The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Review: Avengers: Infinity War (UK Cert 12A)

SPOILER WARNING! This review discusses and/or mentions a few important plot points. If you would prefer not to have these spoiled, please stop reading now and come back once you've seen the film.

An epic cinematic event that's ten years in the making, Avengers: Infinity War pits the Earth's (and the galaxy's) greatest heroes against the Mad Titan Thanos who is in search of the six Infinity Gems which will give him power over all creation.  

Whilst #ThanosDemandsYourSilence (and for several very good reasons), there are some points about the film that can't really be discussed without spoilers. So, if you didn't notice the bold, italiced and underlined warning at the start of the article, here's your last chance to turn back. 


Still with us? OK. 

So directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War) ramp things up to eleven with the action sequences: the battles are epic, befitting a film of this magnitude. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Thor: The Dark World) deserve massive praise for delivering such a tightly-plotted, well-balanced script. Make no mistake, this film is packed. With over 30 main characters spanning the universe (literally and metaphorically), so much plate-spinning going on, it's a testament that no character feels short-changed or shoe-horned in. Every character on screen has a purpose: they're not just there for the 'hey guys, remember this one?' (which could easily have happened). There are a couple of notable omissions, but these are explained well. Each character also has their moment, which is also good. The humour of characters like Rocket, Thor, and Drax is there and is allowed to flow naturally, which is great. These moments of levity are needed as the drama- and there's a lot of it- unfolds. And not just drama- tragedy, too. 

In the first ten minutes of the film, two main characters are killed off, brutally, with no mercy. Thanos and the Black Order aren't messing around. There is a real sense of jeopardy in the film: no character is truly safe, and as things progress, the death toll starts to rise. And you care. You care about who lives and who dies. Marvel have taken the time to build these characters up, over multiple films spanning the last decade, so you have that emotional bond. There were more than a few gasps and sniffles as one particular character died. I even had a lump in my throat. 

If I were to discuss the performances, frankly, we'd be here until Avengers 4 came out. All performances across the board are great- some of the actors have been playing these roles for 10 years, so they know the characters inside out; others, such as Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland, have only played them for a short time, but they have struck upon the essence of their characters straight away-  but there is one performance that I do want to highlight in particular: Josh Brolin. 

Thanos is dangerously close to being the best villain MCU have put out. That's been a major criticism of the Marvel movies: the villains have sometimes just been caricatures or archetypes. The last few films have shown villains with nuance and with an understandable motive (Killmonger in Black Panther, for instance). Thanos continues that trend: his desire for balance- given what he saw on Titan- is understandable, although taken to extremis by the idea of being able to get rid of 50% of the population of the galaxy with a snap of his gauntleted fingers. He's not just mad; there's a recognisable (albeit twisted) logic to his plan. And whilst you don't sympathise or agree with him, you can at least see where he's coming from. This is paired by some absolutely sterling CG work (not just on Thanos but on all of the Black Order) and a dignified, stoic performance by Josh Brolin.  

Honestly, I could discuss and dissect the film for hours. This is a truly brilliant film. See it. See it again. See it on a big screen. It's just superb. 

Rating: 5 out of 5


Saturday, 21 April 2018

Mini-Countdown: 5 Favourite Disney Villain Songs

There's an old saying that 'the devil has the best tunes'. And whilst it's true that Disney has had more than its fair share of great songs, the bad guys definitely get some of the most memorable music in Disney history. So here's five of my favourites.

5. 'Trust In Me' (The Jungle Book)

The sinuous, hypnotic lullaby that the python Kaa uses to entrance his victims (including man-cub Mowgli) is calming and sinister at the same time. Also, there's a fantastic cover version of this song by Siouxsie And The Banshees 

4. 'The World's Greatest Criminal Mind' (Basil, The Great Mouse Detective)

Voiced with silky charm by the legend that is Vincent Price, Professor Ratigan is witty, urbane, and utterly convinced of his own superiority. There's a deliciously camp edge to Ratigan's paean to himself as he plots to take down Basil of Baker Street, and it's an absolute joy to watch and listen to. 

