The Watchers

The Watchers

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Review: Black Panther (UK Cert 12A)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa now takes up the mantle of Black Panther and assumes the throne of Wakanda after his father's death. Wakanda is a technologically advanced place, thanks to its reserves of vibranium (the strongest metal in the world). Traditionally, Wakanda stays out of world affairs, doesn't offer aid or refuge, and keeps itself to itself. However, that may be about to change as a powerful adversary- with an unexpected link to Wakanda's past- comes to challenge T'Challa for the throne. 

Performances are really strong across the board. Chadwick Boseman gives a performance of great integrity and power as new king T'Challa, struggling with what it means to be a good ruler as Wakanda is threatened.Danai Gurira steals the spotlight several times as General Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje (the Wakandan royal guard) with a performance of wit and warmth, and Letitia Wright is great as T'Challa's sister, Shuri. A cheeky tech wizard, Shuri is essentially T'Challa's Q, creating some spectacular gadgets. Forest Whitaker provides decent support as wise old counselor Zuri, and there's a nicely dignified performance by Angela Bassett as Queen Mother Ramonda. 

As T'Challa's love interest Nakia, Lupita Nyong'o is superb and there's a real chemistry between her and Boseman. Nakia isn't just a swooning wallflower though- she's a spy for Wakanda, and a kickass heroine in her own right. Martin Freeman is given more to do this time as CIA Agent Everett Ross and acquits himself well. Daniel Kaluuya is strong as tribesman W'Kabi who clashes with T'Challa over the course Wakanda will take, whilst Winston Duke adds menace as rogue tribe leader M'Baku- and gets a couple of the funniest lines of the film. 

As for the villains, whilst Andy Serkis gets a bit broad with his portrayal of villainous arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (complete with wandering South African accent, which sometimes wanders off completely), he's clearly having a lot of fun. On the other hand, Michael B. Jordan brings a brooding intensity to main antagonist Erik Killmonger, a man full of anger and rage. Unusually for a Marvel movie, the main bad guy has a plausible- some may say, legitimate- motivation for his actions. 

Ryan Coogler showed his prowess with action sequences with the kinetic matches in Creed, and the big action set-pieces- a high-octane chase through Busan, the casino shoot-out, the ceremonial battles- don't disappoint. The entire production design of the film is superb- everything from the sets to the costumes, the make-up to the visual effects. Rachel Morrison's cinematography is sublime- from the gritty streets of South Korea to the sweeping plains of Wakanda, the film looks amazing. But it has substance too.

Critics tend to get very sniffy about comic book movies. They're low culture, popcorn fodder, sit-back-amd-turn-your-brain-off-and-watch-the-pretty-colours. Not only is this snobbery of the highest order, it's also wrong. The best comic book movies use the fantastical to examine the human condition. Black Panther touches on colonialism, empire, globalisation versus isolationism, what it means to be a good ruler as well as a good person, and the sins of the father being visited upon the son. These are weighty subjects, but they're dealt with in a sensitive manner- there doesn't feel like there's any preaching or speechifying, nor are they treated lightly or as a joke. It's powerful stuff and it sparked a conversation between my friends and I after the film finished about museums and 'civilisation'. 

In summary, Black Panther is just superb. Another triumph for Marvel Studios. 

Rating: 5 out of 5


Monday, 12 February 2018

Awards Season 2018: Writers' Guild Awards Winners

Just a quick update today as The Writers' Guild Awards were handed out yesterday (Sunday 11th February).

The film winners were:

Original Screenplay: Get Out

Adapted Screenplay: Call Me By Your Name

Documentary Screenplay: Jane

The WGA nominees for Original and Adapted Screenplays are virtually identical to those for the Oscars: the only difference is that the WGA nominated I, Tonya in the Original Screenplay category as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was ineligible for consideration under WGA rules. 

I'm overjoyed that Call Me By Your Name won; the screenplay is one of the most touching, poignant, and heartfelt pieces of writing I've experienced in ages. Get Out's eclectic blend of genres and styles is a superb piece of writing and, again, really glad to see it awarded. 

Interestingly, none of the nominees for the WGA Documentary Screenplay Award have been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. 

Next Sunday (18th February) sees the 71st British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) handed out. I'll put up a full list of winners after the ceremony. 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Review: The Greatest Showman (UK Cert PG)

The Greatest Showman is a musical biopic of Phineas T. Barnum, telling the story of his life from the son of a penniless tailor to becoming the founder of one of the most famous circuses in the world. 

