Thursday, 25 February 2021

Critical Week: Too cool for school

Things have been a bit quieter for me this week, as I haven't had too many films to watch. Although while the weather has been warmer, we're still in complete lockdown, meaning it's impossible to met up with friends or go into town. So I've been catching up on things and watching what I can to get a little ahead of the curve.

Night of the Kings • The Mauritanian
The United States vs Billie Holiday
The Father • Song Without a Name
Crisis • Tyger Tyger
The most mainstream film I saw this week was Moxie, the comedy directed by Amy Poehler for Netflix. It stars Hadley Robinson in a hugely engaging tale about girl power, and rather a lot more. I also enjoyed the black comedy Pixie, an engagingly messy road movie set in Ireland as young people navigate a brewing war between gangster priests (led by Alec Baldwin) and the local mob (Colm Meaney). 

Smaller films included the remarkable British drama Justine, a sensitive look at a troubled young woman, and Tyger Tyger, an enigmatic and artful film set on the outer fringe of Southern California society during a killer pandemic. And from Ivory Coast, Night of the Kings is a staggeringly involving prison drama that's well worth a look. There were also two strong short film collections exploring aspects of youthful masculinity: Boys on Film 21: Beautiful Secret and The Latin Boys: Volume 2.

We also had the virtual programme launch event for the British Film Institute's annual Flare LGBTIQ+ film festival, which next month will be held online for the second year running. The kind folk at the BFI sent me a small version of the annual logo cake to enjoy for the launch, a tradition I've enjoyed each year while covering this event over the past 23 years. (See my Insta post below.)

This coming week's collection of movies includes Disney's animated Raya and the Last Dragon, the award-winning Filipino drama The Verdict, the Japanese true drama Fukushima 50 and bonkers filmmaker Quentin Dupieux's Keep an Eye Out.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Contenders: Longest awards season ever

With Bafta and Oscar pushed into April, this year's awards season has nearly been doubled, with the various honours I vote in stretched a couple of months longer than usual. It also means that not all awards have the same eligibility dates, so winners are beginning to vary as nominations are announced and prizes are handed out. So we can expect to see some of this year's Oscar contenders among next year's critics accolades. Here are eight more films I've caught up with over the past two months for voting purposes, including some proper gems...

dir Nathalie Biancheri; scr Olivia Waring, Nathalie Biancheri; with Cosmo Jarvis, Lauren Coe, Sadie Frost, Yasmin Monet Prince, Laurie Kynaston, Amber Jean Rowan 19/UK 1h24 ***
Shot and edited with a visceral sensibility, this British drama explores the unusual friendship between sparky 17-year-old Laurie (Coe), who bristles with attitude, and the 33-year-old Pete (Jarvis), who seems to be obsessed with her. Director Biancheri keeps the tone almost unnervingly over-serious, with improv-style dialog that's often mumbly or whispered. The way Pete approaches Laurie is more like a big brother, which confuses her as she continues flirting with him. Of course, all of this is meant to imply that there's more going on here than meets the eye, which is rather indulgent. And indeed, the plot is a bit thin. But the actors are so earthy and natural that the film becomes almost mesmerising. and they keep it authentic and emotionally powerful.


About Endlessness
[Om det OƤndliga]
dir-scr Roy Andersson; with Jessica Louthander, Tatiana Delaunay, Anders Hellstrom, Anna Sedunova, Jan-Eje Ferling, Thore Flygel 19/Sweden 1h18 ****
At age 78, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson continues to create visually astounding work that explores enormous themes from witty, askance angles. Each shot is like a slowly moving painting, exquisitely detailed and rendered with astonishing attention to detail. This makes watching the film almost hypnotic, as each scene presents a story that weaves into a larger exploration of human existence and interaction. This film is a remarkable depiction of life in all its forms, wonderful and terrible, meaningful and pointless, beautiful and ugly. The settings have a muted old-world charm, while the people are strikingly modern. And each scene is utterly exquisite, so the film holds the attention even without any proper characters. It's a stunning exploration of the meaning of existence, and a witty observation that we don't actually need to know what it means.


Make Up
dir-scr Claire Oakley; with Molly Windsor, Joseph Quinn, Stefanie Martini, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Elodie Wilton, Lisa Palfrey 19/UK BBC 1h26 ****
Filmmaker Claire Oakley begins peppering this British drama with unsettling details from the first shot, creating gnawing unease that echoes the central character's mindset. Strange noises, gusty weather, pointy red fingernails: these kinds of atmospheric touches add horrific undercurrents, creating a fresh spin on the Hitchcock classic Suspicion. The story follows 18-year-old Ruth (Windsor), who travels to Cornwall to be with her boyfriend Tom (Quinn) at the remote holiday park where he's working. When she finds a smudge of makeup and long red hair, she suspects he's been cheating on her. And everyone she meets seems a little off. Oakley skilfully pushes the viewer deeply into Ruth's disorienting perspective, and gifted newcomer Windsor's performance is earthy and often unnervingly internalised, a young woman facing her first truly adult situation. It's a truly haunting coming-of-age.


