The Watchers

The Watchers

Friday, 28 March 2014

Review: A Long Way Down (UK Cert 15)

Film adaptations of Nick Hornby's novels tend to be successful- About A Boy (2002) and High Fidelity (2000) captured the essence of the books perfectly. Now, Hornby's 2005 novel A Long Way Down gets the big-screen treatment. For those who don't know, this is a comedy-drama about suicide.

On New Years Eve, disgraced TV star Martin (Pierce Brosnan) decides to commit suicide by jumping off the top of a London tower block. As he's about to end it all, he's interrupted- by another potential suicide, single mum Maureen (Toni Collette). Soon, they are joined by two others with the same intention- wild child Jess (Imogen Poots) and pizza delivery guy JJ (Aaron Paul). On Jess' suggestion, the four of them sign a pact that they will not kill themselves before Valentine's Day. And so these four very different people become unlikely friends. 

On the page, the book is moving, funny, thought-provoking, tender and powerful. Sadly, the film adaptation only captures a fraction of that. Screenwriter Jack Thorne has constructed an uneven screenplay, veering between moments of comedy (some of which are too broad) and moments of emotion (some of which are too saccharine). 

Performance-wise, it's a mixed bag. The best performance comes from Toni Collette as the meek and stressed-out Maureen, crumbling under the weight of caring for her severely disabled son whom she loves desperately but acknowledges that he'd have a better standard of care if she wasn't around. You truly feel for her as she's going through all this, thrust into a world she never knew and didn't want to enter (unsurprisingly, there's media interest once the story of the pact is leaked). It's a truly committed performance by Collette who is always a reliable and engaging presence on-screen.

Imogen Poots is also an engaging presence as Jess, the mistress of outrageous and inappropriate comments which is a source of most of the comedy in the film although sometimes it's a bit much. She's nursing a secret pain to do with her family which is given a cursory examination but is never really delved into (although you could argue that it doesn't really need to be). Similarly, Aaron Paul is good as JJ (a late replacement for Emile Hirsch) who initially says he's on the roof because of cancer but there's more to his story than first appears. He gets an emotional speech at the end to explain himself, and it's a credit to Paul's acting ability that he sells it, as in other hands it could have been mawkish or leaden. 

However, Pierce Brosnan seems to be in a different movie to the rest of his co-stars. His performance just doesn't fit. I mean, we're not talking a catastrophe of Mamma Mia! proportions but there's no heart to his performance, no soul, nothing to make you really sympathise with him in the first place and no real redemption for him at the end. He remains cynical, grasping, self-involved and self-absorbed, fundamentally unlikeable and when you're asking an audience to care about the group, they need to care about all of them- and I didn't care about Martin, and I couldn't tell you whether it was Brosnan's performance or the script that was the cause.

Other performances are solid enough- Sam Neill puts in a glorified cameo as Jess' father but is very good in it. I could almost see Neill and Brosnan swapping roles and it being a better film, really. There's a one-scene role for Rosamund Pike as Martin's former co-host Penny who gives broadcast journalists a bad name by her exploitative and manipulative questioning of Martin and Jess on-screen. It's an awkward and unpleasant scene which jars tonally and reinforces the media-is-evil message that bubbles through the pieces.

All said, A Long Way Down isn't a bad film. It's intense and emotional in places, funny in others, and Toni Collette's performance is just sublime, but the delicate balancing act that Hornby pulls off on the page just hasn't translated onto the screen. 

Rating: 3 out of 5


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Review: Under the Skin (UK Cert: 15)

It’s been almost ten years since Jonathan Glazer’s second feature film, Birth (starring Nicole Kidman) received boos from festival audiences for its now infamous bath scene (neither Kidman or ten-year-old Cameron Bright were naked, it was all down to clever editing and flesh-coloured suits). Since then, with the exception of a couple of music videos, the director has been absent from our screens. Me personally, I’ve always had a peculiar interest in Glazer’s films. Visually they are staggering to watch, Glazer never afraid to throw something new at the camera, the problem is that neither Sexy Beast nor Birth felt like they had enough ideas to warrant their running time. Despite one of Ben Kingsley’s very best performances, Sexy Beast was a run-of-the-mill British crime thriller, ticking all of the sub-genre’s well-worn boxes. While Birth, cinematography-wise, was a tribute to Stanley Kubrick, the film was nowhere near as clever as it thought it was. Just because a film is ambiguous, doesn’t mean it’s in any way profound. Glazer’s films felt like they could have been classics, but managed to miss out on greatness. After watching Birth, I was hoping that Glazer’s next film would get it right.

