The Watchers

The Watchers

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Bob Hoskins (1942-2014)

We at The Watchers were very saddened to hear of the death of Bob Hoskins, who passed away today. He was 71 years old.

Born in Bury St Edmunds in 1942, Hoskins worked as a porter, lorry driver, window cleaner, fruit packer, and fire-eater at a circus before turning his hand to acting at the age of 26. His acting career started by accident when he was mistaken for an auditionee whilst waiting for a friend. He auditioned and got the part and then got an agent. 

After stage and television work in things like Villains and Crown Court, he landed the lead role in Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven (1978) and then went on to play vicious gangster Harold Shand in classic British crime thriller The Long Good Friday (1980), a role specifically written for him. He would receive the first of three BAFTA Film nominations for his performance.
Through the early 1980s, Hoskins did a variety of different roles- playing Iago in a 1981 version of Othello, opposite Anthony Hopkins and Penelope Wilton, then appearing in John Mackenzie's The Honorary Consul (1983), Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club (1984) and Terry Gilliam's mindbending Brazil (1985). 

In 1986, he starred in Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, playing an ex-con who gets a job driving a high-class call girl (Cathy Tyson) around. For his performance, Hoskins jointly won Best Actor at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival and won outright the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, and the Best Actor BAFTA. He was also nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (his first and only nomination), although lost out to Paul Newman for The Color Of Money.

In 1988, he took the role of private eye Eddie Valiant in the partially animated and downright brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit, putting on a very convincing American accent. He starred opposite Cher, Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci in Mermaids (1990) and was excellent as Mr. Smee in Hook (1991), as right hand man to the deliciously OTT Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook. Around this time, Hoskins also appeared in several British Telecom adverts, with the tagline 'it's good to talk'.

In 1993, he appeared in the movie adaptation of Super Mario Brothers, playing Mario alongside John Leguizamo as Luigi and Dennis Hopper as King Koopa. Despite now being a cult film and a bit of a guilty pleasure, Hoskins considered it to be the worst thing he had done, describing the experience of filming it as 'a f**kin' nightmare'.  

Other stand-out films include Shane Meadows' 24/7 (1997), a chilling performance in Atom Egoyam's Felicia's Journey (1999) and a wonderful turn opposite Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005). Hoskins also played several real-life figures, including Winston Churchill in World War II: When Lions Roared (1994), J. Edgar Hoover in Nixon (1995), Manuel Noriega in Noriega: God's Favourite (2000), Nikita Krushchev in Enemy At The Gates (2001) and Pope John XXIII in The Good Pope (2003).

After appearing as the dwarf Muir in Snow White And The Huntsman in 2012, Hoskins announced his retirement from acting after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

A fine actor who will be missed. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this very sad time.

The Watchers
(Rhys, Matt & Tez)

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Shakespeare On Film

Yesterday was the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. 

Whether you rolled your eyes and groaned when Shakespeare was mentioned at school or if you thoroughly loved his work, there's no denying that Shakespeare was a genius. Thanks to him, the world has some of the most beautiful, powerful, tragic, funny, horrifying, thrilling and engaging theatre ever performed (and which keeps being performed). We also have an expanded vocabulary- Shakespeare is known to have originated many words including assassination, bump and eyeball- and lines from his plays have passed into common parlance ('eaten me out of house and home', 'neither a borrower nor a lender be'). 

Shakespeare's plays are just that. Plays. They are not meant to be read in a stuffy classroom or lecture hall. They are living, vibrant texts that absolutely come to life when performed. 

So, to celebrate the birth of the Bard, we take a look at ten of Shakespeare's plays and their various film adaptations.


The tragic tale of 'star-cross'd lovers' is most pupils' introduction to Shakespeare and it's become one of the most enduring love stories in the whole canon of literature. It's been filmed many times- in the 1936 version directed by George Cukor, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard played the teenaged lovers (she was 34, he was 43); Franco Zeffirelli directed a rather beautifully lyrical version in 1968 with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the lead roles, whilst the kinetic, frenetic wham-bam visuals of Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version (with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) kickstarted a whole slew of updated Shakespeare productions on stage and screen.


Four young lovers, fairies, magic spells and a group of wandering players are the elements of this comedy. The 1935 version (directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt) stars Jimmy Cagney as Bottom and the late Mickey Rooney as Puck, whilst the lush 1999 adaptation by Michael Hoffman transplants the scene from Athens to the Sicilian countryside and has a star-studded cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Christian Bale, Anna Friel, Sam Rockwell and Sophie Marceau.


There are three adaptations of Shakespeare's finest tragedy which are of particular interest. 

Laurence Olivier's 1948 black-and-white production holds a couple of firsts: it's the first (and so far only) Shakespearean adaptation to win the Best Picture Oscar, with Olivier as the first (and so far only) actor to win an Oscar for a Shakespearean performance. Thoughtful and powerful, like so many of Olivier's performances, it has remained the benchmark for all others to come after it. 

Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation with Mel Gibson in the title role is a bit hit-and-miss, but there are great performances by Glenn Close as Gertrude, Stephen Dillane as Horatio and Ian Holm as Polonius, whilst Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version is a full-on, unexpurgated version that stretches to four hours. Absolutely stuffed to the ginnels with star talent, with even minor roles taken by acting royalty, it's the definitive version of the story. 

To give you a glimpse of how good Branagh's Hamlet is, here's a clip which shows the famous 'to be or not to be' soliloquy:


Unashamedly patriotic, this oft-quoted History of the Battle of Agincourt was the perfect morale-booster during the darkest days of the Second World War. Olivier directed and starred in the 1944 version of the play, complete with music by William Walton, and won an Honourary Oscar for his troubles. In 1989, Kenneth Branagh made his directorial debut with a second adaptation of Henry V, following in Olivier's footsteps by directing himself in the lead. 


The seminal performance of Shakespeare's hunchbacked king is, unsurprisingly, Laurence Olivier's in the 1955 film (which he also directed). His tone of voice (famously spoofed by Peter Sellers when he performed 'A Hard Day's Night') and posture have been the blueprint for playing Richard for decades. However, the 1995 film directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellen in the title role went in a different direction and is all the better for it. Set in an alternative fascist English setting, McKellen's turn as the scheming king is just fantastic. 


Not one of Shakespeare's best known plays, this searing Roman drama of revenge and betrayal recently had a stage revival at the Donmar Warehouse featuring a powerhouse performance by Tom Hiddleston in the title role. However, it has also been filmed. A 2011 adaptation was directed by Ralph Fiennes (who also took the title role) and also starred Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave. There are blistering performances by Redgrave and Cox whilst it's a decent adaptation of a tricky play.


This is my favourite of Shakespeare's plays. There are two particularly interesting film version of this lyrical, beautiful and poignant play. Derek Jarman's 1979 version, starring Heathcote Williams as Prospero and Toyah Willcox as Miranda (above), is full of the usual striking and out-there imagery you would expect for a Jarman film- for instance, the masque of the spirits is represented by opera singer Elisabeth Welch singing 'Stormy Weather'. The second is a 2010 version directed by Julie Taymor, remarkable for the gender-swap of the main character Prospero, now a sorceress named Prospera and played with style by Helen Mirren. Too bad about Russell Brand though.

In this next clip, Prospera gives up her magic in what is one of the finest speeches in the play:


There are two very different film versions of this Shakespearean comedy- the first was released in 1993, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Emma Thompson and Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick (along with a woefully miscast Keanu Reeves as the villain Don John) and Joss Whedon's delightful, minimalist 2012 adaptation with Whedonverse alumni Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as the central couple, which succeeds to make the more implausible elements of the b-plot into something moving.


The tragedy of the jealous Moor has had a fairly chequered film adaptation history, with two of the best-thought-of adaptations- the 1952 version starring Orson Welles and the 1965 version with Laurence Olivier- having the lead character played by a white actor in blackface make-up. However, Oliver Parker's 1995 version casts Laurence Fishburne in the title role who makes for a ferocious Othello, whose descent into jealous madness is aided by Kenneth Branagh as the duplicitious Iago.


Classed as a comedy but with more than its fair share of drama, Michael Radford's 2004 film version sees Al Pacino in fine scene-chewing form as Shylock, determined to get his 'pound of flesh' from Antonio, the eponymous Merchant. The balance of the comedy and drama goes slightly awry here- its difficult to balance the lightness of the caskets against the drama of the court- but its a wonderfully committed performance by Pacino, plus there's an intriguing decision to play Antonio as a man in unrequited love with his friend Bassanio. 

In this final clip, you get to see Pacino's Shylock in full flow as he is questioned over his desire to exact his revenge on Antonio:

Other great film adaptations include:
  • Roman Polanski's dark and powerful version of Macbeth (1971), with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis
  • Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 version of The Taming Of The Shrew starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Petruchio and Kate
  • Trevor Nunn's 1996 version of Twelfth Night starring Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley
  • Titus, Julie Taymor's 1999 version of the bloody revenge play Titus Andronicus, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange
  • Kenneth Branagh's 2000 musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost starring Alicia Silverstone, Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Lane

When promoting the latest version of Romeo & Juliet which he adapted and augmented, Julian Fellowes created a bit of a stir by saying 'you require a kind of Shakespearean scholarship' and 'a very expensive education' to be able to follow the language of a Shakespeare play. 

Utter, abject nonsense. 

What you need to understand Shakespeare is a clear production design, a director who understands the text and can get their vision across, and a cast who know what it is they are saying and can convey the necessary emotions. You don't need a fancy degree or years of study. Shakespeare's plays were written and performed for the masses as well as the aristocracy and speak to us all. 

The play's the thing, indeed


Monday, 21 April 2014

Review: All Is Lost (UK Cert 12A)

It's been said that there are only seven stories in the world. If this is true, then one of those stories must be human endurance against the odds. Take a protagonist, put them in a difficult situation, ramp up the danger and see what happens. Recent additions to this canon include both Captain Phillips and Gravity; joining them at the cinema at the beginning of the year was All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor's second feature film (after 2011's Margin Call).

Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a boat named the Virginia Jean collides with a stray shipping container which rips a hole in its hull. The sole sailor on board (Robert Redford) must do his best to repair his ship. But that's only the beginning because, with navigation equipment and radio damaged, he sails into an oncoming tropical storm... Whilst Margin Call was a dense and wordy affair with a star-packed cast, All Is Lost goes to the other extreme. There are barely ten lines of dialogue in the whole 106 minutes and Redford is the sole actor onscreen, in virtually every shot of the film. The result? An absorbing, tense and thrilling drama.

Redford's character goes unnamed- the credits refer to him as Our Man- and his backstory is elliptically told in an opening narration. He's sorry. He tried. He will miss them. Whatever set of circumstances took him on the Virginia Jean and out to the Sumatra Straits are never fully explained but there's an aching poignancy to these opening lines and it's the most that's said in one go in the entire film. Redford carries the film (almost) single-handedly (more on that in a minute), his features weatherbeaten and grizzled as he tries desperately to survive against the odds. You feel for him, you want him to succeed and, at each setback (and there are many), your heart goes out to him. In many ways, it's what Alfonso Cuaron managed to do with Sandra Bullock in Gravity (until the end), but here the ending is much more satisfactory. Redford's omission from the Best Actor nominations for this year's Academy Awards has been seen by many as an egregious oversight and there's some truth to that; it's a truly exceptional performance.

I said Redford carries the film almost single-handedly. It's true that he is the only person on screen for the duration, but there's so much more to it than that. Much like Gravity, it's a technically accomplished film- there will be moments when you watch it and you'll think 'how did they pull that off?'- and, along with the visual effects team, the sound engineers and the directors of photography also help to sell the whole experience and they should be equally applauded. Frank G. DeMarco (Director of Photography) and Peter Zuccarini (underwater Director of Photography) do excellent work to convey the wide expanse of the sea that Our Man finds himself in and the perils beneath the surface. There are a couple of dizzying shots which show the raft from above and from below which are just astounding. The sound mixers and editors also deserve highest praise for the sound design of the film: every creak, every crack, every torrent of water that gushes through the boat makes your heart jump and the tropical storm in particular sounds great.

This is no popcorn flick, no turn-your-brain-off-and-just-watch-the-pretty-pictures movie. This film demands and deserves your undivided attention. The lack of dialogue will put a lot of people off it, but give it a fair chance. Chances are you'll be drawn into Our Man's struggle for survival and be rooted to your chair as you watch him fighting against the elements. 

Rating: 4 out of 5


Friday, 18 April 2014

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (UK Cert 12A)

 SPOILER WARNING! This review discusses and/or mentions a few important plot points. If you would prefer not to have these spoiled, please stop reading now and come back once you've seen the film.  

Are you sitting comfortably? Good, because you'll need to be. There is so much going on in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that, even at a bum-numbing 142 minutes, a few things are left hanging. The knowledge that a third and fourth instalment, plus two spin-off films, are in the works gives screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner the luxury of not having to tie everything up. Thank heavens, because if they'd had to, the final edit could have easily given The Lord Of The Rings a run for its money.

The story starts with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) loving life and loving being Spider-Man and keeping New York safe. After a dust-up with Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti, earning his 'with' credit with a total of about five minutes' screen-time) on the morning of his graduation, Peter and girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) are looking forward to life after college. However, besides the usual relationship issues, there's still the mystery over what actually happened to Peter's parents, the return of Peter's old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) and a brand new threat to deal with: the formidable Electro (Jamie Foxx). Loyalties will be tested, alliances formed and hearts broken as the webslinger faces his toughest times.

Despite the fact that one of the marketing campaigns for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is 'enemies unite'- and you do get three of Spidey's best-known villains- the film manages to quite cannily sidestep the Spider-Man 3 trap of throwing too many villains at the screen and not giving them enough to do or not enough screentime.

There's so many different elements to the story that it does take a long time to get all the pieces in position. Throughout it all, Garfield is an engaging and powerful central presence. He can sell the quippy, wisecracking Spidey as much as he can sell the heartbroken and headstrong Peter and- even when the script is uneven- you believe in his performance. This is certainly helped by the fact that the chemistry between Garfield and on-(and off-)screen girlfriend Emma Stone is undeniable and absolutely palpable at some places. You believe in them as a couple and that really pulls at the heartstrings throughout when the relationship is thrown into choppy waters. The promise Peter made Gwen's late father still weighs heavily and it makes for a few sombre moments.

Stone is excellent again- Gwen's no shrinking wallflower, she's a gutsy young woman who can make her own decisions. She doesn't need rescuing and is an equal to Peter and to Spider-Man. Prior to editing, there were scenes filmed which would introduce Divergent star Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson, even one where Gwen and Mary Jane meet. I think it was a good move to remove these scenes (not least because of the already crammed storyline) but because the main love story here needs to be that of Peter and Gwen and everything that entails. Comic-book fans will know how that storyline pans out and the film remains true to it, even managing a stylish homage to one of the iconic comic book panels at the end. Even if you know what's going to happen, it's still an absolutely gutwrenching and emotional moment when it does come (again sold by Garfield's devastated performance). 

