Thursday, 5 December 2019

Critical Week: On the run

Awards screenings continued this week with several strikingly good movies. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner Smith star in the superb, pointed, involving road movie Queen & Slim. George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman star in Sam Mendes' bravura WWI adventure 1917, which also features cameos from Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Colin Firth. Mark Ruffalo takes on an evil corporation in Todd Haynes' riveting true drama Dark Waters. And Paul Walter Hauser is stunning as the title character in Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell, the true story of a man whose life was ruined by media sensationalism in 1996.

Not looking for awards are Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan, back with all their friends for the lively, silly Jumanji: The Next Level, which has a bit mote texture than the first one. And John Cena and John Leguizamo lead the charge as firefighters in Playing With Fire, a dim but rather enjoyably ridiculous mix of comedy and action.

Further afield, Jennifer Reeder's unhinged Knives and Skin is an enjoyably deranged mystery-thriller with blackly comical edges set in small-town America. And Helen Hunt leads the horror thriller I See You as a doped-up housewife whose already strained life is upended by what seems like a ghost in the family home. There was also this important reissued drama from 1985...



Buddies
dir-scr-prd Arthur J Bressan Jr
with Geoff Edholm, David Schachter, Damon Hairston, Joyce Korn, Billy Lux, David Rose, Libby Saines, Susan Schneider, Tracy Vivat
release US 12.Sep.85 • reissue US 21.Jun.18, UK 6.Dec.19 • 85/US 1h21 ****

Digitally restored to a pristine state, this is one of the earliest dramas about Aids, made as the epidemic was only just starting in 1985. It's one of the most humane treatments of the topic, centred around a friendship between two young men who are facing their mortality in very different ways. Filmmaker Arthur Bressan has some tricks up his sleeve, but his storytelling is disarmingly simple, which makes the characters and situations deeply engaging.

As a volunteer for a gay community centre, 25-year-old David (Schachter) introduces himself to 32-year-old Aids patient Robert (Edholm), who is in hospital with no real chance of recovery. David is nervous, and Robert is confrontational, but as they get to know each other, barriers come down and they share their very different personal journeys. David sneaks some porn into the room, while Robert challenges David to get involved in pushing the government to end its silence and stop a disease that is killing a generation.

While the film's tone feels simplistic and old-fashioned, there's a sophistication to the characters and issues that is far ahead of its time. Even three decades later, this is a bracingly complex exploration of the Aids epidemic, the political cruelty that sparked it and the social opinions that exacerbated it. So the way the film presents David and Robert as normal guys just trying to live their lives has an everyday quality to it, as well as something revolutionary. It's beautifully acted by both Schachter and Edholm, who bring sharp humour and warm emotion to every scene. The other cast members remain mainly just out of sight, because this isn't their story. So not only is this a vital document of a place and time, but it's also a remarkably involving, provocative drama that needs to be seen today.
 4.Nov.19 • Berlin



This coming week I'm hoping to get into a screening of the animated adventure Spies in Disguise, and there are also Justin Long in After Class and Gary Oldman in The Courier, plus catching up with the animated film Missing Link, the footballer doc Diego Maradona and the Tarantino doc QT8: The First Eight.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Stage: Detoxifying masculinity

Arrangement
choreography, producer Joe Moran / Dance Art Foundation
lighting Beky Stoddart • costumes Tom Rogers
with Andrew Hardwidge, Alexander Miles, Sean Murray, Erik Nevin, Christopher Owen, Yiannis Tsigkris, Temipote Ajose-Cutting
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, London • 28-29.Nov.19

A provocative exploration of physical interaction, Joe Moran's dance choreography continually challenges the audience with its shapes and spaces. There's no music, so the performance often resembles a sporting event, especially with the gymnasium-like atmosphere in the Lilian Baylis Studio. And in Arrangement, the six male dancers are dressed in sports-casual wear (with some added nightclub touches like mesh shirts and a leather kilt). The one-hour performance is broken into a series of shorter pieces that work together on a thematic level to subvert stereotypes about masculinity.

One section feels like a rugby scrum, as the men push both against each other and into each other, forming a knot of limbs straining in tension. And then there's a witty dance on their hands as they jostle for position against the back wall. At other times, they are working together, forming a sort of six-man ball rolling across the stage toward the audience. The most effective sequence is more like an athletic game, as one man dances and the others try to stop each other from pushing him into various positions. And some of it feels remarkably free-form, as each dancer performs his own piece, eerily echoing each other with repeated movements.

Through all of this there's a cheeky sense of interaction with the audience, including an amusing section in which the dancers take turns standing centre stage for an improvised Q&A session that takes a few unexpected turns. This is not the kind of piece that makes its themes obvious, but there are big ideas swirling everywhere, pushing viewers to examine preconceptions about physicality, interaction and the way men, specifically, are expected to contend against each other on various planes, and also work together to create something remarkable.

The hour-long Arrangement is preceded by the 12-minute Decommission, featuring the remarkably athletic Temipote Ajose-Cutting, whose demanding performance cuts across moments of complete blackout. It also features several extremely long-held poses that require unusual strength and calm, commenting on the limits of the body while playing with ideas of space, time, weightlessness and, yes, patience.
29.Nov.19
Photos by David Edwards • www.sadlerswells.com

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Critical Week: A warm embrace

Press screenings are slowing down as usual for this time of year, as journalists try to catch up with things they haven't seen yet. Attending the London Film Festival put be ahead of the curve, but there are some late-season releases I'm still chasing. I only had four screenings this past week: the staggeringly powerful drama Waves with Kelvin Harrison Jr and Alexa Demie (above), plus Lucas Hedges, Sterling K Brown and rising star Taylor Russell. The Brazilian drama Greta is dark and sometimes a little too serious, but has some strong things to say about people on the fringe of society. Starring Steven Berkoff and Martin Hancock, The Last Faust is basically a museum piece, an ambitiously artistic telling of both parts of Goethe's epic story, accompanied by paintings, sculptures, photographs and a novella. And I finally caught up with the devastatingly emotional doc For Sama, a deeply personal account of life in wartorn Aleppo.

Outside the screening room, it was a privilege to attend an event at which Peccadillo Pictures placed its archive at Bishopsgate Institute. Peccadillo has released a number of seriously notable films over its 20 year history, with more to come. Their releases over the years have included Embrace of the Serpent, Weekend, The Shiny Shrimps. I'm interviewing the director and lead actor from their upcoming Georgian drama And Then We Danced tomorrow.

