The Watchers

The Watchers

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

We at the Watchers were saddened to hear of the death of Jonathan Demme. The Oscar-winning director passed away today at the age of 73 due to complications from oesophagal cancer.

Born in 1944 in Baldwin, Long Island, Demme started his film career working for Roger Corman, writing and producing Angels Hard As They Come and The Hot Box. He made his feature directorial debut in 1974 with Caged Heat, a women-in-prison movie, and followed it up with Crazy Mama, a comedy road movie staring Cloris Leachman and Ann Sothern. His final film for Corman's New World Pictures studio was Fighting Mad (1976), a drama about an Arkansas farmer (Peter Fonda) who wages a one-man war against corrupt land developers. 

Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat in Melvin And Howard
His next features- comedy Handle With Care (1977) and neo-noir Last Embrace (1979)- were relatively ignored but Demme began to make his name with the 1980 comedy-drama Melvin And Howard, the outrageous story of Utah service station owner Melvin Dummar who was listed as the beneficiary for a multi-million-dollar will allegedly written by the eccentric, reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. Starring Paul Le Mat as Melvin and Jason Robards as Hughes, the fim was nominated for three Oscars, winning two (for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Mary Steenburgen).

Demme's success with Melvin And Howard led to him being signed to direct Swing Shift. A romantic drama set during World War II, it stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Whilst it was intended to be a prestige picture for Warner Brothers, as well as a major commercial movie for Demme, it didn't end up as either; Demme clashed with Hawn (who was also producing) about the tone of the film- he wanted it serious, she saw it as a more lighthearted comedy- and he eventually renounced the finished product. Allegedly, a bootleg VHS of Demme's director's cut of the film exists which is radically different to the theatrical release. Despite the troubled production, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (for Christine Lahti's performance as Hazel).

After Swing Shift, Demme moved on to other projects- creating the concert movie Stop Making Sense for the band Talking Heads, filming Spalding Gray's monologue Swimming To Cambodia and directing a documentary about Haiti's democratic rebuilding after dictatorship. In 1989, he directed crime comedy Married To The Mob starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine and Dean Stockwell (who got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for his performance as a mafia boss infatuated with Pfeiffer's character). 

Demme's career by this point was already incredibly eclectic and, in 1991, he added another genre to his filmography- thriller- when he directed The Silence Of The Lambs. The film adaptation of Thomas Harris' 1988 thriller, The Silence Of The Lambs is widely considered as one of the best book-to-screen adaptations. It is also a masterclass in tension, character and pace. Demme's direction is superb and he gets superlative performances from his entire cast with Anthony Hopkins' chilling yet urbane turn as Hannibal Lecter cementing him in cinematic history. Released on Valentine's Day 1991, the movie grossed over $270 million dollars at the box office and is one of only three films to win the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. The Silence Of The Lambs was Demme's first and only nomination for Best Director. 

Demme with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins at the 1992 Oscars
From serial killer thriller to courtroom drama as Demme's next film was Philadelphia (1993), with Tom Hanks as the HIV-positive lawyer suing his employers for wrongful dismissal.  Hanks went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for his thoughful and heartfelt performance. In 1998, Demme directed the film adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved with Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton in the cast and, in 2002, he directed The Truth About Charlie (a loose remake of the 1963 Cary Grant movie Charade). 


Demme then directed the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. As remakes go, it's pretty good- updating the Cold War paranoia of the 1960s to a post-9/11 world. After this, he worked on documentaries about singer Neil Young and former US President Jimmy Carter before returning to feature films in 2008 with the low-budget drama Rachel Getting Married, a story of addiction and deep family secrets. Anne Hathaway received her first Oscar nod for her lead role as Kym.

Demme continued to make documentaries- including two more about Neil Young, one about musician Kenny Chesney and one about Carolyn Parker (the last woman to leave her neighbourhood when Hurrican Katrina struck New Orleans). He also directed for TV, shooting episodes of A Gifted Man, Enlightened and two episodes of the US version of The Killing. He also directed A Master Builder and the 2015 Meryl Streep movie Ricki And The Flash. His last completed film before his passing was a musical documentary about Justin Timberlake.  