As for the other labyrinthine strands the story takes us in, some are more successful than others. For instance, Dane DeHaan brings more charisma, menace and emotion to his role of Harry Osborn in this one film than James Franco managed in three. Home to see his dying father Norman (a reptilian and uncredited Chris Cooper) and finding himself in charge of Oscorp, Harry becomes obsessed with finding a cure for the illness that killed his father and is killing him. It's a real shame that certain advertising campaigns chose to plant a massive spoiler signposting DeHaan's character progression because Harry's transition from ally to adversary would have carried more weight had it been kept under wraps.

Getting to see what ACTUALLY happened to Peter's parents and finding out more of their story is one of the more successful parts. Campbell Scott builds on his stoic and strong performance from the first film as his ethical dilemmas and the danger he faces start to build. There's the usual second-act misdirection as a few painful truths have to come out from Aunt May (Sally Field, superb as always) but the final resolution of that particular storyline (assuming it has now been put to bed) is emotionally satisfying.

The one bum note in all of this is the Electro storyline. Meek and mild Oscorp grunt Max Dillon, an invisible and unregarded man, gets involved in a terrible accident that leaves him with his superpowers. That's fine. All well and good. The first showdown between Electro and Spidey in Times Square is one of the film's set pieces and is a high-octane balls-to-the-wall everything-and-the-kitchen-sink battle which looks fantastic. My problem is Foxx's performance. It just didn't seem right. He didn't convince as the mousy Max (not helped by a slightly ridiculous cartoonesque soundtrack just before his hideous accident) and the hero-worship of Spidey which turns into an unhinged obsession wasn't handled right either. He's better when he is Electro but is disposed of pretty quickly in the final fight (another admittedly visually stunning set-piece). A stronger actor could have sold the pathos or the loneliness better but Foxx just didn't do it for me.

There are so many hints thrown in for later films. Two more of Spider-Man's most iconic villains are teased with background shots of mechanical equipment and the name of Felicity Jones' character may raise a few eyebrows. In places, this feels more like the start of a franchise than just another sequel but doesn't feel too blatant or cynical. The post-rendering to 3D was largely successful, giving some of the bigger setpieces a real depth. 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 engaged me, engrossed me and I enjoyed it thoroughly. By the way, as has become standard with comic-book movies, I'd advise you stay for the mid-credits scene (there is only one). It's a jawdropping little teaser that opens up a few questions of its own.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Review: The Raid 2 (UK Cert: 18)

Anyone who has been following The Watchers blog since the beginning will know that Gareth Evans’ martial arts action thriller The Raid sparked a fair bit of controversy when Rhys and Tez reviewed it: they walked out of the cinema and gave it 1 out of 5. Was that a tiny bit harsh? Honestly, I think it was. The Raid was released on a mass of hype, critics calling it one of the greatest (some sticking their neck out and calling it the greatest) action films ever made. I try not to get caught up in the hype surrounding a film, but with The Raid I was expecting great things, something that justified the buzz around it. Personally, I thought The Raid was an enjoyable enough two hours, but I couldn’t understand why it had critics swooning over it. The choreography was staggering to watch, the violence far more fierce than the edited for teenagers action films from the US; the issue I had was with how Evans filmed the fight scenes. There were times where it felt like Evans simply got the cameras rolling and yelled “Action!” Fights that would have been astonishing to witness on set lost something when caught on camera. It didn’t help that most of the footage was handheld, Evans’ editing occasionally firing several shots at the viewer in only a few seconds, sometimes making it difficult to work out what was happening. 2012 saw two films centred around a raid on a tower block, released barely a month apart at the cinema. While I preferred Dredd as a grim, violent dose of action, it was The Raid that audiences flocked to see, hence why a sequel was given the go ahead (with a third film recently announced).

With The Raid 2, undercover cop Rama (Iko Uwais) is no longer fighting for his life in a rundown tower block, this time he is taking on Jakarta’s criminal underworld as well as its corrupt police force in a narrative influenced by complex, table-turning gangster films such as Michael Mann’s Heat and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.

Rather than subscribe to what most sequels usually do – the law of diminishing returns – Evans has taken everything from his first film and made it bigger, both in terms of scale and ambition. You know a film has more than its fair share of set pieces when everyone who sees it will have their own favourite: a fight in a prison toilet cubicle crammed with dozens of inmates; a punch-up in a nightclub that moves between different platforms and floors; fists flying in the back seat of a car that is getting shot to pieces – these are just some of the many fights in The Raid 2’s two-and-a-half hours. A personal highlight is where three clashes in different locations are edited together to look like one seamless battle; Baseball Bat Man (that’s his character’s name in the credits!), in an abandoned building, swings to hit a victim with his bat, but before we see the blow, we cut to Hammer Girl (again, no messing, tells you all you need to know), on an underground train, swiping a man in the face. This display continues for several minutes and looks fantastic throughout.

