Thursday, 20 July 2017

Critical Week: Land, sea, air and space

Two big movies this week were passion projects written and directed by top filmmakers. Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an almost outrageously colourful outer space romp starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. It's visually fabulous, but never terribly thrilling. By contrast, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is so viscerally inventive that it pulls us into a cleverly splintered narrative - on land, sea and air - surrounding Britain's epic 1940 evacuation across the channel. Unlike any war movie you've seen, it's perhaps the year's best film so far. And it's especially powerful on the Imax screen.

Much sillier thrills were to be had at Captain Underpants, the riotously rude animated comedy centred on a friendship between two pranksters who convince their principal that he's a superhero. Frenetic but very funny. The Vault is a heist movie with supernatural horror overtones starring James Franco and Francesca Eastwood (comments are embargoed). Killing Ground is more straightforward grisly horror from Australia about two families who face scary locals in the woods. And the 1961 British classic Victim gets a welcome reissue to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. It's also still a great drama, with powerhouse performances from Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms.

Coming up this next week are Kathryn Bigelow's 1960s riots drama Detroit, Bill Nighy's Victorian whodunit The Limehouse Golem, Jada Pinkett Smith and friends on a comical Girls Trip, Gerard Butler as A Family Man, a couple of women trapped 47 Metres Down, and the festival-winning On Body and Soul.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Critical Week: What big hair you have!

A rather vicious bout with food poisoning derailed a few film screenings for me this week, leaving me feeling a bit like the Sun King on his deathbed in The Death of Louis XIV, an achingly slow-moving but mesmerising 18th century drama by Albert Serra. It also has a surprising underlying sense of humour to it, plus a lovely performance from Jean-Pierre Leaud. Terrence Malick's Song to Song is another gorgeous collage of a movie with a plot that was slightly less defiantly elusive than his more recent movies. It also has striking performances from Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchet and more. And Maudie is the warm true story of Nova Scotia painter Maud Lewis, sometimes a bit too quirky and quaint for its own good, but Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke add nice textures to their offbeat roles. And then there was this one...


A Few Less Men
dir Mark Lamprell; scr Dean Craig; with Xavier Samuel, Kris Marshall, Kevin Bishop, Ryan Corr 17/Aus *
Screenwriter Dean Craig's 2012 comedy A Few Best Men was painfully unfunny, only livened up by Stephan Elliot's subversive direction. No one expected a sequel. But here it is, and the three returning actors at least dive in with gusto. Even so, Craig's script is even more unbearably inane this time, proving that comedies need gags that have something to do with characters or situations. Here, the jokes are random, usually extended set-pieces involving death and/or bodily functions, all with a vile homophobic undertone. And the plot simply makes no sense. It starts where the first film ended, after the wedding of sensible nice-guy David (Samuel), whose idiotic and unlikely English buddies (Marshall and Bishop) are coping with the death of a friend. The hijinks ensue as they try to get the body back to London so camp mobster Henry (Corr) can bury his brother. But they crash-land their private jet and end up carrying the coffin across the Outback on a single day that would need to have about 72 hours in it (Henry flies from London to meet them in Perth while the sun is still in the sky). The actors just about emerge with their dignity intact, simply by never acknowledging how bone-chillingly awful this movie is. There are welcome antics from scene-stealers like Lynette Curran, Deborah Mailman, Shane Jacobson and Sacha Horler. And the closing credits outtakes at least hint they had some fun making it.


This coming week we have Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the animated antics of Captain Underpants, the Morrissey biopic England Is Mine and the cleverly titled heist thriller The Vault.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Critical Week: Say your prayers

As another heatwave settles in over London, I had two film-free days this week. First was the baseball event in Hyde Park (see the post below), and the other was the Critics' Circle annual summer party on the gorgeous roof terrace at Picturehouse Central. As for films, I really enjoyed Sofia Coppola's remake of The Beguiled, but then I love her loose filmmaking style and the way she lets her actors bring out unexpected depths of character. At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, the franchise continues with Cars 3, the fifth (don't forget the Planes movies) in the series about a world populated by vehicles but not humans. The set-up is just as odd, but the movie has an earthy simplicity to it.