Aside from feature and documentary work, Demme also directed music videos, including 'I Got You Babe' by UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, 'Streets of Philadelphia' and 'Murder Incorporated' by Bruce Springsteen,  'The Perfect Kiss' by New Order and 'Gidget Goes To Hell' by Suburban Lawns. 

Few directors can lay claim to such a varied and eclectic filmography but, as Edgar Wright said him his tribute, 'he could do anything'. Demme could never be pigeonholed as a drama director, a thriller director. He was successful at all genres, always able to get strong performances from his cast and working well with his cinematographers to get a strong visual style. Tributes have been paid by many actors, writers and directors with Kevin Smith praising Demme's 'honest cinematic storytelling' and Jim Jarmusch calling him an 'inspiring filmmaker... and truly wonderful and generous person'.

He is survived by his wife and three children. Our thoughts are with them at this very sad time.

The Watchers
(Rhys, Matt & Tez)

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Countdown: 10 Actors Who Have Played Multiple Comic Book Characters On Screen

It was announced yesterday that Josh Brolin has been cast as Cable in the upcoming Deadpool 2 movie. Comic book movie fans will know that Brolin also plays Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Before he played Captain America, Chris Evans also appeared as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in two Fantastic Four movies. Brolin's Deadpool co-star Ryan Reynolds was also Hal Jordan in the Green Lantern movie, while Halle Berry has played both hero and villain as Storm and Catwoman respectively.

So here are ten more actors who have played different comic book characters on screen.

1. Ben Affleck

Before he was the Dark Knight, Affleck was Daredevil in the 2003 big screen version.

2. Angela Bassett

Appearing in Green Lantern as Amanda Waller, Bassett is taking the role of Queen Mother Ramonda in the upcoming Black Panther film.

3. Willem Dafoe

Dafoe played Norman Osborn/Green Goblin in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films; he will be playing Atlantean advisor Nuidis Vulko in Justice League and Aquaman

4. Laurence Fishburne

Known for playing Perry White in the DC Extended Universe films, Fishburne provides the voice of the titular character in  Fantastic Four: Rise Of The SIlver Surfer.

5. Tommy Lee Jones

From villain to hero: Jones played Harvey Dent/Two-Face in Joel Schumacher's camptastic Batman Forever, before taking the role of Colonel Chester Phillips in Captain America: The First Avenger

6. Michael B. Jordan

Jordan is one of the few bearable things in Josh Trank's disastrous Fantastic Four reboot; he will appear in Black Panther as the wonderfully named Erik Killmonger.

7. Michael Keaton

From hero to villain: Keaton played the lead role in Tim Burton's two Batman movies, and will play Adrian Toomes/The Vulture in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming

8. Nicole Kidman

Kidman appeared with Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever as Dr. Chase Meridian; she will also play Queen Atlanna in the upcoming Aquaman film.

9. J.K. Simmons

Oscar-winner Simmons will be swapping The Daily Bugle for the Gotham City Police Department, going from playing J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films to Commissioner Gordon in Justice League.

10. Terence Stamp

Stamp played General Zod in Superman and Superman II (and also went on to be the voice of Jor-El in Smallville). He also played Elektra's mentor Stick in the 2005 Daredevil spin-off.

Bonus: Sylvester Stallone

Stallone played Judge Dredd in the 1995 film version of the 2000AD comic; he has a small role in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (but the character has not yet been revealed)

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Ghost In The Shell (1995)

Ahead of the release of the live-action remake starring Scarlett Johansson (which opens in the UK at the end of the month), I thought I should watch the original anime that the film is based on. Luckily, it is one of my partner's favourite films so we had a copy to hand.

It's 2029. Cyberisation is now widespread. Criminals are becoming more sophisticated and, as such, a new way must be found to deal with the threat. So Section 9 was set up- a small group of police (with various levels of cyberisation) to help combat crime. Major Motoko Kusanagi is one of the operatives on the team. The Major and the rest of Section 9 come up against a new threat: a powerful hacker known as the Puppet Master, who can literally hack people...

Directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Kazunori Ito (based on the manga by Masamune Shirow), Ghost In The Shell is widely considered to be one of the seminal works in anime history and, along with Akira (1988) and the films of Studio Ghibli, is responsible for bringing anime into the mainstream in the West.

