Saturday, 31 December 2016

A Year in Shadows: 2016

36th Shadows Awards: Happy New Year!

There's an even wider variety than usual in my top 10 this year, but all of these are films I simply couldn't forget, mainly due to the sheer skill of the filmmakers. Pablo Larrain brought unusual depth and complexity to his exploration of legacy and celebrity in Jackie; Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea is a timely documentary, a heart-pounding adventure and a heart-rending drama at the same time; Damien Chazelle's La La Land is a joyous celebration of love and aspiration in a city known for making and crushing dreams. Those are just the top three, and I feel as strongly about all the movies in my top 50 this year. (Long lists happen when you see some 500 movies a year!) Full lists and then some are ON THE SITE...

  1. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)
  2. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
  3. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
  4. Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes)
  5. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
  6. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
  7. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
  8. It's Only the End of the World (Xavier Dolan)
  9. The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz)
  10. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari)
Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Isabelle Huppert (Elle, Things to Come)

Geza Rohrig (Son of Saul)

Naomie Harris (Moonlight, Our Kind of Traitor, Collateral Beauty)

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)

  1. The Boss (Ben Falcone)
  2. Ride Along 2 (Tim Story)
  3. Stonewall (Roland Emmerich)
  4. Assassin's Creed (Justin Kurzel)
  5. Inferno (Ron Howard)
  6. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (Jake Szymanski)
  7. The Greasy Strangler (Jim Hosking)
  8. Bad Santa 2 (Mark Waters)
  9. London Has Fallen (Babak Najafi)
  10. Warcraft (Duncan Jones)

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Critical Week: Baby you're a firework

I've only had one actual press screening in the last week - Ang Lee's new drama Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. It's a fascinating idea, made with a striking technical approach and a solid cast. But even they can't quite sell the rather simplistic dialog. On disc, I also caught up with the Swedish comedy-drama A Man Called Ove, a delightfully engaging story about a grumpy old man who begins to understand why he's like he is. Zero Days is another expertly assembled and deeply chilling documentary from Alex Gibney, this time about how a computer worm invaded the world and changed the nature of warfare. Another film doesn't have a UK release date, so here are my comments...

Hello, My Name Is Doris
dir Michael Showalter;
with Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly, Stephen Root, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kumail Nanjiani, Peter Gallagher, Natasha Lyonne 16/US ***

The clever premise of this comedy is somewhat undermined by its slapstick slant. Field is terrific as the retirement-age Doris, who has been caring for her mother all her life, and is only now getting her first taste of freedom, so she develops a crush on a hot new employee (Greenfield) in her office. Where this goes is warm and funny, and sometimes movingly astute. But the film is infused with corny touches, from Doris' frankly absurd clothing to her quirky bumbling. Refreshingly, she's also realistically web-savvy and open to pop musicality, which allows Field to transcend the limits of the writing and direction. And the plot has some nice surprises up its sleeve, most of all the chemistry between Field and Greenfield. And it thankfully avoids sentimentality. And it's great to see not only Field in such a meaty role, but also the fabulous Daly as her lifelong pal. Both should really be on our screens all the time.

I don't have any screenings until January 10th, but I still have several unwatched screener discs at home to catch up on, plus an endless supply of screener links, if I can cope with watching movies hiccupping and buffering along the way. There are also unwatched TV series to catch up on, as well as hopefully some non-screen time if the weather isn't too terrible.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Shadows on the Screen: Winter TV roundup

There's been a lot worth watching on TV over the past few months, with a range of comedy, drama and anthology. As I've said before, watching television is a great escape for me from the work-minded approach I have to take to the movies. So here's what's been filling my spare time....


Complex and twisty, this ambitious adaptation of the Michael Crichton thriller has an enjoyable Groundhog Day premise as it resets itself each morning while building the narrative entanglements. Led by a formidable Thandie Newton (above right), the cast is excellent, diving into characters who are either robots layered with identity issues, guests trying to live a fantasy or creators with god complexes. It's an often thrilling mix, although the open-ended nature of the premise means it could run for years without reaching anything like a sensible conclusion. Yes, it takes a rather too-clever approach that tantalises the audience without giving any proper resolution.

The Young Pope
It's nothing short of tragic that this show failed to spark solid ratings or awards attention. After seeing the first two astonishing episodes as a feature film at the Venice Film Festival, I was wondering if creator-director Paolo Sorrentino could sustain the mix of comedy, drama and surrealism. Indeed he did, and magnificently so. Where this series goes is nothing short of revolutionary. It's witty, disturbing and gorgeous at the same time, and it was impossible to predict how these events would play out. And the acting by Jude Law, Diane Keaton, James Cromwell and Silvio Orlando is some of the very best on TV all year. 

