Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Critical Week: See you later alligator

With the 20th FrightFest coming this weekend, it's feeling a bit like Halloween around London. In addition to watching four FrightFest horror movies (more about those next time), I also saw two freak-outs that are both at the festival and in UK cinemas this weekend. Crawl stars Kaya Scodelario (above), trying to survive a mob of massive alligators in her family home as hurricane floodwaters rise. It's relentlessly terrifying and a lot of fun too. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark comes from producer Guillermo del Toro, and features teens who find a haunted book that begins killing them one by one with new stories. It's dark and enjoyably yucky.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her actor husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson wrote the script themselves for A Million Little Pieces, adapting James Frey's controversial memoir detailing his time in rehab. It's beautifully made, raw and wrenching. Set in the late 70s and early 80s, Driven recounts the story of John DeLorean (Lee Pace) through the eyes of his shifty neighbour (Jason Sudeikis). It's uneven, but lively and very entertaining. And French filmmaker Francois Ozon shifts gears again for By the Grace of God, a powerful, sharply well made fact-based drama about men taking on the Catholic Church because they were abused as boys.

I also caught up with Adam, a New York-set drama that's been generating controversy because it dares to have a central character who makes a terrible mistake and learns from it. Since it's dealing with trans and queer issues, it's understandably touchy. But the film is also important, and very nicely made. And from Mexico, the 80s-set drama This Is Not Berlin is a sharply observant, skilfully shot and acted coming-of-age journey with vividly resonant themes. By contrast, the offbeat British crime thriller Killers Anonymous is a choppy mess, so it's a mystery how they lured Gary Oldman, Suki Waterhouse and Jessica Alba to be in it (albeit clearly filmed apart from the main plot).

This is a long weekend in London. I'll be blogging about FrightFest, and since the weather looks good I may brave the Notting Hill Carnival as well. Screenings include Henry Cavill in Night Hunter, Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang, the Norwegian drama Phoenix and the Argentine drama Rojo.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Critical Week: Boys gone wild

There weren't any kids' movies screened to critics this week, thankfully (it's been a bit much this summer!). But we had some films about kids aimed at grown-ups. The biggest is Good Boys, which is basically a standard rude teen movie featuring tweens in the central roles instead. Jacob Tremblay (above) leads the cast of kids and scene-stealing adults. Lupita Nyong'o plays a smart teacher in Little Monsters, taking her kindergarten class on a tour of local farm when a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Being an Aussie film, it's primarily a comedy, but there's also real gore and emotion too. And Steve Coogan leads Hot Air as a radio host who suddenly has to take care of his teen niece (Taylor Russell). It's snappy is rather predictable.

Two smallish movies benefit from big Hollywood actresses: Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams star in After the Wedding, as two women connected by a long-time secret involving Billy Crudup. Naomi Watts stars in the smart, provocative drama Luce, as a woman coping with possible issues relating to her adoptive teen son's past. Further afield we had the superb Iranian drama Permission, about a fierce, intelligent woman taking on an unjust system; the light, silly romantic comedy One Last Night is set around a struggling cinema; and Tu Me Manques is an artful, devastatingly emotional drama based on a play that links New York with Bolivia.

I've also been watching horror films that will be at the upcoming FrightFest (in London, 22-26 Aug). The quality of these films has been very high; for me horror is the perfect movie genre, because if done well it can truly make you forget the world outside. These include the opening film Come to Daddy starring Elijah Wood, the closing film A Good Woman Is Hard to Find starring Sarah Bolger, Eddie Marsan in Feedback, the teen-killers thriller Extracurricular and the dark psychological nightmare I Trapped the Devil. More to come on the festival next week.

This coming week we have screenings of Sam Taylor-Johnson's A Million Little Pieces, Guillermo Del Toro's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alexandre Aja's Crawl and Francois Ozon's By the Grace of God. Plus several more FrightFest titles.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Critical Week: Monkey business

The onslaught of family-friendly movies continued at press screening this week, and I think we might have seen everything now in this particular wave. The biggest movie is Dora and the Lost City of Gold, starring Isabela Moner, Eva Longoria and a scene-stealing Michael Pena as the explorer family on the hunt for a legendary Inca city. It's very, very silly, but also a lot of fun. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by contrast, takes the heartwarming approach to a story about a dog and his race-driver master (Milo Ventimiglia). It's even sillier. As for animation, there was UglyDolls, a lively and engaging if relentlessly corny fable about misfit toys. And Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion is finely animated and quite sophisticated in its humour, even it if it's also thoroughly ridiculous.

More serious fare included the offbeat drama The Peanut Butter Falcon, an involving and gorgeously shot and performed road movie starring Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson. Halle Berry and Daniel Craig star in Kings, an uneven but audacious experiential take on the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The British drama The Last Tree is a strikingly beautiful coming-of-age drama that's emotionally resonant but never feels terribly deep. Also from Britain, Wicked Witches is a very cheaply made but thoroughly nasty horror about female vampires (not actually witches). And the American indie Ecco is an ambitious thriller that struggles on various fronts.

This coming week's screenings include Julianne Moore in After the Wedding, Naomi Watts in Luce, Lupita Nyong'o in Little Monsters, the pre-teen drama Good Boys, the rom-com One Last Night and the Iranian drama Permission. I'm also watching films that will feature at this year's FrightFest, later this month in London.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Requisite Blog Photo: Dora and me

More like Dora and the Lost Film Critic Slightly Too Early on a Sunday Morning. 

