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.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Critical Week: Light up the night

My favourite press screening this week was for Pawel Pawlikowski's Cannes-winner Cold War, a black and white Polish drama that's quite simply a masterpiece. A companion piece to his Oscar-winner Ida, it's a smart, complex love story spanning 50s and 60s Europe. On a much bigger scale, the spin-off sequel Ocean's Eight has a new cast of A-list actresses and another twisty but very easy caper plot to play out. It's mindless fun.

Smaller films had some edge to them. Adrift is a harrowing true story of survival at sea starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. The Escape is an involving and very personal marriage drama starring Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper. And Alex Strangelove is a refreshingly original take on the gay teen comedy, avoiding cliches to find this generation's perspective on the topic.

More offbeat films included Stanley: A Man of Variety, an experimental mental hospital freak-out in which Timothy Spall plays all the roles. Happiness Adjacent is a low-budget romantic-comedy set on a Los Angeles to Mexico cruise, but it makes some provocative observations. And Al Berto is a Portuguese period piece about idealistic artists who think their nation is freer than it is after the revolution.

This coming week I have two American indie dramas: the edgy romance Golden Boy and the pointedly topical At the End of the Day. And there are also four films from the London Indian Film Festival: Bradford-set comedy Eaten by Lions, offbeat family comedy Venus, mother-son drama My Son Is Gay and filmmaker doc Bird of Dusk.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Critical Week: When the night falls

London critics caught up this week with Whitney, Kevin Macdonald's well-assembled documentary about Whitney Houston, which tells the same story as last year's Nick Bloomfield doc, but with a bit more focus on her family (including one dark new revelation). This week's blockbuster was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the fifth film in the franchise, which breaks the formula in that it takes place largely on the mainland, in a gothic mansion no less. Otherwise, it's still dinosaurs chasing people, and it's rather good fun thanks to an up-for-it cast and strong filmmaking.

Further afield, we had the Paraguayan drama The Heiresses, a strikingly well-made film about a middle-aged woman discovering that there's more to her than her ancestral home and long-time companion. From France, The Apparition is a fascinating if somewhat rambling mystery that grapples with faith and traumatic stress. And the low-budget indie Sunset Contract is a sharply made, stage-like thriller about a man who begins to realise that he's made a deal with the devil herself.

This coming week we have Sandra Bullock leading the charge in Ocean's 8, Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin in Adrift, Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper in The Escape, Murray Bartlett in Beach House, Pawel Pawlikowski's Cannes winner Cold War and the Portuguese drama Al Berto.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Sundance London: Face to face

I only caught a slice of the programme at this year's Sundance Film Festival: London, but the films were exceptional. Since I was attending public screenings at Picturehouse Central, all of them were attended by the directors, and also often key members of the cast and crew, offering insight into how the films were conceived and shot. Most of the Sundance London films will be released in cinemas, and are worth keeping an eye out for. Here are final highlights...

Leave No Trace
dir Debra Granik; with Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie 18/US ****
After the indelible Winter's Bone, filmmaker Debra Granik carries on exploring the connections of people with nature in this strikingly visceral drama set in the Pacific Northwest. As it expands to touch on a variety of timely themes, the film maintains its tight focus on the central father and daughter, played beautifully by Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. It's a provocative film that reaches deep to evoke a powerfully emotional response.

Generation Wealth
dir-scr Lauren Greenfield; with Florian Homm, Kacey Jordan 18/US *****
Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield takes her fabulous doc The Queen of Versailles and spirals out to explore the much bigger picture, creating one of the most vital, urgent films in years. An expertly assembled film packed with striking imagery, it's also a riveting exploration of consumerism, taking a surprisingly personal approach that touches on unexplored aspects of a society that's addicted to monetising virtually everything.

Skate Kitchen
dir Crystal Moselle; with Rachelle Vinberg, Ardelia Lovelace 18/US ****
Filmmaker Crystal Moselle skilfully creates a loose vibe in this drama about skater girls in New York City. The narrative is deliberately thin, as the film instead focuses on on the camaraderie, connections and rivalries between young people who are discovering who they are in the context of the tribe in which they find themselves. It's fascinating, honest and thoroughly gripping, expertly shot and edited to bring out the natural performances.