It packs so much into its relatively slight running time of 83 minutes. It's a political conspiracy thriller. It's high concept science-fiction. It asks deep philosophical questions about what it means to be human and what indeed makes us human.

The Major is a full cyborg- her body is completely synthetic- but is possessed of memory, personality and character. She questions whether, because of her full cybernetic body, she still has any humanity and even questions whether her memories are real or artificial to make her feel more 'human'. When she finally meets the Puppet Master, these existential questions get thrown into full relief. It's an absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking part of the film.

The style of the film comes from a process called 'digitally generated animation', a combination of traditional cell animation, computer graphics, and audio which is entered as digital data. Amazingly, the animation still holds up 22 years later; indeed, we watched a section of Oshii's 2008 updated version (Ghost In The Shell 2.0) which featured updated 3D animation, that- by today's standards- looked incredibly dated. Hisao Shirai's cinematography is superb and the music, by Kenji Kawai, is just sublime.

It's definitely worth watching, although it's a film that requires and rewards your full attention.


Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (UK Cert U)

There's always a danger when a popular character in an animated movie gets their own spin-off. What can be amusing in small doses may not be so much when extended to a full film. The joke can sometime wear a little thin. Films like The Penguins Of Madagascar and Minions showcase this to greater or lesser degrees. Arguably, Batman was one of the best things about The Lego Movie. So how does he fare having his own movie?

Actually, really well. I loved every minute of The Lego Batman Movie.

From the opening voiceover to the end credits roll, the film is stuffed to the ginnels with humour, charm and energy. The film mercilessly sends up previous incarnations of move Batman (from the 1960s Adam West movie right up to 2016's Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice) but it's done so well and without malice, it's utterly enjoyable.

Will Arnett's voice performance as Batman/Bruce Wayne is just superb. He channels everything you associate with the Dark Knight; the brooding and alone-ness, keeping people at arm's length. The rest of the voice cast are similarly superb, with Michael Cera (an actor I've never been particularly fussed on) giving a lovely turn as Robin/Dick Grayson, the young orphan inadvertently adopted by Bruce at a charity gala who becomes Batman's right-hand man. Rosario Dawson is strong and no-nonsense as new commissioner Barbara Gordon who seeks to clean up Gotham without resorting to brooding vigilantes.

Frankly, if Jeremy Irons wasn't doing such a bang-up job of playing Alfred onscreen, I'd say get Ralph Fiennes in. Based on this performance, he'd be fantastic in the role. Zach Galifianakis (another actor I'm not massively fussed on) is great as The Joker. There's a clever subversion of romantic comedy tropes with the relationship between Batman and The Joker (with Joker particularly crushed that Batman doesn't consider him his 'greatest enemy'). There's also appearances from the vast majority of Batman's classic Rogues' Gallery which will please fans of The Dark Knight.

Just as with The Lego Movie, this film contains appearances from a lot of other franchises and series (including, but not limited to, Harry Potter, The Lord Of The Rings and Doctor Who, which I particularly enjoyed). I would imagine because Lego has the rights to a lot of things because of the Dimensions license, the screenwriters pretty much decided to throw everything and the kitchen sink in. But it works.

I'm not going to overanalyse it. I came out of the cinema absolutely buoyant after seeing The Lego Batman Movie. It made me laugh. A lot. I enjoyed all the references and the Easter Eggs. Definitely one for the DVD shelf.   

Rating: 5 out of 5


Sunday, 5 March 2017

Review: Arrival (UK Cert 12A)

Twelve spacecraft appear across the globe, speaking an unintelligible language. In the US, the army draft linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help interpret and communicate with the alien visitors and- on her insistence- take her to Montana so she can communicate with them directly. Alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise begins to speak to the aliens to discover the purpose behind their arrival.

Directed with flair by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies), with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer (adapted from a Ted Chiang short story entitled 'Story Of Your Life'), Arrival is a thoughtful, mature slice of sci-fi.

Let's address this right now. Amy Adams' performance was utterly superb and I can see exactly why there were cries of 'snub' when the Oscar nominations were announced. She can most certainly count herself unlucky to have missed out for one of the strongest performances she's ever given. She carries the emotional weight of the film- she is the heart and soul of it- and is just heartbreaking in certain scenes. Louise is fragile, but not weak; compassionate, but not a bleeding-heart; assured, but not arrogant. Another brilliant performance from one of the best actresses of her generation. 

