Thursday, 31 October 2019

Critical Week: On the warpath

Since I've seen most of movies that were screening to the press this past week, I've been catching up on awards season films like Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat, a bizarrely comical farce circling around the Panama Papers scandal. The material is strong, but even an A-list cast (led by Meryl Streep, above) can't ground this kind of overambitious approach. Also somewhat uneven, Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote boasts great performances from Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce and fabulously freewheeling production design, with deep themes running under a meandering narrative.

The low-budget Spell was a nice surprise, a scruffy horror romp about a quirky American in Iceland. From Netherlands, Bloody Marie is an internalised drama that takes place during a freaky crime thriller. From Brazil, the bracingly naturalistic Copa 181 explores people who live on the fringe of decency, and are quite happy there. There were also three docs: packed with awesome archival material, Sid & Judy is a lovely look at Judy Garland's life through the eyes of third husband Sid Luft; American Factory is a striking exploration of the cultural collision between China and the US in Ohiol and Anton Corbijn's Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest is a superbly engaging blend of concert film and fan doc.

Coming up next week are screenings of Paul Feig's holiday rom-com Last Christmas, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen in The Good Liar, Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy, the all-star war action Midway, Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, the British drama Into the Mirror, the rather self-explanatory The Amazing Johnathan Documentary and a reissue of the landmark 1985 Aids drama Buddies.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Critical Week: No longer silent

Having survived the film festival, I'm looking out for awards-season screenings before voting deadlines. This week there were three of these: Bombshell stars Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie (with Kate McKinnon, above) in a true drama about the scandal surrounding Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) at Fox News. Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are brilliantly cast in The Two Popes, based on the true story of the transition from Benedict to Francis. And I caught up with Chiwetel Ejiofor's writing-directing debut The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, an inspirational true story from Malawi.

Back to films out soon (or now), I had to buy a ticket to see Terminator: Dark Fate, because there were no press screenings. It's not bad, and has a nice trio of strong women at its centre. Ewan McGregor stars in Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining faithfully adapted from Stephen King's novel with lots of added Stanley Kubrick. The new animated comedy romp based on the iconic The Addams Family is silly and a bit frantic. Cousins is a lovely, loose-limbed romance from Brazil. And These Peculiar Days is a witty, sexy ensemble piece from Mexico.

There aren't many screenings in the diary for this coming week for some reason, but I've got these films lined up: the Dutch action-thriller Bloody Marie, the steamy Brazilian drama Copa 181, Ecuador's Oscar hopeful La Mala Noche, plus finally catching up with Octavia Spencer in Ma and Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Screen: Autumn TV Roundup

Watching an episode or two of a TV show in between movies, or between writing a review and proofreading it, seems to help reset my brain. So the more escapist, the better! This summer summer felt a bit thin for good television, so I'm surprised to see how much I watched over the past four or five months...


The Boys
Taking a bracingly honest approach to the superhero genre, this show dares to present these heroes as deeply flawed humans who have let their power go to their heads, even as they're being manipulated by the giant corporation that's making a fortune off of them. The characters are complex and messy, and the escalating nastiness of the plot is superbly unpredictable. So it's a shame that the show has such a generic title, smug attitude and frenzied love of grisly violence. The relentless toxic masculinity begins to feel oppressive by the end, on both sides of the battle. And much of the more provocative material feels like it was designed to shock rather than to build characters or story. But the show's driving central narrative is riveting.

Because it dares to break rules, this show stands out from the crowd. Its depiction of that teen sense of immortality is frankly astonishing, showing sex and drugs in ways that are frighteningly honest while refusing to vilify the way young people use devices and social media. It's rare to find a movie or TV series acknowledge so skilfully that the world has changed and the older generations need to get up to speed rather than pointlessly trying to drag everyone back. The cast is note perfect, both teens and adults. And the show is gorgeously well shot and edited, even if its structure sometimes becomes indulgent as it over-explains the cause of each character's vices. This was most noticeable in the season finale, which was edited into a chaotic jumble to leave each plot thread dangling at just the right angle. It's occasionally stunning, but also naggingly pretentious.

Joseph Heller's spiralling WWII novel is adapted into a beautifully focussed miniseries set mainly around the experiences of a young officer (Christopher Abbott) at a US airbase in Italy. The continual ironies make it well worth a look, as it adopts a snappy M*A*S*H tone with added dark absurdities. It's a lacerating look at the true nature of war, in which no one is a winner. And it features some superb supporting actors (Kyle Chandler is particularly notable), plus a continual stream of heart-stopping moments. George Clooney and Grant Heslov led the charge on this show, directing and appearing in various episodes, and the high production values make it feel timeless.

