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.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Critical Week: Land of the midnight sun

This week's most anticipated screening was for Midsommar, the new sun-drenched horror from Ari Aster (Hereditary). And it certainly didn't disappoint: terrifying on several layers, Aster gleefully torments the audience without resorting to cliches. And the cast is simply awesome, including Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter. Sylvester Stallone was back for Escape Plan: The Extractors [aka Escape Plan 3], which is more like another Rambo movie than part of this series. Yes, it's rather simplistic, relegating his returning costars (Dave Bautista, Curtis Jackson) to much smaller roles. And the true adventure/tragedy Kursk: The Last Mission also has an all-star cast, including Colin Firth, Matthias Schoenaerts and Max Von Sydow, but it leaves the Russian nature of the story aside for a Euro-pudding production that never quite feels real.

Less starry films included Brittany Runs a Marathon, a Sundance winner featuring Jillian Bell as a woman trying to get her life into shape. Although the plot plays to the usual structure, the film is very, very funny and then engagingly emotional. Germany's stunning Oscar-nominated epic drama Never Look Away is the complex, involving story of an artist who feels the impact of world events in his work. And the documentary/essay Varda by Agnes is a final gem from the masterful Agnes Varda as she traces her career, inspiration and motivation. It should be essential viewing in all film schools. There was also this documentary, which landed in cinemas last Friday...

Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows
dir-scr Richard Kovitch
with Penny Slinger, Peter Whitehead, Susanka Fraey, Jack Bond, Michael Bracewell, Jane & Louise Wilson, Antony Penrose, Maxa Zoller
release UK 28.Jun.19 • 17/UK 1h38 ***.

A fascinating trip into London's art world in the 1960s and 1970s, this documentary explores Penny Slinger's haunting, surreal work: paintings, photos, collages, sculptures, performance and film. It's packed with her imagery, plus revealing interviews with her, her collaborators, friends and experts. Slinger's work is deliberately provocative, as she rejects the status quo and sets out to shock people with her statements about how women are seen in society. "I'm not necessarily feminist," she says, "but I hope I've been helpful in liberating the feminine." Documentary filmmaker Richard Kovitch traces her life and career chronologically, from painting as a child to attending art school in 1960s London, covering her striking projects over the years, all of which seem far ahead of her time. From the start, she played with faces and bodies in her work, creating a boldly female punk sensibility.

While it may feel a little dry, this doc is loaded with her powerful images, extensive footage from her rare films and clips of her art shows. And everything is accompanied with personal comments from Slinger, as well as collaborative artists like Fraey and filmmakers Whitehead and Bond. It's an eye-catching film, assembled with a reverence to her distinctive style, packed with intriguing observations about both Slinger and the art world in general, including what it says about culture at large. As Slinger says, life itself is a work of art, and her pieces are just an emblem of that. So it's intriguing how in the 1980s, disillusioned with how art had become too proscriptive and academic, she chose to disappear from the public eye. Her art continues to be exhibited, as fresh and resonant as ever. And she continues to evolve as a person engaged to the world around her.

Coming up this next week, we have Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista in the buddy action comedy Stuber, Jim Jarmusch's star-packed zombie romp The Dead Don't Die, Gurinder Chadha's Springsteen-themed musical Blinded by the Light, the ensemble comedy Summer Night, the shorts collection The Heat of the Night, and Coppola's so-called "final cut" of Apocalypse Now, a movie I never miss a chance to watch on a big screen.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Screen: Summer TV Roundup

There's more and more television to watch, with so many outlets starting new shows and miniseries all year-round rather than the old-style seasonal system. I can't keep up with everything, but I do alright, watching episodes in between movies and writing deadlines to clear my head. It's been a busy spring, and the summer is already going full-pelt...


Years and Years
One of those shows that gets deep under the skin, this family drama slides quickly from the present into the near future, then skips ahead by a year or so in each episode. This makes its plotlines feel remarkably urgent, because it looks like this is the direction the world is heading: straight into dystopia! Comments about what's to come are both shockingly big and subtly clever, and what makes the show even more involving is the powerhouse cast, including Anne Reid (whose final-episode rant has rightfully gone viral), Emma Thompson, Russell Tovey, Rory Kinnear and Jessica Hynes. Some of the sci-fi excesses feel a bit nutty, but most are underplayed. While the political angles relating to immigration, health and economics hit close to home, the family's dynamic is hugely engaging. Essential.

The quality of this production is staggering, as it recreates the look and feel of the 1980s Soviet Union with unnerving precision and an inventive narrative approach. This is simply stunning television, a harrowing re-creation of the notorious meltdown and its aftermath, seen through the eyes of a few key people. The combination between personal stories, scientific expertise and political control is strikingly well-balanced. It's rare to see a show that can seem so effortless in its ability to shift between terror, wrenching emotion, dark provocation and outright rage. By the end, we feel like we have lived through it with these people, played with awards-worthy precision by the gifted likes of Jared Harris, Jessie Buckley, Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson. And the final message about the power of the truth is urgent.

