Thursday, 20 July 2017

Critical Week: Land, sea, air and space

Two big movies this week were passion projects written and directed by top filmmakers. Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an almost outrageously colourful outer space romp starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. It's visually fabulous, but never terribly thrilling. By contrast, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is so viscerally inventive that it pulls us into a cleverly splintered narrative - on land, sea and air - surrounding Britain's epic 1940 evacuation across the channel. Unlike any war movie you've seen, it's perhaps the year's best film so far. And it's especially powerful on the Imax screen.

Much sillier thrills were to be had at Captain Underpants, the riotously rude animated comedy centred on a friendship between two pranksters who convince their principal that he's a superhero. Frenetic but very funny. The Vault is a heist movie with supernatural horror overtones starring James Franco and Francesca Eastwood (comments are embargoed). Killing Ground is more straightforward grisly horror from Australia about two families who face scary locals in the woods. And the 1961 British classic Victim gets a welcome reissue to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. It's also still a great drama, with powerhouse performances from Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms.

Coming up this next week are Kathryn Bigelow's 1960s riots drama Detroit, Bill Nighy's Victorian whodunit The Limehouse Golem, Jada Pinkett Smith and friends on a comical Girls Trip, Gerard Butler as A Family Man, a couple of women trapped 47 Metres Down, and the festival-winning On Body and Soul.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Critical Week: What big hair you have!

A rather vicious bout with food poisoning derailed a few film screenings for me this week, leaving me feeling a bit like the Sun King on his deathbed in The Death of Louis XIV, an achingly slow-moving but mesmerising 18th century drama by Albert Serra. It also has a surprising underlying sense of humour to it, plus a lovely performance from Jean-Pierre Leaud. Terrence Malick's Song to Song is another gorgeous collage of a movie with a plot that was slightly less defiantly elusive than his more recent movies. It also has striking performances from Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchet and more. And Maudie is the warm true story of Nova Scotia painter Maud Lewis, sometimes a bit too quirky and quaint for its own good, but Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke add nice textures to their offbeat roles. And then there was this one...


A Few Less Men
dir Mark Lamprell; scr Dean Craig; with Xavier Samuel, Kris Marshall, Kevin Bishop, Ryan Corr 17/Aus *
Screenwriter Dean Craig's 2012 comedy A Few Best Men was painfully unfunny, only livened up by Stephan Elliot's subversive direction. No one expected a sequel. But here it is, and the three returning actors at least dive in with gusto. Even so, Craig's script is even more unbearably inane this time, proving that comedies need gags that have something to do with characters or situations. Here, the jokes are random, usually extended set-pieces involving death and/or bodily functions, all with a vile homophobic undertone. And the plot simply makes no sense. It starts where the first film ended, after the wedding of sensible nice-guy David (Samuel), whose idiotic and unlikely English buddies (Marshall and Bishop) are coping with the death of a friend. The hijinks ensue as they try to get the body back to London so camp mobster Henry (Corr) can bury his brother. But they crash-land their private jet and end up carrying the coffin across the Outback on a single day that would need to have about 72 hours in it (Henry flies from London to meet them in Perth while the sun is still in the sky). The actors just about emerge with their dignity intact, simply by never acknowledging how bone-chillingly awful this movie is. There are welcome antics from scene-stealers like Lynette Curran, Deborah Mailman, Shane Jacobson and Sacha Horler. And the closing credits outtakes at least hint they had some fun making it.


This coming week we have Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the animated antics of Captain Underpants, the Morrissey biopic England Is Mine and the cleverly titled heist thriller The Vault.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Critical Week: Say your prayers

As another heatwave settles in over London, I had two film-free days this week. First was the baseball event in Hyde Park (see the post below), and the other was the Critics' Circle annual summer party on the gorgeous roof terrace at Picturehouse Central. As for films, I really enjoyed Sofia Coppola's remake of The Beguiled, but then I love her loose filmmaking style and the way she lets her actors bring out unexpected depths of character. At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, the franchise continues with Cars 3, the fifth (don't forget the Planes movies) in the series about a world populated by vehicles but not humans. The set-up is just as odd, but the movie has an earthy simplicity to it.