Coming up this next week: Sam Mendes' already acclaimed war drama 1917, Todd Haynes' drama Dark Waters, Clint Eastwood's Atlanta Olympics bombing drama Richard Jewell, Daniel Kaluuya in Queen & Slim, and the John Cena comedy Playing With Fire. We also have our annual meeting with the Critics' Circle and the BBFC, always enjoyably informative as they tell us about the year's knife-edge ratings decisions.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Stage: A twisted Christmas delight

Slipped: Cinderella ... Rebooted!
by Paul Joseph and Tim Benzie 
dir Tim McArthur
with Faye Reeves, Grant Cartwright, Robert McNeilly, Jim Lavender, Rich Watkins
Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London • 28.Nov.19-8.Jan.20

This was my first panto at Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and I knew it would be a twist on the formula. Indeed, it's a riotously rude, gender-bending romp featuring the usual tropes, including how it's chirpily addressed to an audience of "boys and girls" while everything is very adult indeed. With a terrific script and nimble direction, plus an engagingly up-for-it cast of cross-dressers, this is a fabulous blast of holiday spirit.

The fairy tale is well and truly fractured. Cinderella (Cartwright) is off to the ball thanks to help from his Fairy Godmother (Reeves), who has some anger issues. But his wicked stepmother Lady Garden (McNeilly) and evil stepsister Pleasure (Lavender) are also in attendance, hoping to catch the eye of the eligible Prince Charming (Watkins). The problem is that the prince ha s a shoe fetish, so he's more interested in that exquisite glass slipper than whoever was wearing it.

Where this goes is flat-out ridiculous, encompassing a series of amusing musical numbers. Classics like Tomorrow and Especially for You (or rather, Shoe) mingle with more recent hits like Juice, SeƱorita and You Need to Calm Down. Plus a seriously unforgettable rendition of Shallow. The script is littered with pop culture references as well as nods to news headlines that feel so up-to-the-moment that the show will be shifting along with the UK's election campaign. It will definitely be worth revisiting.

And the performers are relentless scene-stealers, trying to win the audience over with individual call-and-response catch-phrases while directly appealing for sympathy at every turn. Each has great stage presence, mercilessly lampooning themselves. Watkins' smirking Prince is sometimes unnervingly slimy, while Reeves and Lavender have a suitably appalling chemistry as the conniving, hairy-dopey baddies. As the heroine, Cartwright is appropriately bland but blossoms as things go on. And the show is well and truly stolen by Reeves, who skilfully channels Megan Mullally on speed as the Fairy Godmother, nailing the show's best gags. She also pops up in various witty side roles, and gets a chance to torment the audience directly (glitter alert!).

Director Tim McArthur takes a freewheeling approach that knowingly riffs on amateurish townhall-style productions. But these are talented professionals who never miss a beat, improvising jokes along with the script's funniest gags while trying to crack each other up. It's charming, hilarious and very rude. There are perhaps too many poo jokes (if that's possible), and the whole thing seems to be reluctant to come to an end. So it leaves us in just the right kind of Christmas mood.

For more info: www.vauxhalltavern.com

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Stage: A naughty Christmas wish

Pinocchio: No Strings Attached!
by Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper
dir Andrew Beckett
with Matthew Baldwin, Jared Thompson, Dami Olukoya, Christopher Lane, Christy Bellis, Shane Barragan, Oli Dickson, Briony Rawle
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 19.Nov.19-11.Jan.20

Olukoya and Thompson
The 11th holiday panto produced by Above the Stag is another impressive production, with witty staging, a lively script, terrific songs and a cast that's expert at milking every bit of innuendo for all it's worth. That said, the show sometimes feels like it plays it a bit safe, relying on reliable old gags instead of inventing something new. But the performers keep it fresh and often raucously entertaining. In fine tradition, the familiar storybook tale has been twisted into something hilariously queer for an adult audience that's not afraid of rather a lot of rude double entendre.

In the Italian fishing village of Placenta, puppet-maker Gepetta (Baldwin), her sidekick Cornetta (Bellis) and their cat Chianti (Rawle) are in hiding, fugitives from a crime spree in Rome. But evil fox Figaro (Lane) suspects something is up with them. One night, part-fairy Fatima (Olukoya) brings Gepetta's puppet Pinocchio (Thompson) to life, telling him not to lie. Bullied at school for being wooden, he's tempted by a funfair on the edge of town, and also by new footballer Joe (Dickson), bought for the local team by Figaro. When Pinocchio runs away with Joe, Gepetta and Cornetta set off to find him, helped by lonely fisherman Pedro (Barragan), who has a thing for Gepetta.

As events progress, the soap-style romantic storylines are enjoyably tangled, boosted by the gender-bent mayhem. Characters are openly lusting after each other, resisting and then falling for each other and swearing like, well, fishermen. When Pinocchio lies, it's not his nose that grows. The actors dive in with gusto, playfully delivering the smuttiest dialog while deploying references to politics, current events and of course the Disney animated classic (including a sharp Jiminy Cricket gag). And each character gets a chance to break out in song and dance, numbers that are snappy and often laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Lane as Figaro the fox
With spotless timing, Baldwin is playing his seventh Above the Stag pantomime dame. He's gifted at engaging with audience members and improvising jokes that are just as funny as the scripted ones. He also generates some surprising pathos even in some of the more ridiculous moments, creating vivid connections with Bellis' sparky Cornetta and Barragan's adorable Pedro. Dickson is also memorable as the puppet come to life, putting in a remarkably physical performance that emphasises his dance skills. Lane has a ball as the predatory Figaro, never shying away from his smirking, gleefully leery nastiness. And Rawle is a gifted scene-stealer, amusingly riffing on quirky cat behaviour even when lurking in the background.

Above the Stag's original musicals are of such high quality that they'd play well on a West End stage. They fill this small venue perfectly, with inventive production design that sets off the various scenes. Four main sets are vividly imagined, plus a nicely deployed landscape-painted curtain. The sound is, as usual, a bit tricky, with quite a few punchlines inaudible in the back rows (there are only eight). But the energy is unmissable, and there's never a dull moment as these engaging characters take on this big Christmas-themed adventure with plenty of wickedly grown-up sass.

For more info: www.abovethestag.org.uk

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Critical Week: Don't call me angel

It was another mixed bag of movies for me this week, with awards-worthy movies jostling for attention with the usual weekly releases. We had Elizabeth Banks' new take on Charlie's Angels, an entertaining but slightly off-balance mix of comedy and violence. Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced and stars as a detective with Tourette's in Motherless Brooklyn, a beautiful film that's also a bit indulgent. Chadwick Boseman stars in the cop drama 21 Bridges, which looks great but really needed a much better script. And Ophelia retells the story of Hamlet as a teen romance with great performances and production values, but little point.

