Thursday, 31 March 2016
Obviously, the biggest film of the week was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, screened to critics just a day before it opened for obvious reasons (this film doesn't need reviews, it's about fans buying lots of tickets). It's big, loud, simplistic, annoying and worth the price of the ticket. The other big movie for us was The Huntsman: Winter's War, a prequel/sequel to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman that basically gives fans what they expect, plus two more divas (Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain, joining Charlize Theron).
Much more fun was Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, a faithful adaptation of the surprisingly sharp-tongued Jane Austen novel Lady Susan, packed with terrific characters, hilarious dialog and delicious performances from Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny and Xavier Samuel. And we also caught the improv British comedy Black Mountain Poets, a rather meandering, pointless bit of fluff starring the wonderful Alice Lowe, Dolly Wells and Tom Cullen.
Coming up this week: Don Cheadle's Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, Helen Mirren in the drone thriller Eye in the Sky, Rebecca Ferguson in the Cold War thriller Despite the Falling Snow, Kevin Costner and Gary Oldman in the thriller Criminal, and more.
Tuesday, 29 March 2016
With Christmas holidays and a screening lull around awards season, I had a bit more time than usual over the past few months to catch up on various television series. As always, this is my vent, a chance to enjoy watching something that isn't work-related. And then here I am writing about it....
NEW & NOTABLE
War & Peace
Sumptuously produced by the BBC, this Sunday evening series couldn't be any more epic if it tried. Andrew Davies' script brilliantly brings the multi-layered plotting of Tolstoy's classic to life, anchored by riveting performances from Paul Dano and Lily James, plus a star-making turn from James Norton. The entire sprawling cast brings texture and emotion to these complex characters and their tumultuous, war-torn lives. And it looks simply amazing.
The best new show this year is this knowing sitcom starring Fred Savage and Rob Lowe as brothers - one's a lawyer, the other played one on a hit TV show and doesn't quite understand that he's not one in real life. Savage and Lowe are a terrific double act, and the writers smartly balance audience sympathies. This means that the ongoing silliness is inspired - warmly involving and knowingly referential. And it's also nicely played in a fresh way that allows the actors to laugh at each other on-screen.
With 20 episodes, this is a rather extended half-hour series, cleverly imagined by Tony Jordan as a prequel to most of Charles Dickens' novels, as the characters interact in Victorian London's bustling East End. There are some terrific touches along the way, plus standout performances from the Tuppence Middleton as the hapless Miss Havisham and Stephen Rea as a sardonic detective (both are even better in War & Peace). But many of the characters are too cartoonish to register as human beings, and some of the plot gyrations are simplistic and silly.
Tom Hiddleston got the nation's pulses racing by flashing some well-toned flesh in this adaptation of the John le Carre thriller about a shady hotel worker hired by British intelligence to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious arms dealer. The solid cast also includes Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki and David Harewood, while the show is stolen by the magnificent Olivia Colman, who brings superbly subtle touches to all of her scenes as a heavily pregnant operative. The whole thing looks terrific, and the plot is gripping right up until it turns rather corny in the final two episodes.
ONWARD & UPWARD
The X Files: series 10
After taking a 13-year break (during which there were two big-screen movies), this iconic show came back for a 10th season. Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are on fine form in their iconic roles as inquisitive FBI agents Scully and Mulder. And series creator Chris Carter has some nice surprises up his sleeve through the six beautifully produced episodes. This show has always been an uneven mix of riveting mystery, murky mythology and downright clunky plotting - and this season is no exception. But when things click into place, few shows offer so many terrific goosebump moments.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright aggressively tear up the screen in this fourth season of their power-mad White House drama. Spacey's Frank is now president, but Wright's Claire isn't going to sit quietly by his side. This season is set during the primaries leading to Frank's first presidential election as a candidate, so it couldn't be much more timely. And while the whole liver-transplant plot element flickers by much too quickly, it adds a deeper, darker layer of intrigue to the goings-on. Fine support as always from Michael Kelly, Mahershala Ali, Molly Parker and Elizabeth Marvel, plus the awesome Ellen Burstyn throwing shade as Claire's estranged mother.
