Thursday, 20 September 2018

Critical Week: Fun for the family?

It's been frustrating that the biggest releases of the week are simply not being screened to the press (favourite critics see them, but no one else), so I never got to review the top two films on both the US and UK box office charts, namely The Predator and The Nun. With these titles I'm not that bothered, but others are coming up very soon that I can't really skip, like the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga remake of A Star Is Born or Tom Hardy in Venom, neither of which have announced London screenings yet. It seems to be becoming a strategy for bigger studios to withhold films from the majority of reviewers, which is putting our jobs in jeopardy.

So this week I didn't see any big movies, just smaller ones. Support the Girls (above), starring Regina Hall, is being oddly billed as a comedy when it's actually a wry drama. It's not a bad one at that, as it gently takes on America's sports-bar culture. Sam Rockwell stars in Blue Iguana, a scruffy British heist comedy that has its moments but never quite becomes notable.

Smaller than those, The Song of Sway Lake stars Rory Culkin and Robert Sheehan as young men caught in a swirl of nostalgia in old-money America. It's dreamy and intriguing, but not very satisfying. Summer '03 is an oddly abrasive coming-of-age story that boldly takes on some big issues without really saying much. Never Here is a noir mystery that's moody and evocative, even if it never goes anywhere. And Padre is an offbeat Italian film starring writer-director Giada Colagrande and her husband Willem Dafoe. The acting is great even if the central exploration of grief feels underwhelming.

More satisfying were the three documentaries: Won't You Be My Neighbour is a gorgeous trip through the life of American TV Icon Fred Rogers, beautifully capturing just why he was so magical for several generations of children (including me!). Tea With the Dames (original UK title: Nothing Like a Dame) is an extended conversation between old friends Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins, with wonderful observations on life and work over the past 60 years. And Science Fair is the hugely entertaining look into the world's biggest teen science competition through the eyes of these lively aspiring scientists.

This coming week's films include Ryan Gosling in First Man, Keira Knightley in Colette, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish in Night School, Rachel Weisz in Disobedience, the Joan Jett doc Bad Reputation, and a pair of Supreme Court docs: RBG about Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Reversing Roe. Press screenings also start for the London Film Festival, so I'll be banking reviews to run when the festival is on 10-21 October.

Monday, 17 September 2018

House of Horror: Terror in Essex

Opening on 28th September in an abandoned building in the woods near Brentwood, Essex, House of Horror calls itself an immersive 4D experience. But that doesn't quite go far enough. This is a freak-out that puts you right in the middle of a series of bonkers scenarios lifted from horror movies in a deliberate attempt to scare the liver out of you.

They let the press in for a dress rehearsal a few weeks before launching to the public, and I have to say it was more fun than I expected. And not quite as scary as I hoped. But then, I'm a jaded film critic who finds it difficult to blur the line between fact and fiction. Elements of the event were disorienting, creepy and downright revolting, but I never felt in danger. That said, I never got to enter the final, dreaded Room 13. But the effort that went into creating the previous 12 rooms was impressive. 

Here's the scoop without any spoilers...

When you arrive, you're asked to sign a rather long waiver consenting to possible injury and death, then turn over everything you have in your pockets (the only thing you can carry into the house is the cloakroom ticket). There's street food and drinks while you wait your turn, then a shouting masked man verbally abuses you as he drags your group of 10 into the superbly dilapidated building.

Inside there's a brief orientation video after which a hood is placed over your head and you're led into the next room. A series of carefully staged experiences follow, as each room combines wit and nastiness to keep you as off-balance as possible. There are ghostly spirits, evil demons, mechanical mishaps and maniacal medical workers with knives and chainsaws. In one room, there's a challenge to complete that involves something truly disgusting. In another you're blinded by strobe lights and told to find a way out. There's also more pitch-black weirdness and some claustrophobic grisliness.

Finally you emerge, blinking into a large area where there's more food and drink, plus a chance to strike an appropriate pose in the photo booth (see below) and recover before signing another waiver and entering the ominous Room 13, if you dare. I wasn't able to go in there, sadly. But I had a lot of fun in the previous 12, and I didn't need to evoke the safe words. 

The actors are all excellent, with a few stand-out stars along the way. Some are funny and others are creepy, but each is hugely engaging, staring you down and involving you in improvised dialog that's often hilariously aggressive. This is a thoroughly physical experience, throwing you right into scenarios that are skilfully designed and constructed. Surprises lurk around each corner. Some rooms are astonishing in their attention to detail, others are a little more rough and ready. There are elements in each room that are seriously inventive, and there's no doubt that it will get better (and scarier) as the cast push the limits of each scenario.

