Thursday, 19 July 2018

Critical Week: Check out any time you like

It's been another seriously eclectic week on the press screening circuit! There was Hotel Artemis, a fiendishly stylish futuristic crime thriller starring the superb Jodie Foster, with a terrific supporting cast and some deep, dark resonance. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was screened along with an array of Greek-style canapes and colourful cocktails to loosen us up to more Abba antics. It's a lot of fun (Go Cher!), but feels padded out with too many B-side songs. The Little Stranger is a dark, creepy adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter and Charlotte Rampling. And Glenn Close is absolutely fantastic as The Wife in a riveting marital drama costarring Jonathan Pryce as a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

A little further afield, Sylvester Stallone was back with Escape Plan 2: Hades, a preposterous but rather enjoyably dopey sequel costarring Dave Bautista (also seen in Hotel Artemis). Jonathan Rhys Meyers does a gloomy James Bond impersonation as a Mossad spy in Damascus Cover, a dry and dated thriller. Oona Chaplin and Natalie Tena take a narrowboat around London's canals as they have a relationship crisis in the engaging, provocative drama Anchor and Hope. The bone-dry Finnish black comedy Euthanizer growls its way through a story about a man fed up with the inhumanity of his neighbours. And Love, Cecil is a lush, lyrical documentary tracing the life of the gifted photographer/designer Cecil Beaton.

This coming week we have Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Jon Hamm in The Negotiator (aka Beirut), Timothee Chalamet in Hot Summer Nights, the Sundance hit American Animals, the Irish drama Apostasy, the British comedy Strangeways Here We Come and the American serial drama Paper Boys.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Critical Week: Here comes the judge

It's been a busy week, even if press screenings have been a little thin. The World Cup semifinal featuring England on Wednesday night erased all planned screenings that night. And Thursday was the summer party for the Critics' Circle - that was good fun. I'm the vice chair of the film section, so as one of the event hosts had to skip that evening's screening of Mission: Impossible - Fallout (I'll catch up on that in a week or so).

But I did see a few films. The Children Act stars Emma Thompson (above), who is simply devastating as a high court justice who gets caught up in a thorny case. Based on an Ian McEwan novel, it refreshingly refuses to simplify characters, plots or themes, and leaves us with a lot to think about. Conversely, Skyscraper is best watched with the brain disengaged: it's a preposterously stupid action thriller that's far too serious for its own good. Dwayne Johnson is, as usual, the best thing about it, but was clearly told to rein in his charm and wit.

Hearts Beat Loud is a moving, gorgeous drama starring Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons and Toni Collette. The story is interwoven with engaging, earthy songs, so it's involving even if it's a little over-crafted. And A Swingers Weekend is a loosely awkward comedy-drama about three couples trying to spark up their relationships at a lake house. The darker scenes are far more interesting than the rather tepid sexy silliness.

This coming week will be busy, with the all-star musical sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Jodie Foster in Hotel Artemis, Glenn Close in The Wife, Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 2, Sylvester Stallone in Escape Plan 2, Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Damascus Cover, Oona Chaplin in Anchor and Hope, and the costume designer doc Love, Cecil.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Critical Week: Over the borderline

Back in London after a two-week break, I've been catching up on several films, including the sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado (UK title Sicario 2: Soldado), a gritty and intensely gripping thriller following on from the more resonant first film. Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and Isabel Moner are excellent. Tonal issues make the romcom Ideal Home surprisingly challenging - it feels like a gentle family film, but is packed with more provocative adult elements. Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd are superb at the centre. And Mary Shelley is a fascinating biopic about the author of Frankenstein, although it feels like it has smoothed out the real story. Elle Fanning is terrific in the title role.

A little further afield, My Life With James Dean is a gentle, wry French comedy about a filmmaker on a bizarre odyssey in a sleepy coastal town. It's artful, quirky and hilarious. And Postcards from the 48% is a solidly assembled doc digging into the issue of Brexit. It may be one-sided, but frankly there hasn't yet been a compelling argument in favour of leaving the EU, aside from emotional nationalism. Which makes the film seriously scary.