3. 'Be Prepared' (The Lion King)


In a similar vein to 'The World's Greatest Criminal Mind', Scar's mission statement of evil has a sly and knowing edge which Jeremy Irons plays to the hilt. It also provides a nicely cynical counterpoint against some of the cheesier songs in the soundtrack (I'm looking at you, 'I Just Can't Wait To Be King' and 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight?') 

2. 'Poor Unfortunate Souls' (The Little Mermaid)

When Ursula the Sea Witch proposes her nefarious trade to Ariel, the camp goes up to eleven as she sashays and flounces around her cave, enticing Ariel to take the devilish deal. It's unashamedly theatrical and simply divine.

1. 'Hellfire' (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame)


Quite possibly the messed-up song to feature in a Disney film, Frollo wrestles with his suppressed lust for Esmeralda, threatening to execute her unless she submits to him. It's incredibly dark and twisted and is, for me, the best Disney villain song around. Plus it gets bonus points for using the word 'licentious'. 

So which songs would make your Top 5? Would you place Dr. Facilier's creepy 'Friends On The Other Side' from The Princess And The Frog, or the fawning tribute that LeFou gives to 'Gaston' in Beauty And The Beast? Maybe Tamatoa's Bowie-inspired 'Shiny' from Moana is a great villain's song for you? Or, as it says in Tangled, does 'Mother Know Best'? 

Let us know in the comments!


Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Milos Forman (1932-2018)

We at the Watchers were saddened to hear of the passing of film director Milos Forman, who passed away on 13th April 2018 at the age of 86.

He was born Jan Tomáš Forman in 1932 in Čáslav in what is now the Czech Republic. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Forman's mother and the man he believed to be his father were arrested and sent to concentration camps where they both died. Forman was raised by his uncles and family friends, but as an adult found out that his biological father was a Jewish architect. Forman went on to study screenwriting at the prestigious Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague. 


Along with filmmakers such as Elmar Klos, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec and Ján Kadá, Forman was a major figure in the artistic movement known as the Czech New Wave, which took place during the 1960s in Czechoslovakia to 'make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.' Two of Forman's Czech films- Loves Of A Blonde [Lásky jedné plavovlásky] (1965) and The Firemen's Ball [Hoří, má panenko] (1967)- were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. However, during the tumultuous events of 1968, Forman was in Paris, negotiating the production of his first American film. When his employer found out, Forman was promptly fired and he decided to move to America,  becoming a naturalised American citizen in 1977.

His first film in the US was Taking Off (1971), a comedy-drama about parents who discover their love of life again when their daughter runs away from home. Despite a critical panning and poor box-office receipts (Forman said he ended up owing Universal Pictures $500 because of it), Taking Off was nominated for six BAFTAs, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay (which Forman co-wrote). Forman was nominated for the Palme d'Or and the film won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Forman then contributed to the 1973 documentary Visions Of Eight, about the 1972 Munich Olympics. But the film that was about to send him into the stratosphere was just around the corner. 

That film was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975), a film adaptation of Ken Kesey's 1962 cult novel about the battle of wills between a criminal and the steely head nurse who runs the mental institution in which he has been committed. Starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher as Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, the film won six BAFTAs, six Golden Globes (winning every award it was nominated for), and five Oscars, becoming only the second film in Oscar history to win 'The Big Five' (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). This was the first of Forman's three nominations for the Best Director Oscar. 

Forman's next two films were a film adaptation of the cult 1960s Broadway musical Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981), an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's epic novel about the life of an uipper-class white family in early 1900s New York. Ragtime was nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Supporting Actor for Howard E. Rollins Jr and Best Supporting Actress for Elizabeth McGovern), and was the last film for James Cagney, who came out of a twenty-year retirement to play Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. Incidentally, Forman was not the original choice to direct Ragtime, however; he replaced Robert Altman in the role.  