This ITV series starts out a bit dryly, packing in a lot of historical events into a melodramatic set-up, then in episode 4 it shifts up a gear into Downton Abbey guilty pleasure territory, with the involving, sudsy romance between the young queen and her cousin Albert (nicely underplayed by Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes, pictured). Sumptuously produced, this is light entertainment with just a hint of the weight of history. And it's so much fun to watch, that it doesn't really matter that it's not offering very much actual insight into the life of Queen Victoria. ITV should have no trouble with keeping this show running for several years.

The Crown
Like a 100-years-later version of Victoria, with a much brainier script, this series begins with the romance and marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip (the superb Claire Foy and Matt Smith), and quickly introduces the illness of George VI (the amazing Jared Harris). The second episode is nothing short of a masterpiece. Produced to a very high standard, it's the high-calibre writing and direction that elevate this beyond the more soapy Victoria. Netflix went all out on this series, and it shows. And as she demonstrated in Wolf Hall, Foy is one of the finest actors working today when it comes to conveying a lifetime in a glance.

This Is Us
Everything about this show feels a little pointed, but it's beautifully written and acted, with characters who are grounded and authentic. The inter-connections between the disparate members of this family are fascinating, put together in a way that pretty much anyone watching can resonate with. And the issues touched on are strong and meaningful, mainly exploring discrimination on the basis of everything from economy and profession to weight and race. The characters also have a complexity to them that makes them nicely unpredictable, even if the way the writers fit them together is a bit tidy, like a softer, kinder, easier variation on Transparent.

This lightly interconnected eight-part anthology series is very nicely written, shot and acted, although the attempt to cover a wide range of topics and situations feels a little stilted. Essentially everything comes from a straight-white-male perspective, including the two episodes with rather leery lesbian elements. But there are astute moments all the way through, with sharp casting that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Orlando Bloom, Jane Adams, Malin Akerman, Emily Ratajkowski and Raul Castillo. The two most clearly connected episodes - about brothers (Evan Jonigkeit and Dave Franco) setting up a hipster brewery in their Chicago garage - are flat-out terrific. 


Difficult People: Series 2
Deranged, fast and very silly, this show uses dense 30 Rock-style delivery for its smart, snappy humour. Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner (pictured) are ridiculous as two struggling, unprincipled comedians in New York, willing to do pretty much anything for even a hint of success. And the great Andrea Martin as Julie's mum is a stroke of genius. The things they get up to are hilariously stupid, written with an inevitable sense of failure that's rather annoying. But what they say is laceratingly funny, naming names as they go after pop culture targets. And a string of starry guests (including, inevitably, Tina Fey) adds a terrific kick. 

Transparent: Series 3
This show showed a bit of strain in this season, both in the balance of comedy and drama and in the way it developed the central characters. The problem is that these people are becoming increasingly selfish and unlikeable. They're also turning on each other, which is dangerous in a show about a family. The actors are all so good that they continually remind us that they truly love each other, but the characters are feeling isolated, lashing out as they try to survive increasingly impossible situations. We may feel their pain, but it isn't easy to root for anyone.

Black Mirror: Series 3
Moving to Netflix, Charlie Brooker's technology-themed Twilight Zone-style series is seriously beefed up. At an hour long each (with a feature-length finale), these feel more like stand-alone movies than an anthology TV series, especially with the A-list cast including Bryce Dallas Howard (as a woman desperate to improve her social media rating), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (a party girl living in an alternate 1987), Kelly Macdonald (a cop trying to stop a mind-boggling tech attack) and Wyatt Russell (a tester trying a too-real virtual reality game, pictured), plus rising stars like James Norton, Alex Lawther and Sarah Snook. Each episode carries a serious wallop. Unmissable.

You're the Worst: Series 3
Continuing to tilt into the edgier areas of the characters lives, this stunningly well written and played comedy somehow managed to turn even bleaker this year. As their relationship grows, it's getting increasingly difficult for the central characters (Chris Geery and Aya Cash) to be quite so blithely self-involved. So the writers have spread out to indulge in the side characters a bit more, which is kind of distracting since they're all pretty cartoonish, and not nearly as interesting. But the central storyline is as heartbreaking as ever.

Please Like Me: Series 4
This extraordinary comedy from Australia continues to throw curveballs at the audience, with its gang of prickly, unpredictable characters veering from hilariously outrageous comedy to wrenching emotion. This series started off lively and silly, with the usual mix of romantic chaos and family strains. And then in the final episodes it turned astonishingly dark, grappling with serious emotions in a way that's meaningful and important. The mixture of highs and lows is daring, as is the fact that actor-creator Josh Thomas' protagonist isn't always very likeable. But we can't help but love him.

Masters of Sex: Series 4
This show continues to depart from real life with its soapy plotting, as Masters and Johnson (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, still excellent) began the season feuding and sulking in opposite ends of their laboratory. Ho hum. The strain is also showing in the writers' feeble attempts to keep the superb Caitlin Fitzgerald (as Johnson's angry ex-wife) in the show, while they seem unsure what to do with the amazing Annaleigh Ashford (as Betty the feisty receptionist). It did snap out of the doldrums as it went along, but there clearly needs to be a rethink. And it needs to be sexier than this.

