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 Flavio Alves
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-scr James Sweeney
19/US ***.

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.

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.