Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Critical Week: They're baaack...

Screenings in London this past week included two very late-screening films coming out this week: Poltergeist (pictured above) is a remake of the 1982 Spielberg/Hooper classic. It's nicely shot and acted but feels rather exactly like other ghost movies being made at the moment (most notably Insidious). Tomorrowland is a relentlessly optimistic Disney movie starring George Clooney with a strongly positive message, a solid cast and some lovely effects, although it's a bit too simplistic to be something special.

Two other films featured veterans in a relaxed mood: Al Pacino is an ageing rocker in Danny Collins, a chilled-out comedy-drama with strong support from Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer and Bobby Cannavale. Dustin Hoffman is a master conductor in The Choir (aka Boychoir), an enjoyable if somewhat too-earnest coming of age movie.

Further afield: Olivia Colman leads the ensemble (which includes Tom Hardy) in the artfully offbeat musical London Road, using actual transcripts to explore a community's reaction to a serial killer. Everyone's Going to Die is an underpowered British drama about a connection between two extremely mismatched strangers. Unhallowed Ground is a rather cheesy British horror movie that has some terrific freak-out moments along the way. Infini is an underwritten Aussie sci-fi horror that looks cool but fails to develop its characters. And Seek is a scruffy-charming Canadian indie about a geeky journalist looking for his dream man on the nightclub scene in Toronto.

This coming week we have screenings of: Slow West with Michael Fassbender, Mr Holmes with Ian McKellan, Return to Sender with Rosamund Pike, Results with Guy Pearce and the festival favourites Eden and Les Combattants. Plus another three-day weekend!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Shadows on the Stage: Public outrage!

Fanny & Stella
dir Steven Dexter • scr Glenn Chandler • music Charles Miller
Above The Stag, Vauxhall • 13.May-14.Jun.15

Based on the real story of Victorian cross-dressers Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, this is a fiendishly clever musical that mixes the gleefully rude comedy of a 19th century music hall with a striking story of identity and sexuality. Played with hilariously flirtatious energy and surprising underlying pathos by Robert Jeffrey and Marc Gee Finch, Ernest/Stella and Frederick/Fanny are theatre performers whose arrest in 1870 sparked a flood of scandalous headlines about these "he-she ladies". Of course, the crime wasn't dressing as a woman on stage, but parading in the streets and having relationships with men.

Chandler's script cleverly casts all of this as a bawdy theatrical production with six actors playing a variety of roles - including a witty running gag in which Phil Sealey must adapt his performance on the spot to fit whatever character he's playing now. The dialog and songs are packed with puns and innuendo, playing with language in ways that actually make an important point even as they make us laugh. All of this is inventively staged in the small space at Above The Stag with a set that pointedly requires the actors to enter and leave the stage through closets. The intimacy also creates a lot of hilarious interaction with the audience, which adds to the snappy script and riotously silly tone. But what lingers is the power of the story itself, which catches in several moments of raw emotion that bring intense resonance for 21st century audience members.

dir Robert Shaw
scr Mark Ravenhill
Arcola, Dalston

This one-woman show, brilliantly performed by Olivia Poulet, is a lacerating satire about Hollywood. And it's so cleverly written that studio executives might not understand why we're all laughing at it. Poulet plays Leah, who is pitching a project to a top actress, going through the script and punching everything that might appeal to an A-lister. This means that the play works on two levels. First, it draws us into the story in the script, about a workaholic who finds love with a Muslim jihadist, which is unexpected because her husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks. This story is hilariously recounted by Poulet with added stage directions, back-stories and even musical cues in an attempt to bring it to life for the star.

But of course the real point is to explore how Hollywood exploits real-life tragedies to make some cash, while manipulating an audience to think that this is somehow entertaining, warping the very nature of both storytelling and artistry in the process. Ravenhill's script pulls no punches at all; this play goes for the jugular without ever getting preachy about it. And Poulet's Leah shows more than a little desperation, while her reactions make it clear that the unseen actress isn't buying her hard-sell. All of this is done with continual laugh-out-loud punch lines so hilariously sharp that they stop us in our tracks every time we begin to buy into the sales pitch. Genius.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Critical Week: Take the desert by storm

Films don't get much bigger than Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller's return to the franchise 30 years after Thunderdome. Starring Tom Hardy in the title role (that's him as the grille ornament in the photo above), it's a roaringly entertaining action thriller with startling emotional and thematic depth. Speaking of which, Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers an unusually deep performance in Maggie, an involving father-daughter drama with zombie overtones. And Rupert Everett and Emily Watson play the king and queen in the comedy romp A Royal Night Out, an engaging film that's loosely based on real events in London 70 years ago this week.

Further afield, British critics are finally catching up with Song of the Sea, the stunningly beautiful Oscar-nominated Irish adventure based on local mythology. Second Coming is a low-key British drama starring Idris Elba that feels like it only has enough of a plot for a short, but is very nicely made. From Spain, Marshland is a sharply well-shot serial killer drama that's involving but a little dry. And I also caught up with The Last of Robin Hood, an involving drama directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice), which stars Kevin Kline in a story about the final months of of Errol Flynn's life.