Unlike Glazer’s previous films, Under the Skin is impossible to describe so that you get a sense of what is going on. The film centres on an alien-robot-creature that takes the form of Scarlett Johansson. Johansson has one job: search for males, seduce them, and take them to an abandoned building somewhere. There the men are trapped in a literal ocean of black, never to be heard from again. Out of the blue, Johansson’s conscience kicks in and she decides to walk the Scottish landscape, questioning who and what she is, curious about the human race. While all of this happens, a man on a motorbike, who may or may not be an alien-robot-creature like Johansson, is busy searching for her.

Under the Skin is a massive step back for Glazer. The film has received endless praise from critics, which baffles me. The only reason I can fathom as to why the film has received such good reviews is because critics don’t want to turn round and say that they don’t get it.

Virtually everything about Under the Skin is below par, especially compared to Glazer’s previous films. There are only a handful of moments where the cinematography throws you, where you think, “I haven’t seen anything like this”. For the majority of the film, cinematographer Daniel Landin points and shoots, using natural lighting. Maybe this is the point; Glazer wants us to observe life the way that Johansson’s nameless character does. Honestly, I couldn’t work out why the visuals were so workmanlike. There are a couple of exceptions. The film’s opening scene where, as far as I can tell, Johansson’s alien-robot-creature is being born, is beautiful and intriguing to watch; a blank screen gradually getting brighter as a human eye is formed. The other outstanding scene is where we find out what happens to Johansson’s unlucky victims once they drown in the black ooze. Apart from this, Glazer’s renowned visual flare is more-or-less absent.

Johansson has received plenty of fanfare from critics. While she does a decent job, it’s hard to understand why she has been given so much acclaim. During Under the Skin’s hundred-and-eight minutes, she puts on a passable English accent, occasionally takes her clothes off, and spends her time looking dazed and confused. It’s not going to put her in the record books for Oscar nominations, like Meryl Streep.

Under the Skin’s narrative has no pace to speak of. Those who watched Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and complained that film was slow should avoid Glazer’s latest at all costs. Under the Skin is not even two hours, yet it feels much longer. This is due to a number of scenes involving Johansson driving round Scotland’s city streets, searching for her next victim. All she does is drive, and keeps driving, and keeps driving, the monotony occasionally broken when Johansson stops the car and looks bewildered, or has a stilted conversation with a man, only to realise he has family or people who will miss him, so she keeps on driving and we start back at the beginning. The problem is that Under the Skin has no clear narrative. This may be down to Michel Faber’s novel, which the film is based on (and, I have to admit, I haven’t read), yet even when Under the Skin looks like it’s about to get interesting – when Johansson leaves her routine of abducting men behind  – nothing happens. Literally, nothing happens; there is no shift in pace, Johansson’s character does not change in any discernible way, leading to an ending that is far from satisfactory: the film stops and up come the credits.

What is noteworthy with Under the Skin is Mica Levi’s score. Occasionally alarming, always uncomfortable to listen to, the majority of the film’s score is performed by a string quartet, the pitch altered to give an unnatural sound.  It’s terrific stuff, reminiscent of some of the best horror film scores, such as Krzysztof Penderecki’s work on The Exorcist and The Shining. It’s just a shame that the music had to be used for such a sluggish, mediocre film.

I enjoy a bit of ambiguity, where you are left to interpret what you just saw; films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, or Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but Under the Skin is nothing like these films. For most of its running time the film is tiresome to watch, at no point do you feel engrossed in what is happening onscreen, and you certainly don’t care about Johansson’s protagonist or what happens to her. Critics have suggested that the film explores sexuality, that it takes the mundane (walking through a shopping centre, football fans on their way to a match) and makes you observe it up-close and first-hand. Personally, I’m not convinced; it feels like critics are trying to grab hold of any subtext they can find. If another director had adapted Faber’s novel, maybe Under the Skin could have been something tender and enthralling. Glazer’s reworking is pompous and shallow. A number of people walked out during the screening of Under the Skin, I wish I’d done the same.

2 out of 5


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Review: Muppets Most Wanted (UK Cert U)

After the success of The Muppets back in 2011, a sequel was on the cards. And here it is: Muppets Most Wanted. James Bobin directs again, and has co-written the script with Nicholas Stoller, with original songs by Bret McKenzie.

Constantine is the World's Most Dangerous Frog- and a dead ringer for Kermit. After escaping from a Russian gulag, Constantine, with the help of crooked tour manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), replaces Kermit and takes the Muppets on a grand world tour- including Madrid, Dublin and London- using them to cover his tracks as he plans the heist of the century: stealing the Crown Jewels. But will he succeed? And will anyone notice that Kermit's been replaced? It's a wonderfully polished, knowing and downright fun film, full of little nods and cameos, a worthy sequel to the original.

