Thursday, 25 June 2015

Shadows on the Tube: Summer TV roundup

Yes, I continue to watch TV to clear my head in my downtime, naturally preferring shows that are guilty pleasures rather than anything difficult or too gritty. Here's what I watched through the spring...


Grace and Frankie
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin were simply divine in this somewhat contrived sitcom about two very different 70-year-old women stuck with each other when they're husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) marry each other. The entire cast is excellent, making the most of the occasionally goofy situational comedy to inject character depth and some properly emotional moments amid the generally hilarious comedy. Watching it is pure joy.

This archaeological thriller series clearly wants to be Indiana Jones meets Homeland, but it's more like The Da Vinci Code with its convoluted religious conspiracy and contrived action sequences. Still, it was more than worth watching for Jason Isaacs, Anne Heche and Lauren Ambrose. And the complexities of the setting in Jerusalem at least let the writers hint at some extremely murky themes along the way, even if they kind of chickened out in the end. It's unclear where this can go if it gets a second season.

How to Get Away With Murder
Another twisty thriller/soap hybrid from Shonda Rhimes, this show is enjoyable for its gimmicky scripting and flashy style, but it's also deeply annoying because every character on-screen is essentially repulsive. The worst of the lot is Viola Davis' supposedly fierce Annalise - a great actress saddled with a character who is so reactionary, two-faced and emotionally crippled that it's impossible to believe she's such a high-powered lawyer. And the one supposedly "good" student (Alfred Enoch's Wes) is predictably useless. The cast is excellent across the board, but the writing shows an astonishing lack of insight, and the structure is too choppy to let the audience in. What's left is superficially entertaining, but it's also insidiously misogynistic, racist and homophobic.

Ballot Monkeys
Timed to coincide with the British general election, this improvised series poked fun at the campaign trail of the four main parties, filming on the day of broadcast to keep everything unnervingly timely. It was sharply written and played by a cast of experts, with laugh-out-loud moments all the way through. And while much of the humour is a fairly timeless riff on the inanity of electioneering, most of the pointed gags are already out of date.


Mad Men: series 7b
Oddly, instead of just call this the 8th and final season, they called this year's brief collection of episodes the second half of the 7th. Whatever, this remained one of the best written and performed TV series ever right to the final episode. The way each of these characters wrapped up his or her individual story arc was a wonder to behold, masterfully written, directed and played to allow for shattering emotion, black comedy and lingering ambiguity. It's rare for a show to never put a foot wrong from start to finish. And this one is simply exquisite.

Game of Thrones: series 4
Things continue to come back into focus with this badly fragmented fantasy epic, after splintering into so many strands over the 2nd and 3rd seasons that it was almost impossible to keep track. But we're down to just a handful of important plots now centring on the four most engaging actors: Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington and Maisie Williams. Watching two of them meet up along the way provided a thrilling jolt of energy to the show. So it's frustrated that the writers didn't go anywhere with that, leaving all of the (surviving) characters essentially where they started as the season began. Expect massive viewer drop-off next year.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: series 2
Messy and indulgent, there is little reason to watch this show beyond trying to make sense of Marvel's larger universe, and indeed there were references to Avengers: Age of Ultron folded into this season. Still, it's packed with enjoyable characters who bristle with all kinds of tension between them, and while the overarching mythology is murky and annoyingly elusive, that only adds to the show's X-Men/X-Files appeal. And this season's epic confrontation felt remarkably big and punchy for a TV series.


Veep: series 4
Now that she's president, there isn't much left for Selena to do, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus keeps her hilariously flapping around, surrounded by a gang of idiots trying their best not to do something stupid. Thankfully they fail week in and week out. Her presidential campaign seemed oddly rushed (compared to the protracted real thing), and the final cliffhanger felt like a cheat. But it's all so marvellously played that it doesn't matter too much.

Nurse Jackie: series 7
Edi Falco has creates such a vivid antihero in Jackie that it's becoming harder and harder to root for her. Cleverly, in this series she has been forcibly rehabilitated, and yet like everyone around her we don't believe it for a second. Her relationships and feuds continue to take surprising twists and turns, although the strain is beginning to show in both the scripts and the increasingly mannered performances.

Community: series 6
Now on Yahoo, this series feels very different, with a retooled cast and a tone that feels a bit softer and less anarchic. But these episodes were also more meta than ever (which is saying something) as characters continually referenced the fact that this was the sixth season on an online channel, ending with the hashtag #andamovie. And while the absence of Donald Glover and Yvette Nicole Brown was strongly felt, Paget Brewster and Keith David added their own energy to a show that refreshingly refuses to play by any sensible rules.

