Saturday, 30 May 2020

Screen: Summer TV Roundup Part 1

Because of these extraordinary times, I've watched rather a lot more series television than usual in between the movies I'm reviewing (obviously, I can't cover theatre or dance these days). So I'm dividing my Summer TV Roundup into two parts. It seems like there's no end of new series popping up involving some serious talent both in front of and behind the cameras. As a result, there are still several intriguing shows on my to-do list, rather like how that pile of books to read just keeps growing...


Set in the mid-1940s, this fabulously produced drama roots its story in several little-known facts and then stirs in some fictional twists, until it explodes into a riotously entertaining fantasy in the final episode. The point is very strong: what would have happened if studio moguls had stood up for what was right way back then instead of cowering in the closet? The cast is simply awesome, anchored by by the glorious Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor, plus scene-stealing turns from Jim Parsons and Rob Reiner and a solid cast of newcomers. And not only is it a great "what if" but it also makes us wonder if we're there yet. 

The Great
From The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara comes another bawdy historical romp, this time centring on Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) and her stormy marriage to Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult). This witty approach would be much more engaging in half-hour increments; these hour-long episodes feel rather over-extended. But the dialog sizzles with wit and insight into bigger themes about politics, gender and power. And it also offers a wry slant on real historical events that brings them to life, sometimes in exhilaratingly funny ways. Some of the crudity is a little tiresome, and the rampant sex feels oddly timid, but the cast is excellent across the board. And the production design is fabulous.

There's an underlying nastiness to the premise of this adventure comedy, about two people who escape from their established lives based on a promise made 15 years earlier. Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson are good enough in the central roles to earn our sympathies, but the plotting is too gimmicky for its own good, constantly throwing in contrived obstacles, unnecessarily violent twists and gaping inconsistencies in the plot and characterisations. This means that the show never gets the chance to explore the much more intriguing central idea about dissatisfaction or the yearning for past simplicity.

Never Have I Ever
Gorgeously written, this teen comedy gets under the skin of its characters in a way that pulls the audience right into the hilariously soapy situations. There are layers of meaning here, including clever explorations of ethnicity, gender and sexuality. So even if the entire show feels a bit coy and gimmicky, it helps that the characters are realistically unpredictable, likeable even as they do all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. The cast is terrific across the board, anchored by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as the enjoyably hapless Devi, who muddles her relationships with everyone around her but has a darkly emotive centre.

The Eddy
Damien Chazelle combines his love of jazz with an edgy, verite style of filmmaking for this dramatic musical about the trials of running a groovy nightclub in Paris. The dark tone is a little much for a series, but the music has a loose energy, even if spontaneous jam sessions feel oddly contrived. The cast is excellent, including superb performers like Andre Holland, Amandla Steinberg, Leila Bekhti, Joanna Kulig and (far too little of) Tahar Rahim, but none of the characters are sympathetic, and they're so deliberately awful that they're not hugely believable either. The strong production values kept me watching, but I wouldn't want to spend any more time with these people

There's a dopey-sexy charm to this high-concept comedy anchored by the hugely likeable Robbie Amell, whose character dies young in 2033 and is uploaded into a virtual afterlife. He can keep in touch with the living world, including his high-maintenance fiancee (Allegra Edwards), who is paying the bills so controls his experience, and his clever-hot upload assistant Nora (Andy Allo), with whom he's falling in love, of course. There's nothing terribly smart about this show, and it never even tries to grapple with issues like mortality or regret. But it's packed with witty gags, great side characters and irresistible emotions. Looking forward to the next season.

Little Fires Everywhere
This insidious drama gets under the skin with its suggestive plotting, and since it takes until about the fifth episode to give anything away, the audience is hooked. The way the shows jumps around in time is very awkward, and the tone feels just a wee bit overwrought. But the cast is terrific, adults and teens alike, led by the adept Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, who rise above their rather typecast roles. So it feels like a shame that the plot felt so obvious and predictable, even though the writers kept trying to throw us off the scent.

What starts as a rather silly stoner comedy, cleverly deepens into something far more interesting, with astonishing undercurrents that say powerful things about friendships, personal ambition and the surprising nature of raw talent. The series hits its stride in the seventh episode, taking on mental illness before delving into some properly pungent internalised issues about what it takes to become a star. And the final three episodes are simply genius. Dave Burd and his crew are terrific in the roles, plus some fabulous guest stars. It's rare to see a show that's unafraid to be both ridiculous and unapologetically complex at the same time. A must-see.


