Thursday, 15 February 2018

Critical Week: Brotherly love

It's been a meagre week, screening-wise, mainly because I've already seen virtually everything that's being shown to the press at the moment (thanks to autumn film festivals and awards-season screenings and screeners). I did manage to catch up with Owen Wilson and Ed Helms in Father Figures, which wasn't screened to the press, and now I know why. It's a bizarre mix of gross-out comedy and brotherly bromance sentimentality. Another set of fraternal twins feature in The Lodgers, an atmospheric Irish freak-out starring Charlotte Vega and Bill Milner as siblings keeping watch over their collapsing family manor by day, then hiding from marauding nastiness at night. It turns genuinely creepy when two interlopers upset the balance. There was also the sensitive Brazilian drama About Us, which has a ring of autobiography in its introspective exploration of a past, pivotal relationship between a filmmaker and an architect. And I watched this documentary to take part in a rather strong TV panel discussion...

Saving Capitalism
dir Jacob Kornbluth; with Robert Reich 17/US ***.
One of those blood-boiling documentaries that leaves the audience feeling helpless, this film skilfully holds the attention with its disarmingly gentle tone and likeable central figure. Robert Reich was Labor Secretary under Clinton, and is now travelling around America to understand how average people feel about being squeezed by rising inflation and falling wages. He explains that this is happening because corporations are draining the system, shifting money from workers to top-tier executives while at the same time siphoning off tens of billions from the government in tax breaks and incentives, plus special laws and loopholes as the result of lobbying. Reich argues that this is just another form of regulation, promoting capitalist business with socialist hand-outs. It's hard to fault his logic, because he articulately states the case and backs it up with both clear facts and historical precedent. And filmmaker Kornbluth assembles this in a riveting, entertaining way. Most telling is that this same situation developed in the 1890s and was corrected with extensive limits on corporate power. But Reich admits this will only happen if voters stop putting populists in office and let government do its job to protect people from companies that are literally stealing money then blaming the government for the problem. And without limits on campaign donations, it's only going to get worse. No wonder so few people trust politicians. And no wonder the usual urgent plea to vote and protest feels like a drop in the bucket.

Strictly Ballroom: The Musical
Based on the 1992 sleeper hit movie, which launched Baz Luhrmann's career, this Australian stage musical is heading for the West End in March. At its launch event this week at the Cafe de Paris, we were treated to a few musical numbers by cast member Will Young, a fiery flamenco performance from veteran actor-dancer Fernando Mira, and lively speeches from director-choreographer Drew McOnie and Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin. There was also more dancing from the show's stars Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen and the company. It was a colourful morning, properly whetting the appetite for a show based on a film that lingers in the memory. I don't think I've watched it all the way through since it was in cinemas 25 years ago, so I'm looking forward to seeing this on-stage, with its mixture of deranged Aussie humour and pointed social commentary that feels even more timely today. And of course because it launched a global sequin-bedazzled ballroom craze that's stronger now than ever.
Previews begin at the Piccadilly Theatre on 29th March, more info is HERE.

Screenings of new movies are still slow, but I have a few things in the diary over the next week, including Toni Collette in Madame, Taraji P Henson in Proud Mary, the Justin Chon drama Gook and the programme launch event for the British Film Institute's Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, which takes place 21 March to 1st April.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Critical Week: Stardust memories

It's been another random week of screenings, topped by a surprise Netflix release and a starry film premiere. The surprise was The Cloverfield Paradox, the latest loosely connected film in JJ Abrams' franchise. This one's a sci-fi thriller with some nicely deranged touches but a general air of randomness about it. The premiere was for Black Panther, Marvel's latest game-changer, a thumpingly entertaining adventure with a properly African sensibility and some wonderfully pointed themes. It's also swamped with too much digital extravagance.

