Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Critical Week: Creation in isolation

With all film releases being online at the moment, studios are taking a few chances. Made in 2017, the JD Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye has finally come out in the UK. The delay is surprising considering that it stars Nicholas Hoult (above), even if feels a bit lacklustre. Even more surprising, Bong Joon Ho's 2013 sci-fi action thriller Snowpiercer has never been released in Britain but is finally arriving this month, no doubt due to Bong's Oscar triumph (the delay was a Weinstein debacle). It was fun to revisit this bonkers classic. And Warner Bros released its animated blockbuster Scoob! straight to streaming, which is a shame for audiences who like to see high-quality animation on a big screen. It's a rather contrived corporate product, but fun too.

BEST OUT THIS WEEK:
Boys on Film 20 • The County
Cassandro the Exotico!
ONLY OK:
Scoob! • Frankie
Rebel in the Rye
Lower profile films include the cheesy horror anthology Evil Little Things, which centres on three very creepy dolls; the apocalyptic epic Edge of Extinction is gripping, even if it reveals both the ambition and inexperience of its filmmakers; the Spanish romcom I Love You, Stupid is predictable but pointed and engaging; the hugely involving Mexican drama I'm No Longer Here has a strikingly well-observed sense of style and music; the beautifully made Icelandic drama The County expertly stirs up some righteous rage at corruption; and Peccadillo's 20th short film collection is released to celebrate the distributor's 20th anniversary. Boys on Film 20: Heaven Can Wait is an essential set of LGBT-themed shorts, even if the 11 clips are a mixed bag.

The next movies on my to-watch list are: Issa Rae in The Lovebirds, John Hawkes in End of Sentence, Denis Menochet in Only the Animals, the Argentine thriller Intuition, the Korean thriller The Man Standing Next, and the Thai documentary Krabi 2562.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Critical Week: Stay alert

I've now passed eight weeks of lockdown (the first 10 days were in California), and while watching streaming movies is keeping me busy, I'm getting increasingly bored being stuck at home, staying safe and well even as I'm increasingly suspicious of my hay fever symptoms. Like everyone, I've filled time by going out for the occasional walk, taking on some cooking challenges and binge-watching TV shows. But we're here to talk about the films, and some of these felt like work...

BEST OUT THIS WEEK:
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Socrates • Empathy, Inc.
PERHAPS AVOID:
The Wrong Missy • Redcon-1
David Spade and Lauren Lapkus (above) star in the stupid comedy The Wrong Missy, which has some amusing moments but no actual laughs. Woody Allen's likeable but uneven new comedy-drama A Rainy Day in New York stars Timothee Chalamet and Elle Fanning as a young couple who take separate odysseys leading to superficial self-discovery. Tom Hardy gives a fearsome performance in Capone, as the iconic gangster loses his mind in the last year of his life.

Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield star in the slow and rather thin, but beautifully shot romance The Photograph. Simon Bird's British comedy Days of the Bagnold Summer is wry and endearing, anchored by the superb Monica Dolan and Earl Cave, plus some starry scene-stealing cameos. And Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff lead the mopey, moody drug-addiction drama Castle in the Ground.

The powerful drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes on big issues with earthy, provocative honesty. From Italy, Fairytale is a pastiche candy-coloured comedy with a dark kick to it. And New French Shorts 2020 is a strong collection of seven mini-dramas that won acclaim at festivals over the past year.

There's another random collection of streaming movies to watch this coming week, including Nicholas Hoult in Rebel in the Rye, the animated comedy Scoob!, the apocalyptic thriller Edge of Extinction, the Spanish comedy I Love You Stupid, the Mexican drama I'm No Longer Here, the Icelandic comedy The County and the narrative doc The Painter and the Thief.

See the website for FULL REVIEWS

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Critical Week: Socially distant

The weather has warmed up again in the UK this past week, which makes staying indoors more annoying - apart from that allowed one-hour walk each day. But there are plenty of films to watch, and I've also binged some TV (loved Ryan Murphy's Hollywood and enjoyed Mindy Kaling's Never Have I Ever). As for the movies, it was another uneven batch.