Shameless: series 6
The Gallagher family continues to mess up their lives spectacularly in this underrated black comedy that's getting better with age. William H Macy is on fire this season as the patriarch without a hint of a moral compass. And there are further life-changing twists and turns for five of his children, played with engaging honesty by Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan, Ethan Cutkosky and Emma Kenney. Plus jaw-dropping developments for neighbours Veronica and Kevin (Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey). It's nice to see a series that gets less fearless as it goes on. Indeed, the show features some of the best acting and writing on television right now.
Opening with a gleeful musical number showing their surprise at being granted a second season, this riotously entertaining musical fairy tale is so infectiously joyful that it's impossible not to love it. Joshua Sasse is wonderful as the charming and somewhat clueless hero, ably supported by Timothy Omundson's even more oblivious deposed king. The entire supporting cast dives in for the fun, including a surprisingly witty Vinnie Jones and a sassy guest appearance from Kylie Minogue. All in all, this is much smarter than it looks, and it leaves fans wanting more.
OFF THE BOIL
The Flash: series 2
I'm still enjoying this show, which has retained its sense of humour and strong characters amid its unnecessarily knotted plot threads. By comparison, Arrow (series 4) became increasingly bogged down in shadowy action and convoluted plotting. Aside from the awful fight choreography, the writers insist on continuing the island flashbacks, which are pointless and, frankly, ridiculous. And the overly twisted storylines leave the strong cast looking as lost as the audience. I gave up about halfway through this season. I tried to watch spin-off Legends of Tomorrow, mainly due to the actors, but the dire action and dumb plots put me off after a handful of episodes. I'm avoiding all other Marvel and DC comics-based TV series - enough is enough.
For the first time, the strain is beginning to show in this formerly sharp show, as the characters become oddly predictable in the way they spew off witty one-liners and interact with each other in increasingly contrived situations. The strength of this show has been in the way the humour evolved with the characters and actors, but this year feels strangely familiar, as if the writers are stuck in a rut, trying to find humour in situations rather than people. Essentially, this means that the show is in danger of becoming a tired parody of itself (like, for example, Two and a Half Men).
Scandal: series 5
This once-great show has abandoned the weekly scandals and edgy cliffhangers that once made it so addictive. Instead, it has become a corny soap centred around a group of power-grabbing characters who can't seem to function in the real world, are too selfish to relate to each other and all speak with that same shouty voice. All of which is turning it into a parody of House of Cards. It's still watchable due to the ace cast, but I'm wondering how much longer I'll stick with it.
JUST THE FACTS
With Jon Stewart stepping down from The Daily Show last autumn, there's been a shift in the news cycle. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver continues to lead the charge with its intelligent, polished approach, refusing to accept the official take on the big stories while focussing on those that really need to catch the national attention. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah has distinctly changed, with a more stand-up style and less pointed satire. But Noah is finding his feet, and he's finally started getting stronger guests to banter with, which will hopefully hone his interview skills. The real breakout is Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, much smarter and more fearless than the others, with Bee's hilariously on-the-nose observations taking no prisoners. Her segments are easily the most quotable of the bunch, and her insight is bracingly important. On a different tangent, Chelsea Does used four episodes to explore marriage, racism, drugs and the tech world. While Chelsea Handler's observations sometimes slip into goofy self-parody, she also has a way of getting beneath the surface without resorting to the usual cliches, so her take on these four issues is both funny and thought-provoking.
So many people have been shocked that I completely missed this series when it was on that I decided to give it a go. It took me about two months to work my way through all 62 episodes. The first two seasons are brilliant - great characters, wonderful writing and acting, clever direction. Then it turns indulgent, murky and far too violent before the final bunch of episodes brings everything full-circle to a skilfully well-realised conclusion. Bryan Cranston is simply perfect (no wonder he won five Emmys for this role). After only ever seeing Aaron Paul (three Emmys) in movies like Need for Speed and Exodus, I now see what a great actor he is and hope he makes smarter choices. And I hope we see more of Anna Gunn (two Emmys) and RJ Mitte too.
