Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Critical Week: Riding the rails

London critics got to see Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in the true story The Railway Man this past week - a deeply relevant, perhaps too-emotional drama about reconciliation and understanding. Another highlight was Denis Villeneuve's haunting, exquisitely well-made Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as men who react very differently to a child kidnapping. We also had a chance to see the fractured JFK assassination drama Parkland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in the smart and mature rom-com Enough Said and DeNiro and Pfeiffer going all Besson on us in The Family.

Screenings began this week for the upcoming 57th London Film Festival. The first two were James Franco's bleakly artful but rather off-putting Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying and the surehanded but extremely low-key Aussie thriller Mystery Road. More on those soon. We also saw the sequel to an animated film we'd forgotten about, the goofy but engaging The Reef 2: High Tide, the super-pretentious arthouse hit Leviathan, and the talky, intriguing Argentine gay drama Solo.

This coming week we'll catch up with Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck in Runner Runner, Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now, Sheridan Smith in The Powder Room, Francois Ozon's Jeune et Jolie, the British immigration drama Leave to Remain, the quirky festival film Floating Skyscrapers and Alex Gibney's doc The Armstrong Lie. We were also supposed to see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, but the distributor has uninvited most critics from the press screening for some reason. Finally, the Raindance Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday and runs until 6th October in Piccadilly. Updates to come!

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Critical Week: Going gaga

Yes, London critics were treated to the B-movie spoof Machete Kills this past week. The film essentially places Danny Trejo amid a flurry of wacky star gags including Lady Gaga, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Sofia Vergara, Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jessica Alba, Amber Heard, Vanessa Hudgens and so on. At least they all look like they had fun. We also finally got a look at Naomi Watts as Diana in a film that's sure to spark snide criticism even though it's not actually that awful. It's not that good either. Much better, but equally likely to receive cynical reviews due to its open-handed sentimentality, is Philomena. Based on an extraordinary true story, the film features awards-attention performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

A little off the beaten path, we also had the gritty, especially well-made care-home drama Short Term 12 with Brie Larson, the strained Scottish rom-com Not Another Happy Ending with Karen Gillan, the cleverly constructed mock-doc The Conspiracy, and the eye-opening athletics doping doc 9.79*.

This coming week, we'll be watching Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in The Railway Man, James Gandolfini and Julia Louis Dreyfus in Enough Said, Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Family, Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden in Parkland, the festival winner Leviathan and the animated sequel The Reef 2: High Tide.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Critical Week: Summer's last hurrah

London had a flurry of hot summery sunshine last week before the much cooler weekend arrived with rainstorms and more typically chilly autumnal weather. All hope isn't gone for a bit more warmth, but the effect is likely to be pretty dramatic at the box office! Meanwhile, I caught up with the summery Adore, a beach-town drama from Australia starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as lifelong friends who fall for each others' sons (Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville). It's a strikingly grown-up, startlingly involving movie by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine.

Not only did it open in the US last week, but it features in the line-up for the forthcoming 57th London Film Festival, which was announced last week at a gala launch event attended by Paul Greengrass, director of the opening night film Captain Phillips. The LFF is a festival of festival, with no significant world premieres but lots of amazing movies from other festivals. It runs 9-20 October, but press screenings begin on 23 September.

Other films viewed by UK press last week include: 42, a hugely involving biopic about groundbreaking baseball icon Jackie Robinson; R.I.P.D., a derivative and unfunny ghostly action-comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges; Like Father Like Son, a masterful Japanese drama about parenthood from the gifted Hirokazu Kore-eda;  Cal, a darkly dramatic sequel to the Bristol gang-drama Shank; The Broken Circle Breakdown, a gorgeously made and bleakly emotional Belgian drama infused with bluegrass music; and Fire in the Blood, an urgently important documentary about the injustices of Big Pharma when dealing with the global impact of Aids. I also caught up with two stunning restorations: the trippy 1969 ancient Rome odyssey Fellini-Satyricon and the magisterial 1924 expedition doc The Epic of Everest - watching each of these was like having a mystical experience. Very different ones, I should add.

