Saturday, 25 January 2020

Stage: Three in a bed

The Morning After
by Peter Quilter
dir Andrew Beckett
with David Fenne, Chris Cahill, Colleen Daley, Matthew Lloyd Davies
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 22.Jan-1.Mar.20

An old-style British bedroom farce, this light-hearted comedy is a surprisingly thin play for the ambitious team at Above the Stag. But even if there isn't much in the way of thematic interest or suggestive subtext, this is a well-produced show, with the usual far-above-average production values and a very lively cast. It's continually silly and sweet, although never actually sexy. And with a little more insight, the humour might have connected more forcefully.

It opens on that tired cliche: a young man wakes up naked in a strange bed and can't remember anything from the night before. Thomas (Fenne) is a lively, deeply repressed young guy who has no memory at all of Adam (Cahill), who has to fill in the details of where they met. Their chat is then interrupted by the arrival of Adam's hurricane-like mother Barbara (Daley), who brings breakfast and hops into bed with them. She's far too open about sexuality for the painfully shy Thomas, and Adam just rolls his eyes and smiles at the awkwardness. A week later, Thomas and Adam's relationship is developing quickly, and Thomas is getting used to Barbara's intrusiveness. Then Uncle Martin (Davies) turns up.

The show is a series of blackout scenes, each of which opens with a morning alarm. Amid a continual stream of wacky slapstick, there are occasional character revelations, such as Barbara blurting out details about her free-love youth, explaining her complete lack of inhibition. But the characters remain relatively cartoonish, likeable and entertaining without much grounding in real life. And the actors have a lot of fun with them. Fenne has the best role as the nervous, loose-limbed Thomas. It's easy to see why Cahill's smiley Adam would fall for him, and vice versa. Even if their romance progresses far too quickly. Davies is enjoyably bonkers as the hyperactive Martin, and Daley steals the show with a performance that's perfectly aimed far over the top.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect to this show is the irrelevance of the sexuality. Quilter said he originally wrote the play about a gay couple, but changed it to a man and women to get it produced in 2012, and it became a big hit. By not making that the issue, the show can touch on issues of openness and honesty in relationships, family pressures and society's general fear of sex and sexuality. These things are all swirling around, even if the script never quite grapples with any of it. Instead, it's a bit of goofiness that might make you smile but, alas, will be hard to remember in the morning.
Fenne, Davies and Cahill

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Critical Week: Lord have mercy

It's been another slow week for screenings, which has been helpful as it's been a crazy one in the movie awards world - both sifting through the big award winners and the way they impact the season as a whole, and organising the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, which take place next week.

The three movies I saw were: The Rhythm Section, an action thriller with a female perspective starring Blake Lively, Jude Law and Sterling K Brown; True History of the Kelly Gang, Justin Kurzel's stylish take on the Aussie folk hero starring a staggeringly good George MacKay, Essie Davis and Nicholas Hoult; and the feel-good British comedy-drama Military Wives, a true story from the director of The Full Monty, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan and Greg Wise.

There was also the launch event for New Nordics Festival, which will be presented by theatre company Cut the Cord 18-21 March at Yard Theatre in East London. It's a clever new initiative that involves six playwrights from six Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the Faroe Islands) teaming up with six UK-based directors to bring their work to a British audience for the first time. This is a superb display of Brexit-defying collaboration between northern European countries that share elements of climate, culture and history. And the plays all look intriguing, grappling with social issues, environmental awareness and gender equality. With a bit of Ikea thrown in for good measure. For full details: YARD THEATRE 

In addition to another theatre press night, I also have film screenings of three acclaimed arthouse films this coming week: the Icelandic drama A White, White Day; the Swedish drama Koko-Di Koko-Da; and the housing crisis documentary Push.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Stage: Kitchen conversations

Four Play
by Jake Bruger
dir Matthew Iliffe
with Ashley Byam, Keeran Blessie, Declan Spaine, Marc MacKinnon
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 15.Jan-22.Feb.20

This revival of Jake Bruger's 2015 comedy-drama is beautifully staged in Above the Stag's newly revamped studio. A strong cast makes the most of the play's larger themes, exploring relationship issues from some intriguing angles. The way the bigger questions are raised is very clever, combining humour and pathos to challenge the audience to think about difficulties that are easy to identify with. So it's a little frustrating that in the final act the script takes a more simplistic, moralistic turn.

