Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

I watch a range of TV series as an escape valve from all the movies, and I like most genres that don't centre on cops, lawyers or hospitals. And I'm about to add superheroes to that list. Anyway, it's been an enjoyable few months, with some solid quality and several guilty pleasures...


The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
With staggeringly sharp writing, direction and acting, this dramatisation of the notorious events of 1994 and 1995 is utterly riveting from start to finish. All of the actors are award-worthy; stand-outs include Sarah Paulson's beleaguered lawyer, Sterling Brown as her tenacious partner and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian. And these were only the most complex characters in a show packed with memorable performances. Clearly, the most important thing about this heavily researched show is the balanced approach it takes to finally put the record straight.

The Five
Harlan Coban's mystery took a terrifically snaky path through 10 gripping episodes. Since so many red herrings and character dramas were stirred in, the solution was impossible to see coming, but the ending still managed to be solidly satisfying. Tom Cullen was terrific in the central role, ably supported by a varied, skilled cast including OT Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani as his childhood pals (they are four of the eponymous five, possibly). It's a rare thriller that can deepen the characters even as it makes the central storyline increasingly knotted, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

The Real O'Neals
A brightly silly play on the standard American sitcom, this genuinely hilarious series has five terrific actors playing the O'Neal family, each of whom goes through a sort of coming-out from their superficial good-Catholic appearance, sparked by teen Kenny (Noah Galvin) realising that he's gay. Where this goes is witty and smart, but played for very broad laughs, which cleverly undercuts a wide array of serious themes that gurgle through every scene. The dialog snaps with life, hysterically delivered by a cast we'd like to spend a lot more time with. As these characters mature, it'll be interesting to see how bold the writers are allowed to get within the US network formula. Because if they don't learn and grow, this show is doomed.

This blackly comical 6-part drama is so relentlessly quirky that it quickly weeds out less patient audience members with the very first scenes. An eccentric story about eccentric people in an eccentric English village, it's so mannered that it struggles to generate any real emotional kick. Even so, the cast is excellent, anchored by the brilliant Olivia Colman, who makes Deborah Flowers an engagingly flawed matriarch who veers from chirpy optimism to wrenching despair. As her husband and children, Julian Barratt, Sophia Di Martino and Daniel Rigby are intriguing and often surprising. As is writer-director Will Sharpe in what turns out to be a key role. It's a shame the story doesn't quite hang together.

Will Arnett is reason enough to watch this show, although it's pretty insufferable. Centred on a group of losers who are in their mid to late 30s, this show doesn't really have a single likeable character. Much of the interaction is jaggedly resonant, and the cool Venice Beach setting is put to use for maximum hipster value. So it's frustrating that the show feels so stuck in a perspective that's relentlessly narrow: men struggling with identity issues due to a lack of direction caused by past problems. Ho hum.


Game of Thrones:
series 6
It became almost a cliche that each episode in this season would end with a major bombshell involving a nasty death or edgy triumph. Daenarys (Emilia Clarke) continues to dominate the show, and teaming her with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has created the most formidable TV duo in recent memory. The battles have been bigger and more violent, so much so that there hasn't been time for many sexual shenanigans this season. And since they keep killing off the vilest of the villains, there aren't many left to hiss at. As the plot threads begin to entwine, the show is growing more coherent and urgent. And unmissable.

Veep: series 5
Running in parallel with the American election cycle, this season had a lot of fun with the whole primary system, followed by a chaotic voting day. The dialog has been some of the best in the entire five-year run, delivered beautifully by the genius Julia Louis-Dreyfus and company. Although the plotting has a nagging predictability, including the documentary being made by first daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), the shambolic campaign of the too-idiotic Jonah (Timothy Simons), and the backroom sneakiness of vice presidential candidate Tom (Hugh Laurie). The jaggedly hysterical dialog has been awesome this year, although the bittersweet ending felt like a farewell.

Girls: series 5
This series has been notable for presenting an ensemble of people who are so disarmingly realistic that they seem quirky and almost surreal in the generally accepted fantasy landscape of television. In this season, Lena Dunham and friends all acted on impulse, making sudden decisions based on no rationality whatsoever, which is fairly infuriating for audiences that are hooked on the trite plotting of most TV series. But this show is relentlessly fresh and funny, pushy and annoying, but always surprising, forcing both thought and uneasy laughter. And the final episode in this season is breathtaking.