This coming week, we have screenings of: Naomi Watts in the already notorious Diana biopic, Anna Kendrick in the comedy Drinking Buddies, the Danny Trejo in the B-movie sequel Machete Kills, Brie Larson in the acclaimed drama Short Term 12, the Glasgow rom-com Not Another Happy Ending, the British thriller Harrigan, the thriller The Conspiracy, and a restoration of Herzog/Kinski's gonzo classic Nosferatu.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

As a film critic, I love movies even though watching them feels like work as I have to analyse every detail and remember everyone's names! To escape - and to recapture my enjoyment of less demanding entertainment - I watch guilty pleasure television. Sometimes this is quality stuff like Mad Men or Top of the Lake, but I like silly TV like Franklin & Bash or Downton Abbey just as much. And I love smart-funny sitcoms (Veep, Modern Family and Parks and Recreation are favourites). Here's what I've been watching this summer, in chronological order...

Mad Men: series 6
created by Matthew Weiner; with Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks; AMC/US *****
The quality of this show never flags, as the scripts continually provoke characters to their breaking points. So much happened in this season that it's impossible to outline briefly: each character went through an odyssey that left them profoundly changed. Many of them were heading in all-new directions as the final episode wrapped up. What's fascinating is watching each person try to do the right thing but fail at every turn because of weakness, lust, ambition or even ignorance. These are amazing people, staggeringly well-played by a first-rate cast, including strong new roles this season for Linda Cardellini, Harry Hamlin and James Wolk. They even pushed young Sally (Kiernan Shipka) in some pretty intense directions, in the process thankfully bringing back her nice-creepy friend Glen (Marten Holden Weiner). (May-Jun.13)

Franklin & Bash: series 3
created by Bill Chais, Kevin Falls; with Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Breckin Meyer, Reed Diamond, Malcolm McDowell, Heather Locklear; TBS/US ***.
This is a rare beast: a mindless guilty pleasure that's silly and inconsequential, but never stupid. Gosselaar (all grown up since Saved by the Bell) and Meyer have terrific chemistry as womanising, rule-defying surfer lawyers who join an elite Los Angeles legal firm run by McDowell's eccentric renaissance man. This season, the firm is managed by a whip-cracking Locklear, who adds even more energy to the show, not that it needed it. This is a free-wheeling comedy that has a lot of fun with its weekly oddball court cases, including celebrity judge guest stars. And all of the characters are hilarious, including the guys' assistants, who live with them in their Malibu beach house, where their neighbourly feud with Rob Lowe gets a nice pay-off. Yes, it's utterly ridiculous, but it constantly surprises us with smart comedy and even some character depth when we least expect it. (Jul.13)

Top of the Lake
created by Jane Campion, Gerard Lee; with Elisabeth Moss, David Wenham, Peter Mullan, Thomas M Wright, Holly Hunter; BBC/NZ ****.
Embracing mystery and ambiguity in ways that we haven't seen on TV since Twin Peaks, this series plays with our curiosity, dropping all kinds of clues in every scene. We're never sure if these are important keys to understanding the bigger picture or off-handed details to reel us in. But it's absolutely mesmerising, set in a spectacular New Zealand mountain community. And Moss' riveting performance anchors the show impeccably, drawing us in with a mix of steely tenacity, earthy emotion and painful baggage. Her interaction with shifty cop Wenham, nice-guy childhood boyfriend Wright and bullish gangster Mullan is simply magical. Each of these men is a riot of conflicting personality traits that feeds into the central mystery about a missing pregnant teen. But where she is and who her baby's father is are secondary to Moss' own journey. And Hunter's seriously odd guru adds some absurd humour along the way. (Jul-Aug.13)

True Blood: series 6
created by Alan Ball; with Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard, Sam Trammell, Rob Kazinsky; HBO/US ***.
After a couple of rather soapy seasons, this series rocketed through a tense story that had everyone at each others' throats: government thugs are up to something awful, the now godlike Bill (Moyer) is trying to change the world, lovelorn Eric (Skarsgard) is out for revenge, Sam (Trammell) is caught between werewolves and shifters, and Sookie (Paquin) has met a super fairy-vamp (Kazinsky) who has pined after her for 5,000 years. Every episode is packed with jolts that catch us off guard, including a number of high-profile deaths. And even though it's completely over-the-top, it's packed with wonderfully entertaining side characters who make it unmissable, notably Anna Camp's insane vampire-hunter, Kristin Bauer van Straten's always-angry diva and Deborah Ann Woll's tormented young blood-sucker. But everyone surprises us in this series. (Jul-Aug.13)