It opens with a strong monologue by Rafe (Byam), explaining that he and Pete (Blessie), his boyfriend of seven years, are in a conundrum: they met at university and have never dated anyone else. So perhaps they can each have one night of passion with their friend Michael (Spaine), to see what it's like to be with another man. Michael has an open relationship with his boyfriend Andrew (MacKinnon), which creates two hitches: Rafe and Pete don't want Michael to tell Andrew about this, and Andrew and Michael have a rule that they won't see mutual friends. What could possibly go wrong?

Scenes are smart and fizzy, staged on a kitchen set that shifts between the two couples' London flats (and a smoke-filled bar). Conversations meaningfully explore the complexities of relationships, including latent feelings of insecurity and the difficulties of maintaining open lines of communication. These offer plenty of texture that the audience can lean into, recognising personal experiences in the situations on-stage. Then just as things explode in a wonderfully messy dinner party, Bruger shifts the story in a rather direction, seemingly insisting that sex is everything in a relationship, so promises of monogamy are the only solution (even if they're unlikely).

The four actors adeptly bridge this awkward thematic path, each creating a vivid sense of his character's personality. Byam is likeable and needy, Blessie gives Pete a nice undercurrent of passive-aggression, and Spaine is sexy and intriguingly hapless. Meanwhile, MacKinnon gets the most complex role, stealing scenes with a wonderfully unnerving grin, zingy sarcasm and wrenching emotion. All four of these guys are sympathetic even when they deliberately cause each other pain, which means that the play is powerful and provocative, with moments of razor-sharp insight. But it could have been a knock-out if Bruger had more willingly embraced the ambiguity of the situation, the realisation that trouble in a relationship is never actually about sex.

Byam, Blessie and Spaine
Byam, MacKinnon and Blessie

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Critical week: Life of the party

Even as this year's condensed awards calendar rockets ahead (how about those dull Oscar nominations?), screenings are slow to kick off this year. I've only seen four films this week. (Full disclosure: I did not chase an invite to the one press screening of Bad Boys for Life, as I'm still scarred from Bad Boys II ... 17 years ago). There are plenty of releases in the cinemas, but these are films I saw during the autumn film festival and awards-qualifying seasons. New movies are coming up, so hopefully screenings will materialise soon.

In the meantime, I caught up with Xavier Dolan's The Death & Life of John F Donovan, which premiered to harsh criticism at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival and has since been re-edited. There are issues with the structure, but Dolan is such a fine writer-director that the characters come alive gorgeously. And what a cast: Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton, Michael Gambon! Another Brit, James Norton, stars in the true historical drama Mr Jones, which recounts a fascinating story just before the Second World War as a brainy journalist tries to get the British government to wake up to the threat of Hitler and the lies of Stalin. The British fact-based drama No Fathers in Kashmir is a moving and important story about two teens uncovering the truth in the nasty political situation in northern India. And then there was this one, already a contender for the worst film of 2020...

dir-scr Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
with Adam Devine, Alexandra Shipp, Rose Byrne, Michael Pena, Justin Hartley, Ron Funches, Charlyne Yi, Wanda Sykes, Kid Cudi
release US 11.Oct.19 • 19/US 1h24 *. 

Opening as a playful satire of smartphone culture, it becomes quickly apparent that filmmakers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (The Hangover/Bad Moms) have nothing clever in mind, merely shouting the most obvious jokes rather than digging into the lively premise or characters. There was a chance to actually make a comedy that was cute and astutely pointed. But amid a flurry of strained in-your-face jokes that are actually embarrassing to watch, the plot is painfully predictable.

Working for a listicle website, Phil (Devine) is a loner whose phone is his only friend. One day he meets local bicycle shop owner Cate (Shipp), and in his excitement accidentally smashes his iPhone. The new one comes with an AI assistant called Jexi (voiced by Byrne) who takes over his life and issues instructions, ignoring anything he says. She bullies him into changing his diet, musical preferences and pretty much everything else. Then when his hugely unlikely romance with Cate begins to take off, Jexi gets jealous.