Cold Feet: Series 6
Like a British take on the classic series Thirtysomething, this hit comedy-drama ran from 1997 to 2003, then returned this summer for an eight-part reunion season. The set-up is more than a little contrived, with a sudden marriage and relocation back to Manchester for Adam (James Nesbitt) seemingly because no one ever considered that his friendless 15-year-old son could move out to Singapore with him. And how the plot developed was pretty ridiculous. Still, the chemistry between the actors remains engaging, and it's especially great to see Fay Ripley and John Thomson back in the show's most interesting roles.

Shameless: Series 7
This inventive show wobbled slightly as this season began, straining to find outrageous plots. Some of this was fun (like Frank's "new" Gallagher family), and the darker observations about things like teen parenthood and mental illness are still dead-on and surprisingly moving. A few episodes in, it regained its character-based stride, pushing each person into an all-new form of nightmarish desperation while somehow maintaining the pathos. And as always, the climax was the return of Hurricane Monica (the wonderfully slurring Chloe Webb) in episode 9. And it got better and better from there, right to another brilliant, shattering finale.


The Real O'Neals: Series 2
This smart-silly sitcom is expanding on its ensemble cast with spiralling narratives that are a lot of fun. Although it's odd that the show seems to be neglecting its central figure, the gay teen Kenny (Noah Galvin), this year. It's as if the writers can't think beyond the trite cliches they continually resort to, since his storyline is the least entertaining one in the show. It's a mistake to go down this road with a show that started out so fresh. The writing is still strong, and the superb cast keeps the characters endearing. But it seems to be pandering to the masses by simplifying everyone to just one or two personality traits.

Supergirl: Series 2
After Arrow went dark, fragmented and chaotic about a year ago, The Flash followed suit in the first episode of this season, bogging down in its unnecessarily murky convolutions. So their sister show Supergirl probably has one more year before it also heads into creator Greg Berlanti's murky bog. Worrying signs are showing already, with the departure of Calista Flockhart, the show's primary source of comedy sass. And the action is turning increasingly violent, grim and cheesy. But the lead characters are still engaging as they trade plenty of snappy banter, and there's still a whiff of a light touch in the writing, so I'll keep watching for now. But this is the last superhero series I can stomach.

Empire: Series 3
After that fiery first year, this series has struggled to find its stride. The 2nd season was bipolar, lost in messy storytelling in the first half before wrenching it back to the more colourfully entertaining fireworks later on. This season has shot out with a vengeance, thankfully maintaining the focus on characters rather than plot melodramatics. But after the nightmarish events at the end of the last season, everyone is a bit stunned and emotional. Someone needed to bring sexy back. Instead, the showrunners have simply into the boring criminal plots and counter plots, while stupidly sidelining the three sons as damaged souls. Even Cookie looks bored with this.

Modern Family: Series 8
It's probably inevitable that a show that sustained some of the best writing on television would have to decline one day. After the uneven 7th season, this year's shows feel eerily uneven. There is some great dialog, and a general sense of energy, but on the whole the plotlines aren't hugely inventive, leaving the characters spinning their wheels. This show has always been about the joy of developing these people as they grow older, but there's a sense that the writers are unsure where to send them, relying on old gags instead of inventing new ones as the family dynamics change.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Critical Week: A boy's best friend

Big movies screened to the press this week include the action romp Monster Trucks, which is a proper guilty pleasure with a solid cast including Luke Till (above), Jane Levy, Rob Lowe, Amy Ryan and Thomas Lennon. The dream team of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt makes Passengers thoroughly engaging as a high-concept sci-fi drama-romance-thriller hybrid. And Assassin's Creed reunites Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard but falls into the usual trap of neglecting to find a coherent plot in a videogame.

James Franco and Bryan Cranston square off in the comedy Why Him?, yet another Meet the Parents-style romp from John Hamburg. It's stupid, but funny. Gold stars Matthew McConaughey in the fascinating true story of a rather dodgy mining operation, but the film isn't easy to engage with. Will Smith is bogged down in syruppy sentiment in Collateral Beauty, which is livened up a bit by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Michael Pena and Kate Winslet. And the indie drama Retake is an enigmatic and surprisingly moving road trip starring Tuc Watkins.

My last actual screening of the year is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, but I have several screener discs I need to watch over the next week or so before voting in various awards (I've already voted in the London Critics' Circle Film Awards - we announced our nominations this afternoon). Discs in the pile include Hello My Name Is Doris, Touched With Fire, A Man Called Ove, Aferim!, Zero Days, Before the Flood, Kate Plays Christine and My Scientology Movie. How many will I find time to watch?