Good Omens
Frankly, this is what I was hoping for from American Gods, which turned out to be far too pleased with itself to be watchable. By contrast, this is a lively, witty, smart pastiche about gods and monsters and the end of days. Michael Sheen and David Tennant are hilarious as an angel and demon who become friends over the millennia and team up to stop the 11-year-old Antichrist (Sam Taylor Buck) from triggering Armageddon. Jaunty and clever, the show is skilfully assembled with a fabulous starry supporting cast (Jon Hamm, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, Jack Whitehall and Frances McDormand as the voice of God), expert sets and costumes, and a wryly hilarious and gripping story adapted from the acclaimed Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett novel.

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams are simply superb in this series about the professional and personal partnership between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Starting in 1968, the show follows their work and tumultuous marriage through a series of films and stage projects. It's astutely well-written and directed with lots of style, including a constant string of lively musical dance numbers. Although the attempt to dramatise Fosse's life as a surreal musical was better done by the man himself in All That Jazz. Still, this is a terrific romp through the lives of this iconic power couple, reminding us why their work is so indelible.

Dead to Me
This offbeat comedy-drama centres on an unlikely friendship between two very different women (the terrific Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini) who meet in a bereavement group. The writers cleverly add plot twists and cliffhangers to continually switch-up the story, which helps the show work on a variety of levels: an unexpected friendship, an exploration of grief, a struggle to deal with the truth, a blackly creepy caper comedy. Some of the elements work better than others, but the core show is both entertaining and provocative.

Bless This Mess
This snappy sitcom from the sharp mind of Lake Bell follows a couple (Bell and Dax Shepard) as they quit their New York jobs and move a Nebraska farm they've inherited. They know nothing about farming, and the house needs a lot of work, but they've had it with the city and need a change. Although the over-friendly neighbours and the man (Ed Begley Jr) living in the barn are a whole other challenge. As is the wise shop owner/sheriff (Pam Grier) The characters are colourful and engaging, and the developing story is hilarious. Just as importantly, there are superb depths to these people and their situation. Although the silly tone can get a little grating.

Ryan O'Connell created, wrote and stars in this witty, sharply observed series about a gay 28-year-old trying to navigate adult life in the context of his cerebral palsy. Over eight 15-minute episodes, O'Connell finds both hilarious moments of comedy and some darkly touching emotions as his character tries to put his condition in the background. He's a remarkably complex young man, not always doing the right thing, but remaining likeable as he struggles with his self-image. The surrounding characters are a bit more cartoonish, but are also deeply engaging, adding some deep meaning to the show's themes. A remarkable achievement that deserves more episodes.

I Think You Should Leave
Tim Robinson's sketch comedy show is not only sharply well-produced with an array of superb guest stars, it also pushes humour far beyond the usual limits. Each little scenario begins as a fairly standard comedy bit, then twists into surreal directions that become absurdly funny and more than a little surreal, sometimes veering closer to horror. Binge-watching this first season is almost too easy, as the episodes race by, making us laugh while tweaking us with unexpected provocative barbs, leaving us wanting a lot more.


Game of Thrones:
series 8
Kicking off with a bang, these final six epic episodes shift back and forth between churning build-up and mad action intensity. From the whoosh of Jon Snow's first dragon ride to the knighting of Brienne to Arya's stunning pounce. The Night King dominated the first three episodes, then we moved on to Cersei and her stubbornly violent thirst for power. There are a staggering number of very pointed scenes in which the characters clear the slates between them (and quite a few of the old faithful are killed off horribly). And it couldn't help but be a bit anti-climactic with so many characters and so much going on. But it's the offhanded moments that are the most enjoyable, packed with character-based wit and emotion that's expertly played by Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Maisie Williams, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Gwendoline Christie, to name a few. 

Jane the Virgin: series 5
It's remarkable that this series has maintained its high quality right to the very end, mixing smart wit and a knowing pastiche of telenovelas with a bunch of superbly engaging characters who will really be missed. The lively cultural mix has been even more pronounced this year, even as the soapy antics spiralled in outlandish directions that were alternatively hilarious and emotive. Gina Rodriguez is such a great anchor to the chaos, even managing to sell the ludicrous return of her dead husband (Brett Dier) to again mess up her relationship with baby daddy Rafael (Justin Baldoni). There is little doubt how this will end for each character, but the writers have plenty of surprises up their sleeves.

Veep: series 7
The writing never flagged with this series, even as the overall plot kind of went in circles ever since Julia Louis-Dreyfus' indelible Selena Meyer stopped actually being vice president. Where the writers have taken this show has been eerily prescient, remaining utterly hilarious even as it can never match the craziness of the real political world. So in this series, set on the primary campaign trail, they double and even triple down on the mayhem, almost daring America to keep up. It's so fast that you can barely blink while watching it. And it would be even funnier if it didn't feel so accurate.

The Big Bang Theory: series 12
What is there to say about this show after all these years, other than that it has gone out at the peak of its powers. Actually, you could argue that once these nerds began getting married, the premise was badly compromised. But the actors and writers have sustained the show with warmth and infectious humour, mainly because the characters are so indelible. I've watched this show sporadically from the start, usually on airplanes, so I've only been loosely keeping track of it over the years. But the final episodes were a lot of fun. 