NOW WATCHING: continuing the current seasons for Girls, Empire, Doctor Thorne, The Real O'Neals, The Royals and Schitt's Creek; looking forward to new seasons of Game of Thrones and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Sunday, 27 March 2016
The 30th BFI Flare came to a close last night with an epic party. I left at 12.15 while it was still in full flow (sadly, the all-night Tube isn't running quite yet!). Here are some final comments on the closing night film (pictured above) and short films I caught over the past 12 days...
Summertime [La Belle Saison]
dir Catherine Corsini; with Cecile De France, Izia Higelin 15/Fr ****
An earthy honesty infuses this complex romantic drama set amid the women's rights movement of the early 1970s. But while the politics are strong, it's the intensely personal story and engaging characters that make the film so involving. And it's beautifully directed by Catherine Corsini, drawing out big emotions without even a hint of sentimentality.
I managed to catch 15 short films during the festival, including documentaries, comedies, dramas and even a couple of animated ones. Here are my top 5:
Mother Knows Best (Mikael Bundsen, Swe) tells its story in two shots: a brief prologue and then a stunning 9-minute scene as a mother drives her son through the city, chatting nonstop. She wants to be supportive of his relationship with his new boyfriend, but she inadvertently reveals much darker feelings. Beautifully acted by Alexander Gustavsson and Hanna Ullerstam.
The Guy From Work (Jean-Francois Leblanc, Can) plays like a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot in extreme close-up, which is a bit unnerving as scenes are underscored by the sound of shop machinery rather than music. It centres on a shy middle-aged married man who develops a crush on a talkative colleague and then dares to write him a letter. Provocative and powerful.
Bedding Andrew (Blair Fukumura, Can) is very simple: Andrew Morrison-Gurza is a disabled guy lying on his bed talking about his yearning sexuality, and how frustrating it is that people only seem to want to be with him out of pity. It's raw and honest, especially as this smiley, genuinely nice guy tells some genuinely awful anecdotes and reveals his undying inner hopes.
Dawn (Jake Graf, UK) is a lovely little moment between two people on a park bench as they wait for a bus in the early morning. The guy is blind, the girl is trans, and they both have personal issues that they're not quite ready to deal with openly. There's not much to it, but the misty photography is gorgeous, and it leaves us thinking.
No Strings (Eoin Maher, UK) traces a one-night stand between two guys - one is Welsh, the other Irish - both are looking for something superficial. When the visitor misses his last train home, he has to stay the night, which forces them to get to know each other a bit. It's beautifully played, and very nicely shot to bring the audience right into the story, revealing truths that transcend the gay setting.
Friday, 25 March 2016
I Promise You Anarchy [Te Prometo Anarquia]
dir Julio Hernandez Cordon; with Diego Calva, Eduardo Martinez Pena 15/Mexico 1h28 ****
Earthy and realistic, this drama centres on a group of young skaters roaming the streets of Mexico City. The film has an artful lyricism to it, finding beauty in some very, very dark situations. Clearly, filmmaker Julio Hernandez Cordon is a fan of Gus Van Sant's work, adding his own distinct political/cultural touch.
Henry Gamble's Birthday Party
dir Stephen Cone; with Cole Doman, Pat Healy 15/US ***.
Warm and relaxed, this is a knowing exploration of the undercurrents that swell beneath the squeaky clean surface of strongly religious families. With some 20 characters, the film takes on a wide range of issues, all centring on how American Christians are preoccupied with sexuality. And the personal touches make it resonate.
Like You Mean It
dir Philipp Karner with Philipp Karner, Denver Milord 15/US **.
