Thursday, 19 April 2018

Critical Week: Own it

Among films screened to the London press this past week was Amy Schumer's new film I Feel Pretty, which is bound to get a mixed response for a variety of reasons. It may not quite be funny enough, but its message is complex and empowering. Less complex, the latest weepy teen romance is Every Day, which at least has a premise that catches the imagination. And it's a solidly made movie for what it is. And then there's Show Dogs, a talking dog action comedy that's flat-out ridiculous and knows it. So it's rather a lot of silly fun.

More serious fare included the true drama Entebbe, recounting the hijacking and commando raid in 1976 Uganda from so many perspectives that the overall effect is somewhat dulled. The intense French drama Jeune Femme features a fierce performance from Laetitia Dosch. And there were two docs: Studio 54 features amazing footage and photographs as it tells, for the first time, the firsthand account of the friends who founded the iconic disco, and Time Trial is an immersive, superbly shot and edited look at cyclist David Millar's attempt at a comeback.

Coming up this week, we have the seriously anticipated Avengers: Infinity War, starring pretty much everyone in the Marvel universe, plus Charlize Theron in Tully, John Hurt in That Good Night, the animated comedy Sherlock Gnomes, the horror thriller The Strangers: Prey at Night and Bruce LaBruce's The Misandrists.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Critical Weeks: Stop playing games

There were a couple of big releases screened for the London press this week. The latest Blumhouse horror movie Truth or Dare (above) is a contrived collection of cliches with a preposterous plot. It's slickly made, but only watchable because of its bright, young cast. Dwayne Johnson kicks into action in Rampage, a videogame adaptation that's a proper guilty pleasure: stupid but funny, and full of mindless mayhem.

The longest title of the year award goes to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, based on the novel about a WWII book club. It's lovely and very British, easy to just go along with even if it feels rather over-sweet. The skilfully made documentary McQueen traces the designer's career with plenty of style as well as a strong emotional kick. And from Belgium, Cas is a 50-minute mini-feature that's getting a release due to its finely produced, complex story of a couple who brings a stranger into their relationship.

Coming up this week, we have Amy Schumer in I Feel Pretty, the canine comedy Show Dogs, the drama Every Day, the French comedy Jeune Femme, the 1970s doc Studio 54 and the Tour de France doc Time Trial.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Spring TV roundup

I continue to use television as a reset in between film screenings, so I manage to catch quite a few series along the way. Here's what I watched through the winter months...

NEW AND NOTABLE

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
The decision to tell this story out of sequence, essentially moving backwards through the narrative, eliminated any sense of momentum from the overall series. The only real way to watch it is as a group of stand-alone episodes that are loosely connected but lack any dramatic kick. That said, there's real power in the story itself, and it's very well shot, edited and acted by a first-rate, unapologetic cast. Darren Criss is superb as the psychopathic central character, and Penelope Cruz is remarkable as a deeply unlikeable Donatella. But by the final episode, when it circles back to where it started, there's an odd lack of emotion or tension, leaving the series admirable but not particularly satisfying.

Everything Sucks!
Set in the late 1990s, this smart comedy follows a handful of teens through the misery of high school, during which their burgeoning hormones cause quite a few problems. Basically, this is Stranger Things with nerdy kids facing more everyday horrors like the idea of your principal dating your mother. Discovering that you're not like the other kids is both terrifying and liberating. And the show is so freshly written and played that it frequently takes the breath away, and not only because the events are so resonant. These are all vividly realistic, flawed people trying to do their best against the usual odds everyone faces. So the humour bristles with earthy honesty, and quiet revelations are powerfully moving. 

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
A blast of fresh air, this lively series rightly won awards across the board. Rachel Brosnahan is fantastic as the title character, a 1950s New York society housewife who finds herself suddenly single and nowhere near as helpless as everyone thinks she should be. A force of nature, Midge is smart and absolutely hilarious, so her budding career as an edgy standup comic feels just about right. It helps that the writers give her jokes that are actually funny. And the show's recreation of the period is strikingly well-done. But it's the characters who make this show unmissable, including Alex Borstein as Midge's sardonic agent, Michael Zegen as her hapless ex, and Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub as her eye-rolling parents. 

McMafia
This eight-part British series struggled to build up a head of steam in its tale of Russian mafia business dealings. James Norton anchored the series ably, although his character was far too repressed to really spring to life or garner much audience sympathy, especially as his story arc took him to some very, very dark places. The more engaging character was David Strathairn as a shifty Israeli dealmaker, although he was left on the sidelines. There may be a more intriguing story in here about business ethics in a slippery moral climate, but this show concentrated on the sinister mob underworld, which was watchable but never terribly compelling.