Killing Eve: series 2
Picking up just seconds after the first season ended, these new shows rarely pause for breath. Indeed, Sandra Oh's Eve seems unable to get her feet back under her after everything she has learned lately. The connection between her and Jodie Comer's astonishingly complex Villanelle is wonderfully surprising and more than a little disturbing. It's rare for a series to be able to play with such hideous violence in a way that's witty and pointed, never losing sight of the tragedy. The twists and turns of the plot are often exhilarating, mainly because the characters are so realistic that we never know what appalling thing they might do next. And the season cliffhanger was perfect.

Santa Clarita Diet: series 3
This breezy, nutty little show is the perfect antidote to over-serious, too-trendy dramas. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant are engagingly ridiculous in the central roles as a sparky, over-achieving zombie and her up-for-it husband. And Liv Hewson came into her own this season as their feisty daughter, whose awkward connection with a neighbour boy (Skyler Gisondo) took some nice turns. Superb costars this year include Jonathan Slavin as their over-eager undead pal and Linda Lavin as a reborn pensioner. The Knights of Serbia subplot is rather corny, but adds some witty gags along the way. Bring on the fourth and final season.

True Detective: series 3
After the somewhat iffy second season, showrunner Nic Pizzolatto took a long break, regrouped and found another A-list cast for an epic detective drama. This one has strong echoes of the real-life West Memphis case, with significant differences, and its snaky plot is intriguing. But jumping around between three periods over some 40 years eliminates most of the mystery and diminishes the narrative drive with sheer confusion (the only way to know where you are is to look at the haircuts). Mahershala Ali is of course awesome, and so are Carmen Ejogo and Stephen Dorff, all in tricky, messy roles that hold the attention even if the central case doesn't.

Victoria: series 3
Now easily in its own groove, this semi-historical series has toned down its more soapy influences. Although there's still a strong whiff of Downton Abby around this take on the reign of Queen Victoria. Jenna Coleman has settled into her role as the strong-willed monarch, now in a tug-of-war for control with her frustrated husband Prince Albert (Tom Hughes). Political conflict comes largely from Lord Palmerston (Laurence Fox). And the kids are becoming characters now, although Victoria seems to give birth to another child every five episodes. Side characters have the obvious secret romances, mini-scandals and so forth. It feels somewhat toothless and generic, but it's entertaining and worth sticking with.

Tales of the City: series 4
The previous seasons of this Armistead Maupin-based series were in 1993, 1998 and 2001. And it's remarkable that this new iteration maintains the same mix of humour, emotion and soap-style subplots. Many of the original cast members continue in their roles, including Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis and Paul Gross, with welcome additions Ellen Page, Murray Bartlett and Zosia Mamet. The various plotlines are funny and intriguing, and refreshingly awkward as well. Like the earlier series, the storylines feel distracting from the much more interesting character comedy and drama. This one involves blackmail and revenge, or something. A bit more personal complexity would have made this even better. 

Mom: series 6
This show may be spinning its wheels - the characters haven't really gone anywhere this season. But it's sure been a lot of fun to watch them, especially led by the formidable Allison Janney, whose impeccable comic timing is beautifully matched by the loveable Anna Faris. This is a rare sitcom in which riotously funny people cope with darkly serious issues, and it's great that the showrunners continue to find ways of laughing at things most people would consider resolutely unfunny. Here, they are hilarious, with a meaningful kick.

Modern Family: series 10
The characters in this show continue to be some of the most consistently funny people on television, and it's been impressive to watch the writers let them grow up organically over a decade, up until the moment when yet another generation emerged into this family. The writing is still unusually sharp, mixing slapstick with more intelligent gags and underlying emotion. There have been some hit-and-miss moments in the past few years, so it's probably time to retire these characters. Next season is set to be the last, and they will be missed.


The Twilight Zone: Jordan Peele relaunched this vintage anthology series with a certain amount of style. Production values are high, and the casting is cool, with actors who can bring the needed nuance to each scene. So it's frustrating that the scripts aren't up to par, lacking both thematic depth and moral complexity. 

The Act: Based on a true crime story, this disturbing series traces a grisly murder in extended flashback over four years. At the centre are two idiosyncratic performances by Patricia Arquette and Joey King, but their relationship is too obvious. And the bizarre plot structure makes it difficult to care how it arrives at the predicted ending.

NOW WATCHING: Euphoria, Catch-22, The Hot Zone, The Name of the Rose, Pose (series 2), Big Little Lies (2), The OA (2), The Handmaid's Tale (3), Black Mirror (5), Younger (6).

COMING SOON:  The Loudest Voice, The Politician, The End of the F***ing World (2), Lodge 49 (2), Stranger Things (3), The Crown (3), Insecure (4).

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Critical Week: In stealth mode

This week's blockbuster press screening was for Spider-Man: Far From Home, a refreshingly enjoyable blockbuster starring the hugely engaging Tom Holland. It continually undermines the usual overserious nonsense of superhero movies, and is relentlessly good fun. Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult star in the stylish historical drama The Current War, as Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla, respectively. It's a riveting story, nicely told. Alicia Vikander and Eva Green play sisters in Euphoria, a drama about mortality that's beautifully shot and acted, but eerily elusive. And nearly 25 years after Braveheart, Angus Madfadyen returns to the role of Robert the Bruce, a solidly produced film from a choppy script. And Peter Strickland's In Fabric is an enjoyably bonkers stylised horror movie about a murderous dress.

