Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Critical Week: Family matters

While covid continues to impact cinema on multiple layers, things are beginning to feel much more normal with an increasing number of films shown to the press in actual screening rooms. Seats are still distanced, but it's been nice to get used to seeing colleagues again regularly. And I've also had a bit of theatre to liven things up in between the movies. Films this week included The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to The Sopranos telling an involving story about the entwined mob families, including several familiar characters, and a few sharp new ones. 

Sweetheart • The Green Knight
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Dev Patel gives another knockout performance in David Lowery's ambitious The Green Knight, which unfolds as an ancient legend with all kinds of inventive touches. Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the quirky biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which feels a bit over-done but is witty and clever. Ben Whishaw gives an outrageously physical performance in Surge, a London drama that shifts into a harrowing odyssey. The South African supernatural thriller Gaia is beautifully set in a lush forest where four people have a collision with nature itself. And the shorts collection Parental Guidance takes some knowing and often very dark looks at family life through a queer eye.

Screenings also started this week for the 65th London Film Festival (6-17 Oct), including the pandemic comedy 7 Days, Jacques Audiard's intertwined romance Paris 13th District, the beautifully animated refugee doc Flee, and the Finnish road movie Compartment No 6.

Coming up this next week, I have several more London Film Festival movies to watch, plus Daniel Craig's final Bond movie No Time to Die, Bill Nighy in Living and the British horror Shepherd.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Performance: A field in England

Is This a Waste Land?
by Charlotte Spencer
presented by Sadler's Wells
narration Louise Tanoto, Ben Ash
with Kirsty Arnold, Ben Ash, Rachel Lopez de la Nieta, Ben McEwen, Thomas McKeon, Petra Soor
Bridgewater, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park • 17-26.Sep.21

What's described as an "immersive performance through headphones" is actually quite a lot more than that, as it puts the audience right in the middle of the show. We work alongside the artists to create everything that happens, while audio input encourages us not to miss the deeper personal meanings. So taking part is fascinating, unexpected and moving.

The event takes place in East London at the end of the day, as the sun sets over the City. We're standing in a disused open space, paved over as a car park perhaps for the Olympics nearly a decade ago and abandoned shortly afterwards. And with the construction going on all around the Olympic park in Stratford, it's obvious that developers have their eye on this piece of land, so the chance to roam around it is specific to this time.

Entering the site, we're given workman's gloves and headphones, and told to select an object to carry with us from a collection of broken, thrown-away things. A pin cushion seemed to shout out at me from my childhood, so that's what I picked up. Headphones on, the 50 or so people are guided to create a perimeter on two sides of the lot, then to walk into the middle, stop, turn, walk some more and have a good look, selecting a spot to place our object.

Soon things get much more complicated, as we are encouraged to explore areas of interest, to walk in specific directions, spin around and move. Eventually it becomes clear that not all of us are getting the same instructions, as we wave arms to form a smaller tribe that is given a specific job. My team uses found objects to create rope-and-stick fences and to build more elaborate walls. Others are carrying long sticks or constructing towers. As a whole group, we come together and split apart, form a huge circle, lounge on the ground watching a performance above us, walk under a floating sail, and end up with hot chocolate and biscuits around a fire as the darkness creeps over us.

Through all of this, the cast members both blended into the group and carried out their own busy work, enabling our projects while also putting on a beautifully physical dance performance of their own. Being involved in this was sometimes experiential overload. Occasionally the instructions were unclear, creating confusion that was resolved by relying on teammates. Some of the stop-and-look moments felt indulgent, but they offered a chance to breathe and consider the large scale of what was happening before the next activity. And in the end there was a hushed sense of participatory accomplishment. The meaning might be opaque, but it's also distinct for each person involved. And the cumulative feeling is powerful.

