Thursday, 9 July 2020

Critical Week: The room where it happens

The weather has taken a dark, cool turn in London, which is perhaps for the best as lockdown eases further, with pubs and restaurants now open. I had my first professional foray into central London this week, as a guest on a BBC Radio programme, but the West End still feels very odd.

The Prince • Mucho Mucho Amor
Spaceship Earth • Guest of Honour
We Are Little Zombies • Seahorse
The Beach House
Inheritance • Parallax
There's no word on when press screenings will start up again, so we're still watching links. The big movie this week was Hamilton, a filmed version of the Broadway musical with the original cast. It's utterly electric - timely, engaging, important. I'll resume attempts to get a ticket for the stage version once theatres reopen. This week's action movie is The Old Guard, starring Charlize Theron as head of a group of immortal mercenaries. There's a surprising depth to it. And Burden is the true story of a klansman (Garrett Hedlund) caught between his racist mentor (Tom Wilkinson) and a patient woman (Andrea Riseborough). It's a bit obvious, but powerful.

As for offbeat films, there were the gentle comedy Saint Frances, a coming-of-age tale about a woman in her mid-30s; The Spy, the fascinating true story of a Norwegian woman caught between Nazis and Swedes during WW2; The Beach House, a deliberately vague horror thriller that's not easy to connect to; Parallax, an over-ambitious Inception-like brainbender; We Are Little Zombies, a bonkers Japanese musical romp with deep undercurrents about grief and pop culture; and the documentary Mucho Mucho Amor, which movingly explores the life of iconic fortune teller Walter Mercado. I also watched the Netflix pandemic collection Homemade, 17 shorts shot during lockdown by some very high-profile international filmmakers. It's of course hit and miss, with highlights from Paolo Sorrentino, Pablo Larrain, Rungano Nyoni, Johnny Ma and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Films to watch this next week include Tom Hanks in Greyhound, Andy Samberg in Palm Springs, the cycling drama The Climb, the romantic thriller Fatal Affair, the Italian drama The Players, the musical Divos and the doc In Bright Axiom.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Screen: July TV Roundup

With the glut of TV shows, and some extra time to try to catch up with things, I'm making these TV Roundups monthly from here on. As always, I find watching an episode or three a brain-cooling tonic after a film screening, so I prefer comedies of course. But a great drama works too. There were some terrific ones over the past two months...


Normal People
From Ireland, this half-hour drama has a visceral realism to it, which is one of director Lenny Abrahamson's strong suits. It's also resolutely mopey and overserious, which makes it difficult to get into. But sticking with it is rewarding, as it traces an on-off relationship from school days into young adulthood, touching on some enormous issues along the way. The point, of course, is that the word "normal" doesn't mean what we like to think it means. Everyone has deep issues that alter their lives in unexpected ways. And this couple is so beautifully played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal that both have deservedly become global stars as a result of this quiet, introspective series. (BBC)

Love, Victor
A spin-off from the film Love, Simon, this series takes the same super-soft approach to a teen's coming out. Michael Cimino is cute in the title role, a character who is very easy to root for as, instead of coming out as gay, he opts for the easy route of having a girlfriend, which is much more acceptable to his religious Latina family. Ana Ortiz and James Martinez are terrific as his parents, but the show's scene-stealers are Isabelle Ferreira as his surly sister Pilar and Anthony Turpel as his goofy new pal Felix. The show is full of great moments, and some complex interaction. But like the film it's a bit too gentle for its own good. (Hulu)

Space Force
There's a great idea behind this show, but the writers oddly hedged back from making it a full-on sitcom, instead giving it the tone of a drama with amusing humour woven through it. There are a lot of funny things and silly characters, but the script never quite breaks through with either a laugh-out-loud joke or pointed satire. Steve Carell is likeable as always, playing it straight as the head of the new military branch, but John Malkovich steals every scene from him. Meanwhile, Lisa Kudrow is oddly wasted. It's engaging enough to keep watching (it's better than the similarly underpowered The Orville or Avenue 5), but the premise cries out for more edge than this tepid treatment. (Netflix)

