Thursday, 22 February 2018

Critical Week: Going underground

Screenings are still a bit thin at the moment, for two main reasons: I've seen most of things already (thanks to festivals and awards screenings) or distributors either aren't screening their films (as with Fifty Shades Freed) or are refusing to let some journalists see them (as with Jennifer Lawrence's Red Sparrow). I wish I knew why.

Anyway, I did catch the bonkers archaeological adventure 7 Guardians of the Tomb, which stars Li Bingbing, Kellan Lutz, Kelsey Grammer and a lot of big spiders. It's stupid, but rather enjoyably so. And then there was Raoul Peck's gorgeous drama The Young Karl Marx, which traces the friendship between Marx and Engels during a turbulent ideological period. Beautifully written, directed and acted, it deserves to be widely seen, but I suspect political narrow-mindedness will limit its audience. And I also chased down two films nominated for the feature documentary Oscar...

Strong Island
dir Yance Ford; with Yance Ford, Barbara Dunmore Ford 17/US ****.
With this documentary, filmmaker Yance Ford tells an astonishingly personal story that layers in a range of pungent issues, questioning elements of American society in thoughtful, challenging ways. At the centre is a family's grief and anger over the shooting death of Ford's older brother William. And no one has ever explained to the family why no charges were filed against the known assailant. Ford traces the series of events, asking probing questions of family members, friends, witnesses and officials while quietly highlighting the much bigger issues involved, including the underlying racism in society and how it has had an impact on this family for generations. The film bristles with rage, but never turns into a rant, as Ford channels artistic and emotional expression into every sequence. He also boldly layers his own emerging sexuality into the narrative. Along the way, there are several shocking moments that hit us square between the eyes, and the final scenes are intensely moving. So the doc is not only resonant and involving, it's also urgent and important.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
dir Steve James; with Thomas Sung, Jill Sung 17/US ***.
The outrageous injustice woven into this story is enough to get the blood boiling within the first few minutes. So it's frustrating that ace director Steve James gets somewhat bogged down in his own documentation of the situation. That said, the film is beautifully shot and edited, and James leaves no stone unturned as he tells the story of Abacus, a savings and loan set up by the Sung family to serve New York's Chinese community. It's also the only bank that has ever been charged in connection to the 2008 financial crash, which was caused by huge monoliths dealing in illegal mortgages then pleading that they were too big to fail, so they took trillions in bail-out cash. Meanwhile, prosecutors targeted the Sung family, unnervingly proving that the system had no interest in justice, going after a small firm without cause simply because they were an easy target. But patriarch Thomas Sung fought back, and while the narrative of the case is gripping, the details about finance and the global system are more than a little dry, even with whizzy graphics and a superb musical score (by Joshue Abrams) to liven things up. But while the bigger picture is indeed important, it's this family's story that's darkly compelling.

This coming week I'll catch up with, among other things, Jason Bateman in Game Night, Agnes Jaoui in I Got Life, the Russian drama A Gentle Creature and the doc Westwood: Punk, Icon Activist. I also have one last Oscar nominee to catch up with before the ceremony next weekend: the animated feature The Breadwinner.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Critical Week: Brotherly love

It's been a meagre week, screening-wise, mainly because I've already seen virtually everything that's being shown to the press at the moment (thanks to autumn film festivals and awards-season screenings and screeners). I did manage to catch up with Owen Wilson and Ed Helms in Father Figures, which wasn't screened to the press, and now I know why. It's a bizarre mix of gross-out comedy and brotherly bromance sentimentality. Another set of fraternal twins feature in The Lodgers, an atmospheric Irish freak-out starring Charlotte Vega and Bill Milner as siblings keeping watch over their collapsing family manor by day, then hiding from marauding nastiness at night. It turns genuinely creepy when two interlopers upset the balance. There was also the sensitive Brazilian drama About Us, which has a ring of autobiography in its introspective exploration of a past, pivotal relationship between a filmmaker and an architect. And I watched this documentary to take part in a rather strong TV panel discussion...

Saving Capitalism
dir Jacob Kornbluth; with Robert Reich 17/US ***.
One of those blood-boiling documentaries that leaves the audience feeling helpless, this film skilfully holds the attention with its disarmingly gentle tone and likeable central figure. Robert Reich was Labor Secretary under Clinton, and is now travelling around America to understand how average people feel about being squeezed by rising inflation and falling wages. He explains that this is happening because corporations are draining the system, shifting money from workers to top-tier executives while at the same time siphoning off tens of billions from the government in tax breaks and incentives, plus special laws and loopholes as the result of lobbying. Reich argues that this is just another form of regulation, promoting capitalist business with socialist hand-outs. It's hard to fault his logic, because he articulately states the case and backs it up with both clear facts and historical precedent. And filmmaker Kornbluth assembles this in a riveting, entertaining way. Most telling is that this same situation developed in the 1890s and was corrected with extensive limits on corporate power. But Reich admits this will only happen if voters stop putting populists in office and let government do its job to protect people from companies that are literally stealing money then blaming the government for the problem. And without limits on campaign donations, it's only going to get worse. No wonder so few people trust politicians. And no wonder the usual urgent plea to vote and protest feels like a drop in the bucket.

