Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Critical Week: Team America to the rescue

London-based critics caught up with Michael Bay's Benghazi thriller 13 Hours this week. It's skilfully assembled with a strong cast, but bombastic and frustratingly simplistic. There was also a very late press screening for The 5th Wave, the latest teen-dystopia thriller. Starring Chloe Grace Moretz, it's a lot better than anyone expected. And then there was Ride Along 2, a lazy sequel reuniting Ice Cube and Kevin Hart for a new buddy-cop action-comedy in Miami.

Charlize Theron and Tye Sheridan are terrific in the creepy thriller Dark Places, which loses its way in melodramatic excess. Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room is one of the sharpest, most original horror thrillers in recent memory, propelling the audience into an unnervingly realistic nightmare. British filmmaker Stephen Fingleton is getting awards for his debut post-apocalyptic drama The Survivalist, a strikingly well-acted, inventive film that kind of gets stuck in its own rut. The Spanish animated moon-race adventure Capture the Flag makes up for its low-tech imagery with a quick-paced story and witty characters. And the understated Brazilian drama Aya Arcos makes up for its super-low budget with realistic, involving characters. I also caught up with a movie that doesn't seem to have a UK release planned at all...

dir Roland Emmerich; with Jeremy Irvine, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers 15/US *.
Director Emmerich really needs to stick to those big, tongue-in-cheek action movies he's so famous for (like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow or my personal guilty pleasure 2012). His last foray into "serious" filmmaking was the appalling revisionist Shakespeare bio Anonymous (2011), and now he has made this even more insulting drama about the roots of the gay pride movement. The film was criticised for not telling the whole story, but that's not the worst thing about it. The problem is that the movie is an endless stream of misguided cliches and trite moralising. There isn't a single scene that rings true, and it's not the fault of the actors (they're actually rather good, including Irvine in the focal role). Not only does Emmerich flatten each dramatic moment with awkwardly pushy direction, but Jon Robin Baitz's script rings false, trivialising what should be some darkly personal events and leaving real-life people lurking pointlessly around the edges of a narrative that tries to be the story of Everyman (or more accurately, every young white man). Please stick to blowing up the White House, Roland.

Coming up next week: Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in Freeheld, Adrien Brody in Backtrack, Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams, the animated romp Oddball and the Penguins, the cycling doc Battle Mountain, and the Israeli horror movie JeruZalem.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Critical Week: Not to be messed with

The most unforgettable performance in a press screening this week easily belongs to Kate Winslet's fierce Russian mobster in Triple 9, John Hillcoat's urban Western, which opens next month boasting a fierce cast that also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson and Gal Gadot, to name a few. (Side note: it was fun to chat with Winslet about this film at the London critics' awards on Sunday - she hadn't seen it yet.)

We also reunited with Ice Cube and Kevin Hart for the rote action-comedy sequel Ride Along 2, a sequel even worse than the lacklustre original (part 3 is pretty much guaranteed after audiences in America flocked to see it last weekend). Much more challenging were William Monahan's desert thriller Mojave, a choppy dramatic thriller starring Oscar Isaac and Garrett Hedlund; the dark and deeply moving British drama Departure, starring the amazing Juliet Stevenson and Alex Lawther; and the unnerving, elusive drama Chronic, starring a terrific Tim Roth.

This coming week I have very, very late press screenings of J Blakeson's The 5th Wave with Chloe Grace Moretz and Dark Places with Charlize Theron (both open this Friday), plus Michael Bay's Benghazi thriller 13 Hours, acclaimed arthouse drama Green Room, animated adventure Capture the Flag, cycling doc Battle Mountain and shorts compilation Boys on Film 14: Worlds Collide.