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Critical Week: Me and my shadow

It's been a busy week at the movies, with three much-anticipated press screenings. The best of the lot was Pain and Glory, which reteams writer-director Pedro Almodovar with actor Antonio Banderas (above) for a remarkably intimate, lushly produced exploration of cinema and creativity. I also really enjoyed Quentin Tarantino's ode to the heyday of 1960s cinema with Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. The cast is excellent (anchored ably by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), and Tarantino feels effortlessly in control of the story through each astonishing sequence. And then there was Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, the franchise spinoff starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. It's just as noisy and packed with action as you'd expect, and a lot funnier too.

Being the summer, there were three animated movies as well. The biggest is The Angry Birds Movie 2, which carries on in the same goofy style as the original, mixing chaotic slapstick with deranged adult-aimed humour. Charming is a decently animated low-budget Canadian production with a great premise that starts out undermining the fairy tale genre before giving in lazily to every cliche. Leo Da Vinci: Mission Mona Lisa is an Italian-Polish production that looks rather cheap, but has a certain charm as it sends the teen inventor on a ridiculous treasure hunt adventure.

Foreign films included The Operative, a quietly tense German-Israeli production starring Diane Kruger and Martin Freeman. From Spain, The Candidate is a fast-paced labyrinthine political thriller with a clear-eyed perspective on endemic corruption. The French-German drama Transit sets a WWII story in modern-day Marseilles. It's finely produced and acted, but strains to connect the eras. And from Argentina, End of the Century is a twisty personal drama set in Barcelona, where two men remember meeting before. What follows skilfully plays on both memory and expectations.

There will be more family-friendly summer movies this next week, with the adventure Dora and the Lost City of Gold, the Kevin Costner comedy The Art of Racing in the Rain, and more animation with both UglyDolls and Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion. Other films include Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson in The Peanut Butter Falcon, the spy thriller Ecco and the horror movie Wicked Witches.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Critical Week: Men in skirts

It's the hottest week in Britain since record keeping began (a couple of hundred years ago), so sitting in a cool cinema is a nice alternative to my sweltering home! We had a press screening of what is likely to be this week's biggest new movie: Horrible Histories: The Movie - Rotten Romans, which transfers the popular book and stage series to the big screen with an all-star cast of British comics (Lee Mack is leading the charge in the pic above). The film is resolutely silly, like a family-friendly variation on the classic Carry On romps. It's also very funny, and actually recounts some real history.

There were a couple of highbrow indies: Sienna Miller and Christina Hendricks are terrific in American Woman, a grim slice of working-class life that's beautifully shot and played. Tye Sheridan and Jeff Goldblum make an offbeat duo in The Mountain, a surreal and very dark drama about mental illness and social failings. From Mexico, The Chambermaid is a riveting drama about a hotel cleaner in which very little actually happens. Arthouse audiences will love it. And from the Netherlands, Dust is a sensitive, gritty teen drama that takes a hard look at an awkward coming-of-age. There was also this doc...

The True Story of the Illuminati
dir-scr Johnny Royal • narr Johnny Royal
with Josef Wages, Adam Kendall, Reinhard Markner, Olaf Simons, Clyde Lewis, Teresita Arechiga, Eric Bertolli, Brian Butler
release US 30.Jul.19 • 19/US 1h16 ***

Unveiling the most notorious secret society, this documentary is so over-serious that it's both dry and borderline comical. But it's packed with resonant detail. Featuring to-camera interviews with a variety of historians and experts, the film is an eye-opening journey into this unseen world, including re-enactments of its initiation rituals and secret handshakes.

The Illuminati was founded in May 1776 in Bavaria by Adam Weishaupt to improve humanity by accelerating the Enlightenment, deeply Christian but opposing superstition, church influence in government and abuse of state power. Weishaupt is an intriguing figure, and the film dives into his background, as he read forbidden books that explored the dangers of giving too much power to the Catholic Church, which suppressed ideas that threatened its authority. Weishaupt was the first non-Jesuit allowed to teach law at Ingolstadt University, so he made a lot of enemies. His goal was to develop intellect, striving for perfection on earth (he originally called the group the Perfectibilists). By combining elements of Freemasonry the movement spread, and the film covers key turning points until the group was dissolved in 1785 due to internal divisions and official opposition. Oddly, the film never mentions how the Illuminati excluded Jews and women, leaning toward wealthy, young, pliable men. But they also promoted equality among classes and forbade slavery.

Filmmaker Johnny Royal narrates in a flat voice, while filling the screen with lushly produced slow-motion dramatisations of a variety of creepy rituals in candle-lit rooms. Combined with the articulate interviewees, this helps the film feel like more than merely a reading of the Wikipedia page. Details about rival secret societies are hugely intriguing, including the way the Freemasons (not the Illuminati) established the United States. Indeed, conspiracies today ignore the real history, conflating various secret orders. Instead, it's the big philosophical ideas and the historical narrative that make this film gripping.

Coming up this next week, we have screenings of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw, Pedro Almodovar's acclaimed Pain & Glory, the Spanish political thriller The Candidate, the French-German thriller Transit, and two animated movies: the sequel The Angry Birds Movie 2 and the fairy tale Charming.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Outfest: Make your mind up

I've had a chance to remotely cover a few titles from this year's Outfest, which is running in Los Angeles until next Sunday. It's always great to be able to keep up with festival films from a distance, and these movies grapple with big issues in ways that are funny, emotional and challenging. Here are three blurbs linked to full reviews, plus longer comments on a British doc...

