The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 29 August 2016

Review: The BFG (UK Cert PG)

2016 is the centenary of Roald Dahl's birth so it's entirely apt that this year sees the release of an adaptation of one of his best-loved books: The BFG. A live-action version of Dahl's 1982 book has been in development for almost twenty-five years- there was a Cosgrove Hall animated version released on TV in 1989- but it's Steven Spielberg who has managed to get it onto the big screen.

It's perhaps no accident that one of the production companies logos that appears before the film is Amblin Entertainment - known for producing some of the best childrens' films of the 1980s (such as ET, The Goonies, *batteries not included and Who Framed Roger Rabbit). The tone of the film is reminiscent of some of Amblin's best films, which makes for a strangely nostalgic feel to the film.

The film follows the story of a young orphan girl called Sophie who, one night, comes across a giant walking the streets of London. Afraid that Sophie will tell the world about him, the giant grabs her and takes her off to Giant Country. Soon, Sophie realises that this giant is very different to the others- he's smaller and is bullied by the bigger giants, he doesn't eat humans (preferring to eat slimy vegetables known as snozzcumbers) and he likes to go collecting dreams. Sophie then decides she's going to call him the Big Friendly Giant- or BFG for short. Between them, they come up with a plan to get rid of the other giants but they're going to need some help- from none other than the Queen of England!

It's a combination of live action and motion capture, with some of the most beautiful visual effects you'll see in cinema this year and a truly warm and wonderful lead performance by Mark Rylance as the BFG.

Reuniting with his Bridge Of Spies director, Rylance puts in a lovely and very gentle performance as the BFG, handling the mangled form of speech like a pro- there's never a truer word spoken when he says 'what I says and what I means is two different things'- and providing a very believable empathy with Sophie. Similarly, Jemaine Clement is clearly having a ball as the villainous Fleshlumpeater, main antagonist and bully of the BFG (although I did at times think it may have been Sacha Baron Cohen).

Ruby Barnhill's performance as Sophie mostly eschews the annoying precocious child-actor cliches and- considering she would have been playing against a man in a motion capture suit- does well to convey the sense of size and scale. Penelope Wilton is mostly dignified as the Queen- the rather bizarre Blazing Saddles-esque fart scene notwithstanding-, and there's lovely support by Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall as members of the Queen's household.

Visually, it's an absolute treat- and may even be worth catching in 3D if you can (although I saw it in 2D). The cinematography of Janusz Kaminski and the visual effects by Weta Digital are truly sublime; the BFG's foray into Dream Country is especially stunning. Even the dark, rainy, cobbled streets of early morning London have a real charm to them. John Williams' magical, whimsical and balletic score is the cherry on top of the cake.

Adaptations of Roald Dahl's books have, for me, been a bit patchy. However, The BFG is an absolute triumph. Gloriumptious, as the big man himself might say,

Rating: 4 out of 5


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Review: Suicide Squad (UK Cert 15)

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.

Set after the events of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad tells the tale of Task Force X- a clandestine group of the worst of the worst- brought together to combat any further metahuman attacks. These include sharpshooting sniper Deadshot (Will Smith), Australian criminal Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the deformed Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Latino firestarter El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), ancient witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and the unhinged Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). However, when a member of their own team turns against them, the squad is forced into action to save Midway City from destruction.

First off, let me say this: I enjoyed Suicide Squad more than I enjoyed Batman V Superman. Suicide Squad has several moments of levity and humour which were sorely lacking from the previous film. The camerawork has improved as well- not so much reliance on kinetic shakycam which is always a plus in my books- and there are a lot of decent performances. That said, there's still a lot that I disliked about the film.

My main gripe? An over-reliance on 'tell, don't show'- a cardinal error in any form of screenwriting- and far too many characters. A lot of characters get stiffed as far as characterisation goes (for instance, the character Slipknot is introduced only to be killed off a few minutes later). We are told about Katana's soul-sucking sword but don't really get to see it in action. We are told about the relationship between Harley and the Joker but only get to see snippets. Aside from one bit at the end where he swims beneath a flooded chamber, Killer Croc has very little to do (and that bit could have been reworked to accommodate a different character). Fewer characters would have meant a bit more time fleshing out the ones we're supposed to care about and empathise with.