House of Horror runs from 28th September to 31st October. For tickets and detailed information, visit:

Note that the location is a challenge for anyone without a car, as it's too far to walk from Brentwood station. Also, the experience is not accessible for anyone with limited mobility. And it's advised to wear comfortable shoes and clothing you don't mind getting (ahem!) blood on.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Critical Week: Inter-connected

In this job, it can be frustrating watching film festivals like Venice and Toronto from afar: clearly these are the movies that will factor in at year-end, yet those of us not at the festival have to wait, and wait, wondering when we'll be able to see them so we can write about them and consider them for the awards we vote in. Clearly I was spoiled by being in Venice for the last couple of years! Anyway, we caught up with one notorious title, a Sundance film that will play at the London Film Festival next month: Assassination Nation is a full-on satire of modern teen culture, playing on social media and toxic masculinity as it heads into its horrific climax.

The rest of the week was eclectic: Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg reteam for another action thriller, Mile 22, and the film feels loud and thin, even for them. The Rider is an exquisite doc-style drama about a South Dakota rodeo cowboy grappling with a new reality. Lucky is a delicate, witty tale about a salty 90-year-old war veteran in rural Arizona, played by the wonderful then-90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton. A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. is a beautifully shot single-take romantic odyssey through nighttime Los Angeles starring Omari Hardwick and Meagan Good. And Lost Child tells a creepy story from the backwoods of the Ozarks, cleverly weaving folklore with current social issues.

A little further afield, José had its world premiere in Venice, and I got to see it in London: it's a powerful drama from Guatemala about a young gay man who finally begins to think he might be able to have a happy life. Complex and beautifully made, it won the Queer Lion. Another gay-themed drama, Sodom is a contained British drama set in Berlin about two strangers whose lives cross momentously. From Palestine, Wajib is a quietly involving look at an estranged father and son going about their family duty before a wedding. And Bisbee '17 is a strikingly original doc that explores events in the Arizona mining town a century ago.

This coming week is a little slower than usual - no idea why that might be, as there are plenty of films on the horizon that I need to see. Anyway, I'll be catching up with Willem Dafoe in Padre, Mischa Barton in The Basement, Sam Sheperd in Never Here and Rory Culkin in The Song of Sway Lake, among other things, no doubt.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Requisite Blog Photo: Wine not guns

Critical Week: A family portrait

I'm missing being in Venice this year for the festival, but it's been a busy week for screenings in London. This week we've caught up with the Sundance hit Wildlife, Paul Dano's riveting, moving directing debut starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as a couple coming apart in 1960 Montana. It's powerfully told from the perspective of a teen boy (Ed Oxenbould), as is Eli Roth's offbeat horror movie The House With a Clock in its Walls. Its main stars are Jack Black and Cate Blanchett as magical neighbours who take in a teen boy (Owen Vaccaro) with scary/comical results.

The most fun at the movies this week was the screening of US box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, a fairly standard rom-com plot packed with massively entertaining characters. The all-star true heist story King of Thieves features Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent and Tom Courtenay, and is more fascinating than thrilling. The all-star adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull features Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan and Elisabeth Moss, and is involving but perhaps over-ambitious. And Jeremy Irons has a great time chomping on scenery alongside Jack Huston in the engaging comedy-drama road movie An Actor Prepares.

And there were two less-starry offerings: Five Fingers for Marseilles is a gorgeously shot modern-day Western from South Africa about childhood friends facing off over the future of their struggling hometown. It's seriously powerful. And the Raindance documentary I Hate New York is the eye-opening profile of four trans icons who have changed the fabric of the city they love (yes, the title is ironic).

This coming week I'll be distracted from the goings-on in Venice and Toronto by Mark Wahlberg in Mile 22, Bella Thorne in Assassination Nation, Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky, Omari Hardwick in A Boy A Girl A Dream, Blaxploitation remake Superfly, the mystery thriller Lost Child, the British drama Sodom, the Palestinian drama Wajib, the Guatemalan drama José and the immigration doc Bisbee '17.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Requisite Blog Photo: Who's up for a heist?

Critical Week: To new friends

It's been another eclectic week in London screening rooms. We had the genre mash-up A Simple Favour, starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in a story that includes suburban comedy, buddy drama and Hitchcockian mystery. Another odd mix, The Happytime Murders stars Melissa McCarthy and a cast of puppets as a serial killer is on the loose. It's misguided but has its moments. And Action Point is a Jackass-style comedy from Johnny Knoxville about a perilous theme park. The stunts are sometimes funny, but nothing else is.