House of Cards
created by Beau Willimon; with Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Michael Kelly, Corey Stoll; Netflix/US ****
Spacey brilliantly channels the ghost of Ian Richardson's character in this remake of the iconic 1990 British series about an ambitious politician ruthlessly pulling the strings of government for his own benefit. It's dark and twisted, and Spacey lets us see not only the character's manipulative cruelty but also his inner insecurities. Even more vivid is Wright's portrayal of his equally ambitious wife. This is one of the strongest women in film or TV at the moment, and you can't take your eyes off her. Mara is plucky but a bit soft as the reporter caught up in the nastiness. But Stoll shines as a Congressman forced into all kinds of dark corners. His plot strand may feel preachy and somewhat forced, but it's the most emotionally engaging element in the whole show. Unlike the original version, which was a stand-alone mini-series (continued in two further stand-alone series), this remake ends on a cliffhanger that clearly leads to a second season. (Aug.13)

created by David Schickler, Jonathan Tropper; with Antony Starr, Ulrich Thomsen, Ivana Milicevic, Frankie Faison, Ben Cross; Cinemax/US ***
This small-town thriller is a decent guilty pleasure with its twisty plot and colourful characters - a Western set in present-day America. It centres on an ex-con (Starr) who passes himself off as the new sheriff in an unusually violent rural Pennsylvania town (shootouts every day!), where he's trying to win back his old girlfriend (Milicevic), daughter of the New York mob boss (Cross) who wants him dead. Meanwhile, he continually locks horns with a local gangster (Thomsen) who grew up in the local Amish community. Starr's central performance is eerily reminiscent of Arrow's Steven Amell (they could play twins): beefy but expressionless. But the show is also misogynistic and racist, while the writing and directing (and especially the fight choreography) are frequently quite lazy, all of which is surprising with Alan Ball's name attached as a producer. Amid continual violence, the sex is the stuff of male fantasy: women are often naked, helpless and thankless, but never the men. The only interesting character is Hoon Lee's cross-dressing fix-it expert, but he gets tamed as the series progresses. (Aug.13)

> Autumn highlights include the finale of Dexter, the returns of Homeland and Downton Abbey, and the new season of sitcoms.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Critical Week: Into the blue

This week, London critics caught up with this year's Palme d'Or winner, Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a staggeringly involving romance starring Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. The film has had a lot of press for its three-hour running time and explicit lesbian sex scenes, but it's also an unnervingly honest relationship movie. It deserves the prizes. And there will be more to come.

More in the mainstream, we had a late-scheduled screening of the concert documentary One Direction: This Is Us, which is a lot of fun, and sharply well made, although calling it a documentary is stretching the definition of the word, as it's actually a 90-minute promo for Syco Records. Saoirse Ronan stars in How I Live Now, based on the book about teens trying to start their lives over in WWIII Britain (an embargo means I can't say more). Halle Berry stars in The Call, a more-involving than normal thriller about an emergency phone operator who gets caught up in a nightmare. The ending is contrived, but it's utterly riveting.

From Korea we had Pieta, the new drama from Kim Ki-duk, who delights in making audiences squirm - and this is no exception as it cleverly tells a twisted story of redemption and sacrifice centred on a mother and son. Sort of. From Britain, the Indian-subculture drama Jadoo is lively and engaging, and packed with delicious food from Leicester's Golden Mile. And we also saw the restored final cut of Robin Hardy's 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, which hasn't really aged well but is still pretty freaky.

This coming week I've got: Robin Wright and Naomi Watts in Adore, Harrison Ford in the baseball drama 42, Ryan Reynolds in the ghostly action-comedy R.I.P.D., Hirokazu Kore-eda's acclaimed Like Father Like Son, the Seoul Olympics doc 9.79*, the Aids medication doc Fire in the Blood, and the BFI's restoration of the 1924 expedition doc The Epic of Everest. We also have the launch event for the 57th London Film Festival (9-20 Oct), where we'll finally get our hands on this year's programme.