Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Critical Week: Family time

These are busy days in the screening rooms, with festival films as well as the usual forthcoming releases. And the awards season has also begun to rear its head with for-your-consideration screenings. It'll be like this for the rest of the year! This week I caught up with the Cannes-winning Parasite by Bong Joon-ho, a staggering drama about a family of con-artists that continually twists and turns to keep the audience gasping. There was the second Shaun the Sheep Movie, Farmageddon, which is just as sweet and hilarious, if a bit more madcap, than the first. Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss all go against type in the thriller The Kitchen, which struggles to find its tone. And Ready or Not is a horror comedy that's funny and very grisly, but not scary at all.

Awkwafina is terrific in a dramatic role in The Farewell, a charming and involving drama set in China. The gifted Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) is back with the important, unnerving and rather long dramatic thriller The Nightingale, set in 19th century Tasmania. Celine Sciamma (Girlhood) is back with the staggeringly good, utterly unmissable period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Richard Kind gets a rare serious role in the gentle, uneven virtual reality drama Auggie. The inventive but messy black comedy Groupers takes on homophobia in ways that will make everyone feel uncomfortable. And this beautiful documentary opens this week...

dir Kristof Bilsen; scr Kristof Bilsen, Xan Marquez Caneda
with Chutimon "Pomm" Sonsirichai, Maya Gloor, Elizabeth Rohner, Martin Woodli,
Walter Gloor, Joyce Gloor, Sara Gloor, Tanja Gloor
release UK 20.Sep.19 • 19/Belgium 1h22 ****

Reflective and intimate, this understated documentary simply follows women who initially seem completely different but reveal layers of common ground between them. Filmmaker Kristof Bilsen cuts between Thailand and Switzerland, quietly observing mothers and children as they connect to each other in unexpected ways. This gives the film a gently involving narrative, allowing the audience to experience these situations and emotions in a vivid way.

Pomm is a care worker from an isolated Thai village. She only gets to see her children when she's on holiday, and feels guilty that she isn't there all the time. Her job is to work with the Western patients at Baan Kamlangchay, an Alzheimer's care centre in Chiang-Mai. One of these is Elizabeth, a smiley woman who occasionally wonders where she is. "You're on holiday in Thailand," Pomm cheerfully reminds her, calling her "granny". Pomm feels that her patients are family, and she uses emotions to communicate with them. Meanwhile in Switzerland, Maya has early onset Alzheimer's at 57, and is being readied by her family to travel to Chiang-Mai. Maya's husband and daughters are sensitive to criticism that they are sending her away, but from their perspective this is a sacrifice, giving up their time with her so she can have a better life and proper care. As Pomm is grieving Elizabeth's death, Maya moves in, and they begin a new relationship.

The film is beautifully shot without ever being pushy about themes, offering remarkable insight into a variety of issues, including a young woman who needs to work two jobs to support a family she rarely sees and also the importance of providing dignified care for Alzheimer's patients. It's fascinating to see how Pomm identifies with women who have lost their past lives. She longs to hug her mother, who takes care of her kids, but the culture forbids it, so she lavishes affection on her patients instead. She's also well aware that if she needed this kind of care, she could never afford it. Yes, this is the kind of doc that makes us think.

Much of my time at the moment is being taken up with festival screenings. The Raindance Film Festival is running right now (18-29 Sep), and press screenings have already begun for the London Film Festival (2-13 Oct). I'll of course have more updates on both of those! And there are also regular movies screening for the press these days, including Naomie Harris in Black and Blue, Juliette Binoche in Non-Fiction, Jamie Bell in Skin, Mathieu Amalric in Sink or Swim and the horror movie The Birdcatcher

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Critical Week: Turn the tables

The women ruled at this week's press screenings. Jennifer Lopez (with Constance Wu, above) chomps merrily on the scenery all the way through Hustlers, a far-too-energetic retelling of a true story about strippers who con Wall Street clients out of their cash. Renee Zellweger is nothing short of astonishing in the terrific biopic Judy, following a few months near the end of the icon's life with passion and emotional power. And Downton Abbey brings those fabulous grand dames to the big screen. The men are there too, but who cares when Maggie Smith is shooting daggers at Penelope Wilton?

