The Watchers

The Watchers

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


Monday, 30 May 2016

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (UK Cert 12A)

After tackling the 1960s in First Class and the 1970s in Days Of Future Past, the new X-Men franchise reaches the 1980s with Apocalypse. 

It's 1983 and an ancient mutant, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), is awoken in Cairo. Recruiting mutants- including a grieving Magneto (Michael Fassbender)- to serve as his Four Horsemen, Apocalypse seeks to raze the world and rebuild it. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his mutant charges must help to stop Apocalypse from completing his plan.

There are some particularly strong action setpieces- one shows off the speedster skills of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to the tune of 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)' by the Eurythmics, whilst another shows exactly how Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) get out of the Weapon X facility; a moment sadly spoiled by the latest trailer to be released. If that particular reveal had been left secret, it would have made a really brilliant moment even more so.

Performances are generally strong across the board, especially amongst the younger generation of mutants with Sophie Turner a real standout as the young Jean Grey. The returning cast- Fassbender, McAvoy, Hoult and Lawrence- fit back into their roles with no issues, with Fassbender really giving an air of gravitas and woundedness to his role. The only bum note is Oscar Isaac's curiously uncharismatic Apocalypse (but that's more to do with the writing than his performance, I think). 

My main gripe about X-Men: Apocalypse is that it never seems to kick into top gear. Both First Class and especially Days Of Future Past crank up the adrenaline towards the final act, but Apocalypse never seems to quite get there. The final smackdown between Apocalypse and his Horsemen and the X-Men is good- especially its resolution- but it never feels epic. It also doesn't help that several characters really get shortchanged, with Angel/Archangel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) virtually relegated to the sidelines. 

The film is a lot of fun and is enjoyable, and is a perfectly good ending to this trilogy. And hey any film that's content to throw a bit of shade at X-Men: The Last Stand is good with me.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Saturday, 28 May 2016

Review: Captain America: Civil War (UK Cert 12A)

The third phase of Marvel's Cinematic Universe opens with a bang, pitting the Avengers against each other. When political forces plan to put a panel in place to oversee the Avengers- following the destruction in New York and Sokovia as well as a mission in Lagos which goes awry- the team splits with Tony Stark/Iron Man on the side of the politicians and Steve Rogers/Captain America against. In amongst all this, old secrets are revealed causing a further schism between the two former friends.

The cast list is huge and it is truly a more of an ensemble piece, in line with the Avengers films, which has led some fans to wonder whether this should have been an Avengers film, rather than a Captain America one. In some ways that would be right because there are so many characters flying around (literally in some cases) and it's a fine balancing act to make sure that they're not just window-dressing and all have something to do. But the main heart of the story is the relationship between Steve and Tony and Steve and Bucky so it warrants being a 'Captain America' film. 

Performances are superb across the board; most of the actors have played these characters for years, so they fit right back into them. Evans is great as the all-American hero, determined that his own judgement is more valid than government interference, whilst Downey Jr falls back into the snarky, sarcastic Stark whose own guilt leads him to support the Sokovia Accords. Even though a lot has been made in the trailer of the rift between the two men- 'He's my friend'/'So was I'- it is powerful stuff to see the two allies go at each other. 

Of the new cast, both Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland really impress and really stand out- no mean feat given the calibre of the cast they're working with. Boseman is a dignified yet dangerous T'Challa/Black Panther, whose introduction really works and his own vendetta against Bucky adds yet another layer to the film. Holland is a wonderfully geeky and gauche Peter Parker/Spider-Man and he adds a much needed modicum of levity whenever he's on screen. I have to be honest, I didn't believe they'd actually cast Marisa Tomei as Aunt May- there's a running joke in the film that she doesn't look old enough to be someone's aunt- but they have and she's pretty good.  

The action sequences are generally good, although there's a lot of kinetic shakycam during the Lagos scene which made me feel a bit nauseous (it's a purely personal thing but I can't stand it). The big smackdown- Team Cap v Team IronMan at the Leipzig airport- is choreographed really well and, importantly, you can tell who is doing what to whom. 

From hereon out, the MCU is branching away from the Avengers- with Doctor Strange, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming up next before the third solo Thor film. This will be a good way to rest the characters. Given how the film ends, it'll be interesting to see how they get the team back together to take on Infinity War.

I may run the risk of being accused of being a Marvel fanboy but Captain America: Civil War is one of the most enjoyable films I've seen so far this year and is another strong entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Review: Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (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.

Let me preface this review with a remark. This movie is essentially critic-proof. It doesn't really matter that it currently has a critic score of 28% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing; the audience score is currently 72%. It's already made over $424 million worldwide so it's not going to make the slightest bit of difference whether I say 'this is the greatest film ever made in the history of cinema' or 'watching the entire Twilight saga in one sitting is preferable to this inane pile of garbage'. What I will say is this: there was a lot I liked in the film, and a lot I didn't. 

