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.