Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Critical Week: What's the point

London critics caught up with the next tentpole this week, namely Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (aka Salazar's Revenge), the fifth in the swashbuckling franchise starring Johnny Depp. While I enjoyed the previous four romps, this one felt overstuffed in every way (too many people, too many rambling plotlines, too many digital effects). I was happy when it finally ended.

Everything else was a bit smaller. Chris Evans is excellent in the sharply well-made drama Gifted, which manages to remain emotionally resonant without tipping into sentimentality. Tommy's Honour is a terrific story of the Scottish father and son who created the modern game of golf, nicely played by Peter Mullan and rising star Jack Lowden. Although the film is a bit uneven. The soapy Spanish comedy Wild Awakenings wins us over with its ridiculous tale of lust on a horse ranch. And the documentary Dying Laughing is a fascinating look at the life of a stand-up comic, as told by rather a lot of people who became very successful at it.

And finally, I revisited the early 1990s cult series Twin Peaks and rewatched the 1992 movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me before diving into the two-hour pilot episode for this 25-years-later sequel series. It's all rather bonkers, but sublimely so. And I look forward to the next 16 episodes.

Coming up this week is a very late press screening of Wonder Woman (buzz has been good but for some reason they are holding this one close to their chest), plus a number of films that will be screened at the forthcoming Sundance Film Festival London - watch this space. Meanwhile in France, the Cannes Film Festival winds up with its awards over the weekend. Expect controversy as usual.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Critical Week: Queens of the jungle

A few big Hollywood movies screened for the London press over the past week, including Snatched, the mother-daughter kidnapping romp starring Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer. It's silly enough to be a guilty pleasure, but could have been a lot more. Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron lead the charge in the goofy action-comedy movie version of the iconic TV series Baywatch. And Charlie Hunnam takes the lead in Guy Ritchie's entertaining and somewhat rushed approach to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

Meanwhile, Dominic Cooper struggles to elevate the terrorism thriller Stratton above B-movie status. Much better were a couple of foreign movies: from China, I Am Not Madame Bovary is a fiendishly clever exploration of social connection and darker motivations, while Machines is a riveting, relevant, gorgeously shot documentary about workers in an Indian fabric factory.

Coming up this next week, while many London-based critics have decamped to the South of France for the Cannes Film Festival, we will catch up with Johnny Depp's fifth turn as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (aka Dead Men Tell No Tales), Chris Evans' drama Gifted, the Scottish biopic Tommy's Honour, the animated adventure Monster Island, the Mexican rom-com Wild Awakening and the shorts compilation Boys on Film 16: Possession.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Critical Week: Just chilling

Press screenings are starting to crank up again after an early-May lull, perhaps because so many big movies are coming up. Although it's likely to quiet down when most London-based journalists (not me, thankfully) decamp to Cannes 17-28 May.

I enjoyed catching up with the Sundance hit The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani's autobiographical comedy, which cleverly depicts multi-cultural America with its awesome ensemble cast. The indie road comedy Folk Hero & Funny Guy was also enjoyable, starring the superb Wyatt Russell and Alex Karpovsky as childhood pals with a surprisingly complex relationship. But of course this week's biggest movie was Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott's skilfully made sequel/prequel, which plays out almost like a reimagining of his original 1979 sci-fi horror classic. It's uneven, but entertainingly scary.

A bit further afield, the British-made drama Interlude in Prague focusses on some lusty intrigue for Mozart as he wrote Don Giovanni. It's very nicely shot on location, and the story is involving if a bit dry. Spark is a lively animated adventure with an all-star voice cast, but the animation isn't quite up to big studio standards. Eric Stoltz makes his feature directing debut with Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, a sharply observed comedy-drama that tackles some big themes (religion! sex!) without flinching. And Tomcat starts out as a gentle relationship drama before morphing into something dark and boldly disturbing, which is perhaps unsurprising since it's an Austrian film.

Blockbusters begin arriving over the next week, including the Baywatch movie, Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the Schumer-Hawn adventure Snatched, plus the acclaimed Chinese drama I Am Not Madame Bovary and the documentary Machines.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Critical Week: Scary monsters

It's a third short week this spring here in Britain, so there have been fewer than usual screenings. But I did manage to catch up with Colossal, the genre-defying movie starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. It's funny, scary, harrowing and very well-made. And then there was Sleepless, an almost painfully predictable cop thriller livened up by an adept cast that includes Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney and Scoot McNairy.

A hybrid crime thriller and arthouse drama, Away is a small British drama starring Timothy Spall and Juno Temple as two desperate people who meet in Blackpool. It's nicely shot and acted, but jarringly edited. And Last Men in Aleppo is the prize-winning documentary about the White Helmets, rescue workers in war-torn Syria. Skilfully shot on the ground during the fighting, it's utterly devastating to watch, and urgently important.

Screenings coming up this week include Ridley Scott's Prometheus sequel Alien: Covenant, the comedy The Big Sick, the action movie Stratton, the road movie Folk Hero & Funny Guy, the period drama Interlude in Prague and the animated adventure Spark.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Critical Week: Into the night

Screenings continue to slow down in the run-up to Cannes. But there are things we need to see! It was great to watch Tye Sheridan continues to prove himself as an actor with the lead role in Detour. It's a clever, tricky thriller with an inventively fractured narrative. Of course the big movie this week was the highly anticipated sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, which reunites the team for a bigger adventure that lacks the free-spirited tone of the original but is still a lot of fun.

