Thursday, 21 September 2017

Critical Week: Take a break

Press screenings for the 61st BFI London Film Festival started on Monday, and first out of the block were films that have a UK release coming up soon after the festival ends (it runs 4-15 Oct). I'll write more about these movies during the festival itself, including full reviews of many of them. But this week I saw Luca Guadagnino's exquisite Call Me By Your Name starring Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet (above), Aubrey Plaza in the snappy black comedy Ingrid Goes West, Russian master Andrey Zvyagintsev's excellent Loveless, Japanese master Takashi Miike's gritty and layered samurai epic Blade of the Immortal, the quirky Zambian satire I Am Not a Witch, and the fascinating doc The Prince of Nothingwood about an outrageous Afghan filmmaker.

As for non-festival movies, since there were no press screenings I could attend, I had to buy a ticket to see Kingsman: The Golden Circle at my local cinema on Wednesday morning. It's good fun, in a nutty sort of way, but pales in comparison to the transgressive original. Reese Witherspoon and Michael Sheen showed up in person (pics on Instagram!) to introduce their new film Home Again, along with writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer and producer Nancy Meyers. It's the perfect film for people who love sappy movies about perfect white people. Much scruffier, Big Bear is a rather clunky Hangover-style bachelor party movie that turns violent. Shot is a riveting drama tracing the impact of a gunshot from a variety of angles. The Ritual is a twisty and atmospheric thriller about a group of Brits lost in a very creepy Swedish woodland. And In Between is the terrific Israeli comedy-drama that has caused all kinds of controversy in its homeland for its depiction of free-thinking Palestinian women.

Coming up this next week, we have the AA Milne biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, Adam Sandler in The Meyerowitz Stories and the nature doc Earth: One Amazing Day. London Film Festival screenings include Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger, Claire Foy in Breathe, Michael Haneke's Happy End, Robin Campillo's 120 BPM, the black comedy Brigsby Bear, the Aussie thriller 1%, the Israeli drama Foxtrot, and the Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman. Yes, it'll be another busy one!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Critical Week: Smile for the camera

This week was supposed to be a quiet pause to regain my breath after the Venice Film Festival and to get ready for the London Film Festival - press screenings start on Monday in advance of the festival itself (4-15 Oct). But it hasn't worked out like that. This was a busy week too! Screenings included the new Armando Ianucci film The Death of Stalin, a hilariously pointed political comedy set in 1953 Moscow with an ace cast of scene-stealers including Jason Isaacs, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor (pictured above with others).

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell are excellent in the skilfully made British comedy-drama Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, based on a memoir about the final years of Oscar-winning screen siren Gloria Grahame. Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts shine in the gripping and sometimes a bit murky The Glass Castle, based on a memoir about growing up with anti-establishment parents.

Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf take on the title roles in Borg vs McEnroe, a lively, beautifully observed biopic about the iconic tennis rivalry, set during the 1980 Wimbledon final. Robert Pattinson plays a low-life criminal loser in Good Time, a luridly stylish all-night odyssey that stretches credibility but holds the interest. And an ensemble of solid British actors features in Brakes, a multi-strand improvised movie about break-ups that's scruffy and funny.

In the diary for this next week is a mix of festival and mainstream films: Reese Witherspoon in Home Again,Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name, Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz in Gemini, the horror thriller The Ritual, Russian marital drama Loveless, Japanese action movie Blade of the Immortal, Zambian drama I Am Not a Witch,arthouse thriller Let the Corpses Tan and Afghan filmmaker doc The Prince of Nothingwood.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Venezia74: Celebrations on Day 11

The 74th Venice Film Festival came to a close tonight with a starry awards ceremony at which Guillermo del Toro unsurprisingly took the top prize for his superb The Shape of Water. Earlier in the day I spent a couple of hours out in the sunshine and then caught my final film of the festival (see below). Here the winners in the bigger categories and sections, as well as my 10 favourite films of the festival...

