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.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Stage: Two 19th century tales

Fanny & Stella: The Shocking True Story
by Glenn Chandler • music Charles Miller • dir Steven Dexter
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 8.May-2.Jun.19

Pearce as the trial judge
Originally staged in 2015 at Above the Stag's previous venue, this musical gets a welcome revival on a bigger stage. Based on real events, it's a sharply well-written exploration of gender and equality set in 1870 London. Writer Glenn Chandler sets out the story as a musical hall variety show, using comedy and witty songs to recount a series of events involving cross-dressing performers Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton (Tobias Charles and Kieran Parrott). Their alter egos Fanny and Stella hilariously re-enact their story as entertainers on The Strand who cavort around town with their wealthy benefactors. They get in trouble with the law for leaving the theatre in drag, but were never convicted of sodomy. The show recounts their relationships with various men, including Lord Arthur Clinton (Christian Andrews), Louis Charles Hurt (Tom Mann) and American diplomat John Safford Fiske (Blair Robertson).

All of this is played with a cheeky sense of humour on a vaudeville stage, as the actors continually torment the theatre manager Grimes (Mark Pearce) by demanding random personality traits and accents in the side roles he's playing. Each of the six actors plays multiple roles as the story unfolds, bringing a lively sense of raucous energy to each scene. And Chandler keeps the narrative moving briskly along, packing in fascinating real-life details along with the amusing musical numbers, which are infused with eyebrow-raising innuendo. The staging is superb, with subtle set changes that make the most of the witty costumes and the side entrances, which are through closets.

The real Boulton and Park
Through all of this, the uniformly excellent cast layers the general silliness with subtle but powerful emotional resonance that extends to some knowing thematic commentary about how long it has taken society to grapple with the issue of human sexuality. Park and Boulton's scandalous trial predated Oscar Wilde's by 25 years, a full century before Stonewall. Frankly, this is an unmissable show. And it would easily work on an even bigger stage.

NOTE: I also reviewed Above the Stag's staging of Fanny & Stella in May 2015.

The Swell Mob
by Flabbergast Theatre
Colab Factory, London Bridge • 4.May-25.Aug.19

A hit on the Edinburgh Fringe, this immersive theatre experience takes audiences back to a swirly, surreal version of 1830s Britain. The audience and the actors mix together in a wildly ornate pub, drinking bathtub gin and whispering secrets as a preacher orates in the corner and a dog sleeps through the ruckus on a sofa. It's a ribald evening full of activities, including dance, puppetry and cabaret. A croupier encourages me to place a bet on a bare-knuckle fight held in the basement. The match is electrically well-choreographed and thrilling (alas, his betting tip was off). In a back room, a shady lady leads us in a seance to figure out how to escape from this lurid place. It has something to do with the lowlands and Layla, a woman who seems to be everywhere I turn, telling me crazy things. A lonely man with a bleached-white face is lurking as well, and no one seems to be able to see him. Later someone gets shot. There are boisterous songs, and a climactic moment of soul-sucking horror.

The cast is flat-out excellent, bringing earthy physicality and vivid personality to each role, interacting easily with the audience. Although what all of this means is somewhat unclear. This is one of those events at which the more you get involved, the more your own narrative begins to take shape. At the centre of the performance is a supernatural mystery, so all of the instructions, songs and dramas work together to create both atmosphere and a story.

It's certainly a vivid experience, made even more fun by the fact that they encourage you to dress in costume to make it even more difficult to tell who's part of the show and who's in the audience. But then, everyone's part of this show. And it's a lot of lively fun. It's also the kind of event you could return to several times and find a new story each time. But be warned: if you don't work at it, the plot is elusive, leaving lots of atmosphere but little that grabs hold.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Critical Week: Dress to impress

With another long weekend, it's been a shorter than usual week of screenings. But I still kept pretty busy. The biggest release screened to the press, barely before it opened, was The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. As a comedy it's rather weak, but has some funny moments all the way through. There were also two British period biopics. Tolkien is an impeccably produced look at the early life of JRR Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), although it's a bit dry since it takes place before he wrote anything. The Professor and the Madman follows the tenacious work of James Murray (Mel Gibson) to define the English language and produce the first Oxford English Dictionary, with the help of an in-patient at Broodmoor asylum (Sean Penn). Despite the troubled production, it's a fascinating story, strikingly well acted.

Further afield we had the moving, dark British indie drama Last Summer, about young teens in small-town Wales dealing with a wrenching community crisis. And the even darker American indie drama Just Say Goodbye takes on teen suicide with a perhaps too-provocative story about friendship and parenthood. We also caught the superb documentary XY Chelsea, which closely follows whistleblower Chelsea Manning between two incarcerations. It's involving and even inspiring, taking on those who label her a traitor. And since it's finally out for streaming/etc in the UK, here's a longer take on this doc I saw a few weeks back...