Dead to Me: series 2
Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are back for more chaotic black comedy as two women who are inexorably linked by a bond of friendship that's entangled with death and murder. Resurrecting James Marsden as the hitherto unknown identical twin brother of the season one villain/victim makes this show feel like a full-on soap opera. Which is of course entertaining, even though there's not much to it. It may be thoroughly ridiculous, hinging on a series of ludicrous coincidences, but the ongoing messiness of the characters and the way they are increasingly intertwined is enjoyable. And the actors manage to add clever subtext.

The Conners: series 2b
There aren't many shows that are tapping into the current zeitgeist as adeptly as this does, poking gentle fun at everyday annoyances linked to much more profound truths about how the current global economy and right-wing governments are crushing the working class. There are quiet comments on immigration, social services, entrepreneurialism, ageing and pop culture scattered among these terrific characters, finely performed across the board (just give Laurie Metcalf all the Emmys). And the way the storylines continually catch reality is both entertaining and brave.

Insecure: series 4
I've had problems with this show from the start. I keep watching because of the terrific cast, but the characters just get more and more self-absorbed, with increasingly insulting storylines. This doesn't serve any of the actors well, because it's just too pushy and contrived for the characters to engage with the audience. It's odd that Issa Rae writes this herself, undermining her own character's integrity (and wasting the terrific Jay Ellis in the process). Although other side roles fare better. And the way it's structured to stretch out plot strands over multiple seasons is cynical and annoying. I give up.


Bless this Mess: series 2b
Essentially a ridiculous updating of Green Acres, this is the kind of show I would never stick with if it weren't for the actors in it. They manage to not only deliver hilarious comical performances, but are continuing to deepen their characters even as the show seems unable to figure out where it's heading. There are moments when Lake Bell and Dax Shepard seem to tap into something genuinely funny and relevant, but most scenes opt for the dumb gag rather than the smart one. Thankfully, there are sharp jokes too, but not enough to make me miss it now that it's been cancelled. 

Homeland: series 8
Claire Danes returned for one last hurrah as the brilliant but unstable Carrie in this tightly scripted final season. Cleverly highlighting how the world has changed since this show premiered, the drama is intense, as are the beautifully staged action sequences. And the writers clearly didn't feel constrained to play it safe. Both Danes and Mandy Patinkin are as excellent as ever, surrounded by a terrific supporting cast creating characters with their own stories and interests. So even as the narrative goes way off the rails in the final two episodes, with an implausible lapse for Carrie herself, what this show is dealing with gets more and more urgent, as does what it says about today's global political issues. 

Will & Grace: series 11
After its original eight-year run, this classic sitcom returned 12 years later for three more seasons, leading up to another series finale. It's a shame that the show's creators didn't use these three new series to push things further, or develop the characters in interesting directions. The comedy is amiably entertaining, but it's always far more mindless than the writers think it is. And while there are some great gags (as always for Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes), there were some excruciating bits too, including a bizarrely simplistic I Love Lucy homage. The ending is a bit happier and more open-handed this time, but once again it kind of missed the point.


Kim's Convenience: series 1-2
I've only watched two of four seasons so far, but I'm enjoying this show's askance approach to the usual sitcom about a mother, father and two grown kids. There's plenty to like about this show, including its dry humour and spiky interaction. That they're Korean Christians living in Toronto adds amusingly unexpected textures to the show, as do some intriguing wrinkles in their interaction. Although it's a bit of a problem that Paul Sun-Hyung Lee's Appa is simply too mean and self-absorbed to be likeable, even though he's skilfully played for laughs.

Elite: series 1-3
From Spain, this sexy-dopey high school soap is a guilty pleasure largely because of the beautiful, talented 25-year-old actors who play teens at a posh private school where each day seems to consist of an exam, a party and some blackmail. Plots also include murders and other violent nastiness, as the kids treat each other horribly. The first series had a lively vibe, while the second was dark and ugly, and the third continued with contrived, increasingly angry storylines to a gruesome climax and extended emotional finale. But it definitely has its moments, so I'm glad there's more to come.