Sundance Short Film Tour
There are seven films from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in this programme, which has been travelling around the world to cinemas and festivals. This includes the grand prize-winning Matria (Alvaro Gago, Spain), a stunning and rather gruelling depiction of a woman trying to hold her family together through sheer force of will. Two others won jury prizes: Hair Wolf (Mariama Diallo, US) is a witty horror pastiche set in a Brooklyn beauty salon that's being invaded by zombie-like white people looking for "braids!" And Fauve (Jeremy Comte, Canada) is an intensely raw little film that shifts from lively romp to painful drama in the blink of an eye. The other stand-out for me was The Burden (Niki Lindroth von Buhr, Sweden - pictured), an inventively surreal stop-motion animation about the struggles of everyday life.



Friday, 1 June 2018

Sundance London: Build a happy home

The 6th Sundance Film Festival: London kicked off on Thursday night at Picturehouse Central. This brief festival only runs for three days, as the Park City festival programmers bring 13 films and two programmes of shorts to London audiences. Annoyingly, I had already planned a holiday for the first half of this week, so I missed all of the press screenings and will be unable to see virtually all of the films as I usually do. I'll have to make due with those I've already seen, and the ones I can catch at busy public screenings over the weekend. Here's the first set of highlights from this year's programme...

Hereditary
dir-scr Ari Aster; with Toni Collette, Alex Wolff 19/US ****.
Writer-director Ari Aster makes his feature debut with a boldly original premise that builds involving character drama as it thoroughly freaks out the audience. The horror climax may be somewhat hysterical, but the journey there features first-rate acting from the entire cast, plus skilfully controlled filmmaking that creates a terrifying experience that's both darkly emotional and delightfully bonkers.

First Reformed 
dir-scr Paul Schrader; with Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried 17/US ***
Paul Schrader once again takes a provocative look at religion in America in this dark and twisty drama that has all kinds of repercussions in today's headlines, from climate change to extremism. Anchored by very strong performances, the film gets increasingly intense as it continues, implying in unmistakable ways that it's headed for something awful. Although Schrader himself seems unsure about where he wanted it to go... FULL REVIEW >

The Miseducation of Cameron Post 
dir Desiree Akhavan; with Chloe Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr 18/US ****
There's an almost eerie honesty to this teen drama, which makes it feel bracingly current even though it's set 25 years ago. With naturalistic performances and a topic that has become uncomfortably timely all over again, the film worms its way under the skin. Based on a novel by Emily Danforth, director-cowriter Desiree Akhavan gives the film an autobiographical tone, which adds a proper kick of resonance.

Films That Made Me
Three filmmakers whose work is featured in the Sundance London programme have selected the movies that inspired them. And they are introducing special screenings at the festival...

  • Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) presents Celine Sciamma's stunningly original, moving and insightful coming-of-age drama Girlhood (2014) from France... SHADOWS' ORIGINAL REVIEW > 
  • Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) brings Morvern Callar (2002), Lynne Ramsey's bleakly brilliant drama starring Samantha Morton... ORIGINAL REVIEW > 
  • Jennifer Fox (The Tale) chooses Tarnation (2004), Jonathan Caouette's astonishing kaleidoscope of an autobiographical documentary... ORIGINAL REVIEW >

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Critical Week: A hot topic

It's been a busy week screening-wise, as I have packed in films in preparation for taking next week off. There was a new adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, one of my very favourite novels, although the film changes the plot and kind of loses the focus, despite strong performances from Michael B Jordan and Michael Shannon. And I managed to catch two screenings of Solo: A Star Wars Story, the Han Solo origin movie, which ticks a lot of entertaining boxes to take the audience on a fun ride.

A little off the beaten path, Travis Mathew's evocative Discreet is a swirling experimental drama about past wounds, regrets and the pointlessness of revenge. Hooked is a slightly over-obvious drama about a young rentboy on a dangerous trajectory. Freelancers Anonymous is a refreshing if silly comedy about a woman trying to start over in a tough economy. And Astro is an amateurish sci-fi thriller with a couple of decent performances and laughably overserious dialog.

There were also three docs: The Fabulous Allan Carr is a lively and moving trip through the life of the iconic, life-loving but lonely producer of Grease; All the Wild Horses is a spectacularly shot trip across Mongolia on the world's longest horse race; and Arcadia uses a lot of amazing archival footage to try and say something odd about Britain's relationship with the land. And finally, I had a chance to catch the restored Yellow Submarine on the big screen as it gets a 50-year reissue. It's simply delightful - great animation and a thoroughly whimsical story.

