Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Critical Week: Join the jet set

Diane Kruger and Bryan Cranston are terrific in The Infiltrator, based on the true story of federal agents infiltrating the Colombian drug trade in the mid-80s. And then there's Jonah Hill and Miles Teller getting involved in the illicit arms trade in War Dogs, a lively and too-violent comedy from the director of The Hangover. The week's other heavy hitter was also a true story, although it's from the 1860s. Free State of Jones is a long, important and perhaps too-earnest drama starring Matthew McConaughey as a southerner who rebelled against the Confederacy.

And then there was the British post-apocalyptic thriller The Girl With All the Gifts, a terrific premise with an excellent cast that includes Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine and talented newcomer Sennia Nanua. The third film in the series, The Purge: Election Year continues the rather anachronistic anti-violence preachiness alongside gratuitous grisly horror. 400 Days is an uneven low-fi thriller starring Brandon Routh and Caity Lotz as astronauts preparing to go to Mars but ending up somewhere entirely different. And Liebmann is an involving, offbeat German drama set in France, as a guy moves to a rural town to escape his past, but it of course catches up with him.

This coming week I have screenings of Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, the animated adventure Kubo and the Two Strings, the action mayhem of Kickboxer: Vengeance, the arthouse thriller Under the Shadow, the acclaimed festival film The Clan and the horror romp We Are the Flesh.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Critical Week: I'm with the band

David Brent makes the jump from the BBC TV series The Office to the big screen for Life on the Road, the continuing mock-doc adventures of a man whose every word and action makes the audience squirm uncomfortably. It's sometimes funny, and has some unexpected emotion too. I caught up very late with both the DC Comics all-star supervillain action romp Suicide Squad and the Zac Efron-Adam Devine comedy Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates - neither are very good, but they're probably just what their target audiences want. Jamie Dornan stars in the involving, creepy Hitchcockian thriller The 9th Life of Louis Drax. And the must-see documentary Tickled follows a New Zealand journalist down a jaw-dropping rabbit hole as he investigates a secret society. Or maybe it's something else entirely.

I also caught two stage productions over the weekend. Groundhog Day at the Old Vic is a new musical based on the 1993 comedy movie classic, with a book by the original screenwriter Danny Rubin and songs by the genius Tim Minchin. It's visually a bit too busy, but the story is told with jaw-dropping invention and energy, a passionate, seriously gifted cast and fantastic music. It's also funny and surprising, and it carries a powerful emotional and thematic kick at the end.A much smaller production, The Past is a Tattooed Sailor is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre. It's a story of a 20-something orphan exploring his past through his great-uncle's celebrity-filled anecdotes plus a few ghosts wandering around the family's country manor. It's a bit fragmented, with lots of short, sharp scenes that rely on brainy dialog. But it's darkly fascinating and ends up thoughtfully provocative.

Among the films coming up this next week, we have screenings of Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in War Dogs, Bryan Cranston in The Infiltrator, Gemma Arterton in The Girl With All the Gifts, and the doc In Pursuit of Silence.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Critical week: Shark attack!


Aside from taking a few days off from moviegoing to spend some time with friends in Berlin, this past week has been all about the undersea menace! I had two shark-attack romps, from very different ends of the cinematic spectrum. First there was The Shallows, a taut, cleverly constructed thriller in which Blake Lively is stalked by a great white on a beach in Mexico. And then there was Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, easily the worst in a pretty terrible series. The biggest mystery is why, with the additional cash and (ahem!) filmmaking experience, this is such a complete and utter mess. Still, it has some great gags, and Ian Ziering and Tara Reid continue to approach the nonsense with hilariously straight faces.

Higher quality cinema came courtesy of Brian Cox in The Carer. As a raging thespian, Cox is on terrific scene-chomping form, and the film's refreshingly low-key approach makes it funny, warm and even provocative. There was also the documentary Can We Take a Joke? in which a bunch of stand-up comics discuss how they see society slipping away from free speech because everyone is always offended about everything. It's a strikingly important little film.