Aaron Eckhart toplines the cop thriller In the Line of Duty, which is gritty and a bit predictable. Daniel Isn't Real is a fascinating psycho-thriller that never quite finds something to say about mental illness. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a riveting look into the comical magician's fatal heart condition and rather slippery life. And I was able to rewatch the beautifully made British independent drama Into the Mirror on a big screen at a cast and crew screening - great to see it projected instead of on a small screen at home, and really nice to meet the director and writer-actors.

This coming week I have a line-up of acclaimed arthouse movies to see, including Sterling K Brown in Waves, Jennifer Reeder's Knives and Skin, Helen Hunt in I See You, the Chinese thriller Long Day's Journey Into Night, the Brazilian drama Greta and Steven Berkoff in The Last Faust. I also have some more theatre, a special film archive event and the London Critics' Christmas party!

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Contenders: Four docs

Catching up with movies as award season cranks up, this time four acclaimed documentaries. The field of docs is overwhelming this year, and it's simply impossible to watch everything...

American Factory
dir Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
with John Gauthier, Wong He, Cho Dewang, Jimmy Wang, Jeff Liu, Bobby Allen, Rob Haerr, Shawnea Rosser, Jill Lamantia, Fred Strahorn
release UK Jun.19 sdf, US 21.Aug.19
19/US Netflix 1h55 ****

A fascinating exploration of both the world's new financial reality and a collision of cultures, this documentary astutely explores the differences between Americans and Chinese workers in a multinational corporation. Even if it's somewhat overlong, the film is strikingly well shot and edited to highlight differences as well as to find the common humanity. Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert capture this without commentary, including some remarkably emotional moments. And it becomes profoundly important as it focuses on personal perspectives about both changing ways of working and the larger shift in the global economy.

The film opens in December 2008, as GM closes a plant in Ohio, losing 10,000 jobs. Eight years later, Chinese corporation Fuyao reopens it as an automated glass factory, with 2,000 non-union jobs that pay less than half as much as the old ones. As they prepare to move to Ohio, a team of Chinese workers is tutored in American culture; workers from both countries are paired on the factory floor. The film follows a variety of employees as they face this new reality. Many of the locals have never recovered from the plant's closing, having lost their homes. Meanwhile, the Chinese are far from their families, struggling with high expectations and an often incomprehensible culture. Contrasts abound: when American supervisors visit China they are shockingly casual in the meetings (one wears a Jaws t-shirt) and deeply impressed by the efficiency on the line. And after Fuyao's smiling workers perform elaborate company-praising musical numbers, the Americans dance to YMCA.

It's great to watch the Ohioans bond with their Chinese colleagues, offering new experiences like a Thanksgiving meal or the chance to fire a gun. Meanwhile, the bosses are furious when US Senator Sherrod Brown mentions worker's unions in his grand opening speech, worrying that a union will reduce efficiency so much that they'll be forced to close down. The tension between quality, safety and corporate targets is relentless. The Chinese blame inefficient American workers who complain too much, want more than two days off per month and constantly threaten to unionise. But safety is a serious issue, and Chinese bosses blame their American managers for failing the company. So even though there's mutual understanding on the floor, the threat of unionisation sparks a ruthless crackdown. So in the end, this is a fascinating, nuanced depiction of the struggle to bridge the gap between arrogance and overconfidence.
30.Oct.19 • Sundance



The Amazing Johnathan Documentary
dir-scr Ben Berman
with John Szeles, Anastasia Synn, Ben Berman, Penn Jillette, Criss Angel, 'Weird Al' Yankovic, Carrot Top, Max Maven, Eric Andre, Judy Gold, Simon Chinn, Chad Taylor
release US 16.Aug.19, UK 22.Nov.19
19/US 1h31 ***.

As the Amazing Johnathan, Szeles is a standup comedian and magician known for his outrageous performances. Then at the top of his career in 2014 he was told he had a year to live due to a heart condition. Three years later, he sets out to make a documentary with Berman as he tries to figure out what to do with the time he might have left. So off they go on a comeback tour around America. Although things get a bit complicated when Szeles allows a second documentary crew to tag along. And then Berman learns that another documentary was already in the works before he came along.

Berman lets the story unfold with real-life messiness, as each discovery threatens to derail his project. With a story that's just as involving, Berman is struggling with how he can make this doc stand out from the others, so he weaves in his own life story, complete with home-movie flashbacks. This loose, freeform style makes the film thoroughly endearing, and it also fits well with Szeles' chaotically unplanned approach to taking life as it comes. Indeed, Szeles lives one day at a time in Las Vegas with his wife Anastasia, never doing anything he doesn't want to do. Being preoccupied with his health, it's difficult to concentrate on working. "I'm not supposed to be here," he says, as he comes out of retirement and starts work on a new show, visiting venues he played 20 years ago. He does worry about possibly dying on-stage, but then much of his show consists of him pretending to mortally wound himself.

Clips of his outrageous magic act punctuate the film, intermingled with segments that, for example, follow Szeles back to his childhood home in Detroit. Home videos follow him into his past, including partying and ongoing drug use. Berman cleverly includes footage he knows he shouldn't, pixelating people who don't want to appear on screen and putting black-out boxes to obscure, for example, Szeles' drug use. A witty sequence involves Szeles offering to appear on camera smoking meth if Berman joins him. Berman's struggle to discover the soul of his film adds a fascinating layer both to the documentary and to Szeles' story. One larger question is whether he should ever trust a magician, and this leads the doc itself down a new narrative path that provides a fascinating look at art, perception and the nature of truth.
18.Nov.19 • Sundance



Sid & Judy
dir Stephen Kijak; scr Claire Didier, Stephen Kijak
voices Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jon Hamm, Norman Jewison, George Schlatter, Albert Poland, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
release UK Oct.19 lff, US 18.Oct.19
19/US Universal 1h38 ****

By using real recordings and in-character dramatised memoirs for voiceover narration, this documentary recounts the story of Judy Garland and Sid Luft with remarkably intimacy. Never shying away from the darker side of their life together, the film feels unusually honest for an exploration of such an icon. It also features a fantastic range of never-released behind-the-scenes material.

