The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle (UK Cert 15)

Three years after Kingsman: The Secret Service introduced us to Eggsy, Harry and Merlin, the boys are back together for highly anticipated sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, once again directed by Matthew Vaughn. 

When an attack wipes out nearly all of the Kingsmen, the surviving members (Eggsy and Merlin) have to get help from their transatlantic cousins, the Statesmen, to find out who was behind the attack. Along the way, Eggsy is reunited with Harry Hart, thought dead after being shot by Richmond Valentine. But Harry isn't Harry. Can Eggsy get through to him and stop the dastardly schemes of a cunning drug cartel operator before her deadly merchandise wipes out a large portion of the worldwide population?

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is loud, ludicrous, bombastic, silly... and bloody brilliant. Easily one of the best films I've seen this year.

This could have easily been a lazy, by-the-numbers cash-cow retread of the original film. And whilst they do reuse some of the scenarios from the first film (there is a bar-fight, there is a car-chase), screenwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn are careful to add a different twist on it so expectations are confounded. There's still a gleefully anarchic streak here, but whereas the first film mined some comedy out of the class differences between council estate boy Eggsy and the other posh toffs in Kingsmen training, here the differences between the US and the UK come in for some ribbing. Luckily, this culture-clash comedy doesn't overpower anything else that goes on. Just as in the first film, there are some interesting social comments made (here about why some drugs are illegal and others legal, and how you wage a war on drugs) but it never feels like tubthumping or soapbox standing. It blends in nicely to the overarching, over-the-top, narrative. 

The Statesmen team, all named after drinks instead of figures from mythology, are a great addition to the Kingsman world with Jeff Bridges impressing as their leader Champagne, Halle Berry adding much-needed tech support as Ginger, and Channing Tatum charming as the bruiser Tequila. However it is Game Of Thrones' Pedro Pascal as agent Whiskey who stands out; he's a dab hand with a lasso and more than willing to kick a little ass if needed.

As for the Kingsmen? Well, both Taron Egerton and Mark Strong slip back into their roles like a well-tailored suit. Eggsy hasn't gone full gentleman; he still has his friends on the estate and- even when looking as dapper as all get out- he's quick with a well-placed swear-word. You can take the boy out of the estate... it's a warm and winning performance by Egerton. And it's Strong by name and strong by nature as the tech wizard provides Eggsy and Harry with support and forms a lovely bond with his opposite number Ginger. Colin Firth is superb as Harry and I love the way the script plays with the idea that Harry might not be the full shilling. 

Julianne Moore is inspired casting for the big bad, Poppy Adams. A ruthless drug cartel operator with a penchant for 50s kitsch Americana and industrial meat mincers, she wanders round her fortress- PoppyLand- like Martha Stewart on crack, mercilessly dispatching those who displease her. You can tell Moore is having a ball vamping it up as the villain, but she never goes into caricature. There is also an extended cameo by Elton John which is absolutely hilarious. I won't say any more, but his screen-time is a particular highlight in a film full of great scenes. 

There is also an absolutely jaw-dropping, audacious sequence when Eggsy tries to plant a tracer on an unsuspecting mark which had me absolutely howling with laughter and dumbstruck that they'd been able to get it past the BBFC! You will know it when you see it.

It's a film which achieves a delicate balance between heartfelt drama, raucous comedy, and high-octane action without any one element overwhelmed by or dominating another. I would happily sit through it again at the cinema. It's rare to make a sequel that matches the heights of its original, but for me Kingsman: The Golden Circle delivers in spades. 

Rating: 5 out of 5


Monday, 18 September 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde (UK Cert 15)

When an MI6 spy is murdered in Berlin and a list of active double agents stolen, fellow operative Lorraine Broughton must  retrieve it. Her contact in Berlin, David Percival, has gone native, enthralled to the sleazy, scuzzy side of the city. With days to go before the Berlin Wall comes down, it's a race against time to find the list and prevent it from falling into the hands of the Soviets. But there's a double agent- codenamed Satchel- who could throw a spanner in the works. 

Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart. Now, I went into the film knowing very little about it: I knew it had Charlize Theron in it, I knew it had a 1980s setting and... that was about it. 

It is true that, plot-wise, it's not the most original story- spy must retrieve (insert McGuffin here) but there's a double agent in the midst and so on. However, setting it in Berlin in the final days before the Wall came down is an inspired choice and there's an authentic feel to the fashion and the music to evoke the era. The film's style also marks it out; it's cool without trying to be cool and there's a gritty feel to the Berlin underground which I liked. 

Director David Leitch used to be a stuntman, so the fight scenes have been choreographed and shot really well. Whilst they are stylised, they're also absolutely brutal and, what's even better, is they show the combatants struggling to breathe and struggling to stand (as you would if you've had seven bells kicked out of you). They're not invincible super-soldiers; they're real flesh and blood people. There are several scenes of Lorraine sitting in an ice bath to help repair her battered body. 

Charfize Theron gives a truly kickass performance as Lorraine. Reminiscent in places of Angelina Jolie in Wanted, she owns every scene she's in. James McAvoy is great as Percival, a slippery and morally flexible guy who lives for the double-dealing and duplicity of the city. In some ways, Lorraine and Percival function as a rather dysfunctional buddy comedy- she the inexperienced newbie, he the grizzled old veteran- but that's just one side to a complex and complicated relationship.

There's able support from Toby Jones as Lorraine's MI6 superior who interviews her about Berlin; John Goodman shines as a CIA agent who has an interest in the case. Eddie Marsan is great as a former Stasi officer who wants to defect (and has memorised the list), plus there's nice turns by Bill Skarsgard as Lorraine's assistant Merkel, and Sofia Boutella as a seductive French agent. 