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Critical Week: Pray for mercy

London critics caught up with Martin Scorsese's new film Silence  this past week. It's a strikingly thoughtful movie, a quest for faith for Portuguese priests in 17th century Japan - a bit academic perhaps, but powerful. And then there's the biggest movie of the year: Gareth Edwards' stand-alone Star Wars story Rogue One, which is a startlingly edgy war thriller with complex characters and situations that don't go as expected. It's a properly grown-up movie unafraid to embrace its darker elements.

There were two starry year-end dramas: Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer lead the ensemble in Hidden Figures, about the women whose mathematics expertise got Nasa into space in the early 1960s. And Michael Keaton stars in The Founder, about McDonald's ruthless entrepreneur Ray Kroc. Both films are solidly made, finely acted and worthy of acclaim, if not actual Oscars.

Further afield, The White King is a strikingly well-made dystopian thriller with a somewhat murky plot; The Eyes of My Mother is an inventively harrowing monochrome drama with elements of grisly horror; and London Town is an enjoyable riff on the music scene of the late 1970s. I also watched the rather uneven TV spectacular Hairspray Live!, which had a great cast but struggled to maintain this fantastic musical's energy levels. And there were two films I hadn't covered on their UK releases...

dir Joe Stephenson; scr Chris New; with Scott Chambers, Yasmin Paige, Morgan Watkins 15/UK ***.
Based on the Freddie Machin play, this British indie drama tells a very dark story in a remarkably breezy way. It's a skilful feature directing debut for Joe Stephenson, anchored by fierce performances from the three main cast members. The story centres on Richard (Chambers), a mentally disabled 15-year-old whose best pal is a chicken named Fiona. He lives in a caravan in a field with his big brother Polly (Watkins), a hothead who simply can't hold his temper long enough to keep a job. Then new landowners arrive, threatening their already fragile existence. And Richard befriends their annoyed daughter Annabell (Paige). The shifting dynamics between the characters are fascinating, helping add some deeper feelings to a rather gimmicky plot. In the end, the twists and revelations are so big that they leave the film feeling oddly distant. But it's still powerful stuff, beautifully written, directed and acted.

Don't Think Twice
dir-scr Mike Birbiglia
with Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher 16/US ***
Not only is this a serious drama about comedy, but it's also a scripted story about improv, and both of these things make the film difficult to go along with. The central theme is a strongly involving one, that this six-person improvisational team is like a family that has a strong bond even as circumstances pull them apart. When one member (Key) gets his break on a live TV show and their theatre faces closure, all of them are forced to reconsider their career and life choices. Most of this is a little simplistic, but it's very nicely played by likeable actors who bring out strong details in their roles. And some clever cameos and side roles add a bit of spice here and there. Definitely worth a look for anyone interested in the rather grim realities of life as a comedian, but not great if you're looking for a laugh.

This coming week I'll be seeing the James Franco/Bryan Cranston comedy Why Him?, the Will Smith drama Collateral Beauty, Michael Fassbender in Assassin's Creed, Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and the adventure romp Monster Trucks, plus various last minute screeners to watch in time for voting deadlines.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Critical Week: Face the music

As awards season begins to get serious (less than two weeks until my nominations deadlines begin in three groups), screenings are getting tricky to schedule in amongst the holiday parties! Yes, life is tough! This week's most mainstream offering was Jessica Chastain's drama Miss Sloane, an entertainingly twisty look at Washington DC lobbying. Kelly Reichardt's much more challenging Certain Women focuses tells three separate, very subtle stories about intriguing women (Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern). And the much more low-brow Office Christmas Party is also essentially female-centred, led by Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn and scene-stealing genius Kate McKinnon alongside costars Jason Bateman and TJ Miller. It's not quite as awful as it looks.

The most serious contenders were two docs with linked subject matter relating to race and justice. Ava DuVernay's 13th is a passionate, powerful exploration of America's prison system, exploring how it was essentially designed to continue slavery based on a clause in the 13th Amendment. And at nearly eight hours, O.J.: Made in America will stretch most viewers' patience, but it's a riveting exploration of a fallen superstar told in parallel with the checkered history of the LAPD and the weaknesses in the American judicial system. Both films are must-sees.

Films coming up this next week include this year's most anticipated blockbuster Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Martin Scorsese's Silence, Ben Affleck's Live by Night, Taraji P Henson in Hidden Figures, Michael Keaton in The Founder and the thriller The Eyes of My Mother.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Critical Week: Find a reason to smile

Denzel Washington's directing debut Fences screened to the press this week, with an eye on awards season. August Wilson's text is simply glorious. Washington reprises his Tony-winning stage role opposite a devastating turn by Viola Davis. And there's more awards-worthy acting in 20th Century Women, with Annette Bening giving a beautifully textured turn in Mike Mills' latest engaging autobiographical drama. And then there's Nicole Kidman as Dev Patel's emotive adoptive mother in Lion, a powerful true story of a young man's search for the past he literally lost.

Other films included the enjoyably camp but rather uneven mystery Kiss Me, Kill Me, the sumptuously animated castaway fable The Red Turtle, Kirsten Johnson's astoundingly revelatory memoir Cameraperson, and a sobering exploration of food waste in the lively doc Just Eat It.