The acting is a bit of a mixed bag. There are some superb performances and some pretty wooden ones. Several characters get lumbered with some pretty clunky dialogue, which it's difficult to make sound interesting or natural. The main victim of this is Joel Kinnaman. Rick Flag has a permascowl and major antagonism with Deadshot which tends to revolve around dialogue which goes 'I don't like you', 'Well, I don't like you' and... that's about it. You never once believe in his relationship with Dr. June Moone- Enchantress' alter ego and hands-down the worst archaeologist in the world- which is his primary motivation to be onboard with this crazy scheme (again, I think it doesn't work because it once again falls under 'tell, don't show'.)

Cara Delevingne is frankly miscast as Enchantress; she doesn't have the screen presence or the acting chops to pull off playing the main villain- all she has to do prior to the big showdown is spout some cod philosophy and gyrate on the spot. And whilst we are on the subject of villains, Jared Leto's Joker- who has featured very heavily in pre-release marketing and advertising- is maybe on screen for about 15 minutes, but that's more than enough as his mannered tics started to grate on me a little. Bizarrely, it felt like watching the Joker being played by Johnny Depp in a later Tim Burton movie. Leto's look is quite something- I can see cosplayers having a ball with it- but the substance is not quite there. Leto is reportedly upset with the amount of his material excised from the final cut and has distanced himself from the project somewhat.

But it's not all bad- Will Smith is at his wise-cracking best as Deadshot (it's probably his best performance in years) whilst Jay Hernandez gives a decent turn as a man desperate to keep his powers under control for fear of letting loose and hurting people again. However, my favourite performances come from Margot Robbie- who gets the lion's share of the laughs and is quirky without being annoying- and Viola Davis who is steely and strong as the Squad's boss Amanda Waller, a woman you disobey at your peril.

Stylistically, it's interesting- the introduction to the various members of the squad is done with some funky on-screen visuals. However, it falls foul of Batman V Superman syndrome in shooting the majority of the final scene in poor lighting, making it difficult to see what's going on. There's also some kind of shoddy CG work on the mindless bubble-headed creatures that Enchantress spawns towards the end. The Batman and Flash cameos work without being too intrusive and the mid-credits scene- between Bruce Wayne and Amanda Waller- hints at some interesting things to come. But, just as with Batman V Superman, it does feel as if DCEU are trying too hard to create an ongoing linked cinema franchise. A little more subtlety wouldn't go amiss.

One thing I do want to highlight is the use of music. There's an eclectic soundtrack ranging from 'Sympathy For The Devil' to Eminem's 'Without Me' with pitstops for Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid', The White Stripes' 'Seven Nation Army' and a sadly pared down 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. It's frenetic and constantly chopping and changing but provides an interesting backdrop. But where was 'Ballroom Blitz'?

My gold standard for deciding how much I enjoyed a film is: do I want to see the film again in the cinema and do I want to own it on DVD? Sadly, when it comes to Suicide Squad, the answer is no. There's a lot I enjoyed about it but I don't see me coming back for repeated viewings.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Review: Star Trek Beyond (UK Cert 12A)

It's a banner year for the Star Trek franchise as it celebrates 50 years since the original TV show started airing. So how better to commemorate this than to release another Star Trek movie?

The crew of the Enterprise are well into their five-year mission, but Captain James T. Kirk is starting to feel a little disillusioned and is thinking of moving on. When they dock on Starbase Yorktown, an unknown alien ship in distress hails the base. Their crew has been taken to a nearby planet by the villainous Krall and the Enterprise is the only ship that can make it through an unstable nebula to help rescue them. But things are never quite what they seem and the planet- and Krall- are more dangerous than the crew could imagine...

Written by Simon Pegg (also reprising the role of Scotty and therefore giving himself a bigger part) and Doug Jung (who cameos as Sulu's husband Ben- more of that later) and directed by Justin Lin (the Fast and Furious franchise), Star Trek Beyond is big, bombastic and a lot of fun. It makes for very easy watching.

Lin is very much at home with the action sequences- including a very stylish distraction involving Kirk and a vintage motorcycle- although there's an over-reliance on shakycam which is annoying and, yet again, a major Hollywood blockbuster skimps on the lighting budget to its detriment with some scenes (noticeably one fight scene between Jaylah and Krall's minion Manas) almost bordering on the unwatchable. One thing to Lin's credit, however- there's minimal lens flare. A few lighting and camera issues aside, the visual effects are- as you would expect- superb with the reveal and exploration of Starbase Yorktown particularly stunning.