I'm on holiday over the next week, so am avoiding films altogether! I return home just as the Sundance Film Festival: London kicks off, and will catch up with the anticipated horror Hereditary, Leave No Trace, Generation Wealth and Skate Kitchen, plus a programme of short films. Then the following week, it's time for Jurassic Park: Fallen World.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Shadows on the Stage: It's not about sex

F**king Men
by Joe DiPietro • dir Mark Barford
with Richard De Lisle, August Ohlsson, Liam Darby
King's Head Theatre, Islington • 16.May-2.Jun.18

Tony-winning playwright Joe DiPietro's provocatively titled play comes back to the King's Head Theatre, where it first premiered in 2009. Based on Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde (1897), it's a series of encounters between 10 characters, this time with a cast of three performing multiple roles. Ostensibly about sex, the play is actually an astute exploration of masculinity and culture, grappling with expectations, sexuality, monogamy and trust. It's a beautifully written piece that continually surprises the audience with its astute observations, never becoming preachy despite touching on pungent issues like relational fidelity, closeted celebrities, safe sex and HIV.

Each actor plays three or four roles, switching accents and attitudes so the audience can keep up. Scenes unfold as encounters between two men who discuss and negotiate the terms of sex between them - as a hooker and his john, as partners dealing with relationship issues, as a porn star and a phone-app hook-up, as a playwright and a big Hollywood actor, as a TV presenter and a rent boy. Most of these may end up with some sort of sexual activity, but the real point is that none of these men is quite sure of the rules of combat, as it were. All are a little deceptive even as they are yearning for a connection and hoping for something lasting.

All three actors are excellent. The veteran of the cast, De Lisle has appeared in previous productions and brings an easy authenticity to each role, shifting dramatically between characters without even needing to change costume. Newcomers Ohlsson and Darby both bring distinctive jolts of energy to the production in their various roles, revealing telling details that engage the audience even with more prickly characters. The way the scenes weave together into an overarching narrative is riveting, coming full circle to end on a note that's revelatory without having a specific message. But the play touches on so many deeply personal topics that each person in the audience will see him or herself on-stage while pondering issues that used to seem obvious.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Critical Week: Ladies who lunch

While many of my colleagues are in Cannes, I've been here in London catching up on lots of movies. Bigger titles included Book Club, which stars Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen as women who find new spark when they read Fifty Shades of Grey together. It's lazy but amiable enough. And then there was Deadpool 2, in which Ryan Reynolds reprises his irreverent superhero for another anarchic adventure. It's a lot better than the overrated first film, very funny but less smug and more complex.

Nicole Kidman goes enjoyably punk in John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a punk sci-fi romance that's bursting with scruffy energy but struggles to maintain its oddball plot. The Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post stars Chloe Grace Moretz as a teen sent to gay therapy camp. It's strikingly realistic with terrific performances and an important theme. The American indie caper romp Carter & June is energetic but far too misogynistic for its own good. And the British indie thriller Welcome to Curiosity weaves a few plot strands together in ways that are colourful but ultimately flimsy.

There were also two films from Mexico: A Place to Be is a sensitive fact-based drama that explores immigration issues from unexpected angles, while Boy Undone is a gripping amnesia thriller with a romantic emotional core. And there were also two star-packed docs: in McKellen: Playing the Part, Ian McKellen recounts his life and career with honesty and insight, while 50 Years Legal features a range of noted figures (including McKellen of course) talking about the history of gay rights in Britain.

The big screening this coming week is, of course, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Looking forward to that. Also in the diary: Travis Mathews' drama Discreet, the street-life doc Hooked, Paul Wright's collage doc Arcadia, the film producer doc The Fabulous Alan Carr, the Mongol Derby doc All the Wild Horses and a restoration of The Beatles' animated romp Yellow Submarine.


Thursday, 10 May 2018

Critical Week: Fight fire with fire

Since I'm not in Cannes with many of my fellow critics, I'm still catching up on screenings of films opening in cinemas at the moment. At least we're having Cannes-like weather in London! This week we had a very late press screening (just the night before it opens) for Breaking In, the home-invasion thriller starring Gabrielle Union as a tough-minded mother who isn't about to let a gang of violent thieves harm her children. This gender flip is very cool, and sharply played too, even if the script is rather standard fare.

Also rather standard, the British comedy Swimming With Men echoes The Full Monty in its story of a group of middle-aged men dealing with their issues as they form a male synchronised swimming team. The cast is so good that it makes it worth a look. And the American comedy Dating My Mother is somewhat awkward, but has a refreshing honesty to it.