This coming week, as voting deadlines loom for various awards, there are screenings of Office Christmas Party with Jennifer Aniston, Miss Sloane with Jessica Chastain, Certain Women with Kristen Stewart and Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th. I also need to tackle the eight-hour doc OJ: Made in America.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Critical Week: Show some style

There were a couple of big animated movies screened for London critics this past week. First up was Sing, Garth Jennings' lively musical-animals romp, which comes complete with a witty satirical swipe at TV talent competitions. There was also Disney's Moana, a gorgeously animated South Pacific adventure with a rather fluffy plot but engaging characters.

Other mainstream movies included Robert Zemeckis' World War II romantic drama Allied, which is overproduced but has a great story and solid leads in Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Mark Wahlberg reteams with director Peter Berg for another true story in Patriots Day, sharply recounting the Boston Marathon bombing with raw emotion and nerve-jangling suspense. And Billy Bob Thornton returns for Bad Santa 2, which has its moments but is undermined by a cheap, rather mean script.

A little further afield, Briana Evigan stars in the high-concept drama Love Is All You Need, with inverts social ideas about sexuality to make a pungent statement, although the film is melodramatic and rather corny. And the engaging, sweet and ultimately shattering Italian teen drama One Kiss has a powerful message about diversity and subtle bigotry.

Screenings coming up this week include Nicole Kidman in Lion, Annette Bening in 20th Century Women, the noir thriller Kiss Me Kill Me and the documentary Cameraperson. And I also have a few for-your-consideration titles to watch before voting starts in various awards groups over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Critical Week: Beaten not broken

I was unable to catch Bleed for This at the London Film Festival, so I was glad there was a press screening this week. Miles Teller is impressively beefed-up for this role as comeback boxer Vinny Pazienza in this inspiring true story, although the film isn't terrible complex. A much more anticipated film offering was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which returns to JK Rowling's wizarding world some 70 years before Harry Potter's birth. The film is funny and adventurous but difficult to engage with due to its odd plotting and thinly written characters.

I also caught up with some quality films worthy of awards consideration: Ewan McGregor stars in and makes his impressive directing debut with the complex drama American Pastoral, a stripped-down adaptation of the classic Philip Roth novel; Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are terrific in Loving, Jeff Nichols' minimalistic take on a real-life landmark civil rights case; and Warren Beatty is a lot of fun as Howard Hughes in his film Rules Don't Apply, which also contains a nice love story fighting for our attention.

There were two from South America: Pablo Larrain's Neruda is a fiercely inventive, wryly comical biopic about the Chilean poet's attempts to elude the police; and from Argentina, Esteros is a quietly sensitive story of two young men revisiting their childhood. And I also had a night at the theatre...

The Mirror Never Lies
dir-scr-lyrics Joseph Giuffre
music Juan Iglesias
with Fransca Ellis, Jon Osbaldeston, Ryan Frank, Spencer O'Brien, Jennifer Harraghy, Darrie Gardner, Greg Keith

The Cockpit, Marylebone, London 14-18.Nov.16

A new musical based on Barbara Pym's novel The Sweet Dove Died, this is an intriguing story set in 1960s London among people who like beautiful things. Antiques seller Humphrey (Osbaldeston) has a crush on his top customer Leonora (Ellis), who is besotted with his handsome nephew James (Frank), who has a hippy girlfriend (Harraghy) before he's seduced by a swaggering American (O'Brien). The plot is enjoyably tangled, but the show is undone by its bizarrely minimalistic staging and simplistic song lyrics that continually state the blindingly obvious, offer lists of emotions and repeat the same ideas over and over. Everyone in the cast adds some colour, including side players Gardner (as a ditzy friend) and Keith (as both a nervous boyfriend and a slimy predator). But the lifeless staging leaves the show feeling like a first reading rather than a polished production. This is especially a problem for Frank's central character, who becomes rather drippy as things progress. Thankfully, Ellis sells it with a belting rendition of the surprisingly good title song right at the very end.

Screenings coming up this week include Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in Allied, Billy Bob Thornton in the comedy Bad Santa 2, the true drama Hidden Figures, and the animated movies Moana and Sing,

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Critical Week: Inconceivable

Some personal comments are required this morning. I stayed up most of last night watching election results roll in from my home country, in disbelief at how it progressed: the majority of US voters have officially said that it's ok to be a white supremacist, a person who assaults women, or someone who hates people based on their gender, economic status, sexuality or ethnicity. This is a vote for hatred, division and inequality that effectively ends centuries of diplomacy and social progress. Although how that plays out is yet to be scene. After the banks crushed the world economy nearly 10 years ago, I knew a revolution was coming, but I never saw it going this way. In just the past few months, for example, voters in the Philippines have affirmed government-condoned vigilante violence and Colombia's people voted against peace there, plus of course the UK's referendum on the European Union, which has tripled the incidence of hate crimes across Britain. Anti-migrant sentiment is rife all over the world, even though every single bit of evidence points to immigrants as adding to society, never draining it. But then facts and compassion don't matter any more. My slim hope is that the rhetoric of the campaign season will be replaced by something more positive and rational. But I won't put my head in the sand.