Set during lockdown, this knowing sitcom features Michael Sheen and David Tennant as exaggerated versions of themselves as they decide to rehearse a play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, so they're ready to go on stage when theatres reopen. It's sharply written and played, peppered with hilarious gags about life in the covid era as well as witty waves of insecurity and arrogance. Both actors are superb, playing on their public personae, the rivalry between Wales and Scotland and little power games. Their wives pop in from time to time, pointedly, as does their director Simon Evans and shameless scene-stealers like Samuel L Jackson and National Treasure Judi Dench. (BBC)

Everything's Gonna
Be Okay
Josh Thomas is likeably hapless (see also his earlier sitcom Please Like Me), but he certainly shouldn't be trying to get away with playing a guy in his mid-20s anymore: he's 33 and looks it. Still, the show has a nicely unhinged premise, as his lively character assumes guardianship of his two teen half-sisters after their father dies. The ensuing antics refreshingly steer clear of the usual TV cliches, giving the comedy, drama, emotion and sexuality a real-life jolt that's both topical and never predictable. It's all rather brittle and sometimes squirm-inducing, but there's a sweet undercurrent to all of it. (Freeform)


Love Life
Anna Kendrick is terrific in this intriguing series, which explores her character's romantic life from high school until she meets her true love. Terrific support from Jin Ha, Nick Thune, Scoot McNairy and the always awesome Hope Davis adds intriguing textures to each episode, as does the gorgeous voice of Lesley Manville as the omniscient narrator. It's packed with clever ideas and powerful moments, although the overall series feels a bit over-constructed, and one episode is completely superfluous. And as it slides through the years, it's like a more obvious American variation on Normal People. (HBO)

Mrs America
Cate Blanchett is a force of nature as the terrifying Phyllis Schlafly, the fiercely independent woman who inexplicably squashed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and essentially created the "family values" movement that still holds sway with right-wing evangelicals. Blanchett's Schlafly is so iconic in this fiendishly well-produced series that the supporting cast almost fades into the background, including the equally majestic Tracey Ullman (as Betty Friedan), Rose Byrne (as Gloria Steinem) and Margo Martindale (as Bella Abzug). This is a riveting look at an early clash between politics and populism that still resonates strongly today. (HBO)

Dispatches From Elsewhere
Adapted from the documentary The Institute, this show has a surreal, Gondry-esque approach with eye-catching in-camera effects and characters who continually reveal added details (including animated backstories). It's a little loose and rambling, making a very obvious point about how people thrive through connecting with each other and taking on challenges. But the deliberately too-clever scripts are nicely written to draw us into the intrigue, and the cast is wondrous (including Richard E Grant, Sally Field and series creator Jason Segel). The problem is that it's not easy to care, especially as the show crawls up inside itself. (AMC)

Tales From the Loop
With eight stand-alone but interlinked episodes, this series paints a fascinating bigger picture about a town in a quirky alternate 1960s. But the show's languid hour-long pace is far too indulgent, and each of these episodes would be improved by being edited to a sharp, provocative 30 minutes. Even the strongest episodes would have been much more engaging with less wistful gazing. Still, the filmmaking is beautiful, and the excellent actors (including heavy-hitters like Jonathan Pryce and Jane Alexander) create complex characters with messy internal lives and a surprising capacity for cruelty as the supernatural touches their lives. But the mopey tone undermines the potential. (Prime)

A fascinating exploration of the nature of religion this series centres on a man (the quietly charismatic Mehdi Dehi) who appears in the Middle East and goes on to build up thousands of followers in America with his miraculous works, challenging theology and refusal to recognise borders. Of course the CIA takes notice, led by Michelle Monaghan's operative. The show is lavishly produced in terrific locations, although it's more than a little distracting that they've over-styled this Messiah to look like a storybook Jesus, albeit one who speaks Arabic and tells his Palestinian followers to throw away their weapons. As the show references religious traditions, it's both inventive and provocative (Netflix)