Brad Pitt travels into space, and into his own repressed daddy issues, in the muted and rather odd Ad Astra, a gorgeous sci-fi epic that simply fails to resonate. Peter Sarsgaard leads the charge as a quirky-nerdy house tuner in The Sound of Silence, a nutty little drama that's more intriguing than involving. From Colombia, Monos is a ripping dramatic thriller about a group of teens working for some sort of paramilitary organisation, isolated in the mountains and then jungle. It looks amazing, and packs a punch. And there were two documentaries: the harrowing Sea of Shadows skilfully traces the horrors inflicted by humans on the diverse sea life in the Gulf of California, while Mother is a sensitive, powerfully moving look at a carer who works with European Alzheimer's patients in Thailand.

This coming week, there are no press screenings for Sylvester Stallone's franchise closer Rambo: Last Blood, so we'll be at the cinemas with everyone else to see this swan song. But we do have screenings lined up for the comedy-horror Ready or Not, Awkwafina in the comedy-drama The Farewell, Dev Patel in the true drama Hotel Mumbai, the claymation sequel A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, Celine Sciamma's acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the British drama Real. Advance press screenings also start next week for the BFI London Film Festival (which runs 2-13 Oct).

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Critical Week: If looks could kill

Yes, it's been yet another eclectic week in the screening rooms, as film critics scavenged for press previews of movies so we could write about them. Films this week were relatively low-key, a gasp of breath between the summer blockbusters and the early trickle from the autumn film festivals. There was the moody police procedural Night Hunter, starring Alexandra Daddario and Henry Cavill (above) as cops, along with Ben Kingsley as a vigilante. The week's biggest movie was screened to us in nearly three hours of Imax, namely It: Chapter Two. The original kids are back in flashbacks with the likes of James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader playing them as adults. It's grislier than the first film, and a bit more grown-up in its themes, but more fun than scary. And Sarah Hyland stars in the rom-com The Wedding Year, which feels fluffy and genuinely witty as it mixes some deeper ideas into the usual formula.

Off the beaten path there was the sleek, low-budget thriller Empathy Inc, shot in black and white and full of big ideas, some of which go somewhere. Seeds is a brainy freak-out in which yucky monsters menace a flawed man in his old-money family home. Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots is a lively, raucous night in the streets with two gay buddies. It feels scruffy and a little unfinished. From Argentina, Rojo is a strikingly clever drama exploring 1970s politics with a very dark story. And ee also had the programme launch for next month's London Film Festival, which as always will be a glut of great movies across the city's cinemas.

Coming up this next week, awards contenders are starting to rear their heads, as well as some autumn crowd-pleasers: Renee Zellweger is Judy, Brad Pitt goes into space for Ad Astra, the entire Downton Abbey cast reassembles on the big screen, Jennifer Lopez leads a pack of Hustlers, and Sea of Shadows documents environmental issues surrounding fishing.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Stage: More than a game

World’s End
by James Corley • dir Harry Mackrill
with Tom Milligan, Mirlind Bega, Patricia Potter, Nikolaos Brahimllari
King's Head Theatre, Islington  • 27.Aug-21.Sep.19

This world premiere drama has a powerful emotional kick as it sets a darkly personal story against some pointed period events. The political angles of the plot sometimes feel a little overpowering, but James Corley's play is brought to vivid life by the talented cast and crew at the intimate King's Head Theatre, which always punches above its weight.

It opens in late 1998, as 19-year-old Ben (Milligan) and his mother Viv (Potter) move into the World's End estate in Chelsea. They've had a life shifting from place to place, and Ben is an emotional wreck as a result, frightened by his own shadow while Viv indulges his fears and allows him to hide with his videogame console, plus some secret dial-up internet browsing. Their new neighbours are widower Ylli (Brahimllari) and his 19-year-old son Besnik (Bega), who arrived in Britain years ago as refugees from Kosovo. Besnik is a lively, friendly kid who seems determined to bring Ben out of his jittery shell, and they bond as they play Ben's new videogame Zelda. Besnik is gay, something his father still struggles to accept, and the deeply closeted Ben is drawn to his confidence and relaxed openness over the next eight months as their lives change momentously.

The way these four people circle around each other is fascinating, and very easy to identify with. Viv may be far too dismissive of anything serious, pushing it into the background and hoping it goes away as she focusses on an imagined future. And Ylli is the opposite, unable to let go of his past and get on with his life. Their story arcs are powerful because of the ways they struggle to cope with their own issues. Corley's script never quite seems sure what to do with them, leaving chunks of their journeys off the stage. Still, Potter is simply wonderful, a bundle of repressed emotions and selfish urges. And Brahimllari has terrific presence as a proud man who feels wronged by the tragedies around him.