When I heard Ricky Gervais had been cast in a lead role, my heart sank. I cannot stand the smug, oleaginous tosspot and would usually rather gargle with broken glass than watch him. That said, he's bearable here- I guess the fact that he's getting constantly owned by Constantine might have something to do with it (there's even a whole song-and-dance number devoted to it)- and his presence doesn't diminish the overall greatness of the film. The other lead humans are Ty Burrell as Interpol agent Jean-Pierre Napoleon- paired with Sam Eagle to crack the mysterious thefts- and Tina Fey as Russian commandant Nadya. Unsurprisingly, Fey is just brilliant.

As with all of the Muppet movies, a big part is playing 'spot the celebrity cameo'. Well, you're in for a treat here: Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Celine Dion, Tom Hiddleston, Christoph Waltz, Miranda Richardson, Frank Langella, Salma Hayek and Stanley Tucci all turn up (amongst many others). Keep your eyes out for Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo who absolutely steal the show.

There's no point in trying to provide a deep analysis or try and discuss themes and tropes with a film like this. The bottom line is this: is it entertaining? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. Did I leave the cinema with a smile on my face, feeling like I'd had a good time? Yes. The screening I was in had a good mix of peoples of all ages and everyone seemed to be  enjoying themselves. The script is funny, the songs are good and there's something for everyone. Well worth seeing.

Muppets Most Wanted has advance previews this weekend (22nd-23rd March) and is on general release from 28th March.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Saturday, 22 March 2014

Comic Book Movie Round-Up: March 2014

There has been a whole load of comic-book movie related news over the past few weeks, so here's a round-up of what's been going on.

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It was recently announced that DC's Batman Vs Superman movie had been postponed from 2015 to May 6 2016. This sets up a battle of the comic-book movies as it will now open on the same day as a Marvel film, expected to be Captain America 3 (although an official announcement has yet to be made). Marvel are 'certainly keeping the date', according to Kevin Feige, and aren't afraid of a clash. 

When asked by Access Hollywood to predict the winner of this clash of the titans, Sebastian Stan (who has a nine picture deal with Marvel) stated 'All you have to do to know the answer to that question is look at the track record of Marvel versus DC'. Meow!

We discussed the casting for Batman Vs Superman in Programme 36 where, it's safe to say, there were some strong opinions over the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Jeremy Irons as Alfred. They will join Henry Cavill as Superman and Ben Affleck as Batman, with Amy Adams, Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne reprising their roles from Man Of Steel. Irons has just revealed in an interview with Absolute Radio that "The script isn't entirely finished' although pre-production has begin in Michigan.

It's certainly an exciting piece of news and may cause a few headaches for comic book fans. See one? See them both? If you see them both, which order do you see them in? Either way, both studios will make a whole load of money off these movies.

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20th Century Fox have announced opening dates for two upcoming films.

In addition to the Bryan-Singer-directed X-Men: Apocalypse which is lined up for release on May 27 2016, there will be a sequel to The Wolverine which set to hit screens on March 3 2017. This will see Hugh Jackman reprise his role as Logan/Wolverine for the eighth time and will be directed by James Mangold (who also directed The Wolverine) and will be written by David James Kelly (according to Deadline).

They've also given a date for the second instalment of the Fantastic Four reboot - even though filming hasn't even started on the first! This film is due on July 14 2017, whilst the first film is scheduled for release on June 19 2015. If you want to know what we think about the (potential) casting for this film, have a listen to Programme 36 where we discuss our thoughts.

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This week saw the release of several pieces of concept art for Marvel's upcoming releases, including some for The Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

Due in cinemas on May 1 2015 and directed by Joss Whedon, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Samuel L. Jackson will all reprise their roles from The Avengers/Avengers Assemble.

Scarlet Witch concept art
Quicksilver concept art
Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson join the cast as the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver respectively. Due to a very unique and slightly complicated situation involving a quirk of publishing, they can appear in multiple (and rival) film franchises. They are the children of Magneto and can therefore appear in Fox's X-Men franchise (and will - Evan Peters is playing Quicksilver in X-Men: Days Of Future Past), but they are also linked to the Avengers franchise and can therefore appear in Marvel films as well. 

James Spader will play villain Ultron (despite Stan Lee admitting in an interview with Playboy 'I don't have any idea who the hell Ultron is'- Lee had finished working on The Avengers before Ultron was created) and Thomas Kreschmann will play the villainous Baron Von Strucker. Kretschmann also has a multi-film deal so expect to see the Baron popping up in other movies. 

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The recent documentary- Marvel Studios: Assembling A Universe- showed test footage from Ant-Man. Directed by Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World), the film will kick off Marvel Studios' Phase 3 of movies. 

