Thursday, 18 April 2019

Critical Week: Charm the camera

It's been another week with a random collection of London press screenings. Thankfully, the winter weather has suddenly turned summery, just in time for the four-day Easter weekend. The biggest movie for me this week was the Sundance hit Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, in which Zac Efron delivers an unusually layered performance as notorious killer Ted Bundy. Thankfully the film isn't chronicling his murders or the police investigation; instead it's a clever take from a more easily identifiable perspective. Claire Denis' foray into science-fiction High Life stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche as crew members on a deep space mission. It's of course beautiful, evocative and rather challenging. And Julianne Moore plays an opera singer in the offbeat Bel Canto, based on a true story about a hostage situation in South America. It's a mix of drama and thriller, impeccably played by the cast. But it's an odd concoction.

Further afield, we had Sergei Loznitsa's pitch-black political comedy Donbass, about the Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine. It's brilliantly shot and edited, and the doc-style acting makes it both funny and harrowing. The Skin of the Teeth is a quirky drama set in New York that explores identity through a very unusual drug trip. Set in rural Argentina, the strikingly well made and darkly involving Marilyn is about a young man harshly harassed for questioning the idea of masculinity. Hagazussa is a freak-out horror from Germany, full of 15th century superstitious nastiness. And Doozy is a part-animated experimental documentary about comic icon Paul Lynde, a little too arty to offer much in the way of information, but still fascinating. And then there was this music-based movie, dropped online last weekend...

Guava Island!
dir Hiro Murai; scr Stephen Glover
with Donald Glover, Rihanna, Letitia Wright, Nonso Anozie, Betiza Bistmark Calderon, Yansel Alberto Monagas Perez, Ayensi Amilgar Jardines Delgado, Karla Talia Pino Piloto
19/US ***.

This short feature is set out as a mythological story of love and war, set around an island called Guava at the centre of the world. The opening, beautifully animated in the style of a children's book with intricate colours and textures, recounts how the Red family seized control of the silkworms, industrialising production and destroying paradise. Generations later in a poverty-stricken suburb, Kofi (Rihanna) grows up hearing this story, dreaming about a life far away. Her childhood boyfriend is musician Deni (Glover), who dreams of writing a song that will unite the island's people and remind them of what this place could be. From here the film shifts into beautifully shot live-action, with Rihanna and Glover in the roles. They bristle with wit and personality in the vibrant, sundrenched-island setting (it was filmed in Havana). While Kofi works in a garment factory with her friend Yara (Wright), Deni is planning a secret concert to feature his new songs, which have begun being played on local radio. Deni sings about how Guava is essentially America, since the only way to get rich is to make someone else richer. As a result, he's grabbed by officials and taken to the boss Red Cargo (Anozie). "How do you know what's best for everyone?" Deni asks him, as he declares the concert cancelled. As the story continues, there's a terrific mixture of music and song, including variations on Childish Gambino hits This Is America and Summertime Magic. And the drama shifts seamlessly from personal and warm to edgy and intense. The story takes several turns, sometimes a bit obvious (Kofi has just found out that she's pregnant) and sometimes darkly surprising (Red Cargo's reaction is vicious when Deni defiantly decides to go on with his performance). Where the story goes is sobering and sometimes shocking. What it says about human resilience in the face of oppression is powerful, while the pulsing fusion of music and culture adds a visceral kick. So while it feels a bit slight, it's a badly needed cry of hope in an unjust world.



After Easter weekend, we have screenings of the year's biggest blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, Lin Shaye in Room for Rent, the Scottish indie drama Beats, the Dutch drama Just Friends, and a collection of short films screening at the forthcoming Tribeca Film Festival.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Stage: Throwing shapes

Vessel
choreography Damien Jalet • scenography Kohei Nawa
music Marihiko Hara, Ryuichi Sakamoto
with Aimilios Arapoglou, Nobuyoshi Asai, Mayumi Minakawa, Ruri Mitoh, Jun Morii, Mirai Moriyama, Naoko Tozawa
Sadler's Wells, London • 16-17.Apr.19

An extraordinary display of physicality, this inventive production mixes elements of dance and installation art with bigger ideas about the nature of the human body. It may be pretentious, but it's also audaciously effective. Damien Jalet and Kohei Nawa have concocted a programme that is often astonishing in its visual impact as the dancers create seemingly impossible shapes with their bodies.