So back to movies! It's perhaps appropriate that the biggest movie screened to London-based critics this week was Denial, a razor-sharp true drama starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson about a Holocaust denier challenged in a London court. It's powerfully well-made, and a riveting film. Lighter fare included the amusing, enjoyable backstage Broadway musical-comedy Opening Night, starring Topher Grace and Anne Heche; the multi-strand holiday comedy Shared Rooms, a slightly clunky film with some nice touches; and the quietly moving Canadian indigenous drama Fire Song. And there was also the opening movie at the London Korean Film Festival (3-27 Nov)...

The Truth Beneath
dir-scr Lee Kyoung-mi; with Son Ye-jin, Kim Ju-hyuk 16/Kor ***.
Korean filmmaker Lee Yyoung-mi takes an unusual approach to the usual mystery thriller, getting under the skin of her central character while bringing out the inherent corruption in politics. The result is a tangled story that twists and turns, but keeps its focus on the internal shifts in attitude rather than the big surprises. And there are plenty of those. So even if the filmmaking is sometimes deliberately tricky, this is a slick, sharp and thoroughly gripping drama.

Coming up this week, I have the Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Ewan McGregor's directing debut American Pastoral, Miles Teller in Bleed for This and the Argentine drama Esteros. There are also awards-consideration screenings of Warren Beatty's Howard Hughes romance Rules Don't Apply and Joel Edgerton in the civil rights drama Loving.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Critical Week: Teenage kicks

It's been a slow week for screenings, perhaps a brief intake of breath before the awards season kicks off in earnest. My first awards-consideration screenings are late next week. In the meantime, this weeks' screenings included The Edge of Seventeen, an unusually edgy teen drama starring Hailee Steinfeld with fine grown-up support from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick. The other big movie was The Accountant, the slick but preposterous Ben Affleck autism-gangster thriller that's entertaining only if you don't think about it.

Further afield was the micro-budget British thriller The Darkest Dawn, which makes up for a simplistic script with some sharp acting and inventive effects. Ron and Laura Take Back America is an extended sketch-style comedy-doc lampooning head-in-the-sand right wing politics. And I also finally caught up with Clint Eastwood's 1997 southern gothic melodrama Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, starring baggy suited John Cusack and a scene-nibbling Kevin Spacey, plus a notable cameo from a young Jude Law.

Things are still slow over the coming days, with just three press screenings: Gael Garcia Bernal Pablo Larrain's biopic of the poet Neruda, the Italian drama One Kiss, and the UK premiere of the Korean thriller The Truth Beneath. I also have several screeners to watch at home....

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Critical Week: Talk to the hand

Spike Lee's 2015 Chi-Raq, a rap-musical take on an ancient Greek play, finally makes it to the UK this year. After screening at the London Film Festival, it's being shown to press before its release in December. Packed with social relevance, it's a hugely engaging look at race, gender and violence in America. But of course this week's biggest press screening was for Marvel's next blockbuster Doctor Strange, a massive crowd-pleaser that gives Benedict Cumberbatch one of his best roles yet. It's a heady concoction of trippy action and witty characters.

A little off the beaten path, there was Idris Elba and Gemma Arterton in the British indie drama 100 Streets, which is strongly shot and acted but has a rather clunky plot; the delayed UK release of the choppy drama Burning Blue, exploring the issue of Don't Ask/Don't Tell; and Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Lo and Behold, looking at the internet from angles we never thought were possible.

I also caught a couple of gay-themed plays showing on the London fringe over the weekend. The HIV Monologues (at Ace Hotel in Shoreditch until 28 Oct) is another collection of dramatic speeches by Patrick Cash (The Chemsex Monologues) that coalesce into a moving story. It's beautifully played by a sharp four-person cast, and carries quite a kick. And 5 Guys Chillin' (at King's Head in Islington until 5 Nov) is a revival of Peter Darney's v erbatim play taken from interviews about drug-fuelled post-club hangouts. It's presented in an almost unnervingly offhanded way - it feels improvised, never performed. It's a bit moralistic, but strikingly well-staged to force the audience to get involved. Both plays tackle seriously important issues in complex, challenging ways.

This coming week we have Ben Affleck in The Accountant, Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen, the British comedy-drama The Darkest Universe, the British sci-fi horror The Darkest Dawn and, just in time for the US election, something called Ron and Laura Take Back America.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Critical Week: Up in the air

It's been a nice quiet week following the end of the London Film Festival, with only a few screenings. The Eagle Huntress is a gripping, inspiring narrative documentary that was in the LFF, but I'd missed it. It's a stunningly shot story about a 13-year-old girl in Mongolia who takes on a man's world. By contrast, the dopey teen comedy Good Kids wastes its fresh cast with a script that pretends to be a gross-out romp but turns out to be prudish and corny.