BEST OUT THIS WEEK:
The Half of It • Spaceship Earth
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find
PERHAPS AVOID:
Cry for the Bad Man
Can You Keep a Secret?
Bigger films included Arkansas, Clark Duke's directing debut. He stars with Liam Hemsworth (above) in a thin but entertaining drug thriller infused with Coen-like comedy. Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer deserve to become stars for their work in The Half of It, one of the finest teen comedy-dramas in recent memory. It upends, and betters, all of the usual tropes of the genre. On the other hand, All Day and a Night gets stuck in its grim, tough portrayal of of a teen (the superb Ashton Sanders) caught in a cycle of drug-fuelled violence.

Some other decent films included the low-key drama Working Man, weaving a witty, involving story following the closing of a small-town factory; and Spaceship Earth is a fascinating doc about biospherians trying to help the planet, but caught up in rumours that they're in a doomsday cult. Guilty pleasures included the bonkers horror movie Reborn, which carefully recreates a 1970s vibe; and Enemy Lines is a standard WWII rescue adventure, but it's nicely shot on location with a solid cast. Less successful were the atmospheric but vacuous fairy tale horror Gretel & Hansel, the intimate but unsatisfying drama Clementine, and the hammy but over-serious home-invasion thriller Cry for the Bad Man.

I have quite a few things to watch over the next week, including Timothee Chalamet in A Rainy Day in New York, David Spade in The Wrong Missy, Kumail Nanjiani in The Photograph, Tamsin Grieg in Days of the Bagnold Summer, Imogen Poots in Castle in the Ground, festival hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always, coming-of-age drama Angelfish, horror anthology Evil Little Things, sci-fi thriller Red Rover, and Italian comedy-drama Fairytale.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Critical Week: Peering outsite

As cabin fever sets in with lockdown well into its second month, the longing for human contact is getting intense. But so is a sense of fear about returning to a crowded place like a cinema or pub. At least the weather has turned cold and wet in Britain, which makes going outside not nearly as tempting as it was last week. Meanwhile, watching all of these streaming movies is beginning to weigh me down - especially when even the arthouse films are so mediocre. There were two good ones this week, but the rest left me feeling rather meh. By contrast, TV series are offering a lot more variety and quality at the moment. But here are the movies...

BEST OUT THIS WEEK: 
Bad Education • The Assistant
The Roads Not Taken
PERHAPS AVOID:
Endings, Beginnings
Dangerous Lies
Sally Potter's The Roads Not Taken is a very clever film, although its relentlessly slow, introspective style will put off some audiences. The talent-heavy cast is on peak form, including Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek (above with Bardem) and Laura Linney. Julia Garner continues to build on her promise as an actress with the title role in The Assistant, a subtly insightful look at workplace toxicity. Alexandra Daddario and Tyler Hoechlin and a team of shameless scene-stealers make Can You Keep a Secret just about watchable, even though it's a very lazy romcom. Camila Mendes and Jessie T Usher lead the rather obvious thriller Dangerous Lies, which never even tries to grapple with the moral questions it raises.

A spin on the vampire genre, The Shed uses its sunny, rural setting brilliantly, combined with elements from teen movies and family dramas. A spin on the zombie genre, Blood Quantum adds intriguing elements from Canada's indigenous culture to the usual grisliness. The road comedy Vanilla has a nicely loose, improvisational tone to it, but remains a bit silly. And from Israel, 15 Years is an ambitious, alienating drama about a man who sabotages his 15-year romance as well as his closest friendship.

And I have another offbeat collection of things to watch this coming week: Liam Hemsworth in Arkansas, the horror riff Gretel & Hansel, World War II action Enemy Lines,  extortion thriller Cry for the Bad Man, working class drama Working Man, darkly romantic Clementine, evil teen horror Reborn and the documentary Spaceship Earth.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Critical Week: Locked in

Having passed the one month mark of being in isolation here in London (plus 10 days in California before that), the days are beginning to blur together. I wanted to cook some food to liven things up, but the shops are still missing some basics - for example, not one of the many grocery stores around me has any flour in stock. I badly need to add some variety to my culinary routine, and am enjoying being creative. Otherwise, the days are a blur of watching movies, writing about them, watching TV shows, then more movies.