There were also three documentaries. The first two have a showbiz slant: Filmworker is that riveting story of a British actor who gave up his career to be Stanley Kubrick's assistant for 30 years, and Always at the Carlyle is a star-packed look at the iconically elegant New York hotel. The third doc was something altogether different: Path of Blood uses acquired footage of Saudi security services battling local al Qaeda cells, including video seized from them. It's shocking, heart-pounding, eye-opening and, even though it's hard to watch, utterly essential.

Coming up this next week, we have press screenings of Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool 2, Diane Keaton in Book Club, Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post, British thriller Welcome to Curiosity and the Mexican drama Boy Undone. I also plan to buy a ticket to see John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk To Girls at Parties, as its distributor never let me know about screenings even though I asked. (Another distributor didn't screen Melissa McCarthy's Life of the Party for critics at all, but I don't feel the need to seek that one out.)

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Critical Week: On a mission

We don't get many big-screen premieres for TV series, but The New Legends of Monkey threw a bash for us, screening the first four half-hour episodes of this cheeky fantasy romp from New Zealand. It's thoroughly cheesy, but also a lot of fun, packed with sarcastic wit and bonkers plot twists. I now feel the need to find the remaining six episodes on Netflix.

Back to cinema releases, this week saw screenings for Andrew Niccol's new film Anon, a noir-style mystery set in an imaginative futuristic setting.  it stars Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried. Anything is a thoughtful, clever drama starring John Carroll Lynch who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a cross-dressing Matt Bomer when he moves to Hollywood. And Born Guilty gives a welcome lead role to Rosanna Arquette, but the film is a bit too shrill to properly engage.

Further afield, Gehenna: Where Death Lives is a cheesy horror movie about a group of property developers who stumble into a scary underground maze of tunnels. Well, more yucky than scary. The Misandrists is another gonzo Euro-drama from Bruce LaBruce, railing against the patriarchy. It's blackly funny and sharply pointed, but pretty nutty. The documentary That Summer explores gorgeous footage from 1972 Long Island, including sequences featuring Big and Little Edie before the Maysles shot Grey Gardens. And Boys on Film 18: Heroes is the latest collection of queer shorts from Peccadillo, featuring quite a few great little films.

Coming up this week, we have Nicole Kidman in How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Gabrielle Union in Breaking In, Rob Brydon in Swimming With Men, the British doc 50 Years Legal, and the star-packed doc Always at the Carlyle.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Requisite Blog Photo: Another Sunday morning adventure

I don't get screenings of TV series very often, but Netflix screened the first four episodes of this hilariously offbeat Australian adventure show at an elaborate premiere in London, complete with a photo booth, obviously. I'm seriously tempted to watch the remaining six episodes now...

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Critical Week: On the horizon

Among the eclectic collection of press screenings in London this week, we caught up with John Hurt's final lead performance in That Good Night. Based on a play, this thoughtful film is rather stagebound, but Hurt is as magical as ever. We also had a seriously enormous screening of Avengers: Infinity War, the seriously enormous climax of this phase of the Marvel movie franchise. It's a big, busy film that has very little in the way of actual plot or characters but will hugely entertain fans.

And then there was Tully, which reteams Charlize Theron with writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. I liked its bold approach and deep themes, but this is the kind of film that stirs debate and divides opinion. In yet another genre, Sherlock Gnomes is a profoundly ridiculous animated comedy adventure, solidly well made and packed with witty gags, even if it isn't a classic. As for horror, we had The Strangers: Prey at Night, a sort-of sequel about a group of vaguely undefined murders tormenting a family for no real reason. And then there was the quirky British indie drama Pin Cushion, a warm but very dark mother-daughter drama with fairy tale touches.

This coming week, screenings include Rosanna Arquette in Born Guilty, Doug Jones in Gehenna: Where Death Lives, the Mexican drama A Place to Be, the Daesh doc Path of Blood, the Grey Gardens doc That Summer, the Essex doc New Town Utopia, and an adventure movie titled The New Legends of Monkey.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Critical Week: Own it

Among films screened to the London press this past week was Amy Schumer's new film I Feel Pretty, which is bound to get a mixed response for a variety of reasons. It may not quite be funny enough, but its message is complex and empowering. Less complex, the latest weepy teen romance is Every Day, which at least has a premise that catches the imagination. And it's a solidly made movie for what it is. And then there's Show Dogs, a talking dog action comedy that's flat-out ridiculous and knows it. So it's rather a lot of silly fun.