Golden Lion: THE SHAPE OF WATER
Grand Jury Prize: FOXTROT
Director: Xavier Legrand (CUSTODY)
Actress: Charlotte Rampling (HANNAH)
Actor: Kamel El Basha (THE INSULT)    
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh (THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI)
Special Jury Prize: SWEET COUNTRY
Mastroianni Award: Charlie Plummer (LEAN ON PETE)
Lion of the Future: Xavier Legrand (CUSTODY)
Glory to the Filmmaker: Stephen Frears
Lifetime Achievement: Jane Fonda and Robert Redford

Horizons
Film: NICO, 1988
Director: Vahid Jalilvand (NO DATE, NO SIGNATURE)
Jury Prize: CANIBA
Actress: Lyna Khoudri (LES BIENHEUREUX)
Actor: Navid Mohammadzadeh (NO DATE, NO SIGNATURE)
Scr: Dominique Welinski and Rene Ballesteros (LOS VERSOS DEL OLVIDO)

Venice Days
People's Choice: LONGING
Director: Jhonny Hendrix Hinestroza (CANDELARIA)

Critics' Week
Film: TEAM HURRICANE
Audience Award: TEMPORADA DE CAZA

Queer Lion: MARVIN
Fipresci: EX LIBRIS: THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
Fipresci - Debut Film: Kim Nguyen (LOS VERSOS DEL OLVIDO)
Fedeora - Film: EYE ON JULIET
Fedeora - Debut Dir: Sara Forestier (M)
Fedeora - Actor: Redouanne Harjane (M)
Doc on Cinema: THE PRINCE AND THE DYBBUK
Mouse d’Oro: MEKTOUB, MY LOVE: CANTO UNO
Leoncino d’Oro: THE LEISURE SEEKER


RICH'S 10 BEST OF THE FEST
  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  2. Lean on Pete
  3. M
  4. Custody
  5. The Third Murder
  6. Suburbicon
  7. The Shape of Water
  8. Love and Bullets
  9. Nico, 1988
  10. Brawl in Cell Block 99


M
dir-scr Sara Forestier; with Sara Forestier, Redouanne Harjane 17/Fr ****.
An unusually involving and offbeat romance, this is a remarkably assured writing-directing debut for actress Sara Forestier. With a clever premise, the film brings two marginalised people together, forcing them to address personal issues they would rather hide from the world. Forestier packs the film with little unexpected details about these characters, both of whom are so beautifully played that we can't help but root for them as we vividly identify with their longing and frustration as well as their joy.

I'll be straight back into screenings in London starting on Monday, and this coming week includes Borg vs McEnroe, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, The Glass Castle and Brakes.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Venezia74: Be a team player on Day 10

The sun was out again today at the Venice Film Festival, a relief after the deluge and ongoing wash-out last night on the Lido. There's definitely a sense that things are winding down here. Most journalists are gone, the films seem oddly less glamour-intensive and those of us still hanging in there are looking a bit like the walking undead. The collateral sections gave out their prizes this evening at the Venice Days villa on the beach, so we were very glad the weather held for us today. Here are the three films I watched...

Man Hunt
dir John Woo; with Zhang Hanyu, Masaharu Fukuyama 17/Jpn ***.
John Woo returns to his roots with this rampaging action movie, which also pays homage to the history of Japanese cinema as an innocent man tries to clear his name. Set in the present, but shot in cheesy 1970s style, the film is a lot of fun with its convoluted plot and breathtakingly choreographed action scenes. It also features all the Woo trademarks, from shattered glass to fluttering doves. And bullets, lots of bullets.

Hannah
dir Andrea Pallaoro; with Charlotte Rampling, Andre Wilms 17/Bel ***
With barely any plot development or dialog, this film is essentially a cold exercise in watching a person deal with the collapse of her family. Fortunately, she's played by Charlotte Rampling, an actress who rivets the audience even when she's just watching something happen off-screen. Which she does a lot in this movie. But in her eyes, the emotions of the situation are very real, even if we never quite understand why.

Custody [Jusqu'à la Garde]
dir-scr Xavier Legrand; with Denis Menochet, Lea Drucker 17/Fr ****
A punchy drama that grips the audience with a complex situation and shifting characters, this French film only gradually reveals the truth about the dissolution of a marriage. Writer-director Xavier Legrand and his skilled cast take a bold and intense approach to a story that unfolds through a series of perspective-shifting encounters. It's often painful to watch, building to a confrontation that leaves us deeply shaken.

Tomorrow is the last day of the festival, so I'll try to catch up with a couple of things I missed. And then the big awards presentation is in the evening, so I'm looking forward to some upset decisions from Annette Bening and her jury.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Venezia74: Have a holiday on Day 9

I only saw two films today at the Venice Film Festival, a welcome relief after seeing four most days over the past week. In between, I crossed over from Lido to Venice once again for a day of sightseeing, museums and food. Then back to Lido for our jury deliberations in a deluge of rain. Here are today's films...

