Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Critical Week: In a haze

It's a film festival week in London, which means a glut of screenings even if the festival in question is only four days long. It's the 4th Sundance Film Festival: London this weekend at Picturehouse Central, and I am seeing nine of the 11 features in the programme. So far, I've caught Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas in the hazing drama Goat (above), Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in Other People, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Burstyn in Wiener-Dog, plus the documentaries Author: The JT LeRoy Story and Weiner. More to come, with comments about these films later in the week.

As for normal press screenings, we had a special screening of the weepy romance Me Before You, presented by Emilia Clarke herself, with tissues on every seat. Brady Corbet's Venice-winner The Childhood of a Leader is a complex, difficult and fiercely original exploration of the personality of power. The Ghoul is a beautifully made indie British dark thriller. And the Oscar-nominated Colombian odyssey Embrace of the Serpent is staggeringly beautiful and deeply moving.

Sundance films still to come include Ellen Page in Tallulah, Logan Lerman in Indignation, Clea DuVall's The Intervention and the horror-comedy The Greasy Strangler. And I'll also catch up with Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in Elvis & Nixon and some home screenings I've been putting off.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Requisite Blog Photo: Love and tears

In a photobooth before the Me Before You screening, they asked me to make four faces (there was a box of props), so I tried to predict how I would look while watching the movie. That was almost right. I didn't cry, but there was sobbing across the cinema.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Critical Week: You shall not pass!

I took a break from screenings this past week, and the only one I attended was the massive Monday night 3D extravaganza of Warcraft, based on the videogaming universe. Alas, I'm not allowed to make any comments about the movie until next week! I'll try to do better at watching some of my backlog of screeners this weekend, although I have several projects to do around the flat.

I also saw three theatre pieces. Harold Pinter's The Caretaker was staged beautifully at the Old Vic, with razor sharp performances from Timothy Spall, George MacKay and Daniel Mays in a clever story about identity and social structure. Also at the Old Vic, Jekyll and Hyde is an astonishing dance-based thriller that tells a riveting story that's funny, sexy, violent and darkly emotional. It's stunningly choreographed, designed and performed. And The Chemsex Monologues at the King's Head tells its story through, yes, monologues from four characters as they trace a year on the drug-infused sex scene in London. It's bracingly honest, told from an intimate, engaging perspectives, and remarkably never preachy.

This coming week, I'll be watching the romance Me Before You, Anthony Hopkins in Misconduct, Billy Crudup in The Stanford Prison Experiment, Michel Gondry's Microbe and Gasoline, the indie British thriller Ghoul, and HBO's MLK/LBJ movie All the Way.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Critical Week: The tipping point

A trio of star-powered movies screened to UK critics this week, starting with George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jack O'Connell in Money Monster, a ripping thriller that's also a knowing satire of both the media and the banking world. X-Men: Apocalypse rounds off the First Class trilogy with a big, crowded, effects-heavy action movie made entertaining by the presence of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and a solid supporting cast. And Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe go comical for The Nice Guys, an enjoyable noir romp set in a groovy 1977 Los Angeles. Speaking of which, I caught a documentary about the period...

Elstree 1976
dir Jon Spira; with David Prowse, Jeremy Bulloch, Paul Blake, Angus MacInnes 15/UK ***.
Star Wars fans won't want to miss this rather low-key but fascinating documentary about a group of extras, bit players and performers hidden in costumes working at London's Elstree Studios in the summer of 1976 on the movie that changed cinema forever. It's fun to hear how they had inklings that this might be a bit better than the B-movie they were hired to work on, and their reminiscences about being on-set and having the saga take over their lives afterwards are fascinating. Iconic characters include Darth Vader (Prowse), Boba Fett (Bulloch) and Greedo (Blake), and the doc includes plenty of backstage film and snapshots, plus spot-the-extra clips of other background artists. It's a bit too gentle to really thrill audiences, but it's a terrific document of the lesser-known aspects of such a game-changing movie.

There were also three smaller independent films this week: Rosif Sutherland is terrific in the gripping but slightly contrived River, about a volunteer doctor in Laos who finds himself running for his life. A TV presenter is haunted by his past in the Canadian drama Steel, finding healing in a young man who seems perhaps a bit too perfect to be true. And Godless is a relentlessly low-key drama about two brothers coping with grief while also coming to terms with a deep secret they've held between them for years.

Screenings in London are slow this week, with everyone decamped to Cannes. But we will be watching a couple of effects-based action epics - Warcraft: The Beginning, and Gods of Egypt - plus last year's Cannes-winning performance by Vincent Lindon in Measure of a Man. I've also got a few more theatre trips lined up.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Shadows on the Stage: Notes on a scandal

The Sins of Jack Saul
dir Steven Dexter • scr Glenn Chandler • music Charles Miller
with Jack McCann, Michael Gonsalves, Sam Chipman, Ciaran Bowling, Hugh O'Donnell, Felicity Duncan, David Mullen
Above the Stag Theatre, Vauxhall • 11.May-12.Jun.16

Above the Stag continues to stage ambitious productions in its uniquely intimate space under a railway arch in Vauxhall. This musical reunites the team behind last year's hit Fanny & Stella for another true story from the seedy side of Victorian London.