Clint Eastwood's new film The 15:17 to Paris stars the actual three heroes who thwarted a gunman's attack on a train in 2015. They have presence, but the film feels meandering and pointless apart from the momentous 10 minutes. Becks is a beautifully written and performed story about a musician trying to rebuild her life, although it kind of chickens out in the final act. Just Charlie is a gorgeous British drama about a pre-teen who begins a male-to-female transition that's never simplistic or preachy. Revenge is a gleefully blood-soaked thriller about a woman turning the tables on three tough guys, although it kind of mixes its messages by fetishising her. The Canadian drama Sebastian has some charm, but is undermined by inexperienced filmmaking. And Ingmar Bergman's underrated, remarkably complex 1971 romantic drama The Touch gets a stunning digital restoration. And then there were these two...

Fifty Shades Freed
dir James Foley; scr Niall Leonard; with Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes 18/US *.
Shot back-to-back with the second movie, this trilogy finale features the same dopey writing and directing, remaining resolutely superficial as a preposterous thriller without even a hint of suspense. It's a bit sexier, structured like a soft-porn romp as our heroes can't keep their hands off each other whenever the music kicks in. But the characters are so limp that the actors look like they were drugged and forced to speak this laughably awful dialog. The film opens as Christian and Ana (Dornan and Johnson) have a fantasy wedding, then bicker on honeymoon about going topless on a French beach. As a married couple, their biggest challenges are Ana's hot security guard (Brant Daugherty) and Christian's flirty architect (Arielle Kebbel), before Ana's surprise pregnancy causes some overwrought his-and-her melodrama in between the belt buckles, bubble baths and Ben & Jerry's. Meanwhile, Ana's psychotic ex-boss (Eric Johnson) launches a series of attacks that get increasingly ludicrous until a climactic showdown. All of this is so flimsy that it's difficult to remember why EL James' books created such a fuss in the first place. There's certainly no sense that these two people are in any sort of real-world relationship. In the original film, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel captured a zing of tension and a bit of deranged fun in the characters. But these sequels are wet noodles.

Dropping the Soap
dir Ellie Kanner; with Paul Witten, Jane Lynch 16/US ****
The nutty backstage comedy is set among the cast and crew of the camp soap opera Collided Lives, and features as much bickering off-camera as on it. New producer Olivia (Lynch) is rattling everyone, manly lead actor Julian (Witten) is so deep in the closet that his leading lady (Suzanne Friedline) thinks they're engaged. The show's other female star (Kate Mines) is plotting to out him, but everyone is so caught up in their own worries that they barely notice. The scripts for these 10 episodes (each around 10 minutes long) are hilarious, packed with witty verbal gags and riotous interplay between the actors and their soap characters. It's also made with a snappy pace, a steady stream of funny cameos and a refreshing willingness to under-explain everything that happens. It's out on DVD/VOD, and well worth a look.

There aren't many screenings next week, but I will catch up with Owen Wilson in Father Figures, the British horror The Lodgers, the Brazilian drama About Us and the documentary Saving Capitalism. It's also the run-up week for the Baftas on Sunday 18th February.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Critical Week: She's behind you!

With my time largely consumed by the London critics awards, it was a slower week for screenings, with just one big title: the ghost story Winchester, which is very loosely based on a true story. Helen Mirren adds some star power, as Jason Clarke is solid, but the film is little more than a collection of the usual cheesy scary movie cliches. At least it's good fun.

In fact, all of the films this week were fact-based: The Music of Silence is an Italian drama (acted in English) based on the fictionalised autobiography of singer Andrea Bocelli, starring Toby Sebastian and Antonio Banderas. It's a bit dry, but a strong story well played. Birth of the Dragon fictionally traces the mythical clash between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man in early 60s San Francisco. It's out of balance due to a subplot that takes over, but the fights are great. And Thirsty actually stars Scott Townsend as himself in a dramatised telling of his life, as he grows up to become drag star Thirsty Burlington. It's colourful and entertaining.

Screenings this coming week include Black Panther, The trilogy finale Fifty Shades Freed, Clint Eastwood's thriller The 15:17 to Paris, the family romp Peter Rabbit, the French thriller Revenge, the Canadian drama Sebastian and a restoration of Bergman's 1971 drama The Touch.