Silicon Valley: series 3
Frankly, I wasn't sure I'd return to this series, but there wasn't much else on so I gave in. The problem is that the writers seem to only have one trick up their sleeves: make things as miserable as possible for these nerds and their supposedly amazing invention. Every time they get a break and things look like they might actually come together, there is a series of setbacks caused by ludicrous circumstances out of their control. This may comically reflect the reality of the IT sector, but it's annoying to watch a show in which everyone just runs in circles. Especially when the primary cause of most of the pain is TJ Miller's insufferable moron Erlich. Miller's a gifted comic, but without Erlich the show might actually be enjoyable.


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: series 2
This buoyant series continued with its breakneck pacing, zooming through 13 episodes in what felt like the blink of an eye. It was nice to see a bit of deepening for the side characters played by Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess - both play utterly ridiculous people, but this season revealed some surprisingly emotional sides. Ellie Kemper continues to be perhaps the most relentlessly likeable person on TV - adorable, hilarious, silly. Her story is superbly involving. Although it's probably too jarringly nonstop for some viewers, as Tina Fey recreates her 30 Rock formula of packing what feels like 10 comedy gags into each second of air time. 

Grace and Frankie: series 2
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin took their characters quite a bit further in this second season, pushing both their camaraderie and deep differences to various breaking points. The scripts sometimes felt a bit goofy, but both actresses are so good that it's hard to mind much. And there's fine support from Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, on their own journey as the coupled-up ex-spouses, plus Brooklyn Decker, Ethan Embry, Baron Vaughn and June Diane Raphael as their complex kids. This is also a rare show that gives other acting veterans a chance to shine - Ernie Hudson and Sam Elliot both had great roles this season. Geriatric love has never looked so sexy on-screen: there's hope for everyone!

Empire: series 2
After a very rough first half, this season got back on track by concentrating once again on the soapy excesses rather than the grim criminal elements. And the stories mercifully reverted back to the tetchy members of the Lyon dynasty rather than those swirling around them. The big cliffhanger finale was perfectly played, Dallas/Dynasty style. And it suggests that things will continue to return to more camp craziness for the third season. Intriguingly, now that we're used to Taraji P Henson's outrageous attitude and costumes and Terrence Howard's squinty steeliness, it's the three sons who are emerging as much more complex, engaging characters. The question is whether Henson and Howard will let them share the spotlight.

The Royals: series 2
This oddly undercooked series continues with its cheap and cheerful style, mixing very badly written scripts with cheesy direction. The cast is adept, although each moment of resonance is undermined by something eye-rollingly stupid. Still, William Moseley and Alexandra Park manage to find depth in their twin prince and princess roles, while Liz Hurley and Joan Collins have a ball strutting around in high-fashion regalia with their diva attitudes and hidden agendas. And Tom Austen offers some terrific brooding-hunk moments. Trashy and pretty awful, really. But fun.

Schitt's Creek: series 2
After the gimmicky set-up in the first season, this one felt like it was kind of pushing it. A family of four millionaires stranded in a backwoods town, each of the characters pushed forward in his or her life, but without more interpersonal development, none of this quite makes sense anymore. That said, the four lead actors (Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy) are so engaging that the show is still hugely entertaining. (While Chris Elliott is still hopelessly annoying.) So if they try to stretch this premise even thinner, I'll still be watching. 

There isn't much on over the summer months - well, not that I've discovered yet - but I am watching the second season of Wayward Pines, enjoying Chelsea Handler's cleverly titled Chelsea, looking forward to the Looking movie and Sharknado 4, and catching up with less promising series I'd previously skipped, like Supergirl.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Shadows on the Stage: Not as silly as they look

Two fringe theatre shows in London this month approach the gay scene from intriguing angles, making some important observations while entertaining audiences with a lot of camp excess...

dir Luke Davies • scr Patrick Cash
with Paul Duncan, Richard Watkins, James Ferguson, Arkem Walton, Matthew Hodson, Charly Flyte
The Glory, Hoxton • 20.Jun-1.Jul.16

Cleverly grappling with issues of masculinity and identity, this astute play is a riot of colour, lights and music. It's a lot of camp fun, but it's gags are hilariously pointed, so a serious undercurrent catches the audience off-guard with genuinely important observations. Performed all around the audience in a room encased in glitter, this play turns out to be even more immersive than it looks.