But this is actually Ben's story, and the excellent, compelling Milligan fills each scene with nervous energy, stuttering and hesitating, and very slowly coming out of his shell as his connection with Besnik develops into a rather sweet romance. The magnetic Bega maintains Besnik's swagger all the way through, subtly shifting as he quietly falls for Ben. Where their story goes is rather tough and sometimes jarring, both because of events in their lives and the way Corley's narrative skips over some key moments. But the final scene is deeply moving, mainly for what it says about how people from very different backgrounds can connect on a profound level.

Photos by Bettina Adela

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Critical Week: A horse and his boy

We seem to be in the dog days of summer, as distributors unload festival titles that they couldn't figure out what else to do with. It's a glut of variable quality, some very good, some only OK (I've seen half of the 16 titles opening in the UK this week). At least there are intriguing things at arthouse cinemas beyond the dregs of the blockbusters. This week's press screenings featured the drama The Mustang starring Matthias Schoenaerts (above), terrific as an inmate at a Nevada prison who begins to find himself through working with a horse. It's beautifully shot, and very moving, but nothing terribly new. A great supporting role for Bruce Dern makes it worth a look.

The eclectic mix includes Scarborough, a strikingly well-made, darkly involving adaptation of a four-person play nicely adapted for the big screen with Jessica Barden, Jodhi May, Edward Hogg and Jordan Bolger. The Belgian thriller Spider in the Web rides on an effortless performance by Ben Kingsley as a veteran Mossad agent who simply gets on with the job despite all kinds of murky goings-on. Monica Bellucci costars in an underwritten role. A fiercely unflinching autobiographical drama from actor-filmmaker Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Farming tackles a thorny historical topic in a personal way. It's provocative and intense, but almost misses the best part of the story. From Norway, Phoenix is a relentlessly grim story about a 14-year-old grappling with family issues. It's not easy to watch, but is very well made. And then there was the documentary sequel All Male, All Nude: Johnsons, which again takes a homemade approach as it looks at world of male strippers at Johnsons in Ft Lauderdale. It's not very deep, and includes far too much footage from the first film (about an Atlanta club).

This coming week, while many of my colleagues are in Venice, I'll be watching the anticipated sequel It: Chapter Two, the South African drama Cargo, the sci-fi thriller Empathy Inc, and the queer comedy-drama Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots. And I'm chasing screenings of Downton Abbey, Judy, The Farewell and Hustlers, among others.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

FrightFest: The woman in black

The 20th FrightFest continues through this long weekend in London, with one of the world's best programmes of movies that are designed to rattle the audience to the core. No wonder horror is my favourite genre. Here are a few more highlights, starting with the film that will close the festival on Monday, which stars Sarah Bolger (above). It's my favourite FrightFest movie so far...

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find
dir Abner Pastoll; with Sarah Bolger, Edward Hogg 
19/UK ****
There's a gritty, earthy undertone to this melodramatic thriller that lifts it far above the usual low-budget British potboiler. Writer Ronan Blaney and director Abner Pastoll have made a working-class drama that's packed with both nasty suspense and pointed commentary on the system, with a superb cast in complex roles. So even though the production values are basic, the film has a remarkable urgency... FULL REVIEW >

dir Pedro C Alonso; with Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson 19/Sp ***
Completely set within a London radio studio, this Spanish thriller is gripping thanks to its whizzy pace, extraordinary cast and the colourful panache of director Pedro Alonso. The way events play out is skilfully jarring, feeling completely out of control as things get nastier and messier. Perhaps with less screaming the subtext might have been more audible, but it's a taut and chilling ride... FULL REVIEW >

A Serial Killer's Guide to Life
dir-scr Staten Cousins Roe; with Katie Brayben, Poppy Roe 19/UK ***
A witty visual style helps this blackly comical British thriller connect with the audience, as filmmaker Staten Cousins Roe pokes fun at the very nature of defining ambition and "releasing the inner me". The film is sharply well made, packed with amusing observations on human behaviour. But in the end, there doesn't seem to be too much to it, really. Aside from a lacerating look at self-help culture.

dir Ray Xue; with Keenan Tracey, Brittany Raymond 18/Can ***
There's a quietly building intensity to this dramatic horror movie, basing its nastiness in realistic teens and small-town life. Director Ray Xue establishes a dark and very serious tone while keeping things authentic with offhanded interaction and complex character detail. Where the story goes feels a bit pointless, but it's thoroughly unnerving. It's also grisly enough to offer fans an intriguing twist on the genre... FULL REVIEW >

The Dark Red
dir Dan Bush; with April Billingsley, Kelsey Scott 18/US ***.
Dreamy and intriguing, this moody drama is beautifully put together, with an earthy approach that finds key points of identification for the audience. Director-cowriter Dan Bush is an assured filmmaker who carefully builds the story using darkly dramatic flashbacks before flipping everything on its head. Where this goes is entertainingly disorienting, continually twisting the tale until it becomes a quietly outrageous rampage.