BEST OUT THIS WEEK:
Moffie • Circus of Books
PERHAPS AVOID:
Radioactive • Crisis Hotline
We Summon the Darkness
The week's biggest film for me was The Willoughbys, an energetic animated adventure comedy about a quirky group of siblings trying to make up for deadbeat parents. It's colourful, very funny and packed with nice little emotional moments. Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan and Sebastian Stan are terrific in the romantic melodrama Endings, Beginnings, which never quite builds a head of steam as a woman mopes through her indecision about which man is right for her (neither is). Wagner Moura is excellent in the biopic Sergio, tracing the life of an important UN figure with real insight and some skilful filmmaking. And Alexandra Daddario leads the grisly horror romp We Summon the Darkness, which has some fun 1980s nods but little to make it memorable.

For more adventurous viewers, these are streaming: Cuck is well-made, involving and deliberately provocative pitch-black drama about a guy whose right-wing views push him over the edge; Ghost is gorgeously shot on an iPhone to add a thoughtful angle to the usual British crime drama; Crisis Hotline is an uneven but thoughtful dramatic thriller about a helpline caller threatening murder; from Russia, Why Don't You Just Die is a funny-but-pointless wildly violent black comedy about a group of people trying to kill each other for a variety of reasons; and the excellent documentary Circus of Books tells the fascinating, involving story of a traditional Jewish family that ran an unlikely gay porn business.

Films on my list to watch this coming week in lockdown include Sally Potter's The Roads Not Taken with Elle Fanning and Javier Bardem, Jeffrey Wright in All Day and a Night, Jamie Chung in Dangerous Lies, the rodeo drama Bull, the road comedy-drama Vanilla, the horror thriller The Shed and the Israeli drama 15 Years.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Screen: Spring TV Roundup

During lockdown, it seems that television is my only break from the movies - theatre, museums, just walking through the city are out! And with all the movies streaming online, the only thing different about watching TV is that it doesn't feel like work. We said goodbye to a few favourite shows recently, even as we are making quite a few new discoveries. And with streaming services multiplying, it's not easy to keep up. But I'll do what I can...

WAVE GOODBYE

Schitt's Creek: series 6
This Canadian comedy seems to have snuck up on the world. While the first two seasons were a little uneven, I've stuck with it simply because comic geniuses Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy are on peak form. Meanwhile, Dan Levy, Annie Murphy and the surrounding cast have turned potentially cartoonish roles into their own loveable icons. Each year the show got better - deeper, funnier, more resonant - and it's a rare series that has gone out at its very best. It's also unlikely that we'll see another show that so adeptly mixes absurd humour with sophisticated comedy while continually surprising us with earthy emotion. It's already missed.

The Good Place: series 4
Funny and fiendishly smart, this inventive comedy left us wanting more even as it wrapped up its four-year, 50-episode run in a beautifully imagined series finale that will likely make this show a cult classic. The frankly awesome cast (Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto and especially D'Arcy Corden) deserves to be haunted by these roles for the rest of their lives. Each episode is bracingly intelligent even as it retains its riotously silly approach, and the series ended in a way that was hilarious, full of emotion and bursting with profound insight into the meaning of existence. Indeed, shows rarely go out on such a delirious high. Heaven indeed.

Future Man: series 3
Continuing at its breakneck pace, this insane sci-fi comedy thriller just keeps throwing Josh Hutcherson's hapless Futterman from one high-energy crisis to the next, barely pausing to catch a breath amid a constant barrage of outrageous verbal and visual humour. Along the way, Hutcherson has developed a terrific sense of camaraderie with costars Eliza Coupe and Derek Wilson without ignoring their distinctive character flaws. From a trio of bickering idiots, they've become an endearing bickering family. This final season features a lot more shameless galloping through timelines than before, which gives the show a deranged Quantum Leap sensibility. Thankfully, it's as profane as ever. And the finale is brilliant (shout-out to composer Halli Cauthery).

