Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Critical Week: Women on top

Two big films screened to London press this week have strong female voices. Lily Tomlin stars in Grandma, as a sparky 70-year-old on a mission with her granddaughter (Julia Garner). It's a funny, involving film with unexpected depth. Much more overtly political, Suffragette explores the real events a century ago when women demanded that they should no longer be treated like slaves, beginning with the right to vote. It features a blistering performance by Carey Mulligan, plus strong support from Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Natalie Press and, in a cameo, Meryl Streep.

Women are also at the centre of the scruffy comedy Addicted to Fresno, starring Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne as sisters who get involved in a silly caper. A Haunting in Cawdor is a moody horror thriller centres on a young woman (Shelby Young) in a summer work-release theatre camp. And the messy British comedy Convenience stars Vicky McClure as a savvy mini-mart clerk dealing with two idiotic robbers.

Both Grandma and Suffragette are screening in the London Film Festival, for which we also had press screenings including: Clemence Poesy and David Morrissey in The Ones Below, Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Mads Mikkelsen in Men & Chicken, Deepa Mehta's Beeba Boys, Marco Bellocchio's Blood of My Blood and the British addiction doc Chemsex. More comments on these as the festival gets underway.

Coming up this week we have Ryan Reynolds in Mississippi Grind controversial filmmaker Gaspar Noe's Love, the doc Listen to Me Marlon and the British animated romp The Big Knights. London Film Festival screenings include Truman, The Invitation and James White.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Shadows on the Screen: Autumn TV roundup

Summer is a great time to binge-watch television series, offering a nice escape from film critic work: I don't have to pay close attention to plot gyrations or characters names, or assign a star rating. And I can watch what I want, so I tend to avoid violence-based series for more character-centred ones. Best of all is the ability to squeeze in a half-hour comedy between writing reviews and watching a movie for work. Here's how I cleared my head over the summer...


Beautifully shot and edited, with a powerful emotional kick, the Wachowskis' ambitious 12-part drama weaves together eight plots involving people around the world who have a sentient connection with each other. It was all rather elusive, only barely explaining what was going on as the eight storylines plus an overall Heroes-like supervillain plot inched along at an infuriatingly slow pace. More interaction between the characters might have made it even more engaging, as each central figure was strikingly well played by actors we'd like to see a lot more of on either the big or small screen. Particularly, Miguel Angel Silvestre shines in the most complex, interesting role; Max Riemelt reveals a remarkably magnetic screen presence; and Tuppence Middleton was terrific in a devastating role. But it would be nice if the plot increases its pace in the second series.

Wayward Pines
This 10-episode series starts out like Twin Peaks, then veers sharply into Lost territory before becoming a more schlocky sci-fi thriller. It's a lot of fun, thanks to first-rate production design and committed performances by Matt Dillon, Melissa Leo, Carla Gugino, Shannyn Sossaman, Hope Davis and especially Toby Jones, seriously unnerving as an obsessive visionary. It's shot and edited very cleverly, maintaining some serious tension even when the story goes completely off the rails. Frankly, as the gunplay increases the show gets less and less enjoyable, so by the end the violence begins to eclipse the more intriguing drama that went before. But the cast makes it gripping.

The Flash
Since Arrow is one of my guilty pleasures, I thought I should catch up with the spin-off series over the summer. It's certainly a lot of breezy fun, lighter and faster-paced than Arrow, but with the same combination of over-complicated characters, contrived plotting and simplified action sequences. Grant Gustin makes a likeable lead, especially in his scenes with the wonderful Jesse L Martin. And the surrounding cast members really grow on us, something we notice when their lives are threatened. Yes, as with Arrow, the series regulars aren't remotely safe. Clearly these producers have a tendency to turn things very dark indeed, but they also work at keeping this show enjoyably buoyant between the big emotional bits.

Yet another TV series with a nutty fantastical gimmick, this show demonstrates the usual screenwriting that pretends to be smart but is actually simplistic and rather silly. It's also a lot of fun to watch, as it throws a handful of likeable characters into a series of mysteries, all centring on the idea that someone can be "stitched" into the fading memories of someone who has recently died. The crime-solving aspects of the show are fun, while the overarching story begins to bog down in coincidences and complications that are clearly designed to drag things on from season to season. The cast is sharp and young and energetic, all ludicrously thin and fit for top scientist nerds. But their relationships are worth rooting for, and these 10 episodes end on a huge cliffhanger guaranteed to bring viewers back for series 2.


Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
This riotously gimmicky comedy reassembles the starry cast of the 2001 cult hit movie, including Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, Janeane Garofalo, Ken Marino, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Christopher Meloni, et al. Plus Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Kristen Wiig, Chris Pine, Michael Cera, Jason Schwartzman and more. The joke here is that they're all playing the same characters - teen summer camp counsellors - on the first day of camp (as opposed to the film, which is set on the last day). And the casting turns out to be an inspired touch, since the pre-teen campers see these 17-year-old leaders as grown-ups, even though they're anything but. Like the movie, the series is packed with random plot threads, throwing jokes and references at the screen constantly in the hopes that some of them stick. And yes, it's hilarious.

The Brink
A terrific cast and some very sharp writing give this political black comedy an entertaining edge, as it focusses on Jack Black's idiotic diplomat causing chaos in Pakistan, exacerbated by two downed pilots (Pablo Schreiber and Eric Ladin) who are captured by a pair of freaky black market antiques dealers (the hilarious Rob Brydon and Michelle Gomez). Meanwhile, Tim Robbins' Secretary of State freewheels through his job, barely managing to just diffuse World War III but never bothering to keep his libido in check. Aasif Mandvi is also superb as the only character who seems to see that all of this is utterly nuts. The events unfold from episode to episode with a random sense of momentum, flickering around to a variety of characters and set-pieces that don't all seem to fit together, but there's always a sense that the writers have a bigger picture in mind. And where it goes is both funny and jaggedly pointed.

There's just a hint of underlying honesty to this pro-sports comedy, because otherwise all of the macho posturing would be unbearable. Dwayne Johnson is well-cast as an ex-footballer trying to make a go of things as a sports manager, and his misfit clients (including John David Washington, Omar Benson Miller and Donovan W Carter) are both amusing and endearingly pathetic. As is his accountant partner, the always brilliant Rob Corddry. Oddly, the show seems to not realise that it's main commentary is about uneducated athletes who suddenly earn a fortune and don't have the smarts to deal with it. Instead, the show focusses on their silly decisions as they continually get themselves in trouble, relying on Johnson and Corddry to rescue them. Even though they often need rescuing themselves. But the relentless misogynistic masculinity is ultimately exhausting. Which shouldn't be surprising for a series from the producers of Entourage.

The Spoils Before Dying
In the style of the iconic 1982 series Police Squad, this deadpan genre spoof is hosted by Will Ferrell in an Orson Welles-like role as a disgraced filmmaker presenting his lost 1959 masterpiece, the eponymous noir mystery starring Michael Kenneth Williams as a jazz musician who has three days to clear his name. The all-star cast includes Kristen Wiig, Michael Sheen, Maya Rudolph, Haley Joel Osment and Berenice Marlohe, with cameos galore. It's utterly absurd, and far too mannered to work on any real level. But for every broad gag that isn't remotely funny, there's a throwaway line that's deeply inspired. Frankly, it's amazing that they got the money together to make something this ridiculous.


Inside Amy Schumer: series 3
As she took on her first big-screen writing and starring project with Judd Apatow's Trainwreck, I finally had a chance to binge watch all three series of her TV show, which mixes Chelsea Handler's comical sensibilities with some surprising acting chops. It's a clever combination of sketch humour, chat show and stand-up, with Schumer essentially playing herself (she's always named "Amy", as indeed she is in Trainwreck) in a variety of scenarios, many of which are set in her actual life as a TV comic. And there are big laughs laced through each half-hour episode, bolstered by Schumer's willingness to push the boundaries of what's always been considered acceptable on television. Her frankness about sex is especially refreshing, as is her celebration of things most people would consider deeply wrong. The 12 Angry Men pastiche this season was especially inspired. And delightfully profane.

Vicious: series 2
Produced like a British 1970s sitcom, the retro style of this comedy is extremely jarring, as excellent actors Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi, Iwan Rheon and Frances de la Tour ham it up mercilessly for an audience that seems willing to laugh at absolutely anything. It's so cheaply made that it's impossible to engage with properly (the dance competition episode was especially inane in this sense, as there were no contestants aside from the series regulars). And yet the script manages to surprise us with moments of honesty that seem to come out of nowhere, especially as Freddie and Stuart legally formalised their tetchy relationship after more than 50 years together. It's written as a stupid, simple-minded farce, but the occasional glimmer of depth makes it watchable.

Masters of Sex: series 3
This show departs from its biopic origins, now heavily fictionalising the lives of William Masters and Virginia Johnson (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan). This has the effect of sidelining their scientific achievements in lieu of more standard television melodrama, which requires the viewer to take a rather enormous leap. Without the underpinnings of real life or science, the show feels oddly uninteresting, as the excellent actors struggle to maintain the intriguing layers of their characters in these more simplistic, formulaic scripts. And the strangest thing is that the show is no longer sexy at all. It's still produced to a very high standard, but without the zing of real-life, it feels rather pointless. We have plenty of dramas about marital infidelity, but not many that are fiercely honest about sex.

