Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Critical Week: It's raining films

24th Raindance Film Festival is underway in London, wrapping up on Sunday. I always struggle to catch many of the movies at this festival, as it runs right through the press screening schedule for the London Film Festival (which runs 5-16 Oct). I was able to attend Raindance's opening night gala, including the feature Problemski Hotel (above), an involving, artful exploration of refugees in Europe, and the short The Nation Holds Its Breath, a witty Irish comedy about a young man conflicted by the fact that his first child is being born just as Ireland makes it to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 1990. There were also two ambitious low-budget sci-fi thrillers: from America, Shortwave is somewhat overcooked but very atmospheric, and from Britain, Worm is a skilful stunner about teleportation.

Aside from London Film Festival screenings (more on those next week), there have also been screenings of normal releases to catch up with. These have included Emily Blunt in the adaptation of the bestseller The Girl on the Train, an edgy emotional thriller; Tim Burton's new extravaganza Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, an enjoyable but over-packed fantasy; Mel Gibson's solid return to lead acting in Blood Father, a gritty but somewhat simplistic vengeance/survival thriller; and People You May Know, a dark but hopeful drama about navigating friendship and romance.

There were also a collection of movies based on true stories: David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are excellent in the racially charged 1950s drama A United Kingdom; Luke Treadaway stars in the lightly comical exploration of homelessness and addiction in A Street Cat Named Bob; the shattering Polish drama The Innocents is about a convent recovering from the horrors of WWII.

This coming week, I have a few more Raindance movies while screenings for London seriously heat up as the festival itself gets underway. There's also the animated adventure Storks, the British comedy Burn Burn Burn, the horror thriller Train to Busan, the Spanish drama The Ways of Man, and the documentary Life, Animated.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Shadows on the Screen: Autumn TV roundup

Still clearing my head by watching TV, which feels like a vacation from work (ie, the movies) to me. Here's what I watched over the summer...


Stranger Things
It seems like everyone was talking about this show this summer. And rightly so! This is a fiercely clever 1970s-style blending of the storytelling and character detail of a Stephen King novel with the childlike wonder and effortless magic of a Steven Spielberg movie. The show also cleverly works on three layers: with young boys discovering a strange girl with unusual abilities, teens looking into some freaky goings on, and adults investigating suspicious government activities. All of this was wrapped up in a period-style production that clicked together seamlessly. Gripping television that didn't need a second season, but we'll sure be looking forward to it.

The Night Of
A remake of the British series Criminal Justice, this forensic thriller has extremely sharp writing and direction and often astonishing performances. So even if the premise isn't terribly original - the criminal case, courtroom scenes and prison drama all feel rather standard - the show remains relentlessly gripping. It helps that scenes are full of contrasting characters played by the gifted Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, Peyman Moadi, Glenne Headly, Michael Kenneth Williams and more. Each actor invests so much detail into his or her role that it almost doesn't matter where the twisty plot takes them. And at the centre, Ahmed is excellent as a complex hero we wanted to cheer for even when things get very dark for him. 

Boy Meets Girl
I hadn't seen the first season of this short BBC sitcom, so I watch both series together and was pleasantly surprised. Set in Newcastle, the first six episodes trace the unlikely but warmly charming romance between the 26-year-old Leo (Harry Hepple) and his 40-year-old girlfriend Judy (Rebecca Root), who happens to be male-to-female trans. With that out of the way, the second series follows their somewhat wacky wedding plans. What's surprising is that even with a cast of standard sitcom characters (their families are deeply silly), the show manages to dig beneath the surface and uncover some much bigger themes about respect and human engagement. It's also so beautifully written and played that it can't help but charm the audience. A real gem.


