Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Critical Week: Trust no one

There were two very different action movies screened to the press this past week. Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is a whizzy thriller packed with gimmicky filmmaking touches and snappy performances from the likes of Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eliza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm (above), plus Kevin Spacey, Lily James and others. Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth in the series, is a cacophonous adventure that looks pretty awesome on Imax 3D but is a painful two and a half hours without a coherent story or characters.

Outside the mainstream, we also had a screening of Phyllida Lloyd's bracingly inventive Julius Caesar, a filmed version of her female-prison set version of Shakespeare's eerily resonant play. Scribe is a Hitchcockian thriller from Belgium starring Francois Cluzet as a man pulled into a political nightmare that seems to be actually taking place right now in the world around us. Tom of Finland is a gripping if somewhat mannered biopic about the unassuming man who completely changed the world's image of masculinity with his hyper-macho illustrations. Risk is Laura Poitras' long-in-the-works doc about Julian Assange, whose enigmatic nature infects this film. And City of Ghosts is the stunning, essential documentary about a group of brave journalists covering Daesh's destruction of their hometown Raqqa, Syria.

As the East End Film Festival continues in London, the Edinburgh Film Festival gets underway in Scotland. And this week's press screenings include the animated sequel Despicable Me 3, Ryan Reynolds in The Hitman's Bodyguard, Armie Hammer in Final Portrait, the French period drama The Death of Louis XIV, the Indian drama Hotel Salvation, and the Baltic road movie You Can't Escape Lithuania.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Critical Week: On an adventure

There were some powerful performances in press screenings this past week. The offbeat family drama-cum-thriller The Book of Henry is held together by Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher (pictured) and Jacob Tremblay despite its jarring shifts between genres. The artfully internalised Churchill is anchored by an awards-worthy turn by Brian Cox despite its oddly overfamiliar plot. The WWII drama Alone in Berlin has the terrific Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson and Daniel Bruhl to hold the attention even when the pacing gets rather dull. And there was a wonderfully light-hearted role for Isabelle Huppert in Bavo Defurne's enjoyably quirky Belgian musical comedy-drama Souvenir.

Further afield, the small-budget British drama Daphne struggles to maintain its narrative but creates a nice sense of life in multicultural London. And the powerfully moving Australian doc Remembering the Man is an insightful account of the life of Tim Conigrave, whose Holding the Man is a seminal account of the Aids pandemic.

Screening this coming week are Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight, Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Julius Caesar, the French political thriller Scribe, the Finnish biopic Tom of Finland, Laura Poitras' Assange documentary Risk, and the Syrian Civil War doc City of Ghosts.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Critical Week: Feel the beat

Summer is a strange time for film critics, because the studios hold their big blockbusters until the very last moment. Or in one case this week, beyond all our deadlines. In previous weeks, films like Wonder Woman and King Arthur were screened just a few days before release, while this week's The Mummy screening was only hours before it opened on Friday. You can kind of see why, since it's a big action blockbuster with little to appeal to critics, but of course all critics are fans on the inside. We just need stronger stomachs than some others.

Otherwise this week, the bigger titles included The Last Word (above), with a welcome lead role for Shirley MacLaine, plus an up-for-it Amanda Seyfried. Its smart, sharp approach is somewhat softened by a flood of aphorisms in the final act. All Eyez on Me is a biopic about Tupac Shakur, very much in the vein of Straight Outta Compton (reviews are embargoed). Further afield was the American low-budget I Love You Both, which is set up as a rom-com about twins who fall for the same man, but turns into more of a drama with comical edges. And the independent British drama God's Own Country has already wowed Sundance and Berlin, and is now set to open Edinburgh in a couple of weeks. It's drop-dead gorgeous, a five-star debut for writer-director Francis Lee with breakout performances and awards-worthy work from the crew.

This coming week we have Brian Cox as Churchill, Emma Thompson in Alone in Berlin, the British indie Daphne and the documentary Remembering the Man. Thankfully, the UK election will be behind us and we can get on with normal life again. Hopefully with a bit of hope and some nice sunny summer weather....

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Sundance London: Get out of there

The fifth Sundance Film Festival: London wraps up tonight at Picturehouse Central. It's been a terrific collection of films this year - a varied selection of American indies made by gifted filmmakers. Repeat cast members included Lakeith Stanfield (Crown Heights and The Incredible Jessica James) and David Warshofsky (Beatriz at Dinner and Wilson). And the surprise film Patti Cake$ is likely to end up in my top 10 movies of the year. Full reviews will appear on the site as the films open, but here are some final blurbs...

A Ghost Story
dir-scr David Lowery; with Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara 17/US ***.
A quirky oddity of a movie that's more than a little indulgent, this spiritual odyssey explores issues of life, death and time with a poetic sensibility, almost as if Terrence Malick made an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. It's so absurd that it feels like it should be funny, but the tone is strikingly somber, even morose. And while it's too mannered to be emotionally involving, it's impossible to look away.

Wilson
dir Craig Johnson; with Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern 17/US ***
A jarringly offbeat tone keeps the audience on its toes for this scruffy comedy, which is essentially a celebration of a hyperactive, hopelessly optimistic curmudgeon. Based on screenwriter Daniel Clowes' graphic novel, there's nothing very realistic about this character, but the script is brittly funny, with hints of real insight under the goofy surface.