Much more offbeat, Bong Joon Ho's Okja is a witty, involving action adventure with very dark themes about globalisation and sharp performances from Tilda Swinton (times two), Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano. Also worth a look is It Comes at Night, an inventively complex horror movie starring Joel Edgerton. It's set after some kind of undefined apocalypse but heavily reminiscent of the world today. Hickok is a cheesy Western tracing the story of the iconic historical figure, nicely played by a beefy Luke Hemsworth. And Do You Take This Man is another thoughtful drama starring Anthony Rapp, set around a pre-wedding dinner at which the usual personal issues are brought to the surface.

This coming week, screenings include Terrence Malick's Song to Song, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke in Maudie, the Aussie sequel A Few Less Men, the horror thriller Killing Ground and the fact-based drama Dark Night.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Battleground: Baseball in Hyde Park

So I got to celebrate the 4th of July with the first ever Major League Baseball event held in London. It happened to be a gorgeously warm and sunny evening at BST Hyde Park, the summer-long festival that includes concerts, open-air movies and perhaps the best array of street food and drink I've ever seen. The MLB Battlegrounds took over the main stage for a homerun shootout between the Boston Red Sox and the L.A. Dodgers. Being a native of Los Angeles, there really was no question who I would be cheering for.

The event is somewhat contrived, as the teams aren't actually represented here: these batters are a collection of players wearing the jerseys, including on each team a retired MLB all-star, a British cricketer, a female softball pro and two past or present baseball players. They smack away pitches trying to hit as many homeruns as possible, with added targets for extra points. At the end of round one, the Dodgers were in the lead, and then it became an individual competition, with the Red Sox's Carlos Peña (above) and the Dodgers' Federico Celli (right) facing off for the title. Celli's final 31-point round was simply mind-boggling, claiming the crown.

  • Dodgers: all-star Cliff Floyd (captain), former baseball pro Shawn Green, Italian-born baseball pro Federico Celli, softball pro Karla Claudio and England cricketer Alex Hales.
  • Red Sox: all-star Carlos Peña (captain), former baseball pro Gary Davidson, German-born baseball pro Julsan Kamara, softball pro Taylor Hoagland and England cricketer Jos Buttler.

Random touches abound for this kind of event (a live DJ! a dance battle! a highlights reel!), and it all features that general rah-rah American sporting atmosphere. But it was nice to see Londoners turn out by the thousands (20,000 to be exact) to scream their support, catch fly balls and fight over t-shirts fired from airguns. Having a media pass that allowed me to watch from right on the stage helped make it even more fun! My Instagram posts are below...


A post shared by Rich Jack Cline (@ukcline) on
A post shared by Rich Jack Cline (@ukcline) on
A post shared by Rich Jack Cline (@ukcline) on

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Critical Week: Nuns on the run

There were a few big blockbusters screened to the London press this past week. The Hitman's Bodyguard is a riotous action-comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson; Spider-Man: Homecoming is the hugely entertaining and surprisingly hilarious Marvel movie that finally puts the gifted Tom Holland front and centre; War for the Planet of the Apes concludes the prequel trilogy starring the awesome Andy Serkis with a remarkably thoughtful and involving thriller; and Despicable Me 3 is the manic continuation of the entertaining animated action-comedy series featuring Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig.

Less tentpole-ish: The House is a feeble comedy starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler that only has a few amusing touches. Final Portrait is a riveting but over-stylised true story anchored by a career-best performance from Geoffrey Rush; and Hotel Salvation is a remarkably sensitive Indian comedy-drama that knowingly tackles issues of religion and mortality.