From Scotland, Whisky Galore is a remake of the 1949 classic about residents of a remote island who lay claim to the cargo of a wrecked ship during WWII. It's a gentle comedy, amusing but never very exciting. Further afield, Slack Bay is an oddly comical period romp from controversy-courting filmmaker Bruno Dumont. It stars Juliette Binoche and Fabrice Luchini in an enjoyably farcical story involving snobbery, crime and religion. Much darker, The Student is a Russian drama about a teen who becomes a Christian fundamentalist and begins manipulating everyone in his school. It's chilling and very sharp. And from Greece, Suntan follows a shy middle-aged doctor who falls headlong into the hedonistic summer tourist season. It's well-made and involving, but a little too pointed.

Oddly, I have no screenings in the diary over the next seven days. It's the long weekend this month in London, and things always go quiet at this time of year (call it pre-Cannes gloom). I do have screeners to watch at home, and we are awaiting word of press screenings for the soon-arriving Alien: Covenant, Snatched and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, among others.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Critical Week: Yes, mother

London-based critics had two traumatic female-centred dramas this week to consider. First up was the trashy melodramatic thriller Unforgettable, featuring a wonderfully nasty mother-daughter relationship between Katherine Heigl and Cheryl Ladd (above), plus Rosario Dawson as the innocent woman caught in the mayhem. Terrible, but a lot of fun. Meanwhile, Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin star in a remake of My Cousin Rachel, based on the Daphne Du Maurier novel about a suspicious 19th century woman who might be manipulating her way into a fortune. (Comments on the film itself are embargoed until closer to the release date in June.)

A little further afield, this week I was able to catch up with Werner Herzog's strangely offbeat drama Salt and Fire, about corporate greed and natural disasters in Bolivia. It has an intriguing central role for Michael Shannon, and at least gets you thinking. And then there's the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, tracing the iconic filmmaker's pre-cinematic inspiration in his own words, with some added slightly overwrought filmmaking from the trio of directors who made this doc.

This coming week we have screenings of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, the acclaimed Russian film The Student and something called Detour. I also have quite a few screener discs to catch up on.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Critical Week: Man's best friend

Press screenings went to the dogs, literally, this week as critics were invited to bring their pets to the screening of A Dog's Purpose. They were surprisingly alert audience members, actually. And the humans enjoyed it too, especially since it wasn't the expected schmaltz-fest. Louder thrills were had at the Imax press screening of The Fate of the Furious (or Fast & Furious 8, as it's known in the UK). Loud and flashy, funny and preposterous, it's exactly what you expect from this franchise: mindless entertainment.

Off the beaten path, there was the sensitive, resonant indie drama Bwoy, starring Anthony Rapp as a married man in New York who gets into an internet relationship with a guy in Jamaica; the cleverly inventive true story The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, about a Finnish boxer trying to balance romance with his career; and Nick Broomfield's strikingly well-made documentary Whitney: 'Can I Be Me', which has its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this month.

It's a very short week ahead (with a four-day weekend in it!), so there are only a few films in the diary at the moment, including Rachel Weisz in My Cousin Rachel, Katherine Heigl in Unforgettable and Michael Shannon in Salt and Fire. Happy Easter!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Critical Week: Fly away

It's been another eclectic collection of screenings this week for London-based critics. My Life as a Courgette is the wonderful, resonant Oscar-nominated French animated drama. Going in Style is a fluffy comical remake starring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret. The Sense of an Ending is a thoughtful, enjoyable British drama with Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter and Michelle Dockery.

And then there was the far too sunshiny and simplistic Christian parable The Shack with Sam Worthington and Octavia Spencer; the far too gloomy but provocative post-tragedy drama Aftermath with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Scoot McNairy; the nihilistic and point-free murder-fest of The Belko Experiment; the gripping, nasty kidnapped-tourist thriller Berlin Syndrome with Teresa Palmer; and the awkward, goofy British Muslim rom-com Finding Fatimah.

This coming week we have The Fate of the Furious, A Dog's Purpose, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Slack Bay, Suntan and the doc Whitney: Can I Be Me.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Shadows on the Screen: Spring TV roundup

Here's what I've been watching on television over the past few months, simply to escape from the movies, which are of course work for me. This is fun...

Big Little Lies
An offbeat style of TV from Jean-Marc Vallee with a strikingly starry cast, this series may take a fairly standard approach (unpicking the brittle undergrowth beneath an outwardly perfect community), but the Northern California setting adds a bold visual touch, and the A-list actors bring their A-game. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Adam Scott and Alexander Sarsgaard are all excellent as prickly, deeply flawed people trying to show their best sides to everyone around them, including their hilariously precocious children. The way the scripts teased us with a murder was very clever, leading to a seriously heart-stopping finale. So bring on the next season.

A lively exploration of the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, this series is so camp that it's hard not to love every moment. Whether it's all true is irrelevant, as the actors gleefully chomp on the scenery. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are superb in the lead roles, adeptly supported by Judy Davis, Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci, plus Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates in juicy side roles. It's a colourful romp through 1960s Hollywood, cleverly playing up the way the industry changed in the decades both before and afterwards. The Oscar episode was simply heavenly, and it'll be interesting to see if they can outdo that in the few episodes still left to go.