The Other Two
Sharply well written and played, this comedy hilariously scrambles the idea of celebrity. It's about two 20-something siblings (Drew Tarver and Helene Yorke) who are still struggling to find their way in life, and now they also have to grapple with the sudden viral fame of their younger 13-year-old brother (Case Walker). All three actors are perfect, with impeccable comic timing. And the great Molly Shannon shines as their hilariously involved mother, who takes a journey all her own (and deserves awards-season attention). These episodes go down so smoothly that the season ends far earlier than we want it to. But the writers finish on a very funny twist that sets things off in a new direction for the second series.

What We Do in the Shadows
Basically transplanting the hilarious New Zealand spoof film to Staten Island, this witty documentary pastiche follows a group of over-earnest vampires as they fail to grasp the complexities of modern society. Each of the half-hours features yet another ridiculous challenge for people stuck in the middle ages. And the addition of energy and emotional vampires is a stroke of genius. Performances are spot on, never winking at the camera even as they acknowledge the presence of the crew, which gets itself into trouble now and then. It's all a bit fluffy and absurdly silly, but that's just what you want from a TV comedy.

The Name of the Rose
With its medieval setting and triumphant opening theme, it's clear that the producers were going for a Game of Thrones vibe. Sure, it's packed with oddly named characters who are impossible to remember, but the story is more singular, zeroing in on brainy monk William (a wonderfully lively John Turturro) trying to solve a series of murders in a monastery. With its shifty characters and maze-like library, the show pulls us into the mystery through the eyes of William's young novice Adso (Damian Hardung), who's in love with a peasant girl (Greta Scarano) in the woods. Then the vicious papal henchman (Rupert Everett) arrives to complicate things dramatically. 


Pose: series 2
Shifting the story forward to 1990, and diving right into the Aids epidemic, this show starts strong but quickly begins to get bogged down in special conceptual episodes (including far too many maudlin after-death fantasies that are overwritten and overplayed). By contrast, when the show focusses on its characters and their everyday issues, it shines. The period is the moment this subculture hit the mainstream with Madonna's Vogue, and the cast is incandescent as ever, with compelling storylines and riveting performance pieces. Moving forward, let's hope the showrunners remember that it's the smaller, personal moments that provide the sharpest observations and emotional high points. And frankly, Patti LuPone should sing in every episode of every TV show ever.

Big Little Lies: series 2
This is a lot more soapy than the first season, simply because the writers are now trying to stretch things out. Thankfully, the cast is so good (with an added powerhouse performance from Meryl!) that it never feels trite. Indeed, the entangled drama expands in unpredictable directions that continually keep the viewer on his or her toes, as each of the central characters faces surprising situations that shake them to the core. This offers plenty of grist for the almost obscenely talented likes of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Adam Scott and more. But this is The Meryl Show all the way. There's even a great cliffhanger.

Stranger Things: series 3
Progressing even further into horror, this third season is a full-throttle adventure that once again cleverly maintains a character focus while a high-concept plot unfolds. Alliances are shifted around now that we're in 1985, with the older and younger teens working together on two fronts to figure out what's going on: one group chasing a monster and the other spying on Russians. Meanwhile, Joyce and Jim (Winona Ryder and David Harbour) are on their own trajectory. It's a beautifully produced show with an attention to detail that goes far beyond production design. And the cast is excellent, bringing these realistically messy people to vivid life.

The Handmaid's Tale: series 3
This show continues in thriller mode, while the pressure of stretching one book into an ongoing series sends plots spiralling out to cover more characters in increasingly melodramatic gyrations. This waters down the show's kick, because the first season was so astonishingly focussed. But it's still bold and provocative, with storylines that twist and turn through some genuinely nasty and emotionally devastating events. As ever, the cast is excellent, anchored by a powerhouse Elizabeth Moss in full-glowering superhero mode. And the wonderful Ann Dowd gets some back-story this time, even as she's less central.

Easy: series 3
This comedy-drama ensemble is back with their separate, occasionally loosely connected dramas. Sometimes creator Joe Swanberg's offhanded attempts to shock feel pushy, for example presenting an open marriage as an everyday situation. But a moralising undercurrent gives away the game. The Chicago setting at least makes the show look different from other things on the air, and the actors bravely tackle the roles without worrying that all of these people are deeply unlikeable. They're realistic, so there are things about each of them that we can sympathise with, but it's difficult to care. 

