Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Critical Week: Eek! A mouse!

London critics caught up this week with the clever black comedy Life of Crime, based on an Elmore Leonard novel and starring Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def). It's offbeat and very funny, but not quite as hilarious as the week's biggest movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, a riotously entertaining sidestep in the Marvel universe that may be the comic studio's best film yet.

Other high-profile films this week included Dwayne Johnson and Brett Ratner's new take on Hercules, a surprisingly enjoyable adventure that's a lot smarter than it looks. One of Philip Seymour Hoffman's final performances lifts the slow-burning political thriller A Most Wanted Man into something rather amazing. And random cast members from a range of the previous four films are back for Step Up: All In, another corny story punctuated by great dance numbers.

Further afield, we had the terrific small-town drama Tiger Orange, about estranged brothers who both happen to be gay. The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden is a riveting documentary about a shocking event from the early 1930s. You'll want to read more about it, and hopefully someone will make a dramatic thriller. And Al Pacino offered two movies: Salome is his film of his recent staging of the scandalous Oscar Wilde play, while Wilde Salome documents the process of doing the play and film, as well as tracing Wilde's life. The mesmerising staging of Salome is oddly stilted and over-the-top at the same time, with Jessica Chastain riveting in the title role. The doc is even more interesting, a bit padded out but packed with remarkable observations.

This coming week we'll be subjected to Sylvester Stallone and crew in The Expendables III, Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in The Rover, Nat Wolff and Selena Gomez in Behaving Badly, the indie drama 4 Minute Mile, Leo Leigh's ping pong hustler doc Fact or Fiction, the episodic architectural doc Cathedrals of Culture, Agnes B's road movie My Name is Hmmm, and Secret Cinema's immersive Back to the Future event.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Critical Week: High school blues

This week's most impressive debut came from Gia Coppola (Francis' granddaughter), adapting James Franco's internalised short story collection Palo Alto. A strikingly honest exploration of teen life, it also features a star-making lead performance from Jack Kilmer (Val's son) alongside Emma Roberts (pictured), Nat Wolff and Franco himself. The other two big movies shown to London critics this week were colon-wielding sequels. The Purge: Anarchy carries on the lawful carnage one year later from the opposite economical perspective, which drains the premise of the irony that made the first film work so well. And Planes: Fire & Rescue is actually an improvement, a better-written and occasionally enjoyable romp that's still marred by that ropey "World of Cars" premise.

Off the beaten path we had a fearless Gerard Depardieu as a shameless womanising politician in Abel Ferrara's controversial and superbly outrageous Welcome to New York; the charming but cheesy gay romantic comedy Love or Whatever; the edgy but somewhat familiar Danish youth drama Northwest; and two documentaries: Nick Cave's artful, fiercely inventive and vaguely pretentious 20,000 Days on Earth and Charlie Lyne's enjoyable romp through a decade of teen movies in Beyond Clueless.

In the coming week, we'll be catching up with the summer's big Marvel blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, Dwayne Johnson as Hercules, Jennifer Aniston in Life of Crime, Colin Firth in A Most Wanted Man, the next in the neverending franchise Step Up: All In, the indie sibling drama Tiger Orange, and Al Pacino's take on Oscar Wilde's Salome, plus the making-of doc Wild Salome.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Critical Week: Hard work

Being a film critic isn't a bad job: you get to see movies for free, after all, and people pay you to write what you think of them. On the other hand, they don't pay you that much anymore. And sometimes you have to sit all the way through something like Pudsey the Dog: The Movie, an almost unwatchable mess that really should be left to the trained professionals. Actually, it had potential to be a charming little adventure. But no.

So we turn to two sequels that have emerged as some of the best films of the year: How to Train Your Dragon 2 is even more ambitious than the superb first film, and it has the best action sequences in cinema at the moment. And Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may not be as delicately surprising as the reboot three years ago, but it's a remarkably complex thriller without a true villain. And the acting is hugely involving. But the best film this week was the Cannes hit Pride, a shameless British crowd-pleaser in the vein of Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, with terrific characters addressing a strongly resonant political issue through the true story of gay activists supporting striking miners in the Thatcher years.