From abroad, we had The Shiny Shrimps, a French comedy drama based on the true story of a gay water polo team. It's funny and involving, but ultimately uneven. Also from France, Amin is an edgy immigration drama that's very sharply observed. From Mexico, Fireflies also centres on immigrants, this time an Iranian in Veracruz, and his story is strongly moving. From India, Photograph is a beautifully involving love story with some unexpected touches. From Canada, the provocative, engaging Roobha centres on an offbeat relationship between a middle-aged married man and a young trans woman. And there were two from Bangladesh: Saturday Afternoon is a tense and sharply pointed one-take thriller set during a terrorist standoff, while Sincerely Yours, Dhaka is a collection of seven superbly well-made shorts exploring pungent issues that resonate strongly.

I also caught a few documentaries. Memory is especially gripping for film fans, as it traces the origins of Alien, which was released 40 years ago. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a fascinating bio-doc about Leonard Cohen centring on his relationship with his muse Marianne Ihlen, with filmmaker Nick Broomfield adding himself into the story as usual. Political activists, not devil-worshippers, are the focus of Hail Satan, a witty doc about how the Satanic Temple exists mainly to provoke and challenge pompous injustice. And the warm, personal Southern Pride follows two bar owners in Mississippi as they try to celebrate LGBTQ culture.

Coming up over the next week, we have Florence Pugh in the horror thriller Midsommar, Colin Firth in Kursk: The Last Mission, Sylvester Stallone back for Escape Plan: The Extractors, the Sundance-winning comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon, the French coming-of-age drama Love Blooms, and the doc Varda by Agnes.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Stage: Head on a platter

conceived, directed, choreographed by Carmine De Amicis, Harriet Waghorn
music Phillip O'Meara
with Carmine De Amicis, Fabio Dolce, Harriet Waghorn, Jade Woodhouse, Mikey Sluman, Victoria Marsh
Cockpit Theatre, London, 23.Jun.19 • National Tour, 24.May-30.Jun.19

Originally published in 1891, Oscar Wilde's play Salomé is based on the biblical account of King Herod, his step-daughter Salomé and their fateful encounter with the Jewish prophet Jokanaan, aka John the Baptist. Edifice Dance Theatre strips this back to its essentials as a collision between divinity, wealth and power. It's a strikingly powerful piece of work, beautifully staged and performed with a riveting sense of passion, energy and urgency.

Performed in the round on a stage strewn with mannequin parts around a central table, Jokanaan (De Amicis) deftly dances without hitting any of the pieces, expressing pure power and grace. He's followed by the increasingly annoyed Herod (Dolce), who is accompanied by his own three-piece orchestra (Woodhouse, Sluman, Marsh) as he dances stumbling through the set, arresting Johanaan like a jealous fanboy. Enter the spoiled princess Salomé (Waghorn), fending off the handsy admiration of her step-father. She's far more interested in the prisoner. But when he rebuffs her kiss, she turns back to Herod, agreeing to perform a dance for him if he grants her one grisly wish.

The production is deceptively simple, with a pulsing combination of light and music that focusses all of the attention on these three gifted dancers. Dolce has a smirking presence as the man who thinks he has all of the power, doing his little jazz moves and ordering people around. By contrast, De Amicis uses long lines and achingly languid shapes to convey Jakonaan's effortless connection with the divine. Between them, Waghorn brings astonishing strength, a forceful woman who knows what she wants and has every intention of getting it one way or another. The physicality between them is staggering, especially in the final sequence.

Yes, the way this story is told offers strong echoes of the Time's Up movement, plus an underlying comment on how the people who hold positions of power are often in it for what they can get rather than what they can offer. Watching the balance shift between these three people is riveting, especially at such close quarters with the performers interacting with the audience (Waghorn handed me her mask, and I felt a spray of sweat at one point). This is a fiercely inventive retelling of an iconic story that deserves to run and run.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Short Cuts: Death, love and rehab

Here are two Netflix films I caught up with this week, plus another film that hasn't had a UK release but is already streaming from the US...

Murder Mystery
dir Kyle Newacheck; scr James Vanderbilt
with Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Luke Evans, Terence Stamp, Dany Boon,Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, Luis Gerardo Mendez, David Walliams
19/US Netflix 1h37 **.

Let's be honest: you know you're in trouble when they can't even be bothered to give a movie a title. A bit of breezy entertainment, this energetic comedy is relentlessly dopey, but will just about do the trick when you want no mental stimulation whatsoever. It's about New York cop Nick (Sandler), who takes his frustrated wife Audrey (Aniston) on the European honeymoon he promised her 15 years ago, mainly to cover his continuing failure to pass his detective exam. On the plane she meets Viscount Charles (Evans), who invites them to Monaco for a weekend on a palatial yacht owned by his billionaire Uncle Malcolm (Stamp). The passengers are a who's who of characters from one of Audrey's mystery novels, so when Malcolm is stabbed with the bejewelled family dagger just before signing his new will, Nick steps in to help solve the crime. Of course, he immediately becomes the prime suspect.