Jeffrey Epstein:
Filthy Rich
This four-part documentary series is not easy to watch as it delves into the organised paedophile ring Epstein got away with for decades, simply because he bought his way out of the justice system. The opening episode alone is deeply chilling, as it chronicles people who tried to stop him 20 years ago but failed because of his money and powerful connections. These women are brave and definitely believable. Strikingly well-assembled, the doc carefully maintains its focus on Epstein, but it's impossible not to see the men who are so frequently photographed alongside him, sharing private jokes and clearly part of a system of abuse that's terrifying. (Netflix)

A Series of Light
Superbly shot and edited, this series of five British shorts looks great, boosted by natural screenwriting and a willingness to get very dark as each centres on a young men at a pivotal point in his life. Since they relate to sexuality, the stories are full on, sometimes overplayed by an inexperienced cast. But it's easy to root for the characters as they face different fears, and there's a strong sense of panic and isolation, identity issues and the echoing repercussions of bad decisions. This makes each episode rather grim and cautionary, with ironically little lightness. But all of them offer something pointed to think about. (Prime)


The Politician: series 2
Jumping ahead a few years, this series continues the political climb of Payton, played by Ben Platt firing on all cylinders. This season traces his campaign for New York state senate, taking on an incumbent and her loyal assistant, fabulous roles for Judith Light and Bette Midler, who effortlessly steal the entire show. Meanwhile, Payton's mother (a storming Gwyneth Paltrow) is testing the political waters herself in California. This colourfully lively show's outrageous characters completely overshadow the lower-key gang around Payton, which leaves their subplots feeling somewhat melodramatic and irrelevant. But the show's overall trajectory is fascinating. Bring on season 3. (Netflix)

What We Do in the Shadows: series 2
The ongoing mock-doc (based on the 2014 movie) about a group of vampires living on Staten Island is a constant stream of hilarious gags, plus cleverly understated effects. Despite living for centuries, their cluelessness knows no bounds (like their excitement about being invited to a "Superb Owl" party - think about it). The gifted actors deliver each ridiculous joke with a straight face, often improvising something sublimely absurd. And the over-arching plot is surprisingly involving too, pushing each of these colourfully loveably dopey vampires in unexpected directions, largely due to the understated genius of their familiar, played to perfection by Harvey Guillen. (FX)

Killing Eve: series 3
The tone has changed for this third season, which feels more like a straightforward action thriller than the quirky character-based mayhem of seasons one and two. It still has its moments, and Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are still terrific as the spy and the assassin who are inexorably drawn to each other. So is Fiona Shaw as Eve's jaded boss, plus the always great Harriet Walter. But merrily maiming and murdering side characters has depleted the show's emotional undercurrent, which frankly is always what holds the interest. It's beginning to feel rather cold and calculating, which is fitting but not as clever. And the last moment in the final episode missed a trick. (BBC)

One Day at a Time:
series 4
At its new home on Pop, this series just keeps getting better, anchored by terrific mother-daughter roles for Rita Moreno and Justina Machado, plus side roles that somehow manage to be goofy, topical and complex at the same time. Each character is likeable, even as they're fully ridiculous. And the smart scripts feel as fresh as ever, unafraid to be very silly as they touch knowingly on a wide range of very big issues relating to Latin families and the LGBT community, without ever getting too political. Which makes everything resonate much more widely. Sadly, the season was truncated by the pandemic, wrapped up with a witty animated episode. (Pop)


Topicality in isolation: 
Comedy news shows have come to life during lockdown, as the hosts have done some of their best work from home, even as their frustration shows. Each has found innovative ways to keep up with the headlines. As always, John Oliver's Last Week Tonight strikes the best balance, picking apart the big stories with astute humour. Trevor Noah has shone brightly with The Daily Show, offering especially powerful commentary on things like the Black Lives Matter protests. Bill Maher has maintained Real Time's balance of viewpoints, edgy opinion, big-name guests and witty gags, plus hilarious inserts of vintage audience reactions. And Samantha Bee went into the woods for Full Frontal, raging hilariously and pointedly at the growing sense of injustice in society.