After her trio of Chelsea Does Netflix docs, Chelsea Handler has now reinvented the chat show with her new series. Appearing three nights per week, she sets a theme for each episode (some are looser than others) and then explores it with experts, celebrities and general silliness with her team of skilled writers and producers. Each episode is an entertaining collection of interviews, to-camera pieces, playful stunts and packaged clips shot all over the world as Handler interacts with a variety of people on a very wide range of topics. As her dog Chunk roams around the studio, Handler's refreshingly irreverent style (posing as the idiot who needs to learn something) is engaging, her observations telling and her delight in being free from censorship hilarious. She also has a knack for getting the very best out of her guests, putting them at ease like no one else on television at the moment.

Wayward Pines: series 2
This went from being an intriguing, mind-bending mystery in its first season to a rather standard thriller this year. The cast is up to the challenge, but the writing is much more formulaic, complete with annoying flashbacks and revelations. Jason Patric was a strong protagonist, but his foils were less complex (and no one could match the only occasionally appearing Hope Davis, Melissa Leo and Toby Jones in the reasonable villainy stakes). Intriguing themes were raised then abandoned for more violence-based plotting and hyper-grisly action, none of which was remotely compelling. So even though it ends on a hopeful note, it might be better to let sleeping dogs lie, as it were.

From Darren Star (Sex and the City), this high-concept sitcom imagines a 40-year-old divorced mother (the engagingly generic Sutton Foster) implausibly posing as a 26-year-old to return to her publishing career. The only person who knows about this deception is her artist best pal (Debi Mazar). Everyone else is in the dark: new best friend (Hilary Duff), hot young boyfriend (Nico Tortorella), comically stern boss (Miriam Shore). The show is funny and silly, with strong characters well-played by the likeable cast. But it never pushes the boundaries of its premise, remaining safe and badly far-fetched, with some truly terrible plot turns. It also has a simplistic view of the publishing world, relationships and ageing.


The generic title certainly won't help anyone discover this show (it's virtually unsearchable anywhere). But it's well worth a look for the relaxed performances of Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust as two loners who have given up on love, then reluctantly drift into a relationship. Their friends are from the wacky sitcom mould, and the entire premise feels like a kinder-gentler version of the frankly amazing You're the Worst. But what the show lacks in originality or nerve it makes up for with enjoyably messy characters and awkward situations. Indeed, much of the comedy here comes from humiliation, usually where something intimate is brought out into the spotlight. This makes the show feel oddly timid and a bit smug. But its heart seems to be in the right place.

This DC superhero adventure has all the hallmarks of a Greg Berlanti production (see also Arrow and The Flash): edgy comedy, romantic triangles, a handy uber-talented hacker, badly staged action and a combination of breezy comedy and extreme violence. It also has a very likeable hero in Melissa Benoist's Supergirl Kara, plus strong support from veterans David Harewood, Calista Flockhart and Peter Facinelli. Plus Mehcad Brooks and Jeremy Jordan in the aforementioned triangle. It's enjoyable enough as action fluff, although the plotlines need to be a lot more original to make it unmissable. And the show can only be improved by adding a more prominent recurring role for Kara's younger cousin Superman (Tyler Hoechlin). 

Jessica Jones
This is definitely an original approach to the Marvel superhero universe, although it's also gloomy, relentlessly violent and it badly stretches a relatively thin story over its 13 hour-long episodes. Kristin Rytter is good in the title role, although the character is relentlessly unlikeable. This is the point, but it's not easy to engage or sympathise with her. Surrounding characters played by Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss and Eka Darville are far more interesting, while David Tennant's villainously cruel Kilgrave steals the show. In other words, it's an intriguing idea that feels rather out of balance, mainly due to its slavish adherence to TV cliches even as it tries to be something new. Why they're spinning off Mike Colter's Luke Cage into his own series is anyone's guess; he's one of the best things about this show.


After just about enjoying the first season, I watched one episode of the 2nd season of Ballers and, as much as I like Dwayne Johnson and Rob Corddry, I simply couldn't stomach any more of the macho idiocy that infuses everything about this show. I also only made it through one episode of Versailles. I know it was acclaimed and beloved, but I found it turgid, trying far to hard to be scandalous and trashy.

At the moment I'm watching Victoria, The Get Down and the 13-years-later 6th series of Cold Feet, just about deciding to stick with this new season of Masters of Sex, and looking forward to Easy and several series with new seasons this autumn...