The Furies
dir-scr Tony D'Aquino; with Airlie Dodds, Linda Ngo 19/Aus ***.
Complete with a properly grisly cold open, this nasty little Australian horror has heavy echoes of Wolf Creek, and not just because its premise features men who inflict random violence on women (and also other men to be fair). Even if the plot is a bit thin, genre fans will love the often mind-bogglingly hideous gore. And there's a riveting pace to the narrative as secrets are uncovered, and as one grotesque set-piece follows another.

Here Comes Hell
dir Jack McHenry; with Jess Webber, Margaret Clunie 19/UK ***.
Opening with a witty disclaimer, this British comedy plays like a jaunty vintage romp, shot in academy ratio black and white. It's a clever pastiche, packed with amusing touches that undercut what feels like a freak-out campfire ghost story. Director Jack McHenry handles the comedy and horror with skill, creating an engagingly memorable spoof that's both funny and properly terrifying.

• Official FRIGHTFEST site
• Shadows' FRIGHTFEST homepage 

Friday, 23 August 2019

FrightFest: Don't look now

The 20th FrightFest takes place in London over the long weekend, filling cinemas with scary movies. It kicked off on Thursday with Come to Daddy starring Elijah Wood (above), and will close on Monday with the terrific British thriller A Good Woman Is Hard to Find starring Sarah Bolger. In between there is a full range of nastiness - comedy, drama, action, Western, sci-fi, adventure and downright evil. I've caught a number of titles this year, and here's the first batch, linked to reviews where possible (other full reviews will appear closer to the release dates)...

Come to Daddy
dir Ant Timpson; with Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie 19/Can ****
With a visually stylised, blackly comical approach, director Ant Timpson and writer Toby Harvard spin a cleverly insinuating freak-out. A striking setting and full-bodied performances help the film continually wrongfoot the audience as it spirals in unexpected directions. And each scene is peppered with telling details and amusing touches that deepen both the themes and the film's deranged sense of humour. But the real surprise is how moving it is... FULL REVIEW >

dir Alexandre Aja; with Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper 19/US ***.
Not much about this bonkers action thriller makes sense, but it's so much fun that it's easy to just go with it. Filmmaker Alexandre Aja knows how to freak out an audience by building suspense, adding an extreme gross-out, providing a big jolt and layering in an undercurrent of psychological tension. He throws all of this and more at this ridiculous premise, and the film is an entertaining scream... FULL REVIEW >

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
dir Andre Ovredal; with Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza 19/US 1h48 ***.
More yucky than scary, this enjoyable horror movie skilfully juggles a range of iconic images and themes. Slickly put together in the inimitable style of producer Guillermo del Toro, the film is briskly directed by Andre Ovredal to keep the audience on edge. There's never much of a question about where it's heading, but there's a lot of gruesome fun to be had along the way... FULL REVIEW >

Dark Encounter
dir-scr Carl Strathie; with Laura Fraser, Mel Raido 19/UK ***.
Both a gritty family drama and an outrageous home-invasion thriller, this British film set in rural America pulls the audience in with its offbeat approach to sci-fi horror. The characters are vividly played by a gifted ensemble, and filmmaker Carl Strathie reveals the narrative with skill, using snaky long-takes and superbly atmospheric settings to maximum effect. The film often feels gimmicky, especially when it's trying to push the emotions, but it's powerfully involving.

The Wind
dir Emma Tammi; with Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles 18/US ***.
Artfully shot and edited, this whispery thriller reveals its story by crosscutting between two timelines. Set on an isolated 1880s homestead, it's a slow-building atmospheric freak-out that unnerves the audience from the start with its disparate images, enigmatic characters and expansive setting. And as a story of a woman's mind in turmoil, it's also provocative and haunting. Director Emma Tammi is definitely one to watch... FULL REVIEW >

dir-scr Rob Grant; with Munro Chambers, Emily Tyra 19/Can ****
Brett Gelman delivers a knowing narration that establishes this horror thriller's comical tone right from the start, adding snide commentary as he describes a strained relationship between three longtime friends who are at sea literally and metaphorically. The film is strikingly shot, writer-director Rob Grant layers in strong undercurrents that keep the story staggeringly tense, and the three lead actors are terrific.