Black Mirror: series 5
There are only three episodes in this season, and the high quality of the productions will leave the audience wanting more. Charlie Brooker happily pushes his characters to the brink with the help of on-the-edge technology that feels like it might be introduced tomorrow. Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II play out a fiendishly clever variation on the usual bromance. Andrew Scott has a harrowing stand-off with the cops, which gets increasingly entwined technologically. And Miley Cyrus is terrific as popstar Ashley Q, whose life is hijacked by her assistant, while a loyal fan (Angourie Rice) has an unexpected connection with an artificial-intelligence toy. They way these two strands converge is fiendishly clever.

Younger: series 6
A guilty pleasure, this dopey comedy continues to be just right when you don't want to think: hot people angsting about inane dilemmas in situations that bear no resemblance to the real world. And the way the show tries to be hip about social media is deeply amusing. Watched this way, there's quite a lot of fun to be had in the quirky characters, even if it's impossible to care what happens. But it doesn't help that the show's star (Sutton Foster's Liza) is the dullest character, and her romance with Peter Hermann's Charles is a non-starter. She's clearly destined for Nico Tortorella's gorgeous young single-dad tattooist. So just get on with it.


The OA: series 1-2
Created by and starring Brit Marling, this show is a clever prism of reality that's challenging but never tries to outfox the audience. It's rare to find such a mind-bending premise that's so bracingly coherent, packed with sequences that send exhilarating tingles up the spine. And where this season ends makes it even more essential, so it's sad that the plug was pulled. 

Derry Girls: series 1-2
This raucous half-hour comedy is perhaps a bit too broad for its own good, but it is amusing as it follows a group of Catholic teens as the conflicts of early 1990s Northern Irish unfold in the background. The girls (and one boy) are pretty ridiculous in their naivete, but their interaction is generally hilarious. But this knowing, funny show is stolen by Siobhan McSweeney as the deadpan Sister Michael.

Call My Agent: series 1-3
Not sure why I hadn't discovered this French comedy (now made by Netflix) before, but it's seems made for me! At a top Paris talent agency (with clients playing themselves, often riotously so), the out-of-control staff members get more engaging with each episode. It's a terrific combination of snappy humour, soapy plotlines and knowing industry pastiche. The Isabelle Huppert episode is essential.

Superstore: series 1-4
Over the dog days of summer, I was in need of a half-hour comedy to fill in the corners between work projects. And it didn't take long to get through all four seasons of this breezily silly sit-com set in a Walmart/Target like warehouse store, anchored ably by America Ferrera. It tackles big issues (immigration, un-liveable wages, sexism) but is refreshingly offhanded about pretty much everything. 

Succession: series 1
The cast and sharp writing make this show essential. There's a bit too much swaggering masculinity on display (the female characters need to be beefed up), and the mashup of Murdoch, Ailes and Disney sometimes feels a little forced. But it's fast and ruthlessly nasty, which is something rare on television. The question is whether they can sustain this pace into another season.

The Haunting of Hill House: series 1
Bearing almost no resemblance to the source Shirley Jackson novel, this series spin an elaborate horror story over several timelines, This Is Us-style. It's beautifully put together, with a superior cast, although everything is rather too scary-looking. Still, it's packed with solid freak-outs. Some of the cast will return for the second season, a variation on Henry James' iconic The Turn of the Screw.


Clearly the most escapist of all TV genres, reality shows are such vapid fun that they help provide a break from, and some perspective on, actual life events. I enjoyed Love Island this summer for its collection of too-beautiful people who aren't stupid but don't seem to understand what's actually important. I'm currently keeping an eye on guilty pleasures The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing, two shows that feature big personalities and nothing else I'm remotely interested in. See also The X Factor: Celebrity, which just launched, and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, coming soonish. RuPaul's Drag Race UK is off to a great start, combining huge characters with social importance and sassy colour. But the best reality show this year, perhaps ever, is A Very Brady Renovation, reuniting all six iconic child actors with an army of renovation show hosts to merge the exterior of the famed house with the 1969 interiors that only ever existed on a soundstage. It's the perfect combination of nostalgia and ingenuity, and staggeringly well put together. And now that house exists for real. This was pure television joy!