Monday, 18 January 2016

36th London Critics' Circle Film Awards: in words and pictures

The UK's top film critics held their annual awards ceremony on Sunday night at The May Fair Hotel in London, with a superb lineup of red carpet guests. I happen to be the chair of the 36th London Critics' Circle Film Awards, which we started organising back in June, so it was great to see the evening unfold in such a joyous, celebratory way. The most memorable moment (pictured above) was when Kate Winslet led the audience into a spontaneous standing ovation for beloved actor-filmmaker Alan Rickman, who died on Thursday.
The ceremony was hosted by comic Robin Ince (left), who stepped in at the last minute due to the sudden illness of one of our planned host. He balanced the mood perfectly, with a witty look at movies that included a number of hilarious Brian Blessed anecdotes. On the right are nominated writer Emma Donoghue (Room) and the Critics' Circle Film Section Chair Anna Smith.
We had a new award this year. First, we handed out our inaugural prize for British/Irish Short Film of the Year, which went to Ben Cleary (left) and his lovely, and now Oscar-nominated, short Stutterer. And we rebranded our British/Irish Breakthrough Filmmaker prize as The Philip French Award, in honour of our esteemed colleague who passed away this year. It went to John Maclean (right) for Slow West.
Of course, Kate Winslet was one of the brightest stars on our red carpet, and she also took home the award for Supporting Actress of the Year for Steve Jobs. She also had a mini reunion with Judi Dench - they both played Iris Murdoch in Iris.
Maisie Williams won the Young British/Irish Performer of the Year award, and livened up the red carpet in her Mexican-wrestler themed dress, accompanied by fellow nominee Florence Pugh (left), her costar in The Falling. Along for the party were actor Blake Harrison and his fiancee Kerry (right).
Producer Sygne Byrge Sorensen (left) collected the Foreign-Language Film of the Year award for Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Look of Silence, while top producer Stephen Woolley (right) accepted the Technical Achievement Award for Ed Lachman's cinematography in Carol.
Two directors accepted awards on behalf of their actors. Rufus Norris (left) read a thank you message from Tom Hardy, who was named British/Irish Actor of the Year for his body of work in 2015, including Norris' London Road, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road and Legend. And Brooklyn director John Crowley (right) relayed a hilarious thank you from Saoirse Ronan as British/Irish Actress of the Year.
Andrew Haigh (left) sent a video thank you for British/Irish Film of the Year for 45 Years. Producer Tristan Goligher took to the stage to grab the trophy. Meanwhile, Asif Kapadia (right) was on hand to collect the Documentary of the Year award for Amy.
Mark Rylance sent a surreal video to accept Supporting Actor of the Year, performed in character (left) from the set of the play he's doing in Boston. His Wolf Hall costar Thomas Brodie-Sangster (right) accepted the award for him.
And then there was George Miller, who sent two witty videos to gratefully accept the top awards for Director of the Year and Film of the Year for Mad Max: Fury Road.
And the ceremony wrapped up with the main event of the night, as Judi Dench took to the stage to present the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film to Kenneth Branagh. Both gave smart, gracious speeches that had the audience laughing and sighing.

Of course, I also have to shamelessly include two collages of photos that I appear in. As chair, one of my many jobs is to welcome all of our guests at the top of the red carpet, so I had a chance to talk with each of them before the event started. Below is a rather ridiculous photobombing session with Dame Judi and Sir Ken.
And I also feel I should share this series of photographs taken while I was chatting to Kate Winslet about the last time I saw her (when she was about to pop with her third child) and her next movie, Triple 9 - I saw it last week but she hasn't seen it yet. Of course she's awesome in it.
And to drop one more name, as I made my way home following the after-party, I received a lovely email from Tom Hardy, who was deeply apologetic that he had been unable to turn up to accept his award and join the party. He's shooting a film in London at the moment, and production ran over. Hopefully he'll make it next year.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Critical Week: Lost in La La Land

I had never seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Russ Meyer's notorious 1970 romp that gets a special edition DVD release in the UK next week. So of course I had to sieze the chance to catch up with it ... and it's even more bonkers than I imagined. This is the raucous story of three young women who take their rock trio to Hollywood and fall in with all kinds of decadence, hedonism and wanton debauchery. Roger Ebert's script is so freeform that it feels like a spoof, especially with the hilariously moralistic epilogue. It's completely nuts. But also thoroughly groovy.

Also seen this week: Sebastian Silva's offbeat comedy-drama Nasty Baby, in which he stars with Kristen Wiig as best friends trying to conceive a child against the odds. It's strikingly well made, but the plot points are a bit heavy-handed. Benicio Del Toro is superb in A Perfect Day, a comedy-drama set in the Balkans in 1995. The M.A.S.H.-like vibe works, and the cast is great, but it feels oddly superficial. And Mavis! is a documentary about Mavis Staples, whose 50-year-career has spanned just about every genre of American pop even as she continues to fill her songs with hopeful messages. Not particularly notable as a film, but she's amazing.

This coming week we have screenings of the Casey Affleck action thriller Triple 9, the Oscar Isaac thriller Mojave, the Tim Roth drama Chronic, the Juliet Stevenson drama Departure, the Brazilian drama Aya Arcos and the adventure doc Meru.

And of course Sunday is the London Critics' Circle Film Awards at the May Fair Hotel - of which I am the chair - so organising the event is taking up most of my time this week. Watch this space for a full report and pics!

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Shadows on the Screen: Winter TV roundup

Christmas break is a great time to binge watch things I've banked up for months, alternating them with studio screener discs of movies seeking awards consideration. Most of these are limited series that completed their runs (or at least this season) before Christmas. The other three built to a mid-season cliffhanger and will be back in the spring...