Renner is also strong as the geeky, easy-going Ian. There's a really strong chemistry between Renner and Adams which helps to sell the interactions between Ian and Louise which is always good. Whilst the story is very much focused on Louise as the main character, Renner shines when he's on screen. There's strong support by Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, who helps recruit Louise in the first place; what could have been a fairly generic, by-the-numbers Army role is lifted by Whitaker's warm and sympathetic performance. There are also nice turns by Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma as an unsympathetic FBI agent and a bellicose Chinese general respectively. 

Technically, the film is very accomplished. The visual effects, from the design of the spacecraft to the design of the aliens and their linguistic symbols, are all superb. The score, by Johann Johannsson, is also sublime. 

The reveal of what the aliens' purpose is will probably make or break the film for you. I personally liked it, and found it interesting, but I can understand why some people might not agree with it. I found it raised some interesting psychological and philosophical questions which have stayed with me long after the film. 

If you like your sci-fi a little more cerebral, a little deeper than standard, then definitely give this a go. Also, don't be put off by the awards hype- it is truly deserving of the accolades it has received.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Monday, 27 February 2017

Bill Paxton (1955-2017)

We at The Watchers were very saddened to hear about the unexpected death of Bill Paxton, who passed away on February 25th 2017 following complications for surgery.

In addition to his acting work, Paxton was also a producer, director and writer. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Bill moved to Los Angeles when he was eighteen and found work as a set dresser for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. After some minor roles in films such as Stripes and Taking Tiger Mountain, he made a memorable appearance as the punk leader who harasses Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984)- and pays for it. In 1985, Paxton appeared in the John Hughes classic Weird Science as Wyatt's boorish bullying older brother Chet. 

In 1986, he appeared in another classic sci-fi franchise as Private Hudson in Aliens. Famous for his cry of 'Game over, man! Game over!' (which Paxton claimed he improvised, along with a lot of his dialogue), Hudson is dispatched by one of the aliens towards the end of the film. Four years later, he would complete the death-by-iconic-sci-fi-villain trifecta by appearing in Predator 2 and also being killed off.

His role as vampire Severen in Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987) is one of his most highly-regarded roles as is one of his first leading roles- that of Dale Dixon in the 1992 One False Move. He would go on to play Wyatt Earp's brother Morgan in Tombstone, Simon in True Lies, Fred Haise in Apollo 13 and Bill Harding in Twister. He also played treasure hunter Brock Lovett in Titanic, providing the framing narrative for the film. 

He is quite brilliant as Hank in A Simple Plan, opposite Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton. He would go on to appear opposite a fifteen-foot mountain gorilla and Charlize Theron in the 1998 Disney film Mighty Joe Young then in the dubiously historically accurate Second World War submarine drama U-571 before making his directorial debut in 2001 with the thriller Frailty (in which he also starred). 

He also appeared in several family friendly films, such as Spy Kids 2: Island Of Lost Dreams, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and as Jeff Tracy in the 2004 live-action version of Thunderbirds. Later film roles include Haywire, 2 Guns, Edge Of Tomorrow and Nightcrawler. 

In 2006, Paxton took on his first major television role, playing polygamist patriarch Bill Henrickson, living with his three wives, in the HBO show Big Love. The show ran for five seasons and Paxton would be nominated for three Golden Globes for his role. He would also go on to have roles in the first season of Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and was appearing in the TV version of Training Day at the time of his death. 

Director James Cameron was a close friend of Paxton's, directing him several times (in The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies and Titanic), and has paid tribute to Paxton saying:

'He was a good man, a great actor, and a creative dynamo. I hope that amid the gaudy din of Oscar night, people will take a moment to remember this wonderful man, not just for all the hours of joy he brought to us with his vivid screen presence, but for the great human that he was. The world is a lesser place for his passing, and I will profoundly miss him.' 

(Indeed, when introducing the In Memoriam section at the Oscars, a visibly upset Jennifer Aniston paid tribute to Paxton before the official montage began)

Paxton was a versatile, dedicated and talented character actor and he will be missed. Our thoughts are with his friends and family at this time.

Rhys, Matt & Tez
The Watchers