There were also three independent dramas. Lazy Eye is a thoughtful, moving story of old lovers trying to reconnect, set in picturesque Joshua Tree, California. And there were the concluding two parts of a trilogy: made in 2013, The Falls: Testament of Faith never had a UK release, so I watched it to catch up on the events following the 2012 original before seeing this year's finale The Falls: Covenant of Grace. A bit over-serious but smart, honest and moving, the three films tell a story that explores the difficult balance between sexuality and religion (the lead characters are Mormons).

This coming week, the big movie is, obviously, Marvel's Doctor Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch. We also have Idris Elba in 100 Streets, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, the horror romp The Darkest Dawn, the military drama Burning Blue and Werner Herzog's internet doc Lo and Behold. Plus I have a bit of fringe theatre to take my mind off the cinema this weekend.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

LFF 10: Close with a bang

And that's it. The 60th BFI London Film Festival came to a close tonight with the red carpet UK premiere of Ben Wheatley's Free Fire. Most of the cast were on hand (that's Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Enzo Cilenti, Jack Reynor and Cillian Murphy, above), and I'm sure the party was a lot of fun. Not that I'd know: in the 19 years I've been covering the LFF I have never been invited to a festival party. But never mind - it's about the films for me, and here are some final highlights from Sunday...

Free Fire
dir Ben Wheatley; with Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley 16/UK ***.
With a bracingly simple premise and a screen full of hilariously quirky characters, Ben Wheatley plays a jazz riff on Tarantino in this riotous shoot-em-up. The plot may be under-defined and only barely developed, but the actors are having so much fun adding various shades of comedy and intensity to their roles that they keep the audience chuckling from start to finish.

dir Christopher Guest; with Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr 16/US ***.
Using his improvisational mock-doc style, Christopher Guest takes on the world of sports mascotery. As in films like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, Guest's gifted ensemble provides a constant flow of verbal and visual gags, playing up the wackier aspects of this subculture. There's nothing particularly new here, no innovation to the format, but the movie is consistently hilarious.

The Salesman
dir-scr Asghar Farhadi; with Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti 16/Irn ****
Here's yet another almost overpoweringly perceptive everyday drama from Asghar Farhadi, putting a normal couple through a series of events that push them to the breaking point. The plot centres on unexpected conflicts that provide challenging comments on both morality and forgiveness. This is a subtle, personal film that holds the audience in its grip, unable to work out where it might be going next.

The Last Laugh 
dir Ferne Pearlstein; with Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman 16/US ****
Like The Aristocrats, this documentary explores the boundaries of what's appropriate in comedy. The specific topic here is when it's OK to crack a joke about a tragic event, specifically something as big and horrific as the Holocaust. What makes the film worth a look is how director Ferne Pearlstein strikes such a remarkable balance between the views of comics and survivors.

And finally, another film I saw in Venice was the Golden Lion winner The Woman Who Left, the riveting, nearly 4-hour drama by Lav Diaz. It was a last-minute addition to the London programme.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

LFF 9: No sudden movements

The 60th London Film Festival heads into its final day with a flurry of starry red carpets, interview events and rather a lot of challenging movies (that's Dog Eat Dog above). The festival awards were handed out tonight to films I was unable to see, simply because of the sheer number of movies showing (it's been impossible to see about a third of my want-to-see list). Certain Women took the competition award, Julia Ducournau won the Sutherland Award (first feature) for her film Raw, the Grierson Award (documentary) went to Starless Dreams, and Steve McQueen was awarded the BFI Fellowship. Some highlights from Saturday...

Dog Eat Dog
dir Paul Schrader; with Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe 16/US ***
Paul Schrader goes all John Waters on us with this super-trashy crime comedy populated by a bunch of trigger-happy knuckleheads. It's violent and utterly absurd, and yet every scene is quietly saying something important about America's badly dysfunctional justice system. Still, the message isn't particularly easy to hear over the gunfire.

dir Oliver Stone; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley 16/US ****
Oliver Stone tackles another iconic figure in this urgent, robust biopic, which skilfully maintains an even keel while digging into a touchy political subject. Was Edward Snowden a patriot or a traitor? That's the question that haunts every frame of this film, and Stone does his best to let the audience make up its own mind.

Staying Vertical [Rester Vertical]
dir-scr Alain Guiraudie; with Damien Bonnard, India Hair 16/Fr ***.
Bold and full-on, this parable from Alain Giraudie has a wilfully absurd story that gets increasingly symbolic as it goes along. This is a provocative exploration of the creative process, likening it to giving birth and nurturing a particularly fussy infant while threatened from various sides. And it's underscored with a jaded sense of humour that keeps things lively, plus a central character who is oddly sympathetic.