Also this past week: Daniel Radcliffe brings his awkward charm to the quirky rom-com What If, costarring Zoe Kazan, Rafe Spall and Adam Driver; Nicolas Cage acts his socks off in the violent revenge thriller Rage, as a dad who wants to kill everyone for hurting his teen daughter; and Brian Cox plays the great Man Utd coach Matt Busby in Believe, a charmingly scruffy British comedy-drama that pushes the sentimentality button. There were also two docs: the fast-moving All This Mayhem traces the turbulent lives of Aussie skateboard-champion brothers Tas and Ben Pappas; and the inventive, colourful Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton tells the life story of the experimental filmmaker with a surge of emotional energy.

Coming up this week: Emma Roberts in the adaptation of James Franco's book Palo Alto, Gerard Depardieu in Abel Ferrara's controversial Welcome to New York, Disney's animated spin-off of a spin-off Planes: Fire and Rescue, the acclaimed 20,000 Days on Earth about Nick Cave, and the mystery-documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Requisite Blog Photo: Embrace the future

I attended the premiere last night at Bafta of Extant, a new summer series that debuts in America on CBS tonight and in the UK on Amazon Prime tomorrow. Along with canapes and cocktails, they brought along a robot for us to interact with, which was a bit eerie, especially when it started flirting with me.

The show is set in the near future, as Halle Berry tries to readjust to her husband (Goran Visnjic) and robotic son  (Pierce Gagnon) after a year on a space mission, during which something very odd has happened to her: she's become pregnant despite being unable to have children before she left. Not quite sure if I'm in for the duration, but I'll give it a few more episodes before I render my verdict. From one episode, it feels a bit manipulative, one of those shows that dribbles facts very slowly to keep audiences hooked. But it'll need to start dropping some major bombshells soon to hold on to viewers.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Critical Week: Metal-on-metal

Having opted to take a holiday the last week of June, I missed key press screenings of two July blockbuster sequels. But I caught up with them this week. Transformers: Age of Extinction is yet another loud and incoherent robot fighting extravaganza from Michael Bay - just as ludicrous as the previous films while wasting an all-new cast including Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer and acclaimed rising star Jack Reynor, plus this episode's requisite scantily clad female Nicola Peltz. Fortunately, I cleansed the memory of that movie from my system with How to Train Your Dragon 2, a strong film in its own right with a startlingly complex script, unusually detailed animation and the most thrilling movie action sequences we've seen all year.

Also this week, I caught up with Philip Seymour Hoffman's intriguing but relatively thin Philadelphia drama God's Pocket; Michael Caine in the engaging but somewhat lightweight French drama Mr Morgan's Last Love; the rather too-repressed but sharply well-made period drama A Promise, starring Rebecca Hall and Alan Rickman; the moving and visceral American indie Hide Your Smiling Faces; the extremely well-observed Danish mystery thriller Keeper of Lost Causes; and the blackly comical Spanish zombie-soccer thriller Goal of the Dead, which actually has its moments. There were also two artful but deeply pretentious epics: from Mexico, Julian Hernandez's I Am Happiness on Earth is a sensual exploration of physical connections. And with Norte, the End of History, gifted Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz takes an unnecessary four hours to tell a darkly involving story about crime and unjust punishment. I also managed to revisit Bob Fosse's classic 1972 film version of Cabaret, starring a particularly fabulous Oscar-winning Liza Minnelli.

This coming week, we have the Daniel Radcliffe rom-com What If, the acclaimed British feel-good drama Pride, the British football drama Believe, the Britain's Got Talent-inspired Pudsey the Dog: The Movie, and the Aussie skateboarding movie All This Mayhem, among other things.