Gaspar Noe was in town to unleash his new film Climax on British audiences at FrightFest last weekend. It's a brilliantly swirling dance-based descent into hellish confusion. And I had a chance to talk to Noe about it. Other FrightFest titles I caught: Upgrade is a futuristic thriller starring Logan Marshall-Green as a guy who has his body rebuilt by technology, which of course goes awry. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is surprisingly nothing like its trashy title; it's an involving drama about an old man (Sam Elliott) coming to terms with the things he did as a young man (Aidan Turner). The Australian romp Boar, refreshingly uses puppets instead of digital effects to send a gigantic wild pig on a hyper-violent killing spree in the Outback. And The Cleaning Lady is eerie horror about a silent cleaner with a secret agenda.

Three more offbeat movies: From Germany, The Year I Lost My Mind is about a young man who begins stalking his own robbery victim in unsettling, underdeveloped ways. The documentary George Michael: Freedom was directed by the man himself just before he died, tracing his life with sensitivity and lots of amazing interviews and music. Shown on British TV last year, it's coming to cinemas as a director's cut. And Ruminations documents the life of Rumi Missabu, one of the original Cockettes. It's colourful and essential for fans of the late-60s gender-blurred performers.

Coming up this next week we have Jack Black and Cate Blanchett in The House With a Clock in its Walls, Annette Bening in The Seagull, Paul Dano's directing debut Wildlife, Jeremy Irons in An Actor Prepares, South African drama Five Fingers for Marseilles and the artist-activist doc I Hate New York.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Critical week: Jump the shark

Yes, the big event this week was the release of The Last Sharknado: It's About Time. I suspect the title is a joke, but in the Sharknado pantheon this certainly isn't the worst episode. Of course it's terrible, but it's also a lot of fun. Idris Elba's directing debut Yardie has a lovely look and vibe, with a terrific cast led by Aml Ameen, which helps make up for a rather familiar East London crime plot. Kelly Macdonald is terrific in Puzzle, a low-key drama about a woman who begins to realise that she has never lived her own life. It's beautifully observed.

Out of the mainstream, I Am Vengeance is a muscly British action movie starring beefy he-man Stu Bennett as a guy on a mission. The plot is ludicrous, but it's still entertaining. From Italy, Matteo Garrone's Dogman has been gathering prizes at film festivals, and deservedly so. It's a clever updating of those 1950s Italian neorealist dramas with a wonderfully compelling central character.

And there were two docs: Gun No 6 traces the 11 shootings that have been linked to England's most notorious illegal handgun. It's a fascinating look at police investigations, and also inventively sees things through the eyes of the criminals and victims with interviews and re-enactments. And Hot to Trot follows two couples as they compete in a same-sex ballroom dance competition, leading to the Gay Games in Cleveland. The central narrative is fascinating, but the real power is in the moving personal stories of the dancers.

Coming up this next week we have the hit comedy Crazy Rich Asians, Melissa McCarthy in The Happytime Murders, Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in A Simple Favour, the British heist adventure King of Thieves, Johnny Knoxville in Action Point, and Gaspar Noe's Climax, plus at least two FrightFest films: Boar from Australia and The Cleaning Lady from America.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Critical Week: Old friends

As the weather finally broke, giving us relief from this relentless heatwave, screenings this week for London-based critics were led by Christopher Robin, which was a nice surprise: a sensitive live-action Winnie-the-Pooh sequel starring Ewan McGregor. Although it might be a little slow for children. Much livelier but not nearly as engaging, The Festival has a bright young cast and superb real-world setting, but the story is thin and the jokes simply aren't funny. Featuring an even starrier young cast, including Ansel Elgort, Taron Egerton and Jeremy Irvine, Billionaire Boys Club is a slick money-based thriller that feels eerily over-familiar.

A little further afield, there was the superb Irish thriller Black '47, set during the devastating 19th century potato famine and featuring terrific characters in a riveting story. David Tennant chomps on the scenery as a killer in Bad Samaritan, a nasty little thriller with very little in the way of subtext. We the Animals is a simply stunning coming-of-age drama, gorgeously shot and played on every level. And Memoirs of War is a wrenching, slow-burn WWII epic starring Melanie Thierry as author-filmmaker Marguerite Duras.

Still further off the beaten path, Redcon-1 is a crazed British zombie apocalypse adventure that makes very little sense on any level. From Norway, Revenge is a, well, revenge thriller that's insinuating and involving as its story twists and turns. The sensitive German drama Paths traces the dissolution of a long-term relationship in a quietly meaningful way. And the documentary Nureyev is perhaps a little too ambitious for its own good, with a lot going on with the imagery, sound and voiceovers, but a too-"official" narrative.

