soapy story points and sequences that strain to be over-cool. But there are plenty of intriguing wrinkles to the characters that catch us off guard, most notably whenever the engaging Hughie (Jack Quaid) is on-screen. (Prime)

The Crown: series 4 
Peter Morgan continues to mine the royal family for dramatic morsels, and as always his writing has the ring of truth to it even though it's pure fiction. Centring this season around Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin), the show is immaculately produced, as each episode contains heart-stopping moments alongside the throwaway bits that make it feel so real. Even if the takeaway this year is that Prince Charles is a monster. And the cast deserves all the awards: beautifully anchored by Olivia Colman with Josh O'Connor, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter, each of whom gets a chance to shine very brightly indeed. It'll be all-change for the next season. (Netflix)


Star Trek: Discovery: series 3 (in progress)
This season's opener sends this series into yet another whole new direction, and where it continues from here is beautifully crafted, reinventing the entire show once again with a very different set of tensions and intentions. The superior cast (led by Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp and the awesome Michelle Yeoh) bridges all of this expertly, deepening their roles as they go while finding clever ways to reinvent the wider franchise for today's audience. Like the original series almost 60 years ago, this show continues to ask enormous moral and ethical questions in provocative ways, and it grapples with hot-potato issues using stories that are easy to identify with. (Netflix)

The Conners: series 4 
(in progress)
The astute writers on this sitcom have always reflected the times, and this new season is no exception. Embracing the pandemic and the economic carnage it has brought to the working class, the scripts are putting this already bedraggled family through the wringer with issues of health, work, finances and immigration flaring up in earthy, thoughtful ways. And throughout even the most serious stuff, this great cast (Laurie Metcalf continues to steal the show) manages to drop smart punchlines all over the place, reminding us that laughter can ease the pain, for a few moments at least. It's rare to have such a long-running show that actually feels like it's still going somewhere. (ABC)


Huge in France 
Acclaimed comedic actor Gad Elmaleh plays a version of himself in this amusing comedy about a top French comic who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to his teen son (Jordan Ver Hoeve), an aspiring model with his own issues. The show focuses on how Gad struggles with the fact that he's not famous in America and can't get a grip on the local sense of humour. With his identity in crisis, he's certainly in no shape to help his son pursue his dream, although his contacts come in handy (cue a terrific Jean Paul Gaultier cameo). Everyone in this show is struggling wildly with who they are, which gives the writers a chance to astutely satirise various aspects of show business.  (Netflix)


Reality competitions are comfort food during this pandemic, and have found clever ways to bubble, distance and so forth. The most comforting of them all, The Great British Bake Off: series 11 (C4), put its cast and crew in a bubble and made the show as normal with another terrific line-up of likeable contestants, plus a new host in the cheeky Matt Lucas. With a more complex style of safe distancing, Strictly Come Dancing: series 18 (BBC) is also back for another spin, with entertaining celebrities and up-for-it professionals. Quarantine measures make everything look very different, but there's plenty of glittery magic. And then there's I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here: series 20 (ITV), held this year in a superbly creepy castle in Wales, which has added some enjoyable twists for the typically eclectic cast of scene-stealers. And then there were two competitions that delayed their finals until the autumn: Britain's Got Talent: series 14 (ITV) saw the title going to a fitting winner who warms the heart with his witty quintessentially British act, while The Voice UK: series 9 (ITV) came back with two live shows to wrap up its truncated season and crown another seriously talented winner we'll probably never hear from again.

Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman hit the road again for Long Way Up (Apple), another likeable travelogue, this time from Tierra del Fuego to Los Angeles. The scenery is spectacular, and their stopovers add some pointed meaning. The first and last episodes get a bit bogged down in logistics, but it's a fabulous journey. And in Amy Schumer Learns to Cook: series 1-2 (Food) the comic and her chef husband take us into their lockdown life, teaching how to make cocktails and to recreate favourite restaurant dishes at home. It's loose and funny, with some great tips.

Finally, RuPaul had a few series running through the autumn as well, including Drag Race: Vegas Revue (VH1), following a group of queens as they launch a massive show on the Strip, and God Shave the Queens (WoW), with British drag stars putting on their own UK tour. Both featured plenty of lively backstage clashes, which isn't surprising with these divas. And both stage shows were cut short by Covid. I couldn't find a way to watch Drag Race Holland, and now Drag Race Spain is coming too.