The script plays with the stereotypes and genre cliches as the body count grows and the amusingly blustery Inspector Delacroix (Boon) takes the case. From here the writer and director lazily indulge in trite jokes, never creating a coherent plot or characters. Action moments are clumsy, and much of the humour falls flat. But there are witty gags here and there leading to the usual closed-room solution, which of course is followed by twists, turns and some random madcap action amid picturesque scenery. For an Adam Sandler comedy, this means that it's far above average. But by any other measure, this is a stumbling mess of a movie. Even so, it fills the time amiably enough. Aniston invests fully into the role with her enjoyably shrill comical energy. Her chemistry with Sandler even makes him seem almost funny.

Always Be My Maybe
dir Nahnatchka Khan
scr Randall Park, Ali Wong, Michael Golamco
with Ali Wong, Randall Park, James Saito, Michelle Buteau, Vivian Bang, Keanu Reeves, Daniel Dae Kim, Karan Soni, Charlyne Yi, Susan Park
19/US 1h41 ***.

This romantic comedy has a silly tone that makes it likeable, finding realistic edges to the characters that make them deeply engaging. It's thoroughly obvious where the film is heading, but the characters and story are both witty and involving, so it's never easy to predict how any scene is going to unravel. Sasha and Marcus (Wong and Park) are best buddies from childhood, then share a romantic moment in their teens, which leaves their friendship in an awkward place. Now in Los Angeles, Sasha is a celebrity chef with a hot restauranteur fiance (Kim), but he has just taken an extended job in India. So Sasha decides to start over as she goes to San Francisco to open a new branch. She soon runs into Marcus, who's living at home, working with his dad (Saito) and playing in an indie band. He also has a crazy girlfriend, Jenny (Bang). But Sasha and Marcus begin rekindling their friendship, and they know each other too well to let each other get away with any rubbish.

The dialog is snappy, often with an improvisational feel to it. Park and Wong have terrific chemistry, bouncing off each other with jaggedly perfect timing. Marcus' band plays smart-alecky pop-rap novelty songs that you'll want to download immediately. And there are zinger one-liners scattered through the script for each of the side characters ("I'm an LGBTQIA ally, so thank you for your service," says Soni, as Marcus' bandmate, to Buteau, as Sacha's lesbian assistant). Keanu Reeves' sequence, in which he plays himself as Sasha's new boyfriend, is simply hilarious, as he unapologetically pokes fun at the image people have of him. Thankfully, along with some pointed pastiche about new cuisine, the film also dips a little deeper into celebrity culture as the story develops. It's never provocative or surprising, but it's thoroughly enjoyable, keeping the audience laughing and sighing right to the end. And there are moments that make us hungry too.

The Beach Bum
dir-scr Harmony Korine
with Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jonah Hill, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, Jimmy Buffett
19/US 1h35 **.

Matthew McConaughey is typecast as a loose-living stoner in this comedy by anarchic filmmaker Harmony Korine. He plays Moondog, a worry-free guy in Key West whose life is a series of hedonistic antics. Then he's called back to Miami to help his equally free-spirited wife Minnie (Fisher) with their 22-year-old daughter's (Owen) wedding. "I forgot how rich we were," Moondog says when he returns to their bayside mansion. His literary agent (Hill) berates him for throwing away his talent. So after a run-in with the law, Moondog checks into a year of court-ordered rehab, hoping he'll find the clarity to finally write his book. There he meets Flicker (Efron), a vaper who's equally irresponsible, so they escape and go on a crime spree.

Unsurprisingly, the film looks gorgeous, thanks to Benoit Debie's deep-hued cinematography, and it's accompanied by a superb collection of 1970s songs. Even so, the film feels like it was made in a marijuana-fuelled haze, full of wacky slapstick and broadly overplayed nuttiness, punctuated by McConaughey's piercing cackle. The film is mainly assembled from disconnected scenes of Moondog's aimless carousing and partying. Stinking rich, he hasn't a care in the world, so he never makes much sense. The open relationship between Moondog and Minnie is rather sweet, so a moment when the perpetually inebriated Moondog seems to feel a pang of jealousy feels downright false. Everyone talks about how his genius outweighs his bad behaviour, but there's little evidence of that. His best friends are his wife's lover (a mellow Snoop Dogg) and a disastrous dolphin tour guide (Lawrence). But aside from his general joie de vivre, there's nothing likeable about Moondog. So it's very difficult to celebrate him as a poetic hero rather than just a rich jerk who has had far more luck than he deserves. But then perhaps that's the vaguely political point Korine is making with this unexpectedly toothless romp.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Critical week: He's behind you!

It's been a busy week catching up with movies here in London. The biggest films were entries in decades-old franchises. Child's Play is a reboot, rather than sequel, updated to the artificial-intelligence era and starring Aubrey Plaza. Toy Story 4 tells another superbly engaging story, again bringing these indelible characters together with action and emotion. And Men in Black International attempts a fresh turn in the saga, with younger stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, rather too much digital nuttiness and an only OK plot.

Three small-screen movies will be covered in another blog entry: Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler reunite for the dopey Europe-set comedy whodunit Murder Mystery, Randall Park and Ali Wong star in the snappy-silly rom-com Always Be My Maybe, and Matthew McConaughey plays to type as the stoner title character in the somewhat unfocussed comedy The Beach Bum (out this week on VOD).