I Trapped the Devil
dir-scr Josh Lobo; with Scott Poythress, AJ Bowen 19/US ***
Dark and insinuating, this gloomy horror thriller has a clever set-up and a strong cast, although writer-director Josh Lobo can't resist trying to heighten everything with gimmicks like perplexing visuals or pushy sound and music. Confined to a creepy house, the movie has a superb claustrophobic tone, both visually and psychologically. But the pace is slow as it churns along in between some atmospherically freaky moments... FULL REVIEW >

• Official FRIGHTFEST site
• Shadows' FRIGHTFEST homepage

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Critical Week: See you later alligator

With the 20th FrightFest coming this weekend, it's feeling a bit like Halloween around London. In addition to watching four FrightFest horror movies (more about those next time), I also saw two freak-outs that are both at the festival and in UK cinemas this weekend. Crawl stars Kaya Scodelario (above), trying to survive a mob of massive alligators in her family home as hurricane floodwaters rise. It's relentlessly terrifying and a lot of fun too. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark comes from producer Guillermo del Toro, and features teens who find a haunted book that begins killing them one by one with new stories. It's dark and enjoyably yucky.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her actor husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson wrote the script themselves for A Million Little Pieces, adapting James Frey's controversial memoir detailing his time in rehab. It's beautifully made, raw and wrenching. Set in the late 70s and early 80s, Driven recounts the story of John DeLorean (Lee Pace) through the eyes of his shifty neighbour (Jason Sudeikis). It's uneven, but lively and very entertaining. And French filmmaker Francois Ozon shifts gears again for By the Grace of God, a powerful, sharply well made fact-based drama about men taking on the Catholic Church because they were abused as boys.

I also caught up with Adam, a New York-set drama that's been generating controversy because it dares to have a central character who makes a terrible mistake and learns from it. Since it's dealing with trans and queer issues, it's understandably touchy. But the film is also important, and very nicely made. And from Mexico, the 80s-set drama This Is Not Berlin is a sharply observant, skilfully shot and acted coming-of-age journey with vividly resonant themes. By contrast, the offbeat British crime thriller Killers Anonymous is a choppy mess, so it's a mystery how they lured Gary Oldman, Suki Waterhouse and Jessica Alba to be in it (albeit clearly filmed apart from the main plot).

This is a long weekend in London. I'll be blogging about FrightFest, and since the weather looks good I may brave the Notting Hill Carnival as well. Screenings include Henry Cavill in Night Hunter, Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang, the Norwegian drama Phoenix and the Argentine drama Rojo.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Critical Week: Boys gone wild

There weren't any kids' movies screened to critics this week, thankfully (it's been a bit much this summer!). But we had some films about kids aimed at grown-ups. The biggest is Good Boys, which is basically a standard rude teen movie featuring tweens in the central roles instead. Jacob Tremblay (above) leads the cast of kids and scene-stealing adults. Lupita Nyong'o plays a smart teacher in Little Monsters, taking her kindergarten class on a tour of local farm when a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Being an Aussie film, it's primarily a comedy, but there's also real gore and emotion too. And Steve Coogan leads Hot Air as a radio host who suddenly has to take care of his teen niece (Taylor Russell). It's snappy is rather predictable.

Two smallish movies benefit from big Hollywood actresses: Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams star in After the Wedding, as two women connected by a long-time secret involving Billy Crudup. Naomi Watts stars in the smart, provocative drama Luce, as a woman coping with possible issues relating to her adoptive teen son's past. Further afield we had the superb Iranian drama Permission, about a fierce, intelligent woman taking on an unjust system; the light, silly romantic comedy One Last Night is set around a struggling cinema; and Tu Me Manques is an artful, devastatingly emotional drama based on a play that links New York with Bolivia.

I've also been watching horror films that will be at the upcoming FrightFest (in London, 22-26 Aug). The quality of these films has been very high; for me horror is the perfect movie genre, because if done well it can truly make you forget the world outside. These include the opening film Come to Daddy starring Elijah Wood, the closing film A Good Woman Is Hard to Find starring Sarah Bolger, Eddie Marsan in Feedback, the teen-killers thriller Extracurricular and the dark psychological nightmare I Trapped the Devil. More to come on the festival next week.