  • Adult Material: I only made it through two episodes of this broad and contrived comedy-drama before giving up. The premise is solid, a soapy bit of madness set around the porn industry. But it's impossible to believe that these people are wealthy when they make such terrible porn and are so incapable of acting like humans. A waste of the terrific Hayley Squires and Rupert Everett. (C4)
  • Truth Seekers: As a fan of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I was looking forward to this ghost-hunting sitcom. But while it has a gently scruffy charm, it just isn't funny. Frost and Samson Kayo are a witty double act at the centre, as they face a variety of supernatural activity. And high-profile guest stars add sparky moments along the way. But after three dull episodes, I gave up. (Prime)

NOW WATCHING: The Undoing, Next, The Comey Rule, Des, The Mandalorian (2), His Dark Materials (2), Fargo (4), This Is Us (5), Superstore (6), Mom (8)

LOOKING FORWARD: The Stand, Bridgerton, The Morning Show (2), Dickinson (2), Shameless (11).

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Critical Week: Happy place

We're halfway through Lockdown 2.0 in London, beginning to worry that if this doesn't work Christmas might be cancelled. But we'll try to stay positive. Movies I watched this week were a real mixed bag. One of the most challenging was the arthouse horror Black Bear, starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon. It's a smart, freaky exploration of creativity and control. Plaza also pops up in Happiest Season, an unusually intelligent Christmas rom-com starring Kristen Stewart and Dan Levy.

Collective • Mangrove
Supernova • Roobha • Born to Be
The week's guilty pleasure was the utterly bonkers Chinese action romp Vanguard, starring Jackie Chan as the head of a global spy agency. The most disappointing film was the all-star Come Away, a mash-up origin story for both Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. It's a good idea that never quite comes together. Even worse is Buddy Games, a painfully unfunny lads comedy starring Josh Duhamel, who also directed, produced and cowrote the script. More watchable was the uneven Finding Steve McQueen, which chops around to recount the largest bank heist in US history. 

Off the beaten path, Mosul is an American-made film set in Iraq during the battle against Daesh, and it's a riveting, powerfully involving thriller that has an emotional kick. There were two very sexy films from Brazil: Divine Love is a provocative drama set in a near-future Christian community, while Dry Wind is a stylised collision of gay machismo. And from Romania, the documentary Collective is one of the most urgent films of the year, exploring a political corruption scandal in the style of a heart-stopping journalistic thriller.

I have the usual random collection of movies to watch this coming week, including Steve McQueen's Red White and Blue, Charlie Hunnam and Jack O'Connell in Jungleland, Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn in Pieces of a Woman, the Scottish holiday movie Lost at Christmas, the psychological thriller Muscle, the Zoom thriller Host, the Danish horror The Ringmaster and the documentaries Zappa and Markie in Milwaukee.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Critical Week: Nothing but a smile

As a critic, movies come at me at random, so it's very odd when a pattern emerges. This past week, for example, I saw two Belgian movies that were populated by people who were completely naked. And neither was about sex. Set in a naturist campground, Patrick is a quirky black comedy with a compelling mystery at its centre. And it features a global star in Jemaine Clement (above with non-nudist Hannah Hoekstra). Bare documents the production of a dance piece for 11 naked men from auditions to the premiere. It's a striking look at masculinity, including strength, weakness, diversity and unity. But you have to be relaxed about watching naked bodies on screen.

WolfWalkers • Ammonite
No Hard Feelings • 
The Climb
 I Am Greta • Bare 

Otherwise, the movies this week were the usual eclectic bunch - once Raindance ended on Sunday. There were two family-friendly films: David and Jacqui Morris' eye-catching new take on A Christmas Carol that uses Dickens' text faithfully, accompanied by an ambitious mix of dance and theatricality with an all-star voice cast; and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is the latest adventure for that undersea gang of idiots, silly and also very funny (with added Keanu). There was some rude comedy in the gently engaging Malin Akerman comedy Chick Fight. And from Germany, the moving romance No Hard Feelings has a lot to say about the refugee experience.