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno
dir Abdellatif Kechiche; with Shain Boumedine, Salim Kechiouche 17/Fr ***.
Another very long, strikingly naturalistic film by Abdellatif Kechiche, this loosely plotted drama is packed with beautiful young people who spend the summer either on the beach or at the disco. The Arabic word "Mektoub" roughly translates as "it is destiny", so clearly the filmmaker has bigger things on his mind. But the remarkably engaging scenes are weakened by camerawork that echoes the most misogynist characters, relentlessly gazing on women's bodies.

Racer and the Jailbird [Le Fidèle]
dir Michael R Roskam; with Matthias Schoenaerts, Adele Exarchopoulos 17/Bel ***.
Filmmaker Michael Roskam reteams once again with Matthias Schoenaerts for this personal drama set against the criminal scene in Belgium. More of an epic romance than a thriller, the film has plenty of emotional moments that draw the audience into the central romance. Although it's all perhaps a bit too dark for its own good, as the film runs out of hope before we're ready to give up on these people.

Tomorrow: Charlotte Rampling in Hannah, John Woo's Manhunt and the French drama Custody. There;'s also the awards presention for the parallel section prizes.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Venezia74: Taking aim on Day 8

Italian films are notoriously hit and miss here at the Venice Film Festival, perhaps because so many filmmakers are friends with programmers. So it was great to see one that was so hugely enjoyable this morning, and met with a big roar of approval from the crowd at the screening. I have now seen all of the films in contention for this year's Queer Lion prize, and our jury will meet tomorrow to hash out who our winner will be. Here's what I saw today - I skipped a fourth film tonight, just for my own personal sanity...

Love and Bullets [Ammore e Malavita]
dir Antonio Manetti, Marco Manetti; with Giampaolo Morelli, Raiz 17/It ****
The Manetti brothers find a fresh angle on the usual Naples crime thriller. The plot may be fairly typical, but it unfolds as a musical comedy with terrific songs and a continual stream of hilarious gags. While many jokes may be limited to Italian viewers, the approach is so witty that it crosses over to wider audiences, with a gleefully entertaining mix of dark drama, broad slapstick, some wonderfully elaborate musical numbers and quite a bit of surprisingly resonant emotion.

Sweet Country
dir Warwick Thornton; with Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris 17/Aus ***.
With a gentle pace that echoes the rhythms of life in turn-of-the-century rural Australia, this slow-burning dramatic Western quietly creeps up on the audience. It offers deep themes and detailed character, plus a vivid depiction of the clash between the Aboriginals and the European interlopers. The film's setting may echo other movies, but the tone is distinctly more internalised, exploring the true nature of justice in a seriously unjust place.

The Prince and the Dybbuk
dir-scr Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski; with Rosemary Mankiewicz, Angelo Manzini 17/Pol ***
This experimental documentary explores notorious Polish filmmaker Michal Waszynski. And its rather slippery since its subject continually reinvented himself, erasing his past to forge ever more glamorous futures as a prince in exile. Clearly he was haunted by something from his past, as evidenced in his iconic 1937 film The Dybbuk, about a close friendship between two Yiddish boys. The film's loose structure is frustrating for audiences who would like to know the full story, but the film has hypnotic charm.

Tomorrow is a quieter day: Matthias Schoenaerts in Le Fidele and Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour opus Mektoub, My Love.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Venezia74: Stand by your man on Day 7

It was a double dose of Javier Bardem today at the 74th Venice Film Festival. I spotted him out on the red carpet this evening with Jennifer Lawrence for Mother!, and he is also in town with his wife and fellow Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz for their Escobar biopic Loving Pablo. It was another sunny, warm day on the Lido, and journalists are starting to look downright bleary after spending so much time in the cinemas. But there are only four days to go. Here's what I watched today...

Loving Pablo
dir-scr Fernando Leon de Aranoa; with Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz 17/Sp ***
This film is based on the memoir by Virginia Vallejo, and if it had stuck to her perspective it might have been a striking new approach to the well-worn story of Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar. But Spanish filmmaker Fernando Leon de Aranoa tries to include extensive detail about the rise and fall of Escobar's empire, which leaves Vallejo as a side character. It also fails to make the most of either Javier Bardem or Penelope Cruz, even though both are on fire.

Mother!
dir-scr Darren Aronofsky; with Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem 17/US ***.
Darren Aronofsky uses the tropes of a haunted house thriller to explore the act of creation, both artistically and domestically. Yes, this is a freak-out parable about both directing a movie and establishing a family. since everything is so overpoweringly symbolic, the story and characters get somewhat lost in the chaos. It's bold and unsettling, but never remotely resonant. And it leaves us wondering why we so willingly put ourselves through this kind of agony.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
dir Chris Smith; with Jim Carrey, Andy Kaufman 17/US ***.
While shooting Milos Forman's 1999 film Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey commissioned a backstage documentary, but the footage was never shown. Using a rather twinkly present-day interview, Carrey presents it now, revealing how he felt inhabited by Andy Kaufman both on and off set while the biopic was being shot. It's an entertaining look at a collision of offbeat comedy talents, exploring both actors' backgrounds and working styles in a way that's eye-opening and perhaps disturbing.