Performance-wise, it's all pretty solid. The main returning cast all fit back into their roles well (although having Scotty call Jaylah 'lassie' every few minutes got annoying really quickly). They know these characters well by now so there's no questions there. What the script does, which is interesting, is play around with the usual dynamics by splitting the Enterprise team and pairing disparate characters up. Pairing Bones and Spock up is inspired and both Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto seem to be enjoying their odd-couple bickering. Idris Elba makes for an imposing villain in Krall- even if the back-story felt a little rushed and bolted on. There's a really impressive performance by Sofia Boutella as the alien Jaylah who helps the crew out on the planet.

Some people may be wondering what I made of the decision to make Sulu gay (a decision which dismayed original Sulu actor George Takei). To be honest, whilst I probably would have preferred them to create a new character, I wasn't massively bothered by it. The scene between Ben and Sulu was played very nicely- it's a bit of a blink-and-you-miss-it moment to be fair- and it wasn't really mentioned again, although Ben does appear again at the end. It certainly wasn't sensationalised or felt lurid or done just for shock value. I can appreciate that it sometimes feels like tokenism but you can create a LGBT character and not let their sexuality be their only defining feature; for me, it's the difference between having a gay character (where it is) and a character that is gay (where it isn't).

The film pays a touching tribute not only to the late Leonard Nimoy- whose death is directly addressed and provides one of the more poignant scenes between Spock and Kirk- but also to the original crew of the Enterprise who started the journey off half a century ago. It also pays tribute in the end credits to Anton Yelchin, the Chekhov actor who passed away earlier this year. I couldn't help but feel a little pang of sadness every time the excitable Russian navigator appeared on screen. He has left a big hole in the Star Trek family.

I went to this film to be entertained, to turn my brain off for a few hours and just let the sci-fi silliness wash over me. Whilst it delivers that in spades, don't be surprised if you feel a little emotional throughout it too.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Thursday, 18 August 2016

Kenny Baker (1934-2016)

So 2016 continues its sadistic streak by taking some of the best-loved and respected culture personalities whilst allowing some absolute wastes of perfectly good internal organs to thrive.

Kenny Baker, who played R2-D2 in the Star Wars franchise, has sadly passed away at the age of 81 after a long illness.

The latest passing is, for many of us, a very sad one and a lot of people of our age (mid-to-late 30s) will feel as if a part of their childhood has gone.

Born in Birmingham, Baker- who stood at 3ft 8ins- was approached at the age of 16 to join a theatrical troupe which specialised in dwarves and midgets. He joined a circus, learned to ice skate, appeared in pantomime and formed a very successful comedy duo with fellow small person Jack Purvis called The Minitones.

When he was approached to appear in Star Wars, Baker initially turned the role down. He did accept after finding out Alec Guinness was going to appear in the film. Star Wars was Baker's first film role and he went on to play R2-D2 in six of the seven movies, acting as a consultant on The Force Awakens (with Jimmy Vee already confirmed as Baker's replacement for Episode VIII). In Return Of The Jedi, Baker also plays Paploo, the Ewok who steals an Imperial speeder bike.

Whilst Baker will forever be known as R2-D2, his own personal favourite screen role was as Fidgit in Terry Gilliam's 1981 comic fantasy romp Time Bandits. He was frequently cast in fantasy films, appearing in Flash Gordon (1980), Labyrinth (1986) and in an uncredited role in Willow (1988).

He also appeared in more serious films such as The Elephant Man (1980), Amadeus (1984) and Mona Lisa (1986).

He was a regular attendee at conventions and comic-cons around the world and was always very warm and enthusiastic when meeting fans.

Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

Monday, 25 July 2016

News From Comic-Con 2016

It's that time of year, folks, when the geek Mecca that is San Diego Comic-Con opens its doors and gives us a rundown of what's coming up in the worlds of film, TV and other entertainment. The dust has barely settled (it ran from July 21st-24th) but it's given us a lot to talk about.

So here's a quick round-up of some of the biggest news.

After the lukewarm reception that Batman V Superman got, DC may have felt like they had a bit of an uphill battle to get people onboard for their next movies. Well, mission well and truly achieved as even the most petulant and hard-to-please fanboys couldn't help but be blown away by what DC had to show.