Strictly Ballroom: The Musical
Based on the 1992 sleeper hit movie, which launched Baz Luhrmann's career, this Australian stage musical is heading for the West End in March. At its launch event this week at the Cafe de Paris, we were treated to a few musical numbers by cast member Will Young, a fiery flamenco performance from veteran actor-dancer Fernando Mira, and lively speeches from director-choreographer Drew McOnie and Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin. There was also more dancing from the show's stars Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen and the company. It was a colourful morning, properly whetting the appetite for a show based on a film that lingers in the memory. I don't think I've watched it all the way through since it was in cinemas 25 years ago, so I'm looking forward to seeing this on-stage, with its mixture of deranged Aussie humour and pointed social commentary that feels even more timely today. And of course because it launched a global sequin-bedazzled ballroom craze that's stronger now than ever.
Previews begin at the Piccadilly Theatre on 29th March, more info is HERE.

Screenings of new movies are still slow, but I have a few things in the diary over the next week, including Toni Collette in Madame, Taraji P Henson in Proud Mary, the Justin Chon drama Gook and the programme launch event for the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, which takes place 21 March to 1st April.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Critical Week: Stardust memories

It's been another random week of screenings, topped by a surprise Netflix release and a starry film premiere. The surprise was The Cloverfield Paradox, the latest loosely connected film in JJ Abrams' franchise. This one's a sci-fi thriller with some nicely deranged touches but a general air of randomness about it. The premiere was for Black Panther, Marvel's latest game-changer, a thumpingly entertaining adventure with a properly African sensibility and some wonderfully pointed themes. It's also swamped with too much digital extravagance.

Clint Eastwood's new film The 15:17 to Paris stars the actual three heroes who thwarted a gunman's attack on a train in 2015. They have presence, but the film feels meandering and pointless apart from the momentous 10 minutes. Becks is a beautifully written and performed story about a musician trying to rebuild her life, although it kind of chickens out in the final act. Just Charlie is a gorgeous British drama about a pre-teen who begins a male-to-female transition that's never simplistic or preachy. Revenge is a gleefully blood-soaked thriller about a woman turning the tables on three tough guys, although it kind of mixes its messages by fetishising her. The Canadian drama Sebastian has some charm, but is undermined by inexperienced filmmaking. And Ingmar Bergman's underrated, remarkably complex 1971 romantic drama The Touch gets a stunning digital restoration. And then there were these two...

Fifty Shades Freed
dir James Foley; scr Niall Leonard; with Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes 18/US *.
Shot back-to-back with the second movie, this trilogy finale features the same dopey writing and directing, remaining resolutely superficial as a preposterous thriller without even a hint of suspense. It's a bit sexier, structured like a soft-porn romp as our heroes can't keep their hands off each other whenever the music kicks in. But the characters are so limp that the actors look like they were drugged and forced to speak this laughably awful dialog. The film opens as Christian and Ana (Dornan and Johnson) have a fantasy wedding, then bicker on honeymoon about going topless on a French beach. As a married couple, their biggest challenges are Ana's hot security guard (Brant Daugherty) and Christian's flirty architect (Arielle Kebbel), before Ana's surprise pregnancy causes some overwrought his-and-her melodrama in between the belt buckles, bubble baths and Ben & Jerry's. Meanwhile, Ana's psychotic ex-boss (Eric Johnson) launches a series of attacks that get increasingly ludicrous until a climactic showdown. All of this is so flimsy that it's difficult to remember why EL James' books created such a fuss in the first place. There's certainly no sense that these two people are in any sort of real-world relationship. In the original film, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel captured a zing of tension and a bit of deranged fun in the characters. But these sequels are wet noodles.

Dropping the Soap
dir Ellie Kanner; with Paul Witten, Jane Lynch 16/US ****
The nutty backstage comedy is set among the cast and crew of the camp soap opera Collided Lives, and features as much bickering off-camera as on it. New producer Olivia (Lynch) is rattling everyone, manly lead actor Julian (Witten) is so deep in the closet that his leading lady (Suzanne Friedline) thinks they're engaged. The show's other female star (Kate Mines) is plotting to out him, but everyone is so caught up in their own worries that they barely notice. The scripts for these 10 episodes (each around 10 minutes long) are hilarious, packed with witty verbal gags and riotous interplay between the actors and their soap characters. It's also made with a snappy pace, a steady stream of funny cameos and a refreshing willingness to under-explain everything that happens. It's out on DVD/VOD, and well worth a look.

There aren't many screenings next week, but I will catch up with Owen Wilson in Father Figures, the British horror The Lodgers, the Brazilian drama About Us and the documentary Saving Capitalism. It's also the run-up week for the Baftas on Sunday 18th February.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Critical Week: She's behind you!

With my time largely consumed by the London critics awards, it was a slower week for screenings, with just one big title: the ghost story Winchester, which is very loosely based on a true story. Helen Mirren adds some star power, as Jason Clarke is solid, but the film is little more than a collection of the usual cheesy scary movie cliches. At least it's good fun.

In fact, all of the films this week were fact-based: The Music of Silence is an Italian drama (acted in English) based on the fictionalised autobiography of singer Andrea Bocelli, starring Toby Sebastian and Antonio Banderas. It's a bit dry, but a strong story well played. Birth of the Dragon fictionally traces the mythical clash between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man in early 60s San Francisco. It's out of balance due to a subplot that takes over, but the fights are great. And Thirsty actually stars Scott Townsend as himself in a dramatised telling of his life, as he grows up to become drag star Thirsty Burlington. It's colourful and entertaining.

Screenings this coming week include Black Panther, The trilogy finale Fifty Shades Freed, Clint Eastwood's thriller The 15:17 to Paris, the family romp Peter Rabbit, the French thriller Revenge, the Canadian drama Sebastian and a restoration of Bergman's 1971 drama The Touch.