Coming up this week are screenings of the Dwayne Johnson action Skyscraper, Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud, Emma Thompson in The Children Act, the comedy A Swingers Weekend and probably a few more as I continue to play catchup...

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Critical Week: Family values

I've been in America's Deep South for a week and finally managed to get to a cinema yesterday to see Incredibles 2, which opens next month in the UK. I really enjoyed the way Brad Bird recaptures the family dynamic in the superhero genre, deepening the characters of the children in the process (Jack-Jack steals the show). The dialog is hilarious, and the action sequences are hugely thrilling (Marvel take note). Although I wish the plot and the villain were a bit more fully formed. Still, it's enjoyable enough that it makes us hope Bird doesn't wait another 14 years to make the next one.

Last week, I watched two films on the flight over here. Del Shores' Sordid Lives expanded universe has had a place in my heart since I spent two weeks with him at a film festival where the first movie premiered. So I was happy to find A Very Sordid Wedding in the fight's entertainment system. It's as wacky as the previous films and TV episodes, with the same messy humour, depth of feeling and a proper edge of religious and political themes woven through the nutty characters. The awesome Beth Grant was sorely missed (although Dale Dickey was great), but the film is a lot of fun, and actually has something important to say.

The other thing I watched was the two-and-a-half hour conclusion to Netflix's Sense8, basically the third season mashed together. Fans will love this epic adventure, which has plenty of twists and turns and carries on the Wachowskis' staggeringly inventive visual style. Although there's perhaps a bit too much gunplay than was necessary. And the emphasis on violence leaves the more interesting, engaging interpersonal drama feeling kind of wedged in at the end with two massive montage sequences that give the series' devoted followers just what they wanted to see most. More of that ebullience woven throughout each episode might have helped it gain a wider fanbase. But at least cast and crew were able to wrap up the story in style.

There's only one other movie in cinemas here that I'm interested in seeing (the comedy Tag), and only one coming out this weekend (the sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado). But I don't know if I'll have a chance to see them before flying back home to London. Watch this space.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

It's been a busy few months for television shows. But it's nice to have some quality programming to keep me entertained and clear my mind in between my film screenings...

The story of J Paul Getty III's kidnapping was the subject of Ridley Scott's underrated All the Money in the World last year, and now Danny Boyle comes at the story with this sprawling, skilfully assembled 10-part series. This allows for rather a lot more detail relating to all of these people, plus much more on the figures around them. And what a cast: Donald Sutherland as the stingy grandfather, Hilary Swank as the determined mother, Harris Dickinson as the kidnapped teen, Brendan Fraser as the swaggering Texan fixer, and terrific support all around. The scripting by Simon Beaufoy sometimes tries too hard to be inventive, while the raw facts of the story are so mind-boggling that they don't need the embellishment. 

A Very English Scandal
Anchored by ripping performances from Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, this three-part series tells the true story the frightfully posh politician Jeremy Thorpe (Grant), who in the early 1960s had a passionate affair with riding instructor Norman Scott (Whishaw). And when he thought the story might get out, Thorpe simply decided to have Scott bumped off. Stephen Frears directs this as a jaunty comedy with a very dark underbelly, and the actors play it with similar textures to make it thoroughly riveting. Perhaps a longer series would have made the narrative more coherent, since it leaps through the years in sometimes confusing ways. But this is dazzling television, and a great story with several complex twists in the tale.

Wild Wild Country
There's a slightly tabloid angle to this documentary series, although it does work dilligently to tell the story from each side, and the balance makes it very strong. It's tracing the events in 1980s rural Oregon, when the followers of Rajneesh bought a huge tract of land and began building their utopia. Local residents were relatively OK with this until strange things started happening, and the Rajneeshees reacted to criticism by taking over a local town government, casually poisoning restaurants throughout the region and arming themselves to the teeth. The story is grippingly recounted with firsthand interviews from a variety of people involved. Although while the facts are clear, what really happened remains a bit murky.