Sell By
dir-scr Mike Doyle • with Scott Evans, Augustus Prew, Kate Walsh 19/US ***.
This gentle ensemble comedy circles around a group of 30-something characters who are struggling with romantic issues and life plans. Writer-director Mike Doyle gives the film a flippant tone, revealing how people use acerbic humour to cope with problems. The central question is whether all relationships have a sell-by date, and while the story structure feels more than a little predictable, the endings at least feel nicely organic... FULL REVIEW >

dir Mark Blane • with Mark Blane, Joseph Seuffert, Christian Patrick 19/US ***.
"Based on a lie", this black comedy recounts the offbeat adventures of filmmaker Mark Blane when he moved to New York. It's a quirky, personal little film that unfolds with its own rhythms and themes. This makes it tricky to identify with, even if the characters remain engaging and intriguing. The way things develop may be stylised and often downright askew, but it's underscored with a sense of honesty...

Label Me
dir-scr Kai Kreuser • with Renato Schuch, Nikolaus Benda 19/Germany ****
Dark and thoughtful, this German drama is beautifully understated as it explores the complexities of identity for an immigrant who is afraid to let anyone see who he really is. Within a brief running time, writer-director Kai Kreuser maintains a tight focus on the shifting balance of power between two central characters, wasting no time on melodrama or the usual gyrations of plot structure...

dir Jeanie Finlay; with Freddy McConnell
release US Apr.19 tff • 19/UK BBC 1h31 ****

The title of this involving narrative documentary refers to the fact that male seahorses carry their unborn young. As he approaches 30, the articulate, charming Freddy McConnell decides to stop testosterone treatment and give birth to his own child. He understands the emotional and physical ramifications of what lies ahead, and he knows he has the support of his entire family. He originally plans to have the child with his close friend CJ, who is also trans, but ends up on his own, relying on help from his mother as he goes for ultrasound scans, deals with morning sickness and, ultimately, childbirth. Freddy is a deep thinker who has worked out his identity as a gay man, even though he knows people find that complicated. But pregnancy makes him feel like an alien, like he has violated his own masculinity. He also has to face harsh criticism online, and also among his relatives. And the process prompts him to try to mend his strained relationship with his father.

The film is fluidly shot and edited, taking a quick-paced and natural journey through the story as Freddy copes with the changes to his body and keeps his eye on his goal of becoming a father. The details are often astonishing, especially as they carry such a strong emotional impact, right to the powerfully moving water birth. Filmmaker Jeanie Finlay takes a bracingly honest approach, never shying away from anything while remaining sensitive to the nuances of Freddy's situation. She also clearly relaxes Freddy and his family as they so openly share their thoughts and feelings with the camera. Home movies offer lovely, telling glimpses of Freddy's childhood with his sister and parents, who understood early on what was going on with him. It's fascinating to watch him go through a box of childhood mementos, including his crushes on masculine actors and his early avoidance of his given names. The journey he takes through pregnancy brings a continual stream of surprises, And the film's most powerful element is the way it presents Freddy's odyssey as utterly normal, even if it's also exceptional.

More 2019 Outfest films reviewed...

dir Rhys Ernst
19/US ***.

dir Lucio Castro
19/Arg ****

dir Bany Khoshnoudi
18/Mex ***.

dir Doug Spearman
19/US ***

dir Li Cheng
18/Gua ****

dir Tomer Heymann
18/Isr ***.

dir Gregor Schmidinger
19/Aut ****.

dir Cedric le Gallo, Maxime Govare
18/Fr ***.

dir Hari Sama
19/Mex ****

dir Rodrigo Bellott
19/US ****.

dir Chanya Button
18/Ire **.

NB. I'll keep adding titles here as I see the films.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Critical Week: Vikings and knights

It seems obvious that the Lego's main rival would want its own movie, and there was a press screening this week of Playmobil: The Movie. It's not as sharp or smart as The Lego Movie, but it has a frantic energy that might keep kids entertained. Aside from wacky voice work from the likes of Daniel Radcliffe and Adam Lambert there's not much here for adults. A much bigger family film opens this week, of course. Disney's remake of its classic The Lion King, was screened to the press a bit late in the day. The state-of-the-art animation is staggering, and the story is well-told. Although the emotional impact feels oddly muted compared to the more expressive original.

Off the beaten path, Willem Dafoe stars in the artful Opus Zero, a complex drama that challenges the audience with its exploration of the creative process. Chain of Death is a slow-burning psychological thriller about a guy (John Patrick Amedori) caught up in a tangled web of murder/suicide for no logical reason. My Friend the Polish Girl is an offbeat British drama shot as a doc gone wrong. It's clever and darkly provocative. And the French drama Hidden Kisses is a strikingly well-told story that explores the nature and effects of homophobia in a society that refuses to educate its children. Powerfully timely and deeply moving.

This coming week's movies include the all-star British comedy spoof Horrible Histories: The Movie - Rotten Romans, Sienna Miller in American Woman and the French WWII thriller Transit. I also have films to watch that are part of OutFest in Los Angeles, including Cubby, Seahorse, Label Me and Sell By.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Critical Week: Who you gonna call?