The story centres on Sam (Paul Duncan), the new barman at a fading Soho nightclub, where the manager Benjamin (Arkem Walton) is seriously considering an offer from a developer (Matthew Hodson) to turn the building into tiny expensive flats. The star performer is the worn-out drag queen Ibiza Chilltape (James Ferguson), while Kylie fanatic JJ (Richard Watkins) keeps the place humming. There are instant sparks between Sam and JJ, who decides that he needs to be more masculine. But of course, real masculinity isn't about how he behaves on the surface.

Where this goes is surprising, especially with some deeply moving moments interspersed between the glittering karaoke performances and sassy interaction. Yes, much of the show is uber-arch, and the drag costumes couldn't be much more trashy if they tried. But each of the actors finds some real resonance along the way. Duncan is particularly strong (as an actor, singer and dancer), and creates a vivid central character to carry the story. Flyte is the scene-stealer in a series of roles from Sam's concerned mum to his guardian angel Mariah.

But perhaps the most important thing about this show is what it has to say about pop music, exploring the reason why the gay community has embraced icons like Madonna, Cher and Kylie, and the deeper role of pop to define a subculture. The show also has a lot to say about the shifting image of men both in society at large and on the gay scene. But most impressive of all is how the cast and crew make it so much fun that you'll want to get up and dance with them at the end.

Get 'Em Off!
dir Robert McWhir • scr John Bradfield, Martin Hooper
music John Bradfield
with Dereck Walker, Michael Nelson, Ashley Daniels, David Michael Hands, Stuart Harris, Joe Goldie, Tom Bowen
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 22.Jun-28.Aug.16

There's a nice edge to this silly musical, both in some sharp observations and some darker story elements. So it's a bit of a shame that the plot kind of goes up in smoke in the final act, never making anything of the deeper themes gurgling around in the story. This may have been designed to be little more than a fluffy musical comedy about young men taking their clothes off, but a bit of depth would have given the show a nice kick.

It's set in a fading Croyden bar, where the manager Quinny (Dereck Walker) is also a high-energy drag queen hostess. The big question is how to get people through the doors on a Monday, and he comes up with the idea of running an amateur strip night, enlisting local boys Ricky and Milosh (Ashley Daniels and Michael Nelson), closeted professor Brian (Stuart Harris) and his student Mitch (Joe Goldie), plus straight builder Luke (Tom Bowen) as a ringer. Their goal is to put together a convincing act for a big competition that will boost the bar's reputation.

Smaller dramas involving the characters add some interest, including a few gentle romantic connections that are complicated by, for example, the fact that Ricky has an often-absent boyfriend (one of David Michael Hands' many terrific side roles). And the dialog is packed with clever observations about how things like drag shows and strip nights give confidence and joy to a marginalised community. John Bradfield's songs are witty and enjoyable, performed with loads energy and talent by the likeable cast.

Where things begin to wobble is in a general prudishness that creeps in. Even a show-stopping song about the importance of the full monty is staged so coyly that it's almost embarrassing. There is some partial nudity later on, as well as a brief Full Monty style flash, but by then the overall attitude is clear: director Robert McWhir is afraid of appealing to audience prurience. But it's not about nakedness; the show strains to avoid being sexy, so it never feels true. So what's left is a funny, engaging musical that never quite cracks the surface. Which might be all the audiences are looking for. But wouldn't it have been nice to give them more?

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Critical week: Take the cake

Blockbuster screenings this week included the animated comedy-adventure The Secret Life of Pets, from the team behind Despicable Me. It's a lively, funny romp that isn't quite as original as it could have been. The 20-years-later sequel Independence Day: Resurgence provides plenty of big-scale entertainment. But it can't quite live up to memories of the first film, because of its rushed story and a lack of snappy wit. And the action-bromance Central Intelligence gives Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart roles that are enjoyably against type, including plenty of hilarious dialog.