The Looming Tower
There are echoes of Homeland in this limited series, except that all of this is true. It's based on exhaustive research into the work of the FBI and CIA in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks. Mixing in actors with real footage of the major figures, this 10-part drama feels eerily authentic, and it certainly doesn't go easy on the ways the CIA withheld evidence from the FBI that could clearly have averted the awful events. Jeff Daniels is excellent as FBI chief John O'Neill, whose story takes a grim ironic twist. The show's heart and mind is Tahar Rahim as agent Ali Soufan, who tenaciously tries to prevent what he can see coming. The show sometimes seems to get sidetracked by the characters' personal lives, but these details add to the realism.

Michael C Hall comes to Britain for this twisty mystery series, which explores the deep, dark secrets in a gated community outside Manchester. Written by Harlan Coban, it's all rather arch and contrived, but there's a gripping edge to the story, and it's shot and acted with plenty of intrigue. Basically, the central mystery is far too entwined to hold water, falling apart with even a casual examination of the details. It's also fairly easy early on to work out whodunit, since the usual suspects are clearly guilty of other crimes. But the cast keeps things interesting, and the story is told with a blast of energy to keep us watching.

Basically a serious version of Glee, this high school theatre club drama really needs to lighten up a bit. It's fraught with intense issues and deliberately meaningful plotlines that feel somewhat pushy, especially on themes surrounding identity. That said, these topics are addressed through characters who are engaging and beautifully played by the ensemble cast. It may feel like the usual Breakfast Club collection of teens, plus a frazzled teacher whose personal life takes up far too much screen time, but everything that happens resonates as an only slightly heightened version of things most viewers can identify with.

Here and Now
Like a cross between This Is Us and Sense8, this strikingly well made show comes from the mind of Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under), which means that it takes a realistic approach to what feels like an extraordinary set of characters. Each of the members of the Bayer-Boatwright family have an intense journey of their own. The cast may be anchored by the robust Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins, but it's newcomers Daniel Zovatto, Jerrika Hinton, Raymond Lee and Sosie Bacon who really shine as their eclectic kids. And even the side roles are fleshed out as real people with lives of their own.

Actor Bill Hader was involved in creating, writing and directing this series, which gives him a terrific chance to flex his acting chops. It's essentially a black comedy, but it's the darker underlying drama that makes it watchable. On the surface, this story about a hitman moving to Los Angeles and being bitten by the acting bug is pretty corny, and also far too obsessed with grisly violence. But it's through the traumatised Barry's self-discovery that the show finds unusual ways to draw the audience in. It's also great to see Henry Winkler poking fun at the industry in a surprisingly edgy supporting role as Barry's acting coach.

The New Legends of Monkey
From New Zealand, this adventure series is packed with hilarious comical asides that more than make up for its cheesy Xena/Hercules production values and a nutty plot in which demons and gods battle for control of a primitive culture. At its centre is a witty four-person team, including the revived Monkey King, trying to keep the demons from unlocking the secret to ruling the world. Or something. It doesn't really matter when the dialog is so snappy, the characters so silly and the action such a riotous mess. Sit back and giggle right through all of it, then be surprised by a creeping current of emotion.


Timeless: series 2
There's a cheesy charm to this time-travel series that makes for enjoyable escapism. But it's important not to think about anything that happens, because the scripts are full of holes. For one thing, our heroes are always racing to get in their time machine to stop baddies they're convinced are determined to destroy the world. But this ignores the fact that having a time machine eliminates the urgency. Not to mention how quickly they're able to steal perfectly fitting clothing on arrival. And the villains' actions are also inexplicably pointless. Meanwhile, the show-runners indulge in rather a lot of pointlessly unnecessary cross-cutting in an attempt to ramp up simplistic subplots. Still, it's enjoyable if you don't think about it. 