Modern Family: series 11
It's been a long run for this family, and some of the later seasons have been a little uneven. But there are moments of classic comedy in every episode, and perhaps the most notable thing about the show is how the expanding cast has aged so well, especially the children who grew up on-screen to skilfully steal scenes from the adults. Having the same writers since day one has helped, making serious themes accessible through silly character-based humour. This final season gave each actor a lot to play with, plotting journeys for each character as they head off into various carefully crafted directions. They may have ended up scattered all over, but I wouldn't bet against a reunion.

SAY HELLO

Tiger King
It took me awhile to get round to watching this, and when I did I instantly understood why the buzz was so strong. For a documentarian, these big cat obsessives were a gift, providing constantly shifting stories and an excess of personality, crazy hair and multiple spouses. Each of these nasty people has his or her own brand of insanity. Some are stubbornly likeable (Joe Exotic) while others are inexplicably despicable from the get-go (Carole Baskin). That the audience feels so strongly about them is part of what makes this such compelling television. And the way each episode deepens the craziness as well as the mystery makes it almost impossible not to binge. Brilliantly shot and edited into a must-see.

Star Trek: Picard
There's a freshness to this show that breathes life into an entire franchise (see also The Mandalorian), simply because it never takes itself too seriously. Patrick Stewart is terrific revisiting his iconic character, pulled out of retirement for a rogue mission with a ragtag team of people in need of redemption. The evolving plot is fascinating, especially as it so stubbornly refuses to go in the direction we (or indeed Picard) expect it to, spiralling off into new directions, crossing paths with favourite characters from the past, and remaining beautifully grounded in the people rather than the settings or ideas. That said, the ideas are big ones, echoing current events in subtly clever ways.

Devs
Alex Garland carries on his existential tone with this series about a tech company that's exploring the very nature of reality to predict the past and future. Or something like that. The central idea is very fuzzy, but the way the show spirals out its narrative is clever and involving, with strong characters that provide big emotional kicks along the way. Nick Offerman has a wonderfully woolly presence as the company founder whose oddly overwrought obsession with his daughter's death drives the premise. Alison Pill gives another coolly intense, vulnerable performance (see also Picard). But the show's heart is the awkward connection between Sonoya Mizuno's central character Lily and her ex-boyfriend Jamie, sublimely underplayed by Jin Ha.

Unorthodox
Based on a true story, this four-part series is insightfully made, getting into the head of teenage bride Esty (Shira Haas) as she escapes from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York. It's easy to understand why she might sneak away and run to Berlin. The sideplot in which her husband (Amit Rahav) and his rather shady cousin (Jeff Wilbusch) come after her feels a bit dramatic, but it's delicately underplayed. Much more gripping is Esty's own journey of self-discovery, not just of this big, strange world but also of her place in it, and who she actually is aside from the locked-down version of herself she was always told to show.

Quiz
The true story of the "coughing major", this three-part series makes the most of its fragmented structure, spiralling around to assemble the story from two primary perspectives. Most impressive is that it never actually takes sides, presenting the known facts and letting the audience grapple with the implications. Performances are simply awesome from Matthew Macfadyen, Michael Sheen and Sian Clifford. And it's finely directed by Stephen Frears to dig far beneath the headlines and the period (including the fact that the notorious Who Wants to Be a Millionaire episode was taped the day before 9/11). It may not be the final word on the ongoing legal case, but it's thoughtful and provocative.

The Outsider
Murder mysteries aren't usually my thing, but this one stars the unmissable Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo. It's also based on a Stephen King novel, so it's packed with flawed characters in a story that continually takes unexpected, horrifically incomprehensible turns. The snaky plot offers a clever slant on the monster-predator premise, which keeps it riveting even when the writing, direction and editing become a bit indulgent, deliberately making things far more confusing than they need to be. Thankfully the ace cast members create complex characters we can really root for, even amid some dark personal issues.