This has been a year of strong movie soundtracks and Atomic Blonde has one of the best I've heard this year: 'Blue Monday' by New Order, 'Cat People' by David Bowie, 'Father Figure' by George Michael, 'London Calling' by The Clash, 'Under Pressure' by Queen & David Bowie and '99 Luftballons' by Nena all play their part in creating the world of the film. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Atomic Blonde, and more so for the vast majority of the film being a surprise. Definitely worth watching. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Sunday, 17 September 2017

Review: The Limehouse Golem (UK Cert 15)

London, 1880. A series of gruesome murders have taken place, by a serial killer who has been nicknamed 'The Limehouse Golem'. Inspector John Kilbride has been newly assigned to the Golem case when he uncovers a potential link to a current trial: the music-hall star Elizabeth Cree stands accused of poisoning her husband John; John Cree was one of four main suspects in the Golem case. With time running out before the jury make their decision, can Kilbride uncover the identity of the killer- and possibly save Elizabeth's life?  

It's a gritty, grimy, Grand Guignol tale full of direction, misdirection, and more than a few twists, ably directed by Juan Carlos Medina (Painless) and starring Bill Nighy as Kilbride and Olivia Cooke as Elizabeth Cree.

Nighy gives a wonderfully stoic, measured performance as Kilbride. A good detective who would have gone further but for rumours that he 'wasn't the marrying kind', he feels like he's being offered as a sacrificial lamb when assigned the Golem case. Yet, through his doggedness and veracity, he follows the leads wherever they go. Interestingly (and quite refreshingly), there's no real suggestion of any romantic feeling between Kilbride and Elizabeth; he simply wants to save her from the hangman's noose if it's revealed her husband was the infamous murderer and she acted to stop the Golem. The role of Kilbride was initially meant for the late Alan Rickman but Nighy's performance is superb and one of his strongest, in my opinion. 

Olivia Cooke is similarly strong as Elizabeth. A young woman, abused and mistreated, trying to make something of herself and her life, falling in with the music-hall crowd then falling in love with a man who wanted to save her. It would be easy for Elizabeth to be played as a martyr or a fallen woman but there's something simultaneously fragile yet steely in Cooke's performance. It's an impressive performance and, as the film progresses and Kilbride's interviews with Elizabeth continue, there's more and more layers revealed to the character. 

The rest of the cast are pretty solid too, with a lovely louche turn by Douglas Booth, seeming to channel Russell Brand as cross-dressing music-hall star Dan Leno whose care for Elizabeth is evident. But did his care for her drive him to do something dreadful? Leno is also one of the other Golem suspects, and the film makes an interesting choice by presenting each of the suspects in turn in situ as the killer as Kilbride reads the Golem's diary. Daniel Mays gives solid support as Kilbride's faithful Sergeant, George Flood, who shares an unexpectedly tender yet understated momen with his superior which is a real highlight of the film. Eddie Marsan plays 'Uncle', the music-hall manager, with a combination of avuncular care and iron fist... but even he has a secret or two.

Sam Reid's turn as the potentially murderous John Cree is an interesting one; Reid exudes an air of menace without being stereotypically evil, so you definitely get the impression that you wouldn't want to cross him. In fact, there is the suggestion that Cree may have caused a few deaths before the Golem murders begin. There's also a strong performance by Maria Valverde as Aveline, the Cree's maid but former music-hall performer, whose relationships within the household are complicated, to say the least.  

The film is adapted from Peter Ackroyd's 1994 novel (with the screenplay written by Jane Goldman). Ackroyd uses real people within his book to give an air of verisimilitude, and the film does the same. Leno was a real music-hall performer and the other Golem suspects are German philosopher Karl Marx and English novelist George Gissing, so in one sequence, you get to see the oddly amusing sight of Marx sawing a prostitute's head off (now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write!) Make no mistake, the violence is strong- but because it's so stylized and over-the-top, it becomes less visceral or disturbing. The presentation of the murders feel so theatrical that they're almost difficult to take seriously. 

The script and the production work hard to evoke the genuine feeling of grit and grime in the backstreets of London and the quaintly seedy nature of the music-halls. Costume and production design are top notch and really capture the spirit of those times. 

It's an accomplished piece of film-making and, if you're a fan of detective stories, whodunnits, or courtroom dramas, The Limehouse Golem is one I'd heartily recommend.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Monday, 11 September 2017

It's My Shout 2017

Last night, the Watchers attended the premiere of It's My Shout 2017, a showcase of nine short films which were written and directed by new talent from Wales. This took place at the Wales Millennium Centre in the heart of Cardiff Bay. 

Some of you may be asking, what's It’s My Shout? Well it's a training scheme- supported by BBC Wales, Welsh-language broadcaster S4C, and the Welsh Government (amongst others)- which provides training for young people interested in gaining experience in all aspects of film-making both in front of- and behind- the camera. 

From writing and directing, to lighting, make-up, costume, sound, film scoring or acting, the initiative covers all aspects of film-making. Successful applicants are mentored by industry professionals who provide advice and guidance over a period of pre-production and the three days of the actual shoot. The films are then edited and, after the premiere, are then broadcast on BBC Wales and S4C. 

It's a fantastic scheme which encourages and nurtures new talent and Watcher Rhys was selected as one of the directors for this year's films. It was a fantastic opportunity to go and support him and see the fruits of his and so many others' labours. 

There were nine films commissioned this year, seven English-language and two Welsh-language. This year's films are:

Written by Rob Bryant and directed by Craig Fisher

When Seb's best friend Harry kills himself, Seb and his other friends are distraught. To help with the grieving process- and to help them get some closure- the school provides them with a special grieving robot which looks just like Harry. A very tender and poignant story which could easily have been longer. There's a lovely performance by Harrison Smith as the robot Harry, and the make-up for the robot is particularly stunning.  

Written by Peter Rogers and directed by Lemarl Freckleton

Jack's got a very important packaged to deliver. He absolutely can't be late. The clock is ticking... It starts out as one thing and ends somewhere completely different, and I'm not entirely sure the transition is that successful. That said, it's fun- and there's a truly spectacular moustache on display! Phillip Jones, who played the hapless Jack, won the Best Actor award. 