The idea is that Jexi is programmed to make Phil's life better in any way possible, but she does this primarily through foul-mouthed insults. Meanwhile, the filmmakers fill the brief running time with idiotic slapstick, wacky smut and unwarranted sentimentality. All of which makes it almost impossible to care what happens to Phil, even if Devine and Shipp have some genuine charm in between the lines. It's especially galling that after so much relentlessly inane stupidity, the filmmakers have the nerve to awkwardly try and create some sweet moments. And the simplistic finale is insulting.

In the diary for this coming week, I have George MacKay in True History of the Kelly Gang, Kristin Scott Thomas in Military Wives, the Filipino political drama Quezon's Game and the acclaimed Sudanese documentary Talking About Trees.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Critical Week: A colourful life

I ended last year watching Federico Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita, and then this week caught his earlier I Vitelloni as part of the Fellini retrospective at BFI Southbank. All of which confirms Fellini as my favourite all-time filmmaker: his way of capturing the energy of life on-screen is unparalleled. I Vitelloni (which essentially translates as The Young Bucks) is a powerful 1953 drama about a group of lazy, life-loving guys in their late-20s, grappling with thoughts about their future. Marriages, affairs, capers, relationships and some provocative personal issues make the film vivid and intensely engaging. The cast is terrific, and it's so cool that it's almost overpowering. A great reminder to see classics on the big screen whenever possible.

There were only two press screenings for me this week. The Runaways is a gently paced British adventure about three kids and two donkeys travelling across Yorkshire to find their mother. It's beautifully shot, and surprisingly dark. And The Uncertain Kingdom is a collection of 20 short films (they screened 9 for us) that highlight the turbulence in British culture at the moment - beautifully made dramas, comedies and documentaries looking at income inequality, racism and bigotry, government apathy and of course Brexit.

In addition, I had a chance to revisit two films. First was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which I needed to see as a fan (the first time felt like work), and I had the same reaction: it's both hugely entertaining and naggingly disappointing. And I attended the premiere of The Host, a British-Dutch thriller that riffs on the premise of Psycho, with some added twists. It was fun to host the post-screening Q&A with actors Mike Beckingham, Maryam Hassouni, Suan-Li Ong, Nigel Barber, Togo Igawa and the awesome Ruby Turner, plus producer extraordinaire Zachary Weckstein and gifted cinematographer Oona Menges.

I've only got one press screening in the diary this coming week, James Norton as a journalist in the true story Mr Jones. I'm sure other things will come up, and in the meantime I've got a lot of work to do producing the London Critics' Circle Film Awards at the end of the month.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Screen: Winter TV Roundup

There's been some good telly on lately, and the holidays offer some more time to binge than usual, so I've been able to keep almost up to date. I'm still lagging behind on a few shows, but will dive in when I can, to reset my mind in between the movies...


His Dark Materials
Fans of Philip Pullman's novels (like me) were understandably nervous about this BBC series, due to the watered-down 2007 feature The Golden Compass. But this series has taken time to dig deeper and bring out Pullman's provocative plotting and themes. Dafne Keen is terrific as young Lyra, a proper reluctant hero who has little idea that her actions have massive repercussions. And Ruth Wilson is staggering as the shifty Mrs Coulter. Produced with epic visuals that are never fussy, the show looks great. The extended format allows characters to emerge with a bracing sense of unpredictability. And that cliffhanger ending leaves us gasping for part 2.

The Mandalorian
Made on a superb scale like a free-wheeling Western with added gadgets, this Star Wars bounty hunter adventure is thoroughly entertaining, recounting a mini-epic with each half-hour episode. Its sets and characters look fantastic (effects and creatures are grounded and resolutely undigital), and it's written, shot and edited in a way that instantly feels like a classic, complete with a memorable musical score by Ludwig Goransson. Even under that armour, Pedro Pascal is a wonderfully sardonic hero. And at the end of episode 1, it introduces the year's best new character in a pint-sized relative of Yoda with a cheeky sense of curiosity that gorgeously balances the show's inventive action beats over eight wonderful episodes. 

