Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Critical week: Take the cake

Blockbuster screenings this week included the animated comedy-adventure The Secret Life of Pets, from the team behind Despicable Me. It's a lively, funny romp that isn't quite as original as it could have been. The 20-years-later sequel Independence Day: Resurgence provides plenty of big-scale entertainment. But it can't quite live up to memories of the first film, because of its rushed story and a lack of snappy wit. And the action-bromance Central Intelligence gives Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart roles that are enjoyably against type, including plenty of hilarious dialog.

Out of the mainstream, Key and Peele's action comedy Keanu is likeably engaging when it's witty and a bit harder to take when it's violent, but the eponymous kitten makes it irresistible. And the clever British doc Notes on Blindness uses professor John Hull's recordings, lip-synched by actors, to explore his adaptation to a life without sight. It's beautifully assembled, but somewhat gloomy.

With screenings slow at the moment, I had time for a variety of cultural activities outside the cinema. Pietro Mascagni's opera Iris (pictured right) was staged at Holland Park's open-air theatre on an enjoyably large scale. The story is rather simple, and the sets and costumes are head-scratchingly anachronistic, but the music is lovely and the cast is excellent. I also attended the Sicily exhibition at British Museum, a fascinating look at European history from the perspective of an island that has been pivotal from the ancient Greeks to the Roman Empire. And then there is The Bunyadi, an all-natural pop-up restaurant serving a tasting menu cooked without electricity - in earthen bowls on hand-hewn tables to diners who are only allowed to wear bathrobes and nothing else (crucially, no phones) - and wearing the robes is optional within the bamboo-screened booths. The food is fresh, delicious and inventive, and the service is engaging, but the price is very steep.

This coming week there are screenings of two sequels, the animated adventure Finding Dory and the magical thriller Now You See Me 2, plus Thomas Vinterberg's acclaimed drama The Commune and a post-release screening of the award-winning immigration doc Fire at Sea at the East End Film Festival. And for non-film offerings, I've got two plays, a circus cabaret and a day at Wimbledon. Plus a variety of parties to celebrate/commiserate the result of Britain's in/out EU referendum on Thursday. Reports to come...

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Critical Week: The right stuff

I caught up this week with HBO's movie All the Way, recounting how, in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr (Bryan Cranston and Anthony Mackie, above) begrudgingly cooperated to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, standing up to opposition because it was the right thing to do. Reteaming Cranston with Trumbo director Jay Roach, the film has a bristling sense of humour that brings the situation to life. And the performances are full of punchy emotional undercurrents, from Cranston and Mackie to ace supporting players like Bradley Whitford, Melissa Leo, Frank Langella, Stephen Root, Ray Wise and Joe Morton. While the plot and themes are important and strongly relevant, the film feels oddly muted in tone, contained within rooms rather than encompassing the bigger picture. This is perhaps due to the script's stage origins, so thankfully it doesn't water down the story's powerful kick.

My only proper screening this past week was The Conjuring 2, the London-set sequel featuring real-life ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Like the 2013 original, the film is genuinely terrifying, even though director James Wan can't resist using every cliche available. I also caught three films in the upcoming East End Film Festival: Desire Will Set You Free is a freeform drama with documentary elements set in Berlin's sexually ambiguous club scene; Uncle Howard is a moving documentary about filmmaker Howard Brookner (Burroughs) by his nephew Aaron; and Transit Havana is a beautifully shot doc following transgendered men and women as they navigate Cuba's health care system. I'll have more on these and others when the festival kicks off on 23rd June.

Screenings this coming week include Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in Central Intelligence, the animated adventure The Secret Life of Pets, the cat-kidnapping comedy Keanu and the acclaimed doc Notes on Blindness. I've also got several more EEFF movies to watch.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Critical Week: Of skirts and men

I caught up with the ancient-mythology epic Gods of Egypt this week (that's Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites above being tormented by a god-sized Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. There's definitely a lot of camp value there, and much of the snarky attitude is intentional. It's definitely smarter that most blockbusters, even if it is swamped by excessive effects work (hint: it's better on a small screen without 3D).

Aside from the Sundance Film Festival London, I had only three other movies this week, and it was a mixed bag: Elvis & Nixon recounts an absurd true story as a vehicle for Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey to chomp merrily on the scenery. There isn't much more to the movie that that, but it might be enough. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a rather darker true story from 1971, with eerie resonance in more recent headline news. It's a very well-made film, sober and pointed, with a terrific cast. And Outings consists of the first three episodes of a proposed British TV series that's unlikely to be commissioned. Basically an amusing but never funny gay variation on Sex and the City, the stories are good and the cast is fresh, but it's just too amateurish to appeal to broader audiences.

