Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Critical Week: Find a reason to smile

Denzel Washington's directing debut Fences screened to the press this week, with an eye on awards season. August Wilson's text is simply glorious. Washington reprises his Tony-winning stage role opposite a devastating turn by Viola Davis. And there's more awards-worthy acting in 20th Century Women, with Annette Bening giving a beautifully textured turn in Mike Mills' latest engaging autobiographical drama. And then there's Nicole Kidman as Dev Patel's emotive adoptive mother in Lion, a powerful true story of a young man's search for the past he literally lost.

Other films included the enjoyably camp but rather uneven mystery Kiss Me, Kill Me, the sumptuously animated castaway fable The Red Turtle, Kirsten Johnson's astoundingly revelatory memoir Cameraperson, and a sobering exploration of food waste in the lively doc Just Eat It.

This coming week, as voting deadlines loom for various awards, there are screenings of Office Christmas Party with Jennifer Aniston, Miss Sloane with Jessica Chastain, Certain Women with Kristen Stewart and Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th. I also need to tackle the eight-hour doc OJ: Made in America.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Critical Week: Show some style

There were a couple of big animated movies screened for London critics this past week. First up was Sing, Garth Jennings' lively musical-animals romp, which comes complete with a witty satirical swipe at TV talent competitions. There was also Disney's Moana, a gorgeously animated South Pacific adventure with a rather fluffy plot but engaging characters.

Other mainstream movies included Robert Zemeckis' World War II romantic drama Allied, which is overproduced but has a great story and solid leads in Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Mark Wahlberg reteams with director Peter Berg for another true story in Patriots Day, sharply recounting the Boston Marathon bombing with raw emotion and nerve-jangling suspense. And Billy Bob Thornton returns for Bad Santa 2, which has its moments but is undermined by a cheap, rather mean script.

A little further afield, Briana Evigan stars in the high-concept drama Love Is All You Need, with inverts social ideas about sexuality to make a pungent statement, although the film is melodramatic and rather corny. And the engaging, sweet and ultimately shattering Italian teen drama One Kiss has a powerful message about diversity and subtle bigotry.

Screenings coming up this week include Nicole Kidman in Lion, Annette Bening in 20th Century Women, the noir thriller Kiss Me Kill Me and the documentary Cameraperson. And I also have a few for-your-consideration titles to watch before voting starts in various awards groups over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Critical Week: Beaten not broken

I was unable to catch Bleed for This at the London Film Festival, so I was glad there was a press screening this week. Miles Teller is impressively beefed-up for this role as comeback boxer Vinny Pazienza in this inspiring true story, although the film isn't terrible complex. A much more anticipated film offering was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which returns to JK Rowling's wizarding world some 70 years before Harry Potter's birth. The film is funny and adventurous but difficult to engage with due to its odd plotting and thinly written characters.

I also caught up with some quality films worthy of awards consideration: Ewan McGregor stars in and makes his impressive directing debut with the complex drama American Pastoral, a stripped-down adaptation of the classic Philip Roth novel; Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are terrific in Loving, Jeff Nichols' minimalistic take on a real-life landmark civil rights case; and Warren Beatty is a lot of fun as Howard Hughes in his film Rules Don't Apply, which also contains a nice love story fighting for our attention.

There were two from South America: Pablo Larrain's Neruda is a fiercely inventive, wryly comical biopic about the Chilean poet's attempts to elude the police; and from Argentina, Esteros is a quietly sensitive story of two young men revisiting their childhood. And I also had a night at the theatre...


The Mirror Never Lies
dir-scr-lyrics Joseph Giuffre
music Juan Iglesias
with Fransca Ellis, Jon Osbaldeston, Ryan Frank, Spencer O'Brien, Jennifer Harraghy, Darrie Gardner, Greg Keith

The Cockpit, Marylebone, London 14-18.Nov.16

A new musical based on Barbara Pym's novel The Sweet Dove Died, this is an intriguing story set in 1960s London among people who like beautiful things. Antiques seller Humphrey (Osbaldeston) has a crush on his top customer Leonora (Ellis), who is besotted with his handsome nephew James (Frank), who has a hippy girlfriend (Harraghy) before he's seduced by a swaggering American (O'Brien). The plot is enjoyably tangled, but the show is undone by its bizarrely minimalistic staging and simplistic song lyrics that continually state the blindingly obvious, offer lists of emotions and repeat the same ideas over and over. Everyone in the cast adds some colour, including side players Gardner (as a ditzy friend) and Keith (as both a nervous boyfriend and a slimy predator). But the lifeless staging leaves the show feeling like a first reading rather than a polished production. This is especially a problem for Frank's central character, who becomes rather drippy as things progress. Thankfully, Ellis sells it with a belting rendition of the surprisingly good title song right at the very end.