Style to spare: 
The fifth series of Queer Eye (Netflix) maintained the terrific line-up of make-overs that carry emotional punches (it's not easy to get through an episode dry-eyed). Four of the Fab Five are fascinatingly deep, while the scene-stealing fifth is a bit of a cartoon. There was only one weak episode: why make over an 18-year-old who hasn't yet found her style? Meanwhile, the second season of fast-paced, car-crash doc series Putting On (Revry) picks up two years later with the likeably overconfident On Mekahel, working on his underwear brand. On is still a breathtakingly oblivious control freak who can't understand why his designs don't appeal to men who aren't gym-ripped. And he insists his fiance Dave, a felon who can't get a passport while on parole and still hasn't divorced his wife, must travel to visit On's family in Israel before getting married in Paris. Sure enough, On gets his way.

Life's a drag:
RuPaul has had four drag queen competition series over the past few months: the 12th season of Drag Race (Netflix), the fifth season of Drag Race All Stars, and the first seasons of both Celebrity Drag Race and Canada's Drag Race. That's a lot of drag, but the producers are great at keeping these shows fresh with gimmicky innovations and lots of twists. And their real strength is assembling hugely entertaining casts for each series. Meanwhile, the second season of Werq the World (WoW) continues to insightfully document backstage at the Drag Race tour. Its structure also makes it an empowering look at how each performer overcomes resonant obstacles in pursuit of their dreams. And We're Here (HBO) is like a mash-up of Queer Eye, Drag Race and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, as three drag queens take on small towns across America. The observations are fascinating and often strongly moving, and the drag is properly transformational.

Game on:
I don't watch many game shows, but I sampled a few while in lockdown. Floor is Lava is a genuinely great idea staged in an entertainingly epic way. The sets are amazing, and the contestants gung-ho. But it's beaten to death by the editing, which repeats everything that happens at least 10 times. Stop treating audiences like idiots. Adam Scott is superb as the host of Don't, an under-imagined stunt-based quiz show that's only watchable because of Ryan Reynolds' snarky narration. And The Wall UK is another quiz show, but at least it's hosted by Danny Dyer, who offers some fun even if each game is ham-fistedly stretched out over an hour.

NOW WATCHING: Snowpiercer, I Will Destroy You, Luminaries, I Know This Much Is True, Homecoming (2).

COMING SOON: Brave New World, Wandavision, Down to Earth, Muppets Now, The Umbrella Academy (2).

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Critical Week: In at the deep end

Passing the 100-day mark in the London lockdown, this week also included my birthday, so I took it a little easier as far as screenings were concerned. There was also continually shifting ground relating to the reopening of UK cinemas. Most are now waiting another month, and won't open until August, because both the cinemas and the distributors need as much capacity for seating as possible in order to pay the bills. Press screenings are much less likely, because these are usually tiny rooms with very few seats, so it's looking like online viewing links will be the only option for us for awhile. I miss going to the movies for a communal experience. But even film festivals are bypassing press screenings, moving everything to streaming. So this may become a permanent change, but I hope not.

A White, White Day
Four Kids and It • Cut Off
The F**k-It List
As for the films I watched this past week: The F**k-It List is a well-acted teen comedy-drama (Eli Brown, above, is particularly good), but it's full of badly contradictory messages that sound great but are actually very dodgy. Will Ferrell's passion project Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga really should be more sharp-edged than this. But as an homage to the annual competition, it has some iconic moments of its own, and a great soundtrack. And Four Kids and It is a lively family adventure with some quirky comedy that nicely subverts any sentimentality. It's not terribly complex, but is enjoyable while it lasts.

Further afield, Cut Off is a strikingly well made thriller from Germany with a superbly complicated plot and the always terrific Moritz Bleibtreu. Midnight Kiss is a strongly written slasher comedy about a group of friends on holiday in Palm Springs over New Year when a killer strikes. Black Magic for White Boys is a close-to-the-knuckle freeform comedy with some provocative racial overtones. And for my birthday I revisited a favourite from 1987, that gloriously snarky fairy tale for adults The Princess Bride. Bliss.