Ffeithiau Amgen [Alternative Facts]
Written by Cai Evans and directed by Rhys ap Trefor

Sibling rivalry goes to a whole new level when high-achiever Siwan and her less-than-achieving sister Gwawr go head-to-head for the position of club president. Shannon Williams and Kelly Pitts are impressive as the warring siblings, and there's a lot of humour to be had as the mud starts to be slung, although the ending did feel a little rushed. 

Rory Romantic
Written by Eleonora Mignoli and directed by Rhys Jones

Fitness guru Rory is visited by one of his fans, Tanvi. But have they met before? There are two stunning performances by Shaz Lancaster as Rory and Ellen Jane Thomas as Tanvi (who deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress award) in one of the most stylish and stylised films in the showcase. The make-up and prosthetic work is also superb. 

Two Player Games
Written by Lexx Oliver and directed by Sion Thomas

Purdy and Joleen are enjoying their first date at a games arcade but come across a machine that can show you the future. But will it be a happy ending for the two girls? This is another one, like Closure, which could have been longer. In fact, you could imagine a situation like this in a Black Mirror story. The visual style was really strong and there's a lovely little hint of something darker towards the end. This short won the People's Choice Award, voted on by the audience. 

Lawr A Lan [Down And Up]
Written by Anna Symmonds and directed by Shelley Rees

Three people take the lift every day. But what happens when, one night, the lift gets stuck between floors? A lot of the film is played without dialogue which works well in creating the mood and scene. The ending of the film can be very much open to interpretation- which I know isn't everyone's cup of tea- but I quite enjoyed it.

Dear Mr Ali
Written by Scott Chambers and directed by Jamie McKee

An unlikely friendship forms between Gareth and his tutor Mr Ali, when Gareth is put in detention and has to help Mr Ali clean the kitchens. This is another one where the ending felt quite rushed, which was a shame, as what had gone before it was nicely observed and well-acted throughout. Matthew Lee Heath, who plays the bully Iwan, won Best Supporting Actor for his performance. 

Written by Lewis Reeves and directed by Sion Ifan 

Lewis is homeless, living on the streets of Cardiff. A reckless decision made all the difference. Now he must survive in his new circumstances. But will his past affect his future? Some good camera-work on show here, and there's a real gritty, miserable feel to the film which is really successful in evoking the mood of the script; there was clearly a lot of night shoots for this film. Personally it wasn't really to my taste- I think I just didn't 'get it'- but it won Best Film and Sion Ifan won Best Director.  

Written by Scott Chambers and directed by Cath Jones

Stacey is starting a new job, as a PA to an experienced actress called Peggy. It's her first day. What could possibly go wrong? Like Packaged, Peggy also starts somewhere and ends up somewhere quite different but the transition is much more successful here. Sharon Morgan is great as the spiky Peggy whilst Chloe Cooper is lovely as the naive newcomer Stacey (winning the Best Actress award for her performance). 

Following on from the awards ceremony, there was a brilliant speech by screenwriter Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who, Queer As Folk, The Second Coming) who was accepting the Inspiration Award. Essentially it was this: shout. Make your voices heard. 

It was a lovely evening, celebrating the hard work and dedication of the teams behind the films. All the films are definitely worth a watch. The English-language films will be broadcast on BBC Two Wales whilst the Welsh-language films will be shown on S4C in October. The English-language films will then be available via BBC iPlayer. More information can be found at the BBC It's My Shout website.

The broadcast schedule for the English-language films is as follows:

Dear Mr Ali: Monday 11th September 2017, 23:15

Two Player Games: Tuesday 12th September 2017, 23:15

HOME: Wednesday 13th September 2017, 23:15

Closure: Thursday 14th September 2017, 23:15

Rory Romantic: Friday 15th September 2017, 23:05

Packaged: Monday 18th September 2017, 23:15

Peggy: Tuesday 19th September 2017, 23:10

Congratulations to all the nominees and the winners! You should all be justifiably proud of your amazing achievements. 

If you're interested in finding out more about the scheme, check out the It's My Shout website.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming (UK Cert 12A)

Whilst the Marvel Cinematic Universe bestrides the cinematic landscape like some giant lycra-clad colossus, it's easy to forget that Marvel Studios don't actually have the rights to all their characters. The rights to several franchises/groups (such as Fantastic Four and X-Men) belong with other parties- it's why there was so much wrangling over the use of Quicksilver in both X-Men: Days Of Future Past and Avengers: Age Of Ultron, with there being so many rules as to what can be said/referenced and so on. 

So whilst Spider-Man is a Marvel creation (created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962), the cinematic rights are currently with Sony, whose head honcho Amy Pascal said in 2013 (prior to the release.of The Amazing Spider-Man 2) that Sony selling the rights back to Marvel Studios would 'never ever ever' happen. However in February 2015, Sony and Marvel Studios struck a deal to co-produce a new Spider-Man movie which would form part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as well as Spider-Man appearing in Captain America: Civil War

Fan speculation went into overdrive, especially when it was revealed there'd be new casting for Peter Parker. Would we be subjected to a THIRD version of the origin story in fifteen years? 

Luckily, not. Instead, we find Peter already comfortable with his powers, eager to be of more use to the Avengers whilst doing small-scale heroic acts in Queens. However, when he attempts to stop criminals pulling off a bank robbery (who are armed with technology which is definitely out of this world), our friendly neighbourhood webslinger discovers there's a very dangerous adversary behind it all. As if negotiating the difficulties of high school wasn't bad enough...

For a lot of previous MCU films, you can see that they're also riffing off a genre picture within the confines of a superhero movie (a paranoid political thriller, space opera, heist movie and so on). Spider-Man: Homecoming plays like a John Hughes teen movie- with added superheroes. 

