Thursday, 30 April 2020

Critical Week: Peering outsite

As cabin fever sets in with lockdown well into its second month, the longing for human contact is getting intense. But so is a sense of fear about returning to a crowded place like a cinema or pub. At least the weather has turned cold and wet in Britain, which makes going outside not nearly as tempting as it was last week. Meanwhile, watching all of these streaming movies is beginning to weigh me down - especially when even the arthouse films are so mediocre. There were two good ones this week, but the rest left me feeling rather meh. By contrast, TV series are offering a lot more variety and quality at the moment. But here are the movies...

Bad Education • The Assistant
The Roads Not Taken
Endings, Beginnings
Dangerous Lies
Sally Potter's The Roads Not Taken is a very clever film, although its relentlessly slow, introspective style will put off some audiences. The talent-heavy cast is on peak form, including Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek (above with Bardem) and Laura Linney. Julia Garner continues to build on her promise as an actress with the title role in The Assistant, a subtly insightful look at workplace toxicity. Alexandra Daddario and Tyler Hoechlin and a team of shameless scene-stealers make Can You Keep a Secret just about watchable, even though it's a very lazy romcom. Camila Mendes and Jessie T Usher lead the rather obvious thriller Dangerous Lies, which never even tries to grapple with the moral questions it raises.

A spin on the vampire genre, The Shed uses its sunny, rural setting brilliantly, combined with elements from teen movies and family dramas. A spin on the zombie genre, Blood Quantum adds intriguing elements from Canada's indigenous culture to the usual grisliness. The road comedy Vanilla has a nicely loose, improvisational tone to it, but remains a bit silly. And from Israel, 15 Years is an ambitious, alienating drama about a man who sabotages his 15-year romance as well as his closest friendship.

And I have another offbeat collection of things to watch this coming week: Liam Hemsworth in Arkansas, the horror riff Gretel & Hansel, World War II action Enemy Lines,  extortion thriller Cry for the Bad Man, working class drama Working Man, darkly romantic Clementine, evil teen horror Reborn and the documentary Spaceship Earth.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Critical Week: Locked in

Having passed the one month mark of being in isolation here in London (plus 10 days in California before that), the days are beginning to blur together. I wanted to cook some food to liven things up, but the shops are still missing some basics - for example, not one of the many grocery stores around me has any flour in stock. I badly need to add some variety to my culinary routine, and am enjoying being creative. Otherwise, the days are a blur of watching movies, writing about them, watching TV shows, then more movies.

Moffie • Circus of Books
Radioactive • Crisis Hotline
We Summon the Darkness
The week's biggest film for me was The Willoughbys, an energetic animated adventure comedy about a quirky group of siblings trying to make up for deadbeat parents. It's colourful, very funny and packed with nice little emotional moments. Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan and Sebastian Stan are terrific in the romantic melodrama Endings, Beginnings, which never quite builds a head of steam as a woman mopes through her indecision about which man is right for her (neither is). Wagner Moura is excellent in the biopic Sergio, tracing the life of an important UN figure with real insight and some skilful filmmaking. And Alexandra Daddario leads the grisly horror romp We Summon the Darkness, which has some fun 1980s nods but little to make it memorable.

For more adventurous viewers, these are streaming: Cuck is well-made, involving and deliberately provocative pitch-black drama about a guy whose right-wing views push him over the edge; Ghost is gorgeously shot on an iPhone to add a thoughtful angle to the usual British crime drama; Crisis Hotline is an uneven but thoughtful dramatic thriller about a helpline caller threatening murder; from Russia, Why Don't You Just Die is a funny-but-pointless wildly violent black comedy about a group of people trying to kill each other for a variety of reasons; and the excellent documentary Circus of Books tells the fascinating, involving story of a traditional Jewish family that ran an unlikely gay porn business.

Films on my list to watch this coming week in lockdown include Sally Potter's The Roads Not Taken with Elle Fanning and Javier Bardem, Jeffrey Wright in All Day and a Night, Jamie Chung in Dangerous Lies, the rodeo drama Bull, the road comedy-drama Vanilla, the horror thriller The Shed and the Israeli drama 15 Years.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Screen: Spring TV Roundup

During lockdown, it seems that television is my only break from the movies - theatre, museums, just walking through the city are out! And with all the movies streaming online, the only thing different about watching TV is that it doesn't feel like work. We said goodbye to a few favourite shows recently, even as we are making quite a few new discoveries. And with streaming services multiplying, it's not easy to keep up. But I'll do what I can...