Photos by Pari Naderi and Beth Chalmers • My own pics are in the Instagram post below.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Critical Week: Take my hand

As Venice Film Festival wrapped up and Toronto Film Festival kicked off, things are heating up here in London, with the 65th London Film Festival press screening schedule starting next Monday morning. I'm looking forward to catching up with the big titles from Sundance, Cannes and Venice over the next few weeks - both at in-person screenings and using online links. But more and more screenings are taking place in cinemas now, and the biggest one so far was Dune: Part One on Britain's largest Imax screen. Frankly, movies don't get much more momentous, or jaw-droppingly satisfying, than this. Essential to see on a huge screen.

The Duke • Little Girl
Everybody's Talking About Jamie
Other movies I watched this week included the filmed version of the hugely engaging, life-affirming stage musical Come From Away, the rather uneven but urgently pointed British drama A Brixton Tale, the remarkably thoughtful horror drama The Djinn, the loose and rather nutty social media comedy-thriller The Influencer. Even further afield, there was Bruce La Bruce's latest provocation, the superbly intriguing Saint-Narcisse; the stylised and remarkably involving Norwegian pregnancy comedy-drama Ninjababy; and the earthy, intensely provocative Hungarian war drama Natural Light.

In the coming week, I already have six screenings in the diary for London Film Festival (which starts on October 6th). In addition, I'll be watching the Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, Dev Patel in The Green Knight, Ben Whishaw in Surge, the horror thriller Gaia and the shorts collection Parental Guidance.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Screen: September TV Roundup

There have been some great shows on lately to offer some distractions when I'm not watching movies or getting outside to enjoy the sunshine. I continue to avoid any shows centring on murder or injury - just not what I want to watch, aside from the movies I have to see for work. Give me comedy, social satire, edgy drama or something original that combines all of that....

The White Lotus
From writer-director Mike White, this series cleverly slices through middle-class respectability with its edgy soap-style plot threads about wealthy people on vacation at a Hawaiian resort. Everyone has secrets, and the breadth of the approach is impressive, with a wonderful array of vivid characters ranging in age from teens to retirees. It's easy to get lost in the various stories, as each person is fully fleshed-out by a terrific cast that includes Steve Zahn, Jennifer Coolidge, Murray Bartlett, Fred Hechinger, Jake Lacey and Alexandra Daddario. The show's astute social satire is bracingly pitch-black, and it's so complex that getting to the end feels a lot like finishing a particularly satisfying novel. (HBO)

The Chair 
Sandra Oh is terrific as the lead in this wry comedy about faculty and students at an Ivy League university in New England. Both political and personal issues rear their heads along the way, as characters clash and unite in unexpected ways, while the tide of cancel culture swells ominously and the university's administrators fail to grasp what's happening or even begin to know how deal with it. There are also wonderful roles for Jay Duplass, David Morse and the always fabulous Holland Taylor. So while the over-arching narrative seemed to stumble along the way, future seasons might be able to bring some more focus to the larger issues and resonant interpersonal drama. (Netflix)

Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong have a lot of fun as a happy couple whose relationship is put through the wringer when they're trapped in a mystical realm that's overrun by the trappings of a stage musical. The exaggerated Victoriana is hilarious in the design, dialog and morality, while the musical numbers hilariously riff on a variety of classics. In addition, the starry cast includes musical-comedy theatre superstars like Jane Krakowski, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. So even if it all feels a little corny and obvious, and if each song is a bit too much of a pastiche for its own good, it's a terrific show for clicking off your brain for a silly laugh. (Apple)

Brand New Cherry Flavor
Refreshingly audacious, this crazed series takes the audience on a freaky odyssey that has strong echoes of Lynch and Cronenberg. Set in the early 1990s, it follows aspiring filmmaker Lisa (the superb Rosa Salazar) as she encounters a slimy director (Eric Lange) long before #MeToo and sets about getting revenge with the help of the mystical, shamanic Boro (Catherine Keener). What this costs Lisa is deeply twisted, as is pretty much everything about this show, which dives into the nastiness without hesitation. The boldness of the writing and directing feels like a tonic when most shows are trying so hard to please. This is challenging, disturbing and absolutely riveting television. (Netflix)