Tom Hardy stars in (and with his father created and wrote) this series for the BBC, which takes a decidedly offbeat approach to the whole concept of the period drama. Dark and grimy, it's a clever collision of free-spirited adventure and cruel corporate greed in a very repressed early 19th century London. It's a period of history that's rarely depicted on-screen, so the entangled plot threads are genuinely fascinating, even if the show is relentlessly gloomy (it's virtually shot in monochrome). Hardy is excellent in the central role as the enigmatic explorer who takes on the system, with an imperious supporting performance from a dastardly Jonathan Pryce. A second series is coming.

I've been turned off by all other superhero TV series this year, but was urged to take a look at this one. And the inventive approach of creator Noah Hawley (Fargo) certainly piqued my interest. These eight episodes were an action-packed rollercoaster of psychological thrills and more visceral nuttiness. Even so, the kaleidoscopic narrative fragmentation is a little off-putting, continually throwing the audience out of anything terribly engaging emotionally. And excessive gunplay always bugs me. But Dan Stevens is simply fantastic, giving a staggeringly textured performance at the centre. And any show that deploys the great Jean Smart and Aubrey Plaza to maximum effect gets my vote. 

The Get Down
Baz Luhrmann's dazzling series is a thrilling fictionalised drama using real people from the emerging hip-hop movement in 1970s New York. The characters are strikingly vivid, specifically a group of teens who find themselves caught between their parents, gangs, politicians and their love of music. As the central character Ezekiel, Justice Smith is magnetic - a rising star getting ready to go supernova. Luhrmann gives all of this an impressionistic mythological sensibility that feels earthy and authentic and also wildly fantastical. The first six episodes last summer were exhilarating, and six more are due this spring.

When We Rise 
Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black revisit Harvey Milk-era San Francisco in this eight-part series, which traces some 50 years in the gay equality movement. Shot with an almost documentary realism, the series centres on four survivors who served as consultants for the series: Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Ken Jones and Cecilia Chung. This means that scenes are based on first-hand accounts, which makes the deeply personal storylines much more powerfully involving. It's all a bit earnest and worthy, but that's only because the themes are so big. Thankfully, everything is grounded in these real people, and the cast recreates them beautifully, especially Austin McKenzie and Jonathan Majors as the young Cleve and Ken (Guy Pearce and Michael K Williams adeptly play them in later years).

This 8-part half-hour comedy series has a strong cast and terrific characters, although the series title is a big problem, as it perpetuates the stereotype of the seemingly strong woman who is actually crippled by insecurity. It also seems to portray turning 30 as some sort of magical moment of maturity or seriousness - another cultural myth that really needs to be debunked. Otherwise, this show is beautifully written and played with a snappy sense of humour. Relationship issues feel bracingly realistic, and the actors are all superb, especially creator Issa Rae and Jay Ellis.

Deep Water
This four-part Australian TV series centres on Bondi Beach detectives (Yael Stone and Noah Taylor) who discover inexplicable links between a present-day murder and a series of unsolved hate-crime killings from the late 1980s, which the police ignored at the time. The show has a soapy emotional flair that sidesteps authenticity in lieu of flashy plot points, hot potato themes and shifty suspects. So it's a rather standard television procedural, overloaded with characters and shocking revelations. But the underlying issues tough on things that haven't improved as much as we'd like to think they have in the past 25 years. And it's strikingly well shot, with engaging performances.


Sherlock: Series 4
With its sporadic episodes, this show has been drifting in an increasingly smug direction for awhile now. It's still strikingly well acted, and produced to a very high standard. But the inventive visuals are increasingly gimmicky, and the further the plots drift from the Conan Doyle stories, the less interesting or engaging they become. This incarnation of the detective won us over with clever adaptations of original stories to modern settings. But the mysteries in these episodes are merely tricksy and self-satisfied, and the show seems to be riding on Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman rather than deploying them as the characters. We'd like more, but please get back on track.

The Man in the High Castle: Series 2
I wasn't planning to return to this show, but there wasn't anything else on at the time. The cast is strong enough to maintain the intrigue, especially Luke Kleintank, hugely sympathetic as Joe, a young guy on a complex journey into his Nazi roots. And Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa beautifully underplays Tagomi's increasingly dark odyssey. But the plotting is increasingly cheesy, with lots of melodramatic revelations and ironic twists, plus an extension of the parallel timeline premise that never quite came into focus. By the end it was a bit difficult to get excited about much of what happened. So whether I watch the next season will probably again depend on alternative programming.

Tracey Ullman's Show: Series 2
The expert mimic continues to lampoon both modern culture and celebrity figures with this brisk sketch comedy. Some of the segments are inspired, mainly those that address some aspect of society that's flatly ridiculous anyway. Other things feel a bit tired; as clever as they are, the ongoing alternative sagas of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith should have been abandoned in lieu of new targets. As this season went on, it dragged badly. A few moments of sharp invention kept it moving, but without a complete reinvention, I doubt that I'll be back for a third series.


Girls: Series 6
The final season of Lena Dunham's groundbreaking series sends her character into yet another unexpected adventure: pregnancy. It's the bold writing and acting that make this show so exceptional, a willingness to go places movies and TV shows never go, with characters who are complex, flawed and often darkly unlikeable, and yet also easy to identify with. And laugh with. While Dunham quietly takes Hannah in some offbeat directions, there are more colourful arcs for Marnie (Allison Williams) and Elijah (Andrew Rannells) this year. Without ever being flashy or gimmicky, this has been a clever deconstruction of the sitcom. And with only a few episodes to go, it's impossible to predict where we'll leave these hot-mess characters.