It opens and closes in inky blackness. The stage is coated with running water, which reflects the poses to create almost kaleidoscopic patterns. It's difficult to see how many dancers there are (four men and three women), their bodies entwined into larger figures that slowly unfold and move into eerily headless poses. The choreography continually obscures the dancers' heads, so they resemble strange non-human figures without an up or down. And when they get close to each other, they merge into a larger being. They also split and divide into two or three. And on a central floating island, they find a white clay that transforms their shapes further.

The staging itself is deceptively simple, relying on light, texture, water and mist to create each evolving tableau. It's all very controlled, with only occasional moments of levity, such as when playful movement suddenly matches a musical rhythm. But every moment of this show is impeccably rendered with architectural precision, even as it evokes imagery that feels alive in ways that were impossible to imagine beforehand.

Using solids and liquids, light and shadow, birth and death, Jalet and Nawa have crafted a kind of creation myth. The dancers perform with acrobatic grace, moving in slow motion as they shift between figures that are unidentifiably human. Their transformations are simply mesmerising, requiring intense strength as they wrap themselves around each other, blurring gender, ethnicity and individuality to create something that feels exhilaratingly unifying.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Critical Week: Sleep tight

It's been a relatively quiet week, screening-wise, partly because the bigger studios have decided to stop showing their larger releases to the press. For example, this week's remake of Hellboy had no press screenings at all. And we're beginning to wonder what will happen with some rather important upcoming blockbusters. Thankfully, the smaller films and mid-sized ones are still available for us write about. This week I caught up with Neil Jordan's bonkers horror thriller Greta, starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz (above). It's nutty and entertaining. I also watched Tessa Thompson and Lily James in the gritty, powerful rural drama Little Woods.

My favourite film this week was the concert doc Amazing Grace, filmed in 1972 and only just released, revealing the awesome Aretha Franklin in all her gospel-infused glory. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a riotously grisly 80s-style slasher movie about an army of killer Nazi puppets. It's both hilarious and seriously nasty. No Chocolate, No Rice is a micro-budget comedy from Washington DC, a bit clunky but full of great ideas and likeable characters. And the sparky, beautifully assembled German documentary Beauty & Decay, catches up with three punk-art stars from the early 1980s in Berlin today.

This coming week we have Zac Efron in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Julianne Moore in Bel Canto, Robert Pattinson in High Life and the offbeat animation Doozy. I've also got a couple of events, and possibly another stage performance to cover.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Screen: Spring TV Roundup

I don't feel like I watch this much TV, mainly because I always have so many things in my "to watch" list. But just catching an episode here and there between films and before bed, to reset my brain while working, clearly adds up. As always, I enjoy offbeat shows the most, and I try to avoid anything centred around murder or illness. Give me messy characters over a police procedural any day. More comedies are always welcome...

SOMETHING NEW

Les Miserables
This series is not the musical, it's a fairly standard costume drama TV adaptation of Victor Hugo's great novel. The solid cast helps keep it watchable, even if it's shot and edited in a rather pedestrian way that belittles the material by trying too hard. Still, the epic story can't help but sweep the viewer up in the outrageous injustice of it all. And the always-remarkable Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Olivia Colman, Josh O'Connor and others are terrific. Although you can't help but wonder how much better it would be if the producers had been more daring. Swapping West's and Oyelowo's roles around would have been an intriguing start.