As for more arthouse fare, there was Joanna Hogg's new film The Souvenir, another exploration of British upper-class repression, starring Tilda Swinton and her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, plus Tom Burke. All are excellent, and the film is deeply chilling. Swinging Safari is a wild and woolly Aussie 1970s-set comedy starring Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue and Radha Mitchell. It's a bit over-the-top and chaotic. The American-set British thriller Division 19 is set in a near-future society in which privacy is outlawed. It looks great but makes little sense. From South Africa, the musical Kanarie is a powerful exploration of bigotry and self-acceptance, as a young man goes through his mandatory military service as a member of a choir. From India, Unsaid is a dark drama about deep family secrets, powerfully well played. And the British documentary Are You Proud explores the Pride movement with an intriguingly critical eye.

Coming up this next week, we have Benedict Cumberbatch in The Current War, Alicia Vikander in Euphoria, Angus Macfadyen in Robert the Bruce, the Oscar-nominated drama Never Look Away, the French water polo comedy The Shiny Shrimps, the Indian drama Roobha, and the doc Southern Pride, among others....

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Critical Week: I need a place to hide away

I landed back in London last weekend and dove back into the thick of it, having missed several press screenings while I was travelling over the past few weeks. One of this summer's higher profile films, Danny Boyle's rom-com Yesterday has a simple premise (what if everyone forgot about the Beatles except for one guy - played by Himesh Patel, above with James Corden) and plays out as a loving ode to the greatest pop music of all time. It's also funny and romantic. On the plane, I caught up with Sebastian Lelio's Gloria Bell, his own sparky English-language remake starring the fabulous Julianne Moore as a rather too-glamorous middle-aged woman grappling with life, love and independence.

Off the beaten track, Being Frank is a quirky comedy starring Jim Gaffigan as a man whose teen son discovers he has two families. Surprisingly, he remains likeable through it all. Deep Murder is a pastiche whodunit set within a porn movie. It's very funny, nasty and not remotely sexy. The British independent film Bait is an earthy drama about fisherman clashing with tourists, shot gorgeously on grainy 16mm black and white film. A Season in France is a dark and involving French drama about asylum seekers that maintains a hopeful tone even when things get rather hopeless. And Bulbul Can Sing is a strikingly naturalistic drama from India about three young teens trying to be themselves in a constrictive rural setting.

Coming up, I have a very late catch-up with Men in Black: International, which opens tomorrow. It'll be a busy week, as I'm also seeing Toy Story 4, Aubrey Plaza in the reboot Child's Play, the Aussie comedy Swinging Safari with Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue, Joanna Hogg's acclaimed The Souvenir, dystopian British drama Division 19, the South African musical Kanarie, the refugee drama Amin, Asaf Kapadia's documentary Diego Maradona and the Pride-themed doc Are You Proud?

Friday, 7 June 2019

Critical Week: Feel the roar

I've hit the cinemas in California this week trying to catch up on press screenings I missed while away from London. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a deeply unsatisfying follow-up to Gareth Edwards' 2014 reboot. Millie Bobby Brown (above) is terrific in the best role, but the script is choppy and simplistic. The effects are also rather murky, as they are in Dark Phoenix, the fourth in the X-Men First Class cycle. It feels oddly melodramatic, with a superb cast that livens up a dull script that never quite connects the dots. By contrast, Brightburn is another superhero genre twist from James Gunn (see also The Specials and Super). It's a rare horror movie that's scary and involving, because it takes time to build the characters and situations. And these two documentaries are released this week...

The Lavender Scare
dir Josh Howard; with David Johnson, Lillian Faderman, John D'Emilio, Frank Kameny, Jamie Shoemaker
voices Glenn Close, David Hyde Pierce, Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, TR Knight
release US 7.Jun.19 • 17/US 1h17 ****

After taking office in 1954, President Eisenhower ordered the firing of all homosexuals working for the government. The worry was that they could be seduced by Russian spies, even though there wasn't a single documented case of this happening. FBI agents aggressively uprooted every aspect of a suspected gay employee's life in invasive investigations, often on the basis of one informant. The accused had no recourse: they were threatened and then fired as "undesirable" by the tens of thousands, their careers ended, often driven to suicide. All of this came as a shock, as society before this had been much more open and accepting. The film carefully traces how this came about, a perfect storm combining McCarthy's communist witchhunt and a fear of homosexuality sparked by Kinsey's report. Director Howard uses a snappy combination of expert interviews, firsthand accounts and archival material. This includes a number of strikingly involving personal stories, including Frank Kameny, the first person who didn't go quietly after he was fired. He formed an activist society in the early 1960s, which led to a series of protests against discrimination and abuse, including the Stonewall riots at the end of the decade. This continued into the 1990s, when Kameny finally saw President Clinton overturn Eisenhower's law. This is a remarkably important documentary, covering an angle of the civil rights movement that is rarely explored with such honesty. The intimate approach, accompanied by a terrific range of archival material, makes it deeply involving and often powerfully moving. It almost ends on a note of triumph, as if all of the nastiness is in the past, which already feels eerily optimistic and perhaps a bit naive in the face of renewed bigotry and persecution around the world. But this also reminds us that there will always be people willing to stand up for what's right.