It's also led from the front by a winning and utterly absorbing performance by Tom Holland (The Impossible, How I Live Now, Locke). Critics were fulsome in their praise of his short cameo in Captain America: Civil War- he was superb and was able to hold his own against the more established stars. In his own movie, he's given the room to expand that role and takes it with both hands. He's geeky, slightly awkward, bizarrely quite adorable. He has all the enthusiasm and warmth of an energetic puppy and you really feel for him as he struggles to stake his claim as a new Avenger.

The other school children are all strong too, with Jacob Batalon giving a star-making turn as Peter's equally geeky mate Ned who becomes Peter's 'guy in the chair' later on. Laura Harrier is excellent as Peter's crush Liz, and the burgeoning relationship between the two is quite lovely (there's also a killer twist later in the film which complicates things even further). Zendaya is also strong as school outcast/misfit Michelle, always ready with a sardonic quip or raised eyebrow. Finally, Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) plays school jerk Flash and adds a nice level of comic snark to it.

As for the adult cast, Michael Keaton is just superb (and not a little chilling) as Adrian Toomes a.k.a. The Vulture. Toomes originally helped cleaned up the Avengers' mess- literally, as a construction worker tasked with clearing the debris- but after being closed down by a shady government organisation with ties to Stark Industries, he decides to keep some of the alien technology he''s scavenged. There's an interesting socio-economic point to be made here- the rich get richer whilst the poorer get screwed- but thankfully it doesn't tubthump on it too much. The design of the Vulture costume is really cool as well. There's also a very interesting twist on the big hero-villain confrontation (before the final fight) which works really well. 

Robert Downey Jr is as good as you'd expect him to be as Spidey's reluctant mentor whilst Jon Favreau is also superb as Happy Hogan, acting as Peter's contact. I still can't quite get my head round Marisa Tomei being old enough to be Aunt May but, as Tom Holland is only in his early twenties, it fits. She's a warm presence, providing some stability for Peter. There's also a great voice performance by Jennifer Connelly as the AI in Spidey's new suit. Chris Evans pops up here and there in several slightly cringeworthy Captain America instructional videos for the children (and also provides a nice end-credits scene). 

Some of the action sequences are stunning, especially the attacks on the Washington Monument and the Staten Island Ferry (the latter teased in the trailers). The whole aesthetic of the film works really well. The script is nicely balanced between these big set-pieces and the quieter, smaller character moments. The humour is there and the characters feel authentic- often, high-school kids don't sound like high-school kids but here (mostly) they do. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming deserves credit for a lot of things. Firstly, that it isn't an origin movie. In fact, the whole circumstances of Peter's transformation are glossed over in a few sentences. Secondly, using The Vulture as the primary antagonist is a good move; whilst he is a well-known Spidey villain, they could have gone with someone better known (Doc Ock or Green Goblin for example). Thirdly, Uncle Ben is nowhere to be seen. There are a few oblique references to May 'going through' some stuff but- as they're not using the origin story template- we don't see that happening. Ultimately, they're not trying to reinvent the wheel but, by not using the standard tropes, there's a certain amount of originality in it. 

As a collaboration between studios, I think they can say Spider-Man: Homecoming ranks as a success (at the time of writing, it had made over $700 million at the box office). It'll be interesting to see whether this is a one-off or whether other non-Marvel studios will be interested in attempting a similar deal in the future. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Review: Dunkirk (UK Cert 12A)

The evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk in 1940 is one of the best known events of the Second World War (and notably one of the few which isn't a battle or a massacre). The Allied forces were cornered on the beaches at Dunkirk, awaiting evacuation, whilst German planes took out rescue convoys heading to help. In amongst all this, civilians who owned small boats sailed across the Channel to aid in the evacuation process. This extraordinary show of determination in the face of danger, and the willingness to help each other out in times of crisis, has even led to a phrase: the Dunkirk spirit.

Now, Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar) brings this story to the big screen. It's not the first film to deal with the event- there have been previous films in 1958 and 2004- but this is on a huge scale.  

Three separate storylines run through the film. On land, a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) must wait to be evacuated from the beach; at sea, an older man and his son (Mark Rylance and Tom Glynn-Carney) use their small craft to assist in the rescue mission; in the air, two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) seek to stop German planes from destroying the rescue convoy. 

My advice would be, see this in the cinema and see it on the biggest screen you can. You really get a sense of the vastness of the Dunkirk beach (kudos to director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema for some sterling work) which is just amazing. In the 2007 film Atonement, there's a beautiful eight minute unbroken tracking shot which follows Robbie round the beach. Imagine that but turned up to eleven and you've got the idea.

Performances are really solid across the board. There's been some canny casting with the soldiers- they all look very young. It's also a canny idea to give the lion's share of the action to new (or maybe less experienced) actors; both Fionn Whitehead (as Tommy) and Aneurin Barnard (as Gibson) are exception, especially Barnard whose performance- bar one very important line- is silent. Much was made of this film being Harry Styles' acting debut, and the One Direction singer acquits himself well in his role as a bolshy soldier. 

The more experienced cast are, as you would imagine, superb. Mark Rylance is great as Mr Dawson, a man who takes his own pleasure craft out to help the soldiers. He has such a magnetic quality to him, so much happens behind his eyes but you can't take your eyes off him whenever he's on screen. Kenneth Branagh is strong as the stoic Commander Bolton, determined to get his men to safety. Frequent Nolan collaborators Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy are similarly strong as a traumatised soldier and one of the RAF pilots accordingly, and there's even a lovely uncredited cameo by Michael Caine.  

This is not a film of earnest speechifying; in fact, there's not a great deal of dialogue throughout (the script itself ran to approximately 85 pages). Visuals and sound are used instead. There are some very tense moments, such as Tommy's run through the deserted town before he gets to the beach, and the struggle of one of the pilots to get out of his downed plane (which had me absolutely squirming). The sound design of the film is superb with every whistle, shot, and ricochet clear and crisp. I've already praised Van Hoytema's cinematography and Hans Zimmer's music is superb. He uses themes from Elgar's Enigma Variations (especially the famous 'Nimrod' at one pivotal moment) to stirring effect and- whilst it is unashamed emotional manipulation- you can't help but get swept up in that moment.