This Time With Alan Partridge
Steve Coogan continues the adventures of his most notorious alter-ego with this riotously well-written comedy, which sees him returning from the wilderness of regional radio to BBC TV in London. Not only is Coogan still on razor-sharp form with this relentlessly awkward character, but the show is a superb pastiche of sofa television, knowingly poking fun at everything that happens both in front of and behind the cameras. It's also taking on some of big issues without even a whiff of political correctness. Alan valiantly attempts to join the Time's Up era while at the same time bulldozing it. Some of the technical gags (mainly the studio's overcomplicated tweet system) seem a little stretched out. Otherwise, it's wickedly funny.

You
There's a lot not to like about this hour-long black comedy series. The central characters are reprehensible. In the main role, Penn Badgely is a psychopath who poses as a nice-guy bookshop owner while he's using technology to stalk and seduce a cute, bland blonde (Elizabeth Lail) who clearly can't be as sweet as he thinks she is. A twist to reveal her perspective is oddly underused, but begins to make the show much more interesting. Lapses of logic abound, including the way this is another series in which people seem able to run around and do all kinds of expensive, highly skilled, nefarious things with whizzy gadgets even though they never seem to go to work.

Now Apocalypse
Gregg Araki brings his distinctive style to the small screen with this rather bonkers half-hour comedy, which follows a group of young people on an inebriated, sex-fuelled odyssey as some sort of alien conspiracy seems to be threatening the planet. Araki's witty take on youth culture is as luridly colourful as his films have always been, And the sexy young cast is thoroughly engaging, ably anchored by Avan Jogia, Beau Mirchoff and Kelli Berglund. There is a sense that Araki covered this material back in the 1990s, and that the sense of doom was perhaps more timely then, but this feels like a blast of fresh air on television: never coy about sex, never proscriptive about sexuality, honest about the struggle to find your place in the world.

Sex Education
Smart and very funny, this British series fills each hour-long episode with pithy observations about sex, which makes most of the characters squirm uncomfortably, especially Otis (Asa Butterfield), whose mother (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist.  And Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa and Kedar Williams-Stirling are also superb. The script smartly skewers attitudes toward sexuality at every turn, so even when there's a badly cliched episode (such as No 5, when everything goes wrong simply because the writers are too lazy to think up something clever or original), there's plenty of character comedy and drama to hold the interest. And where it goes is finely played right to the explosive climax. Sorry.

Putting On
This snappy and watchable documentary web series from Revry follows On Mekahel as he goes into business with his ex Mateusz Pach to create a line of underwear. The charming, overconfident On is the definition of a drama queen diva in a ridiculously over-designed apartment (complete with fluffy white dog), blaming everyone for problems he causes himself. With six episodes under 10 minutes each, the show is a brisk, intriguing look at a business start-up, including some tellingly detailed moments along the way, balancing a business split between New York and Los Angeles, checking out samples, choosing models and hiring a PR agency. Sure, you have to be a control freak to do this job, but On really needs to lighten up.

BACK FOR MORE

Fleabag: series 2
The first season was so drop-dead brilliant that it was impossible to imagine where Phoebe Waller-Bridge might take it next. But the show just gets better with each new episode, which only makes a season of six half-hour shows feel almost painfully short. Not only is the writing simply jaw-droppingly hilarious and shocking at the same time, but Waller-Bridge has added the fabulous Andrew Scott, Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw to a cast that already features Olivia Colman in one of her most memorable roles as Fleabag's smiling-monster stepmum (who finally cut loose, off-camera, this series). Everything about these characters is so messy that the show is easily the funniest thing on television. And the final episode was surprisingly moving too.

Future Man: series 2
This show is so fast-paced that binging it is almost too easy. The dialog is so sharp and silly that it keeps the audience on its toes, spinning events in continually unexpected directions. Josh Hutcherson is even better this season, helped by the fact that the entire season takes place in one time (the far distant future), while the other characters continually exasperate him. The show wildly satirises human history, most notably issues of power and political corruption. But it's so absurd and manic that it begins to get sublimely inane - a stoner sci-fi comedy romp that feels utterly ridiculous but actually has some cool subtext.