This coming week we have Idris Elba's directing debut Yardie, Australian thriller I Am Vengeance, acclaimed Italian drama Dogman, the German thriller The Year I Lost My Mind and three documentaries: Hot to Trot about ballroom dancing, Gun No 6 tracing the life of a firearm and the, ahem, self-explanatory American Circumcision.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Critical Week: Looking good

London critics finally had a chance to catch up with Spike Lee's Cannes prize-winning BlacKkKlansman, and it was well worth the wait. The film is a fierce, skilfully told true story with lots of present-day resonance. John David Washington (son of Denzel) is terrific in the title role. Meanwhile, the week's blockbuster was the tongue-in-cheek guilty pleasure The Meg, with Jason Statham doing what he does best, diving into the action and winking at the camera. But the latest near-future young adult adventure The Darkest Minds was a disappointment, despite a strong cast led by Amandla Stenberg and Harris Dickinson.

Outside the mainstream, we had the animated true story Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero, which is involving and very moving. Making a Killing is a wildly entertaining true crime romp, told with heavy doses of irony. Tides is a meandering, improv-style British comedy-drama set on a canal boat holiday. And The King is a staggeringly clever documentary about Elvis Presley, layered with a telling exploration of American culture today.

There were also three excellent European films. From France, The Guardians is a gorgeous drama about women who run the family farm while their men are off fighting WWI. From Germany, The Captain is a pitch-black satire about a deserter who assumes power as an officer during the final weeks of WWII. And from Iceland, the unnerving, involving Under the Tree weaves irony into a darkly witty story of a war between two neighbours.

Films screening in this coming week include Ewan McGregor in Christopher Robin, Ansel Elgort in Billionaire Boys Club, Hugo Weaving in Black '47, the British comedy The Festival, the coming-of-age drama We the Animals, the zombie apocalypse thriller Redcon-1, the German drama Paths, and the ballet documentary Nureyev.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Critical Week: Just act natural

It's been another hot week in London, with a heatwave arriving just in time for the weekend. Again. Thankfully, screening rooms are nicely cooled. Films I caught up with this week include the action comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me, a genuinely hilarious romp anchored by Mila Kunis and the riotous Kate McKinnon. With its UK release delayed by the World Cup, Ant-Man and the Wasp was finally screened, and it's a lot of fun. Although it's nothing we didn't expect. And one to watch is the Japanese anime Mirai, a gorgeous, family-friendly story that's bound to cross boundaries.

Off the beaten path, we had the Portuguese arthouse drama The Forest of the Lost Souls, a cleverly twisty story about mortality that shifts into a slasher horror. From Italy, Sicilian Ghost Story is a sumptuously inventive take on a true story, told through the eyes of two pre-teens whose sweet romance is interrupted by a mafia kidnapping. The micro-budget American drama Brotherly Love bravely tackles the issue of homosexuality through the eyes of a young man training for the priesthood. And The Eyes of Orson Welles is a treat for movie fans, a love letter from British archivist Mark Cousins to one of the last century's most iconic filmmakers.

Coming up this next week, screenings include Jason Statham vs a giant shark in The Meg, Spike Lee's acclaimed BlacKkKlansman, Michael Jai White in the thriller Making a Killing, the British animation Sgt Stubby, the British canal-boat drama Tides, the Icelandic comedy Under the Tree, and the Elvis/America doc The King.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Critical Week: Fooling no one

It's been a busy week in the press screening rooms this week, and I saw a few films that have been among my favourites of the year so far. Sundance award winner American Animals (above) is a stunner, a true heist thriller that happily breaks genre rules. Performances are terrific, and Bart Layton's direction is masterful. And Mission: Impossible - Fallout was a very pleasant surprise, easily the best in this six-film series, and the most satisfying action blockbuster of the summer. Tom Cruise even manages to deepen the iconic character he first played 22 years ago.

Playing on our social media culture, Searching is an inventive thriller that is viewed on various screens, yet is also taut, moving and packed with superb performances. Jon Hamm is excellent in The Negotiator (aka Beirut), a gritty and very well-made thriller set in the chaos of early-80s Lebanon. Hot Summer Nights features another solid turn from Timothee Chalamet, but the film itself is too hyperactive and grim to be the pastiche it seems to want to be. And the documentary King Cohen is a joy for movie fans, especially lovers of cult movie guru Larry Cohen.

There were also three small British films: Apostasy is simply excellent, a fair-minded depiction of a crisis within a family of Jehovah's Witnesses that makes us think about our own belief systems. Strangeways Here We Come is an uneven black comedy about a group of neighbours who concoct a murderous plan. And Possum is a somewhat pretentious arthouse thriller about a man with the creepiest ventriloquist dummy in movie history. Finally, the American web-series Paper Boys has been compiled into an involving, nicely flowing little feature about young people trying to start their lives in San Francisco.