Homeland: Series 6
Like some sort of reboot, this series cleverly threw a massive shift into the premise, bringing Claire Danes' Carrie back to America as a private citizen getting involved in a political mess involving her former CIA bosses (the great Mandy Patinkin and F Murray Abraham), her former colleague (Rupert Friend) and the president elect (Elizabeth Marvel). The last season in Berlin was thrilling, but this one has a whole new level of intensity to it, grounding the action in everyday reality, even as it echoes other shows like House of Cards and Scandal. And there's such a strong sense of righteous anger running through it that it's unmissable.

Mom: Series 4
Despite the too-enthusiastic live audience, this show is still worth watching simply for Alison Janney's impeccable characterisation, and Anna Faris is also excellent. Most surprising is that it's a silly comedy that indulges in the expected jokes and pratfalls surrounding family and friends, but underscores everything with seriously dark touches, mainly as it explores the central characters' various addictions. It doesn't seem like this was initially envisioned as a 12-step sitcom, but that's where it has ended up, and it's what makes it worth watching.

Jane the Virgin: Series 3
I came late to this bracingly well-written pastiche of Latin telenovelas, but I have since caught up to the present, travelling through the twisted knot of entwined narratives. It's broadly silly, and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious in its deliberately messy plotting, but the characters are allowed to deepen and evolve, which gives the show a surprising dramatic kick. It also lets actors like Gina Rodrigues, Andrea Navedo, Yael Grobglas and Justin Baldoni find unexpected edges in their characters.

Schitt's Creek: Series 3
Frankly, after the first season it was unclear how the writers could keep this comedy going, and there were times when it felt like a stretch. But Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara are so funny in the main roles, impeccably supported by Dan Levy, Annie Murphy and Emily Hampshire, that you'd watch them all sitting around chatting about the weather. So it's nice that the plot is actually going somewhere rather interesting, finding interesting things to say about a family of millionaires stranded in small-town America.

Coming up: I'm looking forward to more of Twin Peaks, Game of Thrones, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Veep, Fargo, Grace and Frankie, House of Cards, The Get Down and hopefully some new discoveries.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Critical Week: Kick into action mode

Women led the charge in two big action thrillers screened to London-based press this past week. Noomi Rapace stars in Unlocked as a CIA sleeper agent put back on active duty in London. Comments on the film are embargoed, but the starry cast includes Toni Collette, Michael Douglas, John Malkovich and Orlando Bloom. And Scarlett Johansson takes the lead role in Ghost in the Shell, an exhilaratingly visual but thematically thin sci-fi mystery-thriller that's well worth seeing in Imax 3D.

A bit further afield, two low-budget horror dramas were effectively freaky. Catherine Walker and Steve Oram star in A Dark Song, a creepy story of angelic incantations in an isolated house in Wales. And The Transfiguration is an evocative drama set in New York, where a young boy with vampire tendencies befriends an unsuspecting neighbour.

Screenings over this rather busy coming week include Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in The Fate of the Furious, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in Going in Style, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in The Sense of an Ending, Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington in The Shack, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Aftermath, Dennis Quaid in A Dog's Purpose, Cate Shortland's Berlin Syndrome and the Oscar-nominated animation My Life as a Courgette.

Monday, 27 March 2017

31st Flare: Take 'em down

The British Film Institute's 31st Flare came to a festive conclusion last night with the international premiere of the closing film Signature Move (above) and the expected energetic party afterwards, with dancing long into the night. This is how all film festivals should be: great movies with audiences, journalists and filmmakers all mixing together at a series of enjoyable parties and special events. There are also of course ongoing discussions about whether there is still the need for LGBT-themed film festivals at all, but as long as bigotry and division exist even in supposedly accepting societies, they're vital. And it's nice to see that the films themselves are beginning to reflect a change - most of these are just movies about people getting on with their lives, and the fact that they may be gay or trans is a side note. I still have a bit of catching up to do, but here are some final highlights...

Signature Move
dir Jennifer Reeder; with Fawzia Mirza, Sari Sanchez 17/US ***.
With a sharp sense of humour and a gentle pace, this comedy is set in a multi-cultural corner of Chicago. Expanded from a short, the narrative is rather slight, but the characters are strong enough to hold the attention. And refreshingly, director Jennifer Reeder keeps the deeper themes gurgling strongly under the surface and resists preaching to the audience.

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin
dir Jennifer M Kroot; with Armistead Maupin, Laura Linney 17/US ****
A lively and revealing documentary, this film weaves together details from the life and writings of the beloved storyteller who crushed stereotypes and taboos in 70s-80s San Francisco. Armistead Maupin's journey from the conservative South to perhaps overconfident gay icon is fascinating, and it's moving to see how his writings have inspired millions to stand up for themselves and live a more positive life.