Star Trek: Discovery
The oppressive darkness in this show is a little much sometimes, from the violent parallel universe episodes to the ongoing nastiness as people who are meant to be good continually use murder and torture as everyday tools, simply because there's a war on. At least it looks great, and the cast is excellent across the board, with some nice surprises in the supporting ensemble. Although poor Doug Jones needs to redesign his annoyingly rubbery makeup so he can actually move his face. Spoiler alert: as painful as it was to lose the terrific Jason Isaacs and Wilson Cruz from the cast, at least Michelle Yeoh came back with a wild-eyed vengeance.

BACK FOR MORE

This Is Us: series 2
The shameless heart-tugging reached epic proportions over this season, but when a show is this well written and played you don't mind too much. All of the actors are great - including the kids who play the main roles at two earlier stages in their lives. And the producers finally had mercy on the audience by revealing the circumstances around Jack's death, including how it impacted each of the others in a specific way that causes all of the emotional fallout years later (many tissues required). It's contrived and overwrought, but beautifully done.

Love: series 3
The romance between improbable couple Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs continues, and is just as offbeat. Both of these people are damaged, not always likeable and not very easy to root for, so their relationship is a proper mess. Even more interesting in this season was the professional arc of Rust's character, who finally manages to shoot his film. But for every triumph, the screenwriters give him three crises, which is a little exhausting. And the show feels soft and sweet when it should be a lot more prickly. But it's charming enough to hold the interest.

Inside No 9: series 4
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's anthology series is showing a little strain. It's still wildly inventive, mixing a menacing horror vibe with Twilight Zone-style twists, but some of the premises kind of strained for effect, losing plausibility on the way. Still, the swings in tone were remarkable, from the slapstick farce of Zanzibar to the grim nostalgia of Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room. The nastiest episode was also the most gimmicky, Once Removed recounted its murderous tale in reverse order. Thankfully, each episode also has a topicality that makes it resonate. And they also offer a range of juicy roles for Shearsmith and Pemberton.

Grace and Frankie: series 4
A thin idea to begin with, this show has somehow found ways to deepen all of its characters without pushing anyone too far. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are still superb at the centre, with terrific chemistry and impeccable timing. They add unusual pathos and comedy to even the corniest situation. Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston struggle a bit more with their cartoonish roles, but also ground them in realistic thoughtfulness. And it's a rare show that makes us want more time with the side characters: these two couples' four children are pretty ridiculous, but their obsessions and quirks could fuel a series on their own.

Shameless: series 8
It's a rare show that can sustain the quality over eight years, and even rarer for a TV series to get the balance right between comedy and drama. But this remake of the British show is better than ever, pushing its characters into ever-more-intense situations while at the same time letting them grow and change. Sometimes it's a little overwhelming, as the writers never seem to let them catch a break, but there were moments in this season that offered the Gallagher family some welcome moments of triumph amid the usual setbacks. William H Macy anchors the show beautifully as the, yes, shameless Frank. But the entire ensemble is excellent.

The X Files: series 11
After the intriguing return to this story last year, this show continues in a bizarrely comical way that feels more like a pastiche than a new season. The first episode in this series was a downright spoof, and while subsequent episodes have had a certain entertainment value, most have been so ludicrous that they seem to miss the point entirely. Even the series mythology feels like it has lost the plot. So even though Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny continue to have strong chemistry together on-screen, maybe she's right to say that it's time to hang up these characters for good.

I GIVE UP

Bliss: As a fan of Stephen Mangan and creator David Cross, I was looking forward to this offbeat half-hour comedy about a guy trying to maintain two families. But the premise is riddled with implausibilities that began niggling right from the start, leading to some inevitable "twists". By the third episode, I'd had enough.

Action Team: The idea of a spoof action series is a great one, and there are some witty touches in this goofy British show. But both the writing and acting are far too broad and obvious for my taste. I lasted two episodes.

IN PROGRESS
At the moment I'm watching Trust (terrific cast, clever storytelling); The Looming Tower (riveting and scary, like a true version of Homeland); The Santa Clarita Diet 2 (a welcome slice of Drew Barrymore silliness); Schitt's Creek 4 (better than ever); Homeland 7 (has found a new groove); and the revivals of Will & Grace (funny if Megan Mullally is on screen) and Roseanne (eerily up to date humour). And plenty of things are coming up soon.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Critical Week: Watch the skies

I'm enjoying a quieter life this week after the end of the film festival. Screenings have mainly been smaller films like I Kill Giants, a strikingly well-made teen fantasy drama starring Madison Wolfe (above) and Zoe Saldana. Modern Life Is Rubbish is an engaging if somewhat awkwardly structured British romantic drama with cool musical overtones. Baja is a low-concept, low-energy road trip comedy that never quite hits its stride.

