The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Review: Phantom Thread (UK Cert 15)

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis reunite after There Will Be Blood for period drama Phantom Thread. 

In 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a dressmaker extraordinaire, clothing countesses and foreign royalty in elegant gowns. When he meets Alma, a waitress at a local hotel, he falls for her, with Alma becoming his inspiration and eventually his lover. However, he finds that his routine is disrupted by the presence of this young woman in his house. He tries to mould Alma into his ideal, but Alma is not the pliant and compliant little mouse he thinks she is. An interesting power struggle ensues, where it's not entirely certain who has the upper hand...

Reynolds could quite easily have been a caricature, a fastidious little fusspot, but in the hands of a master like Daniel Day-Lewis, he becomes a much more complex character. Whilst his obsession with Alma and his desire to make her what he wants to be is occasionally uncomfortable, thankfully it never gets into Christian Grey territory (also because there's an equal amount of power play happening between the two characters; it's not all one-sided). There's a lot of humour to Day-Lewis' performance, and seeing this very exacting men gettiing rattled by the changes in his routine is amusing. If this is Day-Lewis' final film (as he has said it is), it's a strong performance to go out on.

Vicky Krieps (Hanna, A Most Wanted Man) is a revelation as Alma. Originally a clumsy, gauche young woman, she soon grows into a much more rounded figure; it's Alma who (in one of the film's funniest scenes) demands the return of a dress from a client who has disgraced herself. Similarly towards the end of the film, it's Alma's scheme that takes central stage. There's also a powerful argument between Reynolds and Alma, after Alma has made him a surprise dinner, in which she shows that she's not that quiet little girl any more. Even when the film takes a strange turn at the end, her performance remains magnetic. 

I'll be honest, I was surprised to see Lesley Manville's name included in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees; her inclusion at the BAFTAs wasn't so much of a surprise as she is a British actress and BAFTA do tend to favour home talent. Having now seen the film, I can confirm that my surprise was completely unfounded. She is superb as Reynolds' sister, business partner, and confidante Cyril. Ready with a waspish comment and fiercely protective of Reynolds, Cyril almost acts as his handler, ensuring that he can work undisturbed. There's also an intriguing ambiguity over Cyril's feelings towards Alma; after an uncomfortable first encounter, the relationship mellows somewhat to Cyril admitting she's 'fond' of her. Is there more to it than that? It's never explicitly stated which adds an interesting view to the character. 

As you can imagine in a film about dressmaking and fashion, the costume design of the film is absolutely ravishing, for which designer Mark Bridges is to be commended. There's also some interesting sound design going on, where simple acts such as pouring a glass or water or buttering toast takes on an almost excruciating meaning. 

My main issue with the film comes in the last five minutes, and yet again, it's another example of the ending undermining all the good work done before it. Reynolds' actions towards the end of the film just don't ring right with the character that's been set up before; I understand that characters change (and should) but it feels like a step too far. I may have misjudged or misread the ending, but to me, it just didn't work. A shame, because up to that point, I'd found myself quite enchanted by the film.

Phantom Thread is worth seeing for its sublime costumes and a trio of superlative performances, but perhaps don't pull at the threads too much lest the whole thing fall apart.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Sunday, 18 February 2018

Awards Season 2018: BAFTA Film Awards Winners

Tonight (Sunday 18th February), at the Royal Albert Hall, the 71st British Academy Film Awards were given out in a star-studded ceremony, hosted by the frankly wonderful Joanna Lumley for the first time. 

Julie Walters, Kristin Scott Thomas, Daniel Day-Lewis, Salma Hayek, Lesley Manville, Daniel Kaluuya, Margot Robbie, Gary Oldman, Sam Rockwell, Sally Hawkins, Annette Bening, Willem Dafoe, Timothee Chalamet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Frances McDormand, and Hugh Grant were among some of the stars in attendance to celebrate the best in film.

Here's a full list of BAFTA winners:

Best Film: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Outstanding British Film: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Leading Actor: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Leading Actress: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Supporting Actor: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Supporting Actress: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)

Director: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape Of Water)

Original Screenplay: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Adapted Screenplay: Call Me By Your Name

Outstanding Debut By A British Writer, Director Or Producer: Rungano Nyoni (writer/director), Emily Morgan (producer) (I Am Not A Witch)

Animated Film: Coco

Documentary: I Am Not Your Negro

Film Not In The English Language: The Handmaiden

Cinematography: Blade Runner 2049

Costume Design: Phantom Thread

Editing: Baby Driver

Make Up And Hair: Darkest Hour

Original Music: The Shape Of Water

Production Design: The Shape Of Water

Sound: Dunkirk

Special Visual Effects: Blade Runner 2049

Short Animation: Poles Apart

Short Film: Cowboy Dave

Rising Star: Daniel Kaluuya

Outstanding British Contribution To Cinema: National Film And Television School

BAFTA Fellowship: Ridley Scott

The evening started with a dazzling display by Circe du Soleil, based on The Shape Of Water. Joanna Lumley was great as host, having an easy charm and handling some of the less well constructed links with aplomb. Many speeches referred the Time's Up movement, and many actresses were dressed in black (as at the Golden Globes). Guillermo del Toro's speech was touching, citing his admiration for Mary Shelley, whilst Ridley Scott's fellowship acceptance was also good- talking about the importance of teachers- although Frances McDormand's acceptance speech was probably the highlight of the evening. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was the big winner of the night, taking home five awards, with The Shape Of Water winning three, and Darkest Hour and Blade Runner 2049 with two each. 

Congratulations to all winners!

There's another break now in the awards season calendar- you get about 2 weeks off from all this nonsense- but it leads up to a busy weekend as the Film Independent Spirit Awards and the Golden Raspberry Awards will be handed out on Saturday 3rd March, with the main event- the 90th Academy Awards- a day later on Sunday 4th March. 

Almost there, people. Almost there!

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).