Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Critical week: The artistic process

As Britain begins to lock down again to weaken a second wave, I had one in-cinema screening this week, and also one live (outdoor) theatre performance. Otherwise, my life continues to be online. There were two special press screenings on Netflix sponsored by the American Film Institute, with added Q&As after the films. Over the Moon (pictured) is an animated adventure with a Chinese setting, gorgeously designed and unusually imaginative. The Q&A featured director Glen Keane and actors Ken Jeong and Cathy Ang. The Boys in the Band is a remake based on the landmark 1968 play, a superbly observed black comedy set in the New York gay subculture with an excellent all-star cast, all of whom participated in an unusually raucous Q&A, including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells and Matt Bomer.

The Boys in the Band • The Glorias
Summer of 85 • Eternal Beauty
This week's other big-name movie was Julie Taymor's insightful and bracingly original biopic The Glorias, starring Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander (and two others) as Gloria Steinem at two points in her life. Sally Hawkins stars in Eternal Beauty, an offbeat drama about life trauma that's cleverly written and directed by actor Craig Roberts. And my one real press screening was for the Irish drama Herself, which features a superb central performance by cowriter Clare Dunne as a single mother pressured from all sides.

There were two funny-creepy independent black comedies: Scare Me, in which the terrific Aya Cash (see the current season of The Boys) and actor-filmmaker Josh Ruben try to terrify each other, and Say Your Prayers, in which two hapless religious siblings botch a hit on an atheist. And there were also two docs: the insightful I Am Greta offers a remarkably detailed portrait of climate activist Greta Thunberg, while The Painter and the Thief beautifully chronicles the unusual relationship between an artist and the junkie who stole her paintings.

Films this coming week include Robert De Niro in The War With Grandpa, as well as Making TracksFrom the VineThe Wanderings of Ivan and Song Lang. And virtual press screenings begin for the London Film Festival as well, so I already have several in the diary, including the opening film, Steve McQueen's Mangrove, plus Riz Ahmed in Mogul Mowgli, Evan Rachel Wood in Kajillionaire, the horror hit RelicHoneymood, Siberia and I Am Samuel.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Critical Week: Mommie dearest

I had two press screenings this past week, as well as two open-air events: a screening and a stage play. So it felt like another step in the right direction, especially as it was accompanied by great weather. But then new restrictions came in, so here we are. The biggest film of the past week was a streaming release, Enola Holmes. Millie Bobby Brown stars as the younger sleuthing sister of Sherlock and Mycroft (Henry Cavill and Sam Clafin, having a lot of fun), with Helena Bonham Carter (above with Brown) as their mum. It's a rambunctious franchise-launcher. And then there was Janelle Monae in the freak-out drama Antebellum, which has too little energy to be a classic but shows plenty of invention and passion. 

Little Girl • Monsoon

More independent films included 23 Walks, a gentle late-in-life romance with the reliable Alison Steadman and Dave Johns; Becky, a violent thriller about a plucky teen taking on a malevolent Kevin James; Miss Juneteeth, an extremely low-key mother-daughter drama with Nicole Beharie; and Shortcut, a decent thriller about five teens trapped in tunnels with a slimy monster. There were also three French films: Francois Ozon's Summer of 85 is a complex and intimate teen drama. Two of Us is a provocative, involving romance between two 70-year-old women. And Little Girl is a seriously gorgeous doc about a mother fighting for her 8-year-old's right to be herself.

Coming up this next week are virtual screenings of the all-star remake of The Boys in the Band, Julianne Moore in The Glorias, Sally Hawkins in Eternal Beauty, Aya Cash in Scare Me, Harry Melling in Say Your Prayers, Aunjanue Ellis in Miss Virginia, the Danish drama A Perfectly Normal Family and the Turkish horror-thriller The Antenna.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Stage: A comedy of reinvention

by Charles Ward
dir Emma Butler
with James Corrigan, Akshay Sharan, Nicholas Limm, Bethan Cullinane, Hadyn Gwynne, Hannah Morrish
Stephens House and Gardens, Finchley • 17-20.Sep.20

A world premiere comedy redesigned for pandemic restrictions, this production reunites four actors who were working together at the National Theatre when lockdown came into force. It's based on a brief period in 1502 when Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli were living in the court of notorious Prince Cesare Borgia. Playwright Charles Ward has come up with a wildly entertaining farce in rhyming couplets, as each of the characters uses a disguise to obscure their identity and ends up reinventing themselves in the process.