Much more offbeat, Bong Joon Ho's Okja is a witty, involving action adventure with very dark themes about globalisation and sharp performances from Tilda Swinton (times two), Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano. Also worth a look is It Comes at Night, an inventively complex horror movie starring Joel Edgerton. It's set after some kind of undefined apocalypse but heavily reminiscent of the world today. Hickok is a cheesy Western tracing the story of the iconic historical figure, nicely played by a beefy Luke Hemsworth. And Do You Take This Man is another thoughtful drama starring Anthony Rapp, set around a pre-wedding dinner at which the usual personal issues are brought to the surface.

This coming week, screenings include Terrence Malick's Song to Song, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke in Maudie, the Aussie sequel A Few Less Men, the horror thriller Killing Ground and the fact-based drama Dark Night.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Battleground: Baseball in Hyde Park

So I got to celebrate the 4th of July with the first ever Major League Baseball event held in London. It happened to be a gorgeously warm and sunny evening at BST Hyde Park, the summer-long festival that includes concerts, open-air movies and perhaps the best array of street food and drink I've ever seen. The MLB Battlegrounds took over the main stage for a homerun shootout between the Boston Red Sox and the L.A. Dodgers. Being a native of Los Angeles, there really was no question who I would be cheering for.

The event is somewhat contrived, as the teams aren't actually represented here: these batters are a collection of players wearing the jerseys, including on each team a retired MLB all-star, a British cricketer, a female softball pro and two past or present baseball players. They smack away pitches trying to hit as many homeruns as possible, with added targets for extra points. At the end of round one, the Dodgers were in the lead, and then it became an individual competition, with the Red Sox's Carlos Peña (above) and the Dodgers' Federico Celli (right) facing off for the title. Celli's final 31-point round was simply mind-boggling, claiming the crown.

  • Dodgers: all-star Cliff Floyd (captain), former baseball pro Shawn Green, Italian-born baseball pro Federico Celli, softball pro Karla Claudio and England cricketer Alex Hales.
  • Red Sox: all-star Carlos Peña (captain), former baseball pro Gary Davidson, German-born baseball pro Julsan Kamara, softball pro Taylor Hoagland and England cricketer Jos Buttler.

Random touches abound for this kind of event (a live DJ! a dance battle! a highlights reel!), and it all features that general rah-rah American sporting atmosphere. But it was nice to see Londoners turn out by the thousands (20,000 to be exact) to scream their support, catch fly balls and fight over t-shirts fired from airguns. Having a media pass that allowed me to watch from right on the stage helped make it even more fun! My Instagram posts are below...


A post shared by Rich Jack Cline (@ukcline) on
A post shared by Rich Jack Cline (@ukcline) on
A post shared by Rich Jack Cline (@ukcline) on

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Critical Week: Nuns on the run

There were a few big blockbusters screened to the London press this past week. The Hitman's Bodyguard is a riotous action-comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson; Spider-Man: Homecoming is the hugely entertaining and surprisingly hilarious Marvel movie that finally puts the gifted Tom Holland front and centre; War for the Planet of the Apes concludes the prequel trilogy starring the awesome Andy Serkis with a remarkably thoughtful and involving thriller; and Despicable Me 3 is the manic continuation of the entertaining animated action-comedy series featuring Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig.

Less tentpole-ish: The House is a feeble comedy starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler that only has a few amusing touches. Final Portrait is a riveting but over-stylised true story anchored by a career-best performance from Geoffrey Rush; and Hotel Salvation is a remarkably sensitive Indian comedy-drama that knowingly tackles issues of religion and mortality.

Coming up this next week, we've got screenings of the Pixar sequel Cars 3, Tilda Swinton in Okja, Joel Edgerton in It Comes at Night and Luke Hemsworth in Hickok, plus a few catch-up films to watch at home. Meanwhile, both the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the East End Film Festival in London come to a close this weekend.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Shadows on the Screen: Summer TV roundup

So many shows, new and returning, converged this spring that it was a relief that this year's season of Game of Thrones was delayed. It's been intriguing to see the convergence of so many political shows tackling the same themes: Homeland, Veep, Scandal and House of Cards at times felt like the same show, struggling to be more outrageous than what was actually happening in Washington. And then The Handmaid's Tale (ahem!) trumped all of them. 