This coming week I'll finally catch up with Ant-Man and the Wasp, plus the comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me, offbeat WWII adventure The Captain, coming-of-age drama Brotherly Love, horror comedy Fanged Up, French WWI epic The Guardians, Italian mystery A Sicilian Ghost Story, Portuguese horror The Forest of the Lost Souls, anime fantasy Mirai, and the doc The Eyes of Orson Welles.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Critical Week: Check out any time you like

It's been another seriously eclectic week on the press screening circuit! There was Hotel Artemis, a fiendishly stylish futuristic crime thriller starring the superb Jodie Foster, with a terrific supporting cast and some deep, dark resonance. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was screened along with an array of Greek-style canapes and colourful cocktails to loosen us up to more Abba antics. It's a lot of fun (Go Cher!), but feels padded out with too many B-side songs. The Little Stranger is a dark, creepy adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter and Charlotte Rampling. And Glenn Close is absolutely fantastic as The Wife in a riveting marital drama costarring Jonathan Pryce as a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

A little further afield, Sylvester Stallone was back with Escape Plan 2: Hades, a preposterous but rather enjoyably dopey sequel costarring Dave Bautista (also seen in Hotel Artemis). Jonathan Rhys Meyers does a gloomy James Bond impersonation as a Mossad spy in Damascus Cover, a dry and dated thriller. Oona Chaplin and Natalie Tena take a narrowboat around London's canals as they have a relationship crisis in the engaging, provocative drama Anchor and Hope. The bone-dry Finnish black comedy Euthanizer growls its way through a story about a man fed up with the inhumanity of his neighbours. And Love, Cecil is a lush, lyrical documentary tracing the life of the gifted photographer/designer Cecil Beaton.

This coming week we have Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Jon Hamm in The Negotiator (aka Beirut), Timothee Chalamet in Hot Summer Nights, the Sundance hit American Animals, the British drama Apostasy, the British comedy Strangeways Here We Come and the American serial drama Paper Boys.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Critical Week: Here comes the judge

It's been a busy week, even if press screenings have been a little thin. The World Cup semifinal featuring England on Wednesday night erased all planned screenings that night. And Thursday was the summer party for the Critics' Circle - that was good fun. I'm the vice chair of the film section, so as one of the event hosts had to skip that evening's screening of Mission: Impossible - Fallout (I'll catch up on that in a week or so).

But I did see a few films. The Children Act stars Emma Thompson (above), who is simply devastating as a high court justice who gets caught up in a thorny case. Based on an Ian McEwan novel, it refreshingly refuses to simplify characters, plots or themes, and leaves us with a lot to think about. Conversely, Skyscraper is best watched with the brain disengaged: it's a preposterously stupid action thriller that's far too serious for its own good. Dwayne Johnson is, as usual, the best thing about it, but was clearly told to rein in his charm and wit.

Hearts Beat Loud is a moving, gorgeous drama starring Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons and Toni Collette. The story is interwoven with engaging, earthy songs, so it's involving even if it's a little over-crafted. And A Swingers Weekend is a loosely awkward comedy-drama about three couples trying to spark up their relationships at a lake house. The darker scenes are far more interesting than the rather tepid sexy silliness.

This coming week will be busy, with the all-star musical sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Jodie Foster in Hotel Artemis, Glenn Close in The Wife, Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 2, Sylvester Stallone in Escape Plan 2, Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Damascus Cover, Oona Chaplin in Anchor and Hope, and the costume designer doc Love, Cecil.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Critical Week: Over the borderline

Back in London after a two-week break, I've been catching up on several films, including the sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado (UK title Sicario 2: Soldado), a gritty and intensely gripping thriller following on from the more resonant first film. Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and Isabel Moner are excellent. Tonal issues make the romcom Ideal Home surprisingly challenging - it feels like a gentle family film, but is packed with more provocative adult elements. Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd are superb at the centre. And Mary Shelley is a fascinating biopic about the author of Frankenstein, although it feels like it has smoothed out the real story. Elle Fanning is terrific in the title role.

A little further afield, My Life With James Dean is a gentle, wry French comedy about a filmmaker on a bizarre odyssey in a sleepy coastal town. It's artful, quirky and hilarious. And Postcards from the 48% is a solidly assembled doc digging into the issue of Brexit. It may be one-sided, but frankly there hasn't yet been a compelling argument in favour of leaving the EU, aside from emotional nationalism. Which makes the film seriously scary.

Coming up this week are screenings of the Dwayne Johnson action Skyscraper, Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud, Emma Thompson in The Children Act, the comedy A Swingers Weekend and probably a few more as I continue to play catchup...

