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.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Critical Week: Never walk alone

My best film this past week was last year's festival favourite A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, an outrageous Wild West-style Iranian vampire movie filmed in California. It's so fiercely original (and so much fun) that director Ana Lily Amirpour is bound to be dragged to Hollywood, if she hasn't already. As for big-name movies, we had Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman in the Russian mystery-thriller Child 44, which is interesting but somewhat overstuffed, and Samuel L Jackson and Ray Stevenson in the Finnish action romp Big Game, which has lots of attitude and a great premise but kind of runs out of steam.

Further afield were the insane Chinese horror mash-up Rigor Mortis and the entertaining Soviet hockey team doc Red Army, plus a 30th anniversary version of John Hughes' The Breakfast Club, a classic that's definitely worth revisiting - and feels oddly timeless.

This coming week we've got screenings of the next Marvel blockbuster The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the hotly anticipated sequel Pitch Perfect 2, Carey Mulligan in a new adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, the social media drama Unfriended, the animated Noah's Ark romp Two by Two, the Oscar-nominated animation Song of the Sea and the British indie Taking Stock.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Critical Week: Take it to the Supreme Court

I finally caught a late press screening this week for Woman in Gold, the true drama that opened in US cinemas last week and hits the UK this Friday. It's the superb story of a woman fighting for restitution after Nazis stole her family's possessions, and it has a terrific central performance from Helen Mirren, plus strong support from Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Bruhl. Another late screening was for Ryan Gosling's directing debut Lost River, a surreal recession-era drama about a struggling family. Meandering and essentially plotless, it struggles to engage despite notable performances from Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker and Ben Mendelsohn.

Also this past week we had screenings of The Last Five Years, an engaging but fragmented and downbeat romantic musical starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan; the award-winning Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas' clever but elusive exploration of celebrity beautifully played by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart; the dark Irish drama Glassland, which features a turn by Jack Reynor that won the Sundance acting award for his excellent work opposite Toni Collette and Will Poulter; the mesmerising German freak-out thriller The Samurai, about a young cop confronting a cross-dressing, sword-wielding psycho; and Undocumented Executive, a witty, scruffy comedy playing with immigration and class issues in America.

And there were two documentaries that are a must for fans: Lambert & Stamp explores the two guys responsible for The Who, tracing both the band's history and the music, film and art scenes along the way; and A Fuller Life is a remarkable look at the life of iconic filmmaker Sam Fuller in his own words and as reflected in his films.

This coming week we have Tom Hardy's thriller Child 44, Nia Vardalos' comedy Helicopter Mom, the Iranian festival favourite A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the Chinese drama Exit, Mia Hansen Love's rave scene drama Eden, and the acclaimed USSR hockey doc Red Army.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Shadows on the Screen: Spring TV roundup

Television is what I do when I want to clear my head, taking 25 or 45 minutes as a break between writing about movies. So I've managed to see a variety of shows over the past few months. Sometimes a show takes over a weekend of binge-watching, which feels like a holiday! It's great to watch something I don't have to write about. Although that's exactly what I'm doing here - these are 16 shows I've been watching over the winter...

QUALITY

Parks and Recreation: series 7
In its final 13 episodes, this consistently smart, funny and almost criminally engaging show visited the near future (these episodes were set in 2017) to wrap everything up on a variety of notes that were witty and moving. Simply one of the best sitcoms ever made,  it'll be sorely missed. At least we know we haven't seen the last of the fabulous Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari, et al.


Looking: series 2
Andrew Haigh's loosely constructed series exploring the lives of three gay men in San Francisco continues to make its plot turns realistically random, as the characters find love and friendship in unexpected places. Intriguingly, there's a nagging feeling that all of them are going to end up unhappy, even as lovely things happen in their romantic lives. But that cleverly reflects life in a subculture that's been told for a generation that they're incapable of having that happy ever after. Pointed and thoughtful stuff. Perhaps too complex, which is why it's sadly not been renewed for a third series.
SEE ALSO: my interview with Frankie J Alvarez >

Wolf Hall
The BBC's prestigious period drama traced the arc of Anne Boleyn (Clare Foy) in six episodes through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell (the awesome Mark Rylance). It's dark and brooding, quiet and utterly fierce, packed with creepy surprises and beautifully underplayed characters. The cast is simply amazing, including a terrific performance from Damien Lewis as a watchful, intensely insecure Henry VIII. Sometimes rather dense and murky, but the story's big moments are beautifully rendered. Utterly riveting.

House of Cards: series 3
Much of the tension seemed to be absent from the show this year, mainly because there's nowhere left for Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood to go now that he's the US President. His manoeuvring toward re-election wasn't nearly as compelling, nor was the shadowy rebirth of his henchman Doug (Michael Kelly). On the other hand, Spacey and Robin Wright are both utterly mesmerising on-screen, especially as they traversed the gyrations of their freaky marriage. All of the actors are superb; most notable in the supporting cast were Molly Shannon and Elizabeth Marvel.