True Detective: series 2
With a new cast, story and L.A. setting, this follow-up season has very little resemblance to the first. And that's a problem, because the case it traces is messy but not very interesting, only watchable because it brings three disparate cops (Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch) together to solve a murder. Each of them has personal issues that basically stem from self-hatred, which makes them difficult to sympathise with. And the shadowy businessman played by Vince Vaughn is equally unlikeable. So what's left? There are some stunningly staged set-pieces along the way, like the astonishingly awful gunfight in episode 4. And the mystery feels knotted and messy, although it's actually about as complex as a Murder She Wrote episode stretched to 10 hours.

Now it's autumn and we have a slew of new and returning series to distract us. I'm most looking forward to seeing if Empire can maintain its spark, if Fargo can strike gold again, and if Downton Abbey can go out with a bang. Plus more of comedy favourites like Transparent, You're the Worst and Please Like Me.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Critical Week: What's up, Tiger Lily?

Several big movies have been screened to London critics this week, including Joe Wright's Peter Pan prequel Pan, a flashy, big-scale adventure starring Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily (above), Garrett Hedlund as Hook and newcomer Levi Miller as Peter. It's a lot of fun, but aimed squarely at young children.

Of three just as generically titled blockbusters, the best is Ridley Scott's The Martian, a thrilling space adventure with a terrific central role for Matt Damon, plus a weighty supporting cast who breathe some life into the film's edges. A lack of this is the only problem with Robert Zemeckis' The Walk, a whizzy, visually impressive dramatisation of the amazing story of Philippe Petit, which was documented memorably in the Oscar-winning Man on Wire. Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings cheeky mischief to the title role, but everyone else fades into the spectacular digital backdrops. And Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro are likeable in Nancy Meyers' warm, sentimentally manipulative comedy The Intern.

As for films from the upcoming London Film Festival, I caught up with the outrageously entertaining Bone Tomahawk, a Western starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson and a fantastic Richard Jenkins that shifts from comedy to horror. Terence Davies' Sunset Song is a gorgeous period epic with a lovely sense of the time and place (WWI Scotland) and the connection between people and the land. Pablo Larrain's The Club is a riveting, strikingly inventive drama taking on the Catholic Church's inability to tackle its paedophile problem. And Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room is another typically manic, stylistically sumptuous pastiche, this time telling stories within stories within stories.

Most screenings this coming week are films that will also be showing at the London Film Festival, including Carey Mulligan in the opening movie Suffragette, Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Mads Mikkelsen in Men & Chicken, and the Indo-Canadian crime thriller Beeba Boys. There's also the American comedy This Is Happening, the British comedy Convenience, and the multistrand holiday offering A Christmas Horror Story.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Requisite Blog Photo: Shiver me timbers

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Critical Week: Take a back seat

London critics had a chance to see Anton Corbijn's new film Life this week, recounting the series of meetings between freelance photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) and actor James Dean (Dane DeHaan), just before the release of his first film. It's beautifully shot (of course) and a cleverly written exploration of pre-stardom, but despite a strong performance DeHaan is simply never James Dean. Also rather uneven, Everest tells the true story of a fateful day in 1996 when an unusually large number of people climbed the world's tallest mountain and were caught in a surprise storm. It's efficiently made and well acted, but oddly uninvolving.

My best film of the week, hands down, was Tangerine, a micro-budget American indie shot on iPhones. As it follows a couple of tranny hookers on the streets of Hollywood, it's hilarious, moving and thrilling filmmaking. Welsh treasures Rhys Ifans and Charlotte Church appear in Under Milk Wood, an experimental and eerily cold adaptation of Dylan Thomas' poetic drama. Michael Pena and Dougray Scott star in the exorcism thriller The Vatican Tapes, which is edgy and earthy but a bit slow. And the superb, unmissable He Named Me Malala is an involving documentary about feisty Pakistani teen-turned-activist Malala Yousafzai, who is inspirational simply because she is so normal.

This coming week we have Hugh Jackman in Pan, Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk, Agyness Dean in Sunset Song, the festival favourite The Club and Kate Dickie in Couple in a Hole. Also, press screenings for the London Film Festival start on Monday with two or three films per day. The festival itself runs 7-18 October.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Shadows on the Stage: Like father like son

The Sum of Us
scr David Stevens • dir Gene David Kirk
Above the Stag Theatre, Vauxhall • 9.Sep-4.Oct.15

The plucky Above the Stag Theatre deploys its now-expected professionalism in this revival of David Stevens' award-winning 1990 play, which was adapted into the 1994 film starring the great Jack Thompson and a young Russell Crowe. Not only are all four of the cast members well up to the challenge, but the set designers have outdone themselves to create a detailed Melbourne home in a very tiny space, plus a terrific last-act transformation.