The Incredible Jessica James
dir-scr James C Strouse; with Jessica Williams, Chris O'Dowd 17/US ****
With a perceptive script and a wonderfully nuanced lead performance from Jessica Williams, this comedy has a lot of very honest things to say about the difficult choices we make relating to both relationships and careers. But while the film has moments of pointed intensity, nothing is ever laid on thickly. Instead, writer-director James Strouse keeps the audience laughing at the witty dialog and surprising characters all the way through.

Patti Cake$
dir-scr Geremy Jasper; with Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett 17/US *****
A loud blast of fresh air, this crowd-pleasing comedy-drama is impossible to watch without generating a huge smile and probably a few tears. It's a forward-thinking story of frustration and ambition that almost anyone in the audience can identify with, and it's populated with an eclectic bunch of messy, loveable characters. If you have the ability to find beauty in even the most unlikely places, it's pure bliss.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Sundance London: Drink to that

The fifth Sundance Film Festival: London is now fully underway with a series of screenings and quite a few chances to meet the filmmakers at Picturehouse Central in Piccadilly. Last night's opening event was superb, with the team from Beatriz at Dinner in attendance - writer Mike White, director Miguel Arteta and actor Salma Hayek, all on great form. I'm catching movies all weekend, including the surprise film tonight (I have an inkling). Here are a few more highlights...

Beatriz at Dinner
dir Miguel Arteta; with Salma Hayek, John Lithgow 17/US ****.
A third teaming of the terrific director-writer duo Miguel Arteta and Mike White (see also Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl), this astute pitch-black comedy cuts a razor-sharp line through affluent American society. It's a fiendishly smart film with moments in which we're not sure whether this is funny or terrifying, simply because it resonates so strongly. And it's anchored by Salma Hayek's best ever performance.

Walking Out
dir-scr Alex Smith, Andrew J Smith; with Matt Bomer, Josh Wiggins 17/US ***.
A sensitive drama about the awkward bonding between a father and son takes a very dark turn in this beautifully photographed film. As things get genuinely gruelling, filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith somehow manage to avoid both melodrama and sentimentality. The themes get a bit lost in the dictates of the plot, which makes the pace feel draggy, but there's still a thoughtful, moving edge.

Bitch
dir-scr Marianna Palka; with Jason Ritter, Jaime King 17/US ***
A jarring production style and unsympathetic characters make it difficult to enjoy this offbeat pitch-black comedy, but there are important themes that surge up throughout the story that make it worth a look. And it's always great to see a film that keeps you off-balance. In addition, writer-director Marianna Palka draws boldly realistic performances from her cast. And herself.

Icarus
dir Bryan Fogel; with Bryan Fogel, Grigory Rodchenkov17/US ****
This documentary starts out to explore drug use among professional cyclists then becomes engulfed in another series of events that have far bigger repercussions. Filmmaker Bryan Fogel may be too involved in what happens to tell the story with journalistic vigour, unable to resist framing everything as some sort of epic spy thriller, but what's revealed is genuinely earth-shaking. And it's a movie that's impossible to ignore.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Sundance London: Do the right thing

The fifth Sundance Film Festival: London kicks off tonight at Picturehouse Central, and the next four days will feature 14 feature films and 15 shorts, plus some revived classics. It's a great chance to see movies that are just a bit off the beaten path and then mix with the filmmakers and cast members too - and Picturehouse is a great place to hang out! Here are my comments on four films, with more to come over the weekend...

Crown Heights
dir-scr Matt Ruskin; with Lakeith Stanfield (pictured above), Nnamdi Asomugha 17/US ***
A powerful true story is recounted skilfully as this drama spans 21 years in the life of a man wrongfully accused of murder. Writer-director Matt Ruskin has several urgent things to say about the American judicial system, although his approach chronicles the events like a well-made TV docudrama rather than building a proper cinematic narrative arc. This leaves us feeling informed but not hugely involved, but it's essential that this story is told.

The Big Sick
dir Michael Showalter; with Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan 17/US ****
With a network of complex, realistic relationships, each with its own trajectory, this film feels rather long and somewhat tonally jarring for a comedy. It veers from snarky humour to giggly romance to some very bleak emotions as it goes along, but the themes it explores are powerfully resonant. And they give the film a surprising kick that echoes long after the credits roll.

Marjorie Prime
dir-scr Michael Almereyda; with Lois Smith, Jon Hamm 17/US ****
A rather talky script and lofty themes make it obvious that this film was adapted from a stage play (the playwright is Jordan Harrison). It's the kind of movie that holds the attention simply because it touches on so many big ideas in ways that spark thought. It's too brainy to be emotionally involving, but it's a bracing exploration of memory that carries a real wallop. It might even change the way you define your relationships.

Bushwick
dir Cary Murnion, Jonathan Milott; with Dave Bautista, Brittany Snow 17/US 1h34 **.
This busy thriller unfolds in unexpected ways as it propels us along with the characters through an inventive premise. But it's all a bit haphazard, with uneven writing and acting and a gnawing sense that there isn't much of a point to all the carnage. Still, it's a ripping little action movie that refuses to let its low-key production values get in the way of its big ambitions.

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CRITICAL WEEK
The only non-festival movie I've seen in the past week is Wonder Woman, which I really loved despite the too-digital climax. Sundance London continues over the weekend (watch for more updates here and full reviews on the site). Screenings coming up next week include the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me and Tom Cruise's The Mummy reboot.