Rose Byrne shines as a 1980s housewife emerging from the shadow of her underachieving (and thankfully never villified) husband as she finds that she has what it takes to become an aerobics star. The series takes its time to build this foundation, expertly layering in details that are both funny and rather bleakly chilling. While several of the side roles feel like rather random dimwitted TV series cliches, Sheila is a stunningly complex character, a woman who finally realises that she she will need to break the rules to achieve anything at all in a man's world. Her every move is transgressive and dangerous, but we can't help but root for her. And where the show goes is boldly unexpected. (Apple)

Kevin Can F**k Himself 
After Schitt's Creek, Annie Murphy cleverly adapts her wonderfully perky screen persona to this gimmicky series that combines brightly overlit sitcom silliness with darkly shaded drama. It's a daring experiment that pays off in unexpected ways, revealing shades of suburban angst beneath the chuckleheaded idiocy. And as the lead character's journey to self-discovery and independence gets increasingly intense, Murphy helps us identify with how it feels to continually be underestimated as the ditsy wife to a relentlessly cruel husband everyone sees as a dopey nice guy. The overall series pacing is a little uneven, and the final episodes pay off in a way that's unexpectedly provocative. (AMC)

The North Water
This is a big swerve for Andrew Haigh (Looking, 45 Years), set on a 19th century whaling ship in the Arctic where bristle-haired men are up to all manner of shady grisliness. It's gorgeously designed and shot in spectacular locations, although the relentlessly underlit cinematography can get somewhat annoying on the small screen. The first-rate cast is led by Jack O'Connell, Colin Farrell (against type as a seriously nasty piece of work) and Sam Spruell, with added Stephen Graham and Tom Courtenay. So even if the moral lines are a bit too clear, there's plenty of gristle in the story's riveting depiction of masculinity and control. It also leaves us feeling like we need a bath. (BBC)

Zippy and extremely ridiculous, this animated spy comedy adventure takes in serious themes as it goes along, playing with issues and stereotypes without making pointed comments. This carefree approach adds a provocative angle to the rampant bigotry that swirls around a group of queer spies who have been sidelined for a decade but are now taking their shot at the big time in an international mission that has unexpected repercussions. It's riotously sexy and violent, and animated with a properly adult sensibility, which means the humour is more ironic than expected. And the voice cast is first-rate, including Sean Hayes, Wanda Sykes, Jane Lynch and Stephanie Beatriz. (Netflix)

M O R E    M O R E    M O R E

Dave: series 2 
Continuing his intriguingly blurred autobiographical adventures, Dave Burd goes much darker this season, often dipping into pitch-black comedy and even darker emotions to skewer the show business industry in ways that continually take the breath away. There's a bleakness that makes these episodes less exhilaratingly enjoyable than the first series, but the ideas in the mix are even stronger. And Burd digs into his own offhanded personality to explore some properly pungent feelings as an unlikely rising star who is shaken by interaction with his colleagues, idols, family and friends. His oblivious confidence takes on a whole new meaning this time around. (FX)

Never Have I Ever: series 2
Inspired by Mindy Kaling's childhood, this series continues the adventures of Devi (the fabulous Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a character who is bravely written and played in ways that aren't always likeable, mainly because we're watching her create most of her own problems. Her various relationships evolve in unexpected directions this season, including with two boyfriends, her best pal and her family members. The female roles are particularly well-written this season, including Devi's mother, cousin, closest friend and a rival Indian teen at her school. And John McInroe's witty voiceover adds such a random perspective that it brings everything to unusual life. (Netflix)

I Think You Should Leave: series 2
It's difficult to describe this sketch show starring Tim Robinson as a comedy, since the scenarios it sets up are based on aggression, awkwardness and absurd conflicts. The main reactions to these scenes are nervous laughter and gasps at both how ridiculous it all is (many hinge around something flatly surreal). But there's also a chilling recognition of human nature laced through everything, picking at our insecurities and those niggling annoyances that get under the skin. That Robinson and his talented cast and crew approach this in such a boldly in-your-face way is properly remarkable. It's one of those shows that feels uncomfortable to watch, but leaves us wanting more. (Netflix)