Because of the kind of film Dunkirk is, it's difficult to say I enjoyed it (much as in the same way, I can't say I enjoyed Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List). I very much admire the film and I think it's a film that a lot of people should see. It's still quite some months away but I would be surprised if Dunkirk doesn't get a lot of love in the 2018 awards season.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Monday, 24 July 2017

News From Comic-Con 2017

It wouldn't be July without a round-up of some of the big and interesting news coming out of this year's San Diego Comic-Con. Running from July 20th-23rd, it showcased some of the big upcoming events in the world of TV, film and entertainment.

At the DC Panel, the first order of business was an absolutely kickass new poster for Justice League, followed by an equally kickass new trailer:

It was announced that the upcoming Flash movie will now be called Flashpoint and will be based on Geoff Johns' 2011 comic book series which sees major repercussions in the DC universe due to Barry Allen saving his mother from being killed. This is a very interesting and quite ballsy move which will allow them to essentially press the reset button on DCEU so far (if they want to).  

Both Suicide Squad 2 and Shazam (without Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam) are due to start filming next year, whilst Joss Whedon will also start working on his Batgirl project in 2018 as well. Wonder Woman 2 is confirmed, with Geoff Johns already working on the script. Justice League Dark, Green Lantern Corps and The Batman (which WILL feature Ben Affleck as Batman, despite rumours to the contrary) make up the roster of DCEU films so far. 

There was no mention of the standalone Cyborg movie, Man Of Steel 2, Nightwing or Gotham City Sirens (the Harley Quinn/female villain spinoff) but there was new footage shown from Aquaman.

Marvel released several new posters, trailers, and pieces of concept art. The official poster and trailer for Thor: Ragnarok was dropped and looking absolutely epic:

New footage was also shown from Black Panther, featuring T'Challa and two of the Dora Milaje spying on someone in a casino. The footage also showed villains Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in action. There was also a new teaser poster:

As well as a new teaser poster, several new cast members for Ant-Man And The Wasp were revealed. Joining Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, and Michael Douglas in the Ant-Man sequel will be Walton Goggins as Sonny Burch, Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost, Randall Park as Agent Jimmy Woo, Laurence Fishburne as Bill Foster/Giant-Man and erstwhile Catwoman Michelle Pfeiffer as Janet Van Dyne (Hank Pym's wife and the original Wasp). 

It's also been revealed that Captain Marvel will be set in the early 1990s (before the events of Iron Man). Samuel L. Jackson will be returning to the MCU as Nick Fury- but will be without the iconic eyepatch, as Fury still has both eyes at this point. It's also been revealed that Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) will be facing off against the Skrulls- an evil galactic race of shapeshifters.

There was no new footage from Avengers: Infinity War but the footage shown at the recent Disney D23 event was given another airing- to a rapturous reception. The footage has yet to be released officially (and we'll probably need to wait until Thor: Ragnarok for that). Although there is an interesting new three-part poster to advertise Infinity War which shows most of the heroes:

Away from the comic book franchises, there were new trailers for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 (with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Rick Deckard, alongside Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto), Steven Spielberg's hotly-anticipated adaptation of Ernest Cline's cult novel Ready Player One, the remake of The Watcher In The Woods, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Jigsaw (previously titled Saw: Legacy) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle:

In TV news, there were panels for The Walking Dead, Marvel's The Defenders (which featured a surprise appearance by Sigourney Weaver), Twin Peaks, Game Of Thrones, Westworld, Stranger Things, and Battlestar Galactica among others. At the Doctor Who panel, it was announced that Mark Gatiss will appear in the upcoming Christmas special (which will be both Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi's final episode) with a superb trailer dropping shortly after which confirms the episode title as the rather magical Twice Upon A Time. 

There was also a special panel to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Yep. 20 years. Makes you feel old, doesn't it? OK, maybe just me.

So, as usual, a lot of exciting stuff coming our way in the next year or so!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Graduate (1967)

On tour around the UK at the moment is a stage version of The Graduate. The film itself celebrates its golden anniversary this year, so it seems timely to take a look back at the film. 

Based on the 1963 novella of the same name by Charles Webb, it's the story of Benjamin Braddock, a young man who has just finished college and is looking for a direction in life. Into his life comes Mrs. Robinson, an older woman who is the bored and neglected wife of one of Benjamin's father's work colleagues. Despite the age difference- she is twice as old as him- Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson start an affair. However things become complicated when it is suggested that Benjamin dates Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine.

Working from a script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, The Graduate was director Mike Nichols' second feature film (his first was the searing Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?). The cast- featuring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft- have become indelibly linked with these characters, although the end result could have been quite different. 

The Graduate is Dustin Hoffman's second film role and he's great as the nebbishy unfocused Benjamin, literally drifting through his life. Apparently, Hoffman's audition didn't go very well; one of the producers thought he was a messenger boy! He was asked to perform a love scene with Katharine Ross (who plays Elaine Robinson) but had never done one before, and later said 'a girl like her would never go for a guy like me in a million years.' Despite this disastrous start, Nichols saw something in the performance that convinced him Hoffman was right for the part. Warren Beatty and Robert Redford were among the top choices for the role of Benjamin, although Beatty turned the film down due to his filming commitments with Bonnie And Clyde (and that's not the only time you'll hear that particular reason for someone not being cast). Nichols felt that Redford didn't possess the underdog quality he was looking for in Benjamin; when Nichols asked Redford had he ever 'struck out with a girl', Redford responded 'what do you mean?' (let's face it, Redford- with his stereotypical movie-star looks- could have had his pick of women). Robert Duvall, Steve McQueen, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Perkins, Gene Wilder, Albert Finney and Brandon DeWilde were all considered, whilst Charles Grodin turned the role down due to financial considerations, and Burt Ward (then playing Robin in the Batman TV series) had to pass due to his filming commitments. 