The Wolf House
[La Casa Lobo]
dir Cristobal Leon, Joaquin Cocina; scr Alejandra Moffat, Joaquin Cocina, Cristobal Leon; voices Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krausse 18/Chile 1h15 ***.
A truly original approach to animation makes this surreal movie magical to watch, mixing a variety of filmmaking formats. It's fairly impossible to describe, as the story emerges through what looks like moving images hand painted onto walls, which then combine into a range of inventive stop-motion puppetry techniques. And the story is involving and haunting, twisting fairy tale elements in strange new ways. Set in southern Chile, it opens within a community of singing Germans who believe they have discovered the right way to live, although they have a rather dark past. Maria (Kassai) is a young member who, rather than endure punishment after letting two pigs escape, sneaks out of the village and takes refuge in a strange house in the woods. She avoids the wolf (Krausse) who lives there, reuniting with her lost pigs and becoming a family. But she knows the wolf is lurking. The swirl of constantly shifting painting, sculpture, papier mache and many other elements is simply stunning to look at, while the story seems to take place within Maria's mind as a stream-of-consciousness voiceover. The house itself becomes a character in the narrative, which takes outrageously Lynchian turns. But it's the imagery that's mesmerising. Indeed, it's impossible to look away. What big teeth you have....

Lynn + Lucy
dir-scr Fyzal Boulifa; with Roxanne Scrimshaw, Nichola Burley, Shaq B Grant, Tia Nelson, Jennifer Lee Moon, Kacey Ainsworth 19/UK BFI 1h27 ***.
In the tradition of British kitchen-sink realism, this downbeat drama centres on characters for whom life is a real struggle. This makes them easy to identify with, although first-time feature filmmaker Boulifa's approach is a bit relentlessly grim. The title characters have been friends since they were 11 and are now godmothers to each others' children. Lynn and Lucy (Scrimshaw and Burley) support each other through everything, including Lynn's struggles as a new mother and Lucy's strained marriage to Paul (Grant), a tough guy who is unable to work after his military service. Then something happens that requires unflinching support, and the questions shake their close bond. The film is beautifully observed, with conversations that take unexpected detours, delivering small but pungent kicks. And the plot contains some earth-rattling points that make everything even more intensely emotive. All of this is expertly written and directed, and played with a deep sensibility by the fine cast. And as it explores layers of tragedy in everyday life, it's not easy to watch.

dir Sam Feder; with Laverne Cox, Mj Rodriguez, Chaz Bono, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Jamie Clayton 20/US Netflix 1h48 ****
This strikingly well-made documentary takes a complex look at how transgendered people are depicted in the media, an enormous issue that becomes deeply personal in the thoughtful commentary. "I never thought that I would live in a world where trans people were treated with respect or even celebrated in culture," says one person who clings to trans characters in movies and TV shows, even when they're problematic or downright negative. Filmmaker Feder assembles this with starry to-camera interviews sharing intimate stories and feelings, intercut with a wide range of clips that span more than a century. Trans people have been played for laughs (Tootsie, Victor/Victoria), depicted as killers (Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs) or dismissed as a punchline (daytime chat shows). But there's also deep resonance (Boys Don't Cry), problematic casting (Dog Day Afternoon, Dallas Buyers Club) and unhelpful reactions (The Crying Game, Ace Ventura). But things are changing, especially for underrepresented groups (Orange Is the New Black, Pose, A Fantastic Woman). Using such bracingly personal perspectives keeps this from being another trawl through media history. Yes, the doc feels comprehensive, but that's what makes it so powerful. And it's packed with essential, eye-opening observations.

The Forty-Year-Old Version
dir-scr Radha Blank; with Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Imani Lewis, Haskiri Velazquez, Antonio Ortiz 20/US Netflix 2h03 ****
This is a dryly hilarious, knowing slice of life in which filmmaker Radha Blank plays a sparky version of herself, trying to get noticed as a 40-year-old Black female playwright and rapper. But everyone keeps brushing her off, and those who engage with her are painfully condescending, wanting her to do the usual nonsense ("I still need a writer for my Harriet Tubman musical"). And she also has to contend with the usual obstacles of chaotic New York life. But her terrific collection of snappy, colourful friends are there to help her ... and to entertain her. And she also has a class of teen theatre students who are bursting with attitude that keeps her on her toes. Where the story goes over the somewhat overlong running time is funny, powerful and occasionally excruciating. It's also skilfully shot in black and white, and peppered with brilliantly astute moments that are heart-stoppingly raw. Radha is a fresh new cinematic voice. And this film is loose, engaging and important.