While Evans has toned down the editing this time round, preferring Scorsese’s GoodFellas-style continuous shots and getting right in the middle of the action (you worry that the camera crew must have accidentally been kicked/punched/stabbed), he still films everything using shaky handheld cameras. I can understand why, it adds to The Raid 2’s dogged, rough around the edges feel, but every once in a while you find yourself struggling to make out the odd move or stunt. This is just my taste, but I prefer early martial arts films such as Five Fingers of Death or The Streetfighter, where the camera stays still, positioned to give the best view of the action, with only the occasional cut to another shot. The cinematography in The Raid 2 isn’t flawless, but it is an enormous improvement on the original film.

Everyone who saw The Raid talked about one thing; the violence. Unlike Taken 2, which cut away at even the smallest hint of bloodshed to ensure a 12A certificate, The Raid 2 outdoes the first film, with plenty of moments that will make cinema audiences groan or laugh awkwardly. Evans knows where to draw the line, however; this isn’t torture porn you’re watching, it’s over-the-top, comic book violence with oceans of blood thrown at the screen. Evans will happily show viewers what happens when someone is hit or slashed with a hammer, but the truly grotesque violence is all hinted at off-screen.

Fans of action films don’t go to see them for convincing performances, they watch them for the explosions, the car chases, and seeing people get beaten up in all sorts of creative ways.  If you have Alan Rickman as the bad guy, then that’s an added bonus. Everyone in The Raid 2 does a solid job acting-wise. Uwais gets to flex more of his acting muscles this time round as his morals are tested: he is let down by the police, who have forgotten about him now he is undercover, yet he is forced to witness, or be involved in, the savage goings on of Jakarta’s criminal gangs. There are moments when Uwais is alone in his apartment, struggling to cope with what he has been made to do. Arifin Putra gives The Raid 2’s best performance as the main villain, wanting to usurp his father’s legacy and wipe out his gangland rivals. Putra is arrogant, even petulant when he argues with his father, but most of the time he is unnervingly calm, a wild look in his eyes, lashing out with no warning (with The Raid 2, lashing out means shooting someone in the head or threatening to put a microphone somewhere it’s never meant to go). You forget that it’s been a while since there was any action in the film because Putra is so intense, at times frightening, to watch.

The Raid 2 will divide fans who worship the original. With The Raid, you could watch it with your brain on autopilot; The Raid 2 asks you to concentrate as alliances are formed and broken, characters double-crossing each other. Fans of The Raid, who expected the sequel to be the same film on a bigger budget, are going to be surprised.

Gareth Evans’ sequel isn’t perfect; by swapping the single location of a tower block to the whole of Jakarta, The Raid 2 loses the frenzied pace of the first film. The Godfather’s three-hour running time felt justified as Michael Corleone is dragged deeper and deeper into the family business, but The Raid 2’s narrative, while an intriguing guessing game of who’s going to betray who, doesn’t feel quite solid enough to warrant two-and-a-half hours. You get the sense that Evans was handed the money to make a sequel and told to do whatever he likes, which he did; fans of The Raid will have to decide if that’s for better or worse.

3 out of 5


Friday, 11 April 2014

Review: Noah (UK Cert: 12A)

Critics have used a lot of words to describe Darren Aronofsky, predictable is never one of them. Since his feature debut with Pi, a thriller centred on a mathematician searching for a number to unlock patterns in the world around him, Aronfosky has gone on to make films about drug addiction (Requiem for a Dream), love in a spiritual and philosophical sense (The Fountain), struggling to accept your place in the world (The Wrestler), and the fragile line between obsession and madness (Black Swan). This is a director who, when interviewed at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, revealed that before Christopher Nolan was given the job of dusting off Warner Brothers’ Batman franchise, toyed with the idea of making a Batman film, but set it in the everyday world; an ordinary man, not a billionaire, fighting crime. Now Aronofsky takes his CV in another, totally different direction: the biblical epic as a summer blockbuster.

When the announcement came that Aronofsky’s next project was to bring Noah to the big screen, I was keen to find out how he would manage it. When you stop and think about it, Noah isn’t the most sympathetic of heroes; he lets billions of people drown. Aronofsky’s films, no matter how obscure, all have protagonists that you either care about, or at the very least you want to find out what happens to them. All I remember of the story is what was taught in primary school, but I couldn’t imagine Noah being the most likeable of leads.

Aronofsky wisely does not comment on whether God or religion is good or bad; he avoids this discussion. Instead, his vision of Noah is to ask the question, what would you do if faced with the task of wiping out mankind for the greater good? Could you do it, and could you deal with the consequences? This is not the story of Noah that you sang about in school, where the man who built the ark is described as a hero. Aronofsky’s Noah portrays him as a flawed man, sometimes bordering on fanatic.