It's been a strange summer at the cinema, without a break-out hit. Disney and Marvel continue to rake up most of the box office cash, but nothing particularly outstanding has emerged quite yet. Meanwhile, it's been another eclectic week at the movies for me. Jim Jarmusch's wry zombie thriller The Dead Don't Die has his usual all-star cast, including Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny and Bill Murray (above), plus a particularly hilarious Tilda Swinton. It's charming, dryly funny and too sardonic for mainstream audiences. And then there's the studio action-comedy Stuber, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista, who provide some charisma to help paper over the fact that the movie isn't particularly funny or thrilling.

Gurinder Chadha is back with her British feel-good drama Blinded by the Light, a scrappy but likeable movie set in the late-80s with a Bruce Springsteen song score. Summer Night is an equally loose American comedy-drama about a small townful of entangled characters. Even more independent, the twisty British-Dutch thriller AMS Secrets heavily channels Hitchcock's Psycho in its luridly stylised plot. From Mexico, Always Say Yes is an inventive odyssey about a young country boy in the big city. It's seriously explicit, but also insightful and disarmingly sweet. There was also the shorts collection The Male Gaze: The Heat of the Night, featuring six rather dark dramas about masculine sexuality from around the world. And I had a chance to see one of my all-time Top 5 films on the big screen in a new edit. Every edit of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now has been a masterpiece, and he says that this summer's pristinely digitised release is his "Final Cut".

Coming up this next week, we have Disney's remake of The Lion King, the animated adventure Playmobil: The Movie, Willem Dafoe in Opus Zero, the British immigrant drama My Friend the Polish Girl, the Mexican drama The Chambermaid, and the French drama Hidden Kisses.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Critical Week: Land of the midnight sun

This week's most anticipated screening was for Midsommar, the new sun-drenched horror from Ari Aster (Hereditary). And it certainly didn't disappoint: terrifying on several layers, Aster gleefully torments the audience without resorting to cliches. And the cast is simply awesome, including Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter. Sylvester Stallone was back for Escape Plan: The Extractors [aka Escape Plan 3], which is more like another Rambo movie than part of this series. Yes, it's rather simplistic, relegating his returning costars (Dave Bautista, Curtis Jackson) to much smaller roles. And the true adventure/tragedy Kursk: The Last Mission also has an all-star cast, including Colin Firth, Matthias Schoenaerts and Max Von Sydow, but it leaves the Russian nature of the story aside for a Euro-pudding production that never quite feels real.

Less starry films included Brittany Runs a Marathon, a Sundance winner featuring Jillian Bell as a woman trying to get her life into shape. Although the plot plays to the usual structure, the film is very, very funny and then engagingly emotional. Germany's stunning Oscar-nominated epic drama Never Look Away is the complex, involving story of an artist who feels the impact of world events in his work. And the documentary/essay Varda by Agnes is a final gem from the masterful Agnes Varda as she traces her career, inspiration and motivation. It should be essential viewing in all film schools. There was also this documentary, which landed in cinemas last Friday...

Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows
dir-scr Richard Kovitch
with Penny Slinger, Peter Whitehead, Susanka Fraey, Jack Bond, Michael Bracewell, Jane & Louise Wilson, Antony Penrose, Maxa Zoller
release UK 28.Jun.19 • 17/UK 1h38 ***.

A fascinating trip into London's art world in the 1960s and 1970s, this documentary explores Penny Slinger's haunting, surreal work: paintings, photos, collages, sculptures, performance and film. It's packed with her imagery, plus revealing interviews with her, her collaborators, friends and experts. Slinger's work is deliberately provocative, as she rejects the status quo and sets out to shock people with her statements about how women are seen in society. "I'm not necessarily feminist," she says, "but I hope I've been helpful in liberating the feminine." Documentary filmmaker Richard Kovitch traces her life and career chronologically, from painting as a child to attending art school in 1960s London, covering her striking projects over the years, all of which seem far ahead of her time. From the start, she played with faces and bodies in her work, creating a boldly female punk sensibility.

While it may feel a little dry, this doc is loaded with her powerful images, extensive footage from her rare films and clips of her art shows. And everything is accompanied with personal comments from Slinger, as well as collaborative artists like Fraey and filmmakers Whitehead and Bond. It's an eye-catching film, assembled with a reverence to her distinctive style, packed with intriguing observations about both Slinger and the art world in general, including what it says about culture at large. As Slinger says, life itself is a work of art, and her pieces are just an emblem of that. So it's intriguing how in the 1980s, disillusioned with how art had become too proscriptive and academic, she chose to disappear from the public eye. Her art continues to be exhibited, as fresh and resonant as ever. And she continues to evolve as a person engaged to the world around her.

Coming up this next week, we have Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista in the buddy action comedy Stuber, Jim Jarmusch's star-packed zombie romp The Dead Don't Die, Gurinder Chadha's Springsteen-themed musical Blinded by the Light, the ensemble comedy Summer Night, the shorts collection The Heat of the Night, and Coppola's so-called "final cut" of Apocalypse Now, a movie I never miss a chance to watch on a big screen.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Screen: Summer TV Roundup

There's more and more television to watch, with so many outlets starting new shows and miniseries all year-round rather than the old-style seasonal system. I can't keep up with everything, but I do alright, watching episodes in between movies and writing deadlines to clear my head. It's been a busy spring, and the summer is already going full-pelt...