Flare Shorts
I managed to catch up with only 10 shorts this year. The programmes are increasingly popular with the public, making it tricky to get a ticket. Highlights for me were: The Hares (dir Martin Rodriguez Redondo, 16/Por) is a subtly moving story about a young boy pushed by his father into going on a nighttime hunting trip; An Evening (dir Soren Green, 16/Den) is a beautifully shot, lightly observant exploration of the different reactions two teens have to a sexual encounter; Pria (dir Yudho Aditya, 16/Ina) is a bold look at Indonesia's entrenched culture, as a 16-year-old guy reluctantly prepares for his wedding; and Jamie (dir Christopher Manning, 16/UK) is a sharply well-played, understated odyssey about a young man who opens up to his inner feelings for the first time.

Friday, 24 March 2017

31st Flare: Dance the night away

The British Film Institute's 31st Flare heads into its final weekend with a continual stream of receptions, parties, club nights and of course film screenings and events. It's been great to hang out with all of these filmmakers, actors and festival people, but all of these late-night activities aren't the most helpful for a critic who needs to be at a 10am screening each morning! At least the festival only runs for 10 days. And we'll miss it badly when it's gone. Here are more highlights (that's Lucas Andrade and Kelner Macedo, above)...

Body Electric
dir Marcelo Caetano; with Kelner Macedo, Lucas Andrade 17/Br ****
A loose slice of life movie, this Brazilian drama simply follows its young protagonist through a series of everyday situations and interactions. It's a striking representation of a rather normal gay man's life, as he enjoys his budding career, hangs out with friends, indulges in alcohol and sex, and doesn't worry about tomorrow. So without preaching at all, the film has a lot to say.

dir Nathan Adloff; with Tim Boardman, Molly Shannon 16/US ****
Based on a true story, this charming comedy-drama set in small-town America uses a collection of cleverly written and played characters to explore why it's so important so break out of the box sometimes. It's smart and warm, which makes it both funny and engaging, and filmmaker Nathan Adloff proves that he's also not afraid to generate some honest, dark resonance as well.

Handsome Devil
dir-scr John Butler; with Fionn O'Shea, Nicholas Galitzine 16/Ire ****
From Ireland, this breezy drama tackles some earthy issues as it tells an engaging story about inclusion and boarding school bullying. It's a sharply written film, with bold central characters and some surprisingly strong emotional moments along the way. Along with several pointed comments about the tyranny of sports-obsessed culture, the film carries an important message about finding the courage to be yourself, whatever the cost.

The Ornithologist
dir-scr Joao Pedro Rodrigues; with Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao 16/Por **.
This experimental film from Portugal starts promisingly, as it follows a bird-watcher on a trip into a spectacular wilderness. It's an intriguingly internalised odyssey, beautifully shot and played, with tantalising clues about a variety of issues. But as it continues, writer-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues drifts into pretentious metaphorical nuttiness that overwhelms any sense of narrative drama and loses the audience deep in the forest... FULL REVIEW >

Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things 
dir-scr Mark Kenneth Woods, Michael Yerxa; with Jack Anawak, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril 16/Can ***
There's nothing particularly inventive or flashy about this simple little documentary, but the situation it explores is utterly riveting. Centred in an isolated community near the top of the world, the issues the film explores are relevant all over the world, with some big implications for nations still struggling with their response to sexuality in society. And the people who speak to the camera are articulate and compelling.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

31st Flare: Pamper yourself

The British Film Institute's 31st Flare had a bit of a scare today, as a crazed madman attacked Parliament just over the river. But London carried on in defiance, and the festival had another busy evening. One major event was the Iris Prize party at Ministry of Sound, a lovely event celebrating the world's premiere LGBT short film festival. Here are some more highlights...

The Handmaiden
dir Park Chan-wook; with Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri 16/Kor ****
Korean maestro Park Chan-wook adapts Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith into a stylish, twisty drama set in Korea and Japan during WWII. It's a visually ravishing film about passion and subterfuge, told in three chapters that flip the perspective in unexpected directions. So even if the themes are a little thin, the film looks so amazing and has such a wickedly labyrinthine plot that it's thoroughly riveting... FULL REVIEW >

Out of Iraq
dir Eva Orner, Chris McKim; with Nayyef Hrebid, Hayder "Btoo" Allami16/US ****
This documentary tells the story of two young Iraqis who take a journey together in very different ways. It has two basic narratives, a romance and an immigration odyssey, and both are so compelling that the film becomes utterly gripping. It also packs a strong emotional kick as these young men struggle against cultural realities that are difficult to imagine.

dir Ashley Joiner; with Michael Salter, Peter Tatchell 17/UK ****
A fast-paced, pointed documentary about London's Pride movement, this film explores the rise in alternative events that have sprung up to avoid the crowds and commercialisation. And as it faces government budget cuts, the question is whether Pride has merely become a branding opportunity bogged down in bureaucracy. It's a timely, emotional and unusually balanced film that doesn't shy away from past and present issues.

Seat in Shadow
dir Henry Coombes; with David Sillars, Jonathan Leslie 16/UK ***.
Cleverly shot by rising-star cinematographer David C Liddell, and directed with quirky artistry by Scottish filmmaker Henry Coombes, this Glasgow-set drama is elusive and intriguing. It's nutty and outrageous enough to intrigue fans of offbeat cinema, and it's packed with deeper themes about human connections that resonate in unexpected ways.