This One’s for the Ladies
dir Gene Graham; prd Gene Graham, Paul Rowley
with Momma Joe, Raw Dog, Tygar, Fever, Blaze, Satan, Mr Capable, Young Rider, Poundcake, C-Pudding
release US 7.Jun.19 • 18/US 1h23 ***.

There's an intriguing depth to this documentary, which tackles some big issues using firsthand commentary rather than research or expert opinions. The topic is the urban struggle, encompassing racial injustice and poverty, and the filmmakers simply observe people who speak about an unexpected way they've found to escape the cycle of criminality. The setting is Newark, where beefy black men (and one muscled woman) strip down to a, well, single sock for lively audiences. Filmmaker Graham interviews several members of the New Jersey Nasty Boyz, as well as their loyal fans and family members. They speak a lot about their shared childhoods in the projects and their respect for the community, which is expressed through charity work and fundraising shows. They avoided a life of crime by staying in education and relying on their faith and close relationships, tapping into their African tribal roots as they do erotic dance. The film takes a simple, unfussy approach, letting the sassy attitudes emerge in both captured conversations and sweaty, lusty dance routines. "It's not about sex," says Momma Joe, whose sons Raw Dog and Tygar perform as a double act. "It's the illusion of having sex!" When the filmmakers are focussing on the dancers and their work, the energy is riveting. So the film kind of drags when it drifts gently into the larger themes. But the stories these people tell are powerful, as is the insight they can offer into a society that never gave them a chance due to inadequate schools and below-poverty wages. No wonder it's so difficult to avoid crime. And no wonder stripping offers both the dancers and the audience members an escape, a chance to control their fates. "It's therapy," one guy says. "It's our way out."

I'm heading back to London this weekend, so will be in catch-up mode on films opening over the next few weeks. I have Julianne Moore's Gloria Bell to watch on the plane. And back in London, my diary over the next week includes Danny Boyle's musical Yesterday, the reboot Men In Black International, the indie British drama Bait, and the documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love...

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Critical Week: I'm tired

I'm on a family weekend in the California desert, and we watched a time-honoured favourite together: Mel Brooks' 1975 classic Blazing Saddles, starring the iconic Madeline Kahn, Gene Wilder, Cleavon Little and Harvey Korman. Its rhythms are rather dated for today's rapid-fire comical style, and a lot of the film is deeply uncorrect politically, but I still adore its absurd sense of humour, raucous pastiche and some unforgettable gags. We also took a trip to the local cinema to see Rocketman, the Elton John biopic that's rendered as a musical fantasy. It's surprisingly dark at times, cleverly using the iconic songs out of sequence to generate strong emotional kicks here and there. And Taron Egerton is superb in the lead role.

There are also other films out this week in the US that I want to see, including Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Brightburn, Ma, plus X-Men Dark Phoenix next week, and perhaps I can catch Gloria Bell out on home entertainment release in North America (it opens in UK cinemas next week). It just depends when I can sneak out to a cinema...

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Critical Week: Furry heroes

I caught up with the month's two big kids' movies this past week, before leaving London. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is as frantic as the first film, if not more so with its three parallel plot strands. So it never settles down long enough to make the characters very endearing. But it is funny. And Guy Ritchie's live-action Aladdin remake is a surprisingly childish movie - goofy and energetic. But it's also quite enjoyably camp, with a sweet and pointed romance at the centre. And Will Smith puts his own distinctive spin on the Genie, thankfully.

Haven't managed to catch any other films, but I did watch lots of TV on the long flight, including the final episode of Game of Thrones (it was fine, but not the shocking spectacle the series deserved) and a proper binge of The OA (super-addictive, and I'm still a season behind).

I'm travelling west for the next couple of weeks, visiting family in Los Angeles and friends in Maui - not on glamorous movie business, but I hope to catch up with a few films that are opening while I'm out there, starting with Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir, James Gunn's Brightburn and the Elton John biopic Rocketman, which screened to press in London just after I flew out. Although I have other things on my mind aside from movies, of course...

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Critical Week: Locker talk

Amid sunny weather in London, while many critics decamp to Cannes for 10 days of frantic festival action, there has been the usual eclectic collection of press screenings. Olivia Wilde steps behind the camera to direct the hugely entertaining teen comedy Booksmart, as raucous as any high school comedy and comes from a refreshingly female perspective. For contrast, Keanu Reeves is back in killing mode for John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, which starts off with a series of breathtakingly inventive action sequences before settling in for a relatively rote final act.

The week's indie was Funny Story, a comedy with a very dark undercurrent, beautifully played and bravely written. The foreign film was Portugal's frothy ambrosia Diamantino, a surreal and pointed but surprisingly sweet satire of politics and celebrity culture. And there were three docs: Apollo 11 is a gripping archival film with no present-day material, telling the story of the first man on the moon with pristine film footage and a strikingly intimate perspective. From the brilliant mind of Werner Herzog comes Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, which cleverly traces the life of the late writer on an unusual trek through history and geography. And the finely assembled The Lavender Scare recounts a little-known spin-off of the McCarthy hearings, as government workers were hunted down and ruined for being gay from the early 1950s until the law was repealed in the 1990s.

I have two more screenings before I leave London for a couple of weeks: Will Smith in Disney's live-action Aladdin remake and the animated sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2. There may be some films I can catch up with while I'm in the US, not to mention whatever might be on the plane. I'll be updating the blog along the way...