Jane the Virgin: series 4
One of the best-written series on TV, this funny, warm, fiendishly clever show is both a comedy and a drama, as well as a pastiche of florid Latina telenovelas. Terrific recurring guests this year include Rosario Dawson (as a shady/seductive lawyer) and Brooke Shields (as a deranged version of herself). The plot leaps along at a rapid-fire pace, with constant twists and turns, relationships and momentous events. But the characters are solidly grounded and thoroughly charming, with a complexity that's rare for light entertainment. So not only is the show hilarious and sweet, but it also grapples with some serious issues (like Xo's cancer) in earthy, authentic ways. And it leaves the soapy excesses in the background where they belong.

Scandal: series 7
After a very rough start which struggled to convince us that Kerry Washington's Olivia had gone over to the dark side, this rather ludicrous show picked up a head of steam as it headed into its last episodes ever. As always, everyone on-screen lectures each other in over-enunciated, vein-bursting rants. But at least the writers had a bit of fun messing with the characters and who they can trust, leading to some meaty moments as things barrelled along to what was clearly going to be a "shocking" finale. Except that, as satisfying as it might have been, it was never surprising at all.

Homeland: series 7
After last year's more contained season, the shift to domestic activity is breathing new life into this series, especially as Claire Danes' Carrie goes off the grid to take on a renegade US President (Elizabeth Marvel) who's thankfully not too Trumpish, aside from bullheadedly charging into every situation. Relational textures are intriguing, as Mandy Patinkin's Saul finds himself in a somewhat contrived but compelling position as it becomes apparent that the Russians have launched an elaborate plan to destabilise the American government. Yes, the writers are drawing from headlines and, as usual, real life has overtaken them. But at this point in the show, Carrie and Saul are more interesting for how they react and interact than for what they do to save the world.


Santa Clarita Diet: series 2
This charming bit of fluff is mainly watchable thanks to the goofy-charming performances of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as a suburban couple coping matter-of-factly with her murderous zombie condition. It's all very silly, dealing with violent death with a wink and a smile (because that's OK if the victims are Nazis). And the general panic is infectiously entertaining. This season's breakout star is Liv Hewson as their snarky daughter, who gets rather a lot more to do and shines, especially in scenes with best pal Eric (Skyler Gisondo). And it's nice to have Nathan Fillion back too. Well, his head at least. 

Schitt's Creek: series 4
This show has been sharply well-written from the outset, but this season feels even more focussed than usual, bringing the characters to life in ways that are often surprisingly moving (as well as being hysterically funny). Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy are all expert actors, milking each moment for maximum comedy, but never without a point. And the ensemble surrounding them is also wonderfully engaging, especially Noah Reid as David's dryly provocative boyfriend - a great character who changes the tone of the show in the right direction. As always, Chris Elliott's idiotic mayor is just an irritant in need of better subplots. Still, it's the best thing on TV this year so far.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: series 4
With only a half-season this year (the show wraps up with the second half early next year), what used to be one of the funniest sitcoms on the air has fallen into something so mannered that most of the gags feel like in-jokes that leave the audience out. The cast is still terrific, with the perky Ellie Kemper and shameless scene-stealer Tituss Burgess holding down the fort, plus a lot more of the wonderful Carol Kane and a lot less of the awesome Jane Krakowski. But the storylines are corny and dull, struggling to propel the show's premise in an interesting direction. And quirky running gags like that ubiquitous robot are rather pointless.

Mom: series 5
This sitcom just gets stronger year by year, thanks to the fine performances by Allison Janney and Anna Faris, along with an ace supporting ensemble. Even as the issues get deeper and more serious, mainly relating to addiction, the scripts continually undercut the emotion with jagged jokes. But they never belittle the themes. Back when this show first debuted, the main gag was that this wildly implausible tall mother and tiny daughter were both irresponsible parents and grandparents. But the show-runners sensibly (and a bit jarringly) jettisoned the kids to focus on some important things about them, while Janney and Faris rose to the challenge, creating powerful chemistry while having a lot of fun at the same time.