In 1984, Forman directed Amadeus. Based on Peter Shaffer's play of the same name, about the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporary Antonio Salieri, the film starred Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri. Filmed in Prague, Forman shot scenes in the Count Nostitz Theatre where Don Giovanni and La Clemeza di Tito had debuted in the 1700s. Nominated for eleven Oscars, the film won eight, including Best Picture, Best Director for Forman (his second nomination) and Best Actor for Abraham. Whilst Hulce was also nominated for Best Actor for his broad, larger-than-life performance as the title character, it is Abraham's brooding, jealous turn as Salieri that truly impresses. It won four Golden Globes, four BAFTAs, and Forman won his second Directors' Guild Award too. Forman would later go on to say he was surprised at the success of the film, finding the response of the audience to be 'overwhelming'. 

After Amadeus, Forman's next project was Valmont (1989), starring Colin Firth, Annette Bening, and Meg Tilly. Based on the 1782 French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Valmont invariably suffered by comparison to Dangerous Liaisons (1988), a film released less than a year earlier and also based on the same novel. He was first choice of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and producer Irving Winkler to direct Basic Instinct (1992), and he was interested in doing so, but the production company had instead made a deal with Paul Verhoeven to direct instead. Similarly, Michael Crichton picked Forman to direct Disclosure (1994) but he subsequently left the project due to 'creative differences' 

Forman went from French literature to American pornography with his next film, The People Vs Larry Flynt (1996). A biopic of the outspoken publisher of Hustler Magazine, the film starred Woody Harrelson, Edward Norton, and Courtney Love. Harrelson was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Flynt, while Forman received his third Best Director nomination (but lost to Anthony Minghella for The English Patient), He did, however, win the Golden Globe for Best Director. His next film was another biopic of an eccentric American cultural figure. Man On The Moon (1999) tells the story of the life and career of comedian Andy Kaufman, best known for his appearances on Taxi and Saturday Night Live. While the film wasn't a commercial success- and had a mixed critical reaction- Jim Carrey's  performance as Kaufman was highly praised and he won a Best Actor Golden Globe. Forman's final English-language film was Goya's Ghosts (2006), a biopic of Spanish painter Francisco Goya, starring Stellan Skarsgard as Goya, with Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem, Randy Quaid and Michael Lonsdale in supporting roles.

As well as his incredible body of film work, Forman is a renowned academic, and was the professor emeritus of Columbia University's film division (having also worked as its co-chair with his former teacher František Daniel), He also occasionally worked as an actor, appearing in Heartburn (1986), New Year's Day (1989) and as Father Havel in Keeping The Faith (2000). There is also a cinema in his hometown of Čáslav which is named after him. 

A double Best Director Oscar winner, a theatre director, screenwriter, actor, and academic, Milos Forman was a man of many talents and a towering figure in the landscape of cinema. He will be missed. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Review: I, Tonya (UK Cert 15)

Most people around my age will remember what I, Tonya refers to as 'the incident'- the brutal attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The attack was arranged by the ex-husband of Kerrigan's skating rival Tonya Harding. Now, this unbelievable true-life story has been brought to the big screen in a raucous biopic, directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm, Lars And The Real Girl) and starring Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf Of Wall Street) as Harding. 

Harding is a fascinating figure who ended up being used as a punchline to many 1990s comedians. As far from the wholesome American family you can imagine, Harding's roughscrabble white trash upbringing, foul mouth and uncompromising attitude is anathema to the more genteel folk who hold the power in the figure-skating world. Emotionally and physically abused not only by her mother, but by her husband, Harding rose above it to become the first American woman to complete the technically challenging triple axel jump (an amazing feat, recreated by visual effects and shown lovingly in slow-mo). But her life changed forever when the attack on Kerrigan happened. Unaware that Kerrigan was going to be physically attacked, Harding nevertheless knew that there was going to be an attempt to mess with Kerrigan in order to give Harding an advantage. This is what ultimately does her in. 

Robbie's performance is great. She's really strong, never playing the victim (although Harding undoubtedly is, but probably wouldn't ever see herself as) and makes for an engaging, sympathetic lead. There's a poignant twist towards the end when Harding, about to banned from skating for life, begs the judge to send her to jail instead, and Robbie's vulnerability in that moment is just heartbreaking. 

Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Logan Lucky) plays Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. He could have just been easily played as a trailer-trash caricature, but Stan's performance makes him more sympathetic than perhaps a self-confessed wife-beater should be. He cuts a pathetic figure when he tries to get Harding back and it's his machinations that unwittingly spells the end for Harding's career, a fact that is acknowledged towards the end of the film. 

The star turn of the film, however, comes from the frankly brilliant Allison Janney (The Girl On The Train, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children) who steals the show as Tonya's foul-mouthed mother LaVona. Never without a cigarette or an obscenity on her lips, LaVona is a darkly comic mix of stage-mother and Svengali, pushing her daughter to be the best at any cost. Janney is a brilliant character actress and it's been great to see her get the recognition she deserves in this brash and out-there role. 

Other good performances come from Julianne Nicholson (Black Mass, August: Osage County) as Harding's skating coach Diane Rawlinson, who helps mentor her to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and attempts to smooth down some of Harding's rougher edges, whilst Paul Walter Hauser is a scream as Harding's bodyguard Shawn Eckhart, a deeply delusional man who believes he's some sort of security expert (but really isn't). He hires Shane Stant to attack Kerrigan, but Eckhart's braggadocios nature soon gets him into trouble. It's a wickedly funny turn that really wouldn't be out of place in a Coen Brothers film. 

Told in a mix of direct-to-camera interviews, plus acted-out scenes, there's a fair bit of fourth-wall breaking and a couple of deliciously OTT moments- such as Harding firing a rifle at Gillooly as he runs from the house, or Harding wielding a baseball bat and battering Kerrigan herself- which (as we are told) never happened. It's no coincidence that the film begins with a disclaimer that it's based on 'irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly'. There's an interesting discourse on 'the truth' throughout the film, with Harding dismissing it as 'there's no such thing as truth... everyone has their own truth and life just does whatever the f**k it wants.'

The script, by Steven Rogers, is tight, but there are some bits towards the end which feel a bit laboured, especially when Harding claims that being used as a punchline made her feel abused all over again; no doubt that's exactly what Harding felt, but the script comes across as a little over-earnest at that point. 

It's a decently made mockumentary-style biopic with several incredibly strong performances and an anarchic streak that's impossible to dislike.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Thursday, 12 April 2018

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Currently on tour around the UK is a revival of the stage musical version of Sunset Boulevard. Starring musical theatre star Ria Jones and actor Danny Mac in the lead roles, the musical takes its inspiration from the 1950 black-and-white movie directed by Billy Wilder. 

Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. While on the run from people who want to repossess his car, Joe finds an old Hollywood mansion and meets a former silent movie actress, Norma Desmond, living in seclusion. But Norma has a plan to make her triumphant return to the screen with a self-penned screenplay about Salome, to be directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille. Flattering his way to becoming Norma's script doctor, the relationship between the older woman and the younger man begins to shift and the path is laid for tragedy...

The film is something of a poisoned Valentine to Hollywood and the movie business, exposing its cynicism and venality, its preference for youth and beauty, and the somewhat shady goings-on behind the scenes. It's also, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made, with two superlative performances by Gloria Swanson and William Holden as Norma and Joe.  

In some ways, Swanson's career echoed that of Norma Desmond. Swanson was a big star of the silent era and, at the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929, was one of the first Best Actress nominees (losing out to Janet Gaynor). However, she was one of the many silent stars that didn't make the transition to talkies. But, unlike Norma, Swanson didn't dwell on her glory days: she took to radio, stage, and eventually television work. Prior to Sunset Boulevard, Swanson hadn't appeared on film since 1941 and was initially unsure about auditioning the role but was encouraged by her friend, the film director George Cukor, who told her 'if they want you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests. If you don't, I will personally shoot you'. She auditioned... and the rest is movie history. Norma Desmond is an absolute gift of a part and Swanson's incredible performance has left an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape, and also forever tied her to the character. Norma is a woman full of contradictions; flighty, generous, obsessive, forthright. She is a tragic figure but never played as one, not even at the end. Sadly, Sunset Boulevard didn't provide the career renaissance Swanson hoped it would; while she was offered roles after the success of the film, they were almost always pale imitations of Norma Desmond. She eventually retired from film-making and concentrated on television work. She made her final film appearance in Airport 1975. 