I Am Not Okay With This
There's a refreshingly snarky edge to this brisk comedy about a teen trying to work out a sense of who she is and how she's connected to the people around her. Sydney (Sophia Lillis) loves her best pal (Sofia Bryant) but instead finds herself in a relationship with a cute-dork neighbour (Wyatt Oleff). She's also discovering that she has some rather outrageous super powers. And she's afraid to tell anyone about any of this. The way the story develops has a wonderfully off-the-cuff sensibility, remaining carefully within the perspective of these messy teens, while referencing classics from The Breakfast Club to (ahem!) Carrie. Where it goes bodes well for a second season.

COME BACK

Ozark: series 2
Diving immediately into this family's intense life in southern Missouri, this show gets scarier with each episode. The key shift this season is the way Marty and Wendy (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, better than ever) take their separate agendas to a whole new level, ultimately ending up in battle with each other even as they're pinched by both a nosey Fed and an escalating drug cartel war. It's beautifully written and played with complexity and intrigue. And the fabulous Julia Garner and Janet McTeer get to root around in their characters too. There's a tendency to over-egg the knotted plotlines, but don't worry: just relish how these people deal with the double-dealing.

The New Pope: series 2
Paolo Sorrentino continues the photogenic, surreal journey of Pope Pius XIII (played with wry glee by Jude Law), which began with 2016's The Young Pope. Having received a heart transplant from a Muslim, Pius lies in a coma, so after a riotous false start the Vatican cardinals appoint a new Pope (John Malkovich, no less). And just as he gets into his stride, Pius wakes up. The witty scripts swirl around issues of power and faith in wickedly clever ways, and the cast is excellent across the board. With flat-out spectacular imagery, Sorrentino has a terrific skill for bringing modern touches into this fusty world, playfully pointing out the difference between what the church is and what it should be. 

Sex Education: series 2
Carrying on from the moment it left off, this show might have improved by becoming even more unapologetic about its title topic. Instead, the usual TV prudeness seems to be creeping in, as the scripts feel oddly embarrassed about sex and sexuality while still being rather pleased with themselves for having the nerve to touch on hot potato ideas. Thankfully, the cast is still superb enough to bring the interaction to vivid life, with Asa Butterfield offering even more layers to Otis, and Gillian Anderson continually surprising us with Jean's droll straight-talking. The side characters are nicely developed much deeper as well, so let's hope the writers have the nerve to push them further.

The Trip to Greece: series 4
After Britain, Italy and Spain, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (with director Michael Winterbottom) find another sun-drenched corner of southern Europe to visit. This time the show has echoes of Ancient Greek history, myths and philosophy woven in among the improvisational goofiness, as the duo visits insanely delectable restaurants, picturesque locations and historical sites. The odd black-and-white mythological flashback feels a little out of place, as does some generally murky meta-plotting. This is echoed in how Coogan seems unusually downbeat all the way through this series, which adds a hint of moody darkness to his banter with Brydon.

Grace and Frankie: series 6
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin continue to find comedy gold as this sometimes daft show taps into properly meaningful issues without ever getting too serious. The chemistry between Fonda and Tomlin (and Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) is a joy to watch, whether they're giggling or crying together, and everyone in the surrounding cast has also deepened their roles beyond initial stereotypes. Some of the plotting feels badly contrived, perhaps overreaching for such a cheerful little show. But the ideas, humour and emotion are consistently engaging, adding thoughtful topicality and emotional resonance to the laughter. Alas, next season is set to be the final one.

CATCH UP

Unbelievable
Simply stunning, this devastatingly powerful drama traces the case of a serial rapist through the eyes of two detectives (the towering duo of Merritt Wever and Toni Collette) and one extremely complex victim (a bravely nuanced Kaitlyn Dever). Based on true events, the show unfolds with bracing authenticity, taking an angle rarely explored in a crime series: namely, a purely female perspective that is nuanced through the eyes of various characters. And there isn't a moment that exploits or sensationalises the crime. So not only is this finely written and directed, engaging and intensely emotional, but it's also deeply, powerfully important.