NEW DISCOVERIES

You're the Worst
This biting, acerbic rom-com was so much fun that it felt like it ended far too soon - after just 10 brisk half-hour episodes. Chris Geere and Aya Cash are terrific as the self-destructive leads, people who know better than to start a relationship but do anyway. Their struggle to both adhere to and break the rules is complex and very funny, although the scripts sometimes get oddly preachy for such a free-spirited romp. It's as if the writers want to be radical but are still bound by traditional rules themselves, which adds a layer of meta-meaning that's compulsive to watch. Bring on series 2.

Togetherness

This new HBO series benefits from strong performances from the leading cast members Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis as four people grappling with their interrelationships. Each character's actions are rather annoying - this is one of those shows during which we're constantly screaming at the screen - as they jeopardise their connections with each other by doing things that are desperate or downright stupid. But the actors manage to bring out the undercurrents very nicely. And the cliffhanger ending bodes well for a messy Series 2.

Cucumber / Banana / Tofu
Channel 4's experiment in interlinked programming was intriguing enough to hold the interest, although I gave up on the on-demand mini-doc Tofu after one episode. I very nearly gave up on Cucumber too, since its central characters were so irritatingly written and played as cartoon figures rather than real people. The only one who worked was Freddie Fox's bitter queen, a loathsome young man with deep insecurities. He made the show watchable. Banana was considerably better, one-off dramas that peeled away (!) from Cucumber to touch on big issues with some genuinely resonant emotion.

Schitt's Creek
Frankly, I'd watch anything that Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara were in. So even if this far too high-concept sitcom strains to be wacky, it's packed with a constant flow of sardonic, understated humour. It's not immediately clear how the writers will be able to stretch this one joke into a second season, but as long as Levy and O'Hara find ways to play with their terrific on-screen charisma, I'll be watching. And aside from a too-broad turn from Chris Elliott, the supporting cast really grows on you.

BACK FOR MORE

Shameless: series 5
This American remake of the long-running British show contains some of the best writing and acting on TV at the moment. It's a rare show that dares to push its characters into unapologetically horrific situations but plays it honesty, drawing out laughter and brittle emotion instead of sensationalism or preachiness. It's extremely full-on, but the actors ground their characters remarkably, making them likeable even though they all do rather terrible things in an attempt to just get on with their lives. Unpredictable and often exhilarating.

Modern Family: series 6
A consistently high quality of writing sets this sitcom apart, developing characters who grow along with the actors playing them. This season the children are beginning to take over the show, and it's about time, because all of them are terrific actors and their characters are hilarious. The adults are amusing in their own right (even if they drift into caricature now and then), but have little to do but laugh at and worry about the kids, which is of course both sharply realistic and very funny.

Girls: series 4
Lena Dunham's meandering, whiny comedy took a couple of odd turns this season, including Hannah's impulsive, spoiled-brat decision to drop out of her prestigious writing course. But then all of these people are hard to like, even if their self-involvement is eerily truthful. The show is a lot more fun when these complex characters are bantering with each other than when they're off having their own dramas or clearly doomed romances.

The Walking Dead: series 5
This is one of those shows I think I'll stop watching for good after each episode. And yet I keep at it, because they're continually throwing a wrench in the works. I had finally become fed up with this season's repetitive bleakness when our intrepid, depleted heroes stumbled on an idyllic community. Obviously everything will have to go horribly wrong, but I'll hold on until then.

GUILTY PLEASURES

Empire
In its first season, this gleefully trashy soap recalled the heyday of Dynasty with its premise involving a bigoted and unwell patriarch (Terrence Howard), his bickering children and the arrival of his larger-than-life ex-wife (Taraji P Henson, just give her the Emmy now). The cast is so good that it's able to hold the absurd scripts together, especially as characters grapple with everything from ALS to bipolar disorder via closeted sexuality, violent crime and sinister counterplots. The best guilty pleasure in years.

Scandal: series 4
In what is clearly a pattern for this show, the even-numbered seasons try the patience by attempting to add serious plotting rather than the much more entertaining trashiness that makes us want to tune in. This season is especially frustrating because the show's writers seem intent on turning it into a feeble cross between Homeland and House of Cards. The superb actors and tangled plots are still more than enough reason to stay tuned, but please bring back the sudsy fun!

Arrow: series 3
Honestly, this is the most inane show I watch - lazy writing and appallingly choreographed action. But it's also a lot of fun, packed with actors who are hugely watchable (and some tension too because the writers aren't afraid to kill off favourite characters). So even if the whole thing feels undercooked, and more than a little impressed with its own seriousness, it still manages to be thoroughly entertaining and oddly gripping, mainly because it's impossible to predict where it might go. But one thing's for sure: every time the writers push the characters into another impossible corner, there'll be something miraculous to get them through.

