Thursday, 20 September 2018

Critical Week: Fun for the family?

It's been frustrating that the biggest releases of the week are simply not being screened to the press (favourite critics see them, but no one else), so I never got to review the top two films on both the US and UK box office charts, namely The Predator and The Nun. With these titles I'm not that bothered, but others are coming up very soon that I can't really skip, like the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga remake of A Star Is Born or Tom Hardy in Venom, neither of which have announced London screenings yet. It seems to be becoming a strategy for bigger studios to withhold films from the majority of reviewers, which is putting our jobs in jeopardy.

So this week I didn't see any big movies, just smaller ones. Support the Girls (above), starring Regina Hall, is being oddly billed as a comedy when it's actually a wry drama. It's not a bad one at that, as it gently takes on America's sports-bar culture. Sam Rockwell stars in Blue Iguana, a scruffy British heist comedy that has its moments but never quite becomes notable.

Smaller than those, The Song of Sway Lake stars Rory Culkin and Robert Sheehan as young men caught in a swirl of nostalgia in old-money America. It's dreamy and intriguing, but not very satisfying. Summer '03 is an oddly abrasive coming-of-age story that boldly takes on some big issues without really saying much. Never Here is a noir mystery that's moody and evocative, even if it never goes anywhere. And Padre is an offbeat Italian film starring writer-director Giada Colagrande and her husband Willem Dafoe. The acting is great even if the central exploration of grief feels underwhelming.

More satisfying were the three documentaries: Won't You Be My Neighbour is a gorgeous trip through the life of American TV Icon Fred Rogers, beautifully capturing just why he was so magical for several generations of children (including me!). Tea With the Dames (original UK title: Nothing Like a Dame) is an extended conversation between old friends Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins, with wonderful observations on life and work over the past 60 years. And Science Fair is the hugely entertaining look into the world's biggest teen science competition through the eyes of these lively aspiring scientists.

This coming week's films include Ryan Gosling in First Man, Keira Knightley in Colette, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish in Night School, Rachel Weisz in Disobedience, the Joan Jett doc Bad Reputation, and a pair of Supreme Court docs: RBG about Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Reversing Roe. Press screenings also start for the London Film Festival, so I'll be banking reviews to run when the festival is on 10-21 October.

Monday, 17 September 2018

House of Horror: Terror in Essex

Opening on 28th September in an abandoned building in the woods near Brentwood, Essex, House of Horror calls itself an immersive 4D experience. But that doesn't quite go far enough. This is a freak-out that puts you right in the middle of a series of bonkers scenarios lifted from horror movies in a deliberate attempt to scare the liver out of you.

They let the press in for a dress rehearsal a few weeks before launching to the public, and I have to say it was more fun than I expected. And not quite as scary as I hoped. But then, I'm a jaded film critic who finds it difficult to blur the line between fact and fiction. Elements of the event were disorienting, creepy and downright revolting, but I never felt in danger. That said, I never got to enter the final, dreaded Room 13. But the effort that went into creating the previous 12 rooms was impressive. 

Here's the scoop without any spoilers...

When you arrive, you're asked to sign a rather long waiver consenting to possible injury and death, then turn over everything you have in your pockets (the only thing you can carry into the house is the cloakroom ticket). There's street food and drinks while you wait your turn, then a shouting masked man verbally abuses you as he drags your group of 10 into the superbly dilapidated building.

Inside there's a brief orientation video after which a hood is placed over your head and you're led into the next room. A series of carefully staged experiences follow, as each room combines wit and nastiness to keep you as off-balance as possible. There are ghostly spirits, evil demons, mechanical mishaps and maniacal medical workers with knives and chainsaws. In one room, there's a challenge to complete that involves something truly disgusting. In another you're blinded by strobe lights and told to find a way out. There's also more pitch-black weirdness and some claustrophobic grisliness.

Finally you emerge, blinking into a large area where there's more food and drink, plus a chance to strike an appropriate pose in the photo booth (see below) and recover before signing another waiver and entering the ominous Room 13, if you dare. I wasn't able to go in there, sadly. But I had a lot of fun in the previous 12, and I didn't need to evoke the safe words. 

The actors are all excellent, with a few stand-out stars along the way. Some are funny and others are creepy, but each is hugely engaging, staring you down and involving you in improvised dialog that's often hilariously aggressive. This is a thoroughly physical experience, throwing you right into scenarios that are skilfully designed and constructed. Surprises lurk around each corner. Some rooms are astonishing in their attention to detail, others are a little more rough and ready. There are elements in each room that are seriously inventive, and there's no doubt that it will get better (and scarier) as the cast push the limits of each scenario.

House of Horror runs from 28th September to 31st October. For tickets and detailed information, visit:

Note that the location is a challenge for anyone without a car, as it's too far to walk from Brentwood station. Also, the experience is not accessible for anyone with limited mobility. And it's advised to wear comfortable shoes and clothing you don't mind getting (ahem!) blood on.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Critical Week: Inter-connected

In this job, it can be frustrating watching film festivals like Venice and Toronto from afar: clearly these are the movies that will factor in at year-end, yet those of us not at the festival have to wait, and wait, wondering when we'll be able to see them so we can write about them and consider them for the awards we vote in. Clearly I was spoiled by being in Venice for the last couple of years! Anyway, we caught up with one notorious title, a Sundance film that will play at the London Film Festival next month: Assassination Nation is a full-on satire of modern teen culture, playing on social media and toxic masculinity as it heads into its horrific climax.