Sometimes you get into a show and begin to wonder why you're wasting your time, so I stop watching. Russian Doll was not my cup of tea from the start, with its abrasively heightened drama, pushy convolutions and acting that's too deliberately over-the-top. Brassic is a shameless variation on, well, Shameless that's far too wacky to be engaging, so the strong underlying themes ring hollow. Lodge 49 had a meandering, loose first season, but the show-runners went bigger with season 2, and the overly messy structure leaves the superb Wyatt Russell with nothing coherent to do. And I only made it through a couple minutes of the dryly overserious The Hot Zone.

NOW WATCHING: The Politician, Unbelievable, Living With Yourself, Succession (series 2), The Conners (2), Bless This Mess (2), The Good Place (4), This Is Us (4), Superstore (5), Mom (7), Modern Family (11).

COMING SOON: His Dark Materials, The Mandalorian, The Loudest Voice, War of the Worlds, State of the Union, The End of the F***ing World (2), Castle Rock (2), The Crown (3)...

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Critical Week: Long live the king

In in recovery mode following the London Film Festival, but that also means catching up with movies that are coming to normal cinemas. One of these is Zombieland: Double Tap, screened quite late to the critics just a few days before it opens. It's a lot of fun - a guilty pleasure sequel that reteams the original cast and adds some hilarious new characters. By contrast, the sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has superb actors (both returning and new ones) but has such a terrible script that it would be unwatchable without Disney's amazing visual effects extravaganza.

Ken Loach is on fine ranting form with Sorry We Missed You, taking on zero-contract jobs with a terrific fresh-faced British cast. The Danish drama Sons of Denmark is a harrowing trawl into the life of a cop infiltrating Muslim fanatics and, more terrifyingly, nationalist racists. And the sunshiny drama The Third explores the life of a three-way relationship in Palm Springs, maintaining a balance of light romance and very dark drama. And there was also this doc, which I'd missed at LFF...

Mystify: Michael Hutchence
dir-scr Richard Lowenstein
with Michael Hutchence, Bono, Kylie Minogue, Helena Christensen, Tina Hutchence, Rhett Hutchence, Andrew Farriss, Jon Farriss, Tim Farriss, Garry Gary Beers, Kirk Pengilly, Chris Thomas, Martha Troup, Gary Grant, Chris Bailey, Michele Bennett
release Aus Jun.19 sff, UK 18.Oct.19
19/Australia 1h42 ***.

With a superb collection of archival footage, photos and audio recordings, filmmaker Richard Lowenstein presents a chronological narrative documentary about the INXS frontman. It's not a particularly flashy film, but it's elevated by the fact that it's narrated by Michael Hutchence himself using cleverly edited interview clips. And as it continues, it provides never-heard information that should end the rumours that have swirled since his death at age 37 in 1997.

After a childhood spent in Australia and Hong Kong, Hutchence set up INXS with the three Farriss brothers, Beers and Pengilly in 1977, and over the next decade rose to international fame. He is remembered by family and friends as a gentle soul, an artist who became another person in the spotlight. And being a celebrity, his rock god behaviour and romances with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Helena Christensen were top fodder for the paparazzi. What no one knows is that in 1992 he suffered a terrible brain injury that changed his personality, leaving him struggling to maintain his identity. Suddenly prone to outbursts of anger, his romance with Paula Yates was passionate and tempestuous.

There's a lot of amazing home movie footage woven in here, revealing both the youthful Hutchence and his own perspective behind-the-scenes on tour, on holidays, at family events and so on. This is so intimate that by the end it's easy to feel like the public image everyone knew was just a mask. In other words, the film demystifies him. It's beautifully assembled by Lowenstein, who lets Hutchence and his friends, family and colleagues recount his story in remarkable detail. And despite his final years of drug abuse and public misbehaviour, Hutchence emerges as a remarkably likeable man who never got the care he needed after his injury. So his suicide takes on a whole new meaning, and becomes even more tragic.

Coming up this next week are screenings of the James Cameron-produced Terminator: Dark Fate, Margot Robbie and Charlize Theron in Bombshell, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins in The Two Popes, Ewan McGregor in Doctor Sleep, a new animated The Addams Family, the British drama Connect, the Ukrainian rom-com Just Sex Nothing Personal, and the Brazilian comedy-drama Cousins.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Geek alert! On the stage, on the page

OK, I have many of the traits of a traditional movie geek, but I don't think I am one. Mainly because I don't have a crazy passion for any one thing. I have loved Star Wars since I saw the first movie at a cinema when it opened in 1977, but I don't have a set of collectibles. I have enjoyed Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, but I don't know a lot of trivia about them. I like genre movies, particularly horror, but I don't keep track of who's underneath the prostheses. So two events this past week challenged my geeky side in very different ways...

