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. 


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.


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. 


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
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.