Years and Years
One of those shows that gets deep under the skin, this family drama slides quickly from the present into the near future, then skips ahead by a year or so in each episode. This makes its plotlines feel remarkably urgent, because it looks like this is the direction the world is heading: straight into dystopia! Comments about what's to come are both shockingly big and subtly clever, and what makes the show even more involving is the powerhouse cast, including Anne Reid (whose final-episode rant has rightfully gone viral), Emma Thompson, Russell Tovey, Rory Kinnear and Jessica Hynes. Some of the sci-fi excesses feel a bit nutty, but most are underplayed. While the political angles relating to immigration, health and economics hit close to home, the family's dynamic is hugely engaging. Essential.

The quality of this production is staggering, as it recreates the look and feel of the 1980s Soviet Union with unnerving precision and an inventive narrative approach. This is simply stunning television, a harrowing re-creation of the notorious meltdown and its aftermath, seen through the eyes of a few key people. The combination between personal stories, scientific expertise and political control is strikingly well-balanced. It's rare to see a show that can seem so effortless in its ability to shift between terror, wrenching emotion, dark provocation and outright rage. By the end, we feel like we have lived through it with these people, played with awards-worthy precision by the gifted likes of Jared Harris, Jessie Buckley, Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson. And the final message about the power of the truth is urgent.

Good Omens
Frankly, this is what I was hoping for from American Gods, which turned out to be far too pleased with itself to be watchable. By contrast, this is a lively, witty, smart pastiche about gods and monsters and the end of days. Michael Sheen and David Tennant are hilarious as an angel and demon who become friends over the millennia and team up to stop the 11-year-old Antichrist (Sam Taylor Buck) from triggering Armageddon. Jaunty and clever, the show is skilfully assembled with a fabulous starry supporting cast (Jon Hamm, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, Jack Whitehall and Frances McDormand as the voice of God), expert sets and costumes, and a wryly hilarious and gripping story adapted from the acclaimed Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett novel.

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams are simply superb in this series about the professional and personal partnership between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Starting in 1968, the show follows their work and tumultuous marriage through a series of films and stage projects. It's astutely well-written and directed with lots of style, including a constant string of lively musical dance numbers. Although the attempt to dramatise Fosse's life as a surreal musical was better done by the man himself in All That Jazz. Still, this is a terrific romp through the lives of this iconic power couple, reminding us why their work is so indelible.

Dead to Me
This offbeat comedy-drama centres on an unlikely friendship between two very different women (the terrific Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini) who meet in a bereavement group. The writers cleverly add plot twists and cliffhangers to continually switch-up the story, which helps the show work on a variety of levels: an unexpected friendship, an exploration of grief, a struggle to deal with the truth, a blackly creepy caper comedy. Some of the elements work better than others, but the core show is both entertaining and provocative.

Bless This Mess
This snappy sitcom from the sharp mind of Lake Bell follows a couple (Bell and Dax Shepard) as they quit their New York jobs and move a Nebraska farm they've inherited. They know nothing about farming, and the house needs a lot of work, but they've had it with the city and need a change. Although the over-friendly neighbours and the man (Ed Begley Jr) living in the barn are a whole other challenge. As is the wise shop owner/sheriff (Pam Grier) The characters are colourful and engaging, and the developing story is hilarious. Just as importantly, there are superb depths to these people and their situation. Although the silly tone can get a little grating.

Ryan O'Connell created, wrote and stars in this witty, sharply observed series about a gay 28-year-old trying to navigate adult life in the context of his cerebral palsy. Over eight 15-minute episodes, O'Connell finds both hilarious moments of comedy and some darkly touching emotions as his character tries to put his condition in the background. He's a remarkably complex young man, not always doing the right thing, but remaining likeable as he struggles with his self-image. The surrounding characters are a bit more cartoonish, but are also deeply engaging, adding some deep meaning to the show's themes. A remarkable achievement that deserves more episodes.

I Think You Should Leave
Tim Robinson's sketch comedy show is not only sharply well-produced with an array of superb guest stars, it also pushes humour far beyond the usual limits. Each little scenario begins as a fairly standard comedy bit, then twists into surreal directions that become absurdly funny and more than a little surreal, sometimes veering closer to horror. Binge-watching this first season is almost too easy, as the episodes race by, making us laugh while tweaking us with unexpected provocative barbs, leaving us wanting a lot more.


Game of Thrones:
series 8
Kicking off with a bang, these final six epic episodes shift back and forth between churning build-up and mad action intensity. From the whoosh of Jon Snow's first dragon ride to the knighting of Brienne to Arya's stunning pounce. The Night King dominated the first three episodes, then we moved on to Cersei and her stubbornly violent thirst for power. There are a staggering number of very pointed scenes in which the characters clear the slates between them (and quite a few of the old faithful are killed off horribly). And it couldn't help but be a bit anti-climactic with so many characters and so much going on. But it's the offhanded moments that are the most enjoyable, packed with character-based wit and emotion that's expertly played by Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Maisie Williams, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Gwendoline Christie, to name a few. 

Jane the Virgin: series 5
It's remarkable that this series has maintained its high quality right to the very end, mixing smart wit and a knowing pastiche of telenovelas with a bunch of superbly engaging characters who will really be missed. The lively cultural mix has been even more pronounced this year, even as the soapy antics spiralled in outlandish directions that were alternatively hilarious and emotive. Gina Rodriguez is such a great anchor to the chaos, even managing to sell the ludicrous return of her dead husband (Brett Dier) to again mess up her relationship with baby daddy Rafael (Justin Baldoni). There is little doubt how this will end for each character, but the writers have plenty of surprises up their sleeves.