The Wild Boys [Les Garçons Sauvages]
dir-scr Bertrand Mandico; with Anael Snoek, Vimala Pons 17/Fr ***.
Heavily stylised on a low budget, this offbeat French adventure sends a group of five rebellious teen boys into a messy confrontation with gender identity. It's energetic and very witty, but far too pretentious to register very deeply with audiences. Still, strong performances emerge though the gimmicky, Guy Maddin-style visual approach, and the central idea is amusingly pointed: that a world of only women would probably be a more peaceful place to live.

Tomorrow looks extremely eclectic: the Aussie thriller Sweet Country with Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, the Italian musical-comedy Ammore e Malavita, Vivian Qu's dark Chinese drama Angels Wear White, and the Polish documentary The Prince and the Dybbuk about chameleon-like filmmaker Michal Waszynski.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Venezia74: Speak your mind on Day 6

I finally made it across the lagoon in the warm sunshine from the Lido to Venice today. (It took me this long last year as well!) After the two morning films, I jumped on the vaporetto, and then spent the afternoon roaming around one of my favourite places on earth, visiting a couple of museums (Damien Hirst's fabulous Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at Palazzo Grassi, and the glories of the Guggenheim Collection) and of course eating gelato. Then back over to Lido for two more movies at the 74th Venice Film Festival, so a rather full day...

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
dir-scr Martin McDonagh; with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson 17/US *****
Writer-director Martin McDonaugh is on blistering form with this fiendishly clever personal drama, which arrives masquerading as a funny, violent police thriller. With take-no-prisoners performances from the entire cast, particularly a storming Frances McDormand, the film tackles our angry world head-on with a surprisingly heartfelt plea for compassion. And it tackles the riveting story as well as a series of pungent themes with remarkable honesty.

The Third Murder
dir-scr Hirokazu Kore-eda; with Masaharu Fukuyama, Koji Yakusho 17/Jpn ****.
Expertly orchestrated by master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, this is on the surface a police procedural thriller. Except that it's actually a detailed exploration of a group of intertwined characters who may or may not be telling the truth. Which is kind of the point for what turns out to be a provocative look at the nature of justice in a world full of imperfect people. It's also the kind of movie that demands close attention from the audience.

A Family [Una Famiglia]
dir Sebastiano Riso; with Micaela Ramazzotti, Patrick Bruel 17/It 1h37 **
This may look like a gritty Italian drama that addresses a dark corner of Roman society, but nothing about it feels very believable. Despite some strong acting by the lead actors, the characters are impossible to sympathise with simply because their overpowering self-interest is so contrived. There are some intriguing comments about male-female dynamics and co-dependence, but any astute observations seem to emerge almost by accident.

My Generation
dir David Batty; with Michael Caine, Paul McCartney 17/UK 1h25 ***.
A groovy trip through swinging 1960s London, this colourful documentary explores the seismic shift in British society as working class artists teamed up to break the rules and become global stars in music, acting, art and fashion. Narrated by Michael Caine, its full of enjoyable personal anecdotes, terrific songs and lots of clips edited together into a swirling concoction. It may feel rather gimmicky, but it's packed with entertaining surprises.

Tomorrow we have the world premiere one of the most anticipated films of the festival: Darren Aronofsky's Mother! There's also Jim & Andy, about Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman, and Loving Pablo, with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Venezia74: Hit the road on Day 5

The weather returned to sunshine today, so I took a break in the middle of the day and went for a long walk on the beach. I have another gap tomorrow, and hope to cross the lagoon to Venice for some museum visiting. In the meantime I had three films today. Well, I was supposed to have four, but I did something I never do: I walked out of the French documentary Caniba. After 40 minutes, it was still insufferably pretentious and incoherent, and I remembered that I didn't need to review it anywhere, so I followed the steady flow of walk-outs and had some ice cream instead. These are the ones I watched all the way through...

The Leisure Seeker
dir Paolo Virzi; with Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland 17/US ***.
There's an askance loopiness about this film that blurs the lines between a lively road comedy and a darker exploration of mortality. It helps that it stars the effortlessly offbeat Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, who add layers of edgy subtext to their broad characters and on-the-nose dialog. As it travels down America's East Coast, the film tries to pack in a lot of nostalgia and a whiff of politics, but it's the more internalised moments that are most effective.