Test footage from Ant-Man
Paul Rudd has been cast as Scott Lang, with Michael Douglas playing Hank Pym. Patrick Wilson has confirmed his casting- stating he is playing an 'important' role in the film- but hasn't given any more details. Michael Pena has confirmed he is in discussions for a role but nothing is confirmed yet, whilst Gravity composer Steven Price will provide the score. Ant-Man is currently slated for July 17 2015.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, directors Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, Sinister), Mark Andrews (Brave), and Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) are in the frame to direct Marvel's Doctor Strange project. However, Kevin Feige has dismissed rumours that Andrews and Levine were approached- stating 'we're meeting a lot of people now'- and has also quashed rumours that Johnny Depp is in line to take the title role.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo will return to direct Captain America 3, having just helmed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. 

Marvel Studios are developing ideas for a stand-alone Black Widow movie, to build on the exploration of her character shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Scarlett Johansson seems up for it, telling reporters at the premiere for Captain America: The Winter Soldier "If you want to see a Black Widow spin-off movie, then I want to see it. We'll see. We will put the request in to Marvel tomorrow."

Ant-Man, Captain America 3 and Doctor Strange are in line for Phase 3, with rumours of Thor 3 and a Black Panther movie also included, which would lead up to The Avengers 3 to finish the phase.

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With The Amazing Spider-Man 2 imminent, Sony are looking to expand their comic-book universe with spin-off movies based on some of Spidey's best known villains.

Variety quotes Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal as saying "We are expanding the Spider-Man universe into the Sinister Six and Venom, so that we have Spider-Man movies every year."

Venom will be written by Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci and Ed Solomon and may also be directed by Kurtzman. Venom has previously been seen on-screen in 2007's Spider-Man 3, played by Topher Grace.

The Sinister Six movie will be written by Drew Goddard, who may also direct. There are various iterations of the Sinister Six throughout the comic books so it will be interesting to see who they draw in. Doctor Octopus, Electro, Sandman, Vulture, Mysterio, Kraven The Hunter, the Hobgoblin, the Green Goblin, Venom and the Lizard have all- at one time or another- been members of the group, so Goddard's got plenty to play with. Considering the multiple villains in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, perhaps a few Marvel-style multi-picture deals have been signed?

There are currently no dates for the Venom or Sinister Six movies, but it might be a safe bet that we'll be looking at one in 2015 and the other in 2017.

The Amazing Spider-Man 3 is due for release on May 27 2016 in the UK and June 10 2016 in the US and will be Marc Webb's last time in the director's chair for a Spider-Man movie. The film will be written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner. It is unclear at the moment whether Shailene Woodley (who was due to play Mary Jane Watson and recorded scenes for The Amazing Spider-Man 2) will return due to her workload in the Divergent sequels.

There are also plans afoot for The Amazing Spider-Man 4, slated for May 4 2018. In an interview with Crave Online last year, Webb teased that: 'what we've discovered is there are so many ancillary characters, that have enormous, cinematic potential that there may be other ways to exploit those characters, in a way that is exciting and fun and worthwhile. It might not just be a Spider-Man movie."

Could we be looking at a Spider-Man vs... scenario? It will be interesting to see.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Watchers Film Show: Ep 37 - Svengali Special

With the release of the new British film Svengali this week, we have the opportunity to bring you something very special - last October Matt was invited for an in-depth chat with Writer and Star of the film, Jonny Owen. For more info on the film take a read of Matt's Review to find out more.
So enjoy - Rhys :)
The Watchers Film Show: Ep 37 from The Watchers Film Show on Vimeo.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Review: Svengali (UK Cert: 15)

Anyone who listens to our podcasts will know there’s a running joke where I’ll always mention that I go year-on-year to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Me and several friends make our way up there and spend a week drinking lots, sleeping very little, and watching films from the crack of dawn to late in the evening. In many ways, it’s the best way to watch films; you’re much more forgiving when you go the cinema once a week, whereas you quickly know whether something’s up to scratch when you’ve had five hours sleep and your head’s pounding.

With 2013’s festival, there were plenty of films that were a decent watch, but I was still waiting for something that I could mention to my friends back home, that I would remember once I walked out the cinema and not forget about a day later. On a Saturday afternoon I went to watch an as then unknown film called Svengali. It was tipped as one of the big names of the festival, nominated for the Michael Powell award. Having read the write up (a comedy set in the British music industry with performances from Vicky McClure, Martin Freeman, and Matt Berry), I bought my ticket – plus a very large coke – and gave it a go.

Svengali introduces us to Dixie (Jonny Owen), who leaves his quiet Welsh village, where everyone knows everyone, and moves to London. His plan? To manage the internet’s next big band, The Premature Congratulations, and become the new Brian Epstein. It’s the familiar fish-out-of-water scenario, the kind of story that British comedies rely on, but instead of re-treading familiar gags, making you care about a character because they’re crying, stood outside in the rubbish weather, every one of Svengali’s jokes hits the mark and is, like its lead role, hand-on-heart sincere.