More serious fare included the true drama Entebbe, recounting the hijacking and commando raid in 1976 Uganda from so many perspectives that the overall effect is somewhat dulled. The intense French drama Jeune Femme features a fierce performance from Laetitia Dosch. And there were two docs: Studio 54 features amazing footage and photographs as it tells, for the first time, the firsthand account of the friends who founded the iconic disco, and Time Trial is an immersive, superbly shot and edited look at cyclist David Millar's attempt at a comeback.

Coming up this week, we have the seriously anticipated Avengers: Infinity War, starring pretty much everyone in the Marvel universe, plus Charlize Theron in Tully, John Hurt in That Good Night, the animated comedy Sherlock Gnomes, the horror thriller The Strangers: Prey at Night and Bruce LaBruce's The Misandrists.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Critical Weeks: Stop playing games

There were a couple of big releases screened for the London press this week. The latest Blumhouse horror movie Truth or Dare (above) is a contrived collection of cliches with a preposterous plot. It's slickly made, but only watchable because of its bright, young cast. Dwayne Johnson kicks into action in Rampage, a videogame adaptation that's a proper guilty pleasure: stupid but funny, and full of mindless mayhem.

The longest title of the year award goes to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, based on the novel about a WWII book club. It's lovely and very British, easy to just go along with even if it feels rather over-sweet. The skilfully made documentary McQueen traces the designer's career with plenty of style as well as a strong emotional kick. And from Belgium, Cas is a 50-minute mini-feature that's getting a release due to its finely produced, complex story of a couple who brings a stranger into their relationship.

Coming up this week, we have Amy Schumer in I Feel Pretty, the canine comedy Show Dogs, the drama Every Day, the French comedy Jeune Femme, the 1970s doc Studio 54 and the Tour de France doc Time Trial.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Spring TV roundup

I continue to use television as a reset in between film screenings, so I manage to catch quite a few series along the way. Here's what I watched through the winter months...

NEW AND NOTABLE

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
The decision to tell this story out of sequence, essentially moving backwards through the narrative, eliminated any sense of momentum from the overall series. The only real way to watch it is as a group of stand-alone episodes that are loosely connected but lack any dramatic kick. That said, there's real power in the story itself, and it's very well shot, edited and acted by a first-rate, unapologetic cast. Darren Criss is superb as the psychopathic central character, and Penelope Cruz is remarkable as a deeply unlikeable Donatella. But by the final episode, when it circles back to where it started, there's an odd lack of emotion or tension, leaving the series admirable but not particularly satisfying.

Everything Sucks!
Set in the late 1990s, this smart comedy follows a handful of teens through the misery of high school, during which their burgeoning hormones cause quite a few problems. Basically, this is Stranger Things with nerdy kids facing more everyday horrors like the idea of your principal dating your mother. Discovering that you're not like the other kids is both terrifying and liberating. And the show is so freshly written and played that it frequently takes the breath away, and not only because the events are so resonant. These are all vividly realistic, flawed people trying to do their best against the usual odds everyone faces. So the humour bristles with earthy honesty, and quiet revelations are powerfully moving. 

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
A blast of fresh air, this lively series rightly won awards across the board. Rachel Brosnahan is fantastic as the title character, a 1950s New York society housewife who finds herself suddenly single and nowhere near as helpless as everyone thinks she should be. A force of nature, Midge is smart and absolutely hilarious, so her budding career as an edgy standup comic feels just about right. It helps that the writers give her jokes that are actually funny. And the show's recreation of the period is strikingly well-done. But it's the characters who make this show unmissable, including Alex Borstein as Midge's sardonic agent, Michael Zegen as her hapless ex, and Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub as her eye-rolling parents. 

McMafia
This eight-part British series struggled to build up a head of steam in its tale of Russian mafia business dealings. James Norton anchored the series ably, although his character was far too repressed to really spring to life or garner much audience sympathy, especially as his story arc took him to some very, very dark places. The more engaging character was David Strathairn as a shifty Israeli dealmaker, although he was left on the sidelines. There may be a more intriguing story in here about business ethics in a slippery moral climate, but this show concentrated on the sinister mob underworld, which was watchable but never terribly compelling.

Star Trek: Discovery
The oppressive darkness in this show is a little much sometimes, from the violent parallel universe episodes to the ongoing nastiness as people who are meant to be good continually use murder and torture as everyday tools, simply because there's a war on. At least it looks great, and the cast is excellent across the board, with some nice surprises in the supporting ensemble. Although poor Doug Jones needs to redesign his annoyingly rubbery makeup so he can actually move his face. Spoiler alert: as painful as it was to lose the terrific Jason Isaacs and Wilson Cruz from the cast, at least Michelle Yeoh came back with a wild-eyed vengeance.