The story opens as Borgia (Corrigan) asks the little-known politician Machiavelli (Limm) to take his place as the prince, to give him a break from ruling his turbulent kingdom. Then Da Vinci (Sharan) arrives posing as a politician in an effort to escape from the pressures of being an artist. This is further complicated when Borgia decides to pretend that he's a painter. Enter neighbouring ruler Caterina Sforza (Cullinane), defying Borgia's military and stirring unexpected reactions from the wrong men: anger from Machiavelli's faux Borgia and romance from the incognito Borgia. Then Borgia's sister Lucrezia turns up, instantly knowing something is amiss even as she hides her identity by posing as a man. And finally there's the grand dame Isabella d'Este (Gwynne), a straight-talking, well-connected art collector.

Corrigan and Gwynne
Watching these people dance around each other in ever-complicated circles of misunderstanding is hilarious, especially with their witty rhyming dialog, which includes razor-sharp Fleabag-style asides to the audience. Each actor is excellent, and each has moments both big and small in which they can shine. The standout is Corrigan, whose Borgia amusingly gets into his role as a camp artist. Limm is superb as the over-thinking Machiavelli, haplessly preying on everyone he meets, while Gwynne gets the most viciously astute insults. 

Performed in the gardens at Stephens House on a small round stage circled with lights, the production is simple but very cleverly designed and directed to bring out the characters and their twisted interaction. And Ward's smart, playful script gives each of these people a moment of illumination that's properly resonant.  Aside from inspiring Machiavelli to write his iconic treatise The Prince, there's no historical record of how these real people actually interacted, only that they were all together at one particularly messy time. The way Ward weaves politics and religion into the story is notably pointed, and remarkably timely in a period when we feel just as divisive and isolated. 


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Critical Week: Take a stand

The world seems to be falling further apart by the day, with insane chaos within the governments of both the UK and the US (which has the added nightmare of an imminent election). So it's been nice to have a tiny bit of normality return with more press screenings, including the international premiere of The Eight Hundred, China's biggest blockbuster ever, which looks awesome on the Imax screen. It's a thrilling battle epic on a jaw-dropping scale. The other big movie this week was The Devil All the Time, an epic backwoods morality tale featuring formidable performances from Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson and Riley Keough.

Spiral • Rocks • I Used to Go Here 
For They Know Not What They Do

Other films this week included the collection of to-camera monologs in Coastal Elites, which is a bit preachy for its own good; David Cross on an intrepid and rather charmingly hapless true-life wilderness adventure in The Dark Divide; Ciaran Hinds traversing France in the quirky and almost silent comical road movie The Man in the Hat; and the stylish and rather nutty The Wall of Mexico, a nicely blurred satire about culture and ethnicity.

This coming week's films include Millie Bobbie Brown in Enola Holmes, Kevin James goes villainous in Becky, Alison Steadman in 23 Walks, Nicole Beharie in Miss Juneteenth, Francois Ozon's Summer of 85, the teen adventure Shortcut, the romantic drama Two of Us and two documentaries: Little Girl and The Painter and the Thief. I also have my first theatre press night - review coming soon.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Critical Week: Feeling blue

After a few big movies recently, this was a rather offbeat week at the movies for me. All but one were watched on screening links, which is also how I attended the programme launch for the 64th London Film Festival (which runs 7-18 Oct) - at which much of the festival and all press screenings will be virtual. But there's definitely a sense that the industry continues to slowly wake up.

Buoyancy • The Roads Not Taken
The Painted Bird • Lucid
Up on the Glass • The Lost Husband
Probably the biggest film I saw this week was the brain-bending horror thriller Possessor, starring Andrea Riseborough as a body-invading assassin and Christopher Abbott (pictured above with Tuppence Middleton) as a host who fights back. It's violent and downright stunning. Charlie Kaufman's new brain-bender I'm Thinking of Ending Things is also pretty stunning, with its existential surrealism expertly played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons. By contrast, the sappy romantic comedy Love Guaranteed is relentlessly cute and annoyingly likeable.

The other films I saw this past week were a random grab bag: Spiral is a queer horror movie that has a powerful thematic sting in its tail; the scruffy British indie Rocks carries a proper kick in its realistic depiction of a teen trying to solve problems on her own; the kaleidoscopic drama Residue is elusive but pointed as a filmmaker tries to go home again; the broad comedy Teenage Badass follows a young guy who joins a riotously silly, but also rather talented, band; Up on the Glass is an awkward thriller with some intriguing emotions; Buoyancy is a gorgeously well made odyssey about a young Cambodian sold into slavery on a Thai fishing trawler; The Acrobat is a darkly explicit French-Canadian drama about two men starting a tough relationship; and Ixcanul is a gorgeously well-made drama from Guatemala about an indigenous family living on a volcano.

