Friday, 23 August 2019

FrightFest: Don't look now

The 20th FrightFest takes place in London over the long weekend, filling cinemas with scary movies. It kicked off on Thursday with Come to Daddy starring Elijah Wood (above), and will close on Monday with the terrific British thriller A Good Woman Is Hard to Find starring Sarah Bolger. In between there is a full range of nastiness - comedy, drama, action, Western, sci-fi, adventure and downright evil. I've caught a number of titles this year, and here's the first batch, linked to reviews where possible (other full reviews will appear closer to the release dates)...

Come to Daddy
dir Ant Timpson; with Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie 19/Can ****
With a visually stylised, blackly comical approach, director Ant Timpson and writer Toby Harvard spin a cleverly insinuating freak-out. A striking setting and full-bodied performances help the film continually wrongfoot the audience as it spirals in unexpected directions. And each scene is peppered with telling details and amusing touches that deepen both the themes and the film's deranged sense of humour. But the real surprise is how moving it is... FULL REVIEW >

dir Alexandre Aja; with Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper 19/US ***.
Not much about this bonkers action thriller makes sense, but it's so much fun that it's easy to just go with it. Filmmaker Alexandre Aja knows how to freak out an audience by building suspense, adding an extreme gross-out, providing a big jolt and layering in an undercurrent of psychological tension. He throws all of this and more at this ridiculous premise, and the film is an entertaining scream... FULL REVIEW >

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
dir Andre Ovredal; with Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza 19/US 1h48 ***.
More yucky than scary, this enjoyable horror movie skilfully juggles a range of iconic images and themes. Slickly put together in the inimitable style of producer Guillermo del Toro, the film is briskly directed by Andre Ovredal to keep the audience on edge. There's never much of a question about where it's heading, but there's a lot of gruesome fun to be had along the way... FULL REVIEW >

Dark Encounter
dir-scr Carl Strathie; with Laura Fraser, Mel Raido 19/UK ***.
Both a gritty family drama and an outrageous home-invasion thriller, this British film set in rural America pulls the audience in with its offbeat approach to sci-fi horror. The characters are vividly played by a gifted ensemble, and filmmaker Carl Strathie reveals the narrative with skill, using snaky long-takes and superbly atmospheric settings to maximum effect. The film often feels gimmicky, especially when it's trying to push the emotions, but it's powerfully involving.

The Wind
dir Emma Tammi; with Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles 18/US ***.
Artfully shot and edited, this whispery thriller reveals its story by crosscutting between two timelines. Set on an isolated 1880s homestead, it's a slow-building atmospheric freak-out that unnerves the audience from the start with its disparate images, enigmatic characters and expansive setting. And as a story of a woman's mind in turmoil, it's also provocative and haunting. Director Emma Tammi is definitely one to watch... FULL REVIEW >

dir-scr Rob Grant; with Munro Chambers, Emily Tyra 19/Can ****
Brett Gelman delivers a knowing narration that establishes this horror thriller's comical tone right from the start, adding snide commentary as he describes a strained relationship between three longtime friends who are at sea literally and metaphorically. The film is strikingly shot, writer-director Rob Grant layers in strong undercurrents that keep the story staggeringly tense, and the three lead actors are terrific.

I Trapped the Devil
dir-scr Josh Lobo; with Scott Poythress, AJ Bowen 19/US ***
Dark and insinuating, this gloomy horror thriller has a clever set-up and a strong cast, although writer-director Josh Lobo can't resist trying to heighten everything with gimmicks like perplexing visuals or pushy sound and music. Confined to a creepy house, the movie has a superb claustrophobic tone, both visually and psychologically. But the pace is slow as it churns along in between some atmospherically freaky moments... FULL REVIEW >

• Official FRIGHTFEST site
• Shadows' FRIGHTFEST homepage

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.

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.