Coming up this next week, we've got screenings of the Pixar sequel Cars 3, Tilda Swinton in Okja, Joel Edgerton in It Comes at Night and Luke Hemsworth in Hickok, plus a few catch-up films to watch at home. Meanwhile, both the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the East End Film Festival in London come to a close this weekend.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

So many shows, new and returning, converged this spring that it was a relief that this year's season of Game of Thrones was delayed. It's been intriguing to see the convergence of so many political shows tackling the same themes: Homeland, Veep, Scandal and House of Cards at times felt like the same show, struggling to be more outrageous than what was actually happening in Washington. And then The Handmaid's Tale (ahem!) trumped all of them. 

SOMETHING NEW

Twin Peaks
To get ready for this, I binged the 1990-91 series, plus the 1992 movie Fire Walk With Me, chilled each time "25 years later" was mentioned. And now here we are. The new shows have a different tone, more fragmented and much drier. But David Lynch is cleverly maintaining the open-ended mystery, dropping clues everywhere without explaining anything, giving just enough plot to make it riveting. Most of the returning cast members are appearing in cameos, but Kyle McLachlan has even more work to do as Dale Cooper tries to, well, put himself back together after a quarter century in red-curtained limbo (although his duality is beginning to feel draggy). The show is also still very funny, although not quite as silly as the original shows were. It's also just as magnetic, impossible to look away. This season continues until September, and Lynch says there's more to come after that.

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood's novel is more than 30 years old, and yet its premise feels chillingly relevant in this creepy series set in a very near future ("When they blamed terrorists and suspended freedom temporarily, we let them") ruled by a theocratic government that brutally enforces "traditional" values. Produced with artistry and anchored by yet another riveting performance from Elisabeth Moss, this is a punchy exploration of human nature and the dangers of subverting it for whatever reason. It's somehow shocking to hear Offred's fiery internal thoughts as she plays such a passive role on the outside, a rare fertile woman in a polluted world, assigned to bear children for a wealthy commander (Joseph Fiennes) and yearning for her stolen daughter (Jordana Blake). What this says about fanaticism and resilience is astonishing. And it's emotionally riveting. A second season is coming, praised be.

Santa Clarita Diet
A witty, original approach to the zombie genre, this sitcom is thoroughly engaging thanks to the likeable central performances of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as estate agents in suburbia dealing with her sudden appetite for human flesh. The carnage is played for laughs, and since this is Netflix the grisliness and language are pretty full-on. It's all rather broad, and the short episodes never really go anywhere. Indeed, the 10-episode first season feels very slight. But there are hilarious moments dotted throughout every episode, and the side roles are pretty fabulous, from teens Liv Hewson and Skyler Gisondo to the likes of Portia De Rossi, Patton Oswalt, Nathan Fillion, Ricardo Chavira, Thomas Lennon and the great Grace Zabriskie.

Thirteen Reasons Why
There's a loose realism to this series that continually takes the viewer by surprise. Corny but involving, it holds the interest with dramatic intensity and the seriousness of the teen-suicide theme. Dylan Minette is excellent as a highschooler trying to understand why one of his classmates killed herself then left him a set of old-fashioned cassette tapes to explain herself and to lead him on a kind of scavenger hunt. It's all a bit gimmicky, contriving to drag things out over the 13 stretched-out episodes that turn every character (including the dead girl) into someone who isn't remotely likeable. There are some important points, but it's not as truthful as it pretends to be.

THE DRAMA CONTINUES

Sense8: Series 2
After nearly two years, this ground-breaking, earth-shattering series returns, and it kicks off with a fierce attack on endemic bigotry in society - a seriously complex, thoughtful and provocative exploration of sexism, misogyny and homophobia. This is a show about what binds humanity together in the face of various man-made divisions. And it's staggeringly well written, acted and assembled as a ripping thriller this time, with stronger characters and a punchy momentum that grabs hold and doesn't let up. Sadly, after this enormous set-up, Netflix has decided not to continue the story. Although it definitely needs some kind of conclusion, please.