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Critical Week: She's gonna blow!

Back from Venice, I had a week to recover before being hit by two big film festivals at home - the 24th Raindance starts on Wednesday, and press screenings for the 60th London Film Festival (5-16 Oct) started on Monday. But we also need to watch normal releases coming into cinemas, and the biggest this week was Deepwater Horizon, starring Mark Wahlberg as the super-heroic supervisor who kicks into action mode as the biggest oil spill in US history unfolds off the coast of Louisiana. The film is very well made, but relentlessly celebrates its machismo.

We also had Renee Zellweger in the surprisingly entertaining sequel Bridget Jones's Baby, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o in the genuinely inspiring true drama Queen of Katwe, Daniel Radcliffe and Toni Collette in the intense undercover thriller Imperium, and Sam Neill in the absolutely delightful Kiwi adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

From Ireland, Emma Greenwell stars in the gently amiable but also nicely pointed gardening drama Dare to Be Wild. And there were three docs: filmmaker Brian De Palma takes us through his career in the aptly titled De Palma, a vivid depiction of the past 60 years of Hollywood. The Guv'nor energetically traces the life of British boxer and enforcer Lenny McLean, largely through the eyes of his son Jamie. And Francofonia is Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov's witty, experimental exploration of the Louvre (it's a companion piece to his 2002 Hermitage drama Russian Ark).

I'll report on London festival films once that event kicks off, and also on Raindance movies I catch up with. Other movies in the diary this week include Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train, Mel Gibson in Blood Father, Luke Treadaway in A Street Cat Named Bob and Anne Fontaine's The Innocents.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Venezia 73: Into the sunset on days 10 & 11

The 73rd Venice Film Festival wraps up tonight with a flourish. Everyone is second-guessing what might walk off with the awards. The collateral juries (including mine) announced their winners last night, followed by several parties. But I still made it to this morning's press screening of The Magnificent Seven, which easily kept me awake (that's Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee, above). Here are the last few films I've seen, plus my best of the fest...

The Magnificent Seven
dir Antoine Fuqua;  with Denzel Washington,  Chris Pratt 16/US ***
With broad strokes, Antoine Fuqua's remake of the 1960 classic (itself a remake of Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai) is big, loud and entertaining enough to hold the interest amid a sea of Wild West cliches. The characters and morality couldn't be any more simplistic, but the actors inves witty energy that helps make up for the predictable plot and glorified bloodshed. In other words, it's utterly unnecessary, but some audiences love this kind of macho fluff.

Boys in the Trees
dir-scr Nicholas Verso; with Toby Wallace, Gulliver McGrath 16/Aus ***.
Dark and intense in both its honesty and its mythical sensibility, this film explores the idea that man is a social animal that sometimes turns on its own. Writer-director Nicholas Verso creates an astonishingly evocative horror movie that gets deeply personal as it grapples with this and other themes. It may feel somewhat gimmicky, but it's also haunting and important.

Never Ever [À Jamais]
dir Benoit Jacquot; with Mathieu Amalric, Julia Roy 16/Fr ***
Based on the Don DeLillo novel The Body Artist, this French drama has a horror-mystery sensibility that's genuinely freaky. Playing with themes of artistic invention, mental instability and loneliness, it's a haunting story of one young woman sliding beyond the realm of reason. So it's a bit frustrating that the plot feels oddly thin, making its points early on and then going in circles before reaching the striking finale.