Victoria & Abdul
dir Stephen Frears; with Judi Dench, Ali Fazal 17/UK ***
This may be a crowd-pleasing film, but it never seems like director Stephen Frears can make up his mind whether he's making a frightfully British comedy or a historical drama about the final 15 years of Queen Victoria's reign. So it ends up as an awkward mix of the two that feels neither funny nor historical. Thankfully it's anchored by another hugely engaging performance by Judi Dench, who keeps the audience smiling even when the plausibility wobbles.

Team Hurricane
dir-scr Annika Berg; with Zara Munch Bjarnum, Ida Glitre 17/Den ***.
A group of eight 15-year-old girls bare their souls in this colourful Danish documentary, which feels like they made it as a school project. Or perhaps it's a public service programme made to feel down with the kids. It's busy and bursting with lively touches for a generation that thinks anything that isn't "Insta-worthy" is useless. But they also discuss on serious issues like depression, sexuality, body image and eating disorder, all from the vibrant perspective of a teen girl.

Tomorrow: Francis McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Koreeda's The Third Murder and the Hollywood doc My Generation...

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Venezia74: Checking the line-up on Day 4

At the 74th Venice Film Festival, I scheduled today one film lighter to give me a bit of time to catch up on writing, and also hopefully to see a bit of the city. Well, the thunder and lightning prevented me from getting out, but I did catch up on my work. And it was nice not being around the venues all day, as they were heaving. Here's what I saw...

Suburbicon
dir George Clooney; with Matt Damon, Julianne Moore 17/US ****
On the surface, this is a 1950s-tinged noir thriller with comical overtones But it also has a pungent undercurrent of satirical social commentary, which isn't partiularly surprising for a team-up between George Clooney and the Coens. There are so many facets to this film that it can't help but keep us engaged, whether being gripped by the mystery, feeling challenged about the injustice or identifying with one young boy's rather horrific coming of age.

Reinventing Marvin [Marvin]
dir Anne Fontaine; with Finnegan Oldfield, Catherine Salee 17/Fr ****
The thoughtful story of a young artist's journey to self-expression, this film is sometimes brutally honest about the tension between what are known as provincial attitudes and so-called enlightened liberal sensibilities. The film may be in need of some judicial editing, but the material here is resonant and important. And it's also beautifully played by an intriguingly eclectic cast that includes Isabelle Huppert in a witty role as herself.

Martyr
dir-scr Mazen Khaled; with Carol Abboud, Hamza Mekdad 17/Leb ***
An experimental exploration of masculinity and male friendship, this Lebanese film is very tactile as it follows a young man over the course of a fateful day. While touching on some social issues, the main focus is on his friends, who remain by his side through a very detailed ordeal. There isn't much plot, and very little sense of character for the actors to work with, so it never quite resonates emotionally as it should. But it's darkly involving.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Venezia74: Flying the flag on Day 3

The weather shifted here on the Lido with an extended series of thunderstorms in the middle of the night, which left the Venice Film Festival rather drippy and wet for most of the day, a drastic change after the sunshine of the previous two days. There was also a shift in the films, from the thematically overheated to more overwhelmingly emotional adventures. Here's what I saw today, including one film that will surely be among my best of the whole year...

Brawl in Cell Block 99
dir-scr S Craig Zahler; with Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter 17/US 2h12 ****
After infusing the Western with horrific new life in 2015's Bone Tomahawk, S Craig Zahler is back with a thunderous reinvention of the prison movie. Set in the present day but playing out like a 1970s exploitation thriller, this increasingly grisly story unfolds with choreographed precision, grinding the audience into its emotional depths with several genuinely hideous plot turns. And it's anchored by a superbly thoughtful/fierce performance from Vince Vaughn.

Lean on Pete
dir-scr Andrew Haigh; with Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi 17/US *****
There's an unusual depth of character to this finely crafted odyssey about a teen who hits the road in a last-gasp effort to find some semblance of hope in his life. While there's plenty of potential for bleakness, writer-director Andrew Haigh instead infuses the film with warmth and honesty, facing the darkest moments head-on as the only way to get through them. It's an extraordinarily tough story told with a light touch that brings the viewer right into the journey

Our Souls at Night
dir Ritesh Batra; with Jane Fonda, Robert Redford 17/US ***.
In addition to screening their new film,
Redford and Fonda are receiving
a special award here in Venice.
Gentle and never pushy, this homespun drama spins a love story between two people who are pushing 80. Although it might be a little unrealistic, since they're played by perhaps the fittest 79 and 81 year-olds on earth: Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Both actors easily reignite their on-screen chemistry, adding character details that give the film a strong emotional kick. It's all a bit cozy, but it touches on some sharper-edged themes.