As the sultry Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft absolutely shines. You do have to wonder how much Bancroft's amazing performance led to the fact that 'Mrs. Robinson' has now passed into common lexicon for an older woman who is involved with a younger man (and it's so much nicer a term than 'cougar'). Bancroft plays Mrs. Robinson as a woman angry with herself for giving up on her own passions and desires (her interest in art, for instance) to marry a man who is wealthy and will provide security. Sure, she has the trappings of wealth- but she's lonely, bored and aching to be loved. It's only at the end that she becomes a villain, forcing Elaine into marriage, but it's a beautifully nuanced performance throughout. And despite the age difference in the script (Mrs. Robinson is meant to be in her mid-forties with Benjamin turning 21 shortly), Bancroft was 36 and Hoffman was 29 at the time of filming! Rumours persist that Doris Day was Nichols' original choice for Mrs. Robinson- she was approached but turned the role down due to the nudity involved. Nichols' actual first choice was the French actress Jeanne Moreau (as, in French culture, it is often an older woman who 'train' younger men in matters of sex) but the producers baulked at this idea. A veritable Who's Who of 1960s Hollywood were either considered or expressed interest in the role- Joan Crawford, Geraldine Page, Patricia Neal, Grayson Hall,  Lauren Bacall, Lana Turner, Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Angela Lansbury, Simone Signoret, and Audrey Hepburn all enquired about or were considered for the role. Ava Gardner reportedly petitioned for the role and met with Nichols in her hotel room, only to tell him 'first of all, I strip for nobody!'

Whilst Bancroft and Hoffman get the lion's share of the attention, it means that Katharine Ross' lovely supporting turn as Elaine gets overlooked- and that is a shame. By turns vulnerable, confused, torn, forthright and determined, Elaine becomes more than a match for Benjamin- much to her mother's disapproval. Aside from Ross, there were several actresses considered: Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Natalie Wood and Patty Duke all turned the role down as did Faye Dunaway (due to her commitments with Bonnie And Clyde). Candice Bergen screentested for the role (opposite Robert Redford), as did Jane Fonda and Goldie Hawn, whilst Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Hayley Mills, Lee Remick, Julie Christie, and Tuesday Weld were all considered before Ross was cast.

In the role of Mr. Robinson, Gene Hackman was originally cast but replaced just before filming began as it was felt he was too young; this meant he could take a role in Bonnie And Clyde (which garnered him his first Oscar nomination) instead. Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Jack Palance, Frank Sinatra, and Walter Matthau were all considered before Murray Hamilton was cast. For Benjamin's parents, Susan Hayward was considered for Mrs. Braddock but the role was given to Elizabeth Wilson; whilst Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Robert Mitchum, Karl Malden, Christopher Plummer and Ronald Reagan were considered for Mr. Braddock, with the role going to William Daniels. 

One of the many iconic things about the film is the soundtrack which utilises several songs from Simon & Garfunkel, including the mournful 'The Sound Of Silence' and the exuberant 'Mrs. Robinson' (changed from Simon's original 'Mrs. Roosevelt'). Initially, 'The Sound Of Silence' was only used as a pacing device for the edit before Nichols realised that it worked really well and captured the mood he was after. The soundtrack album reached the top of the charts in 1968.

Leslie Caron presenting Mike Nichols with his Oscar
The film was lauded at the 1968 awards season. Despite being nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Actor for Hoffman, Best Actress for Bancroft, and Best Supporting Actress for Ross) it won one- Mike Nichols for Best Director. Nichols also won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the Directors' Guild Award. To date, it is the only film to win Best Director and no other award. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture- Musical or Comedy (although I take issue that it can be considered a comedy; for me, it's much more of a drama) and the BAFTA for Best Film. Willingham and Henry's script won the Writers' Guild Award and the BAFTA, whilst also being nominated for the Golden Globe. Hoffman won both the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer (and was nominated for the Best Actor- Musical or Comedy Golden Globe) whilst Bancroft won the Best Actress- Musical or Comedy Golden Globe and was nominated for the Best Actress BAFTA, and Ross won the Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe and was nominated for the same award at the BAFTAs. The soundtrack also won a Grammy. 

In 1996, The Graduate was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress as part of the National Film Registry. This honour is given to 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films' and The Graduate is indeed culturally and historically significant. Cinema in the 1960s started to look at more social and societal issues. Alongside The Graduate at the 1968 Oscars, the other Best Picture nominees featured Bonnie And Clyde, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and In The Heat Of The Night (the eventual winner)- films that look at issues of race and gender and American society at large. The other film was Doctor Doolittle, which shows there's still always space for cosy escapism.

If you've never seen The Graduate, it's definitely worth a look. A great soundtrack, superb performances and expertly directed. Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson!

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Review: Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (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.

It's been six years since On Stranger Tides but the next instalment in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise is finally here. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki), Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush return with newcomers Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario and Javier Bardem as part of the main cast.

Henry Turner, seeking to break his father's curse and free him from The Flying Dutchman, is looking for the Trident of Poseidon. He enlists the help of the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow who is up to no good in St Martin. Along the way, they meet astronomer Carina who is in possession of a diary that might just help him. However, there's a dark force chasing them- the ghost ship of the fearsome Captain Armando Salazar who has a bone to pick with Jack...

It's a minor point perhaps but I can't see any good reason at all for changing the subtitle from Dead Men Tell No Tales. If anything, that's a better title and actually fits in to the Pirates mythology (it's a line that can be heard on the ride). But, for whatever reason, it's Salazar's Revenge in the UK.

Usually by the fifth instalment of a franchise, things get a bit stale and a bit staid, it's all just variations on a theme. Salazar's Revenge has got the same sense of fun as The Curse Of The Black Pearl; a supremely silly but thoroughly enjoyable romp.