Out of the mainstream, Key and Peele's action comedy Keanu is likeably engaging when it's witty and a bit harder to take when it's violent, but the eponymous kitten makes it irresistible. And the clever British doc Notes on Blindness uses professor John Hull's recordings, lip-synched by actors, to explore his adaptation to a life without sight. It's beautifully assembled, but somewhat gloomy.

With screenings slow at the moment, I had time for a variety of cultural activities outside the cinema. Pietro Mascagni's opera Iris (pictured right) was staged at Holland Park's open-air theatre on an enjoyably large scale. The story is rather simple, and the sets and costumes are head-scratchingly anachronistic, but the music is lovely and the cast is excellent. I also attended the Sicily exhibition at British Museum, a fascinating look at European history from the perspective of an island that has been pivotal from the ancient Greeks to the Roman Empire. And then there is The Bunyadi, an all-natural pop-up restaurant serving a tasting menu cooked without electricity - in earthen bowls on hand-hewn tables to diners who are only allowed to wear bathrobes and nothing else (crucially, no phones) - and wearing the robes is optional within the bamboo-screened booths. The food is fresh, delicious and inventive, and the service is engaging, but the price is very steep.

This coming week there are screenings of two sequels, the animated adventure Finding Dory and the magical thriller Now You See Me 2, plus Thomas Vinterberg's acclaimed drama The Commune and a post-release screening of the award-winning immigration doc Fire at Sea at the East End Film Festival. And for non-film offerings, I've got two plays, a circus cabaret and a day at Wimbledon. Plus a variety of parties to celebrate/commiserate the result of Britain's in/out EU referendum on Thursday. Reports to come...

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Requisite Blog Photo: Furry friends

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Critical Week: The right stuff

I caught up this week with HBO's movie All the Way, recounting how, in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr (Bryan Cranston and Anthony Mackie, above) begrudgingly cooperated to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, standing up to opposition because it was the right thing to do. Reteaming Cranston with Trumbo director Jay Roach, the film has a bristling sense of humour that brings the situation to life. And the performances are full of punchy emotional undercurrents, from Cranston and Mackie to ace supporting players like Bradley Whitford, Melissa Leo, Frank Langella, Stephen Root, Ray Wise and Joe Morton. While the plot and themes are important and strongly relevant, the film feels oddly muted in tone, contained within rooms rather than encompassing the bigger picture. This is perhaps due to the script's stage origins, so thankfully it doesn't water down the story's powerful kick.

My only proper screening this past week was The Conjuring 2, the London-set sequel featuring real-life ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Like the 2013 original, the film is genuinely terrifying, even though director James Wan can't resist using every cliche available. I also caught three films in the upcoming East End Film Festival: Desire Will Set You Free is a freeform drama with documentary elements set in Berlin's sexually ambiguous club scene; Uncle Howard is a moving documentary about filmmaker Howard Brookner (Burroughs) by his nephew Aaron; and Transit Havana is a beautifully shot doc following transgendered men and women as they navigate Cuba's health care system. I'll have more on these and others when the festival kicks off on 23rd June.

Screenings this coming week include Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in Central Intelligence, the animated adventure The Secret Life of Pets, the cat-kidnapping comedy Keanu and the acclaimed doc Notes on Blindness. I've also got several more EEFF movies to watch.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Critical Week: Of skirts and men

I caught up with the ancient-mythology epic Gods of Egypt this week (that's Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites above being tormented by a god-sized Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. There's definitely a lot of camp value there, and much of the snarky attitude is intentional. It's definitely smarter that most blockbusters, even if it is swamped by excessive effects work (hint: it's better on a small screen without 3D).

Aside from the Sundance Film Festival London, I had only three other movies this week, and it was a mixed bag: Elvis & Nixon recounts an absurd true story as a vehicle for Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey to chomp merrily on the scenery. There isn't much more to the movie that that, but it might be enough. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a rather darker true story from 1971, with eerie resonance in more recent headline news. It's a very well-made film, sober and pointed, with a terrific cast. And Outings consists of the first three episodes of a proposed British TV series that's unlikely to be commissioned. Basically an amusing but never funny gay variation on Sex and the City, the stories are good and the cast is fresh, but it's just too amateurish to appeal to broader audiences.