However, the film did provide leading man William Holden with a much-needed career boost. After making a big impression with the aptly-named Golden Boy (1939), Holden languished in second-rate romantic comedies until the role of Joe Gillis came his way. Montgomery Clift was originally attached to the role but, due to some personal issues, he quit the production two weeks before filming started. Joe is a gem of a part too; as equally exploited as exploitative, he initially sees Norma as a meal ticket but starts to see her as something more than that. After Sunset Boulevard, Holden's career picked up- he won a Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 (1953), and picked up a further nomination for his roles in Network (1976). His filmography also went on to feature such films as The Country Girl (1954), The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and The Wild Bunch (1969). 

Erich Von Stroheim was a former director- having directed The Merry Widow (1925), The Wedding March (1928), and Clipped Wings (1933)- who turned to acting, and takes the role of Max Von Mayerling, Norma's butler. Towards the end of the film, it's revealed that Max used to be a film director- and was Norma's first husband. After Norma's career faltered due to the advent of the talkies, Max gave up film-making to look after her. Indeed, when Norma is showing one of her old films, footage from her performance in Queen Kelly (1929) is shown... which was directed by Von Stroheim! Despite being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, Von Stroheim was dismissive of his role, calling it 'that butler role'. The film wouldn't have such an emotional impact without his stoic, dignified turn. 

The last member of the main cast is Nancy Olson, who plays Betty Schaefer, a young script reader at Paramount who initially clashes with Joe over a spec script he'd written. Olson was a relative newcomer- Sunset Boulevard is only her second credited film appearance (after Canadian Pacific in 1949) but she more than holds her own against her more experienced cast-mates. The relationship that develops between Betty and Joe is tender and believable, which makes the events at the end even more poignant. Olson went on to appear opposite Jerry Lewis in The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son Of Flubber (1963) and reunited with co-star Swanson in Airport 1975

The film also features several cameo appearances by real-life people associated with the movie business. Director Cecil B. DeMille (The Greatest Show On Earth, The Ten Commandments) appears as himself, meeting Norma on the Paramount lot to discuss her Salome film while he was shooting Samson And Delilah (1949). He and Swanson worked together in the late 1910s and early 1920s and DeMille uses his term of endearment for Swanson- 'young fellow'- to Norma. Former silent movie stars H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton appear as Norma's bridge partners (dubbed 'the waxworks' by Joe), whilst former actress turned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (memorably played by Helen Mirren in Trumbo and Judy Davis in Feud: Bette And Joan) plays herself at the end, reporting on the tragedy at the house. 

Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Anna Q. Nilsson,
H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton appear as themselves.
The screenplay is particularly quote-worthy with several lines, such as the now-iconic 'I am big; It's the pictures that got small' and the killer final line- 'All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up'- entering the cultural consciousness. There's also some inventive camera-work at play too; the opening shot of the dead body floating in the pool was achieved by shooting the scene through a mirror at the bottom of the water tank which would- from the right angle- be able to show the body in the water, and the police and photographers standing at the pool's edge. In several scenes, cinematographer John F. Seitz sprinkled dust in the air to be caught in the lights to create atmosphere. A lot of the photos of the young Norma that are around the mansion are genuine publicity photos from Gloria Swanson's silent movie career. 

A body is found in the swimming pool... but whose is it?
The film was widely praised by critics when it was first released, and was approved of in some Hollywood circles: after a private screening, Barbara Stanwyck reputedly knelt before Swanson and kissed the hem of her gown. However, not everyone in Hollywood was as pleased as Stanwyck. Studio head Louis B. Mayer told Wilder he should be tarred, feathered, and horse-whipped for bringing the movie business into disrepute. Wilder's response was a terse, two-word one. Former silent movie stars Norma Shearer, Mae Murray, and Mary Pickford (whom Wilder and Brackett initially approached to play Norma, but soon realised their mistake as her discomfort over the story became more and more apparent as they discussed it with her) found the movie offensive. 