BACK FOR MORE

This Is Us: series 2
The shameless heart-tugging reached epic proportions over this season, but when a show is this well written and played you don't mind too much. All of the actors are great - including the kids who play the main roles at two earlier stages in their lives. And the producers finally had mercy on the audience by revealing the circumstances around Jack's death, including how it impacted each of the others in a specific way that causes all of the emotional fallout years later (many tissues required). It's contrived and overwrought, but beautifully done.

Love: series 3
The romance between improbable couple Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs continues, and is just as offbeat. Both of these people are damaged, not always likeable and not very easy to root for, so their relationship is a proper mess. Even more interesting in this season was the professional arc of Rust's character, who finally manages to shoot his film. But for every triumph, the screenwriters give him three crises, which is a little exhausting. And the show feels soft and sweet when it should be a lot more prickly. But it's charming enough to hold the interest.

Inside No 9: series 4
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's anthology series is showing a little strain. It's still wildly inventive, mixing a menacing horror vibe with Twilight Zone-style twists, but some of the premises kind of strained for effect, losing plausibility on the way. Still, the swings in tone were remarkable, from the slapstick farce of Zanzibar to the grim nostalgia of Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room. The nastiest episode was also the most gimmicky, Once Removed recounted its murderous tale in reverse order. Thankfully, each episode also has a topicality that makes it resonate. And they also offer a range of juicy roles for Shearsmith and Pemberton.

Grace and Frankie: series 4
A thin idea to begin with, this show has somehow found ways to deepen all of its characters without pushing anyone too far. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are still superb at the centre, with terrific chemistry and impeccable timing. They add unusual pathos and comedy to even the corniest situation. Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston struggle a bit more with their cartoonish roles, but also ground them in realistic thoughtfulness. And it's a rare show that makes us want more time with the side characters: these two couples' four children are pretty ridiculous, but their obsessions and quirks could fuel a series on their own.

Shameless: series 8
It's a rare show that can sustain the quality over eight years, and even rarer for a TV series to get the balance right between comedy and drama. But this remake of the British show is better than ever, pushing its characters into ever-more-intense situations while at the same time letting them grow and change. Sometimes it's a little overwhelming, as the writers never seem to let them catch a break, but there were moments in this season that offered the Gallagher family some welcome moments of triumph amid the usual setbacks. William H Macy anchors the show beautifully as the, yes, shameless Frank. But the entire ensemble is excellent.

The X Files: series 11
After the intriguing return to this story last year, this show continues in a bizarrely comical way that feels more like a pastiche than a new season. The first episode in this series was a downright spoof, and while subsequent episodes have had a certain entertainment value, most have been so ludicrous that they seem to miss the point entirely. Even the series mythology feels like it has lost the plot. So even though Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny continue to have strong chemistry together on-screen, maybe she's right to say that it's time to hang up these characters for good.

I GIVE UP

Bliss: As a fan of Stephen Mangan and creator David Cross, I was looking forward to this offbeat half-hour comedy about a guy trying to maintain two families. But the premise is riddled with implausibilities that began niggling right from the start, leading to some inevitable "twists". By the third episode, I'd had enough.

Action Team: The idea of a spoof action series is a great one, and there are some witty touches in this goofy British show. But both the writing and acting are far too broad and obvious for my taste. I lasted two episodes.

IN PROGRESS
At the moment I'm watching Trust (terrific cast, clever storytelling); The Looming Tower (riveting and scary, like a true version of Homeland); The Santa Clarita Diet 2 (a welcome slice of Drew Barrymore silliness); Schitt's Creek 4 (better than ever); Homeland 7 (has found a new groove); and the revivals of Will & Grace (funny if Megan Mullally is on screen) and Roseanne (eerily up to date humour). And plenty of things are coming up soon.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Critical Week: Watch the skies

I'm enjoying a quieter life this week after the end of the film festival. Screenings have mainly been smaller films like I Kill Giants, a strikingly well-made teen fantasy drama starring Madison Wolfe (above) and Zoe Saldana. Modern Life Is Rubbish is an engaging if somewhat awkwardly structured British romantic drama with cool musical overtones. Baja is a low-concept, low-energy road trip comedy that never quite hits its stride.

There were two films from Germany: Shelter is a cleverly subtle espionage thriller with very strong characters; and Western sharply explores personal and cultural issues between German workers and locals in rural Bulgaria. From Spain, The Night of the Virgin is a bonkers horror comedy with excessive grisliness and some wobbly storytelling.