Episodes: series 4
This gently comical series continues to trundle along without much energy, but the characters get stronger as it goes, and there's a superb sense of consistency in the way it approaches the absurdities of Hollywood, especially as it contrives to keep Sean and Beverly (the superb Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg) stuck in the studio treadmill. Yes, they've checked into the Hotel California and they can never leave. And Matt LeBlanc is riotously funny as the devil himself, even when they pointlessly try to make him likeable.

W1A: series 2
This BBC comedy about the inner workings of the BBC is so improvisational that it sometimes feels like it's treading water, but the characters are vividly well played by Hugh Bonneville, Monica Dolan, Jessica Hynes and company. The continual stream of knowing gags and outrageously straight-faced silliness is inspired enough to keep us chuckling even though David Tennant's subtly insane voice over is way over the top. The scary thing is that the BBC is probably even more ridiculous in real life. Or at least that's how we hope it is.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Critical Week: Praying for the help

I only saw three films before leaving London for a brief holiday, and none were the heavy hitters (I'm missing them while I'm away and will be playing catch-up). The best one was the Sundance-winner The Second Mother, a Brazilian drama about the clash between a maid's professional and work families. Oliver Hirschbiegel's 13 Minutes is a riveting story about an unsung German hero who tried to kill Hitler with a bomb in 1939, but the movie is too fragmented to make the story come to life. And the documentary The First Film digs into the last 125 years of film history to discover the truth about the man who made the first moving picture, and that he lived in Leeds, Yorkshire! It's a bit academic, but a great story and an important addition to cinema's narrative.

When I get back, films I'll be quickly catching up with include the anxiously awaited man-candy sequel Magic Mike XXL, the sci-fi action sequel Terminator Genisys, the animated spin-off Minions and the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Critical Week: Watch the skies...

Secret Cinema presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back hit London this past week, and looks set to be a box office presence until it winds up at the end of September. And rightly so: staged with a mind-boggling level of inventiveness, this is a staggering experience that lets the audience live the final sequences of A New Hope (travelling to Mos Eisley, the rebel base and the Death Star itself) and then watch The Empire Strikes Back as part of an epic six-hour evening. MY REPORT >

Other films screened to UK press this week include the gorgeously creative Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, starring John Cusack, Paul Dano and the great Elizabeth Banks; the corny farce She's Funny That Way, starring Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston; and the arty, mannered character study Manglehorn, starring Al Pacino. Further afield there were three uneven but promising low-budget dramas: American posh boys in Those People, a working class British guy in SoftLad, and three Sao Paulo teens in Boys in Brazil.

There were also a few more documentaries. Going Clear is a staggeringly strong doc about Scientology, taking only one side (no one else would talk) but still offering a rare glimpse into the workings of the mysterious religion. The Yes Men Are Revolting furthers the activists' cause with more lively pranks, this time calling attention to the urgency of climate change. And the still ahead-of-its-time experimental 1929 Soviet classic Man With a Movie Camera gets a digital restoration that reminds everyone why it's consistently named one of the 10 best films ever made.

This coming week I only have a couple of screenings before I take a week off, including the WW2 thriller 13 Minutes, the Brazilian drama The Second Mother, the British indie thriller 51 Degrees North and the supernatural gay thriller Angels With Tethered Wings.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Requisite Blog Photo: Wanted throughout the galaxy

Explorer Niles Torwyn was briefly detained by Imperial police in Mos Eisley on Tatooine on Friday evening, but he managed to escape and rejoin the rebel forces. He's currently at large.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Critical Week: The boys are back

Three distinct kinds of reboots were screened to UK critics this week. First, there's the movie version of the TV show Entourage, a snappy, energetic movie that perfectly captures the series' dopey macho attitude while depicting the inner workings of Hollywood in a hilariously realistic way. Nearly 15 years after the third movie it's clearly time to reboot that dinosaur franchise. So Jurassic World roars onto the big screen with major expectations it should have no trouble living up to, especially with a swashbuckling Chris Pratt in the lead role. It turns out that Insidious: Chapter 3 is a reboot as well, going back to the beginning to relaunch a franchise around the wonderful Lin Shaye's character Elise. It's also an auspicious directing debut for writer-actor Leigh Whannell.

The only original feature was Accidental Love, a deeply chaotic comedy directed by David O Russell in 2008 but reworked later and released under a pseudonym. Alas, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel, Catherine Keener and James Marsden can't remove their names because their faces are recognisable on-screen. Being documentary season on the festival circuit, there were screenings of the lively and startlingly relevant Best of Enemies, which traces the epic 1968 TV debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley, and the fascinating but underworked Lord Montagu, which recounts the life of a British baron who has had a rollercoaster life.