Composer Franz Waxman with his Oscar
Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Oscars- including Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Actor (Holden), Best Actress (Swanson), Best Supporting Actor (Von Stroheim), Best Supporting Actress (Olsen), Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography- and won three: Best Music, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Original Screenplay. This was also the last collaboration between Wilder and longtime screenwriting partner Charles Brackett. To the great surprise of many, Swanson didn't win the Oscar for her performance. She was up against some fierce competition, including the truly stellar performance by Bette Davis in All About Eve. With Davis' co-star Anne Baxter already nominated in the Best Actress category, it was felt this may have split the vote, allowing Swanson to win. However, in the end it was Judy Holliday who won for her role in Born Yesterday. In 1989, Sunset Boulevard was one of the first films to be selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry having been deemed 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'. 

The many faces of Norma Desmond
(Top L-R: Patti LuPone, Rita Moreno, Petula Clark, Glenn Close
Bottom L-R: Elaine Paige, Ria Jones, Betty Buckley, Diahann Carroll) 
The stage musical version- with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton- made its West End debut in 1993, with a Broadway debut in 1994. The role of Norma Desmond has become a choice role in musical theatre circles- getting two songs ('With One Look' and 'As If We Never Said Goodbye') which have become musical theatre standards- with Oscar-nominated actresses Diahann Caroll and Glenn Close, Oscar-winning actress Rita Moreno, singer Petula Clark, and musical theatre royalty Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige, and Betty Buckley all taking the lead role at various times. There have even been longstanding rumours that a film version of the stage musical will be made, with Glenn Close in talks to reprise her Tony-winning performance. 

But none of that would be possible without the 1950 original. It's a truly brilliant piece of film-making.


'All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up...'

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Review: Coco (UK Cert PG)

Pixar have taken audiences into space, beneath the sea, and into the mind of a little girl. Where next? Well, in Coco, they take us into the Land Of The Dead. 

Set in Mexico, an aspiring young musician named Miguel wants to follow in the footsteps of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. However, his family have a baffling but deep-rooted ban on music. On Dia de Muertos (the Day of The Dead), Miguel defies his family... and ends up in the Land Of The Dead. He has until sunrise to get back to the land of the living or be lost forever. Teaming up with a lovably dopey dog called Dante and a charming trickster named Hector Rivera, Miguel must travel through to find an ancestor to give their blessing. However, in his search, he learns some long-buried truths about his family history.

It really should go without saying, but the film looks amazing. The real-world scenes in Mexico look almost photorealistic in places, whilst the bright and technicoloured Land Of The Dead is an absolutely sumptuous feast for the eyes. There's some very funny sight gags involving some of the skeletons, and there's a lot of interesting facts given about Mexican culture in general (such as the alebrije) and the festival of Dia de Muertos in particular (such as the memorial picture altars known as ofrendas).  

Michael Giacchino's score uses traditional mariachi themes to help evoke the Mexican atmosphere, whilst the stand-out song is 'Remember Me' (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who won an Oscar for 'Let It Go' from Frozen). 'Remember Me' is used several times throughout Coco- as a major celebratory set-piece, as a love song, and as a poignant reminder of the past. 

The voice cast is really good, with young actor Anthony Gonzalez taking the main role of Miguel. Gael Garcia Bernal is strong as the charming Hector, determined to get back to the land of the living by any means necessary (even dressing up as Frida Kahlo!), whilst Benjamin Bratt adds a level of suave slickness as Ernesto. Alanna Ubach is great as the cantankerous Mama Imelda, Miguel's ancestor on the other side, whilst there's a lovely turn by Edward James Olmos as a spirit on the cusp of being forgotten, which provides one of the film's most moving moments. 

Whilst the film may look bright, there's a darkness to it that mightn't be suitable for the very young. When you discover the truth about Miguel's family, things take a pretty dark turn (which I personally loved, and which made me almost gasp). The one thing the film didn't make me do, however, was cry; Pixar have a habit of being able to get me right in the feels (the end of Toy Story 3, and the first ten minutes of Up, for example). But I didn't have that kind of connection to Coco

That isn't to take away from the frankly amazing work done by an amazingly talented team who work painstakingly to bring this world to life. A definite highlight in the Pixar filmography.