My best films of the festival...
  1. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)
  2. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
  3. The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz)
  4. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
  5. The Young Pope (Paolo Sorrentino)
  6. Heartstone (Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson)
  7. Prevenge (Alice Lowe)
  8. Frantz (Francois Ozon)
  9. Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)
  10. Heal the Living (Katell Quillevere)
Update: The festival's main competition awards were handed out tonight:
  • Golden Lion: The Woman Who Left
  • Grand Jury Prize: Nocturnal Animals
  • Actress: Emma Stone - La La Land
  • Actor: Oscar Martínez - The Distinguished Citizen
  • Director: Andrei Konchalovsky - Paradise
  • Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim - Jackie
  • Mastroianni Award: Paula Beer · Frantz
  • Special Jury Prize: The Bad Batch
I'm sticking around in Venice for a couple of days to visit the city - I'd never been here before this trip, so there's a lot to explore! Then it's back to London, and my usual work deadlines, on Monday.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Venezia 73: Far from home on day 9

The 73rd Venice Film Festival is entering its final days, so talk is turning to who will scoop up the awards? Will it be an old favourite filmmaker or a rising star? Will a known name like Timothy Spall or Natalie Portman take an acting prize over someone unknown and devastating? Everyone has an opinion. And the first flurry of jury prizes will be handed out tonight, while the rest come tomorrow. Here's what I've seen in the last day or two (that's Charo Santos above)...

The Woman Who Left [Ang Babaeng Humayo]
dir-scr Lav Diaz; with Charo Santos, John Lloyd Cruz 16/Ph ****.
At nearly four hours long, you'd think this Filipino epic would try the patience. But you'd be wrong. This is a riveting odyssey that tells a straightforward story of revenge and redemption with strong echoes of life anywhere on earth. It may feel a bit like binge-watching an entire miniseries, but Lav Diaz's filmmaking is worth experiencing on a big screen, as he shoots in a style that's deceptively rough and old-fashioned, but is packed with skill, wit and some big surprises.

dir Rebecca Zlotowski; with Natalie Portman, Lily-Rose Depp 16/Fr **
A baffling story set just before WWII broke out, this lavishly produced film looks great, and has a lovely central performance by Natalie Portman. Alas, the plot simply never comes into focus, veering all over the place, complicated by flashbacks, framing scenes, dreams and visions, plus a film-within-a-film motif. but none of this resolves itself into anything terribly coherent.

On the Milky Road
dir-scr Emir Kusturica; with Monica Bellucci, Emir Kusturica 16/Ser ***
Veteran Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica is back with another lively, cacophonous romp through his nation's history, this time centring on the 1990s war. The film's first half is a joyous depiction of the experiences of a rather wacky group of characters, including several animals. Then the film takes a hard swerve into violence and fantasy that may gel for Serbian viewers, but leaves everyone else in the dark.

These Days [Questi giorni]
dir Giuseppe Piccioni; with Maria Roveran, Marta Gastini 16/It **
It's not easy to work out what this Italian comedy-drama is all about. It's a road movie that neglects to show us the journey, following a group of lively characters who never do or say anything amusing. Romances are thin and unfocussed, and the plot itself is only a hint. There are some intriguing ideas swirling around, but over two long hours filmmaker Giuseppe Piccioni never quite finds anything to make the movie either meaningful or entertaining.

Only a few films to go now, including Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven, Mathieu Amalric in Never Ever and the Aussie drama Boys in the Trees.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Venezia 73: Holding it together on day 8

We're in the final stretch now, and the lack of sleep, long distances of walking, contrasts between hot sunshine and chilly air conditioning are all taking their toll. But the parties are starting up. Our jury decides on its winner today (still two more films to see), and the weekend will see a range of celebrations. Then next week it's back to work as usual. Anyway, here's what I saw on Tuesday (that's Natalie Portman, above, in my best of the fest so far)...

dir Pablo Larrain; with Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard 16/US *****
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain takes a clear-eyed approach to this fictionalised account of the days following JFK's assassination. Anchored by a pungent performance by Natalie Portman, the film digs deep into the complexities of grief, with glancing blows to celebrity culture and political expediency. Never slick or sentimental, its layers of resonance are hard to shake.

The Journey
dir Nick Hamm; with Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney 16/UK ***
Anchored by tremendous performances by Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney, this British drama imagines a real-life political conversation in the style of The Queen or Frost/Nixon. Even though it's simplistic and contrived, Colin Bateman's script is snaky and often very funny as it traps mortal enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in a car for an hour or so. The resuly is entertaining, although it could have had a lot more bite.