Whilst Marvel discussed several of their upcoming properties, DC focused on the ones that are closest at hand. DC also made a very canny move by officially releasing the three trailers they showed straight away, ready for public consumption.

The first was a trailer for Suicide Squad, which gives a few good lines to Will Smith and a few laughs for Jai Courteney:

There was also a first-look trailer for Wonder Woman, which was seriously good. Gal Gadot was easily the best thing about Batman V Superman and- if the trailer is anything to go by- her dignified and strong performance will continue. You also get to see Chris Pine as Steve Trevor and the final electric violin sting at the end of the trailer is just sublime.

Finally, and the biggest news, there was a trailer for Justice League. It shows Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) visiting both Arthur Curry/Aquaman and Barry Allen/The Flash to recruit them. There's a brief appearance by Cyborg towards the end but no Superman- not surprising, really. Ezra Miller really impresses as The Flash, and there's some nice little moments of humour which helps to lift things.

Marvel had a lot of information to impart, although- unlike DC- a lot of the footage hasn't been officially released. An enhanced Doctor Strange trailer was one of two videos put out by Marvel but footage from Thor: Ragnarok (a mockumentary over what Thor and Hulk have been doing since Age Of Ultron), Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 still remain (at the moment, at least) Comic-Con exclusives.

The Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 footage confirms a few pieces of rumoured casting - it was announced a while ago that Kurt Russell would be joining the cast and immediately the rumour mill went into overdrive that he'd be playing Star-Lord's father. Well, as usual, the rumour mill was right- Russell is playing Ego (a living planet who took human form and then knocked up Star-Lord's mum). The footage also shows Sylvester Stallone in a small role.

Speaking of the rumour mill being right, it was also confirmed that this year's Best Actress Oscar winner Brie Larson has been cast as Captain Marvel for the 2018 film (although she may appear in an earlier film as Spider-Man and Black Panther have; if that's the case, she'll probably be seen in Infinity War). Rumours of Larson's casting started several months ago, and I think this is a strong piece of casting.

There was some further casting announced for Black Panther, with Creed star Michael B. Jordan, The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o joining Chadwick Boseman for the film, directed by Ryan Coogler. Jordan will play Erik Killmonger, Nyong'o will play Nakia and Gurira will play Okoye.

Finally, concept art from Spider-Man: Homecoming reveals that the main villain for the film will be The Vulture:

Away from the comic book franchises, we were treated to some other top-quality trailers, including one for the surprise sequel to The Blair Witch Project- originally filmed under the generic title of The Woods, but now titled Blair Witch- which goes back to the found-footage format and is genuinely atmospheric and not a little creepy. Directed by Adam Winguard (You're Next, The Guest), the film is due for release very soon.

There were also trailers for Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, Kong: Skull Island, Guy Ritchie's new take on King Arthur and the Batman Lego Movie.

There was also a special panel to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Aliens, attended by James Cameron, Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen.

In terms of TV, trailers for Iron Fist, Luke Cage and The Defenders were aired, plus it was announced that Netflix's Daredevil was renewed for a third season. Bryan Fuller's new Star Trek series- now titled Star Trek: Discovery- had a teaser trailer too.

There were also trailers for the seventh season of Game Of Thrones, the fourth series of Sherlock, the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods (which looks seriously brilliant) and a very interesting piece of casting news that Rihanna will be appearing in the final season of the Psycho prequel Bates Motel... as Marion Crane!

So a lot of good stuff coming our way over the next few years.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (UK Cert PG)

The story of American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins may not be known to many, but that will change with the latest film by Stephen Frears (Philomena, Mrs Henderson Presents, The Queen) which stars Meryl Streep in the title role. 

Jenkins was famed for being one of the worst singers to perform in public (a posthumous collection of her recordings has the slightly arch title Murder On The High Cs). An eccentric New York heiress, Jenkins wanted to become an opera singer and had the money to indulge that desire- despite not having the requisite talent to go with it. She was consistently flat, with very little sense of pitch or rhythm, appalling foreign pronunciation and attempted songs that were far beyond her range and ability (such as the challenging 'Queen Of The Night' aria from The Magic Flute). She only ever gave one recital to which the general public could attend, booking out Carnegie Hall in October 1944 when she was at the grand age of 76. She was once quoted as saying 'People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing' (an admirable sentiment)

Frears' film takes a standard biopic approach, with the climax being the Carnegie Hall performance. 