I Am Monsters!
by Nicholas Vince
8-10 October at the Pleasance, London

Nicholas Vince is a friend of Clive Barker who was invited to appear in Hellraiser (1987) as the iconic Catterer. He reprised the role in Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), then played Kinski in Nightbreed (1990). This makes him a proper celebrity at horror conventions. But this one-man show is something much more intriguing, as he traces his life with warm humour and gentle insight. He's had a few serious challenges, and he talks about these things with a relaxed honesty that's seriously engaging. Ironically considering the freaky-looking beings he inhabits on-screen, his main struggle as a young man was with facial reconstruction surgery. He also talks about the challenges of being openly gay in a world in which people don't like to talk about these things. Both of these issues involved dealing with bullies, but he talks about these things not as a survivor, but as someone who understands the pain so many people go through. He also shares quite a few amusing anecdotes about his experiences on film sets wearing the kind of makeup that makes it impossible to see or hear anything. Refreshingly, it's not an over-polished show, so it feels almost like he has invited you into his living room and is regaling you with stories that are witty, telling and involving. It's worth looking out for him as he takes his show on the road.

Vintage Geek
by Marshall Julius
September Publishing, £12.99

Marshall Julius is a fellow member of the London Critics' Circle, so I've known him for a few years, and I know how much work he has put into compiling this incredible book of geeky trivia. Set out as a quiz book, with 1,000 questions, it features 20 sections on things like Marvel, James Bond, Disney, Ray Harryhausen, Stephen King, Hanna-Barbera, George A Romero and yes, Star Wars, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. It's a hefty volume, with knowing introductions and more tidbits of information than you ever thought could be gathered in one place. Some of the questions are pretty fiendish, especially the sections that cover things I know nothing about, like Doctor Who or Atari. But even if you don't know the answers, the book is a treasure trove of information. The main problem is that I will likely spend much too much time in this book - every time I pick it up, hours seem to tick past as if by magic. By the way, at the book launch event, there was a quiz with prizes, and I ended up facing questions from Steven Spielberg's filmography - Somehow I got all three right and won a collectible Harley Quinn figure. Here are those questions:
  1. In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), what does Elliott (Henry Thomas) use to lure E.T. back to his house?
  2. What does the student in Indy's classroom have written on her eyelids in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)?
  3. What was the on-set nickname of the shark in Jaws (1975)?

Answers are in white - highlight to see them:
  1. Reeses Pieces
  2. Love You
  3. Bruce

Sunday, 13 October 2019

London Film Fest: Sleep with the fishes

And that's a wrap on my 22nd year covering the BFI London Film Festival. I haven't counted up the number of films I've seen this year, but it will still only be a fraction of the hundreds of movies that are programmed here. The closing night saw the international premiere of Martin Scorsese's new movie, and I actually walked right past Robert De Niro and Al Pacino at one point this afternoon, which was pretty cool. Then I saw all three of them, plus Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin on the red carpet outside the Odeon this evening, mercifully under clear skies. I'm sure they're having a great party tonight. Here are my final few comments on movies, plus the festival award winners and my favourite films of the festival...

The Irishman 
dir Martin Scorsese; with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino 19/US *****
A thumping cinematic epic, this film deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available as it recounts a staggering true story that stretches over half a century. In addition to the expert writing, direction and acting, this is a pungent look at how American culture and politics have become so thoroughly enmeshed with criminality. This isn't shouted loudly, but it's impossible to miss as the story centres on a singular personal perspective.

The Lodge
dir Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala; with Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell 19/UK ***
There's a staggeringly bleak sensibility to this gothic horror movie. Without being particularly scary, it's a seriously unnerving freak-out simply because it gets under the skin. Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala throw all kinds of nasty things at the screen that add both intrigue and unease. It's skilfully shot and edited, with a terrific sense of the settings and a steady stream of inventive visual and thematic touches.