Russell Crowe has given some excellent performances during his career, and as Noah he gives one of his best. There are times where Crowe looks weary, struggling with the burden he has been given. Audiences will find it hard to sympathise with Noah; for the majority of the film he is unwavering, never doubting what has been asked of him, pointing out that God did not choose him because he is a good man, but because he will do what needs to be done. It is in the occasional calm moments later on, when Noah stops and realises what he has done, that Crowe really excels. If you root for Crowe it is because he is so determined, the responsibility all on him; you find yourself begrudgingly respecting Noah.

Jennifer Connelly, as Noah’s wife Naameh, is the film’s heart; she is who you empathise with. Naameh loves her husband, but she is constantly questioning him, pleading with him, even going behind his back to do what she feels is right. Connelly asks many of the questions that audiences will have, some of Noah’s most powerful scenes being when Connelly is close to breaking point, distraught, pointing out to her husband how much of a hypocrite he is.

Ray Winstone once again gets the bad guy role, but at least his character - Tubal-Cain, ruler of the remaining humans – has some complexity to him. When the rain begins to fall, Winstone looks up at the sky and asks what gives God the right to wipe out so many people. In one of Crowe and Winstone’s many stand offs, Winstone asks what the point is of praying to a God who has turned his back on them. Winstone’s career may involve him playing tiny variations of the same role, but the memorable villains are always the ones you find yourself strangely relating to, which is what Winstone succeeds in doing with Tubal-Cain.

Noah is very much a film of two halves: flashy CGI in the first hour, then downbeat introspection for the remainder. The first half is very much about spectacle; the building of the ark and the floods that devastate the world. Much of the CGI is up there with the best summer blockbusters, with the exception of the stone giants, the Watchers; fallen angels who help Noah build the arc. While the scene depicting their fall is beautiful, dramatic stuff, the Watchers themselves are shoddy-looking. How I judge CGI is if I stop and think, “That was done on a computer,” then the special effects haven’t done their job. CGI should be a method to tell a story, but if the animation is not up to scratch, then you distance your audience. Considering Black Swan has one of the best examples of CGI in recent years, when Nina’s madness takes hold and she sprouts feathers, literally transforming into the Black Swan on stage, the Watchers are nowhere near as impressive. When these creatures are talking to Noah, or are surrounded by forest or desert, you can clearly tell they are not part of the same scene, that they were added later on.

The rest of Noah is dotted with visual effects and set-pieces that, while the film is one of the first blockbusters to be released this year, it is difficult to imagine how other big name releases will match it, both in terms of scale and imagination. No one who watches Noah will fail to be wowed by Crowe’s retelling of the seven days of creation. Using still frame animation, we are shown the universe coming together, cells dividing, fish sprouting legs and crawling onto land, before finally arriving at the first man and woman. It is easily as spectacular as the animation used in James Cameron’s Avatar.

For me, Noah is at its most impressive when it gets the build-up to the flood out of the way and it is Noah and his family alone on the ark. You have Noah listening to the screams of the survivors outside. Crowe, hard faced and resolute up until this point, flinches for a moment, before telling his family that they must stick with the task they have been given. Later on, Noah uncomfortably resembles the leaders of religious cults when he decides that all mankind should die out, including his wife and children. It’s psychological, morally complex stuff, the likes of which you don’t see in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Like Aronofsky’s previous films, Noah won’t be for everyone. It is overlong, takes itself ridiculously seriously, and about as subtle as having a brick thrown through your window. Unless you were looking at your phone during the film’s two-and-a-half-hours, you can’t fail to have noticed one of Noah’s main themes, environmentalism, which Aronfsky insists on hitting audiences over the head with. Comparing the world of Noah to our world today is a smart move, though Aronfsky didn’t have to keep reminding us.

A large number of critics have described Noah as Aronofsky’s weakest film. They’re probably right, but that’s like saying Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is nowhere near as good as Psycho. Noah proves that you don’t have to have a summer film featuring giant robots and little else; a big budget event film can be intelligent, have scene after scene of original ideas, take risks, be controversial, and engage an audience. Noah is far from perfect, but Aronofsky deserves praise for successfully transferring one of the Bible’s most famous stories to the big screen at a time when, if you watch the news, it feels like religion is frowned upon more than ever. When we look back at Aronofsky’s work, if Noah ends up being the director’s worst film, he will have had an impressive, unmatched career.

3 out of 5


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Mini-Countdown: Twin Films

Currently in the cinemas is The Legend Of Hercules with Twilight alum Kellan Lutz in the titular role. In a few months' time, a second film- just entitled Hercules- hits the screens, with Dwayne Johnson in the lead. It seems to be happening more and more frequently that separate studios are releasing separate films that share a plot, although its been happening for years. In fact, it's happening frequently enough in order for the phenomenon to have a name: twin films. 

So, to reinforce the world-worn notion that there is nothing new under the sun, here are five examples of twin films. And to prove that this isn't just the province of disaster movies, I've included a biopic and some fantasy films as well.

1. Volcano and Dante's Peak (both 1997)

Volcano disaster movies are a bit like buses. You wait for ages and two come along at once. In the red corner, Dante's Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. In the blue corner, the imaginately titled Volcano starring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche. Both passable actioners but you may be hard pushed to find people who can name both; most people will probably go for Dante's Peak if you ask if they remember a volcano disaster movie coming out in 1997.