Special screenings this week included Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Chuck Workman's superb doc, screened to the press on Welles' actual 100th birthday to launch the BFI's summer season featuring his films and lots of rare material. And one evening I headed to the Soho Revue Gallery for a screening of the short film Eleanor, an ambitious project starring Ruth Wilson that shows on three screens and carries quite an internalised kick (MY SHORT REVIEW).

This coming week we have George Clooney in the Disney epic Tomorrowland, Al Pacino in Danny Collins, Dustin Hoffman in The Choir, Peter Bogdanovich's comedy She's Funny That Way, the acclaimed horror Unhallowed Ground, the indie sci-fi thriller Infini and the Oscar-nominated doc The Salt of the Earth.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Critical Week: Life of the party

Chris Rock's comedy Top Five had great reviews in America last year, and has finally screened to UK critics ahead of its opening here this week. It's thoroughly hilarious, if a bit of an inside joke. Blake Lively stars in the fantasy-drama The Age of Adaline, very well-made but ultimately rather corny. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives another thunderous performance in Beyond the Lights, a simplistic but engaging drama about the music industry costarring Nate Parker and Minnie Driver. And the mystery-thriller remake The Loft is packed with twists, turns, surprises and revelations, even if it never amounts to much and doesn't offer too much depth for fine actors like James Marsden, Matthias Schoenaerts, Eric Stonestreet, Karl Urban or Wentworth Miller.

Further afield, there was a screening of the long-shelved feature animation Dino Time, a lively story with substandard imagery and a starry voice cast that includes Jane Lynch, Melanie Griffith and Rob Schneider; Albert Maysles' beautifully made doc Iris, about 93-year-old eccentric fashion icon Iris Apfel; and the murky and sexy but obtuse apocalyptic Argentine love triangle What's Left of Us.

Coming up this week are screenings of Tom Hardy in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, the comedy A Royal Night Out, Idris Elba in Second Coming, the indie drama Everyone's Going to Die, British horror Unhallowed Ground, Oscar-nominated animation Song of the Sea and Spanish serial killer thriller Marshland. There's also a special press screening of the Orson Welles doc Magician to launch the BFI's Welles season, and an art gallery screening of Eleanor starring Ruth Wilson.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Critical Week: Save your sole

It's been a very odd week for press screenings in London, the lull between the blockbusters. The only big-name movies I saw were a bit lacklustre: Adam Sandler in The Cobbler, an underwhelming comedy-drama with a supernatural touch; Simon Pegg in Kill Me Three Times, an uneven Aussie crime comedy that strains for a wacky Tarantino vibe; Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer in Elsa & Fred, a gentle romantic drama that never quite gets on track; and Justin Long and Emmy Rossum in the artful and evocative romance Comet.

More interesting were two darkly moving movies further from the beaten path, namely the cleverly understated German drama West, set in1978 Berlin, and the intensely introspective rural Hungarian drama Land of Storms. Both films explore societal pressures that can destabilise relationships and make people doubt themselves and their loved ones.

I also caught the extraordinary A Sinner in Mecca, a documentary having its world premiere at HotDocs in Toronto this week. It's about a devout Muslim exploring his faith by performing his hajj, the ritual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, which in his case could be fatal since he is an openly gay filmmaker. A seriously stunning film that will find resonance with anyone who struggles to balance faith with sexuality.

Ahead, it's another long weekend with a short week next week. Screenings coming up include Chris Rock in Top Five, Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights, the zombie horror What's Left of Us, the animated adventure Dino Time and the fashion-world doc Iris.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Critical Week: The pitch is back

For critics, one of the most anticipated films of the year was Pitch Perfect 2, the sequel to the surprisingly amazing 2012 comedy. So of course the highlight of the week was the press screening of the follow-up, which surpassed expectations (again), reuniting the Bellas for another hilarious adventure. The other big movie this week was of course Avengers: Age of Ultron, which has provoked a bit of a mixed response. But I'm looking forward to meeting them all at the press junket today!

We also caught up with Thomas Vinterberg's sumptuous version of Far From the Madding Crowd, starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen (I interviewed Carey and Matthias last week for this film). Lower profile films included Nia Vardalos as a seriously annoying mother in the otherwise decent comedy Helicopter Mom; the clever and occasionally scary computer-screen teen slasher horror Unfriended; the scruffy indie British caper comedy Taking Stock starring Kelly Brook; the corny and very childish Euro-animation Two by Two; the nicely moody gay mystery-horror Drink Me; and the superbly blood-boiling political doc The Emperor's New Clothes, by Russell Brand and Michael Winterbottom.

Screenings this coming week are a bit thin, but include Michael Fassbender in Slow West, Simon Pegg in Kill Me Three Times, the German drama West, the Hungarian drama Land of Storms, and the controversial world premiere doc A Sinner in Mecca, and the public action doc We Are Many.