This coming week we have screenings of Sam Taylor-Johnson's A Million Little Pieces, Guillermo Del Toro's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alexandre Aja's Crawl and Francois Ozon's By the Grace of God. Plus several more FrightFest titles.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Critical Week: Monkey business

The onslaught of family-friendly movies continued at press screening this week, and I think we might have seen everything now in this particular wave. The biggest movie is Dora and the Lost City of Gold, starring Isabela Moner, Eva Longoria and a scene-stealing Michael Pena as the explorer family on the hunt for a legendary Inca city. It's very, very silly, but also a lot of fun. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by contrast, takes the heartwarming approach to a story about a dog and his race-driver master (Milo Ventimiglia). It's even sillier. As for animation, there was UglyDolls, a lively and engaging if relentlessly corny fable about misfit toys. And Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion is finely animated and quite sophisticated in its humour, even it if it's also thoroughly ridiculous.

More serious fare included the offbeat drama The Peanut Butter Falcon, an involving and gorgeously shot and performed road movie starring Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson. Halle Berry and Daniel Craig star in Kings, an uneven but audacious experiential take on the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The British drama The Last Tree is a strikingly beautiful coming-of-age drama that's emotionally resonant but never feels terribly deep. Also from Britain, Wicked Witches is a very cheaply made but thoroughly nasty horror about female vampires (not actually witches). And the American indie Ecco is an ambitious thriller that struggles on various fronts.

This coming week's screenings include Julianne Moore in After the Wedding, Naomi Watts in Luce, Lupita Nyong'o in Little Monsters, the pre-teen drama Good Boys, the rom-com One Last Night and the Iranian drama Permission. I'm also watching films that will feature at this year's FrightFest, later this month in London.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Critical Week: Me and my shadow

It's been a busy week at the movies, with three much-anticipated press screenings. The best of the lot was Pain and Glory, which reteams writer-director Pedro Almodovar with actor Antonio Banderas (above) for a remarkably intimate, lushly produced exploration of cinema and creativity. I also really enjoyed Quentin Tarantino's ode to the heyday of 1960s cinema with Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. The cast is excellent (anchored ably by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), and Tarantino feels effortlessly in control of the story through each astonishing sequence. And then there was Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, the franchise spinoff starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. It's just as noisy and packed with action as you'd expect, and a lot funnier too.

Being the summer, there were three animated movies as well. The biggest is The Angry Birds Movie 2, which carries on in the same goofy style as the original, mixing chaotic slapstick with deranged adult-aimed humour. Charming is a decently animated low-budget Canadian production with a great premise that starts out undermining the fairy tale genre before giving in lazily to every cliche. Leo Da Vinci: Mission Mona Lisa is an Italian-Polish production that looks rather cheap, but has a certain charm as it sends the teen inventor on a ridiculous treasure hunt adventure.

Foreign films included The Operative, a quietly tense German-Israeli production starring Diane Kruger and Martin Freeman. From Spain, The Candidate is a fast-paced labyrinthine political thriller with a clear-eyed perspective on endemic corruption. The French-German drama Transit sets a WWII story in modern-day Marseilles. It's finely produced and acted, but strains to connect the eras. And from Argentina, End of the Century is a twisty personal drama set in Barcelona, where two men remember meeting before. What follows skilfully plays on both memory and expectations.

There will be more family-friendly summer movies this next week, with the adventure Dora and the Lost City of Gold, the Kevin Costner comedy The Art of Racing in the Rain, and more animation with both UglyDolls and Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion. Other films include Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson in The Peanut Butter Falcon, the spy thriller Ecco and the horror movie Wicked Witches.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Critical Week: Men in skirts

It's the hottest week in Britain since record keeping began (a couple of hundred years ago), so sitting in a cool cinema is a nice alternative to my sweltering home! We had a press screening of what is likely to be this week's biggest new movie: Horrible Histories: The Movie - Rotten Romans, which transfers the popular book and stage series to the big screen with an all-star cast of British comics (Lee Mack is leading the charge in the pic above). The film is resolutely silly, like a family-friendly variation on the classic Carry On romps. It's also very funny, and actually recounts some real history.

There were a couple of highbrow indies: Sienna Miller and Christina Hendricks are terrific in American Woman, a grim slice of working-class life that's beautifully shot and played. Tye Sheridan and Jeff Goldblum make an offbeat duo in The Mountain, a surreal and very dark drama about mental illness and social failings. From Mexico, The Chambermaid is a riveting drama about a hotel cleaner in which very little actually happens. Arthouse audiences will love it. And from the Netherlands, Dust is a sensitive, gritty teen drama that takes a hard look at an awkward coming-of-age. There was also this doc...