House of Cards: Series 5
It seems impossible that this show could get any darker, but here we are. This season is so bleak and nasty that it's not easy to watch, but we're kind of afraid that the Underwoods might hunt us down and kill us if we stop. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are astounding as always, offering a terrifying portrayal of a couple clinging relentlessly to power through sheer force of will. And as they subtly begin turning on each other, this becomes must-see drama. The nastier gyrations of the plot may feel exaggerated and contrived until we remember what's happened in the so-called civilised world over the past year. Our political landscape might not be quite this violent, but it's not as far removed as we'd like to think. And where this is going for future seasons is more than a little scary.

Fargo: Series 3
The almost freakishly talented Noah Hawley (see also Legion) continues this anthology series with a new scenario in snowy 2010 Minnesota, quickly spinning events out of control over the first few episodes, then deepening characters and intrigue in fiendishly inventive ways. Some of the flourishes are a bit gimmicky (and one episode seems to have snuck in here from Twin Peaks), but there's a snaky underlying attitude that keeps it riveting. And the cast is simply wonderful, anchored by the superb Carrie Coon and a double dose of Ewan McGregor. Produced to a very high standard, it's also a rare show that allows for unnerving complexity in its themes, including the moral questions about who's good and evil. Fiendishly clever.

The Get Down: Series 1b
The second half of Baz Luhrmann's groovy and stylish 11-episode dramatisation of the birth of hip-hop in 1978 continues in the same exhilarating style, anchored by the engaging central performance from Justice Smith. This is bold television, exploring a range of issues with intelligence, humour and real insight, plus a terrific use of old and new songs that makes Empire look feeble by comparison. Some of the excesses are a bit overused (there's far too much animation, oddly including key plot moments). But the impressionistic approach is fascinating, even if it's perhaps too artful for purists who want to see the gritty details of this period of history, both for New York and for music. 

JUST A LAUGH

Veep: Series 6
The writing is as good as ever in this sixth season, even though the characters are spread out in a variety of places around the political world. Which just proves the resilience of the characters and the actors playing them. No one's anywhere near the White House this time, which somehow makes everything even funnier. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has the best comedic timing on television, period. And what makes this show so unmissable is that she's happily playing such a self-absorbed buffoon, while everyone around her is even more appalling. We really should hate all of these idiots, and the chaos they bring to US government, but their relentless cynicism makes them likeable. And also frighteningly authentic.

Grace and Frankie: Series 3
It was impressive to see the cast and writers push these characters in some bold directions during this season. Instead of the gentle holding pattern of Series 2, this year was packed with challenges, and the writing was sharply funny as well as more intelligent and introspective, which drew superbly textured performances from Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston and others. Some elements felt a bit farcical, in a sitcom sort of way (namely Bud's hypochondriac girlfriend), but there were plenty of clever surprises along the way. And everything touched on much bigger themes about various forms of bigotry, along with the general indignities of getting older.

The Trip to Spain:
Series 3
This hilarious improvised comedy directed by Michael Winterbottom sends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on another wacky road trip, taking in the sights and tastes while engaging in stream-of-consciousness repartee. Once again, these six half-hour episodes are engaging and packed with witty gags, delicious food and lovely landscapes. This time it also feels rather grumpy and deliberately self-indulgent, overdoing the starry impersonations to the point of exhaustion (they seem to notice this as well). As before, there are a few side characters to add some narrative continuity, and of course a string of smart running jokes. Plus a nice wave of Cervantes-style surrealism popping up now and again. But if they travel somewhere else, it would be nice to freshen up their banter.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Series 3
Because of the breakneck pace and relentless goofiness, this third season takes awhile to find its feet. But once it sets up the story arcs for its central characters, the series takes off into a series of riotous, astute directions. The rapid-fire dialog is flat-out hilarious, played broadly by gifted actors who are able to turn their dim-witted, oblivious characters into people who are surprisingly loveable. And along the way, there are some serious issues that gurgle quietly in the background, cleverly remaining fodder for jokes rather than preachy messaging (such as racist sports franchise names or the gentrification of quirky neighbourhoods). So even if everything is utterly bonkers, there's an edge to this show that makes it irresistible.