This skilfully assembled drama is packed with compelling issues, although it struggles to connect with the audience due to stilted pacing and a somewhat cold approach that doesn't quite break the surface. Essentially it's about that moment when a relationship runs dry. But before resolving this, the film shifts into a pointed depiction of mental health issues... FULL REVIEW >
dir Alden Peters; with Alden Peters, Ritch Savin-Williams 15/US ****
Despite the blandly generic title, this documentary has plenty to say about the topic, especially for people living in tolerant societies. Filmmaker Alden Peters filmed the moments he told his family and friends that he was gay, but the bigger issue is his own personal journey to understanding himself. It's a sharply well-crafted film that's both witty and moving.
BEST OF YEAR
dir Sean Baker; with Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor 15/US ****.
This film is so fresh and original that it's easy to forget that it was shot entirely on an iPhone, proving that money isn't what makes a movie engaging. With snappy dialog, colourfully complex characters and a farcical plot that's genuinely hilarious, this is a seriously unforgettable Christmas comedy... FULL REVIEW >
Wednesday, 23 March 2016
The British Film Institute's 30th Flare event continues apace all week with a lineup of far above-average films that have an LGBT angle. And along with the superb movies, it's been great to be able to hang out with the filmmakers. I've interviewed a few of them, and just had drinks with others from all over the world, sharing the issues they face in getting these stories told. Here are more highlights...
Holding the Man
Holding the Man
dir Neil Armfield; with Ryan Corr, Craig Stott 15/Aus ****
Based on a true story, this Australian drama is evocatively shot and edited, and it's thankfully focussed on its engaging characters rather than the plot or themes. Director Neil Armfield stirs in a sweet, complex mix of emotions as Tommy Murphy's script addresses some very important issues. But the 1970s-1990s setting makes it feel oddly past its time, sometimes overstating the message. Even so, it's honest and powerfully moving. [Pictured above: Stott and Corr with Sarah Snook.]
dir Andrew Steggall; with Juliet Stevenson, Alex Lawther 15/UK ****
Dark and introspective, this drama isn't always easy to watch, especially with its sometimes overpowering sense of impending doom. But the performances are so astute that it's impossible to look away. And with his first feature writer-director Andrew Steggall shows remarkable skill at bringing universal experiences to vivid emotional life.
dir Stephen Dunn; with Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams 15/Can ***.
Filmmaker Stephen Dunn takes a strikingly introspective look into the life of a young boy who feels like his life is spiralling out of control. Beautifully shot and edited, the film mixes artfully stylised flights of fancy with earthy themes that cut to the heart of big issues like bullying and self-loathing. But more than that, this is a thoughtful exploration of someone learning to accept his sexuality... FULL REVIEW >
dir Jayan Cherian; with Jason Chacko, Kannan Rajesh 16/Ind ****
With a deceptively gentle, observant style, this is a seriously pointed depiction of young people bristling against the harshly extremist culture in Kerala. The film openly challenges the accepted misogyny and homophobia in both Islam and Hinduism. But this is much more than a political film, as the bold writer-director Jayan Cherian keeps the focus on the resonant personal drama.
Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story
dir-scr Michael Stabile; with John Waters, Chi Chi LaRue 15/US **.
The fascinating life of iconic Falcon Studios founder Chuck Holmes is recounted in this rather lacklustre documentary. The problem is that filmmaker Michael Stabile seems more interested in Holmes' groundbreaking porn movies than in the man himself. But he's also too timid to show proper clips, instead editing them almost comically to get an R rating. Which means that the documentary, while educational, misses the point it might have made.
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C R I T I C A L W E E K
As for regular releases screened to the press this week, I caught up with Nia Vardalos' sequel My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which is the same warm-silly culture-clash comedy as the 2002 original; Zootropolis (aka Zootopia) is lively and entertaining, and also the usual Disney franchise-launching concoction; Idris Elba stars in the energetic anti-terrorism thriller Bastille Day; the French teen-sex drama Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story is too mopey to be as provocative as it wants to be; and Mark Cousins' I Am Belfast is a lyrical but deeply quirky look at the Northern Irish capital.
This coming week I have a very late press screening (tonight) of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice plus Natalie Portman in the Western Jane Got a Gun, but most of my time will be spent at Flare.