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Critical Week: Family values

I've been in America's Deep South for a week and finally managed to get to a cinema yesterday to see Incredibles 2, which opens next month in the UK. I really enjoyed the way Brad Bird recaptures the family dynamic in the superhero genre, deepening the characters of the children in the process (Jack-Jack steals the show). The dialog is hilarious, and the action sequences are hugely thrilling (Marvel take note). Although I wish the plot and the villain were a bit more fully formed. Still, it's enjoyable enough that it makes us hope Bird doesn't wait another 14 years to make the next one.

Last week, I watched two films on the flight over here. Del Shores' Sordid Lives expanded universe has had a place in my heart since I spent two weeks with him at a film festival where the first movie premiered. So I was happy to find A Very Sordid Wedding in the fight's entertainment system. It's as wacky as the previous films and TV episodes, with the same messy humour, depth of feeling and a proper edge of religious and political themes woven through the nutty characters. The awesome Beth Grant was sorely missed (although Dale Dickey was great), but the film is a lot of fun, and actually has something important to say.

The other thing I watched was the two-and-a-half hour conclusion to Netflix's Sense8, basically the third season mashed together. Fans will love this epic adventure, which has plenty of twists and turns and carries on the Wachowskis' staggeringly inventive visual style. Although there's perhaps a bit too much gunplay than was necessary. And the emphasis on violence leaves the more interesting, engaging interpersonal drama feeling kind of wedged in at the end with two massive montage sequences that give the series' devoted followers just what they wanted to see most. More of that ebullience woven throughout each episode might have helped it gain a wider fanbase. But at least cast and crew were able to wrap up the story in style.

There's only one other movie in cinemas here that I'm interested in seeing (the comedy Tag), and only one coming out this weekend (the sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado). But I don't know if I'll have a chance to see them before flying back home to London. Watch this space.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

It's been a busy few months for television shows. But it's nice to have some quality programming to keep me entertained and clear my mind in between my film screenings...

The story of J Paul Getty III's kidnapping was the subject of Ridley Scott's underrated All the Money in the World last year, and now Danny Boyle comes at the story with this sprawling, skilfully assembled 10-part series. This allows for rather a lot more detail relating to all of these people, plus much more on the figures around them. And what a cast: Donald Sutherland as the stingy grandfather, Hilary Swank as the determined mother, Harris Dickinson as the kidnapped teen, Brendan Fraser as the swaggering Texan fixer, and terrific support all around. The scripting by Simon Beaufoy sometimes tries too hard to be inventive, while the raw facts of the story are so mind-boggling that they don't need the embellishment. 

A Very English Scandal
Anchored by ripping performances from Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, this three-part series tells the true story the frightfully posh politician Jeremy Thorpe (Grant), who in the early 1960s had a passionate affair with riding instructor Norman Scott (Whishaw). And when he thought the story might get out, Thorpe simply decided to have Scott bumped off. Stephen Frears directs this as a jaunty comedy with a very dark underbelly, and the actors play it with similar textures to make it thoroughly riveting. Perhaps a longer series would have made the narrative more coherent, since it leaps through the years in sometimes confusing ways. But this is dazzling television, and a great story with several complex twists in the tale.

Wild Wild Country
There's a slightly tabloid angle to this documentary series, although it does work dilligently to tell the story from each side, and the balance makes it very strong. It's tracing the events in 1980s rural Oregon, when the followers of Rajneesh bought a huge tract of land and began building their utopia. Local residents were relatively OK with this until strange things started happening, and the Rajneeshees reacted to criticism by taking over a local town government, casually poisoning restaurants throughout the region and arming themselves to the teeth. The story is grippingly recounted with firsthand interviews from a variety of people involved. Although while the facts are clear, what really happened remains a bit murky.

The Looming Tower
There are echoes of Homeland in this limited series, except that all of this is true. It's based on exhaustive research into the work of the FBI and CIA in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks. Mixing in actors with real footage of the major figures, this 10-part drama feels eerily authentic, and it certainly doesn't go easy on the ways the CIA withheld evidence from the FBI that could clearly have averted the awful events. Jeff Daniels is excellent as FBI chief John O'Neill, whose story takes a grim ironic twist. The show's heart and mind is Tahar Rahim as agent Ali Soufan, who tenaciously tries to prevent what he can see coming. The show sometimes seems to get sidetracked by the characters' personal lives, but these details add to the realism.