I GIVE UP

There were three shows that I just couldn't stick with. Generally I try to give a show at least three episodes before I tune out... 
  • American Gods: A bewildering melange of fantasy, mythology, comedy and thrills, this hyper-violent series is so smug that it never lets the viewer into what's going on. I struggled through three episodes. 
  • Dear White People: Justin Simien cleverly adapts his provocative film for TV, using an inventive structure that focusses on different perspectives. I love the complex, witty exploration of race issues, but it feels oddly ingrown, and far too pleased with itself.
  • I Love Dick: Jill Soloway brings the brilliant Kathryn Hahn with her from Transparent to this cynical comedy about a bunch of unlikeable artists. Even with the terrific cast and some surprising storytelling, I didn't make it past episode 5.


Coming up: Game of Thrones, Master of None, The Carmichael Show, something new?

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Critical Week: Trust no one

There were two very different action movies screened to the press this past week. Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is a whizzy thriller packed with gimmicky filmmaking touches and snappy performances from the likes of Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eliza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm (above), plus Kevin Spacey, Lily James and others. Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth in the series, is a cacophonous adventure that looks pretty awesome on Imax 3D but is a painful two and a half hours without a coherent story or characters.

Outside the mainstream, we also had a screening of Phyllida Lloyd's bracingly inventive Julius Caesar, a filmed version of her female-prison set version of Shakespeare's eerily resonant play. Scribe is a Hitchcockian thriller from Belgium starring Francois Cluzet as a man pulled into a political nightmare that seems to be actually taking place right now in the world around us. Tom of Finland is a gripping if somewhat mannered biopic about the unassuming man who completely changed the world's image of masculinity with his hyper-macho illustrations. Risk is Laura Poitras' long-in-the-works doc about Julian Assange, whose enigmatic nature infects this film. And City of Ghosts is the stunning, essential documentary about a group of brave journalists covering Daesh's destruction of their hometown Raqqa, Syria.

As the East End Film Festival continues in London, the Edinburgh Film Festival gets underway in Scotland. And this week's press screenings include the animated sequel Despicable Me 3, Ryan Reynolds in The Hitman's Bodyguard, Armie Hammer in Final Portrait, the French period drama The Death of Louis XIV, the Indian drama Hotel Salvation, and the Baltic road movie You Can't Escape Lithuania.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Critical Week: On an adventure

There were some powerful performances in press screenings this past week. The offbeat family drama-cum-thriller The Book of Henry is held together by Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher (pictured) and Jacob Tremblay despite its jarring shifts between genres. The artfully internalised Churchill is anchored by an awards-worthy turn by Brian Cox despite its oddly overfamiliar plot. The WWII drama Alone in Berlin has the terrific Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson and Daniel Bruhl to hold the attention even when the pacing gets rather dull. And there was a wonderfully light-hearted role for Isabelle Huppert in Bavo Defurne's enjoyably quirky Belgian musical comedy-drama Souvenir.

Further afield, the small-budget British drama Daphne struggles to maintain its narrative but creates a nice sense of life in multicultural London. And the powerfully moving Australian doc Remembering the Man is an insightful account of the life of Tim Conigrave, whose Holding the Man is a seminal account of the Aids pandemic.

Screening this coming week are Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight, Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Julius Caesar, the French political thriller Scribe, the Finnish biopic Tom of Finland, Laura Poitras' Assange documentary Risk, and the Syrian Civil War doc City of Ghosts.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Critical Week: Feel the beat

Summer is a strange time for film critics, because the studios hold their big blockbusters until the very last moment. Or in one case this week, beyond all our deadlines. In previous weeks, films like Wonder Woman and King Arthur were screened just a few days before release, while this week's The Mummy screening was only hours before it opened on Friday. You can kind of see why, since it's a big action blockbuster with little to appeal to critics, but of course all critics are fans on the inside. We just need stronger stomachs than some others.