Coffee House Chronicles is a multi-strand relationship comedy based on a web-series and featuring a huge number of characters in witty/corny little sketches. And I also managed to catch the live American broadcast version of one of my favourite musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar, a fairly straightforward version of the Webber & Rice classic featuring terrific musicians. John Legend was superb in the title role, but the show-stealing performance came from Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas.

This coming week I'm watching Dwayne Johnson in Rampage, Lily James in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, teen horror Truth or Dare, designer documentary McQueen, and the Basquiat doc Boom for Real.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Flare 7: Send up a flare

So BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival is over for another year, although the British Film Institute continues Flare-themed events year-round, including a special section on BFIPlayer. This was the 32nd year for this festival, one of the largest queer-focussed cinema events on earth. And it's the 20th year that I have been accredited to cover it, so it's always great to reconnect with my Flare buddies every year, hang out with the filmmakers and get some inspiration to make movies myself. Not counting revival screenings, I saw 24 feature films and 26 shorts in this year's festival. All of the features have been covered on this blog, with full reviews en route (Shico Menegat from Hard Paint is pictured above)...

MY BEST OF THE FEST

  1. 120 BPM (Robin Campillo, Fr)
  2. Hard Paint (Filipe Matzembacher & Marcio Reolon, Br)
  3. Malila: The Farewell Flower (Anucha Boonyawatana, Tha)
  4. The Wound (John Trengove, Sa)
  5. Postcards From London (Steve Mclean, UK)
  6. Sidney & Friends (Tristan Aitchison, UK)
  7. The Happy Prince (Ropert Everett, UK)
  8. Conversations With Gay Elders (David Weissman, US)
  9. My Days of Mercy (Tali Shalom-Ezer, US)
  10. Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, US)

Special mention: Freak Show. Rift. Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco. Good Manners. Stumped. Love, Scott.

FLARE SHORTS

Watching films on a big screen with an audience is the best way to watch any film, really, but it's rare to get the chance to see short films like that. So I love catching as many as possible at film festivals. Here are my 10 favourites from the range I caught at this year's Flare...

  1. Vertical Lines (Kyle Reaume, Can 14m) • There's an uncanny authenticity to this little film, which centres on a bedtime conversation about the meaning of body scars as a young couple gets to know each other. While remaining light and relaxed, the deeper themes are profoundly moving - and very important.
  2. Calamity (Severine de Streyker & Maxime Feyers, Bel 22m) • A hilariously deadpan tone accompanies this sharp-edged comedy about a young man reluctantly introducing his trans girlfriend to his idiotic family.
  3. The Sermon (Dean Puckett, UK 12m) • In the style of an exploitation film, this British short hilariously skewers blind religiosity with skill and wit.
  4. SununĂș: The Revolution of Love (Olivia Crellin, UK 25m) • The remarkable story of the first trans political candidate in Ecuador, this warm doc follows a young couple as they prepare for the birth of their first child while setting out to change their country.
  5. Half a Life (Tamara Shogaolu, Egy 12m) • Narrated by a young activist, this animated doc artfully and pointedly explores both the Arab Spring riots and the current social situation in Cairo.
  6. Ursinho (Stephane Olijnyk, Br 45m) • A mini-feature, this drama follows a lonely man in a Rio favela who has an encounter with an almost fantastical stranger on Copacabana.
  7. Cas (Joris van den Berg, Ned 48m) • Another rather long short, this drama centres on a happy couple whose relationship is strained by a houseguest who stays around a bit too long.
  8. Blood Out of a Stone (Ben Allen, UK 14m) • There's an earthy authenticity to this British short about two young guys trying to connect on an offbeat date.
  9. Landline (Matt Houghton, UK 13m) • Artfully shot and edited, this quietly powerful short doc uses recordings and dramatisations from a helpline for gay farmers.
  10. Edmund the Magnificent (Ben Ockrent, UK 14m) • It may be a bit arch and ridiculous, but this heightened comedy, narrated by Ian McKellen, recounts the story of a farmer (David Bradley) trying to breed his prized gay pig.

Full reviews of features and short reviews of the shorts will be on the main website, linked to my BFI Flare page.