Johnny Depp camps it up something fierce as Jack Sparrow. He's been playing this role for the best part of 15 years now so knows it like the back of his hand. He's full of swagger and charisma as usual and the writers have cannily decided to almost have him as a supporting character (this is by no means the Captain Jack show). He's responsible for a lot of the humour in the film- although not all- and it's a real moment of cheer when he finally takes charge of the Black Pearl again.

Geoffrey Rush is as good as always as Captain Hector Barbossa, who starts off as King of the Seas but finds his position diminished by Salazar's vendetta against pirates. Forced into a series of uneasy alliances and accords, Barbossa also has to deal with a few ghosts of his own past. Orlando Bloom hasn't got a lot of screen time but has a decent cameo role which book-ends the film nicely and there's a nice surprise appearance from another old face which is another punch-the-air moment.

Of the new cast, Kaya Scodelario really impresses as Carina. She's strong, forthright, a little stubborn, fiercely intelligent and certainly no passive maiden. She holds the key to finding the island where the Trident is hidden and her intellect marks her out. Indeed, when she's first seen, she's about to be executed for witchcraft, despite being a woman of science (which amounted to the same thing in the 18th century). Her outlook is changed when she comes face to face with the worlds of ghosts and monsters but is still an enquiring mind. In a summer of films with kickass female leads, Carina Smyth is a great addition to that roster.

Surrounded by the charisma of Depp and the strength of Scodelario, sadly Brenton Thwaites can't help but come across as a little bland and a little wooden in comparison (then again, the same argument can be made for Orlando Bloom in the original trilogy). It's not that his performance is bad per se, but it's just not strong and suffers in comparison with those around it. He also doesn't have as much in way of character as the others: Henry is an earnest young man, who knows the legends of the sea and wants his father back. That's all well and good but that's it. A shame he couldn't have been more developed.

Javier Bardem starts off with the right amount of menace as the undead Salazar but becomes more and more unhinged (and therefore less menacing) as the film goes on. By the end, he's a goggle-eyed panto villain rather than the threat he started as. There's solid support as always by Kevin McNally as Jack's right-hand man Gibbs and there's an absolutely wonderful cameo appearance by Paul McCartney as Jack's uncle- he gets a good few jokes and adds a real moment of humour.

Visually, it's pretty good, although I did find the visual effects on Salazar a little disorienting at the beginning- my brain was having problems processing what was going on with his face. The zombie shark attack is probably the highlight, whilst the chase through St Martin after the bank robbery kicks things off in top gear. Although, some bits are very dark- as in, not clear what's really happening due to lack of light (specifically the scenes in the Devil's Triangle).

I'll be honest, Salazar's Revenge wasn't high on my list of must-see summer blockbusters. In fact, my attitude to it was much the same as that for The Curse Of The Black Pearl- 'I'll give it a punt if there's nothing else on that I fancy'. But I'm glad I went to see it. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I was going to. It's breezy, light and fun.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

Last week, the first trailer for the new version of Murder On The Orient Express was released. Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, the cast also includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Johnny Depp. 

However, it is not the first film adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel. There was a version released in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet, which was the first of the all-star Christie adaptations of the 1970s and 1980s.

December 1935. The famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is travelling from Istanbul to England aboard the Orient Express. He is berthed in the Calais coach and is approached by an American businessman, Samuel Ratchett, to provide protection for him; Ratchett has been receiving death threats. Poirot turns the offer down. Later that night, the train is stuck in a snowdrift whilst travelling through Yugoslavia. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead, stabbed to death multiple times during the night.

But who did it? Was it the American widow? The Swedish missionary? Could it have been the Russian princess, or her faithful ladies' maid? How about Ratchett's secretary, or the English teacher? The Scottish soldier or the French conductor? The American businessman or the Italian car salesman? Maybe it was the Hungarian count or his wife? Or- in the best traditions of crime novels- did the butler do it? 

With so many suspects and only a short amount of time before the Yugoslav authorities arrive, Poirot must follow the clues, interview the suspects, exercise his little grey cells and find out who the killer is...

The suspects - but whodunnit?
Christie's novel was originally published in 1934 and is one of her most famous, as much for the solution to the murder as the story itself. It makes the most of its enclosed setting, has some interesting red herrings and is a masterpiece of plotting. Paul Dehn's screenplay (with uncredited work by Anthony Shaffer) maintains this intricacy.

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot
Albert Finney plays Poirot here, the first and (so far) only time he's played the role. His performance is very different from that of Peter Ustinov or David Suchet; Finney seems to play up the bon vivant side to Poirot's nature and there seems very little of the moral dilemma which Poirot finds himself in at the end of the story (although that could be a scripting issue). Considering Finney wasn't the first choice to play Poirot- the role was originally offered first to Alec Guinness and then to Paul Scofield, both of whom were unavailable- he gives a strong performance throughout, especially during the summation where he reveals the identity of the murderer. Finney was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role, although lost to Art Carney for Harry And Tonto.

Lauren Bacall as Mrs Hubbard
The rest of the cast are superb, with particular stand-out performances by Lauren Bacall as the garrulous widow Mrs Hubbard, John Gielgud who puts in a stiff upper lip as Ratchett's valet Beddoes, and Anthony Perkins as the nervous secretary Hector McQueen. There's a lovely turn by Vanessa Redgrave as teacher Mary Debenham, who coolly responds to Poirot's questioning, and Sean Connery is strong as the taciturn Colonel Arbuthnot. Ingrid Bergman gives a nice performance as the slightly scatty missionary Greta Ohlsson, while Wendy Hiller and Rachel Roberts make a formidable duo as the Princess Dragomiroff and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt. Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset round off the main cast nicely as the fiery Count Andrenyi and the quiet Countess, whilst Richard Widmark gives an air of oily charm as the doomed Ratchett.