Veep: series 7
The writing never flagged with this series, even as the overall plot kind of went in circles ever since Julia Louis-Dreyfus' indelible Selena Meyer stopped actually being vice president. Where the writers have taken this show has been eerily prescient, remaining utterly hilarious even as it can never match the craziness of the real political world. So in this series, set on the primary campaign trail, they double and even triple down on the mayhem, almost daring America to keep up. It's so fast that you can barely blink while watching it. And it would be even funnier if it didn't feel so accurate.

The Big Bang Theory: series 12
What is there to say about this show after all these years, other than that it has gone out at the peak of its powers. Actually, you could argue that once these nerds began getting married, the premise was badly compromised. But the actors and writers have sustained the show with warmth and infectious humour, mainly because the characters are so indelible. I've watched this show sporadically from the start, usually on airplanes, so I've only been loosely keeping track of it over the years. But the final episodes were a lot of fun. 


Killing Eve: series 2
Picking up just seconds after the first season ended, these new shows rarely pause for breath. Indeed, Sandra Oh's Eve seems unable to get her feet back under her after everything she has learned lately. The connection between her and Jodie Comer's astonishingly complex Villanelle is wonderfully surprising and more than a little disturbing. It's rare for a series to be able to play with such hideous violence in a way that's witty and pointed, never losing sight of the tragedy. The twists and turns of the plot are often exhilarating, mainly because the characters are so realistic that we never know what appalling thing they might do next. And the season cliffhanger was perfect.

Santa Clarita Diet: series 3
This breezy, nutty little show is the perfect antidote to over-serious, too-trendy dramas. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant are engagingly ridiculous in the central roles as a sparky, over-achieving zombie and her up-for-it husband. And Liv Hewson came into her own this season as their feisty daughter, whose awkward connection with a neighbour boy (Skyler Gisondo) took some nice turns. Superb costars this year include Jonathan Slavin as their over-eager undead pal and Linda Lavin as a reborn pensioner. The Knights of Serbia subplot is rather corny, but adds some witty gags along the way. Bring on the fourth and final season.

True Detective: series 3
After the somewhat iffy second season, showrunner Nic Pizzolatto took a long break, regrouped and found another A-list cast for an epic detective drama. This one has strong echoes of the real-life West Memphis case, with significant differences, and its snaky plot is intriguing. But jumping around between three periods over some 40 years eliminates most of the mystery and diminishes the narrative drive with sheer confusion (the only way to know where you are is to look at the haircuts). Mahershala Ali is of course awesome, and so are Carmen Ejogo and Stephen Dorff, all in tricky, messy roles that hold the attention even if the central case doesn't.

Victoria: series 3
Now easily in its own groove, this semi-historical series has toned down its more soapy influences. Although there's still a strong whiff of Downton Abby around this take on the reign of Queen Victoria. Jenna Coleman has settled into her role as the strong-willed monarch, now in a tug-of-war for control with her frustrated husband Prince Albert (Tom Hughes). Political conflict comes largely from Lord Palmerston (Laurence Fox). And the kids are becoming characters now, although Victoria seems to give birth to another child every five episodes. Side characters have the obvious secret romances, mini-scandals and so forth. It feels somewhat toothless and generic, but it's entertaining and worth sticking with.

Tales of the City: series 4
The previous seasons of this Armistead Maupin-based series were in 1993, 1998 and 2001. And it's remarkable that this new iteration maintains the same mix of humour, emotion and soap-style subplots. Many of the original cast members continue in their roles, including Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis and Paul Gross, with welcome additions Ellen Page, Murray Bartlett and Zosia Mamet. The various plotlines are funny and intriguing, and refreshingly awkward as well. Like the earlier series, the storylines feel distracting from the much more interesting character comedy and drama. This one involves blackmail and revenge, or something. A bit more personal complexity would have made this even better. 

Mom: series 6
This show may be spinning its wheels - the characters haven't really gone anywhere this season. But it's sure been a lot of fun to watch them, especially led by the formidable Allison Janney, whose impeccable comic timing is beautifully matched by the loveable Anna Faris. This is a rare sitcom in which riotously funny people cope with darkly serious issues, and it's great that the showrunners continue to find ways of laughing at things most people would consider resolutely unfunny. Here, they are hilarious, with a meaningful kick.

Modern Family: series 10
The characters in this show continue to be some of the most consistently funny people on television, and it's been impressive to watch the writers let them grow up organically over a decade, up until the moment when yet another generation emerged into this family. The writing is still unusually sharp, mixing slapstick with more intelligent gags and underlying emotion. There have been some hit-and-miss moments in the past few years, so it's probably time to retire these characters. Next season is set to be the last, and they will be missed.


The Twilight Zone: Jordan Peele relaunched this vintage anthology series with a certain amount of style. Production values are high, and the casting is cool, with actors who can bring the needed nuance to each scene. So it's frustrating that the scripts aren't up to par, lacking both thematic depth and moral complexity. 

The Act: Based on a true crime story, this disturbing series traces a grisly murder in extended flashback over four years. At the centre are two idiosyncratic performances by Patricia Arquette and Joey King, but their relationship is too obvious. And the bizarre plot structure makes it difficult to care how it arrives at the predicted ending.