2. White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen (both 2013)

If the world was in need of a White-House-in-peril pic, that need was more than adequately met with just one of these lunkheaded actioners, so having two within the space of three months seems a bit like overkill. Either way, the plot is broadly similar: secret agent (Gerard Butler/Channing Tatum) has to save the President (Aaron Eckhart/Jamie Foxx) from a terrorist threat (North Koreans/generic mercenaries). So far, so-so. Apparently, Sony has largely blamed White House Down for a $197m loss made over the summer 2013. Maybe watch Olympus Has Fallen instead?

3. Snow White And The Huntsman and Mirror Mirror (both 2012)

Within months of each other, Universal Pictures and Relativity Media/Fox released their takes on the classic fairytale. Mirror Mirror is a candy-coloured concoction with Julia Roberts camping it up something rotten as the Wicked Queen throwing side-eye at Lily Collins, whilst Snow White And The Huntsman was a mark darker affair with a vampish Charlize Theron seeking to do away with the sullen charisma vacuum that is Kristin Stewart. The latter film also became better known for off-screen shenanigans between the leading lady and the director which overshadowed things somewhat. Apparently, a sequel is in the works.

4. Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006)

It's a shame that the timing of these two Truman Capote biopics couldn't have been better spaced out. Infamous isn't a bad film per se, but it really suffered coming so close behind the admittedly better Capote which is a much straighter account of Capote's writing of In Cold Blood. Infamous gets a bit more fanciful and more insubstantial with a talking-heads style which jars with the later story. Whilst Capote was lauded by the critics and won the late Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar, Infamous slunk past virtually unnoticed despite great performances by Toby Jones (as Capote) and Sandra Bullock (as Harper Lee). 

5. Robin Hood and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (both 1991)

Not that you would have known it, but there were actually two films about Robin Hood released in 1991. Sadly, the other one- with Patrick Bergin as Robin Hood and Uma Thurman as Maid Marian- sank without trace against the juggernaut that was Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. You couldn't move during that summer without hearing 'Everything I Do (I Do It For You)'. But then again, it does have Alan Rickman at his snarling, sarcastic best so swings and roundabouts.

There are dozens of other examples of this - Antz and A Bug's Life, Deep Impact and Armageddon, Wyatt Earp and Tombstone. If you can think of any more, let us know in the comments below!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Review: Need for Speed (UK Cert: 12A)

Need for Speed: The Movie – I’ve got number of issues with this. First off, the fact that, with less than a year since Universal Pictures released Fast & Furious 6, DreamWorks thought it was a good idea to bring out another car porn film. What can Need for Speed do that the Fast & Furious franchise hasn’t already done six times before? Also, having seen the trailer, DreamWorks are promoting Need for Speed as if it is one of this year’s biggest releases. Just because the film stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, DreamWorks’ trailer assumes that Need for Speed will be just as impressive as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. DreamWorks are, you could argue understandably, ignoring the fact that Need for Speed is based on a video game. It speaks volumes when the cream-of-the-crop of video game adaptations is still Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat, based on the ‘90s 2D beat-‘em-up. Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill was decent enough, but went wildly downhill during the second half, which is minute-after-minute of clunky exposition and even clunkier dialogue. Paul W.S. Anderson’s second venture into video game adaptations, the first entry in the Resident Evil franchise, was a watchable film based on a video game with laugh-out-loud dodgy voice acting and a bonkers plot. Then you have Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter and Alone in the Dark, all films that completely missed the point. Whenever I find out that a video game is going to get the big screen treatment, lights flash and alarm bells ring. The most I can hope for is a passable way to waste two hours – that’s the best case scenario! Need for Speed is the best case scenario: it is has some impressive stunts, plus a handful of genuinely funny one-liners and gags, but there is also plenty that is wrong with it.

Aaron Paul, in his first film post-Breaking Bad, does his best as the film’s gravel-voiced, strong silent-type protagonist. You root for him when he wins races and want him to get his revenge when the tables are turned, but Need for Speed doesn’t allow Paul to do all that much. You could have had a number of actors playing the role instead, and they still would have been able to carry the film.

Paul’s gang who help him out in a crisis are all likeable. Scott Mescudi gets most of the one-liners, while Rami Malek is given one of the film’s funniest set pieces when he decides to leave his boring nine-to-five job behind and return to the world of high-speed racing. Paul’s friends are blatant narrative devices who come to his aid whenever the police are about to arrest him, or a rival driver threatens to ram him off the road, but you find yourself willing to forgive this.

There are several actors in Need for Speed who are either miscast or grate every time they appear onscreen. Imogen Poots was one of the many things that was brilliant about 28 Weeks Later and gave a hard-to-find-fault performance as Paul Raymond’s daughter in The Look of Love, but here she plays a stereotype Brit: frightfully posh accent and no life experience. Poots knows her cars, can drive fast, but she doesn’t offer all that much help, occasionally being annoying when she screams, whimpers, covers her eyes, or does all three at once. It’s a thankless role and sadly it was Poots who had to do it.