There were two films from Germany: Shelter is a cleverly subtle espionage thriller with very strong characters; and Western sharply explores personal and cultural issues between German workers and locals in rural Bulgaria. From Spain, The Night of the Virgin is a bonkers horror comedy with excessive grisliness and some wobbly storytelling.

Coffee House Chronicles is a multi-strand relationship comedy based on a web-series and featuring a huge number of characters in witty/corny little sketches. And I also managed to catch the live American broadcast version of one of my favourite musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar, a fairly straightforward version of the Webber & Rice classic featuring terrific musicians. John Legend was superb in the title role, but the show-stealing performance came from Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas.

This coming week I'm watching Dwayne Johnson in Rampage, Lily James in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, teen horror Truth or Dare, designer documentary McQueen, and the Basquiat doc Boom for Real.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Flare 7: Send up a flare

So BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival is over for another year, although the British Film Institute continues Flare-themed events year-round, including a special section on BFIPlayer. This was the 32nd year for this festival, one of the largest queer-focussed cinema events on earth. And it's the 20th year that I have been accredited to cover it, so it's always great to reconnect with my Flare buddies every year, hang out with the filmmakers and get some inspiration to make movies myself. Not counting revival screenings, I saw 24 feature films and 26 shorts in this year's festival. All of the features have been covered on this blog, with full reviews en route (Shico Menegat from Hard Paint is pictured above)...

MY BEST OF THE FEST

  1. 120 BPM (Robin Campillo, Fr)
  2. Hard Paint (Filipe Matzembacher & Marcio Reolon, Br)
  3. Malila: The Farewell Flower (Anucha Boonyawatana, Tha)
  4. The Wound (John Trengove, Sa)
  5. Postcards From London (Steve Mclean, UK)
  6. Sidney & Friends (Tristan Aitchison, UK)
  7. The Happy Prince (Ropert Everett, UK)
  8. Conversations With Gay Elders (David Weissman, US)
  9. My Days of Mercy (Tali Shalom-Ezer, US)
  10. Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, US)

Special mention: Freak Show. Rift. Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco. Good Manners. Stumped. Love, Scott.

FLARE SHORTS

Watching films on a big screen with an audience is the best way to watch any film, really, but it's rare to get the chance to see short films like that. So I love catching as many as possible at film festivals. Here are my 10 favourites from the range I caught at this year's Flare...

  1. Vertical Lines (Kyle Reaume, Can 14m) • There's an uncanny authenticity to this little film, which centres on a bedtime conversation about the meaning of body scars as a young couple gets to know each other. While remaining light and relaxed, the deeper themes are profoundly moving - and very important.
  2. Calamity (Severine de Streyker & Maxime Feyers, Bel 22m) • A hilariously deadpan tone accompanies this sharp-edged comedy about a young man reluctantly introducing his trans girlfriend to his idiotic family.
  3. The Sermon (Dean Puckett, UK 12m) • In the style of an exploitation film, this British short hilariously skewers blind religiosity with skill and wit.
  4. SununĂș: The Revolution of Love (Olivia Crellin, UK 25m) • The remarkable story of the first trans political candidate in Ecuador, this warm doc follows a young couple as they prepare for the birth of their first child while setting out to change their country.
  5. Half a Life (Tamara Shogaolu, Egy 12m) • Narrated by a young activist, this animated doc artfully and pointedly explores both the Arab Spring riots and the current social situation in Cairo.
  6. Ursinho (Stephane Olijnyk, Br 45m) • A mini-feature, this drama follows a lonely man in a Rio favela who has an encounter with an almost fantastical stranger on Copacabana.
  7. Cas (Joris van den Berg, Ned 48m) • Another rather long short, this drama centres on a happy couple whose relationship is strained by a houseguest who stays around a bit too long.
  8. Blood Out of a Stone (Ben Allen, UK 14m) • There's an earthy authenticity to this British short about two young guys trying to connect on an offbeat date.
  9. Landline (Matt Houghton, UK 13m) • Artfully shot and edited, this quietly powerful short doc uses recordings and dramatisations from a helpline for gay farmers.
  10. Edmund the Magnificent (Ben Ockrent, UK 14m) • It may be a bit arch and ridiculous, but this heightened comedy, narrated by Ian McKellen, recounts the story of a farmer (David Bradley) trying to breed his prized gay pig.

Full reviews of features and short reviews of the shorts will be on the main website, linked to my BFI Flare page.