On a Magical Night [Chambre 212]
dir-scr Christophe Honore; with Chiara Mastroianni, Vincent Lacoste 19/Fr ****
French filmmaker Christophe Honore playfully uses magic (complete with Barry Manilow) to explore the nature of a long-term relationship. The story unfolds like A Christmas Carol played out as a French farce, with a collision of past, present and future that offers a jolt of insight into the way we grow and change (or not) within a relationship. It's surprisingly engaging, anchored by a wonderfully deadpan performance from Chiara Mastroianni.

Happy Birthday [Fête de Famille]
dir-scr Cedric Kahn; with Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Bercot 19/Fr ***
With a real-life mixture of comedy and drama, French filmmaker Cedric Kahn explores a variety of intriguing family dynamics. It's not an each film to connect with, because just as it pulls the audience in with some warm humour it veers off somewhere rather dark and disturbing. The superb actors keep up with these mood shifts, although they can be rather jarring for the audience, especially as characters take turns being the bad guy.

LFF Awards

  • Best Film: MONOS
  • Documentary: WHITE RIOT
  • First Feature: Mati Diop (ATLANTICS)

Rich’s Best of the Fest

  1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  2. The Irishman
  3. I Lost My Body
  4. The Report
  5. Monsoon
  6. Marriage Story
  7. By the Grace of God
  8. Bacurau
  9. Luce
  10. Monos

ALSO: The Kingmaker, Moffie, Invisible Life, Tremors, Martin Eden, Ema, Earthquake Bird, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, And Then We Danced, The Painted Bird.

Shadows LONDON FILM FEST homepage (full reviews will be linked here) 
Official LONDON FILM FEST site 

Saturday, 12 October 2019

London Film Fest: Be my neighbour

Well, the 63rd BFI London Film Festival is winding down now, with only one more day to go. Today was a complete washout, with rain all day long. And tomorrow looks similar, which will make the closing night red carpet a bit soggy for Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro and The Irishman. But then wet weather is better for selling movie tickets! I now have a serious backlog of reviews to write, so I'll start catching up on that next week. In the meantime, here are some more comments on things I've been watching...

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
dir Marielle Heller; with Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys 19/US ****
There is a sliver of a Fred Rogers biopic in this warm drama, but director Marielle Heller makes it much more than that, telling a specific story that can't help but resonate even with viewers who have never seen his classic TV show. For those of us who grew up with it, the nostalgia is sometimes overpowering. But the film manages to be sentimental without the schmaltz. And it will speak to audiences on levels much deeper than the obvious themes.

dir-scr Quentin Dupieux; with Jean Dujardin, Adele Haenel 19/Fr ***.
Cheeky French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux comes up with another bonkers idea for a grisly thriller that is thoroughly infused with wry comical overtones. This one's about a jacket that announces that it wants to be the only jacket on earth. And it's brought to life with the help of ace costar Jean Dujardin. The movie is relentlessly ridiculous, but it also has enough heart to hold the viewer's sympathy, even as we laugh and cringe at the escalating body count.

Just Mercy
dir Destin Daniel Cretton; with Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx 19/US **.
This drama recounts powerful true events in a rather straightforward style. The writing and direction are so standard that it's possible to predict every single thing that happens in the story, including lines of dialog before they're spoken. It's a surprisingly unambitious movie from the talented filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton. But cast members dive in to the roles with plenty of passion, creating a strong sense of tension in this story of real-life racial injustice.

Ordinary Love
dir Lisa Barros D'Sa, Glenn Leyburn; with Lesley Manville, Liam Neeson 19/UK ***.
Sensitive and honest, this quiet drama from Northern Ireland captures the earthy interaction between a couple as one of them goes through a round of cancer treatment. Thankfully, the film focusses on the people and their connection rather than the illness. It's a remarkably grounded, often downright matter-of-fact look at everyday life, with plenty of added detail in the writing and acting. So even if it's never revelatory, it's involving and moving.

Martin Eden
dir Pietro Marcello; with Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy 19/It ****
Taking an ambitious approach to adapting the Jack London novel, this Italian drama is an artful odyssey packed with political and artistic themes. Eerily timeless, the film references Italian movie classics as director Pietro Marcello playfully stirs in eclectic music and archival footage cutaways. As it encompasses the entire 20th century, there's also a strikingly 21st century finale that makes the story almost unnervingly current.

Invisible Life [A Vida Invisível de Eurídice Gusmão]
dir Karim Ainouz; with Carol Duarte, Julia Stockler 19/Br ****
Gorgeously filmed in rich, deep colours and infused with even stronger emotions, this Brazilian drama tells the epic story of a family connection with a narrative that spans nearly 70 years. This is a beautiful depiction of the lingering connections between siblings, parents, children and lifelong friends. And it's also a reminder that the expectations and assumptions we make about the people we love probably aren't very accurate or helpful.