Star Trek Discovery: series 2
This season got instantly back on track, making the debut season feel like a sideroad (well, it took place in a parallel timeline). This is much more grounded in the Trek ethos, which makes each "discovery" that much stronger as the characters explore new planets while trying to solve an epic mystery. The characters and their tricky relationships also develop in intriguing directions, with some terrific additions to the cast, including Anson Mount's Pike and Ethan Peck's Spock. Viewers who watch carefully will spot some annoying plot holes here and there, but the personal drama is so compelling that it's hard to mind too much. It's also impossible to predict where this will go next, which is rare for an episodic adventure in this genre.

Friends From College: series 2
This ensemble comedy returned to further entangle the lives of these lively characters. Nothing about this show is particularly believable, especially as all of the drama feels so ingrown, but it's entertaining for what it is. This is largely thanks to the up-for-it cast, layering some bracingly unlikeable angles into their characters. Which actually makes them more sympathetic, because we can identify with them. It's refreshing to see a show that doesn't strain to make everyone a quirky type who is adorably sweet. These people all have crippling issues that push them to do terrible things to each other. But they're so hilariously hapless about it that it's hard to hate them.

One Day at a Time:
series 3
I'd never seen this, but on a recommendation I started from the beginning and binged it. This is one of the smartest, funniest sitcoms out there. A remake of a classic 1970s show, it's a fresh take on the single-mother set-up with a particularly strong cast of complex characters led by Justina Machado and national treasure Rita Moreno. It's a rare comedy that uses character-based wit to keep the audience laughing while also tackling some deeper themes with emotion but no sentimentality. And it's bracingly realistic, easy to identify with these people as they grapple with big issues using warmth and humour. Netflix sadly hasn't renewed it, so let's hope someone else picks it up.

This Is Us: series 3b
Compulsively watchable, this sludgy show manages to find new interest by continually delving into new timelines, backstories and possibilities. There are so many different story periods and strands that it's becoming worrying: can they sustain all of this fragmentation without losing the logical coherence of it all? Thankfully, the core cast is solid enough to make the show unmissable. The Michael Angarano/Griffin Dunne plot thread fit in nicely with the show's recurring themes. And seeing Randall (Sterling K Brown) go into politics will hopefully bring some cool new angles, especially for Susan Kelechi Watson's Beth, who felt like the break-out character this year.

The Good Place: series 3
This series continues to pull the rug out from under its characters and the audience in the most awesome ways imaginable, somehow managing to be stupid, smart, hilarious and emotionally resonant all at the same time. The afterlife antics continued this year with our heroes trying to prove that the rules have made it too hard to get into heaven, so they set out to change the system. The existential themes are provocative, even as the characters and situations remain sublimely ridiculous. And the cast is getting better with each episode. There seems to be no end to the inventiveness of the writers.

Schitt's Creek: series 5
After last year's sublime season, the gang returns for an even stronger year, with sharply well-written episodes that are played to perfection by actors who are relaxing into their characters. Even Chris Elliott isn't as annoying this time around, finding some unexpected layers to the idiotic Roland. Of course the main reason to watch this is the raw genius of Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, plus the impeccable timing of Dan Levy and Annie Murphy as their kids. But then all of the characters are unforgettable. And the way they react to each other and the realities of their lives is simply priceless. The show can't run forever, but we can hope. And we also hope they release Moira's Cabaret as a stand-alone special. And The Crows Have Eyes III, too.

Grace and Frankie: series 5
This is one of those rare shows that gets better with age, appropriately enough. By now, the broad premise has settled into the background, allowing the writers the space to have some fun with the characters as they adeptly weave various plot strands together. This not only makes the show funnier. but it's also much more textured and insightful. Episodes spark plenty of laughter, but with an emotional edge. All of which gives the strong cast a lot to run with. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are simply wonderful in the title roles, pushing their characters further than expected. And everyone around them is on peak form.