SOMETHING NEW

Twin Peaks
To get ready for this, I binged the 1990-91 series, plus the 1992 movie Fire Walk With Me, chilled each time "25 years later" was mentioned. And now here we are. The new shows have a different tone, more fragmented and much drier. But David Lynch is cleverly maintaining the open-ended mystery, dropping clues everywhere without explaining anything, giving just enough plot to make it riveting. Most of the returning cast members are appearing in cameos, but Kyle McLachlan has even more work to do as Dale Cooper tries to, well, put himself back together after a quarter century in red-curtained limbo (although his duality is beginning to feel draggy). The show is also still very funny, although not quite as silly as the original shows were. It's also just as magnetic, impossible to look away. This season continues until September, and Lynch says there's more to come after that.

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood's novel is more than 30 years old, and yet its premise feels chillingly relevant in this creepy series set in a very near future ("When they blamed terrorists and suspended freedom temporarily, we let them") ruled by a theocratic government that brutally enforces "traditional" values. Produced with artistry and anchored by yet another riveting performance from Elisabeth Moss, this is a punchy exploration of human nature and the dangers of subverting it for whatever reason. It's somehow shocking to hear Offred's fiery internal thoughts as she plays such a passive role on the outside, a rare fertile woman in a polluted world, assigned to bear children for a wealthy commander (Joseph Fiennes) and yearning for her stolen daughter (Jordana Blake). What this says about fanaticism and resilience is astonishing. And it's emotionally riveting. A second season is coming, praised be.

Santa Clarita Diet
A witty, original approach to the zombie genre, this sitcom is thoroughly engaging thanks to the likeable central performances of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as estate agents in suburbia dealing with her sudden appetite for human flesh. The carnage is played for laughs, and since this is Netflix the grisliness and language are pretty full-on. It's all rather broad, and the short episodes never really go anywhere. Indeed, the 10-episode first season feels very slight. But there are hilarious moments dotted throughout every episode, and the side roles are pretty fabulous, from teens Liv Hewson and Skyler Gisondo to the likes of Portia De Rossi, Patton Oswalt, Nathan Fillion, Ricardo Chavira, Thomas Lennon and the great Grace Zabriskie.

Thirteen Reasons Why
There's a loose realism to this series that continually takes the viewer by surprise. Corny but involving, it holds the interest with dramatic intensity and the seriousness of the teen-suicide theme. Dylan Minette is excellent as a highschooler trying to understand why one of his classmates killed herself then left him a set of old-fashioned cassette tapes to explain herself and to lead him on a kind of scavenger hunt. It's all a bit gimmicky, contriving to drag things out over the 13 stretched-out episodes that turn every character (including the dead girl) into someone who isn't remotely likeable. There are some important points, but it's not as truthful as it pretends to be.

THE DRAMA CONTINUES

Sense8: Series 2
After nearly two years, this ground-breaking, earth-shattering series returns, and it kicks off with a fierce attack on endemic bigotry in society - a seriously complex, thoughtful and provocative exploration of sexism, misogyny and homophobia. This is a show about what binds humanity together in the face of various man-made divisions. And it's staggeringly well written, acted and assembled as a ripping thriller this time, with stronger characters and a punchy momentum that grabs hold and doesn't let up. Sadly, after this enormous set-up, Netflix has decided not to continue the story. Although it definitely needs some kind of conclusion, please.

House of Cards: Series 5
It seems impossible that this show could get any darker, but here we are. This season is so bleak and nasty that it's not easy to watch, but we're kind of afraid that the Underwoods might hunt us down and kill us if we stop. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are astounding as always, offering a terrifying portrayal of a couple clinging relentlessly to power through sheer force of will. And as they subtly begin turning on each other, this becomes must-see drama. The nastier gyrations of the plot may feel exaggerated and contrived until we remember what's happened in the so-called civilised world over the past year. Our political landscape might not be quite this violent, but it's not as far removed as we'd like to think. And where this is going for future seasons is more than a little scary.