Coming up this next week, I'll be watching Charlize Theron in The Old Guard, Garrett Hedlund in Burden, Tobias Menzies in Carmilla, the romcom Desperados, the thriller Parallax, the comedy Saint Frances, the Japanese musical We Are Little Zombies and the doc Mucho Mucho Amor.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Critical Week: Window shopping

There's yet another heatwave in London this week, which makes sitting at home watching movies less enticing! But lockdown rules continue, even if they're being loosened each week at the moment by the government on the basis of the economy, not the science. So I'm still being careful out there. Cinemas are set to open on July 4th, with distancing in place. They're saying no masks required, but that seems dangerous. And I suspect it will be much longer before we have a press screening.

Nobody Knows I'm Here
Irresistible • Fanny Lye Deliver'd
On the Record • Beats
In the meantime there are some good movies to watch on streaming sites. I loved Jon Stewart's Irresistible, a snappy political satire with Rose Byrne and Steve Carell (above) as big-time political operatives squaring off in a small-town campaign. Wasp Network tries to cram an entire miniseries worth of story into a two-hour movie. At least it's very well-made, with an ace cast (Penelope Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal, Edgar Ramirez, Ana de Armas). And Lily Collins and Simon Pegg do their best despite being miscast in Inheritance, an underwritten thriller that's far too serious for its own good.

Maxine Peake is terrific in the astonishing British thriller Fanny Lye Deliver'd, which takes on Puritanism in 17th century England. The true story of groundbreaking jockey Michelle Payne, Ride Like a Girl is a rousing Aussie feel-good drama. The dance-competition comedy Feel the Beat is a thinly developed star vehicle for the Insta-ready Sofia Carson. Homewrecker is a vicious black comedy that centres on a standoff between two tough women. From Chile, Nobody Knows I'm Here is a flat-out gorgeous drama with a lot to say, and a wonderful central performance from Jorge Garcia (Lost). It's very subtle and slow, but worth the time. And the skilfully made doc On the Record properly challenges the audience as it explores sexual harassment against black women in the music industry.

This coming week, I'm looking forward to watching Will Ferrell's pastiche Eurovision Song Contest, the adventure Four Kids and It, Disney's film of the stage hit Hamilton, the German thriller Cut Off, Swedish war thriller The Spy, the Danish fantasy adventure Valhalla: Legend of Thor, and the WWII drama Shepherd: The Hero Dog.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Critical Week: I need a hug

I've tried to get outside more this past week, simply because after three months lockdown is doing my head in. A few days out in sunny weather were a welcome break from watching movies at home. This week also brought word that film production will begin again in the UK at the beginning of July, around the same time cinemas will be re-opening with some level of social distancing. And we also found out that awards season is being extended by two months, with the Oscars set for April.

Young Ahmed • Da 5 Bloods
On a Magical Night • The Painted Bird
The King of Staten Island
7500 • Babyteeth
The biggest films I watched this week included the warm and gently comical The King of Staten Island, Pete Davidson's fictionalised autobiography costarring Marisa Tomei (above). Spike Lee's powerful drama Da 5 Bloods follows four Vietnam vets back to the battleground 50 years later on a secret mission. It's staggeringly timely, hugely involving and strongly pointed. And Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried star in the horror thriller You Should Have Left, in which a family's holiday getaway becomes very darkly haunted. It's a bit thin, but sharply put together.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in the German thriller 7500, a gritty, contained drama set in the cockpit of a plane that's hijacked. It's a little contrived, but very well-made, and Gordon-Levitt is excellent. Jesse Eisenberg stars in the German drama Resistance, which traces Marcel Marceau's involvement in the French Resistance during WWII. It's a great story, even if the filmmaking is somewhat standard. The indie American comedy horror Driven follows a cab driver who picks up a demon-slayer and spends the night trying to save the world. It's silly but very entertaining. And the Dardenne brothers' Young Ahmed is another fiercely well-observed drama, low-key and unnerving as it follows a teen who has fallen under the influence of an extremist imam in Belgium.