Voyage of Time
dir-scr Terrence Malick; narr Cate Blanchett 16/US ***
Call this the logical next stage in the evolution of Terrence Malick: his swirling approach to natural history has eschewed even a hint of a plot to instead trace time from drifting bits of matter to, well, drifting bits of matter. With all of Earth's existence in between. It's often breathtakingly gorgeous, and there are some very clever touches. But it's also rather corny, and a bit obvious.

dir Andrey Konchalovsky; with Yuliya Vysotskaya, hristian Clauss  16/Russia ***.
With a bold visual and structural style, Andrey Konchalovsky gives the Nazi deathcamp movie an eternal twist, exploring the actions and motivations of three distinct people in the face of unspeakable horror. It's a difficult film, somewhat simplistic in its morality and pushy in its themes. But it has a visceral power that can't help but strike a chord.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Venezia 73: It's a battle on days 6 & 7

Working at a film festival can be exhausting. Not only do you see three or four films every day, but you need to find time to write about them all as well. And also perhaps meet your normal work deadlines at the same time. Plus, you're in a strange city, searching for food! And also since it's a new place you want to take some time off and explore. Well, here at the 73rd Venice Film Festival, on Tuesday I finally had a chance to take the water bus over to the city's famous main islands - my first visit ever. I've travelled all over the world, but nothing prepared me for the thrill of Venice! After a three-hour walk in a rather enormous, convoluted circle, I'm in love with this city (and happy that it's only a cheap flight rom where I live). Then I was back on the boat across the lagoon to see more movies on the Lido. Here's what I saw yesterday and this morning (that's Andrew Garfield, above)...

Hacksaw Ridge
dir Mel Gibson; with Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington 16/Aus ****
With this big-hearted war epic, Mel Gibson uses warm, glowing drama and smiley corniness to distract from the harrowingly gruesome battle sequences. This means that most scenes are hard to watch for a variety of different reasons. But at the centre, this is a genuinely rousing story of real-life courage. And the war scenes are unusually riveting.

The Bad Batch
dir-scr Ana Lily Amirpour; with Suki Waterhouse , Jason Momoa 16/US **
For her second feature, Ana Lily Amirpour has a big, bold idea that's like Mad Max descending on Burning Man. But it isn't post-apocalyptic: it's a reflection of right-wing attitudes that are sweeping the globe, marginalising anyone who doesn't fit the status quo. So it's frustrating that the film is so difficult to engage with. Characters are cool and dispassionate, dialog is stiff and the pacing is uneven.

dir-scr Kim Rossi Stuart; with Kim Rossi Stuart, Camilla Diana 16/It **.
Like a cinematic mid-life crisis, this is an almost overpoweringly self-indulgent comedy-drama from Italian filmmaker Kim Rossi Stuart.  Not only is his central character an annoying, infantile jerk, but the film itself is simplistic in its themes and obvious in its metaphors. It's breezy enough to be watchable, but only just.

Heal the Living [Réparer les Vivants]
dir Katell Quillevere; with Tahar Rahim, Anne Dorval 16/Fr ****
Openly emotive and darkly resonant, this French drama quite literally centres on matters of the heart. It's beautifully assembled and acted on various fronts. And even if filmmaker Katell Quillevere  sometimes drifts closely toward sentimentality, the movie remains a clear-eyed portrait of a group of people facing various sides of a life or death battle.

A Woman's Life [Une Vie]
dir Stephane Brize; with Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin 16/Fr ***.
An intriguingly deconstructed life story, this 19th century adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant novel plays out over some 25 years pivoting on emotions rather than plot. This makes it intriguingly compelling, even if the loose filmmaking, cool performances and impressionistic editing keep everything somewhat aloof. But it has powerful things to say about human nature, especially how we as individuals perceive the world around us.

Upcoming films include Pablo Larrain's Jackie, Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time: Life's Journey, Andrei Konchalovsky's Paradise and Nick Hamm's The Journey.