Hugh Jackman gives a charismatic and likeable performance as Barnum. He's a chancer, a huckster with a silver tongue, who can talk the talk- but also back it up. They way he talks people round to his way of thinking is impressive. A man desperate for the approval and acceptance he never had before, there's an interesting contradiction lying at Barnum's core which the film doesn't always explore well enough (which is down to the script). Another interesting part is his willingness to exploit the 'otherness' of his charges; when he recruits Tom Thumb, the young man accuses Barnum of wanting to get people to laugh at him. Barnum's response: 'they're laughing anyway, kid, so you might as well get paid'. Whilst this may be true, it comes across as a little callous. But even with this, with a winning smile and a twinkle in his eye, Jackman is never less than magnetic in the lead role. 

Michelle Williams is underused as Barnum's devoted and incredibly patient wife Charity, but she's good when she's given something to do. Zac Efron gets a strong arc as playwright Phillip Carlyle (a composite character of several people in Barnum's life, including business partner James Bailey), a man of privilege and wealth who goes against convention by running off to join the circus. He has his head turned by trapeze artist Anne Wheeler, but issues of status and race (Anne is mixed-race, whilst Philip is white) mean the path of true love doesn't run that smoothly. Zendaya plays Anne with a spark of intensity which is great to see. 

There's a nice supporting turn from Rebecca Ferguson as Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, who provides Barnum with a shot at legitimacy in society, but who proves to be more complicated than first expected. Keala Settle provides heart and poignancy as bearded lady Lettie, who Barnum finds working in a laundry and eventually puts on stage. Finally, Paul Sparks gives a nice edge of antagonism to his role as newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett, who clashes with Barnum on several occasions; Bennett sees Barnum's show as nothing more than low entertainment, even using the phrase 'circus' to describe it (which Barnum leaps on and appropriates). 

This is Michael Gracey's feature film directorial debut and he shows some real artistic flair. The production design of the film is really good and there are some really nice visual flourishes and some really good choreography, such as in 'The Other Side', the bar-room duet between Barnum and Phillip where Barnum tries to get him to come on board (where shots are poured and drank in between dancing on the bar). Jenny Bicks' and Bill Condon's script is perhaps the weakest part of the entire endeavour. It follows the usual rags-to-riches biopic formula but, crucially, even if events really did unfold as they do in the film, the story feels contrived: there's an unexpected romantic subplot which comes as Barnum grows further away from his family; there's the expected moment where he loses everything but that's not the end of the world. It feels very standard, by-the-numbers, which is a shame. 

The songs are written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the songs for La La Land. Just as in that film, the songs range from the perfectly serviceable to the instantly forgettable, along with a couple of absolute stormers, such as Phillip and Anna's highwire love duet 'Rewrite The Stars' and- the song which has got the most attention from the film- 'This Is Me', which is destined to become a modern classic. A defiant, poignant, powerful statement of intent delivered with gusto and vulnerability by Keala Settle, I found myself unexpectedly moved by the performance and wanting to stand and applaud at the end of the number. 

All said, this was a light, fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It's pure popcorn fodder and a lovely way to while away a few hours.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Thursday, 8 February 2018

Review: Get Out (UK Cert 15)

Meeting your girlfriend's family for the first time is nerve-wracking enough, but for Chris Washington, it literally becomes a matter of life and death. Welcomed warmly (maybe a bit too warmly) by Rose's liberal parents, the truth behind Chris' visit soon becomes apparent- and he's forced into a desperate battle for survival... 

Released in 2017, I missed Get Out during its cinema release, but it's now available on DVD/BluRay, so I've been able to catch up with it, and I'm glad that I have. I'm not a massive horror fan, as I've said before, but I thoroughly enjoyed the film (as did Matt, who spoke highly of it in our Review Of The Year). It's not a horror in the traditional sense; it's much more of a thriller in the style of something like Rosemary's Baby or the 1970s version of The Stepford Wives. There's the occasional jump-scare but they're few and far between. The final 20 minutes or so do descend into typical 'horror movie' final act tropes (with Chris as the Final Girl) but, such is the skill that's gone before in making Chris a sympathetic character, you're really behind him and you want him to escape. 

Londoner Daniel Kaluuya absolutely nails the American accent and plays Chris with a wonderful balance of nervousness and steel. Becoming slowly exasperated by everyone's niceness (which he attributes to political correctness), he soon finds out there's a much more sinister plot brewing beneath the bonhomie. You could write a whole thesis on the racial politics and representations in the film; Chris is asked several times to comment on 'the Black Experience' (as if he's some kind of spokesman) and there's a sly reference to the fetishisation of black men as sexual objects which comes out of left-field. It's an impressive central performance which has been rightly lauded throughout this awards season.