Bad Hair
dir-scr Justin Simien; with Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Blair Underwood, Laverne Cox 20/US 1h42 ***
There's a subversive edge to this comical horror about a killer weave, which grounds its amusingly unsettling Faustian story in a world full of racial and sexist harassment. This connection to current issues adds a zing of topicality to the nastiness that unfolds, even when the plot goes off the rails. The story is set in 1989 Los Angeles, where Anna (Elle Lorraine) gets pricey sewn-in extensions to advance her career. But as her confidence grows, she realises that her new hair has an appetite for blood. Director Simien indulges in flashy camerawork, wacky effects and colourful production design, creating arch moments that punch the comedy and add several freak-out thrills. The hair salon sequence is properly nasty, as are the references to slave-era folktales. The violent moments have seriously grisly angles that add deeper meaning to the film, touching on a range of weighty topics. So it's a bit frustrating that gonzo grisliness takes over in the uneven final act. At least the message is perfect: a woman should be able to wear her hair however she wants to.


Thursday, 18 February 2021

Critical Week: Meet the neighbours

After nearly a year of on-off lockdown, it's beginning to feel like I'll never get to make a new friend again. Everyone is feeling the ongoing boredom of staying home all day during this third London lockdown, only getting out for a bit of exercise each day. This may be great for catching up on movies and binge-watching series, but it's also wearing us down. At least I'm keeping busy, which is perhaps much of the battle. But with a drastic reduction in work for self-employed people like me, the strain is getting much more serious.

Days of the Bagnold Summer
Nomadland • The Mauritanian
So it helps to watch mindless rubbish like The Croods: A New Age, the enjoyably bonkers sequel to the much more coherent 2013 animated romp about a caveman family, this time with added eco-farmers voiced by Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann. Also disappointing was Nicholas Jarecki's ambitious opioid thriller Crisis, interweaving three important plots headlined by Gary Oldman, Armie Hammer and Evangeline Lilly. Doug Liman's Locked Down was also uneven, a cleverly made but over-egged British pandemic heist comedy with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway. 

I connected much more strongly with some films from off the beaten path. Sh*thouse (UK title: Freshman Year) is a scrappy university comedy, written and directed with offhanded charm by its young star Cooper Raiff. From Ivory Coast, Night of the Kings is a bracingly original prison drama with some stunning mystical touches. From Hong Kong, Twilight's Kiss recounts a sensitive, secertive romance between two fathers in their late 60s. And the shorts collection Boys Feels: Desire in the Dark features five intense European mini-dramas exploring angles on masculinity.

I have a list of films to watch over the coming weeks, including Dylan Sprouse in Tyger Tyger, Olivia Cooke in Pixie, Quentin Dupieux's comedy Keep an Eye Out, the British drama Justine, and two more collections of male-oriented short films: The Latin Boys Volume 2 and Boys on Film 21: Beautiful Secret. There's also the programme launch event for this year's BFI Flare film festival, which runs 17-28 March.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Critical Week: Living your best life

I don't really need to do my annual roundup of the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, since you can watch the virtual ceremony HERE. It was a lot of work to pull this together, and it was great to see all but one of our winners send a video thank you. Reactions have been really positive - I think people like having it all packed into a neat 30-minute package, even if they miss having a proper party. The best thing about holding the ceremony this way is that people around the world can watch it.

Minari • Madame
Judas and the Black Messiah
A Skeleton in the Closet
Modern Persuasion
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Back to screenings this week, I saw two high-profile films that are under embargo, so I'm not yet allowed to write about Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo's comedy Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (out tomorrow) or Lee Daniels' biopic The United States vs Billie Holiday starring Andra Day (out on 26th Feb). But reviews will be published soon.

Films a bit off the beaten path included the British indie comedy-drama Running Naked, which is essentially a gentle bromance with a misleading title. The bonkers masked-ball thriller X has some great ideas but is a bit too choppy to pull things together. And the involving, off-handed Argentine comedy-drama A Skeleton in the Closet has a lot to say about the pressures and power of family connections. I also caught up with two awards-season films that I'll cover in the next FYC blog entry: Radha Blank's rightfully acclaimed pointed comedy The Forty-Year-Old Version and the devastating trans identity doc Disclosure.

Coming up this week, I've got the Gary Oldman thriller Crisis, Anne Hathaway in Locked Down, the comedy Freshman Year and Beautiful Secret, the 21st edition of the Boys on Film shorts franchise.