As usual this time of year, screenings are rather few and far between. The only one in the diary for the coming week is the London-set sequel The Conjuring 2. Other films might be forthcoming (and I have a few in the diary for the following week), but I'm looking forward to a bit of time to do other things for a change.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Sundance returns to London

After taking a break for a year, Sundance returns to London for 2016, this time in a much more accessible venue at the gorgeous Picturehouse Central in Piccadilly. Over the weekend, the 4th Sundance Film Festival: London is bringing 11 premiere features and a number of shorts, plus lots of events for aspiring filmmakers. It all kicked off tonight with Sian Heder's Tallulah (on-set pic above). Here are comments on the nine features I've seen...

dir Sian Heder; with Ellen Page, Allison Janney 16/US ****.
Skilfully written and directed by Sian Heder, this astute drama explores issues of parenthood from a variety of unexpected angles. The story is complex and gripping, and the characters are deeply engaging as they struggle to make the right decisions in tricky situations. Thankfully, Heder never resorts to glib answers, which makes the film both involving and powerfully moving.

dir Andrew Neel; with Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas 16/US ***.
Based on real events, this grim exploration of frat-house culture would be difficult to watch if it weren't for the strikingly realistic characters at the centre. Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas deliver involving performances as brothers with complex reactions to the unbridled masculinity they find themselves in the middle of. And they both provide a strong emotional kick.

dir Todd Solondz; with Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn 16/US ****
Arthouse veteran Todd Solondz continues to slice through the artificiality of human interaction with a series of vignettes that centre around an adorable dachshund. The connections between the episodes kind of fall apart as the film continues, but the characters and relationships are startling all the way through. As are the film's observations about the nature of intelligence.

The Intervention
dir Clea DuVall; with Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders 16/US ***
An engagingly twisted story and especially strong acting bring this ensemble comedy-drama to life, sparking a continual sense of uncomfortable recognition for the viewer. So even if the themes never seem particularly complex, and the gyrations of the plot never terribly revelatory, the film is thoroughly entertaining as it explores some nagging truths about relationships.

Other People
dir Chris Kelly; with Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon 16/US ****
Themes of mortality and repression make this drama rather heavy-going, but there's a freshness to the ensemble cast that injects jagged humour into every scene. And filmmaker Chris Kelly keeps the tone awkward, which gives the film an improvised atmosphere to help avoid any obvious sermonising.

dir James Schamus; with Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon 16/US ***.
Based on the Philip Roth novel, this tightly controlled film is an intriguing directing debut for writer-producer James Schamus. It certainly doesn't mirror the more free-spirited earthiness of his usual collaborator Ang Lee; this is a blackly pointed drama with intense characters whose actions carry punchy consequences. Which is the story's central theme.

The Greasy Strangler
dir Jim Hosking; with Michael St Michaels, Sky Elobar 16/US *.
With its relentlessly crude filmmaking, this gonzo horror-comedy feels like Beavis and Butt-Head tried to make a mash-up homage to John Waters and David Lynch. Except that the movie is never remotely funny or scary. And director James Hosking spends too much time wallowing in grotesque nudity and repeated catch-phrases to give the premise any kick.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story
dir Jeff Feuerzeig; with Laura Albert, Savannah Knoop 16/US ****
Inventively assembled to tell a story with humour and insight, this film documents the astonishing conundrum of hotshot author JT LeRoy, who turned out not to be a real person after his novel and stories had been published and adapted for film to great acclaim. Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig digs deep to tell the full story from the perspective of the woman at the centre of it all.

dir Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg; with Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin 16/US ***.
This is a fascinating documentary about a politician who desperately wants to get past a scandal of his own making. And since we're talking about Anthony Weiner, directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have a seemingly endless supply of wickedly entertaining jokes to work with. Even as the filmmakers remain in fly-on-the-wall mode, the film snaps with energy and wit... FULL REVIEW >