The film traces the 13-year romance between Luft and Garland, who met as her marriage to Vincente Minnelli was collapsing, and it also flickers back through Garland's life to chronicle her from birth to death. Along the way, filmmaker Stephen Kijak includes terrific audio recordings made by Garland herself, recounting her story. And of course there's also a wonderful collection of archival footage, stills and animated sketches, including extensive clips from her movies and snippets of iconic songs. One electric sequence weaves together multiple variations on The Man That Got Away from A Star Is Born (1954).

Garland recalls going into show business at age 2, and never stopping. Luft recounts the constant studio pressure that included strict dieting and amphetamines to make sure she maintained the desired energy level. She went through rehab, but the pressure continued, and she attempted suicide. At 28 she had been owned by the studio for 15 years, and they released her from her contract. Later, the TV network was threatening to cancel The Judy Garland Show because of her substance abuse, while Luft tried to hold her together.

The doc traces the personal events in their lives with bracing honesty, including some remarkably moving moments, plus harsh episodes including Garland's abuse by studio heads and a variety of managers. The film also captures her relentless sense of humour. And each sequence is punctuated beautifully by music, often with gorgeous rare recordings. Most intriguing is how the film traces how Garland's legend grew up around her, with each personal setback followed by another triumphant performance. And seeing this through Luft's and Garland's eyes, in their own words, is magical.
28.Oct.19 • London



The Great Hack
dir Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim; scr Karim Amer, Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos
with David Carroll, Brittany Kaiser, Carole Cadwalladr, Paul Hilder, Christopher Wylie, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, Julian Wheatland, Ravi Naik, Emma Graham-Harrison, Gill Phillips
release US/UK 24.Jul.19
19/US 1h53 ****

Beautifully shot and edited, and packed with clever effects that bring out deeper ideas, this chillingly detailed documentary explores how data from our online activity has turned us into a commodity without us even knowing who is mining our details. The problem is that this creates an individually filtered reality that's removed from what's actually going on in the world, playing on fears and apathy. And this has handed power to disruptors and the wealthy who profit from tyrants. For evidence, see the organised-but-invisible campaigns of propaganda and disinformation backing Trump, Brexit and other supposedly democratic movements around the world.

As New York professor Carroll notes, the online world has become our matchmaker, fact checker, personal entertainer, guardian of our memories and even therapist. All of our interactions, credit card payments, searches, movements and even the clicks themselves are linked together to create a virtual version of ourselves that is used to target us with content. Project Alamo spent $1 million per day on Facebook ads to get Trump elected, based on  information from Cambridge Analytica, which had at least 5,000 data points on every voting American. The film documents how their stated aim was to target us with specific information to make us see the world the way they wanted us to see it, and to change our behaviour. Trump's campaign ran nearly 6 million targeted ads on Facebook (compared to Clinton's 66,000). And the Leave EU campaign in the UK did exactly the same thing. As did the Blue Lives Matter movement. And Bolsonaro's campaign in Brazil. And so on.

The film is superbly assembled with a strong narrative flow, as Carroll seeks to find out what data Cambridge Analytica has collected about him. The story is beefed up by investigative journalists Cadwalladr and Hilder, who connected the dots and broke the story. And former Cambridge Analytica employees who blew the whistle on illegal data collection are articulate and honest, including Kaiser, Wylie and Dehaye. Kaiser is a particularly complex case, a human rights activist who struggles to admit what her work did to the world.

It's deeply shocking to see how these companies worked behind-the-scenes to manipulate millions of people, using immoral methods that were often also blatantly illegal. Defining these methods as psy-ops is eye-opening: this is information warfare, and it's going on literally everywhere. The hard truth is that we don't own our own data, and it can be used against us at any time. The scary result of this is that there may never be be another free and fair election anywhere in the world, because it's the richest, strongest, most ruthless campaigns that wield this power. And it will only get worse, and more insidiously underground, until we can legally own our online selves.
3.Nov.19 • Sundance


Thursday, 14 November 2019

Critical Week: Great American hero

This week's screenings featured rather a lot of strong women, starting with Harriet, in which Cynthia Erivo plays the tough-minded slave rescuer Harriet Tubman. The film's a bit too reverent for its own good, but Erivo is terrific. Frozen II reunites sisters Elsa and Anna for an even more thrilling adventure that has huge action beats and some properly developed emotion too. Greta Gerwig offers a new adaptation of Little Women, with a strikingly good cast (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet, Meryl Streep) and a refreshingly sharp tone, although the structure is a bit problematic. And then there was the haunting Appalachian drama Them That Follow, starring Alice Englert and Olivia Colman as members of a freaky snake-handling church.

Further afield, there was the offbeat British comedy-thriller Kill Ben Lyk, which amusingly combines a whodunit with a slasher horror romp. The dark British drama Into the Mirror is an involving, internalised exploration of identity and gender. From Hong Kong, Adonis is a fascinating and somewhat over-sexed exploration of fate and art. And Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words creates a strikingly inventive new genre, moving the ballet into real-world sets to recount Shakespeare's timeless story with physicality and music rather than dialog. It's beautiful.

Coming up this next week, we have Chadwick Boseman in 21 Bridges, Aaron Eckhart in Line of Duty, Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn, Patrick Schwarzenegger in Daniel Isn't Real, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary. I'm also chasing several year-end awards-worthy titles before voting deadlines, which are looming less than a month away now...

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Stage: A heart-stopping moment

Stop Kiss
by Diana Son
dir Rafaella Marcus
with Suzanne Boreel, Kara Taylor Alberts, Matt Brewer, Rebecca Crankshaw, Ashley Gayle, Alfie Webster
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 9.Nov-1.Dec.19

Originally staged Off-Broaway in 1998, this topical play has new resonance in today's intolerant times. More than 20 years later, the story still echoes in headlines, which is more than a little unsettling because society is failing to address deep-seated bigotry. This is a beautifully written piece, tackling the issue with a clever narrative that never lets it get too pointed; instead, it's an engaging, personal drama that feels hopeful as well as haunting.

Set in New York City, it centres on Callie (Boreel), who reaches out to Sara (Alberts), a friend of a friend who's new in town. Sara has won a fellowship to teach in a rough state school in the Bronx, which horrifies Callie, who fell into a job as a traffic reporter. From here, the timeline begins to scramble, revealing a chain of events as these two young women get closer and closer, leading up to and then following on from a fateful first kiss on the street at 4am. This also involves Callie's friend-with-benefits George (Gayle) and Sara's ex Peter (Webster), as well as a detective (Brewer) an a nurse (Crankshaw) who step in after a violent assault.