Among the movies to watch this coming week, there's Penelope Cruz in Wasp Network, Maxine Peake in Fanny Lye Deliver'd, Teresa Palmer in Ride Like a Girl, the comedy thriller Homewrecker, the dance comedy Feel the Beat, the French thriller Lost Bullet, and the sexual assault documentary On the Record.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Critical Week: Under siege

I'm now 90 days into lockdown and, while things aren't great in the UK the rules are beginning to relax a bit. In between watching movies at home (and quite a few TV episodes), I have been getting out into the streets most days. This week the traffic and crowds seem back to normal levels for the first time, even though many shops remain closed. And while the film industry is getting back into production, the question of opening cinemas is still a big one. Frankly, I can't imagine sitting in a press screening room quite yet!

Dating Amber • The Australian Dream
Days of the Bagnold Summer
The Surrogate • You Don't Nomi
Darkness Falls
The Ascent/Black Ops
Bigger movies in my personal screening room this past week included Artemis Fowl, Disney's lavishly produced fantasy adventure with a cast of young newcomers plus Judi Dench (above), Colin Farrell and Josh Gad. It's colourful and far too busy. But it's a gem compared to the epic The Last Days of American Crime, a near-future heist thriller that's simply loud, violent and stupid. Both films will find their audiences.

Smaller fare included the rude, sassy comedy Banana Split, with Hannah Marks and Liana Liberato; the simplistic, cheesy thriller Darkness Falls, starring Shawn Ashmore and Gary Cole; the charming, inventive Irish comedy Dating Amber, with rising star Fionn O'Shea (Normal People); the darkly engaging dramatic horror 1BR; the provocative, thoughtful parenthood drama The Surrogate; and the creative but rather thin surreal British action thriller The Ascent (US title: Black Ops). Foreign options were the breezy, enjoyably pointed Italian comedy Citizens of the World and the lurid Chilean 1970s prison drama The Prince, a remarkable film that won a top award at Venice last year. And finally, from Down Under the doc The Australian Dream explores the experience of football legend Adam Goodes, making pointed and timely observations about systemic bigotry.

Coming up this next week are Spike Lee's Vietnam drama Da 5 Bloods, Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island, the supernatural thriller Driven, the timely doc On the Record, and the French dramas Joan of Arc and Young Ahmed.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Critical Week: Hearing voices

Another week of lockdown, another unusual collection of movies released into the streaming networks. At least the weather has been glorious, tempting me outside in between the films. The best thing I've seen in several weeks, The Vast of Night is a low-budget sci-fi thriller by first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson that skilfully nods to 1950s classics while echoing present day issues.

Guest of Honour
The Vast of Night • You Don't Nomi
The Uncertain Kingdom
A Clear Shot • The Accompanist
The Dinner Party
The highest profile film was The High Note, starring Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kelvin Harrison in an enjoyable but trite romantic comedy-drama set in the music world. The Last Full Measure has a powerhouse cast and an inspiring story, but is belittled by its over-worthy tone. David Thewlis is superb in Guest of Honour, Atom Egoyan's perceptive drama about identity and connection. And Willem Dafoe gives a full-bodied performance in Tommaso, Abel Ferrara's Rome-set dark drama about a filmmaker who's losing the plot.

Steven Berkoff puts his one-man-show version of Edgar Allan Poe's Tell Tale Heart on the screen as a moody freak-out. Three micro-budget indies are somewhat underpowered: The Departure is a sharp but abrasive dating drama, The Dinner Party is a bonkers cultish horror romp, The Accompanist is a quirky overserious romantic drama. And for Pride month, HomoSayWhat is a fascinating, provocative doc about the origins of societal homophobia.

Coming up this next week, there's another offbeat collection of movies, including the British comedy Dating Amber, the futuristic thriller The Last Days of American Crime, the award-winning Chilean drama The Prince, the Italian comedy Citizens of the World and the football doc The Australian Dream.