Tuesday, 26 January 2016
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.
Sunday, 24 January 2016
Wednesday, 20 January 2016
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.
Monday, 18 January 2016
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.
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.
Tuesday, 12 January 2016
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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...
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.)