Director Rafaella Marcus stages this ingeniously in the studio space at Above the Stag, using depth of field to place settings in front of each other. It's a simple trick that allows the characters to step between various scenes out of chronological order, creating a tightly involving narrative that's punctuated with powerful insight. The stage is unfussy, with some strong detail, clever lighting and a nice sense of interaction with the surrounding audience. So even if much of the raw emotion exists between the scenes, the cast members are able to mine the earthy, realistic dialog for subtext.

This allows the play to become much more than a story of a homophobic attack. It's a look how all of us have been conditioned to follow the status quo, so when removed from the pressures of family and childhood friends we are allowed to discover who we really are. There isn't a weak link in the cast, so each of the characters feeds into this idea, with fully rounded personalities and interaction expressed through offhanded words and physicality. Writer Diana Son inventively finds a way to navigate this pungent plot to avoid melodrama or preachiness, so where the story goes is thoughtful and provocative.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Critical Week: A pie in the face

I caught up with a bunch of films opening this week in the US and UK, including some high-profile ones. Written by Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy is an autobiographical drama about the actor's relationship with his father (whom he plays on-screen). It's seriously gorgeous filmmaking. Last Christmas is a holiday comedy-romance from Paul Feig and Emma Thompson, starring (cool casting alert!) Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. It's charming, funny and ultimately thoughtful. The Good Liar is a guilty pleasure about two old folks (Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren) caught up in a con. The wobbly plot is fun, riding on the actors' charisma. Roland Emmerich directs Midway, an entertaining special-effects action adventure about the pivotal WWII battle, with a strong cast manfully grappling with wooden dialog. And the animated feature Klaus looks a little too digital, but its derivative Christmas origin story is told with spiky humour and some enjoyable twists.

In the arthouse department, Terrence Malick's latest wonder is A Hidden Life, based on a true story, so it has a more forceful narrative than his films usually do, even with minimal dialog. It's the powerful story of a man who quietly stood by his principles in Austria under Nazi rule. From Senegal, Atlantics is a haunting drama about a young woman in love with the wrong guy. And it has a supernatural wrinkle that deepens its themes. From Ecuador, The Longest Night (La Mala Noche) could have been a cliched tale of a hooker with a heart of gold, but it becomes much more than that with its gritty plot and complex characters. And there's a restored rerelease for the 1985 drama Buddies, a beautifully made story of friendship that was one of the first films to address the Aids epidemic.

This coming week is another collection of contenders and other releases, including Greta Gerwig's new take on Little Women, Cynthia Erivo in Harriet, the Hamlet riff Ophelia, the British black comedy Kill Ben Lyk, the dance-musical Romeo & Juliet: Beyond Words, and the acclaimed doc For Sama. I also have a few stage shows to watch, just for some fresh air!

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Contenders: Four dramas

I've been catching up with movies released earlier in the year that are eligible in the upcoming awards season. Whether they're worthy of consideration is another thing...

The Laundromat
dir Steven Soderbergh
scr Scott Z Burns
with Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Nonso Anozie, Matthias Schoenaerts, Rosalind Chao, David Schwimmer, Robert Patrick, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone
release US/UK 18.Oct.19 • 19/US Netflix 1h35 **

Weaving together a series of true stories, this financial comedy-drama seeks to explore the secret life of money. It's ambitious, silly and deliberately absurd, narrated by two dandy lawyers (Banderas and Oldman) in Panama. But the script follows so many threads and delivers so much information that it never comes to meaningful life. The themes are vitally important, the film makes some very strong points, and the performances are excellent, but the wildly flailing barrage of detail is numbing.

After a personal tragedy, Ellen (Streep) begins looking into the fraudulent insurance company in Nevis that has shortchanged her. She discovers it's linked to a Panama law firm helping the world's wealthiest people hide their money in shell companies. Their globe-spanning clients include murderous drug kingpins, an African billionaire (Anozie) who knows he can buy anything, and a British businessman (Schoenaerts) who arrogantly challenges his contact (Chao) in China. And the story is about to break, implicating everyone from movie stars to governments.

The film is essentially about the astonishingly thin line between illegal tax evasion and legal tax avoidance. But it's very difficult to care, or even to pay attention, amid endless conversations about finance, insurance, lawsuits, and so on, especially when the tone is so glib. The cast tries to spice things up with personality, screenwriter Burns keeps the words sparky, and director Soderbergh keeps things visually whizzy. But it still feels dull and unfocussed. There's too much effort to create witty cause-and-effect metaphors and colourful explanations, when a coherent, involving central story would have done this much more efficiently.
29.Oct.19



The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
dir Terry Gilliam
with Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce 18/Sp ***. 
Terry Gilliam spent more than 25 years working on this project (a previous attempt to film it was documented in Lost in La Mancha), and getting the film released wasn't easy either. The plot is wacky and meandering, but Gilliam infuses it with a gleefully freewheeling tone, taking flights of fancy at every turn. So even if its defiantly original style can be challenging, it's both raucous good fun and sharply pointed... FULL REVIEW >



The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
dir-scr Chiwetel Ejiofor
with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Aissa Maiga, Lily Banda, Lemogang Tsipa, Philbert Falakeza, Noma Dumezweni, Rophium Banda, Raymond Ofula, Joseph Marcell
release UK/US 1.Mar.19 • 18/UK BBC 1h53 ***.

For his writing-directing debut, Chiwetel Ejiofor ambitiously takes on a true story from rural Malawi. Beautifully shot in the actual locations, the narrative unfolds in a relatively straightforward way, which doesn't allow for a lot of subtext. But it's a thoroughly involving tale, populated by lively characters. And it's also seriously inspirational as it follows a young teen whose curiosity changed his world.

In a small farming village plagued by cycles of drought and flooding, it's getting more and more difficult to manage the grain harvest. Farming a small plot of land, Trywell (Ejiofor) finds his crops either over-soaked or parched. His wife Agnes (Maiga) is an educated woman who wants the best for their teen children Annie (Banda) and William (Simba). Annie hopes to go to university and is secretly seeing a schoolteacher (Tsipa), while William is a voracious student worried because his parents can no longer afford his school fees. So keeping access to the school library becomes a problem as he begins to figure out a way to solve their irrigation problems using wind-power.