Shadows LONDON FILM FEST homepage (full reviews will be linked here) 
Official LONDON FILM FEST site 

Friday, 11 October 2019

London Film Fest: Hang on tight

As we roll into the final weekend of the 63rd London Film Festival, there are a lot of films to catch up with and not much time left. Today, two press screenings I wanted to get into were full, so I saw two alternate movies instead (the results were mixed). And the online links I have for watching other films simply won't stream. So maybe I'll get some free time this evening! Anyway, here are some highlights for Friday...

dir Pablo Larrain; with Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal 19/Chl ****
Deliberately messy, Pablo Larrain's Chilean drama challenges the audience to both take sides and admit that there may not be any sides to take. It's a riveting cinematic journey, packed with moments that are darkly chilling as well as sweetly moving. And even as it follows characters who largely behave like villains, the movie encourages the viewer to identify and sympathise with them, perhaps against our instincts. Not many films can make us think or feel this deeply.

First Love
dir Takashi Miike; with Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi 19/Jpn ***.
It's difficult to imagine another filmmaker who could so effortlessly combine such a relentlessly nasty bloodbath with a warm romantic-comedy. But Takashi Miike makes it work in this bonkers thriller about a chaotic series of clashes between Japanese and Chinese mobsters, all while a sweet love story evolves in between the bullets and flashing swords. It's all a bit messy and frantic, with a lot of characters to keep straight, but it's also hilarious and involving.

Give Me Liberty
dir-scr Mikhanovsky; with Chris Galust, Lauren 'Lolo' Spencer 19/US 1h50 ***
This comedy has vivid characters and subject matter so strong that it becomes hugely important. But the filmmaking itself is exhausting, most notably because the script just won't stop piling chaos upon mayhem. It's definitely a case where less would have said more. But perhaps filmmaker Mikhanovsky does this deliberately, creating such an overwhelming series of events that it can't help but snap viewers out of any complacency.

Burning Cane
dir-scr Phillip Youmans; with Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers19/US 1h17 **
Clearly a fan of Terrence Malick, writer-director Phillip Youmans began making this drama while he was still in high school. And while the themes and characters show maturity and find some resonance, the film itself never quite comes together. Shot by Youmans himself in deep, impenetrable shadows and edited impressionistically, there are moments of beauty even as scenes drift along, just out of reach of the audience. But the tone is overserious and rather pretentious.

Rare Beasts
dir-scr Billie Piper; with Billie Piper, Leo Bill 19/UK **
Actress Billie Piper turns writer and director for this British drama, which inventively plays with the usual tropes of the romantic-comedy as it spins a complex story. Although ultimately it collapses under the weight of its ambitious approach. Still, it's skilfully shot, and the cast is particularly strong in an intriguing range of playful twists on stereotypes. And the film also carries a solid message about female empowerment, even if it's delivered somewhat awkwardly.

Shadows LONDON FILM FEST homepage (full reviews will be linked here) 
Official LONDON FILM FEST site 

Thursday, 10 October 2019

London Film Fest: Take the prize

It's been another long, busy day at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival, going from film screening to epic-length queue to film screening, and repeat. I'm kind of losing the will to live at this point, as the films begin to blur a bit as actors pop up in multiple movies (Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, even Udo Kier). But at least all three films today were superb - easily four stars (two are below). And because we're all a bit punchy, there's a lot of camaraderie while standing in line. So I'm sure we'll all cheer each other on through the next three days of crack-of-dawn screenings to the finish line on Sunday. Here are Thursday highlights...

Le Mans '66 [aka Ford v Ferrari]
dir James Mangold; with Matt Damon, Christian Bale 19/US ***
There are plenty of exhilarating racing sequences in this revved-up drama about Ford's quest to best Ferrari at the iconic 24-hour French race. Director James Mangold captures the energy of the mid-60s period, and the lively personalities of the men involved in this story. But the script is badly out of balance, creating a corny movie villain simply to add some tension, while ignoring Ferrari completely.

Official Secrets
dir Gavin Hood; with Keira Knightley, Matt Smith 19/UK ****
Based on a true story, this riveting political thriller carries both a strong thematic punch and some powerful emotional elements. It's a strikingly well-made film that moves at a gripping pace to uncover a horrific violation of trust by the US and UK governments. It's also an urgent story that needs to be told now, and filmmaker Gavin Hood makes sure it feels darkly relevant at every step.