This is the first thing I've seen Allison Williams in (I haven't ever seen Girls), but she is superb as Rose. Even after the twist is revealed, there's still a magnetism to her performance which is utterly beguiling- you can understand why Chris has fallen in love with her. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener play Rose's parents Dean and Missy as almost caricaturistally liberal (a common refrain is they would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could) but there's a definite hint of menace beneath both performances- Keener's in particular- which makes for a nicely ambiguous set-up at the beginning. Caleb Landry Jones is good as Rose's unpredictable brother Jeremy, a more ostensible threat than anything else going on at the house. 

Betty Gabriel deserves a mention for her role as housekeeper Georgina- in a pivotal scene which suggests all may not be as it seems in the Armitage household, Georgina becomes confused, starts to cry and then laugh uncontrollably all in the space of a few seconds- it's one of the most uncomfortable but powerful moments in the film. You can literally see every emotion play across Gabriel's face. It's astounding. Finally, Lil Rel Howery provides the majority of the laughs as Chris' fast-talking TSA friend Rod, providing welcome moments of levity amidst the encroaching tension. 

There's some interesting visual quirks to the film- the sequences in The Sunken Place are really trippy but nicely realised- as well as a good use of sound design; the sound of a silver spoon stirring a cup of tea might well take on a different meaning after seeing Get Out. Jordan Peele's direction is slick and his screenplay a nice balance of funny and scary. 

Get Out is a real hybrid- a blend of social commentary, family drama, comedy, horror, and even some high-concept sci-fi all mixed together to create something that starts out as Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and ends up as more of a Texas Chainsaw MassacreEven if horror isn't really your thing, give Get Out a go. It's a fine piece of film-making. 

Rating: 5 out of 5


Sunday, 4 February 2018

Awards Season 2018: Directors' Guild Awards Winners

Just a quick awards season update as the Directors' Guild Awards (DGAs) were handed out yesterday (Saturday 3rd February). The film winners are:

Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Films: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape Of Water)

Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director: Jordan Peele (Get Out)

Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television and Miniseries: Jean-Marc Vallee (Big Little Lies)

Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary: Matthew Heineman (City Of Ghosts)

I don't think anyone is massively surprised by this- this is a major step forward for del Toro taking home the Oscar (especially as his closest rival- Martin McDonagh- wasn't nominated). Good to see Jordan Peele get some recognition for Get Out too. 

Next in awards season will be the Writers' Guild (WGA) Awards next Sunday (11th February).

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Review: Darkest Hour (UK Cert PG)

The timing of films is a funny business. I've written previously about the phenomenon of 'twin films', where two completely separate films with very similar stories come out very closely after one another. So, there's an interesting coincidence that- approximately six months after the release of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (focusing on the evacuation of British soldiers from the titular French beach)- a biopic of the man in charge of ordering that evacuation is now released. 

Written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory Of Everything) and directed by Joe Wright (Pride And Prejudice, Anna Karenina), Darkest Hour tells of the very start of Winston Churchill's premiership and the extraordinary circumstances that the newly-appointed Prime Minister had to deal with.

As the Second World War rages in Europe, and the threat of invasion comes ever closer to the British Isles, Churchill- in the first days of his premiership, having been handed a poisoned chalice by outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain- must make a difficult decision: whether to negotiate with Hitler, or to stand firm and fight against the Nazi threat. Facing opposition within his own party, and a frosty relationship with the King, Churchill must wrestle with his own conscience and make a decision that could irrevocably alter the path of history...

Gary Oldman gives a towering performance as Churchill. When I initially heard of his casting, I have to admit to a certain amount of scepticism. Oldman's not the first name that would come to mind. However, that scepticism was entirely misplaced. There are moments when he truly disappears inside the character and you forget its him. This is aided by some absolutely stellar facial prosthetics and make-up. Oldman's Churchill is irascible, blunt, forthright and absolutely determined not to negotiate. He nails that slightly odd slurring speech pattern that Churchill had and he gives real fire to some of Churchill's most famous speeches. It's a truly superb performance and all the awards glory he's been getting is richly deserved. 

There are a handful of other noteworthy performances: Stephen Dillane is strong as Lord Halifax, a weaselly little appeaser voraciously opposed to Churchill's stance of non-negotiation; Ronald Pickup gives a nicely dignified and stoic turn as the ousted Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whilst Ben Mendelsohn is impressive as King George VI whose relationship with Churchill is initially combative but thaws to a mutual respect. As Churchill's wife Clemmie, Kristin Scott Thomas doesn't have much to do but occasionally scold and support him, but she's very good in an underwritten role. 

Visually the film is impressive, if a little bleak (there's very little bright colour throughout). The war rooms look claustrophobic and dark and the shots within the Houses of Parliament are similarly atmospheric. There's nothing here to match the brilliant eight-minute unbroken tracking shot in Atonement which follows Robbie along the beach at Dunkirk, but it all looks authentic to the period. 