Coming up this next week, I'll catch a very late screening of the barely screened supervillain blockbuster Suicide Squad, Ricky Gervais' spin-off David Brent: Life on the Road, the horror sequel The Purge: Election Year, Jamie Dornan in The 9th Life of Louis Drax, the German drama Liebmann and the secret-society doc Tickled.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Critical Week: Off the grid

London critics had a chance to catch up this week with the pointed drama Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen as a father raising his six kids out in the forest with a very well-rounded education. It's packed with great ideas, and has terrific performances from Mortensen and George MacKay as his eldest son.

Also this week, Matt Damon was back as Jason Bourne, reuniting with Paul Greengrass for another ripping espionage thriller. Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster all get great roles in the present-day Western Hell or High Water, a riveting exploration of the modern world with plenty of added suspense. There was also a new movie version of the children's' classic novel Swallows and Amazons, with the excellent Kelly Macdonald, Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott in the cast, but little in the way of tension. And the TV series Looking concluded with a movie that continued creator Andrew Haigh's refusal to play into stereotypes in his exploration of the intertwined lives of three gay men in San Francisco, beautifully played by Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett and Frankie Alvarez.

I have no screenings in the diary for the coming week, because I am heading out of London on holiday. It will be my first time out of England since last November - a well earned break, I think! So I intend to see no movies, although I may preload a couple on my phone for the flights, such as Brian Cox in The Carer and the gritty teen romance Black. But I need a screen break...

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Critical Week: A big buddy

London critics saw two big effects-based movies this week featuring young kids interacting with huge digital costars. Steven Spielberg brings his usual sense of wonder to The BFG, based on the Roald Dahl classic. The excellent cast features Mark Rylance, newcomer Ruby Barnhill and Penelope Wilton, and the story is involving and lovely, although it does feel very animated. Surprisingly, Pete's Dragon feels rather more tactile and grounded, with its loveable giant green furry puppy dog-like dragon. It's just as wondrous, with fine acting from Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley and Robert Redford.

Off the beaten path, we had screenings of Things to Come, a clever, thoughtful French drama starring Isabelle Huppert; the moving documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, about the American journalist kidnapped and executed by Islamic State; and the artful portmanteau movie Confessions, exploring issues of love and sex through rather actorly monologs.

This coming week I have rescheduled screenings for both Jason Bourne and Hell or High Water, plus that other Chris Pine movie Star Trek Beyond, Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic and the new film version of the British classic Swallows and Amazons. Then I'm off on a short holiday for five days, hurrah! My first proper break since last November.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Shadows on the Stage: Revenge or redemption

Stalking the Bogeyman
dir Markus Potter • scr David Holthouse, Markus Potter
with Gerard McCarthy, Mike Evans, Glynis Barber, Geoffrey Towers, Amy Van Nostrand, John Moratis
Southwark Playhouse 15.Jul-6.Aug.16

Staged in Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre, this remarkable play immerses the audience in a topic we feel we understand already. But scene after scene flips the issues on their head, forcing us to a deeper understanding. It's a powerful and important drama, beautifully staged.

Based on the real experiences of writer David Holthouse, the show hinges on a demanding performance from actor Gerard McCarthy, who plays David from age 7 to his early 30s. The show opens with him narrating the events as an adult who has decided to kill the man who raped him 25 years earlier. Then we flash back, as young David is with his parents (Barber and Towers) at a dinner party with their friends (Van Nostrand and Moratis), whose 14-year-old sporting star son (Evans) teases David in the basement before launching his assault.

The performances are of course rather heightened, with grown men playing young boys, but that somehow makes the whole thing even more chilling, especially as they get older and we can still see their childlike insecurities. Evans and McCarthy (pictured) are superb at every stage, and their later confrontations are both gripping and wrenchingly emotional.

Director Potter stages this in the round, with the set surrounding the audience. Actors emerge from the seats to play their scenes before disappearing back into the crowd. It's a clever touch that makes a point, and the script maintains this kind of subtle complexity at every turn, upending expectations and challenging accepted wisdom.

The story hinges around David's urgent cry: "Why should I be scared? He's the one who should be scared!" So without overtly saying it, the play becomes a powerful, riveting exploration of feelings the entire audience shares about the state of the world today. This also makes the characters' complex mix of anger and compassion increasingly urgent.