You, Me and the Apocalypse
This offbeat UK-US hybrid has heavyweight comical brilliance in the cast (Rob Lowe, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman) and a likeable double lead in Matthew Baynton. So there were moments of both comical and dramatic genius in this multi-strand tale of the final month before an asteroid obliterates life on Earth. But the tone resolutely refused to gel, existing somewhere in that space between goofy slapstick and edgy satire. In the end, it managed to entertain right to the awkward ending. Would I watch a second series? Possibly, if I needed something vacuous to fill the time.

Master of None
Aziz Ansari brought his stand-up persona to the TV series format in this intriguing hybrid of sitcom and anthology show. Each episode addresses a single theme,while allowing the characters to deepen engagingly. Even the minor roles had layers of complexity rarely seen in TV comedy, popping in and out of episodes like people do in real life - bringing their individual complications with them. It's also a rare show with a proper gender and ethnic angle that mirrors real life. As a result, the 10 episodes seemed to go by far too quickly. Would I watch a second series? Obviously.

Minority Report
Based on both the Philip K Dick novel and the Steven Spielberg movie, this futuristic series had some clever themes and a sharp visual design to it. On the other hand, it badly simplified the moral issues involved, often reducing the premise to a cheesy cop drama that, despite having a strong female lead in Meagan Good, felt eerily misogynistic (apparently in the future women are required to wear plunging necklines, which men have to oogle). This is probably because, as the series progressed, the writers stubbornly refused to add any proper depth to the characters. Would I watch a second series? I doubt it.

The Man in the High Castle
Also based on a Philip K Dick novel, this Amazon series takes a look at a parallel-reality 1960 in which the Nazis and Japanese won the war, dividing up America between them. The result is an intriguing mix of fantasy and political drama, packed with very big issues. It also boasts a terrific cast of likeable actors in complex, sympathetic roles. On the other hand, the production design was almost comically gloomy, and the plotting sometimes felt badly under-developed. But in the end, the intriguing "what if..." themes add a strong kick. Would I watch a second series? Yes, although I wish they'd let the story end properly this time round.

London Spy
More gloominess, this time in an even more relentlessly dark and grey present-day London, where a hapless young guy (the superb Ben Whishaw) discovers that his beloved late boyfriend was actually a spy. Strong support from Jim Broadbent, with spicy roles for underused stars like Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Kate Dickie and Adrian Lester. The production does a great job of creating a moody, paranoid atmosphere, although a hint of fresh air might have made it more engaging. And a plot that had somewhere interesting to go. Would I watch a second series? Probably. I like moody.


Downton Abbey: series 6
Julian Fellowes managed to keep the quality high right to the end of this final season, even if the show has relentlessly smoothed out every intriguing edge with each successive year. This climactic series, plus the two-hour finale, was never as dark or surprising as we hoped. But it gave all of the characters both narrative intrigue and lots of camp one-liners as it brought every plot thread (and then some) to a close. If anything, this last season was even funnier than the previous years, so perhaps it was a good idea to go out on a high.

Fargo: series 2
Instead of playing it safe, producers took this show back 25 years into a massive gang war. The result isn't quite as likeable as the first season, but it's even more provocative and textured, with a large cast of unforgettable characters, most of whom end up dead. Standouts include Kristen Dunst's blank hairdresser and her helpful butcher husband (Jesse Plemmons), two observant and measured local cops (Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson), a charismatic interloper (Bookeem Woodbine), a tenacious native American (Zahn McClarnon) and a matriarch (Jean Smart) who rules through gritted teeth. What happens is twisty, messy and so sprawling that it constantly requires narration to find the path through it. Fiendishly clever.

Transparent: series 2
Quite simply the most beautiful series in production at the moment, this second season pushed all of the characters much, much further, grappling with enormous issues of gender and sexuality, as well as family connections. All of these people are deeply flawed, which makes them eerily easy to identify with as they struggle to find their way. And the brief explorations of how their family's history echoes down through the decades was seriously haunting.

Homeland: series 5
Claire Danes' now ex-CIA operative Carrie Mathison may have gone off the grid for this series, but the writers cleverly managed to bring her right into the middle of a massive terrorist plot. The Berlin setting gave the show a blast of fresh air, as did the inclusion of Miranda Otto as a shifty US official. Along the way, there was some strong, complex drama and several heart-stopping moments, beautifully staged in intriguing locations. And it concludes on a note that allows the show to reboot again somewhere new next year.


You're the Worst: series 2
One of the darkest sitcoms ever made, this strikingly original show delved into depression this year in a way that was unexpected, honest and powerfully moving. This isn't something comedy series usually do, but the cast and crew managed it here while maintaining the show's hilariously brittle vibe,. They also constantly, inventively push these outrageous characters forward. Unmissable.

Doll & Em: Series 2
Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer continue their rather silly friendship, this season as they tried to write a play about their lives. The show is fiendishly knowing, dry and witty but more telling and emotional than funny. It constantly catches the audience by surprise with its astute comments on both friendship and show business. But the low-key approach sometimes tests the patience.