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K 

In addition to Flare movies, I had my normal weekly releases to watch at press screenings. These included the police action-comedy CHiPs (comments embargoed),  the enjoyable sci-fi thriller Life with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, the earnest Armenian genocide drama The Promise starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, the intriguing Amazon exploration adventure The Lost City of Z with Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson, the murky London noir mystery City of Tiny Lights with Riz Ahmed, and the offbeat Finnish refugee drama The Other Side of Hope. Films this coming week, aside from more Flare titles, include Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Orlando Bloom in the thriller Unlocked, and more.

Monday, 20 March 2017

31st Flare: Get ready to jump

The British Film Institute's 31st Flare: London LGBT Film Festival charged through its first weekend with a flurry of screenings, events, seminars and parties. This is a very lively season on the Southbank, with a colourful crowd and strong discussions. It's great to be able to interact with filmmakers, actors, journalists and festival programmers in this kind of relaxed setting. Here are some highlights from the weekend, including Heartstone (above), the film to which my jury awarded the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival last September...

dir-scr Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson; with Baldur Einarsson, Blaer Hinriksson 16/Ice ****
Dark and sometimes very grim, this Icelandic teen drama tackles a serious topic in an intensely personal way. Set in a rural area, the small community ramps up the emotions to the breaking point, pulling the audience into the story with serious force. The film's loose editing may weaken its balance and pace, but it's an involving and deeply moving filmmaking debut... FULL REVIEW >

Dear Dad 
dir Tanuj Bhramar; with Arvind Swamy, Himanshu Sharma 16/Ind ***.
For Western audiences, the mix of cheerful silliness and earthier realism in this Indian drama will feel somewhat jarring. But there are sharp insights along the way, as the cast and crew invert the usual coming out formula. It's an engaging road movie with a few corny sidetrips, but it grapples with some very big issues with a level of honesty that Western filmmakers should take note of.

dir-scr Yan England; with Antoine Olivier Pilon, Lou-Pascal Tremblay 16/Can ***.
There's a driving momentum to this dark drama that makes it difficult to watch. But the acting and filmmaking are compelling, holding the attention with vivid emotions and topical resonance. This is a story about bullying that refuses to play out the way we hope it will, pushing its characters in increasingly painful directions. It's somewhat overwrought, but also important.

Centre of My World
dir-scr Jakob M Erwa; with Louis Hofmann, Sabine Timoteo 16/Ger ***
Sunny and colourful, this inventively written and directed German coming-of-age drama has a light touch that's thoroughly engaging. But there's also an offbeat dark undercurrent that gurgles up as the story continues, sending the characters down into rather disturbing situations. It's a bold, complex film that turns far too heavy but carries a strong punch.

Last Men Standing 
dir-scr Erin Brethauer, Tim Hussin; with Peter Greene, Jesus Guillen 16/US ***
As an exploration of the lives of long-term survivors of the Aids epidemic in San Francisco, this film has plenty of archival value. It recounts the stories of eight people with an unusual honesty, adding an emotional kick along the way. But the filmmakers focus on the past, which makes the film feel morose and relentlessly gloomy. It's as if these people are unable to look forward.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

31st Flare: Make an opening move

The 31st edition of the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBT Film Festival kicked off on Thursday night with the world premiere of the BBC drama Against the Law, produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. It's a powerfully cinematic movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen, as it includes documentary clips of men who lived through the events depicted from the 1950s, starring Richard Gadd and Daniel Mays (above).

Against the Law
dir Fergus O'Brien; with Daniel Mays, Richard Gadd 17/UK **** (world premiere)
An inventive blending of period drama and talking head documentary, this pointed film is beautifully edited to make the most of both strands. Each feeds into the other with a powerful sense of momentum, giving the final scenes a proper emotional kick. And there's also a sense of timeliness, as the story recounts events from 60 years ago that would change British law about homosexuality a decade later. And the events still resonate loudly today.

After Louie
dir Vincent Gagliostro; with Alan Cumming, Zachary Booth 17/US ***. (world premiere)
Big ideas circle around this earthy drama set among New York artists. The characters are bright and engaging, even as they are deeply flawed, and the talky script takes an unexpectedly honest approach to hot potato topics, exploring how nostalgia for the gay rights movement of the 1990s might not be the healthiest way to move forward. It's perhaps too deliberately provocative to be properly moving, but Alan Cumming delivers a beautifully complex central performance.

dir-scr Marco Berger; with Gabriel Epstein, Lucas Papa 16/Arg ***. 
Essentially a mash-up of writer-director Marco Berger's Hawaii and producer-codirector Martin Farina's Fulboy, this film places nine athletic young men in an isolated house for a sweltering summer getaway and observes the physicality between them. There's a hint of a plot between two of the guys, and a few traits emerge here and there, but the movie is basically a tactile, tantalising tease that pays off only in the final moments... FULL REVIEW >

B E S T   O F   T H E   Y E A R
dir-scr Barry Jenkins; with Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland 16/US ****.
With its intimate approach and deeply resonant themes, this film gets under the skin right from the start, putting us in the shoes of the lead character at three points in his life. His journey to self-discovery is difficult, partly because he is painfully withdrawn due to his tough life experiences. And what this movie has to say is so important that it deserves all the the attention and awards it gets... FULL REVIEW >

It's Only the End of the World
dir-scr Xavier Dolan; with Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel 16/Can *****
Few filmmakers are as bold as 27-year-old Canadian Xavier Dolan, who regularly takes on family relationships using bravura filmmaking that brings out unexpected, unfiltered emotions. This film, based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, is a staggering dissection of the dynamic between parents, children and siblings. It's heightened to the point that it's often painful to watch, but it's also urgent, honest and essential... FULL REVIEW >

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Critical Week: A bit of a giggle

Well, that photo certainly isn't very indicative of Terence Davies' new film A Quiet Passion, the Emily Dickinson biopic that screened for London-based press this week (it also featured in last October's London Film Festival). A gloomy but strikingly realistic period film, it's livened up by the crisp performances of Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle, and it features lots of Dickinson's wonderfully evocative poetry, but it's pretty grim stuff. There was also a much bigger movie, Disney's remake of the 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast, which stirs live actors into the now photo-realistic animated fairy tale. It's still a hugely engaging story, and the actors and filmmakers add superb subtext, but fans of the original may find it unnecessary.