La Noche 
dir-scr Edgardo Castro; with Edgardo Castro, Dolores Guadalupe Olivares  16/Arg ***.
An experimental drama set on the dark side of Buenos Aires, Edgardo Castro's debut film is audacious and challenging in just about every way. But while the lack of a proper narrative structure will leave many viewers lost, there's a raw honesty to the movie that carries an unexpected emotional punch. And he also has some important things to say about a generation of people whose lives have been derailed by a new economic and political reality.

And another film I saw in Venice that's part of the LFF programme is Emir Kusturica's nutty Bosnian War comedy-drama On the Milky Road, costarring Monica Bellucci.

Friday, 14 October 2016

LFF 8: Back home again

I entered the press screening of Xavier Dolan's latest film here at the 60th London Film Festival with some trepidation. It was met with harshly mixed reviews at Cannes, booed by audiences, slated by critics and yet winning one of the top awards. I've been a fan of this young filmmaker since the start of his prolific career, and I was happy to immediately feel at home in his twisted, dysfunctional world. I also thought his filmmaking and the amazing cast (Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux and Nathalie Baye, above) were astonishing. This is my best film of the festival so far, and there are only two days to go. Highlights for Friday...

It's Only the End of the World 
dir-scr Xavier Dolan; with Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard 16/Can *****
Few filmmakers are as bold as 27-year-old Canadian Xavier Dolan, who regularly takes on family relationships using bravura filmmaking that brings out unexpected, unfiltered emotions. This film, based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, is a staggering dissection of the dynamic between parents, children and siblings. It's heightened to the point that it's often painful to watch, but it's also urgent, honest and essential.

Trespass Against Us 
dir Adam Smith; with Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson 16/US ***.
Like a slap in the face, this edgy Irish comedy-drama comes at the audience at full tilt and never really lets up. This is a story about a family stuck in a cycle of ignorance and criminality, and writer Alastair Siddons and director Adam Smith take an approach that's unapologetic. The plot isn't hugely developed, and the message is rather muddled, but the sharp cast keeps it entertaining.

The Innocents 
dir Anne Fontaine; with Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek 16/Fr ****
Based on real events, this harrowing true story is told with sensitivity and humanity, making it easy to engage with every step along the way. Even though the setting is somewhat alien - it's a Polish convent at the very end of WWII - the story resonates with themes that are instantly identifiable, especially the choices everyone has to make between following the rules and showing some compassion.

Ethel & Ernest 
dir-scr Roger Mainwood; voices Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn 16/UK ***.
A collection of gentle slice-of-life anecdotes, this is a warm account of 20th century life as a son retraces his parents relationship. Raymond Briggs told their story through drawings in his graphic novel, and now those scenes have been adapted into a movie with refreshing pen-and-ink style animation and a gently involving narrative free of gimmicks.

I saw Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals in Venice, and it was also a big gala presentation here, attended by Amy Adams and Armie Hammer (both of whom also have other films at LFF), as well as Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Ford himself.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

LFF 7: Can't take it anymore

The 60th London Film Festival is charging into its final weekend with a flurry of events and premieres. The red carpets outside the various venues are getting a workout, while the press screenings at Picturehouse Central are packed to overflowing. Here are some highlights from Wednesday and Thursday...

The Rehearsal
dir Alison Maclean; with James Rolleston, Kerry Fox 16/NZ ***.
A clever riff on acting, this drama from New Zealand is packed with terrific actors in complex roles. So even if the bare-boned plot gets a little pushy at times, at least the interaction has a raw honesty to it, exploring some enormous themes through the prism of art. Filmmaker Alison Maclean also injects plenty of jagged humour and understated emotion into the story, which makes it hugely engaging even if the pacing is a little slack.

The Ghoul
dir-scr Gareth Tunley; with Tom Meeten, Dan Skinner 16/UK ****
Moody and riveting, this dark British thriller takes the audience on a surreal journey into the human psyche. It's playful and surprising, with a style clearly inspired by David Lynch as it taps into emotions that the audience might not fully grasp. But we feel it all.

There were also a few films I saw at other festivals. From Venice, three female led dramas: Dakota Fanning and Kit Harington (pictured) in the edgy Western Brimstone, Alice Lowe in the fiendishly clever serial killer comedy Prevenge (pictured at the top), Natalie Portman in the offbeat period drama Planetarium. And from BFI Flare: Russell Tovey in the complex, intriguing football drama The Pass.

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K
Along with LFF movies, I've also had to keep up with the regular releases in cinemas. This week's screenings included a double dose of Tom Hanks: the lacklustre second Da Vinci Code sequel Inferno and the strikingly edgy, well-made Sully, about the amazing real-life landing of a passenger jet in the Hudson River in 2009. And then there was Tom Cruise in the thriller sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Plus a couple of punchy British dramas: Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake, a powerful, uplifting drama about taking on bureaucracy; and Starfish, the dark but moving true story of a man who survived sepsis then struggled to rebuild his life.