Fargo: Series 3
The almost freakishly talented Noah Hawley (see also Legion) continues this anthology series with a new scenario in snowy 2010 Minnesota, quickly spinning events out of control over the first few episodes, then deepening characters and intrigue in fiendishly inventive ways. Some of the flourishes are a bit gimmicky (and one episode seems to have snuck in here from Twin Peaks), but there's a snaky underlying attitude that keeps it riveting. And the cast is simply wonderful, anchored by the superb Carrie Coon and a double dose of Ewan McGregor. Produced to a very high standard, it's also a rare show that allows for unnerving complexity in its themes, including the moral questions about who's good and evil. Fiendishly clever.

The Get Down: Series 1b
The second half of Baz Luhrmann's groovy and stylish 11-episode dramatisation of the birth of hip-hop in 1978 continues in the same exhilarating style, anchored by the engaging central performance from Justice Smith. This is bold television, exploring a range of issues with intelligence, humour and real insight, plus a terrific use of old and new songs that makes Empire look feeble by comparison. Some of the excesses are a bit overused (there's far too much animation, oddly including key plot moments). But the impressionistic approach is fascinating, even if it's perhaps too artful for purists who want to see the gritty details of this period of history, both for New York and for music. 

JUST A LAUGH

Veep: Series 6
The writing is as good as ever in this sixth season, even though the characters are spread out in a variety of places around the political world. Which just proves the resilience of the characters and the actors playing them. No one's anywhere near the White House this time, which somehow makes everything even funnier. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has the best comedic timing on television, period. And what makes this show so unmissable is that she's happily playing such a self-absorbed buffoon, while everyone around her is even more appalling. We really should hate all of these idiots, and the chaos they bring to US government, but their relentless cynicism makes them likeable. And also frighteningly authentic.

Grace and Frankie: Series 3
It was impressive to see the cast and writers push these characters in some bold directions during this season. Instead of the gentle holding pattern of Series 2, this year was packed with challenges, and the writing was sharply funny as well as more intelligent and introspective, which drew superbly textured performances from Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston and others. Some elements felt a bit farcical, in a sitcom sort of way (namely Bud's hypochondriac girlfriend), but there were plenty of clever surprises along the way. And everything touched on much bigger themes about various forms of bigotry, along with the general indignities of getting older.

The Trip to Spain:
Series 3
This hilarious improvised comedy directed by Michael Winterbottom sends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on another wacky road trip, taking in the sights and tastes while engaging in stream-of-consciousness repartee. Once again, these six half-hour episodes are engaging and packed with witty gags, delicious food and lovely landscapes. This time it also feels rather grumpy and deliberately self-indulgent, overdoing the starry impersonations to the point of exhaustion (they seem to notice this as well). As before, there are a few side characters to add some narrative continuity, and of course a string of smart running jokes. Plus a nice wave of Cervantes-style surrealism popping up now and again. But if they travel somewhere else, it would be nice to freshen up their banter.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Series 3
Because of the breakneck pace and relentless goofiness, this third season takes awhile to find its feet. But once it sets up the story arcs for its central characters, the series takes off into a series of riotous, astute directions. The rapid-fire dialog is flat-out hilarious, played broadly by gifted actors who are able to turn their dim-witted, oblivious characters into people who are surprisingly loveable. And along the way, there are some serious issues that gurgle quietly in the background, cleverly remaining fodder for jokes rather than preachy messaging (such as racist sports franchise names or the gentrification of quirky neighbourhoods). So even if everything is utterly bonkers, there's an edge to this show that makes it irresistible.

I GIVE UP

There were three shows that I just couldn't stick with. Generally I try to give a show at least three episodes before I tune out... 
  • American Gods: A bewildering melange of fantasy, mythology, comedy and thrills, this hyper-violent series is so smug that it never lets the viewer into what's going on. I struggled through three episodes. 
  • Dear White People: Justin Simien cleverly adapts his provocative film for TV, using an inventive structure that focusses on different perspectives. I love the complex, witty exploration of race issues, but it feels oddly ingrown, and far too pleased with itself.
  • I Love Dick: Jill Soloway brings the brilliant Kathryn Hahn with her from Transparent to this cynical comedy about a bunch of unlikeable artists. Even with the terrific cast and some surprising storytelling, I didn't make it past episode 5.


Coming up: Game of Thrones, Master of None, The Carmichael Show, something new?