The best film of the year so far is the Oscar-nominated doc I Am Not Your Negro, which inventively reframes the race issue as the overall history of America. A stunning film, beautifully adapted from James Baldwin's words. We also had the slickly made, action-packed Korean period thriller The Age of Shadows, the grim but inventive British rural drama The Levelling, the astute and moving Chilean drama You'll Never Be Alone, and the serious-themed Italian road comedy A Little Lust.

Coming up this next week, we have Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale in The Promise, Charlie Hunnam and Tom Holland in The Lost City of Z, Dax Shepard and Michael Pena in CHiPs, and the Finnish comedy The Other Side of Hope. Also, the 31st BFI Flare kicks off on Thursday with the world premiere of the true British drama Against the Law. Look for comments on that film and lots of others in regular updates over the next two weeks.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Critical Week: Bump in the night

Back into screening mode after returning to London, my first was to finally catch up with Personal Shopper, which reunites a superb Kristen Stewart with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. It's an endlessly fascinating mix of personal drama and ghostly horror that leaves the audience wondering. Kong: Skull Island is a big, enjoyably 1970s-style take on the monster movie that's entertaining and very cool, even if the characters are rather thin. My comments on two British comedies are embargoed until closer to the release dates: Roger Allam, Matthew Modine and Fiona Shaw in The Hippopotamus, and Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson and Lesley Manville in Hampstead.

There were two micro-budget underwater thrillers: The Dark Below is a wordless cat-and-mouse chase on a frozen-over lake, while The Chamber is a claustrophobic stranded-sub adventure. Both have solid production values but little in the way of story or characters. Fair Haven is a sensitive American indie drama that grapples with issues of expectations and sexuality with warmth and honesty. And from Argentina, Bromance is a provocative drama that raises some big themes and almost deals with them. I also caught up with this gem...

Fifty Shades Darker
dir James Foley
scr Niall Leonard

with Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes 17/Can *.
This sequel, based on the second novel in EL James' trilogy, is noticeably dumbed down from the first movie, with empty slick direction (by safe pair of hands Foley) and an embarrassingly simplistic script (by James' husband Leonard). But the biggest problem is that it abandons the premise, as billionaire Christian (a sleepy Dornan) goes all mushy in the presence of his young lover Ana (a feisty Johnson) this time. Instead of punishing her as before, he gives her pleasure and begs her to move in and then marry him. This never remotely rings true, as there is only a slight spark of chemistry between them and no sign of love at all. Conflict arises simplistically from outside in the form of two of Christians exes (glowering Basinger and psycho Heathcote), plus a near rape and a random helicopter crash that both like a pointless asides. But then, there is nothing about this movie that even remotely grabs hold. Every scene feels rushed and superficial, with dialog that's painfully cheesy, completely missing the central themes of control and dominance. So by the time Basinger takes a drink and slap to the face, the audience reaction is laughter. Badly in need of a sense of humour about itself, as well as an awareness of its own misogyny (Dakota is often naked while Dornan takes off his shirt a few times), the film is hardly whetting appetites for next year's sequel.

As for films this coming week, I have the Disney revamp of Beauty and the Beast, the indie drama Bwoy, the British drama The Levelling, the Korean thriller The Age of Shadows, the award-winning Brazilian drama Aquarius, the Finnish comedy-drama The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki and the Oscar-nominated doc I Am Not Your Negro. There's also a film festival starting next week, the 31st edition of BFI Flare - expect my usual coverage....

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Critical Week: Oscar pulls a switcheroo

The 89th Academy Awards ended with a major upset on Sunday night, as Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar over seemingly set-in-stone favourite La La Land, which had scooped up almost everything in its path during awards season. And it was made even more memorable when this important triumph was so badly botched by officials from PwC, who gave the wrong envelope to presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty (a 50th anniversary Bonnie & Clyde reunion), who announced La La Land. And it took two long minutes to correct the error. Watching this unfold live was simply astonishing, one of the most jaw-dropping moments in Oscar history. It definitely overshadowed just how amazing Moonlight's win is.

There were hints early on that the expected La La Land sweep wasn't going to happen, as awards were handed out to Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and even Suicide Squad before La La Land won its first statuette. In the end, La La Land won 6 awards to Moonlight's 3. Other than Best Picture, there were no real upsets. Speeches were terrific, with pointed political jabs and lots of wonderfully emotional moments.

Jimmy Kimmel did a solid job as host, maintaining his jokes all the way through the ceremony (something few hosts manage). He also gave his continual mocking of Trump a jokey tone. Some of his bits didn't really work (the tour bus) and others were recycled (mean tweets), but his dry approach was very funny, and the ongoing banter with Matt Damon genuinely hilarious.