Tainted Souls [Il Contagio]
dir Matteo Botrugno, Daniele Coluccini; with Vinicio Marchioni, Maurizio Tesei 17/It **.
This ambitious multi-character drama takes aim at several potent issues plaguing Italian society, from organised crime and drug abuse to the machismo that leaves men too proud to get a job. But the film's tone is all over the place, veering from quirky comedy to gruelling nightmare, more like a melodramatic TV series than a feature film. And the characters feel equally uneven as they look for happiness in all the wrong places.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Venezia74: Come swim with me on Day 2

It's hot and sticky in Venice at the moment, and the forecast is for thunderstorms over the next few days. Still hot and sticky, but extra wet. And hopefully not flu-inducing as I dart in and out of air conditioned screening rooms. Here's what I saw on Thursday...

The Shape of Water
dir Guillermo del Toro; with Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins 17/US ****
Guillermo del Toro lets his imagination run wild with this engaging and also rather dark romantic adventure. It's a riot of clever production design, witty dialog and heartfelt emotion that carries the audience on a journey along with the vivid characters. The whimsical family-movie tone sits a bit oddly alongside the film's resolutely adult-oriented touches, but for grown-ups this is a fairy tale full of wonder.

Zama
dir-scr Lucrecia Martel; with Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Lola Duenas 17/Arg **.
This is a fairly difficult movie even by the standards of adventurous Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. An existential odyssey based on the 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, it simply refuses to coalesce into any kind of sensible narrative as the title character's life becomes a swirling nightmare of bureaucracy and cross-cultural messiness. And that's actually the point. At least it's fascinating, beautifully shot and acted, and packed with witty satire.

The Insult
dir Ziad Doueiri; with Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha 17/Leb ***
A terrific personal Lebanese drama is somewhat swamped by much bigger issues, as filmmaker Ziad Doueiri floods the story with the complexities of the nation's history and politics. Everything in this film is important, but when they're all overlaid on top of a courtroom drama, it tips the balance away from the more resonant story of two men having a face-off over a deeply personal clash.

Human Flow
dir Ai Weiwei; with Ai Weiwei, Boris Cheshirkov 17/Ger ***.
At an epic two and a half hours, this documentary is a little exhausting to sit through. But the topic is hugely compelling for anyone who feels compassion about other people. It's a film about refugees, and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei cleverly uses a variety of cameras to visit camps around the world, capturing both the individual impact in specific stories and the global scale as millions are displaced around the world. Even without using voiceover narration, the amount of information in here is astonishing.

> Tomorrow's screening schedule includes Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in Our Souls at Night, Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99, Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete and Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Venezia74: Red carpet time on Day 1

The 74th Venice film festival kicked off today on the Lido with the world premiere of Alexander Payne's new comedy drama Downsizing (see below), and Payne was on the above red carpet along with stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. Damon is still be around on Saturday for the world premiere of Suburbicon. It was a warm, summery day here today, and I spent most of it in cinemas, seeing four films....

Downsizing
dir Alexander Payne; with Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig 17/US ***
Alexander Payne eschews his usual organic style of storytelling for something more pointed and constructed. The premise is ingeniously conceived and thought out down to the (ahem!) smallest details, and as the plot develops a variety of big issues make themselves known. This may provide a connection to present-day issues, but it makes the film begin to feel rather pushy. And the ideas themselves become stronger than the narrative... FULL REVIEW >

First Reformed
dir-scr Paul Schrader; with Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried 17/US ***
Paul Schrader once again takes a provocative look at religion in America in this dark and twisty drama that has all kinds of repercussions from today's headlines, from climate change to extremism. Anchored by very strong performances, the film gets increasingly intense as it continues, implying in unmistakable ways that it's headed for something awful. Although Schrader himself seems unsure about where he wanted it to go.

Nico, 1988
dir-scr Susanna Nicchiarelli; with Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair 17/Italy ****
This biopic about the final years of the iconic German-born musician-actress strikes an intriguing tone from the start, diving into the firsthand accounts of people who travelled with her around Europe. It feels remarkably personal, with a bold, gritty edge that echoes the intensity of both Nico's singing and Trine Dyrholm's thunderous performance. Some elements of the film feel a little undercooked, leaving the audience perhaps misled about the details. But it's an involving film packed with rivulets of emotion that pull the audience in.