The dramatic conflicts in this story feel a little contrived, as they pit the observant, inventive William against his pointlessly stubborn father. Surely Trywell would understand by now that his son might have ideas beyond his age. But he digs his feet in, flails against nature and prays for rain, while ignoring the solution right in front of him. On the other hand, this provides some meaty conversations, and terrific scenes between Ejiofor, Simba and Maiga, who flesh out their characters beautifully. So in the end, it's a skilful retelling of an important story, and aspects of the film are impressive, such as how Ejiofor learned the local language. It also looks gorgeous, and its emotional kick is very strong, as is the way it encourages us to seek outside-the-box solutions to things like political corruption and natural disasters.
23.Oct.19



Ma
dir Tate Taylor
scr Scotty Landes
with Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller,  Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Missi Pyle
release US/UK 31.May.19 • 19/US Universal 1h39 **.

Starting as a rather typical slickly made smalltown comedy-drama, director Tate Taylor begins from the start to undermine the usual forced Hollywood-style levity with elements from horror movies. But while Octavia Spencer keeps it watchable, the script and production are far too smoothed out to actually generate any suspense, including the way the screenplay uses important topics to offer simple explanations for the nastiness that erupts later on.

Erica (Lewis) and her teen daughter Maggie (Silvers) are settling into life in a new town. Trying to fit in at high school, Maggie hangs out with a group of cool kids including popular girl Haley (Miller), nice guy Andy (Fogelmanis) and jocks Chaz and Darrell (Brown and Waivers). After friendly Sue Ann (Spencer) buys booze for them, she stalks them online and befriends them ("Call me Ma!"), turning her basement into party central. But is she only pretending to be a cool adult?

There are interesting layers to the story, such as Ma's insecurities, which date back to her school days, when her classmates included Maggie, Andy's dad Ben (Evans) and his mean-girl girlfriend Mercedes (Pyle). Taylor overstates these themes loudly, making each wrinkle in the story so painfully obvious that the actual surprises seem anticlimactic. And many sequences feel badly compromised (surely Ma did something else to Ben in the first draft, and her own teen humiliation is botched in a pitch-black gloom). Thankfully, Spencer is skilled at believably navigating Ma's whiplash tonal changes from sweet to party girl to psychopath. But even she can't sell the hyper-grisly climax.
31.Oct.19

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Critical Week: On the warpath

Since I've seen most of movies that were screening to the press this past week, I've been catching up on awards season films like Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat, a bizarrely comical farce circling around the Panama Papers scandal. The material is strong, but even an A-list cast (led by Meryl Streep, above) can't ground this kind of overambitious approach. Also somewhat uneven, Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote boasts great performances from Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce and fabulously freewheeling production design, with deep themes running under a meandering narrative.

The low-budget Spell was a nice surprise, a scruffy horror romp about a quirky American in Iceland. From Netherlands, Bloody Marie is an internalised drama that takes place during a freaky crime thriller. From Brazil, the bracingly naturalistic Copa 181 explores people who live on the fringe of decency, and are quite happy there. There were also three docs: packed with awesome archival material, Sid & Judy is a lovely look at Judy Garland's life through the eyes of third husband Sid Luft; American Factory is a striking exploration of the cultural collision between China and the US in Ohiol and Anton Corbijn's Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest is a superbly engaging blend of concert film and fan doc.

Coming up next week are screenings of Paul Feig's holiday rom-com Last Christmas, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen in The Good Liar, Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy, the all-star war action Midway, Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, the British drama Into the Mirror, the rather self-explanatory The Amazing Johnathan Documentary and a reissue of the landmark 1985 Aids drama Buddies.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Critical Week: No longer silent

Having survived the film festival, I'm looking out for awards-season screenings before voting deadlines. This week there were three of these: Bombshell stars Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie (with Kate McKinnon, above) in a true drama about the scandal surrounding Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) at Fox News. Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are brilliantly cast in The Two Popes, based on the true story of the transition from Benedict to Francis. And I caught up with Chiwetel Ejiofor's writing-directing debut The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, an inspirational true story from Malawi.

Back to films out soon (or now), I had to buy a ticket to see Terminator: Dark Fate, because there were no press screenings. It's not bad, and has a nice trio of strong women at its centre. Ewan McGregor stars in Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining faithfully adapted from Stephen King's novel with lots of added Stanley Kubrick. The new animated comedy romp based on the iconic The Addams Family is silly and a bit frantic. Cousins is a lovely, loose-limbed romance from Brazil. And These Peculiar Days is a witty, sexy ensemble piece from Mexico.

There aren't many screenings in the diary for this coming week for some reason, but I've got these films lined up: the Dutch action-thriller Bloody Marie, the steamy Brazilian drama Copa 181, Ecuador's Oscar hopeful La Mala Noche, plus finally catching up with Octavia Spencer in Ma and Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Screen: Autumn TV Roundup

Watching an episode or two of a TV show in between movies, or between writing a review and proofreading it, seems to help reset my brain. So the more escapist, the better! This summer summer felt a bit thin for good television, so I'm surprised to see how much I watched over the past four or five months...

ALL NEW

The Boys
Taking a bracingly honest approach to the superhero genre, this show dares to present these heroes as deeply flawed humans who have let their power go to their heads, even as they're being manipulated by the giant corporation that's making a fortune off of them. The characters are complex and messy, and the escalating nastiness of the plot is superbly unpredictable. So it's a shame that the show has such a generic title, smug attitude and frenzied love of grisly violence. The relentless toxic masculinity begins to feel oppressive by the end, on both sides of the battle. And much of the more provocative material feels like it was designed to shock rather than to build characters or story. But the show's driving central narrative is riveting.

Euphoria
Because it dares to break rules, this show stands out from the crowd. Its depiction of that teen sense of immortality is frankly astonishing, showing sex and drugs in ways that are frighteningly honest while refusing to vilify the way young people use devices and social media. It's rare to find a movie or TV series acknowledge so skilfully that the world has changed and the older generations need to get up to speed rather than pointlessly trying to drag everyone back. The cast is note perfect, both teens and adults. And the show is gorgeously well shot and edited, even if its structure sometimes becomes indulgent as it over-explains the cause of each character's vices. This was most noticeable in the season finale, which was edited into a chaotic jumble to leave each plot thread dangling at just the right angle. It's occasionally stunning, but also naggingly pretentious.

Catch-22
Joseph Heller's spiralling WWII novel is adapted into a beautifully focussed miniseries set mainly around the experiences of a young officer (Christopher Abbott) at a US airbase in Italy. The continual ironies make it well worth a look, as it adopts a snappy M*A*S*H tone with added dark absurdities. It's a lacerating look at the true nature of war, in which no one is a winner. And it features some superb supporting actors (Kyle Chandler is particularly notable), plus a continual stream of heart-stopping moments. George Clooney and Grant Heslov led the charge on this show, directing and appearing in various episodes, and the high production values make it feel timeless.