The House of Flowers: series 1-3
This Mexican soap starts as a snappy-smutty comedy and morphs into a flailing comedy-melodrama about a messy upper-class family. By the middle of the second season, each character has given into his or her most idiotic personality traits, while the clumsy plots become increasingly corny (including a doomsday cult and TV talent competition). And in the third season, the timeline splits, crosscutting with the youthful antics of the older generation in the late-70s while neglecting the core cast. Most of these people are nasty and/or stupid, but they do manage to hold the interest. 

NOW WATCHING: Normal People, Mrs America, Snowpiercer, The Plot Against America, What We Do in the Shadows (2), Killing Eve (3), Kim's Convenience (3-4).

COMING SOON: Love Victor, Space Force, Messiah, I Know This Much Is True, A Series of Light, The Umbrella Academy (2), Queer Eye (5).

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Critical Week: Dress to impress

Lockdown rolls on, with another random batch of movies to watch this week. I'm always hoping there will be a gem hidden in there somewhere. The weather has been glorious in London, so I ventured out for a picnic one day, seeing friends (at a safe distance) for the first time in two months. It kind of gives you hope that this will all end someday. Meanwhile, one of this week's movies, the action comedy The Lovebirds, offered some ideas about how to dress to spice up those Zoom meetings. It's a dopey bit of fluff, but kind of just right for these times, and Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae make a unexpectedly terrific duo.

I'm No Longer Here • Snowpiercer
Only the Animals • End of Sentence
The Man Standing Next
John Hawkes and Logan Lerman are another solid double-act in End of Sentence, an engaging father-son road movie set in Ireland. Mario Van Peebles makes the B-movie crime drama A Clear Shot almost worth watching, plus the fact that it's based on a real hostage event. But it's very cheesy. There are no big-name actors in the sweet romance Angelfish, but it's charming enough. The French mystery thriller Only the Animals is expertly directed by Dominik Moll with an excellent ensemble cast and a twisty, involving plot. From Korea, The Man Standing Next is a riveting, exceptionally well-made thriller about the real-life assassination of the Korean president in 1979. From Thailand, Krabi 2562 is a moody experimental doc about the collision of past and present in a tourist city. And The Uncertain Kingdom is a collection of 20 short films addressing current issues in Britain (nine of them were screened to the press in January, and I saw the other 11 this week). Specially commissioned, the fascinatingly varied clips were made to explore the wake of Brexit, and have an additional resonance amid the pandemic chaos.

I have a rather long list of movies to watch over the next week, so we'll see how many of these I get around to: Dakota Johnson in The High Note, Sebastian Stan in The Last Full Measure, Luke Wilson in Guest of Honor, Willem Dafoe in Tommaso, the small-town drama To the Stars, the horror thriller The Dinner Party, the German drama The Collini Case and the documentary Homosaywhat.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Critical Week: Creation in isolation

With all film releases being online at the moment, studios are taking a few chances. Made in 2017, the JD Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye has finally come out in the UK. The delay is surprising considering that it stars Nicholas Hoult (above), even if feels a bit lacklustre. Even more surprising, Bong Joon Ho's 2013 sci-fi action thriller Snowpiercer has never been released in Britain but is finally arriving this month, no doubt due to Bong's Oscar triumph (the delay was a Weinstein debacle). It was fun to revisit this bonkers classic. And Warner Bros released its animated blockbuster Scoob! straight to streaming, which is a shame for audiences who like to see high-quality animation on a big screen. It's a rather contrived corporate product, but fun too.

Boys on Film 20 • The County
Cassandro the Exotico!
Scoob! • Frankie
Rebel in the Rye
Lower profile films include the cheesy horror anthology Evil Little Things, which centres on three very creepy dolls; the apocalyptic epic Edge of Extinction is gripping, even if it reveals both the ambition and inexperience of its filmmakers; the Spanish romcom I Love You, Stupid is predictable but pointed and engaging; the hugely involving Mexican drama I'm No Longer Here has a strikingly well-observed sense of style and music; the beautifully made Icelandic drama The County expertly stirs up some righteous rage at corruption; and Peccadillo's 20th short film collection is released to celebrate the distributor's 20th anniversary. Boys on Film 20: Heaven Can Wait is an essential set of LGBT-themed shorts, even if the 11 clips are a mixed bag.