The Kominsky Method: series 1-2
I watched the entire first series on a flight from London to Los Angeles, wondering why I'd never seen it before. Then when I got home, I binged the second season. Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin are on peak form as an ageing actor and his agent struggling to keep up with life in Hollywood, generally making their own problems worse in the process. The writing is often laugh-out-loud hilarious, with some properly astute touches, and the guest stars are a lot of fun too. Each episode is a joy to watch as it spirals around the edges of standard sitcom territory, adding smart observations into each scene. 

Castle Rock: series 2
With a plot that's only tangentially connected to the first season, this series ramps things up quite a bit. The dense storyline is much more action-packed and also rather less internally engaging. But the enjoyably mashed-up echoes of Stephen King's novels are still very clever, with the best connections being the subtlest ones. And the cast is excellent, anchored by Tim Robbins, Lizzy Caplan, Barkhad Abdi and Elise Fisher. So it's perhaps forgivable that the writing has a tendency to slip into simplistic hyper-violence rather than grappling with the intriguing themes that are gurgling loudly under the surface. 

GIVE UP

Avenue 5: A rare misfire from Armando Iannucci, this space-set comedy seems to continually miss the point of its own premise. Characters are enjoyably annoying, but all of them are loathesome. Even the gifted Hugh Laurie and Josh Gad can't make much of these idiots. Maybe it gets better, as it's been renewed for a second season. But no.

Kidding: Sorry, I recognise the genius of how this show is put together, and Jim Carrey's performance is seriously great (as are those from Catherine Keener, Judy Greer, Frank Langella). But the relentless sadness of the show just wore me out, and I simply couldn't get back into it when I started watching the second season.

NOW WATCHING: Little Fires Everywhere, Tales From the Loop, Outer Banks, Feel Good, Run, Dave, Homeland (8), One Day at a Time (4), Insecure (4), Killing Eve (3), What We Do in the Shadows (2).

COMING SOON: Hollywood, The Eddy, Space Force, Fargo (4), Star Trek Discovery (3), Dead to Me (2).

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Critical Week: Bust a move

With the warm, sunny weather this past week, it wasn't easy to concentrate on movies, so I spent a bit of time each day outside getting some exercise. And at home I spent more time catching up on TV series (including, after pointlessly resisting it, all of Tiger King). Otherwise, my lockdown routine has been pretty much the same as ever: watch a movie, eat something, watch a TV show, eat something, watch another movie, and so forth. And today they announced at least another three weeks of this.

There were a handful of big movies this week. The Dave Bautista comedy My Spy (above) is a surprisingly engaging action romp, although the comedy is a lot more fun than the thriller side of things. Chris Hemsworth goes all manly in Extraction, a gritty kidnap-rescue action movie that's riveting and violent. And Sam Claflin is at the centre of the farcical goings on in Love Wedding Repeat, a silly and charming romantic comedy with a magical cheat in the plot.

BEST OUT THIS WEEK:
Ema •  Martin Eden
A White, White Day
PERHAPS AVOID:
Abominable • Butt Boy
Behind You
The best I saw this week was the indie comedy Faith Based, which premiered at Santa Barbara Film Festival in February before seeing all of its other festival slots vanish. It's a knowing, affectionate look at both moviemaking and America's religious film industry. Great characters, a funny script and some fabulous cameos too (FULL REVIEW). Two other independent films were a little less impressive: Getaway is an inventive inversion on the woman in danger horror movie, as three women turn the tables on some murderous rednecks; and Abominable is a yeti horror movie with only about half a script and no funds for sets or actual actors - so bad it's rather funny.

Finally, I caught up with 17 short films spread across three collections, released by New Queer Visions between November and February: The Danish Boys, The Latin Boys and The Israeli Boys. All of them are serious short dramas exploring issues of identity and culture relating to the gay male experience. Refreshingly, while the films are a bit of a mixed bag, there isn't a dud in the bunch. And a few of them are mini-masterpieces (REVIEWS).

Coming up over the next week are the action comedy Why Don't You Just Die, the controversial dark drama Cuck, the indie crime thriller Ghost and horror movies 1BR and We Summon the Darkness, plus three more Netflix movies: Wagner Moura in Sergio, the animated comedy The Willoughbys and the documentary Circus of Books.