Michael C Hall comes to Britain for this twisty mystery series, which explores the deep, dark secrets in a gated community outside Manchester. Written by Harlan Coban, it's all rather arch and contrived, but there's a gripping edge to the story, and it's shot and acted with plenty of intrigue. Basically, the central mystery is far too entwined to hold water, falling apart with even a casual examination of the details. It's also fairly easy early on to work out whodunit, since the usual suspects are clearly guilty of other crimes. But the cast keeps things interesting, and the story is told with a blast of energy to keep us watching.

Basically a serious version of Glee, this high school theatre club drama really needs to lighten up a bit. It's fraught with intense issues and deliberately meaningful plotlines that feel somewhat pushy, especially on themes surrounding identity. That said, these topics are addressed through characters who are engaging and beautifully played by the ensemble cast. It may feel like the usual Breakfast Club collection of teens, plus a frazzled teacher whose personal life takes up far too much screen time, but everything that happens resonates as an only slightly heightened version of things most viewers can identify with.

Here and Now
Like a cross between This Is Us and Sense8, this strikingly well made show comes from the mind of Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under), which means that it takes a realistic approach to what feels like an extraordinary set of characters. Each of the members of the Bayer-Boatwright family have an intense journey of their own. The cast may be anchored by the robust Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins, but it's newcomers Daniel Zovatto, Jerrika Hinton, Raymond Lee and Sosie Bacon who really shine as their eclectic kids. And even the side roles are fleshed out as real people with lives of their own.

Actor Bill Hader was involved in creating, writing and directing this series, which gives him a terrific chance to flex his acting chops. It's essentially a black comedy, but it's the darker underlying drama that makes it watchable. On the surface, this story about a hitman moving to Los Angeles and being bitten by the acting bug is pretty corny, and also far too obsessed with grisly violence. But it's through the traumatised Barry's self-discovery that the show finds unusual ways to draw the audience in. It's also great to see Henry Winkler poking fun at the industry in a surprisingly edgy supporting role as Barry's acting coach.

The New Legends of Monkey
From New Zealand, this adventure series is packed with hilarious comical asides that more than make up for its cheesy Xena/Hercules production values and a nutty plot in which demons and gods battle for control of a primitive culture. At its centre is a witty four-person team, including the revived Monkey King, trying to keep the demons from unlocking the secret to ruling the world. Or something. It doesn't really matter when the dialog is so snappy, the characters so silly and the action such a riotous mess. Sit back and giggle right through all of it, then be surprised by a creeping current of emotion.


Timeless: series 2
There's a cheesy charm to this time-travel series that makes for enjoyable escapism. But it's important not to think about anything that happens, because the scripts are full of holes. For one thing, our heroes are always racing to get in their time machine to stop baddies they're convinced are determined to destroy the world. But this ignores the fact that having a time machine eliminates the urgency. Not to mention how quickly they're able to steal perfectly fitting clothing on arrival. And the villains' actions are also inexplicably pointless. Meanwhile, the show-runners indulge in rather a lot of pointlessly unnecessary cross-cutting in an attempt to ramp up simplistic subplots. Still, it's enjoyable if you don't think about it. 

Jane the Virgin: series 4
One of the best-written series on TV, this funny, warm, fiendishly clever show is both a comedy and a drama, as well as a pastiche of florid Latina telenovelas. Terrific recurring guests this year include Rosario Dawson (as a shady/seductive lawyer) and Brooke Shields (as a deranged version of herself). The plot leaps along at a rapid-fire pace, with constant twists and turns, relationships and momentous events. But the characters are solidly grounded and thoroughly charming, with a complexity that's rare for light entertainment. So not only is the show hilarious and sweet, but it also grapples with some serious issues (like Xo's cancer) in earthy, authentic ways. And it leaves the soapy excesses in the background where they belong.

Scandal: series 7
After a very rough start which struggled to convince us that Kerry Washington's Olivia had gone over to the dark side, this rather ludicrous show picked up a head of steam as it headed into its last episodes ever. As always, everyone on-screen lectures each other in over-enunciated, vein-bursting rants. But at least the writers had a bit of fun messing with the characters and who they can trust, leading to some meaty moments as things barrelled along to what was clearly going to be a "shocking" finale. Except that, as satisfying as it might have been, it was never surprising at all.

Homeland: series 7
After last year's more contained season, the shift to domestic activity is breathing new life into this series, especially as Claire Danes' Carrie goes off the grid to take on a renegade US President (Elizabeth Marvel) who's thankfully not too Trumpish, aside from bullheadedly charging into every situation. Relational textures are intriguing, as Mandy Patinkin's Saul finds himself in a somewhat contrived but compelling position as it becomes apparent that the Russians have launched an elaborate plan to destabilise the American government. Yes, the writers are drawing from headlines and, as usual, real life has overtaken them. But at this point in the show, Carrie and Saul are more interesting for how they react and interact than for what they do to save the world.