This extraordinary series lets its story unfold without the usual comic book structures, presenting angles on its premise that continually subvert expectations. It's made with such a sure hand that watching it never feels like a chore: there's no doubt that this is heading somewhere very interesting, and getting there is darkly entertaining. The cast is edgy and textured, led by Regina King, Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson and a seriously unhinged Jeremy Irons. How it all fits together becomes clear slowly and enigmatically, while the subtle alternate reality in which the show is set is fascinating. So as the bigger plot emerges, this series carries all kinds of thematic implications.

The Morning Show
Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon play bickering journalists who are thrown together on a breakfast news show. Of course, they're more alike than not, and the fun of the show is watching them discover this against their will. While there is plenty of barbed humour laced through the scripts, this is a serious drama taking on workplace harassment and abuse in a strikingly honest, sometimes downright painful way. The show also lifts the lid on the artificiality of live television in a way that's funny and knowingly provocative. And the pitch-black issues raised in the storylines make it important too.

The ambition behind this show is notable, as it recounts the 19th century life of poet Emily Dickinson in sitcom style, infused with present-day dialog, attitudes and music. Anchored by Hailee Steinfeld and Jane Krakowski, the cast is excellent, and the storytelling is particularly strong. This allows for a knowing skewering of archaic (but sadly not unfamiliar) issues involving sexism and racism. Although this would come across more forcefully if it wasn't so smug about the anachronistic style. One cringeworthy example: after writing the memorable first lines of Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Emily puts down her pencil and proclaims, "Nailed it!"

The Umbrella Academy
The premise for this story feels a bit lazy (another zillionaire family, more kids with superpowers), but it plays out in ways that are continually surprising. And the show is written and directed with a generous dose of absurdity and sarcastic wit, plus a thunderous song score. It's also sharply acted by an eclectic cast (Ellen Page, Robert Sheehan, Mary J Blige), which helps make up for the plot's general default to violence that feels way over-the-top. Perhaps this betrays the comic book origin, but hopefully the writers will find more complexity in the second season.

The Politician
Ryan Murphy continues his takeover of all things televisual with this blackly comical political pastiche about a teen (Ben Platt, both deadpan and brimming with emotion) who takes his class president election far too seriously. But then so does everyone else at his posh private school. The narrative spins and shocks along the way, but remains a bit too ridiculous to to seriously touch on the themes. And the characters are all slightly cartoonish, even if they're a lot of fun - from teens Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet to adults Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bob Balaban. And the big set-up for the second season is beautifully played.

Living With Yourself
The main draw here is Paul Rudd playing a befuddled man who books into a refreshing spa day and ends up facing a clone of himself after something goes wrong. The premise is a bit sloppy, and the way it's written and directed is more than a little gimmicky, with characters who don't always ring true. But there are some witty moments and intriguing wrinkles that get close to resonant meaning (one of the Pauls is a close-minded idiot). It's worth watching, but would be even more engaging if it was more relaxed, sillier, sexier.

Dolly Parton's Heartstrings
Anthology shows are notoriously hit and miss, so there's no way each episode in this series can be a knock-out. But they're surprisingly well written, with sharp edges to the gentle narratives and some terrific performances (Melissa Leo!). Dolly's presence in each episode is great fun, including her sparkly introductions, her sassy characters and lively musical performances. Each episode centres around one of her songs, some more beloved than others, to weave a tale of love and heartbreak. It's often a little relentless in its warmth, but some prickly Southern charm adds interest.


The Crown: series 3
Recasting this season was always the plan (it will happen again with series 5), and the transition is predictably tricky, even with the powerhouse duo of Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter. But they grow into their roles, and by the time the wrenching episode 3 rolls around, they are inhabiting Elizabeth and Margaret with a vengeance. Colman gets to sink deeply into Elizabeth, adding offhanded touches that beautifully reveal the Queen's maturity as a leader. Tobias Menzies and Josh O'Connor also have particularly powerful episodes as princes Philip and Charles, respectively. Bring on season 4.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: series 3
As this show continues to beef up side characters, it badly loses focus. The ongoing story of hilarious standup Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) and her acerbic manager Susie (Alex Borstein) is still involving, not so much the rambling, distracting sideplots for her parents, ex-husband, his parents and the musical star she's touring with (who get long, pointless numbers of his own). It's like the writers couldn't resist crafting pithy dialog for these terrific actors, but they've forgotten what made the show so both unmissable and important. Make it a half-hour with Midge and Susie and it might rediscover its magic.