Glee: series 6
In its final season, this show slipped further into a parody of itself (which is saying something), but I hung on to the bitter end. Gone were the relevant themes and unexpected plot turns, and in their place were heightened cartoon versions of the characters, fewer songs and indulgent storylines that contrived to bring back the old cast members while ignoring fresher faces. And while Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele became even more insufferable, at least Jane Lynch was still around to make her increasingly insane Sue Sylvester the show's highlight. Although the surge of sentiment in the final episodes was uncharacteristic, and undeserved.


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Critical Week: Purging the underworld

Aside from films I saw as part of BFI Flare, I caught up this past week week with Keanu Reeves' latest career boost movie John Wick, a rippingly stylish revenge thriller that's far better than it has any right to be. Also enjoyable, but not quite as artistically ambitious, Fast & Furious 7 (aka Furious 7) is a thunderously entertaining step in the franchise, including a lot more emotion than these actors have attempted before. And they just about get away with it. The action stuntwork looked pretty cool on the Imax screen.

Further afield there was the superb Cliff Curtis in the dark and intense true story The Dark Horse; the astonishingly grim and unnerving Belgian thriller The Treatment, which compares chillingly with The Silence of the Lambs and Seven (yes it's that good); and the raucous documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, a mist-see for movie fans tracing the Hollywood career of Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who produced an outrageous run of films over about 15 years.

We now have two short weeks with the four-day Easter weekend in between. Film screenings on the schedule include Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, Jack Reynor in the Sundance-winner Glassland, the German thriller The Samurai, the comedy Undocumented Executive and the documentary Lambert & Stamp.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Flare 5: Stand for what's right

The British Film Institute's 29th Flare: London LGBT Film Festival wrapped up last night with the documentary Out to Win, featuring young athletes Chandler Whitney and Conner Martens (above) and an array of famously open competitors including NBA player John Amaechi, who appeared on-stage with director Malcolm Ingram for a Q&A after the film. It's been another lively 10 days at BFI Southbank, with lively audiences, nightly parties, an unusually high standard of films and a global impact thanks to social media. Here are some highlights from the final weekend...

Out to Win 
dir Malcolm Ingram; with Billie Jean King, John Amaechi 15/US ***.
Exploring an important topic with some strikingly personal insight, this documentary feels long overdue. But it's pegged to a news event that's essentially an over-hyped non-story, which leaves the film without much compelling narrative momentum. Even so, it opens the door to discussing why professional sports has had such a difficult time accepting openly gay athletes.

Hidden Away
dir Mikel Rueda; with German Alcarazu, Adil Koukouh 14/Sp ****
A loose, ambiguous style makes this Spanish teen drama remarkably involving. It's a bit elusive about developing the central relationship, as much of it seems to be off-screen. But the film beautifully gets under the skin of the two central characters, teens struggling to admit that they don't fit in as expected.

Drunktown's Finest
dir-scr Sydney Freeland; with Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore 14/US ****
Filmmaker Freeland clearly knows the importance of the subject matter of this three-pronged drama, which skilfully explores a range of issues in a Native American community through stories that are easy to identify with. And the deep human connections bring this scruffy movie come to life, thanks to some understated performances and real-life interaction. Set on the edge of a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, the characters give insight into hapless crime, issues of identity and birthright, community connections, and even gender issues. But all of this emerges organically through characters that get under our skin simply because they seem just like people we know. So it's a bit surprising as the storylines continue and intersect to discover that the film has some bracingly strong things to say about America.

We Came to Sweat
dir Kate Kunath, Sasha Wortzel; with Dennis Parrot, Linda King 15/US ***
With a mixture of archive footage and a narrative urgency, this documentary explores the life of an unusual community venue struggling to survive against the odds. Important both in the past and present, the Starlite Lounge has been an oasis of openness in a constantly shifting Brooklyn neighbourhood. But this isn't a big statement film, it's a low-key look at a slice of history that's been lost forever.

Flare Short Films
There are always several very strong programmes of short films at BFI Flare - films in every conceivable genre that explore themes from a variety of angles. I only managed to catch 10 shorts this year (a small number for me!). Two higher profile shorts touched on issues of ethnicity and immigration: Chance (by Jake Graf) is an earnest, moving exploration of unexpected love, while the somewhat elusive drama Followers (by Tim Marshall) is an Iris Prize production about a religious woman who has a revelation in a very unexpected place. Other favourites included Caged (by Dylan and Lazlo Tonk), a beautifully shot and edited Dutch short about teen athletes grappling with self-discovery and peer pressure; Hole (by Martin Edralin), a bold, important drama about a physically disabled man who asks his carer for something that definitely crosses some sort of line; and Been Too Long at the Fair (by Todd Verow and Charles Lum), a witty, warm autobiographical documentary about an unusual cinema in Queens, New York, that managed to buck the trend for shutting down adult theatres.