Screenings coming up this week include Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in Allied, Billy Bob Thornton in the comedy Bad Santa 2, the true drama Hidden Figures, and the animated movies Moana and Sing,


Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Critical Week: Inconceivable

Some personal comments are required this morning. I stayed up most of last night watching election results roll in from my home country, in disbelief at how it progressed: the majority of US voters have officially said that it's ok to be a white supremacist, a person who assaults women, or someone who hates people based on their gender, economic status, sexuality or ethnicity. This is a vote for hatred, division and inequality that effectively ends centuries of diplomacy and social progress. Although how that plays out is yet to be scene. After the banks crushed the world economy nearly 10 years ago, I knew a revolution was coming, but I never saw it going this way. In just the past few months, for example, voters in the Philippines have affirmed government-condoned vigilante violence and Colombia's people voted against peace there, plus of course the UK's referendum on the European Union, which has tripled the incidence of hate crimes across Britain. Anti-migrant sentiment is rife all over the world, even though every single bit of evidence points to immigrants as adding to society, never draining it. But then facts and compassion don't matter any more. My slim hope is that the rhetoric of the campaign season will be replaced by something more positive and rational. But I won't put my head in the sand.

So back to movies! It's perhaps appropriate that the biggest movie screened to London-based critics this week was Denial, a razor-sharp true drama starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson about a Holocaust denier challenged in a London court. It's powerfully well-made, and a riveting film. Lighter fare included the amusing, enjoyable backstage Broadway musical-comedy Opening Night, starring Topher Grace and Anne Heche; the multi-strand holiday comedy Shared Rooms, a slightly clunky film with some nice touches; and the quietly moving Canadian indigenous drama Fire Song. And there was also the opening movie at the London Korean Film Festival (3-27 Nov)...

The Truth Beneath
dir-scr Lee Kyoung-mi; with Son Ye-jin, Kim Ju-hyuk 16/Kor ***.
Korean filmmaker Lee Yyoung-mi takes an unusual approach to the usual mystery thriller, getting under the skin of her central character while bringing out the inherent corruption in politics. The result is a tangled story that twists and turns, but keeps its focus on the internal shifts in attitude rather than the big surprises. And there are plenty of those. So even if the filmmaking is sometimes deliberately tricky, this is a slick, sharp and thoroughly gripping drama.

Coming up this week, I have the Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Ewan McGregor's directing debut American Pastoral, Miles Teller in Bleed for This and the Argentine drama Esteros. There are also awards-consideration screenings of Warren Beatty's Howard Hughes romance Rules Don't Apply and Joel Edgerton in the civil rights drama Loving.



Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Critical Week: Teenage kicks

It's been a slow week for screenings, perhaps a brief intake of breath before the awards season kicks off in earnest. My first awards-consideration screenings are late next week. In the meantime, this weeks' screenings included The Edge of Seventeen, an unusually edgy teen drama starring Hailee Steinfeld with fine grown-up support from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick. The other big movie was The Accountant, the slick but preposterous Ben Affleck autism-gangster thriller that's entertaining only if you don't think about it.

Further afield was the micro-budget British thriller The Darkest Dawn, which makes up for a simplistic script with some sharp acting and inventive effects. Ron and Laura Take Back America is an extended sketch-style comedy-doc lampooning head-in-the-sand right wing politics. And I also finally caught up with Clint Eastwood's 1997 southern gothic melodrama Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, starring baggy suited John Cusack and a scene-nibbling Kevin Spacey, plus a notable cameo from a young Jude Law.

Things are still slow over the coming days, with just three press screenings: Gael Garcia Bernal Pablo Larrain's biopic of the poet Neruda, the Italian drama One Kiss, and the UK premiere of the Korean thriller The Truth Beneath. I also have several screeners to watch at home....

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Critical Week: Talk to the hand


Spike Lee's 2015 Chi-Raq, a rap-musical take on an ancient Greek play, finally makes it to the UK this year. After screening at the London Film Festival, it's being shown to press before its release in December. Packed with social relevance, it's a hugely engaging look at race, gender and violence in America. But of course this week's biggest press screening was for Marvel's next blockbuster Doctor Strange, a massive crowd-pleaser that gives Benedict Cumberbatch one of his best roles yet. It's a heady concoction of trippy action and witty characters.

A little off the beaten path, there was Idris Elba and Gemma Arterton in the British indie drama 100 Streets, which is strongly shot and acted but has a rather clunky plot; the delayed UK release of the choppy drama Burning Blue, exploring the issue of Don't Ask/Don't Tell; and Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Lo and Behold, looking at the internet from angles we never thought were possible.

I also caught a couple of gay-themed plays showing on the London fringe over the weekend. The HIV Monologues (at Ace Hotel in Shoreditch until 28 Oct) is another collection of dramatic speeches by Patrick Cash (The Chemsex Monologues) that coalesce into a moving story. It's beautifully played by a sharp four-person cast, and carries quite a kick. And 5 Guys Chillin' (at King's Head in Islington until 5 Nov) is a revival of Peter Darney's v erbatim play taken from interviews about drug-fuelled post-club hangouts. It's presented in an almost unnervingly offhanded way - it feels improvised, never performed. It's a bit moralistic, but strikingly well-staged to force the audience to get involved. Both plays tackle seriously important issues in complex, challenging ways.

This coming week we have Ben Affleck in The Accountant, Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen, the British comedy-drama The Darkest Universe, the British sci-fi horror The Darkest Dawn and, just in time for the US election, something called Ron and Laura Take Back America.