Succession: series 2
This second season was perhaps even more riveting than the first, as the plotlines twisted so tightly that even these expert wigglers found themselves with nowhere to go. Like a present-day Game of Thrones, these people circle around each other vying for control of an empire. Both the writing and acting are simply astonishing, as deeply layered characters seize on the snappy dialog. Each cast member is excellent, bringing humanity even to the greediest, most back-stabbing member of this wildly flailing family. More please.

The End of the F***ing World: series 2
Cleverly spinning off in new directions that feel both stylised and organic - just as awkward and brittle as before - this follow-up season takes our two antiheroes (Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden) on another offbeat road movie, this time pursued by someone (Naomi Ackie) wronged in their first spree. The outrageous things that happen are played to bone-dry comedic perfection, often with an added layer of thick irony. It's a rare TV series that refuses to play by the usual rules, which makes it unmissable.


The Conners: series 2a
While this sitcom's range of characters feels a little conveniently diverse, the writers and actors seem to have found their groove, mixing bristly humour with some honest situations. The cast is uniformly excellent, anchored ably by ace veterans John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, plus Katey Sagal. Sara Gilbert and Alicia Goranson are terrific dealing with parental issues of their own, and it would be nice if Michael Fishman's DJ became more of a character.

This Is Us: series 4a
Things feel a bit tighter this year, even as the plots spiral to offer glimpses (and only the most tantalising glimpses) of new timelines. The actors are clearly enjoying the chance to continue flexing their performance muscles, most notably Justin Hartley, Sterling K Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson. Indeed, the deeper drama is far more involving that the gimmicky cross-cutting between time periods. This show is continually in danger of vanishing up its own navel, but the writers are just about keeping that in check.

Bless this Mess: series 2a
Trundling on harmlessly, this show is basically a tribute to Lake Bell's genius at finding subtle edges of humour in everything and surrounding herself with talented actors like Dax Shepard, Ed Begley Jr, Pam Grier and David Koechner. The premise is more than a little bit feeble, and the jokes are tired (at least Green Acres had a character who hated living in the country). But the show has a scruffy, ramshackle goofiness that keeps us watching. Mainly thanks to that cast.

Mom: series 7a
Everything is ticking along with this show's astute comedic approach to addiction and recovery, this year with the added wrinkle of marriage between Bonnie (Allison Janney) and Adam (William Fichtner). Janney is such a joy that it doesn't really matter what she's doing, and both writers and costars give her plenty to work with. It would be nice to beef up the other central cast members, whose plotlines feel a bit dull this year, most notably Anna Faris' Christy. She was more fun when she was a mom herself (where are her kids anyway?).


Transparent: series 5
After Jeffrey Tambor's unceremonious departure from his series, this "musicale finale" ties up all the loose plot ends. It feels a little tidy and abrupt for a show that was known for its messy interactions. But the songs are enjoyable, performed well by the up-for-it cast, which kind of makes up for the way the overall story kind of peters out. There are no surprises, and some rather oddball twists here and there that never quite push the boundaries. But it's warm and engaging, and packed with lovely moments.

The Good Place: series 4a
Both blissfully funny and smartly thought provoking, this show is going out on a high. This season will be ending where the creators knew it would, rather than stretching things out unnecessarily. Which gives the adept actors the confidence to wonderfully push their performances right over the edge. Each of them is excellent on his or her own, and as an ensemble they create some magical alchemy. This is a rare sitcom that manages to be both intelligent and silly at the same time.