Dominic Cooper is another Brit who could have done with being cast in any film except this one. Here he plays the sneering panto villain. All Cooper has to do is taunt Paul and give a wicked grin; this is all that George Gatins’ script asks him to do. Cooper does his job, making you want to boo and hiss whenever he appears onscreen, but he is given the typical bad guy role.

Michael Keaton clearly shot all of his scenes in one day at a studio, but you question why he is even in the film. As the multi-millionaire who organises Need for Speed’s illegal racing, Keaton has nothing to do except stare at a computer screen and jeer at what he sees. It’s a terrible thing to say about the man who played Beetlejuice, but you end up hoping he never turns up again. Not once does Keaton’s dialogue produce even the smallest laugh, he doesn’t add anything to the thinly stretched narrative; there is no reason for him to appear in this film other than to have a big name actor on the poster.

George Gatins’ script is an odd mix. It takes itself too seriously, yet occasionally manages to add in some humour. What makes Fast & Furious so successful is that everyone involved knows it’s daft, unbelievable stuff; each film has its tongue firmly in its cheek. Need for Speed, with a straight face, asks viewers to accept that a car can soar through the air, land hard on the ground, and carry on like it just stopped at a zebra crossing. There are jokes in the film, which are guaranteed to produce plenty of laughter at the cinema, but none of it sits well. The humour feels forced, that while Gatins was writing the script, someone pointed out that it was too deadpan, so Gatins decided to throw in as many gags as he could come up with. If Need for Speed had been light-hearted throughout, instead of pretending that what you are watching is life-or-death, it would have been much more enjoyable.

Need for Speed is not about logic, or fully fleshed-out characters, or a well thought-out narrative with dozens of subplots, it’s about fast cars and stunts. All of the races in the film are watchable, but rarely produce any thrills. It all feels like it’s been done before, and better. Each race relies on long aerial shots, occasionally giving a close up of a driver concentrating on the road, or a view from the windscreen, using a shaky, juddering camera. There are some imaginative, wince-inducing crashes to get the pulse racing, but these are few-and-far-between. Considering cars driving at ridiculous speeds is the reason why people will go to see Need for Speed, these scenes are run-of-the-mill, unexceptional stuff. The film even has the nerve to show clips from the classic car chase in Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, but is nowhere near as inventive.

Need for Speed is a harmless enough two hours, but it’s a mess; an average entry in the car chase sub-genre rather than one of the best. If you’re after a great car chase film, The Cannonball Run or the Michael Caine original of The Italian Job are the very top-drawer. Alternatively, you could always play EA’s video games.

2 out of 5


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Watchers Geek Chat: Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (UK Cert 12A)

Marvel Studios' latest movie and sequel to their 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger. The first film set the scene with Steve Rogers changed into a super soldier by a genetic experiment during World War Two, then he ends up frozen in time to wake in 2012 and become a member of the Avengers.

Jump to 2014 and Captain is struggling to find his place in the modern world while working for Nick Fury ( Samuel L Jackson) and the government agency SHIELD. The Winter Soldier is a assassin who appears to try and kill Nick Fury – call to action Captain America along with fellow Avenger The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to stop this deadly new foe.
The film is a 1970s political conspiracy film in disguise – the film feels like a mix between James Bond and All The Presidents Men. What the Directors, the Russo Brothers, have done is cleverly work on a very complex intriguing plot which without giving too much away – deals with a conspiracy within SHIELD itself.

What could of easily been a by the numbers fan action-athon follow up, basically joining the dots between action set pieces and one liners. Thankfully what you have her is a solid Comic Book movie, which relies on a strong plot, excellently played out character development – not just the lead role too.

Chris Evans here is given a meaty bit a character to own – Rogers here has come to terms with what he has lost and where he is. He is a soldier however who is at a point in his life where he doesn’t know who he’s fighting for any more, he’s a man who is lost to what cause he stands for. Evans is solid in this film and owns the screen when he is on it, in Avengers I thought of him as a weak link in the Marvel armour, but in this film he has shown that Captain America has a place in modern story telling.

The supporting cast are as expect superb – in brief. Samuel L Jackson as ever gives a dominating performance as the mighty Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson has very well written Black Widow here. Unlike when she was introduced in Iron Man 2 – where she was merelypretty fodder for the teenage boys. Here the character is seen venerable, witty and extremely strong woman. Hands down the best supporting actor in this film is the steely Robert Redford – who just by being in this genre fair brings kudos to the film and he as you would expect every time he’s on screen ups all the game around him.

This film in my opinion is the best Marvel Studio film to date – its complex, twists and turns will keep you entertained without the action scenes. Mind you the action scenes here are grounded in a reality and add real jeopardy too the film like no other Marvel Studio film. If you loved the Avengers then this is for you and if you’ve never seen any of the Marvel films this is the film to watch to convert you into seeing that the Marvel Movie Universe has grown up.

5 out of 5 - Rhys