Schitt's Creek: series 6
This Canadian comedy seems to have snuck up on the world. While the first two seasons were a little uneven, I've stuck with it simply because comic geniuses Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy are on peak form. Meanwhile, Dan Levy, Annie Murphy and the surrounding cast have turned potentially cartoonish roles into their own loveable icons. Each year the show got better - deeper, funnier, more resonant - and it's a rare series that has gone out at its very best. It's also unlikely that we'll see another show that so adeptly mixes absurd humour with sophisticated comedy while continually surprising us with earthy emotion. It's already missed.

The Good Place: series 4
Funny and fiendishly smart, this inventive comedy left us wanting more even as it wrapped up its four-year, 50-episode run in a beautifully imagined series finale that will likely make this show a cult classic. The frankly awesome cast (Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto and especially D'Arcy Corden) deserves to be haunted by these roles for the rest of their lives. Each episode is bracingly intelligent even as it retains its riotously silly approach, and the series ended in a way that was hilarious, full of emotion and bursting with profound insight into the meaning of existence. Indeed, shows rarely go out on such a delirious high. Heaven indeed.

Future Man: series 3
Continuing at its breakneck pace, this insane sci-fi comedy thriller just keeps throwing Josh Hutcherson's hapless Futterman from one high-energy crisis to the next, barely pausing to catch a breath amid a constant barrage of outrageous verbal and visual humour. Along the way, Hutcherson has developed a terrific sense of camaraderie with costars Eliza Coupe and Derek Wilson without ignoring their distinctive character flaws. From a trio of bickering idiots, they've become an endearing bickering family. This final season features a lot more shameless galloping through timelines than before, which gives the show a deranged Quantum Leap sensibility. Thankfully, it's as profane as ever. And the finale is brilliant (shout-out to composer Halli Cauthery).

Modern Family: series 11
It's been a long run for this family, and some of the later seasons have been a little uneven. But there are moments of classic comedy in every episode, and perhaps the most notable thing about the show is how the expanding cast has aged so well, especially the children who grew up on-screen to skilfully steal scenes from the adults. Having the same writers since day one has helped, making serious themes accessible through silly character-based humour. This final season gave each actor a lot to play with, plotting journeys for each character as they head off into various carefully crafted directions. They may have ended up scattered all over, but I wouldn't bet against a reunion.


Tiger King
It took me awhile to get round to watching this, and when I did I instantly understood why the buzz was so strong. For a documentarian, these big cat obsessives were a gift, providing constantly shifting stories and an excess of personality, crazy hair and multiple spouses. Each of these nasty people has his or her own brand of insanity. Some are stubbornly likeable (Joe Exotic) while others are inexplicably despicable from the get-go (Carole Baskin). That the audience feels so strongly about them is part of what makes this such compelling television. And the way each episode deepens the craziness as well as the mystery makes it almost impossible not to binge. Brilliantly shot and edited into a must-see.

Star Trek: Picard
There's a freshness to this show that breathes life into an entire franchise (see also The Mandalorian), simply because it never takes itself too seriously. Patrick Stewart is terrific revisiting his iconic character, pulled out of retirement for a rogue mission with a ragtag team of people in need of redemption. The evolving plot is fascinating, especially as it so stubbornly refuses to go in the direction we (or indeed Picard) expect it to, spiralling off into new directions, crossing paths with favourite characters from the past, and remaining beautifully grounded in the people rather than the settings or ideas. That said, the ideas are big ones, echoing current events in subtly clever ways.

Alex Garland carries on his existential tone with this series about a tech company that's exploring the very nature of reality to predict the past and future. Or something like that. The central idea is very fuzzy, but the way the show spirals out its narrative is clever and involving, with strong characters that provide big emotional kicks along the way. Nick Offerman has a wonderfully woolly presence as the company founder whose oddly overwrought obsession with his daughter's death drives the premise. Alison Pill gives another coolly intense, vulnerable performance (see also Picard). But the show's heart is the awkward connection between Sonoya Mizuno's central character Lily and her ex-boyfriend Jamie, sublimely underplayed by Jin Ha.

Based on a true story, this four-part series is insightfully made, getting into the head of teenage bride Esty (Shira Haas) as she escapes from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York. It's easy to understand why she might sneak away and run to Berlin. The sideplot in which her husband (Amit Rahav) and his rather shady cousin (Jeff Wilbusch) come after her feels a bit dramatic, but it's delicately underplayed. Much more gripping is Esty's own journey of self-discovery, not just of this big, strange world but also of her place in it, and who she actually is aside from the locked-down version of herself she was always told to show.

