The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Review: Hell Or High Water (UK Cert 15)

A surprise inclusion for the Best Picture Oscar, Hell Or High Water is a crime thriller-cum-Western, written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe, Starred Up)

Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard are robbing banks. But not just any banks; they're only targeting branches of Texas Midland Bank. And they're not taking anything from the customers or the tellers; they're taking money from the banks themselves. After two robberies- where very little money has actually been stolen- Ranger Marcus Hamilton and his deputy Alberto Parker are handed the case. But why these branches? Why so little money? Where will they hit next? And can Hamilton and Parker stop them before they do?

Hell Or High Water is a bit of an odd fish, to be fair. It's part Western, part heist movie, part thriller, part social commentary, part action. Yet from this Frankenstein's Monster patchwork comes a thoughtful, well-made film that neatly balances the different genres into a mostly cohesive whole. The social commentary is nicely underplayed (no tubthumping here) whilst the Western setting is used to good effect. 

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the Howard brothers, with Pine as the sensible, stoic Toby and Foster as the wilder, unpredictable Tanner. The camaraderie between the two is nice to see, and really helps to sell the family relationship. While Foster gets the more showy role (and excels at it), Pine gives a nuanced and restrained performance which is all the more powerful in relief to Foster's exuberance. Jeff Bridges is superb in his supporting role as the grizzled and curmudgeonly Hamilton, also forming a nice partnership with Gil Birmingham (who plays Parker). Hamilton is a grumpy old man, but still has an incisive and analytical mind- indeed, at one point, he works out the brothers' next move before they decide themselves. 

The film has been very well cast, even down to minor roles such as an old man in one of the first banks the brothers rob (Buck Taylor) and a hard-ass waitress at a T-Bone steak restaurant (Margaret Bowman). These minor characters not only add some levity to proceedings but really help to give the flavour of the Texan towns they're set in. 

The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens is particularly good, making the most of the impressive landscapes of New Mexico (doubling for Texas). The film also has a superb soundtrack- including original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis- but also using existing songs by Waylon Jennings, Scott H. Biram, Gillian Welch and Chris Stapleton to provide an evocative soundscape that really enhances the film.

I originally wanted to see the film when it was released in cinemas back in September but didn't get the chance. I picked it up on DVD and I'm glad I did. A solid, decent film.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Review: Moonlight (UK Cert 15)

A touching, tender, coming-of-age story, Moonlight tells the story of a young black man growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Miami.

A timid, meek boy, neglected by his drug addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron (Alex Hibbert) finds an unlikely mentor and father figure in local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Later, as a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) comes to terms with his sexuality after an emotionally charged encounter with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Ten years later, a now adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (Andre Holland) meet again as adults to discuss the past.

It's based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (which is also a line in the film). McCraney receives a story credit whilst director Barry Jenkins is also credited as screenwriter. The film is structured much like a three-act play with each section focusing on a different part of Chiron's life. 

The three actors playing Chiron- Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes- all have different challenges but all three are superb. Hibbert's innocence and quietness (he hardly speaks in the first ten minutes of the film) is a lovely complement to Sanders' sensitivity and Rhodes' laconic toughness. As the teenage Chiron, Sanders probably has the most meaty part of the film (the scenes of bullying are tough to watch and the encounter between Chiron and Kevin on the beach is breathtakingly erotic without being explicit) but there's a raw honesty in all three actors which really helps the audience get behind the character.  

Ali and Harris have been the actors most recognised for their roles, and with good reason. Ali gives a real warmth to his performance as Juan. Eschewing traditional drug-dealer stereotypes, his almost paternal care for the young Chiron is touching (none more so in the scene where he teaches Chiron to swim). He's also refreshingly progressive- explaining to Chiron that a homophobic slur is 'used to make gay people feel bad', rather than reinforcing it. But at the end of the day, he is no saint and is complicit in Paula's drug use. The film does lose a certain amount of warmth after Juan's departure (he only appears in the first section). However, Janelle Monae proves that her strong supporting turn in Hidden Figures isn't a one-off as she gives a warm and nurturing performance as Juan's girlfriend Teresa (who provides security for Chiron as a child and teenager).