Coming up this next week, films to watch include Aubrey Plaza in the drama Black Bear, Gary Oldman in the biopic Mank, Travis Fimmel in the heist comedy Finding Steve McQueen, the Jackie Chan action thriller Vanguard, the Romanian journalism drama Collective and the Shane MacGowan doc Crock of Gold.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Raindance: Use your voice

The 28th Raindance Film Festival came to an end this weekend, after making much of its programme available for free online. Although the closing film was cancelled due to England's new lockdown. I managed to see 21 films this year, a slight uptick on previous years, perhaps because all screenings were virtual, but also because this year's festival didn't have the usual clash with London Film Festival. There are four final highlights below, plus this year's award winners. Note that Stardust was the festival's opening film, and Thou Shalt Not Hate is my best of the fest...

dir Gabriel Range; with Johnny Flynn, Jena Malone 20/UK ***.
There's a loose, scruffy charm to this biopic about a pivotal moment in David Bowie's life. Shot 1970s-style, and emphasising how tricky it is for a flashy British artist to make it in the United States, the film is likeable and witty, with lively characters and terrific attention to detail. Filmmaker Gabriel Range gets too ambitious with story structure, but this is an involving movie that has a strong impact... FULL REVIEW > 

Thou Shalt Not Hate [Non Odiare]
dir Mauro Mancini; with Alessandro Gassmann, Sara Serraiocco 20/It ****
Skilfully shot and edited, this involving Italian drama takes a complex approach to the rise in right-wing hatred across the world, holding the focus tightly on a very personal story. Director-cowriter Mauro Mancini keeps the tensions simmering all the way through the film, creating suspense over whether this will erupt into a violent clash or a chance for redemption. And the complex emotions gurgling underneath make it darkly involving... FULL REVIEW > 

FOMO Fear of Missing Out
dir Attila Hartung; with Yorgosz Goletsas, Gergely Bouquet 19/Hun ***
Fast and snappy, this heavily pointed Hungarian drama is shot like an MTV show from around 1990, with quick-cut, hand-held scenes of pretty young people at raucous parties. It's also a vicious satire of lad culture that leads to a provocative, unsettling drama about assault. So while the film feels more than a little melodramatic, it's an important topic dealt with in a story that continually challenges accepted attitudes... FULL REVIEW > 

Drag Kids
dir-scr Megan Wennberg; with Stephan Hirst, Jason Kerr 19/Can ****
This observational documentary takes a look at pre-teens who love to perform in drag on-stage. Filmmaker Megan Wennberg follows four children from three countries as they travel to Montreal to perform together at Pride and compete at a ball. This gives the movie a terrific story structure, watching they plan, practice and develop a hilarious camaraderie. They also begin to understand the positive impact of drag culture on global society... FULL REVIEW > 

  • Film of the Festival
  • Spirit of the Festival: THE HAT
  • Raindance Icons: Jude Law and Sally Hawkins
  • International Feature: FORCE OF HABIT
  • Documentary Feature: THE STATE OF TEXAS VS MELISSA
  • Music Documentary: TOPOWA! NEVER GIVE UP
  • Discovery Award: Antonio Lukich (MY THOUGHTS ARE SILENT)
  • Performance: Johnny Flynn (STARDUST)
  • Director: Milcho Manchevski (WILLOW)
  • Screenplay: FORCE OF HABIT
  • Cinematography: Tim Cragg (THE GREAT GREEN WALL)

NB. My anchor page for Raindance is HERE and all of the full reviews are linked there. And I'll add more over the coming months as I see them.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Raindance: Don't be shy

This hybrid edition of the Raindance Film Festival is coming into its final weekend, and I'm trying to catch up on things before it ends. This is the kind of festival that's always packed with undiscovered gems so, even as you discover great movies along the way, there's a nagging feeling that you've missed something amazing. I haven't seen any duds yet this year, so I'm doing well as I prowl through the programme. With only a couple of days left, I'll be selecting things carefully. Here are four more highlights, plus this week's non-festival roundup below...

Not to Be Unpleasant but We Need to Have a Serious Talk
dir Giorgos Georgopoulos; with Omiros Poulakis, Vangelis Mourikis 19/Gr ****
Laced with viciously black comedy, this Greek film is an inventive jolt to the system, telling a personal story with a touch of fantasy and a continual stream of offbeat imagery and jarring gags. It's a remarkably dark narrative, and the brittle humour adds to the complex emotional undercurrents. Filmmaker Giorgos Georgopoulos maintains this balance skilfully, pulling the audience into an unusual odyssey that repeatedly subverts expectations

dir Piotr Adamski; with Maja Pankiewicz, Paulina Krzyzanska 19/Pol ***.
Deliberately provocative, this Polish thriller is set in a violent, inhumane corner of society that is governed by a set of bleak rules. It's impeccably shot and edited, with a powerful sense of dread from the beginning. Even if the minimalistic storytelling and enormous ensemble cast make it tricky to keep track of who's whom, the narrative grabs hold as it unfolds, taking some surprising turns along the way.