Born in Dublin, Jack Saul (McCann) became a notorious prostitute in late 19th century London. He was immortalised as the central character in his infamously pornographic 1881 memoir The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (the title refers to Sodom and Gomorrah). He was also an outspoken activist long before such a thing existed, refusing to back down as he was drawn into the Cleveland Street Scandal in 1889, when the police sweep of a gay brothel threatened to reveal the names of high-profile clients from politicians to aristocrats.

Playwright Chandler tells this story through a framing device as Jack discusses his life and fate with the devilish Fergus (Gonsalves) while various scenes emerge around them. The other five actors play multiple characters who circle around Jack, including family members, clients, fellow rent boys and figures from his trial. Most scenes include songs, from conversational numbers to a few nicely memorable tunes.

All of this is fascinating, with telling details about an intriguing element of London's history and a willingness to honestly confront issues that have been obscured over the decades. But the abstract staging means that it remains rather academic. The set has been recycled from the previous production into a kind of brutalist collection of Escher-style stairs and platforms that don't offer any particular insight into the characters or situations, even with the astute lighting and sound touches. And the costumes are equally generic, mainly theatrically goth coats and black jeans.

Still, the actors bring the various elements of Jack's story to life, with individual scenes that resonate strongly. McCann's performance is soulful and engaging, although Chandler's script never quite makes Jack into a fully fledged character. His passion is completely missing from the role, as is any meaningful sense of his sexuality. His interaction with Gonsalves' smirking Fergus offers the occasional hint of interest, but never generates any spark. Other relationships are more emotional, although the remaining actors play three to five characters each, so the inter-connections never quite develop.

Jack Saul is a superb subject for a play like this, and this production offers what feels like a general overview. It never feels like much more than an introduction. And a more resonant and perhaps more outrageous approach could have made it more entertaining and enlightening. Perhaps the biography Chandler has also written will shed more light on his personality and personal life.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Critical Week: The art of fashion

A couple of great documentaries were screened to London press this week, starting with The First Monday in May, which explores the build-up to the Met Gala in 2015, at which Rihanna (above) reigned supreme. It's a riveting look backstage! Just as skilful and inventive, but in a completely different style, Author: The JT LeRoy Story reveals the fascinating layers of truth behind Laura Albert's elaborate fiction, posing for 10 years as a young gay male writer.

Also this week, we had a couple of sequels: Seth Rogen and Zac Efron reunite in the witty but not quite as funny sequel Bad Neighbours 2 (aka Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising), while Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska reteam for the much better eye-popping sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass (Depp and Wasikowska were joined by Sacha Baron Cohen, Tim Burton and director James Bobin for an especially lively press conference on Sunday). And there was also Ewan McGregor in the skilful thriller Our Kind of Traitor, Tina Fey in the excellent wartime comedy-drama Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Ethan Hawke in the moody Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue, Penelope Cruz in the artfully moving Spanish drama Ma Ma, and the colourful and very nutty animation of The Angry Birds Movie.

The big press screening this week is for X-Men: Apocalypse, which has had mixed reviews from its fan screening earlier this week. We also have Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys, Rossif Sutherland in River, Iggy Pop in Blood Orange and smaller independent films called Steel and Godless, whatever they are. I'm also attending a bit of theatre this week, and will write about that here too.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Critical Week: A message from the desert

UK critics this week had an enjoyable press screening for Tom Hanks' new comedy-drama A Hologram for the King, complete with themed cuisine. And the film was enjoyable too - elusive and provocative. We also got to see Ricky Gervais' Netflix movie Special Correspondents on a big screen, and we laughed a lot more than some grumpy America critics did (perhaps because the film isn't very nice about the American media). And then there was the multi-strand ensemble drama Mothers and Daughters, a gentle series of interlinked stories livened up by an all-star cast and some nice observations.

Further afield, the Australian pre-apocalypse drama These Final Hours avoids thrills for a deeper, more emotional approach. Michael Moore's latest documentary Where to Invade Next is entertaining and very, very pointed as it looks at things Europe has done better than America has. And we also had the final chapter in Miguel Gomes' epic trilogy about Portuguese politics, the beautifully made and surprisingly moving Arabian Nights: The Enchanted One.

Screenings coming up this week include Zac Efron and Seth Rogen reuniting for Bad Neighbours 2 (aka Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising), the animated adventure The Angry Birds Movie, Ethan Hawke in Born to Be Blue, Penelope Cruz in Ma Ma and two docs: Author: The JT Leroy Story about the literary scam and The First Monday in May about the Met Gala.