Santa Clarita Diet: series 2
This charming bit of fluff is mainly watchable thanks to the goofy-charming performances of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as a suburban couple coping matter-of-factly with her murderous zombie condition. It's all very silly, dealing with violent death with a wink and a smile (because that's OK if the victims are Nazis). And the general panic is infectiously entertaining. This season's breakout star is Liv Hewson as their snarky daughter, who gets rather a lot more to do and shines, especially in scenes with best pal Eric (Skyler Gisondo). And it's nice to have Nathan Fillion back too. Well, his head at least. 

Schitt's Creek: series 4
This show has been sharply well-written from the outset, but this season feels even more focussed than usual, bringing the characters to life in ways that are often surprisingly moving (as well as being hysterically funny). Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy are all expert actors, milking each moment for maximum comedy, but never without a point. And the ensemble surrounding them is also wonderfully engaging, especially Noah Reid as David's dryly provocative boyfriend - a great character who changes the tone of the show in the right direction. As always, Chris Elliott's idiotic mayor is just an irritant in need of better subplots. Still, it's the best thing on TV this year so far.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: series 4
With only a half-season this year (the show wraps up with the second half early next year), what used to be one of the funniest sitcoms on the air has fallen into something so mannered that most of the gags feel like in-jokes that leave the audience out. The cast is still terrific, with the perky Ellie Kemper and shameless scene-stealer Tituss Burgess holding down the fort, plus a lot more of the wonderful Carol Kane and a lot less of the awesome Jane Krakowski. But the storylines are corny and dull, struggling to propel the show's premise in an interesting direction. And quirky running gags like that ubiquitous robot are rather pointless.

Mom: series 5
This sitcom just gets stronger year by year, thanks to the fine performances by Allison Janney and Anna Faris, along with an ace supporting ensemble. Even as the issues get deeper and more serious, mainly relating to addiction, the scripts continually undercut the emotion with jagged jokes. But they never belittle the themes. Back when this show first debuted, the main gag was that this wildly implausible tall mother and tiny daughter were both irresponsible parents and grandparents. But the show-runners sensibly (and a bit jarringly) jettisoned the kids to focus on some important things about them, while Janney and Faris rose to the challenge, creating powerful chemistry while having a lot of fun at the same time.

Modern Family: series 9
This show continues to wobble in the writing department, although this season the smartly comedic have outweighed the over-stretched, stale lows. Some of the funniest sequences have involved the kids, who are now complex young adults who are adept scene-stealers alongside the veterans. So when the writing is sharp, it sparkles. And there have been terrific moments for everyone this year. On the other hand, it all feels very safe, never pushing anyone too far one way or the other. And the overriding plot is running in place while mini-dramas last the length of a half-hour episode then flutter away. In other words, the show needs to start moving forward again.

Will & Grace: series 9
It seems odd to revive a series like this, which was dated in its original run even as it broke ground for its depiction of central characters who happened to be gay. It's hard to imagine younger audiences watching this new, since it's pretty much exactly the same show as it was when it went off the air in 2006 after its eighth season. Eric McCormack and Debra Messing's title characters are still fairly ridiculous, so self-absorbed that it's no surprise that they're single. Sean Hayes' Jack is still so silly that he can't help but raise a smile. And Megan Mullally's absurd Karen is still the only thing that keeps me watching: everything she does and says is flat-out brilliant.

Roseanne: series 10
After the hype about this resurrected series (which originally ran 1988-1997), the show is surprisingly nuanced. And also very funny. The writers cleverly keep things balanced, pitting Roseanne Barr's Trump-supporting title character against her left-wing sister Jackie (the awesome Laurie Metcalf, likely to win a fourth Emmy for this role). John Goodman again brings a witty, relaxing tone, and the kids (now with added grandchildren) are stirring the mix of blue-collar humour with sharply observed politics. You don't have to agree with everything each character says to enjoy this skilfully written and played sitcom. Sadly, Barr's inability to hold her tongue off-camera has sunk the show.

Two series came back for their second seasons badly misjudging their successes. Both Westworld and Legion gave into the most indulgent instincts of their showrunners. The plotlines splintered as both shows became relentlessly gimmicky, tilting toward great-looking confusion rather than actual storytelling. The actors are fantastic, but the more pretentious a show gets, the less engaging it is. I gave up after a few episodes of each. Only a fanboy could love these shows now.

Patrick Melrose, Pose, The Handmaid's Tale (series 2), I'm Dying Up Here (series 2), Sense8 (series 3), Younger (series 5), and I'm on the look out for more half-hour comedies. Suggestions welcome...

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.