My main issue with the film is the script. There are sections that just don't work and stretch credulity to its limit; nowhere is this more obvious than when Churchill, on the brink of capitulating and starting negotiations, takes a trip on the London Underground and meets a cross-section of Londoners... all of whom are opposed to negotiation. This gives Churchill the push he needs to go to the House and deliver the famous 'We will fight on the beaches' speech.  It just doesn't ring true.Similarly, Churchill's new secretary Miss Layton just so happens to have a brother who is fighting in France and who she's worried about.  I know that dramatic license is often taken but this feels like a step too far. 

Ultimately, this is a pretty average by-the-numbers biopic elevated by a truly spectacular central performance.

Rating: 3 out of 5


Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Review: The Shape Of Water (UK Cert 15)

Garnering an impressive 13 Oscar nominations and numerous other awards, Guillermo del Toro's The Shape Of Water is a dark fairytale suffused with romance and menace. 

Elisa Esposito is a mute young woman who works as a cleaner at a secret research facility. One day, a new 'asset'- an amphibious humanoid- is brought to the facility and is subjected to brutal testing. Elisa starts to form a bond with the creature which sets the stage for a daring rescue attempt as Elisa and her friends must free the creature before it is vivisected. 

All of Guillermo del Toro's films are a bit weird (which might be a bit of an understatement). He utilises the tropes of horror and fantasy to create a mad nexus of styles within the stories he tells. The Shape Of Water is no exception to that. At its core, the film asks you to accept a romantic relationship between a woman and an amphibian. If you can't get behind this, then frankly this isn't the film for you. 

I was surprised at how explicit the film was; I wasn't expecting the level of nudity and sex that the film contains, and there's several instances of quite graphic violence which are shocking, and a few instances of body horror which are decidedly queasy. There's also a truly bizarre song-and-dance routine towards the end of the film which evokes the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse dance numbers- albeit with the amphibian man in Astaire's place. That said, by the time that happens in the film, there's been so much other weird stuff that's gone on that you really just go with it. 

Sally Hawkins is a revelation as Elisa, even more so because she doesn't speak- she uses ASL (American Sign Language) and she's either subtitled or another character interprets for her. You see every emotion pass across her face- anguish, rage, happiness- and her plea to her friend Giles to help her rescue the creature is one of the most powerful scenes of the film. It's a very different role from some of Hawkins' other film appearances, so if you've only ever seen her as Mrs Brown in the Paddington films, you might be in for a bit of a surprise.

Richard Jenkins (The Cabin In The Woods, The Visitor) plays Giles, Elisa's neighbour and friend, and provides a lovely counterpoint to Hawkins. An artist who works from home and shares Elisa's love for classic movies, he's also a gay man at a time when acceptance was in short supply- and a scene where he is brutally shot down by someone he fancies is heartbreaking. It's a warm and very endearing performance. Octavia Spencer shines in her supporting role as Zelda, Elisa's co-worker. She provides a lot of the humour- she's a no-nonsense woman who's quick with her opinion- which is a nice contrast to Elisa's silence. But she's also fiercely protective of Elisa and- even though she isn't initially involved in the rescue attempt- she stands by her friend.

There's also a nice supporting turn by Michael Stuhlbarg, as scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, who arrives at the facility with the creature and wants to keep it alive- but for his own reasons. It's a fascinating performance and there's a neat twist to the character which is revealed fairly early on but which helps to inform later actions. Creature maestro Doug Jones (Pan's Labyrith, Hellboy) plays the amphibian man and he's brilliant, moving sinuously and emoting beneath the prosthetic make-up (which is just superb). 

But what's a fairytale without a monster in the dark to scare us? And, boy, does Michael Shannon deliver on this in spades. He plays the sadistic Franklin, a security agent brought in to oversee the creature. He's a thoroughly unlikeable character- arrogant, racist, sexist, predatory, and absolutely convinced of his own superiority. There's a perverse thrill in seeing him outwitted, especially by the very people he's denigrated. A sinister and intense performance. 

It's a beautiful-looking film, from the crammed cosiness of Giles' flat to the barely-used cinema beneath it and the spaces within the research facility. Alexandre Desplat's sublime score is otherworldly and ethereal and really fits the narrative well, and there's a good use of period music (such as 'I Know Why (And So Do You)' and 'You'll Never Know') to evoke the mood. 

I enjoyed The Shape Of Water and I liked it. It was just a bit much to take in on the first viewing. I think I need to see it again; now the surprises of the film are known to me, I think I'll enjoy it more. I can see why the awards bodies have embraced it, too.  

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Shape Of Water is on general release from February 14 2018