If there is any justice, then Dixie will be known as one of the great British cult comedy heroes, up there with the likes of Richard E. Grant’s Withnail and Steve Coogan’s portrayal of Tony Wilson. There’s a risk that Dixie could have been a one trick pony, doing the same joke over and over – catching the cynical industry moguls off-guard with his boundless energy and shopping bag full of cassette tapes – but Owen (who wrote and produced the film) has fleshed out his leading role, making him endearing throughout. Dixie is played for laughs, still living in the world of sixties Mod culture, taking every insult that is fired his way and carrying on regardless, but on top of this you have him trying to convince girlfriend Shell (Vicky McClure) that she is top of his list, not the band, as well as travelling backwards and forwards to Wales to visit his father (moving, understated scenes with the late Brian Hibbard of The Flying Pickets).

Vicky McClure, known for her tough roles in This is England, Broadchurch and Line of Duty, tries her hand at comedy as Dixie’s other half. Some of Svengali’s funniest moments are when Shell gets dragged into Dixie’s attempts to get his band signed, or when Dixie and Shell get to spend time together and have a laugh. Female characters in British comedies tend to be adorable, safely take her home to meet your mother-type roles; not all that demanding, acting-wise. With Svengali, Shell loves her man, supporting him as much as she can, but she has her limits. A huge amount of screen time centres on Dixie and Shell; whether their relationship can survive when the band begins to take off. The pair’s relationship is fiery, Shell having a smart answer for everything. Owen and McClure are a perfect pair; many couples who watch the film will be thinking, “He does that!” or “She’s said that!”

Part of the British comedy formula is to throw in numerous cameos from famous actors and celebrities. Svengali does the same thing, but whereas with a lot of comedies the appearances are hit or miss, everyone here gives first-rate performances. Martin Freeman, filming whilst on a break from making The Hobbit, fires one razor-sharp put down after another at Dixie, and while he might only be on screen for a few minutes, Freeman’s appearance is one of Svengali’s many highlights. The IT Crowd’s Matt Berry gives a brilliantly eccentric performance as the manager of a record company, putting the fear of God into his employees whilst wearing a pair of brightly coloured swim shorts. Biggest surprise of all is Oasis and Primal Scream’s manager Alan McGee being so gifted at comedy. McGee looks like he had a great time filming his scenes, all he has to do is walk on screen, look baffled, and you start laughing.

Instead of showing London as this bleak, grey city, Svengali’s cinematographer, Catherine Derry, gives us busy streets, shop fronts of assorted colours, and cobbled back roads. The London in Svengali feels like a buzzing, quirky place. It is not until things turn sour for Dixie that the visuals change, giving us wideshots of Dixie wandering through dimly lit streets and concrete buildings.

There are several convenient twists used to push the narrative along, which, if this were any other film, you would roll your eyes and say that this doesn’t happen in real life. The world of Svengali isn’t set in real life, it’s set in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, where absurd antics, bizarre coincidences and bad behaviour are the everyday norm. Dixie’s flukes and lucky breaks are part and parcel of the film’s spot on humour and makes Svengali’s glimpse into the world of the British music industry feel even more authentic.

Film soundtracks are usually an excuse for studios and distributors to make more money; a song is picked to accompany a scene, but doesn’t add anything to it. The music in Svengali is a history of rock ‘n’ roll, starting off in the fifties and ending up in the present day. You have the influential bands, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Stone Roses, The Libertines, but also emerging acts, on the playlists of 6 Music and Radio 1’s Huw Stephens, such as Third Party, The Broken Vinyl Club, and Keys. All of the tracks stand head-and-shoulders with each other, there is no filler here. Every song deserves its place in the film, either giving London that outlandish, anything-can-happen vibe of the sixties as Dixie first arrives in the capital, such as Georgie Fame’s Somebody Stole My Thunder and Miles Kane’s The Responsible, or to take the pace down a notch, making already poignant scenes, where Dixie hits rock bottom, even more touching; songs such as Big Star’s I’m In Love With A Girl or Mott The Hoople’s Sea Diver.

Svengali does not mock the British music industry quite like Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People; it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the moguls, whereas Winterbottom’s agenda was to show the industry warts-and-all and let the viewer be the judge. Owen’s message to record labels is that it’s not about having Simon Cowell on speed dial, or signing musicians that are clones of the current headline-grabbing band, it is first and foremost about the talent, the music.

Jonny Owen and director John Hardwick have come up with a comedy that never fails to be funny. You will leave the cinema with a smile on your face and a rock star strut, thanks to an impossible-not-to-like cast, and a script from Owen that gets the shifts in humour, poignancy, and warmth all absolutely right.