Modern Family: series 11a
This long-running sitcom has had some ropey episodes in recent years, but it's a rare show that has maintained a high quality of character-based comedy writing, allowing the actors to age on-screen. The expanding cast continues to be almost criminally watchable, with the children now grown-ups and the youngsters revealing a lot more personality than most TV kids get. There is a tendency to drift toward sentiment this season, but that's understandable if this is indeed the final series.

Shameless: series 10a
Never a show to pause for breath, this show kicked off its final season with a flurry of outrageous plot twists that sent the Gallagher family in about seven directions at once. This first set of episodes is perhaps a bit too frantic, even for this show, although this keeps the audience on its toes, piling on twists that are both entertaining and infuriating. There are several clever touches this year, as well as a few badly dangling threads (Carl's twins!). And as usual, the audience continues to root for these losers, despite the evidence.

See - I'm a fan of the cast, and they're superb here, but the premise is just a little too gimmicky and violent for me, set in a caveman-like future where humanity has gone blind. 

NOW WATCHING: The Witcher, Unbelievable, Castle Rock (2), You (2)
COMING SOON: Star Trek: Picard, The Outsider, High Fidelity, Schitt's Creek (7), Grace and Frankie (6), Homeland (8), Kidding (2)

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Critical Week: Happy New Decade!

I watched a handful of films in the time between Christmas and New Year, some were catch-up awards-qualifying titles, others are coming to cinemas soon, some are both! The Japanese animated feature Weathering With You looks simply gorgeous (see above) and tells an imaginative story with style and emotion. Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen stars Matthew McConaughey in a British crime comedy-drama. And the Russia's Oscar qualifier Beanpole is an unforgettable, twisted, powerful post-war odyssey. There were also these three: the first is an acclaimed and pointedly timely drama set in Paris, the second is Poland's provocative Oscar contender, the third is a masterpiece made by my all-time favourite filmmaker before I was born...

Synonyms Synonymes
dir Nadav Lapid; scr Nadav Lapid, Haim Lapid
with Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Uria Hayik, Olivier Loustau, Yehuda Almagor, Gaya Von Schwarze, Gal Amitai, Idan Ashkenazi, Dolev Ohana
release Fr 27.Mar.19, UK Jun.19 eiff, US 25.Oct.19
19/France 2h03 ****

With an impressionistic, visceral filmmaking style, Nadav Lapid takes a fictionalised look at his own experiences moving away from his home country and adapting to a new culture. The narrative takes a series of random and sometimes absurd turns along the way, adding a range of textures to the film and its themes. It's strikingly well shot and edited, with intriguing angles and surprising twists in each scene. And it's anchored by a remarkably thoughtful performance from Tom Mercier, who brings a brave willingness to reveal the character inside and out.

Frustrated by his native country Israel, 20-ish Yoav (Mercier) esacapes after his military service to live in Paris. On his first night, literally everything he has brought with him is stolen. Neighbours Emile and Caroling (Dolmaire and Chevillotte) come to his rescue. As he befriends them, Yoav refuses to speak Hebrew, studying a French dictionary whenever he has a spare moment. Indeed, his only goal is to be French. He gets a job with a rather offbeat security group, which makes it even more difficult to simply reject his past. Yoav is angry at the ugliness he sees in Israeli society, but Emile reminds him that there is rot in every culture.

As Yoav bonds with Emile, Caroline and a Jewish colleague (Hayik), he reminisces about his life before France. Scenes are offbeat and unexpected, sometimes warmly involving or blackly comical, including a moment of sudden aggressive physicality. The character portrait and nature of his odyssey sometimes feel so broad that it's difficult to find the central idea, but then fleeing one culture for another is never going to be straightforward. The film is shot with style and honesty that hints at angles to the story Lapid deliberately struggles to explore, like identity or masculinity. Or perhaps he's just provoking his audience to find a way through their own stories.
28.Dec.19 • Berlin/Toronto

Corpus Christi Boże Ciało
dir Jan Komasa; scr Mateusz Pacewicz
with Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Lukasz Simlat, Tomasz Zietek, Mateusz Czwartosz, Barbara Kurzaj, Leszek Lichota, Juliusz Chrzastowski, Zdzislaw Wardejn
release UK 18.Oct.19, US 22.Apr.20
19/Poland 1h55 ****

From Poland, this boldly provocative drama takes on some enormous issues while telling the darkly personal tale of a young man grappling with who he is. The story is set in the deep-seated Catholic culture, tackling underlying repression, prejudice and, most notably, the appalling inability of religious people to forgive each other. Writer Mateusz Pacewicz  and director Jan Komasa refuse to pull any punches as the events unfold, and their actors play it beautifully.