The True Story of the Illuminati
dir-scr Johnny Royal • narr Johnny Royal
with Josef Wages, Adam Kendall, Reinhard Markner, Olaf Simons, Clyde Lewis, Teresita Arechiga, Eric Bertolli, Brian Butler
release US 30.Jul.19 • 19/US 1h16 ***

Unveiling the most notorious secret society, this documentary is so over-serious that it's both dry and borderline comical. But it's packed with resonant detail. Featuring to-camera interviews with a variety of historians and experts, the film is an eye-opening journey into this unseen world, including re-enactments of its initiation rituals and secret handshakes.

The Illuminati was founded in May 1776 in Bavaria by Adam Weishaupt to improve humanity by accelerating the Enlightenment, deeply Christian but opposing superstition, church influence in government and abuse of state power. Weishaupt is an intriguing figure, and the film dives into his background, as he read forbidden books that explored the dangers of giving too much power to the Catholic Church, which suppressed ideas that threatened its authority. Weishaupt was the first non-Jesuit allowed to teach law at Ingolstadt University, so he made a lot of enemies. His goal was to develop intellect, striving for perfection on earth (he originally called the group the Perfectibilists). By combining elements of Freemasonry the movement spread, and the film covers key turning points until the group was dissolved in 1785 due to internal divisions and official opposition. Oddly, the film never mentions how the Illuminati excluded Jews and women, leaning toward wealthy, young, pliable men. But they also promoted equality among classes and forbade slavery.

Filmmaker Johnny Royal narrates in a flat voice, while filling the screen with lushly produced slow-motion dramatisations of a variety of creepy rituals in candle-lit rooms. Combined with the articulate interviewees, this helps the film feel like more than merely a reading of the Wikipedia page. Details about rival secret societies are hugely intriguing, including the way the Freemasons (not the Illuminati) established the United States. Indeed, conspiracies today ignore the real history, conflating various secret orders. Instead, it's the big philosophical ideas and the historical narrative that make this film gripping.

Coming up this next week, we have screenings of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw, Pedro Almodovar's acclaimed Pain & Glory, the Spanish political thriller The Candidate, the French-German thriller Transit, and two animated movies: the sequel The Angry Birds Movie 2 and the fairy tale Charming.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Outfest: Make your mind up

I've had a chance to remotely cover a few titles from this year's Outfest, which is running in Los Angeles until next Sunday. It's always great to be able to keep up with festival films from a distance, and these movies grapple with big issues in ways that are funny, emotional and challenging. Here are three blurbs linked to full reviews, plus longer comments on a British doc...

Sell By
dir-scr Mike Doyle • with Scott Evans, Augustus Prew, Kate Walsh 19/US ***.
This gentle ensemble comedy circles around a group of 30-something characters who are struggling with romantic issues and life plans. Writer-director Mike Doyle gives the film a flippant tone, revealing how people use acerbic humour to cope with problems. The central question is whether all relationships have a sell-by date, and while the story structure feels more than a little predictable, the endings at least feel nicely organic... FULL REVIEW >

dir Mark Blane • with Mark Blane, Joseph Seuffert, Christian Patrick 19/US ***.
"Based on a lie", this black comedy recounts the offbeat adventures of filmmaker Mark Blane when he moved to New York. It's a quirky, personal little film that unfolds with its own rhythms and themes. This makes it tricky to identify with, even if the characters remain engaging and intriguing. The way things develop may be stylised and often downright askew, but it's underscored with a sense of honesty...

Label Me
dir-scr Kai Kreuser • with Renato Schuch, Nikolaus Benda 19/Germany ****
Dark and thoughtful, this German drama is beautifully understated as it explores the complexities of identity for an immigrant who is afraid to let anyone see who he really is. Within a brief running time, writer-director Kai Kreuser maintains a tight focus on the shifting balance of power between two central characters, wasting no time on melodrama or the usual gyrations of plot structure...

dir Jeanie Finlay; with Freddy McConnell
release US Apr.19 tff • 19/UK BBC 1h31 ****

The title of this involving narrative documentary refers to the fact that male seahorses carry their unborn young. As he approaches 30, the articulate, charming Freddy McConnell decides to stop testosterone treatment and give birth to his own child. He understands the emotional and physical ramifications of what lies ahead, and he knows he has the support of his entire family. He originally plans to have the child with his close friend CJ, who is also trans, but ends up on his own, relying on help from his mother as he goes for ultrasound scans, deals with morning sickness and, ultimately, childbirth. Freddy is a deep thinker who has worked out his identity as a gay man, even though he knows people find that complicated. But pregnancy makes him feel like an alien, like he has violated his own masculinity. He also has to face harsh criticism online, and also among his relatives. And the process prompts him to try to mend his strained relationship with his father.