The film has, since its very inception, been a polarizing one. When this project was announced at Comic-Con in July 2013, it broke the Internet. Reactions ranged from 'best thing ever' to '#ruined' and the furore only intensified when Ben Affleck was cast in the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Over 30 petitions sprung up online, ranging from removing him from the role to trying to make it illegal for Affleck to play either Batman or any other superhero on film. Unsurprisingly, when the casting of Jesse Eisenberg and Gal Gadot were announced as Lex Luthor and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, there was more vitriol online. Eisenberg was neither old enough nor imposing enough; Gadot was bizarrely too small to play an Amazonian princess. Rumours abounded a month or so ago that the studios were 'nervous' about the film, which was instantly pooh-poohed. As it turns out, they had a right to be nervous. 

With a film that's offering the potential of two of the greatest superheroes in the whole of comic book history coming together for an epic smackdown, you might expect to feel exhilarated, thrilled, engaged, your heart in your mouth and your bum on the edge of your seat. You don't expect to feel bored. And I did. For quite a lot of the film. 

The script- by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer- is so portentous (occasionally dropping into pretentious), so doom-laden and so without nuance or subtlety that it's a tough watch in places. You're never left to intuit how people feel; the characters tell you blatantly and outright. There's an over-reliance on dream sequences- albeit Batman's fevered hallucination of what would happen if Superman isn't checked is visually interesting- and do we really need to see Bruce's parents being killed again? Apparently, we do, because it's important that we know that Bruce Wayne's mum was called Martha. This becomes vitally important later on as it's the only reason Batman doesn't stomp Superman's face into the dirt. Because their mums have the first same name. Frankly, that's shoddy and lazy writing that a creative writing student would be embarrassed to hand in. 

I guess one of my other major issues with the film is that I don't really get on with Zack Snyder's style of direction. One of my major criticisms of Man Of Steel was that the final fight sequence was too big, too frenetic, too hyperactive. Well, it's the same here, especially the final smackdown between Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman against Doomsday. I gave up trying to figure out who was doing what to whom in most of the fight sequences (not helped by the fact that there's some really dreadful lighting choices made throughout). I get that the worlds of Metropolis and Gotham are supposed to be gritty and dark, but Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy conveyed that same atmosphere without decimating the lighting budget. There's so much shaky handheld camerawork- which always makes me feel nauseous- and there's some really odd editing choices too. 

It also doesn't help that the already laden dialogue is further weighted down by a ridiculously bombastic score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. This did have one saving grace however: the majorly kick-ass theme for Wonder Woman, whose electric violin riff brought some much needed life to proceedings. 

That said, it's not all bad. Generally speaking (with one major exception), I enjoyed the acting. For all those naysayers who criticised Affleck's casting and derided him before he'd even said a line of dialogue, you're wrong. He works really well as Batman, as a grizzled, older, more world-weary fighter who's had 20 years of fighting and for what? He also makes a particularly good Bruce Wayne and the script manages to drop a couple of interesting hints which will hopefully be explored in the standalone Batfleck film. Henry Cavill remains as stoic and dignified as he was in Man Of Steel, whilst Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne and Diane Lane were all solid support. 

My two favourite performances came from Gal Gadot, whose sensual yet determined Diana Prince added a much-needed spark throughout and who commanded the screen as Wonder Woman in the last battle, and Jeremy Irons who was frankly born to play Alfred. Here, he's a slightly more sarcastic and abrasive but is still the faithful old retainer, delivering slightly heavy-handed speeches to Master Bruce. 

The bum note is Jesse Eisenberg who was so annoying as Lex Luthor that I wished my superpower was to be able to reach into the screen so i could slap the irritating little runt. He wasn't menacing, he wasn't imposing, he wasn't any kind of credible threat. He was mooning around on screen with a performance full of quirky tics rather than any real characterisation and basically acting like a spoiled little brat. As much as I actively dislike Kevin Spacey's performance in Superman Returns, at least his Luthor felt like a threat.

I also liked the cameos from the other nascent members of the Justice League which provided enough of a hint of what's to come without feeling too much like a cynical ploy (although there are a few bits, especially at the end, where the fact that this is now going to be its own franchise is celebrated a bit too blatantly). There are a couple of very striking visuals as well, such as Superman saving the little girl from the fire during the Mexican Day of the Dead. 

Ultimately, this film was underwhelming for me, which was a disappointment. I do feel like some of the criticism that the film has come in for has been a little harsh, but there's only so much you can do to detract from a film's inherent flaws. That said, I am still intrigued to see where the DC Expanded Universe goes from here. I'm really looking forward to both Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman

Rating: 3 out of 5