Lucifer: series 6 
The final season of this nutty show spent most of its time wrapping up story threads involving each of the central characters, while contriving an elaborate conclusion. Thankfully, this included some properly bonkers twists and turns on the way to a protracted, wildly indulgent final act that clumsily strained to be both epic and sentimental. The angels-and-demons premise kept things far more entertaining than the usual murder-of-the-week structure, and Tom Ellis' devilish charm so buoyantly held the entire show aloft that it will be fun to see what he does next. He perhaps spends a bit too much of these 10 episodes singing and dancing, but it's unlikely anyone would complain. (Netflix)

Grace & Frankie: series 7a
The first four episodes of this final season suddenly appeared in August (the rest will follow next year), and they're just as ridiculous as always, centring on the ongoing clashes between these two awkwardly merged families and their long history together. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin continue to build on their astonishingly strong chemistry, having fun playing their actual ages while making jokes that poke fun at their real-life images. And Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston and the ensemble cast of kids and spouses are becoming more grounded with each episode. There are still some loose ends to tie up, so however many episodes are left, we'll be happy to giggle along with them when they turn up. (Netflix)

NOW WATCHING: Only Murders in the Building, Mr Corman, Ted Lasso (2), The Other Two (2), What We Do in the Shadows (3), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (8).

COMING SOON: Foundation, The Big Leap, The Morning Show (2), Succession (3), Sex Education (3), The Conners (4).

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Critical Week: Fairy dust

London finally enjoyed a late-summer heatwave this past week - not baking hot, but sunny skies and warm weather lured what looked like everyone out into the city. That'll likely have a knock-on effect on cinema box office if it continues through this weekend. Otherwise, things have been a bit quite for critics, as the Venice Film Festival continues and Toronto Film Festival kicks off. The programme for October's 65th London Film Festival was launched this week, and there are several bit titles from Venice, Toronto and Cannes in there. Meanwhile, here in London I caught up with two high-profile Amazon releases: Camila Cabello makes a strong acting debut in Cinderella, a musical comedy that's silly but entertaining. And Justice Smith gives a welcome grown-up performance in The Voyeurs, which starts as a Hitchcockian thriller but contrives itself into something unnervingly bleak.

The Servant • Respect • Boy Meets Boy
The Collini Case • The Capote Tapes
Smaller films includes Small Engine Repair, John Pollono's adaptation of his own play about three men on a mystery mission that swerves from edgy comedy to pitch-black thriller; Dating & New York is a twinkly romantic comedy about millennials trying not to fall in love (no surprise what happens); Iceland Is Best is a quirky and strangely muted British-made, Iceland-set comedy about teens with dreams; Death Drop Gorgeous is a messy but rather hilariously grisly slasher comedy set in a drag club; and The Collini Case is an excellent German courtroom drama that uses a fictional story to explore a shockingly true situation.

Coming up this next week, I'll be watching the filmed stage musical Come From Away, British drama A Brixton Tale, British comedy Pirates, horror thriller The Djinn, social media satire The Influencer, Norwegian comedy Ninjababy, Second World War drama Natural Light and Bruce LaBruce's Saint-Narcisse.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Stage: Myra is dead! Long live Myra!

Myra DuBois: Dead Funny
with Gareth Joyner, Lucy Frederick
songs by Richard Thomas
UK tour 9.Aug-30.Sep.21
Garrick Theatre, London 6.Sep.21

One of the UK's top drag artists, Myra DuBois is primarily known as a semifinalist on Britain's Got Talent and from stage appearances around the country, plus roles in the West End comedy Death Drop and the film version of Everybody's Talking About Jamie. Her current UK tour brings her back to the Garrick Theatre for her first solo show in the West End. And it's a riotously funny evening.