The Devil and Father Amorth
dir William Friedkin; with William Friedkin, Gabriele Amorth 17/US ***.
Whether this is a documentary or a witty found-footage style thriller, it's a lot of fun. William Friedkin picks up on themes from his 1971 classic The Exorcist as he heads off to Rome to witness his first exorcism firsthand. What happens is freaky, but it's so hyped up by the tabloid-TV presentation and a gonzo horror score that it's impossible to take seriously. Still, it's fast-paced and gripping. You won't be able to look away, even thought you'll want to.

I'll be attempting to do this kind of post each day here - as my schedule allows. Meanwhile, I'm tweeting instant mini-reviews and instagramming photos. I'll also try to get the odd full review up on the site when I get a chance. But with four films per day, it may be tricky.

Everything here is a world premiere, by the way! Tomorrow: The Insult and Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water...


xx

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Thursday, 24 August 2017

Critical Week: The need for speed

There were two late press screenings for London-based critics of movies coming out this week. Doug Liman's American Made is a lively odyssey starring Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise - no, as real-life smuggler Barry Seal, who got was running arms for the CIA and White House and drugs for the Colombian cartels in the 1980s. It's entertaining, but overwhelmed by Cruise's presence. Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky is a scruffy heist comedy with Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and a scene-stealing, against-type Daniel Craig. There's not much to it, but it's a lot of fun.

Rather more serious, Taylor Sheridan's Wind River stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen in a mystery thriller set on a native American reservation in snowy Wyoming. It looks amazing and has a strong emotional kick. And then there's the goofy comedy Unleashed, which lacks discipline but has a certain charm as a dog and cat are transformed into their owner's idea of boyfriend material. Finally, Loving Vincent is the extraordinary Vincent van Gogh drama made using hand-painted animation. It looks simply dazzling, and features strong, recognisable performances from Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O'Dowd and Helen McCrory.

This weekend I am catching up on some screeners at home before heading off to Venice for the 74th edition of the film festival on the Lido. Films on offer there include Alexander Payne's Downsizing, Darren Aronofsky's Mother!, George Clooney's Suburbicon, Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water, Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete, S Craig Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99, Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and many, many more. I'll be updating the blog regularly...

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Critical Week: Don't panic


It's been one of my most eclectic weeks of the year as far as screenings go. And actually, most of these films were watched at home on screening links. The biggest film was the comedy romp Rough Night, starring Scarlett Johansson as a woman on her hen night with a group of friends, having a Hangover-style adventure. It's sharp and nutty and not remotely original. And then there was this year's sequel Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, another cameo-packed barrage of inane action led by Ian Ziering and Tara Reid. Surprisingly, a new screenwriter has breathed some wit into this idiotic franchise.

More highbrow fare included Sally Potter's stylised The Party, a jagged black comedy with political edges and scene-stealing performances from Kristin Scott Thomas and Patricia Clarkson. Moon Dogs is a smart and endearing Scottish road movie about three misfits travelling from Shetland to Glasgow for darkly resonant reasons. Alex Barrett's London Symphony is an exquisite ode to the city with original music and black and white footage beautifully assembled to catch detail rather than the obvious sites. And The Daydreamer's Notebook is a moody collection of short films by Michael Saul, all of which centre rather pretentiously on light filtering through trees, but there's also a superb sense of nostalgia running through them.

Coming up this week, I'll be seeing Tom Cruise in American Made, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver in Logan Lucky, Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart in The Wilde Wedding, Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen in Wind River and the body-swap comedy Unleashed.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Critical Week: A question of trust

One of the more anticipated films screened to London press this week was Francois Ozon's Cannes entry L'Amant Double (The Double Lover), a slinky Hitchcockian thriller featuring lots of mirrored identities. It's a lot of fun. Also from France, Joachim Lafosse's After Love is a strikingly unsentimental drama about a a family going through a divorce, anchored by riveting performances from Berenice Bejo and Cedric Kahn.

More mainstream fare included Charlize Theron in the rather mindless action thriller Atomic Blonde, which is skilfully made but could have used either a more coherent plot, stronger characters or just a lot more silliness. Mark Strong and Jamie Bell anchor 6 Days, a forensic recreation of the Iranian embassy siege in London that's fascinating as it builds to a ripping final act, but never quite cracks the surface. Everything, Everything is a sappy teen romance that plays out pretty much as expected, but is elevated by actors Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson. And Goon: The Last of the Enforcers is a sequel to the surprise comedy hit starring Sean William Scott as hockey player in Canada. Despite a terrific supporting cast, this follow-up completely misses the mark.