Harris' performance will stay with you long after the film has ended. Paula is selfish, emotionally abusive, neglectful; by rights, you should hate her. But rather than hatred, I felt a strange kind of sympathy for- or maybe empathy with- her (especially in the last third of the film, when the now adult Chiron visits her in a rehabilitation centre). She is the only actress who appears in all three sections of the film and she gives an authentic and emotionally honest performance.

Technically, it's pretty good (although some of the camera-work is a little jolty). It doesn't overdo any of the visual metaphors which is good and the film stays mostly to the right side of pretentious. The score by Nicholas Britell is also worth a mention as it's sublime.

Whilst I don't agree with the ghettoisation of film (labelling it 'a black film' or 'a gay film'; film's film and that's that as far as I'm concerned), Moonlight neatly defies easy categorisation and provides an honest and powerful experience.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Review: Fences (UK Cert 12A)

Originally written by August Wilson in 1983, Fences won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tonys (including Best Play) for its initial production. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis appeared in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, both winning Tonys for their performances. The two actors are reunited for this film version, with Washington pulling double duty as director too.

Troy Maxson (Washington) is a former baseball star in Pittsburgh. Whilst an exceptional player in the Negro League, Troy never made it to the Major Leagues (which he ascribes to racism). Now hauling trash for a living, he struggles to provide for his family. Rose (Davis) has asked Troy to put a fence up in the garden and Troy has co-opted youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to help. Cory has the opportunity for a college football scholarship, which puts him on a collision course with his father.

Washington is exceptional in the lead role of Troy. Full of bluster, regret, indignation, the role of Troy is a real challenge and Washington handles it with aplomb. Wilson's dialogue is dense. Really baroque, without being flowery (I can imagine massive blocks of text on a page). Washington handles these with ease. You might not always like Troy as a character- his treatment of Cory has as much to do with jealousy than wanting to protect his child- but it's a truly brilliant performance. 

Frankly, if Viola Davis doesn't win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Rose, then it'll be the biggest Oscar robbery since Brokeback Mountain not winning Best Picture (no, I'm still not over it). She is simply superb in every scene. A woman who is fiercely protective of her kin but no pushover, she is the force that binds the family together as it threatens to tear apart. It's a really meaty role which Davis- exceptional actress that she is- plays to the hilt. When Rose finally gets to call Troy out, Davis channels a fury and a rage that is quite literally breathtaking. The tsunami of emotion erupts and it is just superb.

When you have two towering performances in the leads, everyone else needs to up their game. And they do. Adepo is wonderful as Cory, wanting to step out from under his father's shadow and forge his own way in the world. There's a lovely turn by Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy's friend, co-worker and confidante Jim Bono and by Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Troy's son from a previous relationship. A musician, Lyons- like Cory- wants his father to be proud of him.

Finally, Mykelti Williamson is heartbreaking as Troy's brother Gabe. An ex-soldier, brain-damaged during World War II and now constantly under the threat of being institutionalised for causing public disturbances, Gabe's compensation money provides the roof over Troy's head. Child-like, innocent and unworldly, Gabe is now a soldier for St Peter (Judgement Day is a constant theme). There's also a touching turn by Saniyya Sidney towards the end of the film but to discuss her role would be a massive spoiler.

Wilson completed the screenplay before his death in 2005 and it is (I imagine) a very faithful adaptation of the stage play. But that is the main failing of the film: it feels like watching a live broadcast of a performance rather than a film. Confining the majority of the action to the backyard and the kitchen robs the film of scope, and also the opportunity to see other characters rather than just hear about them. We could have seen Bono's wife Lucille, or sat in on Troy's meeting with the commissioner, maybe seen Miss Pearl and Gabe in her house. It would have made the film more alive in a way.

Sometimes I will recommend a film because of its performances, not necessarily because of the film itself. If you want to see an absolute masterclass of acting, see Fences. There's not a bad performance in the bunch. In fact, this is one of the strongest ensemble casts I've seen in film for a good long while.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Monday, 20 February 2017

Awards Season 2017: Writers' Guild Awards Winners

Just a quick update today as The Writers' Guild Awards were handed out yesterday (Sunday 19th February).

The film winners were:

Original Screenplay: Moonlight

Adapted Screenplay: Arrival

Documentary Screenplay: Command And Control

The Oscars have put Moonlight in the Adapted Screenplay category (as it's based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who gets a story credit with Jenkins credited for the screenplay). Under the WGA rules, because McCraney's play was unproduced, Jenkins is credited as sole screenwriter. 