The Other Two
Sharply well written and played, this comedy hilariously scrambles the idea of celebrity. It's about two 20-something siblings (Drew Tarver and Helene Yorke) who are still struggling to find their way in life, and now they also have to grapple with the sudden viral fame of their younger 13-year-old brother (Case Walker). All three actors are perfect, with impeccable comic timing. And the great Molly Shannon shines as their hilariously involved mother, who takes a journey all her own (and deserves awards-season attention). These episodes go down so smoothly that the season ends far earlier than we want it to. But the writers finish on a very funny twist that sets things off in a new direction for the second series.

What We Do in the Shadows
Basically transplanting the hilarious New Zealand spoof film to Staten Island, this witty documentary pastiche follows a group of over-earnest vampires as they fail to grasp the complexities of modern society. Each of the half-hours features yet another ridiculous challenge for people stuck in the middle ages. And the addition of energy and emotional vampires is a stroke of genius. Performances are spot on, never winking at the camera even as they acknowledge the presence of the crew, which gets itself into trouble now and then. It's all a bit fluffy and absurdly silly, but that's just what you want from a TV comedy.

The Name of the Rose
With its medieval setting and triumphant opening theme, it's clear that the producers were going for a Game of Thrones vibe. Sure, it's packed with oddly named characters who are impossible to remember, but the story is more singular, zeroing in on brainy monk William (a wonderfully lively John Turturro) trying to solve a series of murders in a monastery. With its shifty characters and maze-like library, the show pulls us into the mystery through the eyes of William's young novice Adso (Damian Hardung), who's in love with a peasant girl (Greta Scarano) in the woods. Then the vicious papal henchman (Rupert Everett) arrives to complicate things dramatically. 

STILL GOING STRONG

Pose: series 2
Shifting the story forward to 1990, and diving right into the Aids epidemic, this show starts strong but quickly begins to get bogged down in special conceptual episodes (including far too many maudlin after-death fantasies that are overwritten and overplayed). By contrast, when the show focusses on its characters and their everyday issues, it shines. The period is the moment this subculture hit the mainstream with Madonna's Vogue, and the cast is incandescent as ever, with compelling storylines and riveting performance pieces. Moving forward, let's hope the showrunners remember that it's the smaller, personal moments that provide the sharpest observations and emotional high points. And frankly, Patti LuPone should sing in every episode of every TV show ever.

Big Little Lies: series 2
This is a lot more soapy than the first season, simply because the writers are now trying to stretch things out. Thankfully, the cast is so good (with an added powerhouse performance from Meryl!) that it never feels trite. Indeed, the entangled drama expands in unpredictable directions that continually keep the viewer on his or her toes, as each of the central characters faces surprising situations that shake them to the core. This offers plenty of grist for the almost obscenely talented likes of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Adam Scott and more. But this is The Meryl Show all the way. There's even a great cliffhanger.

Stranger Things: series 3
Progressing even further into horror, this third season is a full-throttle adventure that once again cleverly maintains a character focus while a high-concept plot unfolds. Alliances are shifted around now that we're in 1985, with the older and younger teens working together on two fronts to figure out what's going on: one group chasing a monster and the other spying on Russians. Meanwhile, Joyce and Jim (Winona Ryder and David Harbour) are on their own trajectory. It's a beautifully produced show with an attention to detail that goes far beyond production design. And the cast is excellent, bringing these realistically messy people to vivid life.

The Handmaid's Tale: series 3
This show continues in thriller mode, while the pressure of stretching one book into an ongoing series sends plots spiralling out to cover more characters in increasingly melodramatic gyrations. This waters down the show's kick, because the first season was so astonishingly focussed. But it's still bold and provocative, with storylines that twist and turn through some genuinely nasty and emotionally devastating events. As ever, the cast is excellent, anchored by a powerhouse Elizabeth Moss in full-glowering superhero mode. And the wonderful Ann Dowd gets some back-story this time, even as she's less central.

Easy: series 3
This comedy-drama ensemble is back with their separate, occasionally loosely connected dramas. Sometimes creator Joe Swanberg's offhanded attempts to shock feel pushy, for example presenting an open marriage as an everyday situation. But a moralising undercurrent gives away the game. The Chicago setting at least makes the show look different from other things on the air, and the actors bravely tackle the roles without worrying that all of these people are deeply unlikeable. They're realistic, so there are things about each of them that we can sympathise with, but it's difficult to care. 

Black Mirror: series 5
There are only three episodes in this season, and the high quality of the productions will leave the audience wanting more. Charlie Brooker happily pushes his characters to the brink with the help of on-the-edge technology that feels like it might be introduced tomorrow. Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II play out a fiendishly clever variation on the usual bromance. Andrew Scott has a harrowing stand-off with the cops, which gets increasingly entwined technologically. And Miley Cyrus is terrific as popstar Ashley Q, whose life is hijacked by her assistant, while a loyal fan (Angourie Rice) has an unexpected connection with an artificial-intelligence toy. They way these two strands converge is fiendishly clever.

Younger: series 6
A guilty pleasure, this dopey comedy continues to be just right when you don't want to think: hot people angsting about inane dilemmas in situations that bear no resemblance to the real world. And the way the show tries to be hip about social media is deeply amusing. Watched this way, there's quite a lot of fun to be had in the quirky characters, even if it's impossible to care what happens. But it doesn't help that the show's star (Sutton Foster's Liza) is the dullest character, and her romance with Peter Hermann's Charles is a non-starter. She's clearly destined for Nico Tortorella's gorgeous young single-dad tattooist. So just get on with it.

ON A BINGE

The OA: series 1-2
Created by and starring Brit Marling, this show is a clever prism of reality that's challenging but never tries to outfox the audience. It's rare to find such a mind-bending premise that's so bracingly coherent, packed with sequences that send exhilarating tingles up the spine. And where this season ends makes it even more essential, so it's sad that the plug was pulled. 

Derry Girls: series 1-2
This raucous half-hour comedy is perhaps a bit too broad for its own good, but it is amusing as it follows a group of Catholic teens as the conflicts of early 1990s Northern Irish unfold in the background. The girls (and one boy) are pretty ridiculous in their naivete, but their interaction is generally hilarious. But this knowing, funny show is stolen by Siobhan McSweeney as the deadpan Sister Michael.