Fahrenheit 11/9
dir-scr Michael Moore; with Michael Moore, Timothy Snyder, Jenifer Lewis, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg 18/US 2h08 ****

Michael Moore was one of the only pundits who predicted the Trump presidency. So this long but watchable and important doc opens with the massive upset of election night 2016, from Clinton supporters' pre-voting revelry turning into gloom to the shocked faces of Team Trump, which clearly didn't expect to win. From here, Moore spins back to look at how Trump accidentally got into the race while trying to increase his profile in contract negotiations with NBC. His racist comments backfired (NBC fired him), but he touched a nerve with a segment of the American public. Masterfully manipulating the media, which was making a fortune from covering his antics, Trump had a long history with Russian mobsters and the media leaders taken down for abusing women. Moore also documents his overt racism and misogyny over many decades, all of which was public knowledge. Similarly, his treasonous behaviour since taking office has also been out in the open.

As usual, Moore connects this to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder (a Trump buddy) declared a fake emergency to essentially privatise the poor, black city, callously poisoning it then covering up the escalating disaster. This takes up a good chunk of the film, and rightly so. Back to the main topic, Moore's dissection of the US electorate is fascinating: the truth is that liberal '60s values reflect the average American today; the Republicans have only won the popular vote in one presidential election in the last 30 years ("You can't call it a democracy if the person who wins the most votes doesn't win"). Moore also covers the fraud among the Democrats, such as how anyone who breaks from the centrist line is suppressed (as was Bernie Sanders), and how in many ways Obama paved the way for Trump. So it was no wonder people were willing to break the system with a protest vote.

Finally, Moore dives into gun control in the wake of the Parkland shootings an teens who refused to sit quietly and accept "thoughts and prayers". The salient point here is that candidates are representing their donors, not the voters. And Moore's most powerful message is that we need to ignore attempts to divide us against each other, rise up and create the government we deserve. History tells us that the US is becoming less democratic and more despotic by the day. So this film's carefully documented conclusions should chill us to the bone.

This coming week, we'll be watching Keanu Reeves in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell and the documentaries Apollo 11, General Magic, The Lavender Scare and Nomad. Plus a couple of stage shows, just for a change of scenery.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Critical Week: Just sit right back...

London critics had a bit of glamour this week at the press screening of Halston, a new documentary about the iconic 1970s designer. It's a beautifully made film, although it essentially skips his personal life. At the other end of the spectrum is Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, the new live-action action-comedy based on the Japanese game. It's energetic and silly, and rather good fun.

Emma Thompson gets yet another fabulous character in Late Night, as a long-time chat show working with a new staff writer (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay) to save her show. And Ethan Hawke chomps the scenery superbly as a hapless bank robber in the comical thriller The Captor (aka Stockholm), based on the true story that coined the term "Stockholm syndrome".

There were also a wide range of indie films this week. The sweet, involving and ultimately wrenching Only You stars Josh O'Connor and Laia Costa as a young couple trying to start a family against the odds. Karen Gillan and David Dastmalchian are terrific in the haunting, emotional road movie All Creatures Here Below. Lin Shaye stars in Room for Rent, a low-key horror about a landlady who becomes scarily obsessed with her tenant. Thunder Road is a seriously offbeat Texas drama about a cop with multiple issues, underscored with dryly pitch-black comedy. Beats is a scruffy, energetically engaging Scottish film about young people trying to get to their first rave. The colour-drenched LA social media romance Daddy Issues takes some offbeat, inventive twists and turns. And there was this unusual doc, which is now streaming everywhere...

The Gilligan Manifesto
dir-scr Cevin Soling; with Sherwood Schwartz, Dawn Wells, Russell Johnson, Don Ostrowski , Loren Graham, Dan Albright; narr Rennie Davis 18/US 1h25 ***

The premise of this rather academic documentary is that the classic TV sitcom Gilligan's Island was created with a specific underlying message about communism to counter Cold War fears. Filmmaker Soling takes a sparky approach, mixing in extensive archival footage and witty music along with interviews, all of which bolster his thesis to a degree. The film opens with rather long and lively outline of the Cold War and the fear that grew in the wake of the atom bomb. A year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, production began on the sitcom, which Solving describes as a story of seven disparate people trying to rebuild society in a virtual post-apocalyptic wasteland using Marxist communism as a template. (Soling observes that only the two working class characters are introduced by name in the famed title song.) As series creator Sherwood Schwartz says, there was a deep philosophy beneath the show's premise, bringing different people together and forcing them to help each other. While most movies addressed the Cold War using tragedy or disaster, he decided to use comedy instead. And stars Johnson and Wells (the Professor and Mary Ann) chat about how they understood that there was something serious under the resolutely silly surface. This doc is a terrific collection of period movie clips and anti-commie propaganda reels, plus overlong sideroads into things like the McCarthy hearings. This makes it feel like a jokey college essay about the nature of Marxism, making a series of rather spurious arguments about a 1960s sitcom. Clips from the show remind us that it was a satirical critique of all kinds of human ideologies (not just capitalism and democracy) and an escape from the rat race. The characters also reveal uncomfortable, often ridiculous truths about ourselves. That's what makes it so indelible. But this doc has other things on its mind.

It's another long weekend in Britain (I could get used to these), but the weather isn't supposed to be quite as nice as the last one. Film screenings in the diary over the next week include Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson's comedy The Hustle, Russell Crowe in The Professor and the Madman, Peter Strickland's In Fabric, the teen drama Just Say Goodbye, the 1970s Welsh drama Last Summer and the Chelsea Manning doc XY Chelsea.