Modern Family: series 9
This show continues to wobble in the writing department, although this season the smartly comedic have outweighed the over-stretched, stale lows. Some of the funniest sequences have involved the kids, who are now complex young adults who are adept scene-stealers alongside the veterans. So when the writing is sharp, it sparkles. And there have been terrific moments for everyone this year. On the other hand, it all feels very safe, never pushing anyone too far one way or the other. And the overriding plot is running in place while mini-dramas last the length of a half-hour episode then flutter away. In other words, the show needs to start moving forward again.

Will & Grace: series 9
It seems odd to revive a series like this, which was dated in its original run even as it broke ground for its depiction of central characters who happened to be gay. It's hard to imagine younger audiences watching this new, since it's pretty much exactly the same show as it was when it went off the air in 2006 after its eighth season. Eric McCormack and Debra Messing's title characters are still fairly ridiculous, so self-absorbed that it's no surprise that they're single. Sean Hayes' Jack is still so silly that he can't help but raise a smile. And Megan Mullally's absurd Karen is still the only thing that keeps me watching: everything she does and says is flat-out brilliant.

Roseanne: series 10
After the hype about this resurrected series (which originally ran 1988-1997), the show is surprisingly nuanced. And also very funny. The writers cleverly keep things balanced, pitting Roseanne Barr's Trump-supporting title character against her left-wing sister Jackie (the awesome Laurie Metcalf, likely to win a fourth Emmy for this role). John Goodman again brings a witty, relaxing tone, and the kids (now with added grandchildren) are stirring the mix of blue-collar humour with sharply observed politics. You don't have to agree with everything each character says to enjoy this skilfully written and played sitcom. Sadly, Barr's inability to hold her tongue off-camera has sunk the show.

Two series came back for their second seasons badly misjudging their successes. Both Westworld and Legion gave into the most indulgent instincts of their showrunners. The plotlines splintered as both shows became relentlessly gimmicky, tilting toward great-looking confusion rather than actual storytelling. The actors are fantastic, but the more pretentious a show gets, the less engaging it is. I gave up after a few episodes of each. Only a fanboy could love these shows now.

Patrick Melrose, Pose, The Handmaid's Tale (series 2), I'm Dying Up Here (series 2), Sense8 (series 3), Younger (series 5), and I'm on the look out for more half-hour comedies. Suggestions welcome...

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Critical Week: Feeling festive

More festival films this week! The first four here are at the London Indian Film Festival (21-29 June). Venus is the closing film, and it comes from Canada. It's a comedy about a trans woman who discovers that she has a son from a teenage fling. It's beautifully written, witty and well played. Eaten by Lions is a British comedy about two brothers (above) searching for long-lost family members in Blackpool. It's very sharply written, with a nice multicultural angle to it. From India, My Son Is Gay is a powerful Tamil drama about a young man whose mother simply can't accept his homosexuality. Gorgeously shot, the film is thoughtful and tough. And Bird of Dusk is a documentary about the acclaimed Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, whose films had an unusually complex depictions of women.

From the Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles (7-17 June), I caught up with At the End of the Day, a snappy drama about a Christian university professor who infiltrates an LGBT group to scupper their plans to build a community centre. But of course he gets an education instead. It's knowing, and nicely well-made. And from FilmOut San Diego (7-10 June), Golden Boy is a drama about a young man's odyssey of homelessness and drug-fuelled clubbing in Los Angeles. It's gritty and involving, and a little over-plotted.

Other releases include The Endless, a fiendishly clever low-key sci-fi thriller in which two brothers return to the bizarre cult they escaped from as teens. And Beach House is a contained drama about four characters on the Long Island coastline, shifting slowly from a drama into a nasty thriller.

I'm travelling in rural America over the next couple of weeks, so whether I get near a cinema is anyone's guess. It's a family trip to a part of the country I've never visited. Films out over there that I'd like to catch up with include Incredibles 2, Sicario 2: Soldado and Tag.