Call My Agent: series 1-3
Not sure why I hadn't discovered this French comedy (now made by Netflix) before, but it's seems made for me! At a top Paris talent agency (with clients playing themselves, often riotously so), the out-of-control staff members get more engaging with each episode. It's a terrific combination of snappy humour, soapy plotlines and knowing industry pastiche. The Isabelle Huppert episode is essential.

Superstore: series 1-4
Over the dog days of summer, I was in need of a half-hour comedy to fill in the corners between work projects. And it didn't take long to get through all four seasons of this breezily silly sit-com set in a Walmart/Target like warehouse store, anchored ably by America Ferrera. It tackles big issues (immigration, un-liveable wages, sexism) but is refreshingly offhanded about pretty much everything. 

Succession: series 1
The cast and sharp writing make this show essential. There's a bit too much swaggering masculinity on display (the female characters need to be beefed up), and the mashup of Murdoch, Ailes and Disney sometimes feels a little forced. But it's fast and ruthlessly nasty, which is something rare on television. The question is whether they can sustain this pace into another season.

The Haunting of Hill House: series 1
Bearing almost no resemblance to the source Shirley Jackson novel, this series spin an elaborate horror story over several timelines, This Is Us-style. It's beautifully put together, with a superior cast, although everything is rather too scary-looking. Still, it's packed with solid freak-outs. Some of the cast will return for the second season, a variation on Henry James' iconic The Turn of the Screw.

REALITY BITES

Clearly the most escapist of all TV genres, reality shows are such vapid fun that they help provide a break from, and some perspective on, actual life events. I enjoyed Love Island this summer for its collection of too-beautiful people who aren't stupid but don't seem to understand what's actually important. I'm currently keeping an eye on guilty pleasures The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing, two shows that feature big personalities and nothing else I'm remotely interested in. See also The X Factor: Celebrity, which just launched, and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, coming soonish. RuPaul's Drag Race UK is off to a great start, combining huge characters with social importance and sassy colour. But the best reality show this year, perhaps ever, is A Very Brady Renovation, reuniting all six iconic child actors with an army of renovation show hosts to merge the exterior of the famed house with the 1969 interiors that only ever existed on a soundstage. It's the perfect combination of nostalgia and ingenuity, and staggeringly well put together. And now that house exists for real. This was pure television joy!

I GIVE UP

Sometimes you get into a show and begin to wonder why you're wasting your time, so I stop watching. Russian Doll was not my cup of tea from the start, with its abrasively heightened drama, pushy convolutions and acting that's too deliberately over-the-top. Brassic is a shameless variation on, well, Shameless that's far too wacky to be engaging, so the strong underlying themes ring hollow. Lodge 49 had a meandering, loose first season, but the show-runners went bigger with season 2, and the overly messy structure leaves the superb Wyatt Russell with nothing coherent to do. And I only made it through a couple minutes of the dryly overserious The Hot Zone.

NOW WATCHING: The Politician, Unbelievable, Living With Yourself, Succession (series 2), The Conners (2), Bless This Mess (2), The Good Place (4), This Is Us (4), Superstore (5), Mom (7), Modern Family (11).

COMING SOON: His Dark Materials, The Mandalorian, The Loudest Voice, War of the Worlds, State of the Union, The End of the F***ing World (2), Castle Rock (2), The Crown (3)...

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Critical Week: Long live the king

In in recovery mode following the London Film Festival, but that also means catching up with movies that are coming to normal cinemas. One of these is Zombieland: Double Tap, screened quite late to the critics just a few days before it opens. It's a lot of fun - a guilty pleasure sequel that reteams the original cast and adds some hilarious new characters. By contrast, the sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has superb actors (both returning and new ones) but has such a terrible script that it would be unwatchable without Disney's amazing visual effects extravaganza.

Ken Loach is on fine ranting form with Sorry We Missed You, taking on zero-contract jobs with a terrific fresh-faced British cast. The Danish drama Sons of Denmark is a harrowing trawl into the life of a cop infiltrating Muslim fanatics and, more terrifyingly, nationalist racists. And the sunshiny drama The Third explores the life of a three-way relationship in Palm Springs, maintaining a balance of light romance and very dark drama. And there was also this doc, which I'd missed at LFF...

Mystify: Michael Hutchence
dir-scr Richard Lowenstein
with Michael Hutchence, Bono, Kylie Minogue, Helena Christensen, Tina Hutchence, Rhett Hutchence, Andrew Farriss, Jon Farriss, Tim Farriss, Garry Gary Beers, Kirk Pengilly, Chris Thomas, Martha Troup, Gary Grant, Chris Bailey, Michele Bennett
release Aus Jun.19 sff, UK 18.Oct.19
19/Australia 1h42 ***.

With a superb collection of archival footage, photos and audio recordings, filmmaker Richard Lowenstein presents a chronological narrative documentary about the INXS frontman. It's not a particularly flashy film, but it's elevated by the fact that it's narrated by Michael Hutchence himself using cleverly edited interview clips. And as it continues, it provides never-heard information that should end the rumours that have swirled since his death at age 37 in 1997.

After a childhood spent in Australia and Hong Kong, Hutchence set up INXS with the three Farriss brothers, Beers and Pengilly in 1977, and over the next decade rose to international fame. He is remembered by family and friends as a gentle soul, an artist who became another person in the spotlight. And being a celebrity, his rock god behaviour and romances with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Helena Christensen were top fodder for the paparazzi. What no one knows is that in 1992 he suffered a terrible brain injury that changed his personality, leaving him struggling to maintain his identity. Suddenly prone to outbursts of anger, his romance with Paula Yates was passionate and tempestuous.

There's a lot of amazing home movie footage woven in here, revealing both the youthful Hutchence and his own perspective behind-the-scenes on tour, on holidays, at family events and so on. This is so intimate that by the end it's easy to feel like the public image everyone knew was just a mask. In other words, the film demystifies him. It's beautifully assembled by Lowenstein, who lets Hutchence and his friends, family and colleagues recount his story in remarkable detail. And despite his final years of drug abuse and public misbehaviour, Hutchence emerges as a remarkably likeable man who never got the care he needed after his injury. So his suicide takes on a whole new meaning, and becomes even more tragic.
15.Oct.19



Coming up this next week are screenings of the James Cameron-produced Terminator: Dark Fate, Margot Robbie and Charlize Theron in Bombshell, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins in The Two Popes, Ewan McGregor in Doctor Sleep, a new animated The Addams Family, the British drama Connect, the Ukrainian rom-com Just Sex Nothing Personal, and the Brazilian comedy-drama Cousins.