Rating: 4 outof 5


Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Review: Love, Simon (UK Cert 12A)

Imagine, if you will, if John Hughes made a high school movie which had a gay love story as its primary relationship. You'd pretty much get Love, Simon, a truly beautiful and wonderful comedy-drama written by Elizabeth Berger and  Isaac Aptaker- based on the novel Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli- and directed by Greg Berlanti (The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy, Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl). 

Simon Spier is an average 17 year old. He has a warm, loving, supportive family. He has a good group of friends. And he's gay, but he's not out. When an anonymous post on a school forum appears from another closeted student who calls himself 'Blue', Simon impulsively reaches out to him and they start to e-mail each other. Simon starts to fall for 'Blue' but, when a fellow student attempts to blackmail Simon by threatening to leak the e-mails, Simon must try and preserve his secret whilst trying to find out 'Blue''s true identity. 

Where the hell was this film when I was growing up? I really could have done with such a positive representation of LGBT+ youth during my teenage years. Simon is as far from a walking stereotype as you can imagine and, whilst there is another gay teen in the film who is very camp and very obvious (his coming-out scene is a particular highlight as a group of girls have to feign surprise at his news with one going so over-the-top), he totally owns it and is comfortable in his skin. Whilst some of what Simon does in the name of trying to stop himself being outed is kinda cruel to the other people involved, it comes from a place of fear which is totally understandable. He's worried about being rejected or hated; of course, when the inevitable does happen and he is outed, that isn't an issue. 

Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) gives a wonderfully warm and empathetic central performance as Simon. Even when he's meddling in others' love lives (all to stop himself being outed), you can't help but feel for him. He really captures that uncertainty and that inner tension, and- by the end- you're really rooting for him and 'Blue' to get together so they can have their 'great love story'. It's an accomplished and very authentic performance. 

Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) is Simon's oldest friend Leah, and the rapport between her and Robinson is just lovely. It feels very real. Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse) is Abby, a relatively new member to the group, but a young woman who knows her own mind. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Spider-Man: Homecoming) is very sweet as Nick, Simon's friend who ends up unwittingly bearing the brunt of Simon's desperate dating machinations. 

Logan Miller (The Walking Dead) has a difficult role to pull off: he's Martin, the student who blackmails Simon in order to get his help to get with Abby, but Martin is such a weaselly little dweeb that you almost feel sorry for him at the same time as utterly hating him. Martin's ultimate humiliation is almost unbearable, but he just- JUST- about redeems himself at the end. There are lovely performances by Keiynan Lonsdale (The Flash) and Joey Pollari (American Crime) as Simon's schoolfriend Bram and a local waiter called Lyle- both of whom could be 'Blue'.  

Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are great in support as Simon's parents Emily and Jack; their individual reactions to Simon's coming out are very different, but both are emotionally affecting in their own way. There's a wonderful supporting turn by Natasha Rothwell as drama teacher Ms Albright, a strong and no-nonsense woman who gets one of the best scenes when she lays into two homophobic students in the cafeteria. The only performance which doesn't work for me is that of Tony Hale, who plays vice principal Mr Worth who is trying to be 'down with the kids' but misses by a country mile. It's excruciating, but I'm sure that's more of an issue with the script. 

There are some wonderful flights of fancy in the film- such as a scene where Simon imagines his friends coming out to their parents as straight, and a dance routine to Whitney Houston's 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)' which even Simon thinks is a bit too gay. There's also a wonderful ambiguity used throughout when it comes to the identity of 'Blue'- similar to that used in The Limehouse Golem- where, as Simon imagines different people as 'Blue', they take over the narration. 

Unashamedly romantic, funny, poignant, touching, and very authentic, Love, Simon is one of the most positive LGBT+ films I've seen in a long time. Hell, never mind the labels, it's one of the best films I've seen so far this year. Give it a go. 

Rating: 5 out of 5


Love, Simon is on general release in the UK from 6th April 2018.