4 out of 5


Svengali is released in selected cinemas on Friday 21 March, and is available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD from Monday 7th April.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Watchers Film Show: Ep 36

So here we are a brand new show, packed full of reviews - Non Stop, The Book Thief, The Monument Men & The Lone Survivor. We also share our time at Cardiff Comic Con 2014 - so strap your Geekgasms down and enjoy!!

The Watchers Film Show: Ep 36 from The Watchers Film Show on Vimeo.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (UK Cert: 15)

Having seven feature films to his name, director Wes Anderson is seen by some as a filmmaking God, a modern day auteur. You watch one of his films and you instantly know it’s Anderson behind the camera. There are others who would say that his films are a load of hot air, that there is very little substance underneath the inventive visuals and offbeat humour. Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. If you had asked me after seeing The Darjeeling Limited, I would have said that, while the film was a brilliantly eccentric watch, everything about it, the humour, the visuals, the shifts in tone, were nowhere near in the same league as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Then Fantastic Mr. Fox came along; not just, for me, Anderson’s best film, but the best family film and easily one of the best films of this century (that’s in no way an exaggeration). Since then, Anderson has been on top form, with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom raising the bar both in production design, performances (Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, especially) and script writing (the film swerves wildly between zany comedy and drama, and really shouldn’t work, but somehow does).

If you thought Anderson’s previous films were crammed with never before seen cinematography and gags, then his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, sees the director firing on all cylinders. So many frames feel straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film, but if Kubrick concentrated on meticulous, striking images, less concerned about the beating hearts of his characters, then Anderson gets the balance just right.

When we first see the hotel of the title, during the sixties, it has been forgotten, falling apart. Set in the fictional Zubrowska, both fascism and communism have literally changed the country’s landscape, shown in how the hotel is almost empty, the decor pale and dull. This all changes when Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) narrates how the hotel wound up this way. Going back to the thirties, the camera deliberately takes its time as it glides across production designer Adam Stockhausen’s extravagant interiors, filled with eye-catching colours (the colour pink almost everywhere); everything from the doors, the windows, the staff uniforms, even the lifts, are lavishly made.

There is no consistent visual style to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson picking and choosing from various genres. Rooftops and landscapes that resemble the Georges Méliès 1902 short, A Trip to the Moon; Willem Dafoe chasing Jeff Goldblum through the dark corridors of an art gallery is a scene straight out of a film noir; a prison escape, tunneling underground and tip-toeing around the guards as they sleep, is a nod and a wink to every jailbreak film ever made.

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s gorgeous-looking cinematography is one reason to see the film, the performances throughout are just as attention grabbing. Ralph Fiennes has been consistently good in everything he has appeared in, yet he has not had a part that has given him much to do since Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. Here, as the equally debonair and foul-mouthed Monsieur Gustave, Fiennes steals the show. You forget how gifted Fiennes is, his comic timing up there with the best comedy actors. One minute he is charming, a gentleman, the next he delivers a deadpan jibe, turning the air blue with every other word.

Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori make a fantastic double-act, Revolori playing the hotel’s newest lobby boy, Zero, who Gustave takes under his wing. While Fiennes clowns around, Revolori is straight-faced, unblinking, his words slow and monotone. Revolori is the Ernie Wise to Fiennes’s Eric Morecambe.

Just as in Anderson’s previous films, half the fun of The Grand Budapest Hotel is spotting another cameo from one of the director’s regulars. Tilda Swinton, as Gustave’s aging lover, Madame D., constantly makes you laugh in her brief scenes, hidden under a heap of make-up. Willem Dafoe, who can play villains on autopilot, is clearly having a hell of a lot of fun as Adrien Brody’s henchman.

The one thing that stops The Grand Budapest Hotel being Anderson’s best film is the last ten-to-fifteen minutes. We know things are going to end badly; we still don’t know how the hotel ended up being a ruin. Yet Anderson decides to rush his finale, wrap things up far too quickly. The whole film whizzes by at a hurtling pace, but the closing minutes oddly go up a gear. This could have been the director’s most thoughtful film: Europe’s twentieth century history done Wes Anderson-style. While the ending doesn’t exactly bring the train off the tracks, you get the sense that there should have been more of an impact here. Sadly it is far too heavy handed, nothing like the subtlety of Moonrise Kingdom.

This isn’t to say that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a disappointment, it’s anything but. It could have been Anderson’s very best, instead of being one of his best. Those who have never understood Anderson, who would rather see the latest mainstream Hollywood comedy, won’t be convinced by his newest offering. Yet for those who the mention of Rushmore or Fantastic Mr. Fox brings a smile to their face, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson at the height of his filmmaking powers.