Murder On The Orient Express was nominated for six Oscars (including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Original Score), winning one: Best Supporting Actress for Ingrid Bergman. Bergman also won the Best Supporting Actress BAFTA for her role, whilst John Gielgud won the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA.

Ingrid Bergman with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar
Agatha Christie had been reportedly unimpressed by previous attempts to adapt her novels- there had been a few adaptations of And Then There Were None, the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films, and The Alphabet Murders with Tony Randall as Poirot- and she had initially refused to sell the film rights to any more of her novels. She was persuaded by Nat Coleman (chairman of EMI) and Lord Louis Mountbatten (father-in-law of producer John Brabourne) to allow them to film Murder On The Orient Express.

Christie attended the premiere in November 1974 (on what would be her final public appearance before her death in January 1976) and it was the only film adaptation released in her lifetime that she was completely satisfied with. She particularly liked Finney's performance as Poirot, saying it came closest to her idea of the Belgian detective- although she did say that she was a little disappointed with the moustache! (I wonder what she'd make of Branagh's comedy walrus moustache in this new version!)

Dame Agatha Christie meets Queen Elizabeth II at the Murder On The Orient Express premiere
So if you need a recommendation to see this film, you can do worse than the author's own seal of approval. It's a classy, elegant adaptation of a superb novel and expertly acted by a stellar cast. Branagh's got some way to go to match the excellence of this film.


Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Review: Wonder Woman (UK Cert 12A)

After the disappointment of Suicide Squad (and the critical drubbing that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice got, despite phenomenal box-office receipts), there was a lot of pressure on Wonder Woman to be the film that turns the corner for the DC Extended Universe. Early reviews were fulsome in their praise and the hype-wagon started to roll. But is it as good as everyone is saying it is?

Yes. Yes, it damn well is.

For me, it's easily the best DCEU film so far- head and shoulders above the rest.

It's kind of an origin story, showing the Amazonian princess growing up on the idyllic female-only island of Themyscira. When an American pilot, Steve Trevor, crash-lands off the coast, Diana saves him... which brings the horrors of the First World War to the island. Distressed but determined to end war as we know it, Diana accompanies Steve to London and then to the Front in search of the errant God of War, Ares.

Patty Jenkins' last feature film was the harrowing Monster (2003), in which she directed Charlize Theron in an Oscar-winning performance. Since then, she has directed episodes of TV shows and was originally attached to direct Thor: The Dark World although left the project due to creative differences (she had one vision for the film, Marvel had a different one and never the twain shall meet). Marvel missed a trick, frankly. Jenkins' direction is superb. She elicits brilliant performances from her whole cast and clearly has a good eye for an action sequence (although she's not from an action background).

The script, by Allan Heinberg (from a story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs), is coherent and well-structured. It isn't just a superhero movie. It plays on elements of war films, innocents-abroad comedy, romance, and blends them together well. There are a few missteps along the way but it really shows the importance of having a solid foundation for your film.

For me, Gal Gadot was one of the highlights of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. She was graceful, charming and added some much-needed levity to proceedings. Here, she's superb. Diana's naivete and optimistic world view could have felt twee or Pollyanna-ish, but Gadot never plays the wide-eyed innocent too broadly. She's strong enough to walk into a council meeting full of men and say her piece. She's smart enough to decode Doctor Poison's encrypted notebook. She also gets a very defined character arc as the scales fall from her eyes and she realises the evil that men do. One scene, in a gassed village, is done entirely without dialogue but you can see the emotions clearly passing over her face. The other refreshing thing- and it may be because there's a female director at the helm, I don't know- but, whilst Gadot is a stunningly beautiful woman, she is never objectified or sexualised; the camera never lingers longingly on her. It's an assured and strong leading performance.

Chris Pine has the acting chops to be a leading man (his work in the Star Trek films shows that) but, here, he never steals the limelight from Gadot. They're equals throughout. He's boyish, charming, and handsome- and there's a lovely subversion of the usual tropes when he is made the object of desire and the object of the gaze when Diana interrupts him in the bath. There's a real chemistry between Pine and Gadot which adds an authenticity to their scenes; you truly believe that they are falling in love.

Of the supporting cast, Robin Wright is impressive as Amazonian general Antiope, kicking ass and taking names, whilst Connie Nielsen is suitably regal as Diana's mother Queen Hippolyta. Lucy Davis is used sparingly but to good effect as Steve's secretary Etta Candy, not just a comic relief character. David Thewlis is strong in his role as Sir Patrick Morgan whilst Danny Huston is menacing as German general Ludendorff. Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock are great as the band of soldiers who help Diana and Steve stop the plan.

Visually the film is very different to other DCEU films. There's a lot more light, to begin with. The opening scenes on Themyscira look beautiful- it's a literal paradise- which contrasts nicely with the mud and the squalour of the trenches later in the film. Matthew Jensen's cinematography is superb throughout. There are so many brilliantly shot sequences, but the standout must be Diana's walk across No Man's Land (the first time you see her in full costume). It is superb. Rupert Gregson-Williams' music is also great and Wonder Woman's absolutely electrifying theme (with the kickass electric violin) isn't overused but gave me a chill every time it was on.

That's not to say this film is perfect. The final boss fight between Diana and Ares lapses in the CGI-tastic destruction that blighted the end of the other DCEU films which is a shame as, up until this point, the action sequences were beautifully choreographed and were almost balletic, especially the Amazons facing off against the German soldiers on the beach at Themyscira. It's also a shame that, in a film full of strong female characters, the female villain- Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya)- felt undercooked.

Despite impressions to the contrary, I've taken no pleasure in criticising the previous DCEU films. I've wanted them to be good, better than good. I've wanted them to be an equal to the Marvel films. Wonder Woman is. Now the important thing for DCEU is to capitalise on this momentum and knock our socks off with the upcoming Justice League movie.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5