The rest of the week was eclectic: Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg reteam for another action thriller, Mile 22, and the film feels loud and thin, even for them. The Rider is an exquisite doc-style drama about a South Dakota rodeo cowboy grappling with a new reality. Lucky is a delicate, witty tale about a salty 90-year-old war veteran in rural Arizona, played by the wonderful then-90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton. A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. is a beautifully shot single-take romantic odyssey through nighttime Los Angeles starring Omari Hardwick and Meagan Good. And Lost Child tells a creepy story from the backwoods of the Ozarks, cleverly weaving folklore with current social issues.

A little further afield, José had its world premiere in Venice, and I got to see it in London: it's a powerful drama from Guatemala about a young gay man who finally begins to think he might be able to have a happy life. Complex and beautifully made, it won the Queer Lion. Another gay-themed drama, Sodom is a contained British drama set in Berlin about two strangers whose lives cross momentously. From Palestine, Wajib is a quietly involving look at an estranged father and son going about their family duty before a wedding. And Bisbee '17 is a strikingly original doc that explores events in the Arizona mining town a century ago.

This coming week is a little slower than usual - no idea why that might be, as there are plenty of films on the horizon that I need to see. Anyway, I'll be catching up with Willem Dafoe in Padre, Mischa Barton in The Basement, Sam Sheperd in Never Here and Rory Culkin in The Song of Sway Lake, among other things, no doubt.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Requisite Blog Photo: Wine not guns

Critical Week: A family portrait

I'm missing being in Venice this year for the festival, but it's been a busy week for screenings in London. This week we've caught up with the Sundance hit Wildlife, Paul Dano's riveting, moving directing debut starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as a couple coming apart in 1960 Montana. It's powerfully told from the perspective of a teen boy (Ed Oxenbould), as is Eli Roth's offbeat horror movie The House With a Clock in its Walls. Its main stars are Jack Black and Cate Blanchett as magical neighbours who take in a teen boy (Owen Vaccaro) with scary/comical results.

The most fun at the movies this week was the screening of US box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, a fairly standard rom-com plot packed with massively entertaining characters. The all-star true heist story King of Thieves features Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent and Tom Courtenay, and is more fascinating than thrilling. The all-star adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull features Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan and Elisabeth Moss, and is involving but perhaps over-ambitious. And Jeremy Irons has a great time chomping on scenery alongside Jack Huston in the engaging comedy-drama road movie An Actor Prepares.

And there were two less-starry offerings: Five Fingers for Marseilles is a gorgeously shot modern-day Western from South Africa about childhood friends facing off over the future of their struggling hometown. It's seriously powerful. And the Raindance documentary I Hate New York is the eye-opening profile of four trans icons who have changed the fabric of the city they love (yes, the title is ironic).

This coming week I'll be distracted from the goings-on in Venice and Toronto by Mark Wahlberg in Mile 22, Bella Thorne in Assassination Nation, Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky, Omari Hardwick in A Boy A Girl A Dream, Blaxploitation remake Superfly, the mystery thriller Lost Child, the British drama Sodom, the Palestinian drama Wajib, the Guatemalan drama José and the immigration doc Bisbee '17.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Requisite Blog Photo: Who's up for a heist?

Critical Week: To new friends

It's been another eclectic week in London screening rooms. We had the genre mash-up A Simple Favour, starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in a story that includes suburban comedy, buddy drama and Hitchcockian mystery. Another odd mix, The Happytime Murders stars Melissa McCarthy and a cast of puppets as a serial killer is on the loose. It's misguided but has its moments. And Action Point is a Jackass-style comedy from Johnny Knoxville about a perilous theme park. The stunts are sometimes funny, but nothing else is.

Gaspar Noe was in town to unleash his new film Climax on British audiences at FrightFest last weekend. It's a brilliantly swirling dance-based descent into hellish confusion. And I had a chance to talk to Noe about it. Other FrightFest titles I caught: Upgrade is a futuristic thriller starring Logan Marshall-Green as a guy who has his body rebuilt by technology, which of course goes awry. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is surprisingly nothing like its trashy title; it's an involving drama about an old man (Sam Elliott) coming to terms with the things he did as a young man (Aidan Turner). The Australian romp Boar, refreshingly uses puppets instead of digital effects to send a gigantic wild pig on a hyper-violent killing spree in the Outback. And The Cleaning Lady is eerie horror about a silent cleaner with a secret agenda.

Three more offbeat movies: From Germany, The Year I Lost My Mind is about a young man who begins stalking his own robbery victim in unsettling, underdeveloped ways. The documentary George Michael: Freedom was directed by the man himself just before he died, tracing his life with sensitivity and lots of amazing interviews and music. Shown on British TV last year, it's coming to cinemas as a director's cut. And Ruminations documents the life of Rumi Missabu, one of the original Cockettes. It's colourful and essential for fans of the late-60s gender-blurred performers.

Coming up this next week we have Jack Black and Cate Blanchett in The House With a Clock in its Walls, Annette Bening in The Seagull, Paul Dano's directing debut Wildlife, Jeremy Irons in An Actor Prepares, South African drama Five Fingers for Marseilles and the artist-activist doc I Hate New York.