This coming week, we have screenings of the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, Al Pacino in Manglehorn, the indie movie Those People and the short film compilation Boys on Film 13: Trick or Treat. There are also three more documentaries: The First Film, The Yes Men Are Revolting and the classic Man With a Movie Camera. And I'm really looking forward to attending this summer's Secret Cinema interactive event on Friday night, because it's themed around a screening of one of my very favourite films, The Empire Strikes Back. 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Shadows on the Stage: Teenage kicks

dir Eleanor Rhode • scr Tristan Bernays • music Dougal Irvine
Southwark Playhouse • 4-27.Jun.15

A strikingly original merging of drama, music and performance art, this world premiere musical is utterly gripping as it dips into Britain's 1950s Teddy culture. After the bombing and a decade of rationing and rebuilding, the UK's teens exploded in a burst of energy to the beat of American musicians like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, often causing mayhem in a nation trying to redefine itself.

Teens Teddy (Joseph Prowen) and Josie (Jennifer Kirby) have their faux Edwardian outfits sorted out, sneaking from their grim homes for a night looking for adventure on the streets of London. They first meet at a bombed-out church that's been converted into a nightclub, and the way they smile at each other gets their hearts fluttering. But Josie has a possessive brute of a boyfriend, and they need some cash to make this a night to remember, even if that means breaking the law.

Prowen and Kirby perform Teddy and Josie with uncanny intimacy, allowing the audience into their minds with their stream-of-consciousness monologues, which not only include their dialog but also describe the scenes and give voice to the other (unseen) characters. The roles require a massive amount of physicality, including an elaborate dance sequence, and both performers burst with energy and youthful spark. But it's their inner emotional lives that grab hold.

All of this is overseen by hip-swinging rocker Johnny Valentine (Will Payne) and his three bandmates (Harrison White, Alexander Bean and Alice Offley), who perform period pieces with serious brio on a set that's strewn with post-war rubble and livened up like an underground rave. So while the dialog sometimes feels talky (we'd rather see what happens than hear about it), the show moves at a thrilling clip, racing to a final sequence that's unnervingly bold and thoughtful. It's a striking depiction of the difference between the jaded, desperate British teens of the 1950s and the more spoiled, demanding ones we see in American pop culture. Imagine Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones crossed with Grease.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Critical Week: A winning couple

I'd been looking forward to seeing Andrew Haigh's new film 45 Years ever since it was announced, and even more so when lead actors Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay won the acting awards at the Berlin Film Festival (above). So it was an extra pleasure that it turns out to be my kind of film: a gentle, beautifully observed masterpiece. Rather less amazing but still entertaining: Survivor is a nicely human-scaled thriller starring Milla Jovovich as a security expert chased by Pierce Brosnan's icy killer; Gemma Bovery is a loose French comedy starring Fabrice Luchini as a bored guy in rural France whose imagination is sparked by a new English neighbour (Gemma Arterton); and the genuinely scary Belgian horror movie Cub is a scouting holiday with a nasty twist right out of a campfire story.

There were also three documentaries: That Sugar Film is a punchy, entertaining, seriously essential Super Size Me-style doc about the effects of the sugar in our diets, and it should change the way we think about food; the sensitive, eye-opening Czech doc Daniel's World is difficult to watch as it takes a bracingly honest, balanced approach to one of the biggest taboos, pedophilia; and Before the Last Curtain Falls is a lovely document about a group of seriously engaging Belgian transsexuals at the end of a triumphant stage tour. There was also a launch for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which takes place later this month. There's a very strong programme this year, and I'm sad that I won't be able to travel up to Scotland to enjoy it, but I'll cover it as much as possible from London.

I also caught up with Nightingale, an HBO movie starring David Oyelowo as an unhinged young man who kills his mother and then struggles to make a life for himself. Told through this young man's frazzled perspective, there isn't another actor on-screen, and Oyelowo is magnetic and more than a little terrifying. The film elusively swirls in all kinds of big issues, from post traumatic stress to religious fanaticism to the repression of sexuality. Written by Frederick Mensch and directed by Elliott Lester, it's the kind of movie that provokes a lot of thought, then wisely lets us work out what it means for each one of us.

This coming week, I have more horror with a screening of Insidious Chapter 3, plus the sequel/reboot blockbuster Jurassic World, the New York romance Those People, the Sao Paulo comedy Boys in Brazil, and the Vidal/Buckley doc The Best of Enemies.