Nafi's Father
[Baamum Nafi]
dir-scr Mamadou Dia; with Alassane Sy, Saikou Lo 19/Sen ****
A sharply well-observed slice-of-life drama from rural Senegal, this film beautifully captures the impact of religion and local traditions on various generations. Filmmaker Mamadou Dia sets up a powerful clash between brothers that explores the corrupting influence of both faith and money at all levels of politics. While the pace is slow, the film is beautifully shot to capture fascinating details in the setting, the narrative and the characters.

Born to Be
dir Tania Cypriano; with Jess Ting, Mahogany Phillips 19/US ****
A straightforward observational documentary, this film follows a surgeon who has become an advocate for transgendered people. Dr Jess Ting is a remarkably compassionate man, brushing off criticism from others because he knows the impact he's having on people who are fighting to be themselves. Filmmaker Tania Cypriano's approach is refreshingly offhanded, allowing for natural wit even in the midst of some very serious discussions.

NB. My anchor page for Raindance is HERE and full reviews will appear in between these daily blog entries. They're on their way...

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L   W E E K

Proxima • The Human Voice 
Away from Raindance, I caught up with the warmly engaging streetcat sequel A Christmas Gift From Bob, Eva Green in the terrific astronaut drama Proxima, Andrea Riseborough in the moody Egyptian drama Luxor, Jack Lowden in the freaky British horror Kindred (with added Fiona Shaw), and the artful, engaging Filipino drama 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten.

In addition to wrapping up Raindance this weekend, other films to watch this next week include a new all-star version of A Christmas Carol, the Malin Akerman comedy Chick Fight, German romance No Hard Feelings, British drama Dirty God and the dance doc Bare.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Raindance: Don't give up

Watching Raindance Film Festival movies is a great tonic as both the US election takes place and London braces for a new month-long lockdown starting tomorrow. All of the films at Raindance are available for free online this year, so hopefully audiences are discovering lots of new movies that will be very difficult to see outside a festival setting. More highlights...

He Dreams of Giants
dir Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe; with Terry Gilliam, Adam Driver 19/UK ****
After documenting Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2002's Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe are back to cover the film's ultimate production 17 years later. It's a story of artistic tenacity that echoes Cervantes' classic tale of a man on a mission. And it's an intriguing echo of Cervantes himself, who published his masterwork after two decades of struggle... FULL REVIEW > 

dir-scr Keith Bearden; with Chloe Levine, Clea Lewis 20/US **.
With a scattershot approach to teenage life, this loose comedy follows two teens through the school year, confronting big issues from body image to pregnancy. It all feels a bit random, struggling to build momentum without much sense of narrative drive. Filmmaker Keith Bearden takes a deliberately quirky approach, bringing out comedy in both fragile characters and even the most serious situations. And his sense of humour is lacerating.

The Woman With Leopard Shoes
dir-scr Alexis Bruchonl with Paul Bruchon, Pauline Morel 20/Fr ****
Shot in deeply shadowed black and white, this French thriller has a saucy tone that's both gripping and enjoyable. With a strong mystery at the centre, it provides proper intrigue and suspense. The film demonstrates how much can be accomplished with a tiny crew, as ambitious writer-director Alexis Bruchon and family seems to have done pretty everything on a reported budget of just €3,000. And it looks like a million... FULL REVIEW > 

True North
dir-scr Eiji Han Shimizu; voices Joel Sutton, Michael Sasaki 20/Jpn ****
This English-language animated film is certainly not meant for children, as it depicts the horrors of the North Korean prison system. Based on firsthand accounts, the story unfolds in a series of set-pieces that reveal hideous inhumanity. Often painful to watch, this is a terrific example of the kind of movie that can only be made with animation, revealing a truth that very few have lived to tell about... FULL REVIEW > 

NB. My anchor page for Raindance is HERE and full reviews will appear in between these daily blog entries. Much more to come...