The story centres on Daniel (Bielenia), a teen who gets parole just as his arch-nemesis Bogus (Czwartosz) arrives at the juvenile detention centre. Daniel had found solace there working alongside Father Tomasz (Simlat), so while heading to his new job in a sawmill, he's distracted by the village church, and especially Eliza (Rycembel), daughter of church administrator Lidia (Konieczna). Presenting himself as a priest, Daniel winds up taking over while the vicar (Wardejn) is away in hospital. And Daniel works himself into the heart of the community.

Tension emerges throughout this story, including dark hatred around the village relating to a fatal car crash a year earlier, ruthless control exerted by the sawmill owner (Lichota), and another ex-con (Zietek) who recognises Daniel and threatens to expose him. Balanced on this precipice, it's fascinating to watch Daniel's crisis of faith, beautifully played by the young Bielenia, barely concealing his emotions under layers of earthy bluster. It's clear to see that this is where Daniel belongs: even if he's an unqualified interloper, he's not a fraud, his work is genuine. And the filmmakers never take an easy route through his story, which means that it is packed with moments of joy, pain and even a few epiphanies.
27.Dec.19 • Venice/Toronto

La Dolce Vita
dir Federico Fellini; scr Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli
with Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Yvonne Furneaux, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, Nadia Gray, Magali Noel, Lex Barker, Jacques Sernas, Walter Santesso, Alain Dijon
release It 4.Feb.60, UK 24.Aug.60, US 19.Apr.61
reissue UK 3.Jan.20
60/Italy 2h54 *****

Any excuse to rewatch Federico Fellini's masterpiece should be embraced, so it's great that the film continues to be restored/reissued. This is one of the most audacious movies ever made, packed with life, love, energy, wit and some bleak emotion. It's very long, sweeping the audience along on an episodic odyssey that combines Fellini's larger-than-life exuberance with his earthier realism. It's also quite possibly the coolest movie ever made.

The story centres on Marcello (Mastroianni), a journalist who travels with a pack of paparazzi, chasing famous starlets around Rome. Marcello seems to fall deeply in love with each of these glamorous women, so it's no wonder that his drama queen fiancee Emma (Furneaux) is at home contemplating suicide. But Marcello carries on flirting, dancing through each night with a sequence of gorgeous celebrities even as darker drama plays out around him, including a freaky night in the pouring rain following two children who say they can see the Madonna, a lovely but unsatisfying visit with his father (Ninchi), and a friend (Cuny) who loses it horrifically.

From the opening shot of a helicopter dangling a statue of Christ over a rooftop pool of bathing beauties, the film explodes with life. And everyone's loving it. These achingly cool people wear sunglasses indoors, seduce each other shamelessly and have moments of serious introspection ("My father's still a handsome man, isn't he?" Marcello muses). Classic imagery and moments abound, from Maddalena's (Aimee) vast Cadillac convertible to a frolic in a fountain with a red-hot movie star (Ekberg) to an outrageous party in an unoccupied villa ("And I'm unoccupied too," notes Maddalena). There's a range of astonishing settings, various types of music, and both old and young people being free and happily sexy.

Few filmmakers have ever had Fellini's powers of observation, spotting the tiniest telling movement within the grandest spectacle. So the film is a funny, crazy, wrenching collision of banter, bravado and humanity. It's the kind of movie that reminds us to howl at the moon from time to time, to remember that the good times go hand in hand with the bad ones and to take nothing for granted.
revisited 31.Dec.19 • Cannes/Berlin

Screenings will be cranking up slowly this coming week as press offices return from the holidays. At the moment, I only have two in the diary: the British road movie The Runaways and the shorts compilation The Uncertain Kingdom. More are to come, surely.