Friday, 30 August 2019

Stage: More than a game

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Bettina Adela

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Critical Week: A horse and his boy

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 August 2019

FrightFest: The woman in black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Official FRIGHTFEST site
• Shadows' FRIGHTFEST homepage 

Friday, 23 August 2019

FrightFest: Don't look now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Official FRIGHTFEST site
• Shadows' FRIGHTFEST homepage

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Critical Week: See you later alligator

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Critical Week: Boys gone wild

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Critical Week: Monkey business

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

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

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