Either way, the two WGA winners will go head to head in the Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars with 20th Century Women, La La Land, Manchester By The Sea, The Lobster and Hell Or High Water in contention for Original Screenplay.

For anyone interested, Command And Control is a documentary about the near launch of a nuclear missile from Arkansas in the 1980s. So now you know. 

And now the end is near... Awards Season comes to a head this coming weekend with the Razzies and the Independent Spirit Awards being handed out on Saturday (25th February) with the 89th Academy Awards rounding things off on Sunday (26th February). 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Awards Season 2017: BAFTA Film Awards Winners

Tonight (Sunday 12th February), at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the 70th British Academy Film Awards were given out in a star-studded ceremony hosted once again by the utterly luminous Stephen Fry. Viola Davis, Amy Adams, Naomie Harris, Eddie Redmayne, Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Ken Loach, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Emma Stone were among some of the stars in attendance to celebrate the best in film.

Here's a full list of BAFTA winners:

Best Film: La La Land

Outstanding British Film: I, Daniel Blake

Leading Actor: Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea)

Leading Actress: Emma Stone (La La Land)

Supporting Actor: Dev Patel (Lion)

Supporting Actress: Viola Davis (Fences)

Director: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Original Screenplay: Manchester By The Sea

Adapted Screenplay: Lion

Outstanding Debut By A British Writer, Director Or Producer: Babak Arivari (writer/director), Emily Leo, Oliver Roskill, Lucan Toh (producers of Under The Shadow)

Animated Film: Kubo And The Two Strings

Documentary: 13th

Film Not In The English Language: Son Of Saul

Cinematography: La La Land

Costume Design: Jackie

Editing: Hacksaw Ridge

Make Up And Hair: Florence Foster Jenkins

Original Music: La La Land

Production Design: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Sound: Arrival

Special Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Short Animation: A Love Story

Short Film: Home

Rising Star: Tom Holland

Outstanding British Contribution To Cinema: Curzon Cinemas

BAFTA Fellowship: Mel Brooks

The first award of the evening was Outstanding British Film which, unsurprisingly and deservedly, went to I, Daniel Blake. Ken Loach's acceptance speech set the tenor for the rest of the evening- many of the acceptance speeches were political in nature, either pointing out the common humanity within creative arts or criticising policies made both here and overseas. 

I was a little surprised by Emma Stone and Dev Patel winning but it's nice to see something a bit different to the usual. Hence, it was quite lovely to see Kubo And The Two Strings win Animated Film over the juggernaut that has been Zootopia

La La Land was the big winner of the evening with five BAFTAs, Lion and Manchester By The Sea each had two. Despite nine nominations, Nocturnal Animals walked away empty-handed, as did Moonlight

So next in awards season will be the Writers' Guild Awards which will be handed out next Sunday (19th February), just one week before the Oscars. There'll be a small post about it on Monday 20th, ahead of what's going to be a busy week.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Countdown: 10 Oscar-Nominated Actors Who Have Appeared In Doctor Who

Few television shows are as iconic or as culturally dominant as Doctor Who. Even if you're not a fan, you know about the TARDIS, the Daleks, K9. Its influence is felt all over the world and- much like the Harry Potter franchise- it's seen as a bit of a mark of street cred to appear in it. This goes for actors just starting in their careers as well as established stars.

So, here are ten Oscar-nominated actors that have appeared in Doctor Who. They are listed in the order in which they appeared on the show.

1. Pauline Collins

Pauline Collins is not only one of a small group of Oscar nominees who have appeared in Doctor Who, but she's also one of a small group of actors who have appeared in both the classic and revived series too. She played Samantha Briggs in the Patrick Troughton story The Faceless Ones and then appeared as Queen Victoria opposite David Tennant in Tooth And Claw. She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Shirley Valentine.

2. Richard Todd

Todd's Oscar nomination came in 1950 for his lead role in The Hasty Heart. It would be more than 30 years later before he would appear in Doctor Who, appearing as Sanders in the rather trippy and philosophical Peter Davison story Kinda.