Set up as a funeral for Ms DuBois, the event opens with her brother-in-law Frank Lavender delivering a seriously irreverent eulogy, which spirals from a badly off-tune rendition of Let Me Entertain You into a vintage-style stand-up routine that plays merrily with political correctness. Jokes are old and repetitive, circling around and escalating, but never getting any funnier. The humour is of the squirm-inducing variety, creating embarrassing moments and poking fun at people, always befuddled by the audience's reaction. He also brings out his over-eager wife Rose to support him. Of course his haphazard style hides a lightning-quick wit, but it's still an acquired taste.

After the interval, it's all about Myra, who appears in a shimmering white number like an angel, reassuring us that she's not actually dead but will be by the end of the show. Her delivery is polished and seriously biting, hosting her own funeral on a simple stage (with some elaborate lighting effects) and determined to have it go exactly how she wants it to. Along the way, she veers off-topic for a mental health cleanse, while also singing a few songs, continually taunting audience members and adding editing instructions to the camera operators who are recording this for posterity.

Her wit is lacerating and very, very sharp, snapping back hilariously to hecklers before diving into another song or introducing her twin sister, the crowd-favourite Rose (yes, Frank's wife), to recite a tribute poem. Much of the humour is aimed at herself, which seems a little unnecessary, including the way she forgets song lyrics and absolutely slaughters elements in songs that are otherwise performed to perfection. These are rather cheap laughs, and her more sophisticated gags are much funnier. Indeed, by the time she performs half of the duet on I Know Him So Well, the way the audience fills in the gaps makes it clear that she has us all right in the palm of her hand.

Photos by Holly Revell

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Critical Week: A proper belter

It was a long weekend in Britain, but the much-promised heatwave never materialised. It was warmish, but only sporadically sunny - basically like the entire summer has been. We haven't really had seasons this year, with a mild winter, chilly spring and a summer that has only rarely been warmer than 25C/75F. It's enough to make you want to scream. Thankfully, that's not what Jennifer Hudson was doing in the biopic Respect. Her performance is simply astonishing, never mimicry but rather inhabiting Aretha Franklin from the inside out, including her distinct way of singing. Her story is powerful too, even if the film feels a little standard (and overlong) for a biopic.

The Year of the Everlasting Storm
Shang-Chi • Annette
Misha and the Wolves 
The Last Job • Wildfire 
Distinctly outside any boundaries, Sion Sono's Prisoners of the Ghostland stars a gruff Nicolas Cage as a man forced to rescue a damsel (Sofia Boutella) from a Japanese wasteland. It's utterly nuts, and surprisingly enjoyable. Tom Burke stars in The Show, a colourfully bonkers British horror featuring a parallel reality underworld, or something. And a Canadian horror, Bloodthirsty, takes a grisly but muted approach to the werewolf genre. All three of these were at FrightFest and have release dates coming soon. A more serious drama from Poland, The Champion of Auschwitz, recounts the involving true story of a boxer in a Nazi prison camp. It's remarkably grounded and powerful. The nicely observant drama A Wake digs into a family dynamic after a funeral, then shakes things up with a revelation. And the harrowing, edgy Danish thriller Shorta follows two cops caught up in an anti-police riot. I also caught up with one that I had missed a couple of weeks back...

dir Kirk DeMicco; voices Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ynairaly Simo 21/US ***.
Sony Animation's first musical was nabbed by Netflix, which made it hard to see on a big screen where its colourfully lush animation would have looked gorgeous. It's a lively tale that follows a cheeky honey bear (Miranda) from Havana who connects with a cheeky teen (Simo) in Key West, leading to a madcap adventure en route to Miami. There's a lot going on along the way, even if the plot itself is pretty simple. But it's populated by wonderfully lively characters (voices include Zoe Saldana, Brian Tyree Henry and the fabulous Gloria Estefan) and several terrific songs too. It's a little gem that adeptly keeps us smiling with a lovely Latin beat.

Films to watch this coming week include Camila Cabello in Cinderella, Justice Smith in The Voyeurs, Jon Bernthal in Small Engine Repair, Jaboukie Young-White in Dating & New York, coming-of-age drama Iceland Is Best, queer horror comedy Death Drop Gorgeous, and the German courtroom drama The Collini Case. We also have the programme launch for October's London Film Festival.