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Critical Week: Isolation blues

It's becoming clear that this extended third lockdown is making Londoners a bit loopy, especially as it has no end in sight. Although we keep hoping that as the pandemic numbers improve slightly, relief is on the horizon. But being able to get back into a cinema seems like a distant hope! I've been rather swamped with preparations for the London Critics' Circle Film Awards on Sunday night, which has involved lots of email communication with Los Angeles - something an eight-hour time shift makes rather tricky. As a result, I only watched four movies this past week.

Falling • Another Round
Two of Us • Malcolm & Marie
By far the biggest film I saw was the Russo brothers' Cherry, starring Tom Holland (above) as an Army veteran who becomes a junkie to deal with his post-traumatic stress. It's 2 hours 20 minutes long, and feels like an operatic epic. It would look amazing on a big cinema screen. Ambitiously taking on the same theme in a very different way, Mike Cahill's Bliss stars Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek in a fantasy-style thriller about a parallel reality. It's provocative and engaging. The Australian remake of the Icelandic gem Rams stars the superb Sam Neill, Michael Caton and Miranda Richardson, and finds earthy humour in a dark situation. And the pitch-black Argentine thriller 4x4 traps lead actor Peter Lanzani inside an SUV, becoming a seriously harrowing ordeal.

Coming up this week, I need to catch up on quite a few films, including the true thriller Murderous Trance, the British comedy Running Naked, the Argentine romcom A Skeleton in the Closet, the Chinese drama Twilight's Kiss and the short film collection Desire in the Dark.

And if you want to watch the 41st London Critics' Circle Film Awards, our virtual ceremony goes live at 7pm Sunday night 7th Feb and will also be rewatchable on the CRITICS' CIRCLE YOUTUBE CHANNEL >

Thursday, 28 January 2021

Critical Week: Time after time

I've been busy with plans surrounding the 41st London Critics' Circle Film Awards (we've all voted and are now getting ready to announce our winners). As chair of this group, there's a lot to do at the moment, so I'm keeping very busy in lockdown at the moment. Otherwise, the biggest film I watched this week was Synchronic, a surreal adventure thriller that sends two paramedics (Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie) on a mind-bending odyssey that involves cool things like time travel but is rather corny too. Ed Gathegi stars in Caged, a psychological prison thriller that's emotionally involving even if it feels archly theatrical.

Supernova • 
The Capote Tapes
The Dig • The Night
From Mexico, the dark drama Identifying Features sends a mother in search of her missing son, a powerful story that's slightly weakened by its artsy filmmaking. Another artful maternal drama, this time from Japan, True Mothers follows an adoption from both sides of the story, beautiful to look at and vaguely mysterious too. The most audaciously inventive film, perhaps of the whole year, The Wolf House is a pitch-black and deeply haunting animated fairy tale from Chile. The documentary The Capote Tapes tells the story of the iconic writer through the eyes of his no-nonsense friends. And the short film collection The Male Gaze: Hide and Seek is another set of strongly well-made little dramas about masculinity.

This coming week will be largely taken up putting together the London Critics' Circle virtual ceremony on Sunday 7th February, but I also need to watch Owen Wilson in Bliss, Sam Neill in Rams, the British streaking comedy Running Naked, the Argentine thriller 4x4, the camp thriller X and the Paris Hilton doc This Is Paris.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Critical Week: Survival of the fittest

Awards season continues with nightly Q&As designed to focus voter attention on various films. I've been able to host a couple of these, which has been a lot of fun, chatting with actors and filmmakers around the world. Another group I vote in, the Online Film Critics, released its nominations this week. Beyond awards contenders, films I watched this week included Outside the Wire, a standard action-packed military thriller elevated by lead actors Anthony Mackie (as a robot!) and Damson Idris. From India, The White Tiger is a must-see blackly comical drama about a guy who leaves his low caste behind through sheer determination.

Are We Lost Forever
The White Tiger • Breaking Fast
The Exception • Imperial Blue
It was an eclectic week of movies for me. From the US, Brothers by Blood is a growly, grim Philadelphia crime drama starring the always excellent Matthias Schoenaerts and Joel Kinnaman. From Sweden, David Fardmar's Are We Lost Forever is a gorgeously observed drama about a painful breakup. From Belarus, Persian Lessons is a fascinating true story of one man's survival during WWII, starring the terrific Nahuel Perez Biscayart. And from Denmark, The Exception is an intriguing thriller with big themes, although the filmmakers take a rather contrived approach to it.

I still need to catch up with a couple of this week's releases, including the acclaimed Mexican drama Identifying Features and the shorts collection The Male Gaze: Hide and Seek, plus the biographical documentary The Capote Tapes. And there are also some awards contenders: Radha Blank's prize-winning The Forty-Year-Old Version, the animated drama The Wolf House and the five shorts nominated in the London Film Critics' awards.