Shameless: series 9b
When the Gallaghers bring chaos on themselves, it's engaging; when the universe dishes out bad luck, it feels like writers are contriving to stir up trouble. The second half of this season weaves in too much scripted pain, particularly for Fiona (Emmy Rossum). But as annoying as it was to see her shattered and mean, at least there was a bigger plan, and they sent her off with real panache. Even as the younger kids grow up and get into their own issues, William H Macy's Frank remains the most unapologetically irresponsible member of the family, and Macy still nails the character perfectly. They all continue to be great, actually. As much as we'll miss Rossum, it'll be great to have Cameron Monaghan's Ian back next year.

THE END OF THE ROAD

Timeless: series 3
This show wraps up with a two-part season subtitled, ahem, "The Miracle of Christmas". The increasingly splintered narrative makes even less logical sense than before, but the show has a simplistic charm that delivers mindless entertainment as it pings around between encounters with various random historical figures and events. The settings are intriguing, with some clever touches along the way. But the convolutions of the script are frankly laughable, especially as they try to unravel the tangled mess of plot threads over the previous two seasons. That's clearly impossible, so most of the dialog sounds like gibberish. But it's good fun.

You're the Worst:
series 5
This series was always going to be difficult to maintain, as the idea of two relationship-averse people falls apart when they're planning their wedding. But the writers find ways to continue their tortured interaction in some jaggedly funny directions. And the actors somehow manage to deepen even the more cartoonish side characters in the show; all are excellent. Being the final season, there was a definitely sense this time round that they are heading somewhere, even if the whole wedding scenario just never clicks into gear. Still, the final episode has some terrific touches in the way it wraps things up.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: series 5
To wrap up the show, this half-season started rather wobbly before regaining its stride for some superbly entertaining wackiness. Frankly, the premise was stretched beyond the breaking point, as Kimmy's emergence as a capable, intelligent woman kind of undermines her continuing naivete. So the writers instead went off the rails into manic nuttiness involving the wider cast of characters, which simply wasn't as engaging, even though it was still very well-played by the ace actors (Jane Krakowski is god). A bolder approach, pushing Kimmy into some proper female-empowerment scenarios, might have given the series some legs. But at least it went out with a bang.

NOW WATCHING: Killing Eve, Twilight Zone, Veep, Victoria, True Detective, Jane the Virgin

COMING SOON: Game of Thrones, Fosse/Verdon, Good Omens, Santa Clarita Diet

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Stage: Visceral rhythm

OneTwoThreeOneTwo
choreography and dance by Albert Quesada & Zoltan Vakulya
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, London • 4-5.Apr.19

As the title suggests, this unusually intimate performance starts with rhythm. Dancers Albert Quesada (from Spain) and Zoltan Vakulya (from Hungary) set out to deconstruct the art of flamenco, separating the elements - beat, step, movement, music, touch, audience engagement. What emerges is visceral and involving, using improvisation and interaction to explore the language of an ancient dance.

Quesada and Vakulya take turns moving on their own, sometimes with no music at all, then sharing the space and playing off each other in ways that are both emotional and humorous. Vakulya holds Quesada's head as he gyrates through a series of physically demanding moves, but who is leading whom? Quesada taps the music's rhythm on Vakulya's body, and he pulls away when it begins to hurt, but then leans back in for more.

They begin each section seated in the audience, then leap onto the floor with purpose, surrounded by observers with whom they share extended looks that shape the performance. Both are dressed in neoprene variations on a bullfighter's costume: Quesada in red and black, Vakulya in white. Their bodies have been painted, so they literally rub off on each other and the floor itself. Their movements both reflect and predict the music, full-bodied fluidity that uses every corner of the stage. Some sections are almost unnervingly silent, while others are accompanied by a thunderous score.