Before leaving Los Angeles, I managed to catch up with Get Out, Jordan Peele's superbly original horror drama - witty, scary and very clever. And back in London I headed to a screening of the strikingly original superhero thriller Logan, Hugh Jackman's last outing as Wolverine. On the plane in between, I revisited one of my all-time favourites, Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles, which still makes me laugh uncontrollably.

Coming up this week, we have screenings of the new mega-blockbuster Kong: Skull Island, Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, Stephen Fry's Hippopotamus, the Argentine drama Bromance, and the dark romance Fair Haven, to start with.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Out on a Limb: Oscar picks & predictions

Once again, here are my choices and who I think will win at the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday. My track record on this is a bit spotty, but I am a realist, knowing that Oscar voters often award the wrong people for the right reasons.....

Will/should win: La La Land
Dark horse: Moonlight

F O R E I G N   F I L M
Will win: The Salesman
Should/could win: Toni Erdmann
Dark horse: A Man Called Ove

A N I M A T E D   F E A T U R E
Will win: Zootopia
Should/could win:  Kubo and the Two Strings

Will win: 13th
Should win:  Fire at Sea
Could win: OJ: Made in America

Will win: Damien Chazelle - La La Land
Should win:  Barry Jenkins - Moonlight

Will/should win: Isabelle Huppert - Elle
Quite likely: Emma Stone - La La Land
Dark horse: Natalie Portman - Jackie

Will/should win: Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea
Quite likely: Denzel Washington - Fences
Dark horse: Ryan Gosling - La La Land

S U P P O R T I N G   A C T R E S S
Will win: Viola Davis - Fences
Should win/dark horse: Naomie Harris - Moonlight

S U P P O R T I N G   A C T O R
Will win: Mahershala Ali - Moonlight
Should win:  Lucas Hedges - Manchester By The Sea
Dark horse: Dev Patel - Lion

O R I G I N A L   S C R E E N P L A Y
Will/should win: Kenneth Lonergan - Manchester by the Sea
Could win: Damien Chazelle - La La Land

A D A P T E D   S C R E E N P L A Y
Will/should win: Barry Jenkins - Moonlight
Dark horse: Luke Davies - Lion

Will win: Justin Hurwitz - La La Land
Should win:  Mica Levi - Jackie

Will win: City of Stars - La La Land
Should win:  Audition (The Fools Who Dream) - La La Land

Will win: Linus Sandgren - La La Land
Should win:  James Laxton - Moonlight

P R O D U C T I O N   D E S I G N
Will win: David Wasco - La La Land
Should win:  Jess Gonchor - Hail, Caesar!

F I L M   E D I T I N G
Will win: Tom Cross - La La Land
Should win:  Joe Walker - Arrival

Will/should win: Madeline Fontaine - Jackie
Could win: Mary Zophres - La La Land

Will/should win: The Jungle Book

M A K E - U P   &   H A I R
Will/should win: A Man Called Ove

S O U N D   
Should win:  Arrival
Will win: La La Land

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Critical Week: In the shadows

I only saw two movies this week - but then I am on holidaat the moment! Dane DeHaan stars in A Cure for Wellness, an overlong, visually sumptuous horror thriller set in a Swiss sanatorium where something nasty is going on underwater. Alas, the script simplifies things rather than deepening them over two and a half hours. More enjoyable is the Matt Damon romp The Great Wall, a big East-meets-West action adventure blending mythology with history. Silly and over-reliant on digital effects, but entertaining.

On Saturday, since I'm in Los Angeles, I was able to attend the Dorian Awards winner's toast at The Pikey on Sunset Blvd. I'm a voting member of Galeca, which hands out the prizes, but I'd never attended the event. It's a casual, lively gathering featuring champagne and frites, and I enjoyed a chance to interact with other critics as well as the winners and special guests. Here are some pics...
The creators, writers and cast of The Real O'Neals turned up to collect their award for Unsung TV Show of the Year.

Left: composer Nicholas Brittell and actor Trevante Rhodes collected the awards for Moonlight, including Film, Rising Star (Rhodes), Director, Screenplay, Actor (Mahershala Ali) and LGBTQ Film. Right: cinematographer Lunis Sandgren accepts the award for La La Land as Visually Striking Film of the Year.

Left to right: actress Amy Landecker picked up the award for Transparent as TV Comedy, Michelle Visage collected the prize for RuPaul''s Drag Race All Stars as Campy TV Show, and producer Ashley Golden was presented the award for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee as TV Current Affairs Show of the Year.

The event was unusually relaxed, allowing for some terrific rambling conversations, photo ops and lots of laughter. A highlight for me was getting to meet Bradley Whitford (right with his partner Landecker) and having a lengthy friendly drunken political rant about Trump and climate change issues. Exactly the kind of conversation you'd want to have with Whitford! Of course, not I want to plan a trip back to LA every year to coincide with this event.

See the full list of Galeca nominees and winners.

Movies opening here in the USA this weekend that look interesting include Jordan Peele's offbeat horror Get Out and the Nicholas Hoult thriller Collide. Hopefully I'll have time to see one of them this weekend, along with watching the Oscars on Sunday at a normal hour (as opposed to the life 1am to 6am in London). And then it's back to London on Monday!