As usual this time of year, screenings are rather few and far between. The only one in the diary for the coming week is the London-set sequel The Conjuring 2. Other films might be forthcoming (and I have a few in the diary for the following week), but I'm looking forward to a bit of time to do other things for a change.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Sundance returns to London

After taking a break for a year, Sundance returns to London for 2016, this time in a much more accessible venue at the gorgeous Picturehouse Central in Piccadilly. Over the weekend, the 4th Sundance Film Festival: London is bringing 11 premiere features and a number of shorts, plus lots of events for aspiring filmmakers. It all kicked off tonight with Sian Heder's Tallulah (on-set pic above). Here are comments on the nine features I've seen...

dir Sian Heder; with Ellen Page, Allison Janney 16/US ****.
Skilfully written and directed by Sian Heder, this astute drama explores issues of parenthood from a variety of unexpected angles. The story is complex and gripping, and the characters are deeply engaging as they struggle to make the right decisions in tricky situations. Thankfully, Heder never resorts to glib answers, which makes the film both involving and powerfully moving.

dir Andrew Neel; with Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas 16/US ***.
Based on real events, this grim exploration of frat-house culture would be difficult to watch if it weren't for the strikingly realistic characters at the centre. Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas deliver involving performances as brothers with complex reactions to the unbridled masculinity they find themselves in the middle of. And they both provide a strong emotional kick.

dir Todd Solondz; with Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn 16/US ****
Arthouse veteran Todd Solondz continues to slice through the artificiality of human interaction with a series of vignettes that centre around an adorable dachshund. The connections between the episodes kind of fall apart as the film continues, but the characters and relationships are startling all the way through. As are the film's observations about the nature of intelligence.

The Intervention
dir Clea DuVall; with Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders 16/US ***
An engagingly twisted story and especially strong acting bring this ensemble comedy-drama to life, sparking a continual sense of uncomfortable recognition for the viewer. So even if the themes never seem particularly complex, and the gyrations of the plot never terribly revelatory, the film is thoroughly entertaining as it explores some nagging truths about relationships.

Other People
dir Chris Kelly; with Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon 16/US ****
Themes of mortality and repression make this drama rather heavy-going, but there's a freshness to the ensemble cast that injects jagged humour into every scene. And filmmaker Chris Kelly keeps the tone awkward, which gives the film an improvised atmosphere to help avoid any obvious sermonising.

dir James Schamus; with Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon 16/US ***.
Based on the Philip Roth novel, this tightly controlled film is an intriguing directing debut for writer-producer James Schamus. It certainly doesn't mirror the more free-spirited earthiness of his usual collaborator Ang Lee; this is a blackly pointed drama with intense characters whose actions carry punchy consequences. Which is the story's central theme.

The Greasy Strangler
dir Jim Hosking; with Michael St Michaels, Sky Elobar 16/US *.
With its relentlessly crude filmmaking, this gonzo horror-comedy feels like Beavis and Butt-Head tried to make a mash-up homage to John Waters and David Lynch. Except that the movie is never remotely funny or scary. And director James Hosking spends too much time wallowing in grotesque nudity and repeated catch-phrases to give the premise any kick.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story
dir Jeff Feuerzeig; with Laura Albert, Savannah Knoop 16/US ****
Inventively assembled to tell a story with humour and insight, this film documents the astonishing conundrum of hotshot author JT LeRoy, who turned out not to be a real person after his novel and stories had been published and adapted for film to great acclaim. Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig digs deep to tell the full story from the perspective of the woman at the centre of it all.

dir Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg; with Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin 16/US ***.
This is a fascinating documentary about a politician who desperately wants to get past a scandal of his own making. And since we're talking about Anthony Weiner, directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have a seemingly endless supply of wickedly entertaining jokes to work with. Even as the filmmakers remain in fly-on-the-wall mode, the film snaps with energy and wit... FULL REVIEW >

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Critical Week: In a haze

It's a film festival week in London, which means a glut of screenings even if the festival in question is only four days long. It's the 4th Sundance Film Festival: London this weekend at Picturehouse Central, and I am seeing nine of the 11 features in the programme. So far, I've caught Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas in the hazing drama Goat (above), Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in Other People, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Burstyn in Wiener-Dog, plus the documentaries Author: The JT LeRoy Story and Weiner. More to come, with comments about these films later in the week.

As for normal press screenings, we had a special screening of the weepy romance Me Before You, presented by Emilia Clarke herself, with tissues on every seat. Brady Corbet's Venice-winner The Childhood of a Leader is a complex, difficult and fiercely original exploration of the personality of power. The Ghoul is a beautifully made indie British dark thriller. And the Oscar-nominated Colombian odyssey Embrace of the Serpent is staggeringly beautiful and deeply moving.

Sundance films still to come include Ellen Page in Tallulah, Logan Lerman in Indignation, Clea DuVall's The Intervention and the horror-comedy The Greasy Strangler. And I'll also catch up with Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in Elvis & Nixon and some home screenings I've been putting off.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Requisite Blog Photo: Love and tears

In a photobooth before the Me Before You screening, they asked me to make four faces (there was a box of props), so I tried to predict how I would look while watching the movie. That was almost right. I didn't cry, but there was sobbing across the cinema.