Experiencing this performance is unusually powerful, as the stripped-down honesty and intense proximity pull each audience member right into the middle of the work. It's astonishing to feel the power of flamenco in this way. This is a dance that traces its roots back centuries and is still evolving today. Its music and movement is iconic, so the way these dancers pull it apart is revelatory.

And after the performance, Quesada and Vakulya break the barriers even further, sitting down to chat informally about the performance, how they came to work together, how the music and dance shaped their process and, most intriguingly, the impact of their different backgrounds on the project. This evening is such a pure dance experience that the audience goes away feeling privileged to have been a part of it.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Critical Week: Pesky kids

After missing them during the festival, I caught up with this week's two big releases at press screenings on Tuesday. Pet Sematary is a remake of the horror thriller adapted from Stephen King's novel. It's better than the first stab at it, as it were (I dredged up my archive review of the 1989 version and posted it together with the new one HERE.) And then there was Shazam!, easily the most enjoyable movie in recent memory from DC. It's lively and funny and has a solid plot and characters.

Seth Rogen has made unlikely romantic-comedies before, but perhaps Charlize Theron seems like a stretch too far. Well, their pointed political comedy Long Shot is a nice surprise, hilariously well written and sharply played. Judi Dench is of course great in Red Joan, as a woman accused of working with the communists back during her Cambridge University days. The film is a bit plodding and choppy, but the true story is fascinating. And from Wales, Gwen is a grim, atmospheric 19th century drama with strong horror overtones. Superb performances and skilful photography make it worth a look.

Coming up this week we have Isabelle Huppert in Neil Jordan's Greta, bonkers horror Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, medieval German thriller Hagazussa and Sergei Loznitsa's Donbass.

Stage: Love not war

Bed Peace: The Battle of Yohn and Joko
devised and directed by Rocky Rodriguez Jr
The Cockpit, London • 29.Mar-28.Apr.19

It's the 50th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's infamous bed-in for peace, held in a Montreal hotel room shortly after they got married. For two weeks, they held court as a protest against war and violence, entering into conversations that would change their minds and fuel their artistic expression for the rest of their lives. Two of Lennon's most iconic songs grew out of this event: Give Peace a Chance and Imagine.

Presented by Craft Theatre, the show has a loose, improvisational feel, performed in the round with actors seemingly making everything up as they go along, sometimes drawing the audience into the performance. The roles are very physical, involving acrobatics and re-enactments of various events, from student protests that turned violent to the press circus of the bed-in, climaxing with the recording session in the hotel room for Give Peace a Chance. The show includes quite a bit of music by Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In the central roles, Craig Edgley and Jung Sun Hollander give John and Yoko a complex sensitivity. They are giddily happy, outrageously wealthy and globally famous, so they didn't stop to think about the signals that might be sent while staging a non-violent protest in a 5-star hotel room. But even as they are hilariously wrapped up in each other, often literally, they take the time to listen to those who come to debate them, opening their minds to possibilities, seeking genuine reconciliation and working toward lasting peace.

The surrounding actors play several roles, and all are superb. Standouts are Thomas Ababio and Amelia Parillon who, as various characters, draw attention to angles of bigotry that relate to race and gender. Some of this is obvious, such as through a specific anecdote or an eloquent rant; more effective are the quietly askance moments that involve vulnerability and yearning. Joshua Macgregor and Lyna Dubarry have more difficult moments in which they capture the flip sides of the arguments, antagonising without trying to do so. And the show's producer Helen Foster is also excellent as cheeky host.

The material is sometimes a bit dense and wordy, talking intelligently around some enormous issues. But the minimalistic sets, evocative props and sharp lighting help focus the attention. These are themes that still strike a major chord half a century later, especially with today's divisive political landscape. It seems far too easy to disagree about pretty much anything, really. And actually giving peace a chance feels almost like a pipe dream. But this play makes us, yes, imagine that some small act of peaceful anarchy might keep the ball rolling.