Earthquake Bird
dir-scr Wash Westmoreland; with Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough 19/Jpn ****
There's a wonderfully disorienting tone to this dramatic thriller, which gives the audience the perspective of a woman who may be losing her mind. Is someone trying to get her, or is she the killer? With Hitchcockian overtones, writer-director Wash Westmoreland crafts a mystery that snakes around in ways that are intriguing, sexy and also rather scary. And it feels even more involving because of its offbeat setting and characters.

Judy & Punch
dir-scr Mirrah Foulkes; with Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman 18/Aus ***
There's an ambitious artistry behind this raucous Australian-made film about jolly olde Englande. Taking on the tradition of those iconic battling puppets, filmmaker Mirrah Foulkes flips the legend on its head to make a colourful, blackly comical revenge thriller. The plot meanders all over the place, and the pacing is rather uneven, but it carries a fierce a kick of righteous anger about some big issues.

Pink Wall
dir-scr Tom Cullen; with Tatiana Maslany, Jay Duplass 19/UK ****
For his feature debut, actor Tom Cullen takes a remarkably ambitious approach, letting actors improvise within a clearly devised structure. The result is a film that feels almost unnervingly authentic, with characters and dialog that tell a specific, structured story while also capturing loosely disconnected rhythms of real life. Told out of sequence, it's the impressionistic story of a six-year relationship between Americans in Britain. It's warm, funny, sexy and moving.

Shadows LONDON FILM FEST homepage (full reviews will be linked here) 
Official LONDON FILM FEST site 

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

London Film Fest: Strike a pose

Definitely feeling like a zombie today, needing more sleep and more time to write! But there are only four more days, so I'll try to hold on. The 63rd BFI London Film Festival is such a mind-boggling collection of films that it's impossible to see even half of them. In the queues today, we were chatting about the movies we are missing, even though we're desperate to catch them. But the scheduling makes it impossible (not enough press screenings, overlapping showtimes, etc). It's also fun to compare best and worst films we've seen so far. The bad ones are pretty common between us all, but everyone has a different favourite. My favourite so far is the first film listed here. And down at the bottom is this week's Critical Week...

Portrait of a Lady on Fire [Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu]
dir-scr Celine Sciamma; with Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel 19/Fr *****
With a staggeringly astute screenplay and sharply observant direction, French filmmaker Celine Sciamma breathes inventive life into this period drama. She fills scenes to the brim with subtext, and not only mines her richly layered story for resonant themes but also creates complex characters the audience can fall in love with. So the film's otherworldly beauty becomes a provocative depiction of both art and romance.... FULL REVIEW >

Knives Out
dir-scr Rian Johnson; with Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas 19/US ****
A bit of silly good fun, this play on the whodunit genre has a fiendishly constructed script packed with clever twists and turns, plus an superb ensemble of nutty characters. Some elements are a bit too broad for their own good, but writer-director Rian Johnson makes a film that's consistently amusing as it keeps the audience on its toes and piles on one surprise after another. It also gently brushes on some topical themes just to keep it relevant... FULL REVIEW >

dir-scr Michael Winterbottom; with Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher19/UK ***
Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom team up for another comedy, although this one is a bit more deliberately pointed then their usual collaborations. Yes, there are still moments of inspired silliness dotted throughout the ambitiously fragmented narrative, and it's expertly played by a strong ensemble cast. Many actors bring their considerable improvisational skills to the screen, although with so many big issues as satirical targets, the film feels heavy handed.

dir Oliver Hermanus; with Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers 19/SA ****
Strikingly well-made, and carrying a devastating emotional kick, this South African drama tells a deeply personal story that has much wider implications. Writer-director Oliver Hermanus creates gorgeous-looking films, and this one is augmented by beautiful cinematography and clever editing. It gets deep under the skin of a nation still grappling with its past, and offers a remarkably resonant look at issues of racism and homophobia.

Shadows LONDON FILM FEST homepage (full reviews will be linked here) 
Official LONDON FILM FEST site 

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K

I haven't seen any regular press screenings this past week - only 22 London Film Festival movies! This coming week, after the festival ends, it'll be time for Angelina Jolie back in horns for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Ken Loach's Sorry to Bother You, the political thriller Sons of Denmark and the doc Mystify: Michael Hutchence,