Monday, 13 May 2019

Short Cuts: Wine, worlds and magic

Here are shorter reviews of three films I caught online over the past few days...

Wine Country
dir Amy Poehler; scr Liz Cackowski, Emily Spivey
with Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell, Emily Spivey, Tina Fey, Maya Erskine, Cherry Jones, Jason Schwartzman
19/US Netflix 1h43 ***

Amy Poehler gathers her buddies together for this comedy about a group of six women who travel to Napa Valley to celebrate a 50th birthday. Friends for more than two decades, they rent a big house with bad wifi from a manly landlady (Fey) and follow an elaborate schedule planned by Abby (Poehler). The house comes with a sensitive chef/guide (Schwartzman), who adds some welcome texture to the nuttiness, as does the fabulous Cherry Jones as a visiting fortune-teller. She introduces the main plot point by encouraging them to deal with the secrets between them. And of course each of them has a big secret.

The dialog feels realistic and snappy, but lacks edge or insight, opting for gently observational smiles rather than outright laughter. Plus a lot of mugging along with guilty-pleasure pop songs. Improvisational moments add some spark, mainly thanks to shameless scene-stealers Rudolph and Fey, although each of these gifted hams gleefully takes the spotlight. Some of the dialog riffs are hilarious, such as when they talk about their love of Prince or when they cross a group of Millennials in an art gallery. Other things fall flat, like listing the prescription drugs they're on, worried they might interact with molly (as if litres of wine weren't enough). Speaking of wine, much of the humour centres on wildly drunken antics that begin to feel a little lazy, although the inebriated confessions lead into more intriguing angles exploring how avoiding the truth has held these women together all these years. And maybe being honest will make them even closer. So when they begin to admit that their lives aren't as perfect as they pretend they are, the film finds some proper resonance. It's all a bit mushy, but amiable enough to pass the time.

The Wandering Earth 
dir Frant Gwo; scr Geer Gong, Dongxu Yan, Frant Gwo, Junce Ye, Zhixue Yang, Ti Wu, Ruchang Ye, JJ Shen
with Wu Jing, Chuxiao Qu, Jinmai Jaho , Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Michael Kai Sui, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Yang Haoyu,Arkadiy Sharogradskiy
19/China 2h05 **.

China's biggest-yet blockbuster is a big, busy movie that simply refuses to settle down into something engaging. But its ticking-timebomb plot holds the interest. With the sun dying, the world is engulfed with floods, fires, droughts, storms and mass  extinctions. So humans band together to move the earth into another solar system, a journey that will take 2,500 years as giant engines propel the planet like a ship, while humans live in giant underground cities. Now 17 years later, teens Qi and Duoduo (Qu and Jaho) skip school and steal thermal suits so they can go to the icy surface. But Jupiter's gravitational pull is too strong, and Earth is in danger of colliding with it. With the engines failing, mankind's survival depends on Qi and Duoduo and a rag-tag group, while Qi's father Peiqiang (Jing) and his Russian cohort Makalov (Sharogradskiy) try to help from the advance navigation ship.

The plot is fairly simplistic, but it's overcomplicated with extra characters and nonstop action chaos. A variety of cool settings are rendered with with elaborate sets and digital effects. And the pacing is relentless, zipping from one cataclysmic set-piece to the next on a scale that might make Roland Emmerich envious. Even if the direction and editing are a mess, the driving energy that holds the interest. And there are quite a few outrageously emotional and heroic moments, plus some solid humour, such as when one frustrated man empties his gun at Jupiter. Or when a group of teens figures out how to save the world with science! It's a shame the film isn't more coherent, because it's big idea is intriguing (it's based on a novel by Cixin Liu). Perhaps having one or two writers, instead of the eight who are credited, might have given the film more focus.

General Magic
dir Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude; scr Sarah Kerruish, Jonathan Key, Matt Maude
with Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, John Sculley, Marc Porat, Tony Fadell, Michael Stern, Megan Smith, Bill Atkinson, David Hoffman
18/US 1h33 ****

Silicon Valley is apparently full of stories of people inventing the right thing at the wrong time, paving the way for future technology. This pacey documentary traces the fortunes of the team behind General Magic, the most important company that nobody's ever heard of. Inspired by the idea of inventing a new future, Marc Porat imagined the ideal tech beyond the personal computer and designed what we know now as the smartphone in 1989, before mobile phones or internet existed. His team set out to create a tiny device with personal value like jewellery, indispensable, much more than either phone or computer. The staff was the cream of the crop, a spin-off of Apple with a rock star development team. But the public wasn't ready for this yet, and without mass interest, the company failed. Team members who knew this would still be the future went off to create things like eBay and LinkedIn, and years later later the iPod, iPhone and Android.

The film combines new interviews with archival footage, home video and news clips that remind just how much technology has changed since 1990. It's fascinating to watch these young people dream big, coming up with ideas that were wild back then but are everyday now. And to see them develop the hardware to make it work is astonishing, especially as they are creating objects from the ground up. This is a story of unfettered idealism, working to better the world rather than to make a lot of money. It's a vivid depiction of how failure is actually the beginning, not the end. This company was so far ahead of its time that it collapsed, and yet it still changed the lives of literally billions of people.