The true story of the "coughing major", this three-part series makes the most of its fragmented structure, spiralling around to assemble the story from two primary perspectives. Most impressive is that it never actually takes sides, presenting the known facts and letting the audience grapple with the implications. Performances are simply awesome from Matthew Macfadyen, Michael Sheen and Sian Clifford. And it's finely directed by Stephen Frears to dig far beneath the headlines and the period (including the fact that the notorious Who Wants to Be a Millionaire episode was taped the day before 9/11). It may not be the final word on the ongoing legal case, but it's thoughtful and provocative.

The Outsider
Murder mysteries aren't usually my thing, but this one stars the unmissable Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo. It's also based on a Stephen King novel, so it's packed with flawed characters in a story that continually takes unexpected, horrifically incomprehensible turns. The snaky plot offers a clever slant on the monster-predator premise, which keeps it riveting even when the writing, direction and editing become a bit indulgent, deliberately making things far more confusing than they need to be. Thankfully the ace cast members create complex characters we can really root for, even amid some dark personal issues.

I Am Not Okay With This
There's a refreshingly snarky edge to this brisk comedy about a teen trying to work out a sense of who she is and how she's connected to the people around her. Sydney (Sophia Lillis) loves her best pal (Sofia Bryant) but instead finds herself in a relationship with a cute-dork neighbour (Wyatt Oleff). She's also discovering that she has some rather outrageous super powers. And she's afraid to tell anyone about any of this. The way the story develops has a wonderfully off-the-cuff sensibility, remaining carefully within the perspective of these messy teens, while referencing classics from The Breakfast Club to (ahem!) Carrie. Where it goes bodes well for a second season.


Ozark: series 2
Diving immediately into this family's intense life in southern Missouri, this show gets scarier with each episode. The key shift this season is the way Marty and Wendy (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, better than ever) take their separate agendas to a whole new level, ultimately ending up in battle with each other even as they're pinched by both a nosey Fed and an escalating drug cartel war. It's beautifully written and played with complexity and intrigue. And the fabulous Julia Garner and Janet McTeer get to root around in their characters too. There's a tendency to over-egg the knotted plotlines, but don't worry: just relish how these people deal with the double-dealing.

The New Pope: series 2
Paolo Sorrentino continues the photogenic, surreal journey of Pope Pius XIII (played with wry glee by Jude Law), which began with 2016's The Young Pope. Having received a heart transplant from a Muslim, Pius lies in a coma, so after a riotous false start the Vatican cardinals appoint a new Pope (John Malkovich, no less). And just as he gets into his stride, Pius wakes up. The witty scripts swirl around issues of power and faith in wickedly clever ways, and the cast is excellent across the board. With flat-out spectacular imagery, Sorrentino has a terrific skill for bringing modern touches into this fusty world, playfully pointing out the difference between what the church is and what it should be. 

Sex Education: series 2
Carrying on from the moment it left off, this show might have improved by becoming even more unapologetic about its title topic. Instead, the usual TV prudeness seems to be creeping in, as the scripts feel oddly embarrassed about sex and sexuality while still being rather pleased with themselves for having the nerve to touch on hot potato ideas. Thankfully, the cast is still superb enough to bring the interaction to vivid life, with Asa Butterfield offering even more layers to Otis, and Gillian Anderson continually surprising us with Jean's droll straight-talking. The side characters are nicely developed much deeper as well, so let's hope the writers have the nerve to push them further.

The Trip to Greece: series 4
After Britain, Italy and Spain, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (with director Michael Winterbottom) find another sun-drenched corner of southern Europe to visit. This time the show has echoes of Ancient Greek history, myths and philosophy woven in among the improvisational goofiness, as the duo visits insanely delectable restaurants, picturesque locations and historical sites. The odd black-and-white mythological flashback feels a little out of place, as does some generally murky meta-plotting. This is echoed in how Coogan seems unusually downbeat all the way through this series, which adds a hint of moody darkness to his banter with Brydon.

Grace and Frankie: series 6
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin continue to find comedy gold as this sometimes daft show taps into properly meaningful issues without ever getting too serious. The chemistry between Fonda and Tomlin (and Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) is a joy to watch, whether they're giggling or crying together, and everyone in the surrounding cast has also deepened their roles beyond initial stereotypes. Some of the plotting feels badly contrived, perhaps overreaching for such a cheerful little show. But the ideas, humour and emotion are consistently engaging, adding thoughtful topicality and emotional resonance to the laughter. Alas, next season is set to be the final one.