NOW WATCHING: Euphoria, Catch-22, The Hot Zone, The Name of the Rose, Pose (series 2), Big Little Lies (2), The OA (2), The Handmaid's Tale (3), Black Mirror (5), Younger (6).

COMING SOON:  The Loudest Voice, The Politician, The End of the F***ing World (2), Lodge 49 (2), Stranger Things (3), The Crown (3), Insecure (4).

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Critical Week: In stealth mode

This week's blockbuster press screening was for Spider-Man: Far From Home, a refreshingly enjoyable blockbuster starring the hugely engaging Tom Holland. It continually undermines the usual overserious nonsense of superhero movies, and is relentlessly good fun. Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult star in the stylish historical drama The Current War, as Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla, respectively. It's a riveting story, nicely told. Alicia Vikander and Eva Green play sisters in Euphoria, a drama about mortality that's beautifully shot and acted, but eerily elusive. And nearly 25 years after Braveheart, Angus Madfadyen returns to the role of Robert the Bruce, a solidly produced film from a choppy script. And Peter Strickland's In Fabric is an enjoyably bonkers stylised horror movie about a murderous dress.

From abroad, we had The Shiny Shrimps, a French comedy drama based on the true story of a gay water polo team. It's funny and involving, but ultimately uneven. Also from France, Amin is an edgy immigration drama that's very sharply observed. From Mexico, Fireflies also centres on immigrants, this time an Iranian in Veracruz, and his story is strongly moving. From India, Photograph is a beautifully involving love story with some unexpected touches. From Canada, the provocative, engaging Roobha centres on an offbeat relationship between a middle-aged married man and a young trans woman. And there were two from Bangladesh: Saturday Afternoon is a tense and sharply pointed one-take thriller set during a terrorist standoff, while Sincerely Yours, Dhaka is a collection of seven superbly well-made shorts exploring pungent issues that resonate strongly.

I also caught a few documentaries. Memory is especially gripping for film fans, as it traces the origins of Alien, which was released 40 years ago. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a fascinating bio-doc about Leonard Cohen centring on his relationship with his muse Marianne Ihlen, with filmmaker Nick Broomfield adding himself into the story as usual. Political activists, not devil-worshippers, are the focus of Hail Satan, a witty doc about how the Satanic Temple exists mainly to provoke and challenge pompous injustice. And the warm, personal Southern Pride follows two bar owners in Mississippi as they try to celebrate LGBTQ culture.

Coming up over the next week, we have Florence Pugh in the horror thriller Midsommar, Colin Firth in Kursk: The Last Mission, Sylvester Stallone back for Escape Plan: The Extractors, the Sundance-winning comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon, the French coming-of-age drama Love Blooms, and the doc Varda by Agnes.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Stage: Head on a platter

conceived, directed, choreographed by Carmine De Amicis, Harriet Waghorn
music Phillip O'Meara
with Carmine De Amicis, Fabio Dolce, Harriet Waghorn, Jade Woodhouse, Mikey Sluman, Victoria Marsh
Cockpit Theatre, London, 23.Jun.19 • National Tour, 24.May-30.Jun.19

Originally published in 1891, Oscar Wilde's play Salomé is based on the biblical account of King Herod, his step-daughter Salomé and their fateful encounter with the Jewish prophet Jokanaan, aka John the Baptist. Edifice Dance Theatre strips this back to its essentials as a collision between divinity, wealth and power. It's a strikingly powerful piece of work, beautifully staged and performed with a riveting sense of passion, energy and urgency.

Performed in the round on a stage strewn with mannequin parts around a central table, Jokanaan (De Amicis) deftly dances without hitting any of the pieces, expressing pure power and grace. He's followed by the increasingly annoyed Herod (Dolce), who is accompanied by his own three-piece orchestra (Woodhouse, Sluman, Marsh) as he dances stumbling through the set, arresting Johanaan like a jealous fanboy. Enter the spoiled princess Salomé (Waghorn), fending off the handsy admiration of her step-father. She's far more interested in the prisoner. But when he rebuffs her kiss, she turns back to Herod, agreeing to perform a dance for him if he grants her one grisly wish.

The production is deceptively simple, with a pulsing combination of light and music that focusses all of the attention on these three gifted dancers. Dolce has a smirking presence as the man who thinks he has all of the power, doing his little jazz moves and ordering people around. By contrast, De Amicis uses long lines and achingly languid shapes to convey Jakonaan's effortless connection with the divine. Between them, Waghorn brings astonishing strength, a forceful woman who knows what she wants and has every intention of getting it one way or another. The physicality between them is staggering, especially in the final sequence.

Yes, the way this story is told offers strong echoes of the Time's Up movement, plus an underlying comment on how the people who hold positions of power are often in it for what they can get rather than what they can offer. Watching the balance shift between these three people is riveting, especially at such close quarters with the performers interacting with the audience (Waghorn handed me her mask, and I felt a spray of sweat at one point). This is a fiercely inventive retelling of an iconic story that deserves to run and run.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Short Cuts: Death, love and rehab

Here are two Netflix films I caught up with this week, plus another film that hasn't had a UK release but is already streaming from the US...

Murder Mystery
dir Kyle Newacheck; scr James Vanderbilt
with Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Luke Evans, Terence Stamp, Dany Boon,Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, Luis Gerardo Mendez, David Walliams
19/US Netflix 1h37 **.