The next movies on my to-watch list are: Issa Rae in The Lovebirds, John Hawkes in End of Sentence, Denis Menochet in Only the Animals, the Argentine thriller Intuition, the Korean thriller The Man Standing Next, and the Thai documentary Krabi 2562.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Critical Week: Stay alert

I've now passed eight weeks of lockdown (the first 10 days were in California), and while watching streaming movies is keeping me busy, I'm getting increasingly bored being stuck at home, staying safe and well even as I'm increasingly suspicious of my hay fever symptoms. Like everyone, I've filled time by going out for the occasional walk, taking on some cooking challenges and binge-watching TV shows. But we're here to talk about the films, and some of these felt like work...

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Socrates • Empathy, Inc.
The Wrong Missy • Redcon-1
David Spade and Lauren Lapkus (above) star in the stupid comedy The Wrong Missy, which has some amusing moments but no actual laughs. Woody Allen's likeable but uneven new comedy-drama A Rainy Day in New York stars Timothee Chalamet and Elle Fanning as a young couple who take separate odysseys leading to superficial self-discovery. Tom Hardy gives a fearsome performance in Capone, as the iconic gangster loses his mind in the last year of his life.

Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield star in the slow and rather thin, but beautifully shot romance The Photograph. Simon Bird's British comedy Days of the Bagnold Summer is wry and endearing, anchored by the superb Monica Dolan and Earl Cave, plus some starry scene-stealing cameos. And Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff lead the mopey, moody drug-addiction drama Castle in the Ground.

The powerful drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes on big issues with earthy, provocative honesty. From Italy, Fairytale is a pastiche candy-coloured comedy with a dark kick to it. And New French Shorts 2020 is a strong collection of seven mini-dramas that won acclaim at festivals over the past year.

There's another random collection of streaming movies to watch this coming week, including Nicholas Hoult in Rebel in the Rye, the animated comedy Scoob!, the apocalyptic thriller Edge of Extinction, the Spanish comedy I Love You Stupid, the Mexican drama I'm No Longer Here, the Icelandic comedy The County and the narrative doc The Painter and the Thief.

See the website for FULL REVIEWS

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Critical Week: Socially distant

The weather has warmed up again in the UK this past week, which makes staying indoors more annoying - apart from that allowed one-hour walk each day. But there are plenty of films to watch, and I've also binged some TV (loved Ryan Murphy's Hollywood and enjoyed Mindy Kaling's Never Have I Ever). As for the movies, it was another uneven batch.

The Half of It • Spaceship Earth
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find
Cry for the Bad Man
Can You Keep a Secret?
Bigger films included Arkansas, Clark Duke's directing debut. He stars with Liam Hemsworth (above) in a thin but entertaining drug thriller infused with Coen-like comedy. Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer deserve to become stars for their work in The Half of It, one of the finest teen comedy-dramas in recent memory. It upends, and betters, all of the usual tropes of the genre. On the other hand, All Day and a Night gets stuck in its grim, tough portrayal of of a teen (the superb Ashton Sanders) caught in a cycle of drug-fuelled violence.

Some other decent films included the low-key drama Working Man, weaving a witty, involving story following the closing of a small-town factory; and Spaceship Earth is a fascinating doc about biospherians trying to help the planet, but caught up in rumours that they're in a doomsday cult. Guilty pleasures included the bonkers horror movie Reborn, which carefully recreates a 1970s vibe; and Enemy Lines is a standard WWII rescue adventure, but it's nicely shot on location with a solid cast. Less successful were the atmospheric but vacuous fairy tale horror Gretel & Hansel, the intimate but unsatisfying drama Clementine, and the hammy but over-serious home-invasion thriller Cry for the Bad Man.

I have quite a few things to watch over the next week, including Timothee Chalamet in A Rainy Day in New York, David Spade in The Wrong Missy, Kumail Nanjiani in The Photograph, Tamsin Grieg in Days of the Bagnold Summer, Imogen Poots in Castle in the Ground, festival hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always, coming-of-age drama Angelfish, horror anthology Evil Little Things, sci-fi thriller Red Rover, and Italian comedy-drama Fairytale.