Otherwise this week, the bigger titles included The Last Word (above), with a welcome lead role for Shirley MacLaine, plus an up-for-it Amanda Seyfried. Its smart, sharp approach is somewhat softened by a flood of aphorisms in the final act. All Eyez on Me is a biopic about Tupac Shakur, very much in the vein of Straight Outta Compton (reviews are embargoed). Further afield was the American low-budget I Love You Both, which is set up as a rom-com about twins who fall for the same man, but turns into more of a drama with comical edges. And the independent British drama God's Own Country has already wowed Sundance and Berlin, and is now set to open Edinburgh in a couple of weeks. It's drop-dead gorgeous, a five-star debut for writer-director Francis Lee with breakout performances and awards-worthy work from the crew.

This coming week we have Brian Cox as Churchill, Emma Thompson in Alone in Berlin, the British indie Daphne and the documentary Remembering the Man. Thankfully, the UK election will be behind us and we can get on with normal life again. Hopefully with a bit of hope and some nice sunny summer weather....

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Sundance London: Get out of there

The fifth Sundance Film Festival: London wraps up tonight at Picturehouse Central. It's been a terrific collection of films this year - a varied selection of American indies made by gifted filmmakers. Repeat cast members included Lakeith Stanfield (Crown Heights and The Incredible Jessica James) and David Warshofsky (Beatriz at Dinner and Wilson). And the surprise film Patti Cake$ is likely to end up in my top 10 movies of the year. Full reviews will appear on the site as the films open, but here are some final blurbs...

A Ghost Story
dir-scr David Lowery; with Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara 17/US ***.
A quirky oddity of a movie that's more than a little indulgent, this spiritual odyssey explores issues of life, death and time with a poetic sensibility, almost as if Terrence Malick made an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. It's so absurd that it feels like it should be funny, but the tone is strikingly somber, even morose. And while it's too mannered to be emotionally involving, it's impossible to look away.

Wilson
dir Craig Johnson; with Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern 17/US ***
A jarringly offbeat tone keeps the audience on its toes for this scruffy comedy, which is essentially a celebration of a hyperactive, hopelessly optimistic curmudgeon. Based on screenwriter Daniel Clowes' graphic novel, there's nothing very realistic about this character, but the script is brittly funny, with hints of real insight under the goofy surface.

The Incredible Jessica James
dir-scr James C Strouse; with Jessica Williams, Chris O'Dowd 17/US ****
With a perceptive script and a wonderfully nuanced lead performance from Jessica Williams, this comedy has a lot of very honest things to say about the difficult choices we make relating to both relationships and careers. But while the film has moments of pointed intensity, nothing is ever laid on thickly. Instead, writer-director James Strouse keeps the audience laughing at the witty dialog and surprising characters all the way through.

Patti Cake$
dir-scr Geremy Jasper; with Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett 17/US *****
A loud blast of fresh air, this crowd-pleasing comedy-drama is impossible to watch without generating a huge smile and probably a few tears. It's a forward-thinking story of frustration and ambition that almost anyone in the audience can identify with, and it's populated with an eclectic bunch of messy, loveable characters. If you have the ability to find beauty in even the most unlikely places, it's pure bliss.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Sundance London: Drink to that

The fifth Sundance Film Festival: London is now fully underway with a series of screenings and quite a few chances to meet the filmmakers at Picturehouse Central in Piccadilly. Last night's opening event was superb, with the team from Beatriz at Dinner in attendance - writer Mike White, director Miguel Arteta and actor Salma Hayek, all on great form. I'm catching movies all weekend, including the surprise film tonight (I have an inkling). Here are a few more highlights...