Perhaps the biggest movie this week was Al Gore's follow-up An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which traces the decade since his Oscar-winning climate change documentary. It's very well put together, and lucidly highlights the issues, but the biggest surprise is that it has a lot of positive things to say about what people and nations are doing to show respect to the planet and give hope for future generations.

Among other things, this coming week's press screenings include Idris Elba in The Dark Tower, Scarlett Johansson in Rough Night, Sally Potter's festival hit The Party, the coming-of-age British road trip Moon Dogs, and this year's episode, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Critical Week: The boys of summer

It's been another eclectic week for London-based film critics. One of the more intriguing films we watched was the Sundance award winner Beach Rats, a remarkably thoughtful, personal exploration of identity featuring a star-making performance from Harris Dickinson. At the other end of the cinematic spectrum is The Emoji Movie, an uneven animated comedy adventure that has its moments but isn't good enough to be memorable. Mothers cut loose in Fun Mom Dinner, which has a strong cast (Kate Aselton, Toni Collette, Molly Shannon, Bridget Everett) and a nicely believable approach to outrageous antics, but is perhaps too similar to recent movies like Girls Trip.

Further afield, the effectively creepy Irish thriller Pilgrimage is given some oomph with the casting of Tom Holland, Jon Bernthal and Richard Armitage in its grisly 13th century tale of religious fervour. From Hungary, On Body and Soul is the involving, offbeat Berlin-winning romantic drama about a one-armed businessman and an obsessive-compulsive quality-control scientist. InSyriated explores a claustrophobic situation in Damascus in the style of a real-life horror movie we can't help but resonate with. Kept Boy is a rather awkward black comedy about a strained gay relationship. And I watched two documentaries to discuss on a TV chat show: Get Me Roger Stone is a chilling profile of the man who essentially created every Republican president from Nixon onwards (it's reviewed on the site), and then there's this one...


Warriors From the North
dir Nasib Farah, Soeren Steen Jespersen; with The Shadow, Abukar Nuur, Nasib Farah, Abdi Aziz, Mohamed Ali Omar, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed 
15/Den ****
This haunting, rather grim hour-long documentary skilfully avoids sensationalism as it explores the incendiary issue of young immigrants in Europe who are caught up in radicalisation. It's framed as the story of a young man who travelled to Somalia from Copenhagen, leaving his friend and father (Nuur) looking for him, which makes the film startlingly personal. The friend calls himself "The Shadow", and vividly describes how it feels to be an aimless youth drawn into the brotherhood of al-Shabab. His narration provides an angle we rarely hear behind the shouty, fear-based headlines. The filmmakers include horrific footage of bombings, as well as training films and suicide videos, plus another telling account from a British man (Omar) who went to Somalia but left al-Shabab when he saw that they were more interested in killing civilians than soldiers. The film is beautifully shot and edited, and taps vividly into the vulnerabilities of young migrants who are marginalised in society and singled out by police, making them easily manipulated into believing that their religion condones murder, which it doesn't.


Coming up this week, we have Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, Jamie Bell in 6 Days, the hockey-antics sequel Goon: Last of the Enforcers, the Tel Aviv drama In Between and the musical odyssey London Symphony.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Critical Week: Against the law

The big movie screened this week for London critics was Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, a powerfully riveting drama that, like last week's Dunkirk, unapologetically immerses the audience in a historical event. Plus noteworthy performances from British actors John Boyega (above) and Will Poulter. Lighter fare included the raucous comedy Girls Trip, which is very funny and has a surprisingly soft centre, and the Jack the Ripper style horror whodunit The Limehouse Golem, which is overfamiliar but very well-played.

Slightly outside the mainstream, we had the conceptual underwater horror of 47 Metres Down, which nerve-wrackingly traps two young women at the bottom of the sea surrounded by sharks; Gerard Butler trying to emote in the rather painfully obvious work-life balance drama A Family Man; Michael Winterbottom struggling to find a balance between documentary and fiction in the band tour movie On the Road (Wolf Alice fans should love it); and a sensitive doc tracing a likeable young musician's gender transition in Real Boy.

Coming up this week are the animated comedy The Emoji Movie, Tom Holland in Pilgrimage, Toni Collette in Fun Mom Dinner, Francois Ozon's L'Amant Double, Sundance hit Beach Rats, Berlin winner On Body and Soul, the dark comedy Kept Boy, and the tense drama Insyriated.

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?