Simply stunning, this devastatingly powerful drama traces the case of a serial rapist through the eyes of two detectives (the towering duo of Merritt Wever and Toni Collette) and one extremely complex victim (a bravely nuanced Kaitlyn Dever). Based on true events, the show unfolds with bracing authenticity, taking an angle rarely explored in a crime series: namely, a purely female perspective that is nuanced through the eyes of various characters. And there isn't a moment that exploits or sensationalises the crime. So not only is this finely written and directed, engaging and intensely emotional, but it's also deeply, powerfully important.

The Kominsky Method: series 1-2
I watched the entire first series on a flight from London to Los Angeles, wondering why I'd never seen it before. Then when I got home, I binged the second season. Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin are on peak form as an ageing actor and his agent struggling to keep up with life in Hollywood, generally making their own problems worse in the process. The writing is often laugh-out-loud hilarious, with some properly astute touches, and the guest stars are a lot of fun too. Each episode is a joy to watch as it spirals around the edges of standard sitcom territory, adding smart observations into each scene. 

Castle Rock: series 2
With a plot that's only tangentially connected to the first season, this series ramps things up quite a bit. The dense storyline is much more action-packed and also rather less internally engaging. But the enjoyably mashed-up echoes of Stephen King's novels are still very clever, with the best connections being the subtlest ones. And the cast is excellent, anchored by Tim Robbins, Lizzy Caplan, Barkhad Abdi and Elise Fisher. So it's perhaps forgivable that the writing has a tendency to slip into simplistic hyper-violence rather than grappling with the intriguing themes that are gurgling loudly under the surface. 


Avenue 5: A rare misfire from Armando Iannucci, this space-set comedy seems to continually miss the point of its own premise. Characters are enjoyably annoying, but all of them are loathesome. Even the gifted Hugh Laurie and Josh Gad can't make much of these idiots. Maybe it gets better, as it's been renewed for a second season. But no.

Kidding: Sorry, I recognise the genius of how this show is put together, and Jim Carrey's performance is seriously great (as are those from Catherine Keener, Judy Greer, Frank Langella). But the relentless sadness of the show just wore me out, and I simply couldn't get back into it when I started watching the second season.

NOW WATCHING: Little Fires Everywhere, Tales From the Loop, Outer Banks, Feel Good, Run, Dave, Homeland (8), One Day at a Time (4), Insecure (4), Killing Eve (3), What We Do in the Shadows (2).

COMING SOON: Hollywood, The Eddy, Space Force, Fargo (4), Star Trek Discovery (3), Dead to Me (2).

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Critical Week: Bust a move

With the warm, sunny weather this past week, it wasn't easy to concentrate on movies, so I spent a bit of time each day outside getting some exercise. And at home I spent more time catching up on TV series (including, after pointlessly resisting it, all of Tiger King). Otherwise, my lockdown routine has been pretty much the same as ever: watch a movie, eat something, watch a TV show, eat something, watch another movie, and so forth. And today they announced at least another three weeks of this.

There were a handful of big movies this week. The Dave Bautista comedy My Spy (above) is a surprisingly engaging action romp, although the comedy is a lot more fun than the thriller side of things. Chris Hemsworth goes all manly in Extraction, a gritty kidnap-rescue action movie that's riveting and violent. And Sam Claflin is at the centre of the farcical goings on in Love Wedding Repeat, a silly and charming romantic comedy with a magical cheat in the plot.

Ema •  Martin Eden
A White, White Day
Abominable • Butt Boy
Behind You
The best I saw this week was the indie comedy Faith Based, which premiered at Santa Barbara Film Festival in February before seeing all of its other festival slots vanish. It's a knowing, affectionate look at both moviemaking and America's religious film industry. Great characters, a funny script and some fabulous cameos too (FULL REVIEW). Two other independent films were a little less impressive: Getaway is an inventive inversion on the woman in danger horror movie, as three women turn the tables on some murderous rednecks; and Abominable is a yeti horror movie with only about half a script and no funds for sets or actual actors - so bad it's rather funny.

Finally, I caught up with 17 short films spread across three collections, released by New Queer Visions between November and February: The Danish Boys, The Latin Boys and The Israeli Boys. All of them are serious short dramas exploring issues of identity and culture relating to the gay male experience. Refreshingly, while the films are a bit of a mixed bag, there isn't a dud in the bunch. And a few of them are mini-masterpieces (REVIEWS).