Beatriz at Dinner
dir Miguel Arteta; with Salma Hayek, John Lithgow 17/US ****.
A third teaming of the terrific director-writer duo Miguel Arteta and Mike White (see also Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl), this astute pitch-black comedy cuts a razor-sharp line through affluent American society. It's a fiendishly smart film with moments in which we're not sure whether this is funny or terrifying, simply because it resonates so strongly. And it's anchored by Salma Hayek's best ever performance.

Walking Out
dir-scr Alex Smith, Andrew J Smith; with Matt Bomer, Josh Wiggins 17/US ***.
A sensitive drama about the awkward bonding between a father and son takes a very dark turn in this beautifully photographed film. As things get genuinely gruelling, filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith somehow manage to avoid both melodrama and sentimentality. The themes get a bit lost in the dictates of the plot, which makes the pace feel draggy, but there's still a thoughtful, moving edge.

Bitch
dir-scr Marianna Palka; with Jason Ritter, Jaime King 17/US ***
A jarring production style and unsympathetic characters make it difficult to enjoy this offbeat pitch-black comedy, but there are important themes that surge up throughout the story that make it worth a look. And it's always great to see a film that keeps you off-balance. In addition, writer-director Marianna Palka draws boldly realistic performances from her cast. And herself.

Icarus
dir Bryan Fogel; with Bryan Fogel, Grigory Rodchenkov17/US ****
This documentary starts out to explore drug use among professional cyclists then becomes engulfed in another series of events that have far bigger repercussions. Filmmaker Bryan Fogel may be too involved in what happens to tell the story with journalistic vigour, unable to resist framing everything as some sort of epic spy thriller, but what's revealed is genuinely earth-shaking. And it's a movie that's impossible to ignore.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Sundance London: Do the right thing

The fifth Sundance Film Festival: London kicks off tonight at Picturehouse Central, and the next four days will feature 14 feature films and 15 shorts, plus some revived classics. It's a great chance to see movies that are just a bit off the beaten path and then mix with the filmmakers and cast members too - and Picturehouse is a great place to hang out! Here are my comments on four films, with more to come over the weekend...

Crown Heights
dir-scr Matt Ruskin; with Lakeith Stanfield (pictured above), Nnamdi Asomugha 17/US ***
A powerful true story is recounted skilfully as this drama spans 21 years in the life of a man wrongfully accused of murder. Writer-director Matt Ruskin has several urgent things to say about the American judicial system, although his approach chronicles the events like a well-made TV docudrama rather than building a proper cinematic narrative arc. This leaves us feeling informed but not hugely involved, but it's essential that this story is told.

The Big Sick
dir Michael Showalter; with Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan 17/US ****
With a network of complex, realistic relationships, each with its own trajectory, this film feels rather long and somewhat tonally jarring for a comedy. It veers from snarky humour to giggly romance to some very bleak emotions as it goes along, but the themes it explores are powerfully resonant. And they give the film a surprising kick that echoes long after the credits roll.

Marjorie Prime
dir-scr Michael Almereyda; with Lois Smith, Jon Hamm 17/US ****
A rather talky script and lofty themes make it obvious that this film was adapted from a stage play (the playwright is Jordan Harrison). It's the kind of movie that holds the attention simply because it touches on so many big ideas in ways that spark thought. It's too brainy to be emotionally involving, but it's a bracing exploration of memory that carries a real wallop. It might even change the way you define your relationships.

Bushwick
dir Cary Murnion, Jonathan Milott; with Dave Bautista, Brittany Snow 17/US 1h34 **.
This busy thriller unfolds in unexpected ways as it propels us along with the characters through an inventive premise. But it's all a bit haphazard, with uneven writing and acting and a gnawing sense that there isn't much of a point to all the carnage. Still, it's a ripping little action movie that refuses to let its low-key production values get in the way of its big ambitions.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
CRITICAL WEEK
The only non-festival movie I've seen in the past week is Wonder Woman, which I really loved despite the too-digital climax. Sundance London continues over the weekend (watch for more updates here and full reviews on the site). Screenings coming up next week include the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me and Tom Cruise's The Mummy reboot.


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.