Saturday, 31 March 2018

Flare 6: Face your future

The British Film Institute's 32nd Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival holds its closing night gala tonight, with the premiere of Steve McLean's Postcards From London, featuring rising star Harris Dickinson. I spend a day on the set of the film about a year and a half ago, so it's great to finally see it on the big screen. And the party at BFI Southbank after the screening should be great fun. Then tomorrow there's Second Chance Sunday, when audiences can catch up with the best of the festival all day long for a reduced price (I think that, in my 20 years covering this festival, this is only the second time the final day has fallen on Easter). Here are some final film highlights, and I'll have one more report about short films and my best of the fest...

Postcards From London
dir-scr Steve McLean; with Harris Dickinson, Jonah Hauer-King 18/UK ****
A highly stylised exploration of the nature of art, this colourful British film is set out as an odyssey into a fantastical version of Soho, which has a history of remaining just outside the boundaries of polite civilisation. Boasting another riveting performance from Harris Dickinson, the film may divide audiences with its heightened approach and controversial plot. But it's worth hanging on for the ride, because the film has a lot to say.

Good Manners 
dir-scr Marco Dutra, Juliana Rojas; with Isabel Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano 17/Br ****
An extraordinary fairy tale that mixes comedy, horror and personal drama, this Brazilian film so resolutely challenges expectations that it's almost impossible to describe the plot without spoiling it. Lushly shot and acted with deep emotion, this film provokes the audience as much as it entertains, taking us on an outrageous journey that's both fantastical and properly grounded. It leaves us shaken and oddly satisfied.

Hard Paint
dir-scr Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon; with Shico Menegat, Bruno Fernandes 18/Br ****
There's a raw sensitivity to this Brazilian drama that digs deeply under the surface, pulling the audience into the internal journey of a painfully shy young man at a key moment in his life. While some sequences are painful to watch, the film is warm, humane and very sexy. It's shot in a darkly colourful visual style that continually reveals new details. And the central performance from newcomer Shico Menegat is mesmerising.

Stumped
dir Robin Berghaus; with Will Lautzenheiser, Angel Gonzalez 17/US ****
This sharply observed documentary tells two distinct stories, initially chronicling how a young man turned to stand-up comedy to put his life-altering disability into perspective. And then it shifts into an often startling look at the process of organ transplants, as he goes through a relatively new procedure that would give him a new set of arms. The warm humour and honesty of everyone on-screen makes the film both engaging and vital.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Flare 5: Stand out from the crowd

The 32nd BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival is entering its final days, and there's a sense of exhaustion among the journalists who have been trying to see as many films as possible, starting each morning with a 10am press screening and usually finishing with a bit of a dance at 11pm in the BFI Southbank cafe. But the weather has taken a wet turn, so where else would you rather be? Here are a few highlights (pictured above are Laverne Cox, Abigail Breslin, Alex Lawther and AnnaSophia Robb)...

Freak Show
dir Trudie Styler; with Alex Lawther, Ian Nelson 17/US ****
While it might be a bit arch, pushing to make its point, this film has such a strong message about identity that it's both powerfully moving and deeply important. Anchored by an offbeat, beautifully textured performance from Alex Lawther, it's a story about a colourful teen who simply refuses to fit in at his high school, which leads to both triumphs and serious challenges. And it's gorgeously shot by Dante Spinotti.

Alaska Is a Drag
dir-scr Shaz Bennett; with Martin L Washington Jr, Maya Washington 17/US ***.
Expanded from a 2012 short, this warm drama centres on three people who feel trapped in the middle of nowhere, trying to make life a bit more colourful than it is. It's a gently involving story, with strongly sympathetic characters who are very well-played by a fresh cast. So it's charming and moving. And even with some rather insistent plot points, it raises important issues without ever preaching about them.

Malila: The Farewell Flower
dir Anucha Boonyawatana; with Sukollawat Kanarot, Anuchit Sapanpong 17/Tha ****
This odyssey from Thailand weaves together themes from religion, politics and sexuality as it follows a young man on a profound voyage of self-discovery. It's not a traditional narrative, instead occupying more in a spiritual space, including a touch of magical realism, and it moves at the pace of a slow-flowing river. But it's beautiful to look at, provocative in its ideas and ultimately moving in what it has to say.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco 
dir-scr James Crump; with Bill Cunningham, Jessica Lange 17/UK ****
A fast-paced, skilful portrait of an artist who isn't very well-known outside fashion circles, this film is infused with the sensuality of its 1970s period. Through lively, expressive interviews and a wealth of footage and stills, Antonio Lopez springs to life before our eyes, making us wish we had a chance to get to know him, because he seems like someone we'd probably fall in love with, just like everyone else did... FULL REVIEW >