Coming up over the next week are the action comedy Why Don't You Just Die, the controversial dark drama Cuck, the indie crime thriller Ghost and horror movies 1BR and We Summon the Darkness, plus three more Netflix movies: Wagner Moura in Sergio, the animated comedy The Willoughbys and the documentary Circus of Books.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Critical Week: Just walk away

Lockdown continues in London, as I try to keep my eye on new films that are available on streaming platforms. It's been a very mixed bag this week, with the bigger titles more disappointing than some smaller gems. The main frustration at the moment is that there's nothing else to do but watch a movie, which for me is work. So sometimes I dip into a TV series, and I try to take a walk outside every day or two just to keep my legs from locking up. The weather has improved dramatically this week, so it's not very easy to stay in, especially when movies aren't terribly inspiring.

The Netflix action comedy Coffee & Kareem looked promising, but just never comes together at all, despite valiant efforts from Ed Helms and Terrence Little Gardenhigh (above), plus Taraji P Henson. Universal made the bold decision to release the sequel Trolls World Tour straight to streaming, while all other big releases are being delayed. But the film is perfect for watching at home - less inventive than the first one. And Disney debuted its live-action remake The Lady and the Tramp on its streaming service, again unsurprising since it's not terribly ambitious, although it is good fun.

Same Boat
Who You Think I Am • Danger Close
Coffee & Kareem • Gold Dust 
Much better is the Curzon release Who You Think I Am, a slinky French thriller with romantic comedy overtones starring Juliette Binoche. Tigertail is a dull but moving drama about a Taiwanese-American man (the great Tzi Ma) reminiscing about choices he made. The Lost Husband is a very gentle downhome romance-novel style story starring Leslie Bibb and Josh Duhamel. Danger Close is a grippingly well-made battlefield movie dramatising a little known battle involving Anzac forces. And The Iron Mask is a bonkers Russian-Chinese coproduction featuring Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, an elaborately staged action fantasy odyssey.

Even further afield, Sea Fever is a claustrophobic horror movie from Ireland set on board a fishing boat. Also at sea, Same Boat is a genuinely hilarious comedy thriller shot guerrilla style on a cruise ship - it's a proper gem of a film. There's more horror in Behind You, a nasty bit of demon ghost grisliness that's creepy if not actually scary. The micro-budget Gold Dust is a not terribly funny comedy romp about treasure hunters in the desert. And Seeing Is Believing is a short film collection featuring high-quality segments from six countries exploring issues of identity and sexuality.

Coming up this week, more lockdown! Films I need to watch include the Sam Claflin romcom Love Wedding Repeat, the pitch-black comedy Why Don't You Just Die, the Baghdad-set terrorism drama Sergio, the sexu thriller Getaway, the monster movie Abominable and more horror 1BR.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Critical Week: Put me in coach

Another week of isolation, with a list of streaming releases so long that I can't possibly keep up with all of them. Frankly, it's tricky to even know what's coming out at any given time, as each streaming service does its own thing, while websites tend to do "editor's picks" rather than simply listing everything that's new. But the worst thing for me is missing the cinema itself: I've never gone this long without going to the movies, and I miss the communal experience of watching a film (or a play) along with an audience. Even a group of grumpy critics in a small basement screening room is better than sitting alone at home, where I'm limiting myself to two films per day just to maintain some sanity.

This week's biggest movie was The Way Back [UK title: Finding the Way Back], starring Ben Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach seeking redemption. It's moody and gritty, predictable but also movingly well-played. Also worth a look are the Netflix movie Uncorked, a warm father-son drama set in Memphis starring Mamoudou Athie and Courtney B Vance, and Standing Up, Falling Down, an understated comedy about an offbeat friendship starring Ben Schwartz and Billy Crystal.

Further afield, The Other Lamb is an artfully made and finely acted freakout about a charismatic cult leader (Michiel Huisman) and a follower (Raffey Cassidy) who begins to question things. Butt Boy is a pitch-black comedy-thriller played with a completely straight face. Tape is a worthy and perhaps overambitious take on #MeToo. And from Ukraine, Just Sex, Nothing Personal is a cute-silly comedy that isn't as sexy as it thinks it is.

Coming up this next week, I'll be watching the animated sequel Trolls World Tour, Josh Duhamel in The Lost Husband, Ed Helms in Coffee & Kareem, the sci-fi romcom Same Boat, the generational drama Tigertail, the Western comedy Gold Dust and other gems from my list of forthcoming streaming titles...