4 out of 5


Monday, 3 March 2014

Awards Season 2014: The 86th Annual Academy Awards

So, last night saw the 86th Annual Academy Awards, held at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. All in all, this year's Oscars telecast was full of heart, soul and a whole lot of fun.

A large part of that came from Ellen DeGeneres, taking hosting duties for the second time. No ill-advised boob songs this year, just a (seemingly) effortless charm and wit which had the audience engaged. There aren't many award ceremony hosts who would make a crack about ordering pizza for the crowd- and actually follow up on it. I loved her hosting the first time round (back in 2007); this time she seemed more at ease and there were some great one-liners (even if her crack about Liza Minnelli looking like a female impersonator was a little cutting). There's also the small matter of this epic selfie which crashed Twitter:

The theme of this year's ceremony was 'cinematic heroes' and there were several nice montages showing animated heroes, everyday heroes and superheroes. There was also a tribute to honour 75 years of The Wizard Of Oz with an absolutely knockout performance of 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' by Pink (which was one of the highlights of the night for me). Pharrell Williams brought the place to its feet with his performance of 'Happy' from Despicable Me 2 whilst Idina Menzel (take note, Mr Travolta) absolutely killed it in her solo performance of 'Let It Go'.

Some of the guest presenters were absolutely great- I thought Robert de Niro was fantastic with the spiel about how bad it is to be a writer before the Adapted Screenplay award, Bill Murray was just fabulous when presenting the Best Cinematography award and gave a heartfelt tribute to the late Harold Ramis, and Glenn Close gave a very dignified and heartfelt introduction to the In Memoriam section- but a lot of the hosts seemed to have a bit of an issue with the autocue, and the least said about Jamie Foxx, the better.

So, on to the awards themselves:

I have to be honest, I was surprised to find myself 6 for 6 again this year- but I was absolutely overjoyed when Lupita Nyong'o won. Her acceptance speech was very moving and heartfelt and was just lovely, as was Jared Leto's (who could kick back and chill for the rest of the night as his was the first award announced). I did cringe a little bit during Matthew McConaughey's acceptance speech (it's a purely personal thing but I do find any mention of God to be a little but much) but I liked the sentiment behind a lot of the rest of it. Cate Blanchett's speech was erudite and strong, simultaneously recognising the whole awards season hoopla for the insubstantial nonsense that it actually is but also celebrating the art of cinema. However, I have to say I think my favourite acceptance speech came from Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez after their win for Best Original Song (the epic 'Let It Go' from Frozen). 

Gravity was the big winner of the evening, taking 7 of the 10 awards it was nominated for (including Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron). There were three awards apiece for 12 Years A Slave (including Best Picture) and Dallas Buyers Club and two each for The Great Gatsby and Frozen: interestingly, both films were only nominated for two Oscars (Gatsby for Production Design and Costume Design, and Frozen for Animated Film and Original Song) and won both! 

Despite 10 nominations, American Hustle came away with nothing. Similarly, nothing for Captain Phillips, Philomena, Nebraska or The Wolf Of Wall Street.

Below is the full list of winners at the 86th Annual Academy Awards:

Best Motion Picture of the Year: 12 Years A Slave 

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze (Her)

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) 

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year: Frozen 

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year: The Great Beauty

Best Cinematography: Gravity 

Best Editing: Gravity 

Best Production Design: The Great Gatsby

Best Costume Design: The Great Gatsby

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club 

Best Original Score: Gravity 

Best Original Song: 'Let It Go' (Frozen

Best Sound Mixing: Gravity 

Best Sound Editing: Gravity 

Best Visual Effects: Gravity 

Best Documentary (Feature): 20 Feet From Stardom

Best Documentary (Short Subject): The Lady In Number 6

Best Animated Short Film: Mr Hublot

Best Live Action Short Film: Helium

Congratulations to all winners!


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Awards Season 2014: Tez's Official Oscar Predictions 2014

Tonight, the great and good of Hollywood will convene to celebrate the best of filmmaking in 2013 at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, which will be hosted for the second time by Ellen DeGeneres (hooray!). It has become a tradition for me to predict the nominations and the winners in the main six categories (the four acting categories, Best Director and Best Picture).  I've done this since 2003 with varying degrees of success. So, without further ado, here are my predictions for who will win.

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)

Nyong'o's stunning performance as slave girl Patsey gives added heart to 12 Years A Slave, and it's made even more impressive for the fact that it's her first feature film role. However, there's a chance that the award might go to Jennifer Lawrence (who won the Golden Globe and BAFTA for her performance in American Hustle). Whilst Lawrence's performance is very powerful, I found Nyong'o's performance more emotionally affecting and she would be a very deserving winner.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Leto's been the stand-out winner throughout the awards season for his fierce yet fragile performance as transgender woman Rayon. Leto provides a great foil to McConaughey's boorishness, giving Dallas Buyers Club a real emotional heart, and I will be very surprised if any other name is called out.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Similarly, I will also be gobsmacked if anyone other than Blanchett gets named Best Actress for her breathtaking turn in Blue Jasmine. Ever since I saw the film back in October, her turn as the neurotic, glacial Jasmine has stayed with me and I even stated when we did the Review Of 2013 that I thought she would win. In a category dominated by acting royalty- Streep, Dench- Blanchett stands head-and-shoulders above them. Like Leto, she's been the runaway winner throughout the awards season and totally deserves to win.