Please Like Me: series 3
This Australian sitcom is maturing year-by-year into something unusually observant, as its gang of young characters (led by creator-actor Josh Thomas) navigate their way into the thorny grown-up world of relationships and family. Constantly surprising and packed with unexpected laugh-out-loud moments, the show also had a stronger, more resonant emotional undercurrent this year.

The Muppets
This reboot of The Muppet Show cleverly sets the chaos around a late-night TV show hosted by Miss Piggy, which offers the promise of lots of starry guests sending themselves up. But the style of the show (a mock-doc) and the humour (The Office-style idiocy) utterly fail to catch the singular genius of the Muppets. It simply isn't smart, sweet or funny. I lasted four episodes and gave up.


Empire: series 2
There's been a strange tonal shift in this second season, as the Lyon family escalate their internal warring. The problem is that this has tipped the series from camp sassiness to real nastiness, leaving none of the characters particularly likeable. If rumours are to be believed, there's a similar level of feuding going on behind the cameras, which doesn't bode well for the future of a show that started off so brilliantly. Hopefully the second half of this season will be more fun. Frankly, it needs to feel the impact of Lee Daniels' involvement a lot more than it does at the moment.

Scandal: series 5
Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope continues to grapple with all manner of controversy, and in this season she's at the centre of the storm herself. The plots are melodramatic and soapy, but the interaction is great fun, as the camp excesses of Olivia's now-public affair with the US President (Tony Goldwyn), which is thankfully balanced by serious, shadowy grisliness. But there are fewer proper cliffhangers this year, as the story settles into a straightforward soapy narrative. Bring back the scandals, please.

Arrow: series 4 / The Flash: series 2

These heroic action series continue to intermingle enjoyably, as they use simplistic scripts to explore hugely overcomplicated plots, with characters visiting each others' shows. And the charismatic actors make them addictive - Arrow's brooding darkness is undercut by edgy comedy and romance, while The Flash's lively comedy is subverted by moments of real emotion. A third series (Legends of Tomorrow) joins them in early 2016. Will it have the same mix of badly choreographed action and compelling characters?

Ongoing series I'm watching at the moment include The Grinder (my favourite new show this year), Modern Family, Galavant, Dickensian, and I'm looking forward to Chelsea Does.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Critical Week: A trick of the mind

There haven't been any press screenings in London over the past week, so I've been catching up with things on the small screen. Well, one TV show had a big-screen event opening: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were back on New Year's Day for Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, a film so relentlessly, almost exhaustingly clever that it felt a bit too much like Inception. But the cast is terrific, and a sharply evocative visual sensibility kept it riveting. Also, I wanted to revisit Star Wars: The Force Awakens when I wasn't working, and it was fun to see it again with a boisterous crowd in a local cinema to watch it again (although I didn't enjoy the boisterous snack-rustling and constant phone-use). Yes, the film holds up to a second viewing, as the box office bonanza is proving.

The only other new film I watched was the Ecuadorian coming-of-age drama Holiday, a sensitive story beautifully shot in the country I grew up in (homesickness alert!). And I also caught up with the final two awards nominees I hadn't yet seen - both British-made docs...

A Syrian Love Story
dir Sean McAllister; with Amer, Raghda, Bob, Shadi 15/UK ****
Beautifully assembled, this strikingly involving documentary follows a Syrian family through four years of upheaval. British filmmaker McAllister first starts videotaping Amer and his children while his wife Raghda is being held in prison in 2011, then follows them as they flee to Lebanon and eventually get refugee status in France. Along the way, they watch their country reduced to rubble by a government willing to massacre its own people rather than allow them to have a democratic vote. But it's the film's personal touch that makes it compelling, tracing Amer and Raghda's difficult relationship, often through the eyes of their precocious young son Bob. (Nominated for Documentary of the Year in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards.)

dir Cosima Spender; with Gigi Bruschelli, Giovanni Atzeni 15/UK ***.
Gorgeous cinematography and clever editing set this documentary apart. The Palio is a bareback horse race that has been run around Siena's Piazza del Campo since the 14th century, pitting the city's districts against each other. Filmmaker Spender lets the participants tell the story, which seems to make the city properly medieval for two races each summer. Rivalries are out of control, the money passing around is absurd, and both the horses and the jockeys are crowned as heroes or vilified as losers. By having three generations of jockeys narrate the film, it unearths all kinds of fascinating, unexpected details. Although the relevance of all of this outside Siena is rather tenuous, it's a sharply well-observed exploration of one of Europe's most colourful traditions. (Nominated for Documentary of the Year in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards.)

Screenings are cranking up very slowly so far this year, but I have Kristen Wiig's festival film Nasty Baby in the diary, plus the gospel singer documentary Mavis! More are sure to come along soon...