Tuesday, 22 March 2016
Monday, 21 March 2016
dir Sebastian Silva; with Sebastian Silva (pictured above), Kristen Wiig 15/US ***
Meandering through a series of messy events in the lives of a group of hapless people in Brooklyn, this film has a gripping authenticity to it that's both engaging and knowing. And then a momentous plot point kicks in, suddenly making it feel utterly fictitious as the characters suddenly become very different people. This is probably actor-filmmaker Sebastian Silva's point, but it's seriously jarring.
4th Man Out
dir Andrew Nackman; with Evan Todd, Parker Young 15/US ****
With a very clever script, this is much more than the usual coming out comedy, as its focus is on the way a group of friends are forced to redefine their friendships when one of them reveals that he's gay. Intriguingly, the film is much more about how the straight world copes with homosexuality than the other way round. Which makes it both important and hilarious.
dir Joseph Graham; with Brian Sheppard, Zack Ryan 15/US ***.
Strikingly introspective and honest, this multi-strand drama is set amongst gay artists from various strata of society. Writer-director Joseph Graham invests the film with a poetic sensibility that taps in to deep feelings that will resonate with anyone in the audience. Although the structure feels artificial, the emotions are honest.
Theo and Hugo [Theo et Hugo Dans le Meme Bateau]
dir Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau; with Geoffrey Couet, Francois Nambot 16/Fr ****.
With striking honesty, this lovely Before Sunrise-style romance is bold and unflinching in the way it approaches the drama around the moment when two young men meet. As the events unfold in real time in the early morning, filmmakers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau and actors Geoffrey Couet and Francois Nambot take a refreshingly realistic approach to some very big issues.
Women He's Undressed
dir Gillian Armstrong; with Darren Gilshenan, Jane Fonda 15/Aus **.
This rather indulgent hybrid biopic/documentary is tagged as the story of someone "nobody has ever heard of". But triple Oscar winner Orry-Kelly is one of the greatest costume designers of all time. With some 300 films to his credit, he certainly made Hollywood's greatest actresses look fabulous. Although his personal life remains something of a mystery.
Sunday, 20 March 2016
Saturday, 19 March 2016
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
dir Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato; with Edward Mapplethorpe, Nancy Rooney 16/US ****
In documenting the life of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato open with Senator Jesse Helms' hysterical rant in Congress in 1990: "Look at the pictures!" he screamed in outrage, demanding that they be censored. It's a clever approach that finely explores the line between art and pornography, skilfully painting a detailed portrait of a notorious figure.
dir Sasha King, Brian O'Donnell; with Matthew Frias, Edmund Donovan 15/US ****
With a bright, easy approach, this Midwestern drama never makes an issue of its central teen same-sex romance. Instead, this is a story about a wide range of people trying to overcome a shared past tragedy. It's a bit melodramatic, and also rather straightforward, but the characters are engagingly realistic and the message is important.
From Afar [Desde Alla]
dir Lorenzo Vigas; with Alfredo Castro, Luis Silva 15/Ven ****
Twisty and unexpected, this Venezuelan drama stars acclaimed Chilean actor Alfredo Castro as a lonely man who strikes up a tentative relationship with a young street thug. It's a remarkably involving film, because the characters have so many sides that they lead the audience on a quest for understanding. Equally impressive is how first-time filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas never sensationalises the subject matter... FULL REVIEW >
Girls Lost [Pojkarna]
dir Alexandra-Therese Keining; with Tuva Jagell Louise Nyvall 15/Swe ***.
Gorgeously shot with a clever fairy-tale tinge to it, this Swedish teen drama explores the complex issue of gender identity from an offbeat angle that's both challenging and thoughtful. The plot kind of meanders off the rails along the way, but the themes and characters remain strongly resonant and vitally important.