Streep's performance is, as you would expect, flawless (even if the script doesn't always match). She plays Jenkins' eccentric little tics broadly but without ever lapsing into caricature, whilst also showing a more tender and emotional side- Jenkins had a tragic early marriage to a man who would give her syphilis on her wedding night (which may have accounted for some of her difficulties in later life). Her bad singing is very bad, so bad as to almost be good (much like playing the piano, it seems one has to be very good at something to do it badly). 

Hugh Grant gives one of his best performances in years as St Clair Bayfield, Jenkins' second husband, a Shakespearean actor who later acted as her manager. He's sweetly indulgent of Jenkins' plans, never once pulling her short or bringing her back to earth, supporting her and protecting her even in the face of public ridicule (on the morning after the Carnegie Hall recital, he tries to buy every copy of a newspaper he knows has written a scathing review). There's a bit of unnecessary padding showing his relationship with another woman- because of Jenkins' illness, arrangements were made for Bayfield in what appears to be a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell'- which, for me, detracted from the main story, although there is a good turn by Rebecca Ferguson as 'the other woman'.

There's a lovely, gauche and very unassuming performance by The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg who plays Jenkins' accompianist Cosme McMoon. We see him auditioning for her at the beginning and is aghast at the first time he actually hears Jenkins sing. He is much more the voice of reason- although only ever to Bayfield, never to Jenkins herself. Yet, he remains loyal throughout despite his reservations.  

It's a gentle, almost Sunday afternoon film- there's no strong swearing, no violence, no graphic sex- and veers between laugh-out-loud comedy and a touching drama about a woman who never let her lack of talent hold her back. Joyous.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Saturday, 4 June 2016

Review: Trumbo (UK Cert 15)

The story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo may not be widely known but his treatment- and the treatment of the others known as the Hollywood Ten, all of whom were blacklisted by the industry for their association with Communism and some of whom were imprisoned for contempt by refusing to name names at the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)- remains one of the most shameful periods in Hollywood history. A new film, directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet The Parents), tells his story with Bryan Cranston starring as the titular screenwriter.

Trumbo was (or had been) an active member of the Communist Party of the USA but was one of those subpoena'd to appear before the HUAC. He was found guilty of contempt and was imprisoned for 11 months. After his imprisonment, he went on to continue screenwriting under a pseudonym for a studio that specialised in B-movies. He also wrote the story for Roman Holiday but gave it to fellow writer Ian McLellan Hunter who acted as a front. He also wrote another film that won an Oscar for its screenplay- The Brave One- which was also awarded pseudonymously. It was only in 1960 when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger publicly acknowledged his writing for Spartacus and Exodus respectively that his blacklisting ceased. 

Cranston's performance is strong, bordering on mannered on occasions, but full of vigour. Luckily, Trumbo is not portrayed as a mere saint or martyr; he is given shade, mostly by being an objectionable, irascible pain in the arse to his family members who he has working for him as he tries to finish his B-movie scripts (often writing in the bath). A particularly strong moment is when Trumbo butts heads with John Wayne over his World War II record. Cranston's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (the film's only nomination) and he also had a load of other Best Actor nominations. It's deserved; it's a powerful performance even if the writing tends to be a bit simplistic at times.

Helen Mirren gives a delightfully venomous edge to her portrayal of Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist who was one of the main opponents of Communists, using her position to name names, even going so far as to threaten one of the studio heads with exposure if he didn't fall in line. There are stong supporting turns for Louis C.K. as blacklisted writer Arlen Hird (a composite character of several other writers) and Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G. Robinson who eventually did testify at the HUAC hearings (although denied ever naming names). Not all characters are as strongly fleshed out however: Diane Lane doesn't have much to do as Trumbo's wife Cleo, for instance. 

The film has come in for some criticism about the representation of Trumbo- who apparently had outspoken support for brutal Soviet-style regimes- and also about the historical accuracy (or otherwise) of what's presented. Every storyteller has an agenda and will pick and choose what to leave in and what to leave out and how to use what they've left in. You have to accept what's being presented in front of you. Here, there are moments of didacticism. There are several clumsily-executed homilies about truth and justice which jar but that's squarely a problem with John McNamara's script. 

This is a solid, if unremarkable, biopic but a story that definitely needs to be told.

Rating 3 out of 5