The film is fluidly shot and edited, taking a quick-paced and natural journey through the story as Freddy copes with the changes to his body and keeps his eye on his goal of becoming a father. The details are often astonishing, especially as they carry such a strong emotional impact, right to the powerfully moving water birth. Filmmaker Jeanie Finlay takes a bracingly honest approach, never shying away from anything while remaining sensitive to the nuances of Freddy's situation. She also clearly relaxes Freddy and his family as they so openly share their thoughts and feelings with the camera. Home movies offer lovely, telling glimpses of Freddy's childhood with his sister and parents, who understood early on what was going on with him. It's fascinating to watch him go through a box of childhood mementos, including his crushes on masculine actors and his early avoidance of his given names. The journey he takes through pregnancy brings a continual stream of surprises, And the film's most powerful element is the way it presents Freddy's odyssey as utterly normal, even if it's also exceptional.

More 2019 Outfest films reviewed...

dir Rhys Ernst
19/US ***.

dir Lucio Castro
19/Arg ****

dir Bany Khoshnoudi
18/Mex ***.

dir Doug Spearman
19/US ***

dir Li Cheng
18/Gua ****

dir Tomer Heymann
18/Isr ***.

dir Gregor Schmidinger
19/Aut ****.

dir Cedric le Gallo, Maxime Govare
18/Fr ***.

dir Hari Sama
19/Mex ****

dir Rodrigo Bellott
19/US ****.

dir Chanya Button
18/Ire **.

NB. I'll keep adding titles here as I see the films.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Critical Week: Vikings and knights

It seems obvious that the Lego's main rival would want its own movie, and there was a press screening this week of Playmobil: The Movie. It's not as sharp or smart as The Lego Movie, but it has a frantic energy that might keep kids entertained. Aside from wacky voice work from the likes of Daniel Radcliffe and Adam Lambert there's not much here for adults. A much bigger family film opens this week, of course. Disney's remake of its classic The Lion King, was screened to the press a bit late in the day. The state-of-the-art animation is staggering, and the story is well-told. Although the emotional impact feels oddly muted compared to the more expressive original.

Off the beaten path, Willem Dafoe stars in the artful Opus Zero, a complex drama that challenges the audience with its exploration of the creative process. Chain of Death is a slow-burning psychological thriller about a guy (John Patrick Amedori) caught up in a tangled web of murder/suicide for no logical reason. My Friend the Polish Girl is an offbeat British drama shot as a doc gone wrong. It's clever and darkly provocative. And the French drama Hidden Kisses is a strikingly well-told story that explores the nature and effects of homophobia in a society that refuses to educate its children. Powerfully timely and deeply moving.

This coming week's movies include the all-star British comedy spoof Horrible Histories: The Movie - Rotten Romans, Sienna Miller in American Woman and the French WWII thriller Transit. I also have films to watch that are part of OutFest in Los Angeles, including Cubby, Seahorse, Label Me and Sell By.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Critical Week: Who you gonna call?

It's been a strange summer at the cinema, without a break-out hit. Disney and Marvel continue to rake up most of the box office cash, but nothing particularly outstanding has emerged quite yet. Meanwhile, it's been another eclectic week at the movies for me. Jim Jarmusch's wry zombie thriller The Dead Don't Die has his usual all-star cast, including Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny and Bill Murray (above), plus a particularly hilarious Tilda Swinton. It's charming, dryly funny and too sardonic for mainstream audiences. And then there's the studio action-comedy Stuber, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista, who provide some charisma to help paper over the fact that the movie isn't particularly funny or thrilling.

Gurinder Chadha is back with her British feel-good drama Blinded by the Light, a scrappy but likeable movie set in the late-80s with a Bruce Springsteen song score. Summer Night is an equally loose American comedy-drama about a small townful of entangled characters. Even more independent, the twisty British-Dutch thriller AMS Secrets heavily channels Hitchcock's Psycho in its luridly stylised plot. From Mexico, Always Say Yes is an inventive odyssey about a young country boy in the big city. It's seriously explicit, but also insightful and disarmingly sweet. There was also the shorts collection The Male Gaze: The Heat of the Night, featuring six rather dark dramas about masculine sexuality from around the world. And I had a chance to see one of my all-time Top 5 films on the big screen in a new edit. Every edit of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now has been a masterpiece, and he says that this summer's pristinely digitised release is his "Final Cut".

Coming up this next week, we have Disney's remake of The Lion King, the animated adventure Playmobil: The Movie, Willem Dafoe in Opus Zero, the British immigrant drama My Friend the Polish Girl, the Mexican drama The Chambermaid, and the French drama Hidden Kisses.