B E S T O F Y E A R
dir Todd Haynes; with Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara 15/US *****
With delicate precision, this story unfolds in a way that's both true to its period and fully relevant now. A beautiful companion piece to director Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce, this is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about two women trying to live their lives the best they can, but finding themselves against the grain of society. And it carries a powerful kick... FULL REVIEW >
Thursday, 17 March 2016
dir Ben A Williams; with Russell Tovey, Arinze Kene 16/UK ****
A strikingly insightful exploration of the constraints of celebrity, this adaptation of John Donnelly's play retains its theatrical stylings, setting the action among four characters in three scenes over 10 years. But it's refreshingly complex, constantly challenging audience expectations and attitudes. And it's hugely boosted by a charismatic performance from Russell Tovey.
dir Jay Dockendorf; with Kerwin Johnson Jr, Curtiss Cook Jr 15/US ****
With a pointed, warm sense of humour, this wry comedy cleverly sets big themes against each other. Over the course of a single afternoon, writer-director Jay Dockendorf sends these gay Muslim teens on a small adventure that has big repercussions. It's an open-handed, hugely engaging film packed with small surprises.
Jason and Shirley
dir Stephen Winter; with Jack Waters, Sarah Schulman 15/US **
This cheeky fake documentary explores the making of the acclaimed 1967 doc Portrait of Jason. Shot with a homemade aesthetic, the film is clearly improvised, as if filmmaker Stephen Winter just pointed his camera at his actors, letting them play with the premise, then trying to make some sense of it in the editing. It may be intriguing, but this lack of structure leaves the film with no real momentum.
Inside the Chinese Closet
dir Sophia Luvara; with Andy, Cherry, Mei 15/Ned ****
This gentle, meandering documentary looks at the complexities of gay life in China, where young gay men try to blend in by marrying lesbians and adopting children. Without offering glib answers, filmmaker Sophia Luvara observes layers of issues in the generational gap, as new attitudes toward diversity strain against old traditions.
B E S T O F Y E A R
dir Paul Weitz; with Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner 15/US ****
A sharp script and another beautifully measured performance from Lily Tomlin seamlessly mix comedy and pointed drama to tell an engaging story that isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers along the way. It may feel both constructed and slight, but between the lines there's plenty of gristle to chew on... FULL REVIEW >
Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Further afield, we had two smaller British movies. Remainder is an insinuating, involving brain-bender starring Tom Sturridge, while The Call Up sends a team of video gamers into a nightmarish virtual reality game that's not as virtual as they'd like. Both are watchable but flawed. And Laurie Anderson's seriously offbeat performance-art movie Heart of a Dog plays out as an ode to her loveable rat terrier Lolabelle, pondering life, death, grief and rebirth.
BFI Flare kicks off on Wednesday night with the world premiere of the Russell Tovey drama The Pass at the Odeon Leicester Square, and over the next 10 days I'll be blogging about the films and the festivities. I've seen several Flare movies over the past few weeks, including The Pass, and I'll comment on all of them along the way.
I'll also have normal press screenings these days for things like the sequel My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, the animated comedy Zootropolis (aka Zootropia), the Scandinavian thriller The Absent One, the youthful romance Bang Gang and the documentary I Am Belfast.
Tuesday, 8 March 2016
It was also a mixed bag for prestige dramas this week. Tom Hiddleston is superb as Hank Williams in the choppy biopic I Saw the Light. Michael Shannon reunites with Jeff Nichols for Midnight Special, a blockbuster story cleverly told as an arthouse drama. Reese Ritchie and Freida Pinto are solid in the uneven Iran-set British drama Desert Dancer. And the ambitious Italian mob drama Suburra beautifully brings its complex plot strands together.
Documentaries included a fascinating look at a corner of cinema history in Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn and the perhaps slightly too academic but harrowingly important The Brainwashing of My Dad. And I also caught up with Mexican Men, a collection of five visceral short films by Julian Hernandez and Roberto Fiesco.
Coming up this week, we have Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, JJ Abrams' alien-attack spin-off 10 Cloverfield Lane, Russell Tovey in The Pass, Tom Sturridge in Remainder, the British gaming action thriller The Call Up, Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog and the photographer doc Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.