Let's be honest: you know you're in trouble when they can't even be bothered to give a movie a title. A bit of breezy entertainment, this energetic comedy is relentlessly dopey, but will just about do the trick when you want no mental stimulation whatsoever. It's about New York cop Nick (Sandler), who takes his frustrated wife Audrey (Aniston) on the European honeymoon he promised her 15 years ago, mainly to cover his continuing failure to pass his detective exam. On the plane she meets Viscount Charles (Evans), who invites them to Monaco for a weekend on a palatial yacht owned by his billionaire Uncle Malcolm (Stamp). The passengers are a who's who of characters from one of Audrey's mystery novels, so when Malcolm is stabbed with the bejewelled family dagger just before signing his new will, Nick steps in to help solve the crime. Of course, he immediately becomes the prime suspect.

The script plays with the stereotypes and genre cliches as the body count grows and the amusingly blustery Inspector Delacroix (Boon) takes the case. From here the writer and director lazily indulge in trite jokes, never creating a coherent plot or characters. Action moments are clumsy, and much of the humour falls flat. But there are witty gags here and there leading to the usual closed-room solution, which of course is followed by twists, turns and some random madcap action amid picturesque scenery. For an Adam Sandler comedy, this means that it's far above average. But by any other measure, this is a stumbling mess of a movie. Even so, it fills the time amiably enough. Aniston invests fully into the role with her enjoyably shrill comical energy. Her chemistry with Sandler even makes him seem almost funny.

Always Be My Maybe
dir Nahnatchka Khan
scr Randall Park, Ali Wong, Michael Golamco
with Ali Wong, Randall Park, James Saito, Michelle Buteau, Vivian Bang, Keanu Reeves, Daniel Dae Kim, Karan Soni, Charlyne Yi, Susan Park
19/US 1h41 ***.

This romantic comedy has a silly tone that makes it likeable, finding realistic edges to the characters that make them deeply engaging. It's thoroughly obvious where the film is heading, but the characters and story are both witty and involving, so it's never easy to predict how any scene is going to unravel. Sasha and Marcus (Wong and Park) are best buddies from childhood, then share a romantic moment in their teens, which leaves their friendship in an awkward place. Now in Los Angeles, Sasha is a celebrity chef with a hot restauranteur fiance (Kim), but he has just taken an extended job in India. So Sasha decides to start over as she goes to San Francisco to open a new branch. She soon runs into Marcus, who's living at home, working with his dad (Saito) and playing in an indie band. He also has a crazy girlfriend, Jenny (Bang). But Sasha and Marcus begin rekindling their friendship, and they know each other too well to let each other get away with any rubbish.

The dialog is snappy, often with an improvisational feel to it. Park and Wong have terrific chemistry, bouncing off each other with jaggedly perfect timing. Marcus' band plays smart-alecky pop-rap novelty songs that you'll want to download immediately. And there are zinger one-liners scattered through the script for each of the side characters ("I'm an LGBTQIA ally, so thank you for your service," says Soni, as Marcus' bandmate, to Buteau, as Sacha's lesbian assistant). Keanu Reeves' sequence, in which he plays himself as Sasha's new boyfriend, is simply hilarious, as he unapologetically pokes fun at the image people have of him. Thankfully, along with some pointed pastiche about new cuisine, the film also dips a little deeper into celebrity culture as the story develops. It's never provocative or surprising, but it's thoroughly enjoyable, keeping the audience laughing and sighing right to the end. And there are moments that make us hungry too.

The Beach Bum
dir-scr Harmony Korine
with Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jonah Hill, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, Jimmy Buffett
19/US 1h35 **.

Matthew McConaughey is typecast as a loose-living stoner in this comedy by anarchic filmmaker Harmony Korine. He plays Moondog, a worry-free guy in Key West whose life is a series of hedonistic antics. Then he's called back to Miami to help his equally free-spirited wife Minnie (Fisher) with their 22-year-old daughter's (Owen) wedding. "I forgot how rich we were," Moondog says when he returns to their bayside mansion. His literary agent (Hill) berates him for throwing away his talent. So after a run-in with the law, Moondog checks into a year of court-ordered rehab, hoping he'll find the clarity to finally write his book. There he meets Flicker (Efron), a vaper who's equally irresponsible, so they escape and go on a crime spree.

Unsurprisingly, the film looks gorgeous, thanks to Benoit Debie's deep-hued cinematography, and it's accompanied by a superb collection of 1970s songs. Even so, the film feels like it was made in a marijuana-fuelled haze, full of wacky slapstick and broadly overplayed nuttiness, punctuated by McConaughey's piercing cackle. The film is mainly assembled from disconnected scenes of Moondog's aimless carousing and partying. Stinking rich, he hasn't a care in the world, so he never makes much sense. The open relationship between Moondog and Minnie is rather sweet, so a moment when the perpetually inebriated Moondog seems to feel a pang of jealousy feels downright false. Everyone talks about how his genius outweighs his bad behaviour, but there's little evidence of that. His best friends are his wife's lover (a mellow Snoop Dogg) and a disastrous dolphin tour guide (Lawrence). But aside from his general joie de vivre, there's nothing likeable about Moondog. So it's very difficult to celebrate him as a poetic hero rather than just a rich jerk who has had far more luck than he deserves. But then perhaps that's the vaguely political point Korine is making with this unexpectedly toothless romp.