Set in the late 1980s, the story centres on Harry (Stephen Connery-Brown, above left), a widower who lives with his 24-year-old rugby player son Jeff (Tim McFarland, right), more like odd-couple flatmates than father and son. Harry is slightly too supportive of Jeff's gay sexuality, encouraging him to get out there and find a man to love. When Jeff brings home the shy nice guy Greg (Rory Hawkins), Harry's enthusiastic acceptance is a bit much at a time when Greg is unable to even mention sexuality to his own parents. Meanwhile, Harry has registered with a dating service, through which he meets Joyce (Annabel Pemberton), the first woman he has gone out with since his wife died a decade earlier.

The play features continual to-audience monologs that reveal the complexity of Harry's and Jeff's inner thoughts. It's a mannered device that slightly diminishes the strong camaraderie between the characters, but it continually offers pungent insight between the lines. Connery-Brown is particularly strong as Harry, a cheerful guy who just wants his son to feel free to be himself inside his own home. And while Hawkins sometimes over-eggs Jeff's cheeky attitude, he's a likeably complex young man who realistically feels just as trapped by his father's encouragement as Greg does by his father's cruel bigotry. Both Hawkins and Pemberton bring all kinds of edges to their smaller roles.

Most significant is how the play uses honest interaction mixed with internal soul-searching to explore the impact we have on each other, generation to generation, as we search for our own happiness. No one wants to go through life alone, but perhaps it's even more difficult to watch someone we love fail at romance. Where this story goes is darkly surprising, both intensely moving and properly hopeful. And this astute production brings out the script's emotional kick in a way that feels organic and effortless.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Critical Week: Just hanging around

I took a few days off around the weekend, so had a quieter screening week than usual - but I greatly enjoyed the chance to spend four days doing basically nothing in the countryside. Before and after that, I caught a couple of big movies, including the Maze Runner sequel The Scorch Trials, another clunkily contrived teen-dystopia thriller that has energy and a sharp young cast, but never feels remotely engaging. Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore play lifelong best pals in the London-set comedy-drama Miss You Already, a deeply resonant film that refreshingly dodges cinema's male-centred rules thanks to director Catherine Hardwicke and writer Morwenna Banks.

I also caught up with this year's Woody Allen's movie Irrational Man, a meandering but thoughtful and smart comedy-drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in a lighter variation on Allen's iconic Crimes and Misdemeanours. A little further afield, Mark Strong and Vera Farmiga star in the Romanian drama Closer to the Moon, based on a fantastic true story but told with an odd mix of jaunty farce and dark tragedy. And the sharp, thoroughly entertaining British indie comedy SuperBob looks at the personal life of a hapless superhero.

This coming week, we have Robert Pattinson and Dane DeHaan in Life, Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley in Everest, Kevin Costner and Maria Bello in McFarland, Rhys Ifans and Charlotte Church in Under Milk Wood and the American indie festival hit Tangerine.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Critical Week: It was all yellow

We had an early press screening this week of the Alan Bennett engaging comedy-drama The Lady in the Van, based on the true story of a homeless woman (Maggie Smith) who asked Bennett (Alex Jennings) if she could live in her van in his Camden driveway for a few months, and stayed for 15 years. Then there was Ed Skrein in The Transporter Refuelled, a reboot of the Jason Statham franchise that's oddly drier and cornier, and still a guilty pleasure. And the Sundance-winning Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a strikingly honest teen comedy-drama with a terrific cast and a snappy, slightly overwritten script.

A little further afield, we had the low-budget British thriller Containment, which is fiendishly clever in the way it traps a group of neighbours in a council block sealed by people in hazmat suits. Leading Lady is an awkward blend of comedy and drama from South Africa about a British actress (Katie McGrath) researching a role in the Transvaal, where she of course has a life-changing experience. And the fascinating doc How to Change the World uses extensive home movies and present-day interviews to trace the early years of Greenpeace, from a gang of Canadian hippies to a global movement.

There was also the launch event for the upcoming 58th BFI London Film Festival, with its flurry of big-name premieres and lots of smaller festival-winning movies. Press screenings for that kick off on September 21st, with the festival itself starting on October 9th. My most anticipated films include opening night's Suffragette, closing night's Steve Jobs, Todd Haynes' Carol, Jay Roach's Trumbo, Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash, Ben Wheatley's High-rise, Terence Davies' Sunset Song, and Cannes prize winners Son of Saul and Dheepan. I've already seen eight or nine of the 250 films.

I'm taking three days off around this coming weekend, so I have fewer screenings in the diary. Annoyingly, I'm missing the first two screenings of Everest, but I'll catch up with it in a week or so. What I am seeing are Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette in Miss You Already, Woody Allen's Irrational Man, the youth-dystopia sequel Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, the true Romanian drama Closer to the Moon and the British comedy Superbob.