3. Eric Roberts

Few roles in Doctor Who are as iconic as the Doctor's nemesis, The Master. Roberts (nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Runaway Train) took the role in the 1996 TV Movie opposite Paul McGann. He doesn't quite fit the role but seems to be having an absolute ball, especially with lines as camp as 'I always dress for the occasion'.

4. Andrew Garfield

One of this year's Best Actor nominees for his stunning turn in Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield appeared as Frank in the 2007 two-part story Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks.

5. Carey Mulligan

The 2007 episode Blink (which introduces the Weeping Angels) is widely thought of as one of the best episodes of the revived series. That's in no short measure to the brilliant performance by Carey Mulligan as substitute companion Sally Sparrow. Mulligan would go on to be nominated for Best Actress for her role in An Education.

6. Felicity Jones

Eight years before her Best Actress nomination for playing Jane Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, Felicity appeared as socialite-with-a-secret Robina Redmond in the very fun Agatha Christie inspired episode The Unicorn And The Wasp.

7. Sophie Okonedo

Sophie Okonedo was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Hotel Rwanda. She played kick-ass future monarch Liz Ten in The Beast Below (Matt Smith's second story as the Doctor). Whilst it's not very good, Okonedo is excellent. She reprises her role in a later episode, The Pandorica Opens.

8. Imelda Staunton

Imelda Staunton was nominated for Best Actress for her role in Vera Drake in 2005 (the same year as Sophie Okonedo). In 2011, she appeared as the Voice of the Interface in the Matt Smith story The Girl Who Waited. Her soothing tones help companion Amy Pond survive alone on an alien planet.

9. Ian McKellen

Acting legend Sir Ian McKellen has been nominated for two Oscars: Best Actor for playing film director James Whale in Gods And Monsters and Best Supporting Actor for playing Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring. In 2012, he provided the Voice of the Great Intelligence in the Christmas special The Snowmen.

10. John Hurt

The late, great John Hurt was nominated for two Oscars- for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Midnight Express and Best Actor for The Elephant Man. In 2013, he appeared as The War Doctor, a previously hidden incarnation of the Time Lord, for the 50th anniversary story The Day Of The Doctor and went on to reprise his role for audio dramas for Big Finish.

BONUS: Peter Capaldi

The incumbent Time Lord- who will sadly be leaving the series at the end of this year- is not only an Oscar nominee but an Oscar winner! In 1995, Peter won the Best Live Action Short Film Oscar for writing and directing Franz Kafka's It's A Wonderful Life. Here he is, with his award:

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review: Loving (UK Cert 12A)

It's a surprising (and sobering) fact that interracial marriage has only been legal in the US for fifty years, following the Supreme Court's 1967 ruling in the case of Loving v Virginia, brought by an interracial couple- Richard and Mildred Loving- against their home state. Now, the story of the Lovings' marriage and their legal fight have been turned into a film, directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Midnight Special).

Despite dealing with heavy themes and a very emotive subject, the film is gentle, thoughtful, restrained. There's barely a raised voice throughout. 

The lion's share of the praise for the film has come for the dignified performance of Ruth Negga as Mildred, whose lead performance gained the film's only Oscar nomination. There are times when she's fragile and times when she's forthright. There are no showy look-at-me histrionics, it's a very low-key and natural performance which is absolutely magnetic. Negga has a very expressive face and there are times when she doesn't say a word but you can see the emotions play across her face. This is a star-making role for an incredibly gifted actress. 

It is a shame that Joel Edgerton hasn't been praised more but his performance as Richard is just as strong as Negga's. Richard is a man of few words, a laconic, taciturn presence, but utterly devoted to his wife and children. In one of the most powerful moments, when the ACLU lawyer asks Richard if he has anything he wants the lawyer to tell the court, the response is simple: 'tell them I love my wife'.

As you may not be surprised to learn, because the focus is so much on the main couple, the other characters are not fleshed out as much. However, there's good support from Marton Csokas as the utterly deplorable police chief who arrests Richard and Mildred, Bill Camp as a sympathetic small-town lawyer who attempts to help them, and frequent Nicholls collaborator Michael Shannon in a nice cameo as Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet who helped to bring the Lovings' case to the public eye.

The film plays out against the civil rights marches and protests of the 1960s and the period detail, from the music to the cars, is spot-on and really helps to evoke the age. It's a quiet, well-made biopic about an important piece of American history.

Rating: 4 out of 5