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Who ever thought I'd be saying this? Matthew McConaughey is pretty much locked in to win the Best Actor Oscar for his sterling turn as Ron Woodroof. Anyone who can portray a racist, homophobic redneck and have you rooting for him to succeed is doing something pretty special. Whilst it would be nice to see Chiwetel Ejiofor to win (as his performance in 12 Years A Slave is just superb), I think it's going to go to  McConaughey.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Despite my reservations about some of the script decisions in the film, there's no taking away from the fact that Gravity is a technical tour-de-force- the amazing opening sequence done in two single takes, the zero-gravity effects- and for that reason, Cuaron deserves to win.

Best Picture: 12 Years A Slave

Again, this has been the stand-out Best Picture winner throughout awards season, so I'm fully expecting it to win the top prize. 12 Years A Slave is a powerful film, one to be respected rather than enjoyed though due to its unflinching portrayal of the harshness of slavery. It's a film full of strong performances and is shot with a striking visual style. 

Last year, I got a clean sweep of 6 out of 6. With no false modesty, I'm confident on 3 of these, maybe 4. I think Best Supporting Actress may be open for debate, as might Best Picture. The assumption is that it's 12 Years A Slave's to lose, but you can never really tell until the golden envelope is opened.

I'll update the blog on Monday March 3rd with all the results and my thoughts on the ceremony


Awards Season 2014: Independent Spirit Awards and Razzies Results

Awards season is nearly over for another year (which must come as a relief to most of you). It's been a slightly longer season this year due to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. In other years, this would have been done and dusted last weekend. So you can blame the IOC for the extension.

Anyway, the 86th Annual Academy Awards ceremony is tonight (March 2nd). It can be viewed on a dedicated Sky Movies channel in the UK and on ABC in the US. But before I turn my eyes to the Oscars, here's a round-up of the other awards ceremonies that have taken place in this weekend. 


Yesterday- Saturday 1st March- saw the handing out of the Independent Spirit Awards, in a ceremony hosted by comedian Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille, Young Adult). These honour films made (partly or wholly) outside the major film studio system. Some of the winners are below.

Best Feature: 12 Years A Slave

Best Female Lead: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Best Male Lead: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Supporting Female: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)

Best Supporting Male: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Director: Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)

Best Screenplay: 12 Years A Slave

Best First Screenplay: Nebraska

Best Cinematography: 12 Years A Slave

Best First Feature: Fruitvale Station

Best International Film: Blue Is The Warmest Colour

Best Documentary: 20 Feet From Stardom

John Cassavetes Award: This Is Martin Bonner

The John Cassavetes Award is given to the creative team of a film budgeted at less than $500,000. The full list of winners can be found here.

12 Years A Slave was the runaway winner with five awards (all deserved). I'm sure I said this last year when I shared the results, but there were several nominated films and performances that had quite a widespread cinema release- I think Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years A Slave are still at my local cinemas- so it's good to see that independent film is going strong. I think it's also good to show that films not produced (or not wholly produced) within Hollywood's studio system can get to a wide audience. Long may it continue. 


As is traditional, last night (the night before the Oscars ceremony) also saw the 34th Annual Golden Raspberry Awards. No runaway winner this year (unlike Twilight's almost clean sweep) which probably goes to show that there have been a lot more bad movies made in the last year. 

Here's the full 'winners' list:

Worst Picture: Movie 43

Worst Actor: Jaden Smith (After Earth)

Worst Actress: Tyler Perry (in drag) (A Madea Christmas)

Worst Supporting Actor: Will Smith (After Earth)

Worst Supporting Actress: Kim Kardashian (Tyler Perry's Temptation)

Worst Screen Ensemble: Jaden Smith & Will Smith (After Earth)

Worst Director: Movie 43's 13 directors

Worst Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel: The Lone Ranger

Worst Screenplay: Movie 43 (written by 19 screenwriters)

It does seem a damning indictment that- even with over 30 people working on writing and directing Movie 43 (let alone production staff and the actors)- it turned out to be such a turgid mess. One surprise though: no Golden Raspberry for Adam Sandler this year; perhaps the nominations were enough?

So now we're up to date. But what about the Oscars? My predictions for who will win the major prizes will be posted next.