Movies coming up in another busy week include Tom Holland in the thriller The Devil All the Time, Dan Levy in the pandemic comedy Coastal Elites, Ciaran Hinds in the comedy The Man in the Hat, David Cross in the adventure The Dark Divide, the topical comedy-drama The Wall of Mexico, the British indie Hurt by Paradise, and two actual screenings: Francois Ozon's Summer of '85 and the Chinese blockbuster The Eight Hundred.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Critical Week: Be excellent to each other

As the American political landscape gets uglier, with flagrant lies deployed to stoke fear and division, perhaps we should all be listening to Bill and Ted, who are back on the big screen with their ridiculous but deeply engaging third adventure Bill & Ted Face the Music. It was refreshing to watch something that never pretends to be anything other than optimistic and fun.

Les Miserables • Mulan
Socrates • Unknown Origins
Even better this week is Mulan, retelling the folktale from the Disney animated classic as a proper Chinese action epic. It's a powerhouse story told beautifully by director Niki Caro and star Yifei Liu, and it's such a visual feast that it really should have been released on the big screen. Hopefully Disney will see sense and put it into cinemas where it belongs.

I went to the cinema once this past week, to see a film that had no screenings or review links available: The New Mutants had its release delayed by Disney's dismantling of Fox, and it's not as awful as some critics have said. Although it's not great either, a muddled attempt at a terrific idea, combining teen angst and horror in the X-Men universe. There were also two films from Australia: I Am Woman is a likeable biopic about singer Helen Reddy that opts more for politics than depth of character, while Measure for Measure is a clever and somewhat murky adaptation of Shakespeare starring Hugo Weaving as a present-day Melbourne crime boss. Outside the mainstream, Unknown Origins is a terrific comic book movie from Spain that's smart, funny and full of action. Right Beside You is a new collection of five strong short films under the New Queer Visions label, pointed dramas about companionship. And premiering at Fantasia International Film Festival this week, Undergods is a fiendishly clever dystopian parable with a superb pan-European cast in multiple storylines.

I have one actual press screening in the diary for the coming week, the British drama Rocks. Otherwise, as the first physical film festival continues in Venice, I'll be watching online screeners of Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Andrea Riseborough in the sci-fi horror Possessor, the romantic comedy Love Guaranteed, the thriller Up on the Glass and the Thai trafficking drama Buoyancy.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Critical Week: Secret admirerer

Lockdown continues to loosen here in Britain, with more people taking advantage of the government's August half-price eating out bargain. I even took a three day trip out of London. But the big news (for me at least) was the first major studio blockbuster coming to cinemas in five months: Christopher Nolan's Tenet. I saw the film at a press screening at the BFI Imax on Monday, and then went again to a multiplex on Wednesday with a friend - my first public screening since March. The film isn't the knock-out masterpiece we were hoping for, but it's hugely entertaining and made on a gloriously ambitious scale. For the record, the picture was of course better in Imax, the sound was better in the multiplex, and the movie itself is even more fun the second time around.

The Garden Left Behind • Tenet
She Dies Alone • Away
Breaking Fast • Nomad
I also saw some films on streaming links. The moody teen drama Chemical Hearts, with Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams (above), looks great but falls apart. The One and Only Ivan is a Disney family movie with above-average effects and a surprisingly witty script. Jessica Chastain turns to action as an assassin in Ava, which is let down by a barrage of cliches. She Dies Tomorrow is a fiercely clever horror movie that plays on some very deep human fears. A Latvian filmmaker working almost on his own reveals impressive talent with Away, an evocative animated fable. And from Greece, the dark fairy tale Entwined is intriguing but somewhat uneven. I also got to attend an online reading of a new play...

Star Man
by James Cole • with Jasper William Cartwright, Harry Edwin, Kim Tatum, Neil Summervile, Jaymes Sygrove, David E Hull-Watters

A hugely emotional drama told with some properly inventive storytelling tricks, James Cole's darkly powerful play centres on Ben (Cartwright) and his step-brother Tony (Edwin), who's also his boyfriend. Ben is struggling to recover from a past trauma, and the audience follows him as he interacts with a variety of people who trigger memories in painful ways. It's a remarkably effective exploration of the reverberations of abuse on the victim as well as everyone around him. Watching this in a zoom performance makes everything feel very serious indeed, leaving us to imagine what sounds like some intricate and very clever staging (described by narrator Hull-Watters). So I'm really looking forward to seeing this in a real theatre at some point.

No press screenings in the diary this week, but I will probably buy a ticket to see the X-Men spin-off The New Mutants in a cinema this weekend. Streaming films to watch include Disney's epic remake of Mulan, Hugo Weaving in the Shakespeare riff Measure for Measure, the British fantasy Undergods, the Spanish thriller Unknown Origins and the short film collection Right Beside You.