The Watchers

The Watchers

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Review: The Gunman (UK Cert: 15)

If you like your action, then you should have heard of Pierre Morel: he’s the man who directed Taken, one of this century’s very best action films (probably the best if the Bourne films never happened). Morel’s latest, The Gunman, features another unlikely actor turned hard man, this time Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Mystic River, 21 Grams). Penn plays Jim Terrier, who provides security for UN workers in Congo, but off the books he’s a hitman for a shady mining corporation who exploit Congo’s political unrest for their own financial gain. During a top secret mission, Terrier murders Congo’s minister for mining and foreign trade, fleeing Africa to start a new life. Eight years later, and the sins of the past return to haunt Terrier when he is attacked by mercenaries for hire.  Surviving, Terrier travels the globe to find out who wants him dead.

While Penn has starred in his fair share of thrillers, they usually have him running down corridors, occasionally firing a gun. Penn has never been cast in a John McLane or Bryan Mills role. With The Gunman, Penn is breaking limbs, stabbing people, dodging explosions, and at no point do you think he’s miscast. Terrier might be dog-eared, not as quick as he used to be, but take him on in a fight and you’ll end up worse. Terrier isn’t your paper thin, typical action hero either, there’s meat on his bones (literally, Penn’s spent a good long time down at the gym!). Before his final mission in Congo, Terrier planned to settle down with his girlfriend, to be a peacekeeper, not just a man with a gun. All of this was taken away from him when he fled his old life, spending the last eight years going from country-to-country; no real home and no purpose.

Whether you like your action films or prefer something a little less noisy, you can’t argue that Morel is a talented filmmaker. At times, The Gunman is gorgeous to look at, especially when the narrative moves to Barcelona or Spain’s vineyards. Some action films have this point-and-shoot, B-movie look; with The Gunman every frame looks polished, resembling a European art house drama.

Morel also knows how to film fight scenes. No dumbed down, 12A cutaways here, this is violent, no holds barred, fist fighting. My complaint with action films over the last decade is the editing; it’s so fast, usually filmed on shaky handheld cameras, you can’t tell what the hell’s going on. The editing in The Gunman is outstanding, the fights, the chases all satisfyingly brutal and pulse racing. You get to appreciate the choreography, that Terrier is this killing machine, using anything and everything around him, taking someone out within seconds. The Gunman has some impressive backdrops for the action, which Morel takes full advantage of; the film’s standout scene being its climax in a bullfighting ring, the layout of the arena used to full affect, making for a tense finale with plenty of moments you don’t usually see in a run-of-the-mill testosterone-fest.

The Gunman’s only problem is the script. It’s not as threadbare as the screenplays for some action films, but the basic plot sees Penn going to one country and asking someone if they know anything, then travelling somewhere else and asking the same question. There’s a welcome subplot involving Jasmine Trinca as Terrier’s ex, who has started a new life for herself – Trinca’s not your typical love interest who runs around screaming, she has brains as well as beauty, particularly in the film’s showdown where she pretends to be drugged so she escapes her kidnappers – as well as taking time to highlight the situation in Congo, and countries like it, where the West’s demands for minerals and jewels are the number one concern, the lives of Congo’s population being a miles behind second, but for most of the running time Penn does the same thing over-and-over. It’s not too much of a problem, Morel does just enough to distract you, but after half-an-hour you realise there’s a pattern here.

The Gunman is intelligent and impressively well-made, with Sean Penn a credible grizzled tough guy. If you like things that go bang and people being beaten up in inventive ways, then you should see Morel’s latest; The Gunman is one of the best actioners in a while.

4 out of 5


Thursday, 19 March 2015

Review: Still Alice (UK Cert 12A)

When was the last time you cried at a film? I mean, properly cried. Not just a gentle moistening of the eyelashes and a lump in the throat, I mean full-on Gwyneth-Paltrow-at-the-Oscars sobbing. Well, for me, it was whilst watching Still Alice.

Dr. Alice Howland is a renowned linguistics professor, married with three children and grandchildren on the way, and has just turned fifty. However, she starts to notice things going wrong: she has difficulty finding the right words and gets lost on campus. A medical check-up gives a devastating diagnosis: Alice has early onset Alzheimer's.

Richard Glatzer (who sadly passed away recently) and Wash Westmoreland adapt the novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova and co-direct a touching, moving and- at times- emotionally devastating film, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Julianne Moore in the title role. 

Moore gives a distressingly authentic performance - a heart-to-heart with husband John (Alec Baldwin) when she first broaches the subject that something might not be right shows her go from anger to tears in a few sentences and, as the illness takes over, her desperation to find her phone (her anchor to the real world) and how she deals with knowing that she is ill and knowing what the illness will do to her is just gutwrenching. There isn't a shred of ego in Moore's performance. In lesser hands, this could have just been clunky, maudlin, made-for-TV weepie melodrama. Moore's nuanced and emotional performance, whilst not easy to watch in places, is superb.

Other performances are decent across the board- Baldwin provides ample support as John, dealing with his wife's decline; Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish are strong as Alice's kids Anna and Tom, whilst Kristen Stewart does the moody adolescent thing again as youngest daughter Lydia, a struggling actress who wants to go her own way. I've not had much time for Kristen Stewart before, but she wasn't as insufferable as I feared I might find her, and she was a good fit for the character. Stewart and Moore's clashes add a real dramatic heft to the piece- both before and after Alice's diagnosis. 

The film has received a lot of praise from families of Alzheimer's patients who have said that the film gets a lot right about the condition and how people deal with it. As you might have guessed, if you're after something light and frothy and undemanding, you won't find that here. This is a real emotional ride of a film and you may leave feeling absolutely drained afterwards. But it's worth seeing for Moore's outstanding performance. 

Rating: 4 out of 5


Friday, 13 March 2015

Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK Cert PG)

Putting 'Second Best' in the title of a movie is a bit of a gamble. It suggests that it might not be as good as the first (always a risk with sequels anyway). However, I found The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to be just as good.

The original film was a bit of a sleeper hit back in 2012 and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. A perfect Sunday afternoon film, gentle, warm, funny and bittersweet. The second is more of the same; director John Madden and writer Ol Parker are back on board, as are most of the original cast. And you don't need to be of an equivalent age to the characters to sympathise or empathise with them; their stories speak to everyone. 

Sonny (Dev Patel) and Muriel (Maggie Smith) travel to California to try and get funding to expand the hotel. The company have said they will send an inspector to the hotel to report. So, when the dashing American Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) arrives, Sonny assumes he is the inspector. Meanwhile, Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Evelyn's (Judi Dench) nascent relationship hits a few stumbling blocks, not least when Douglas' wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) breezes back into town, whilst Madge (Celia Imrie) has a difficult choice between two suitors and the hotel prepares for Sonny's wedding to fiancee Sunaina (Tina Desai). 

Performances are really strong across the board. Smith steals the piece with her waspish putdowns as the irascible Muriel. Nighy and Dench are lovely as the stumbling, bumbling would-be lovers (like something out of a Richard Curtis movie). Dev Patel retains the ebullience and optimism shown in the first film, and Celia Imrie gets some drama along with the humour as a woman caught between two men. The burgeoning relationship between Guy and Sonny's mother (Lillete Dubey) is played really nicely, with a wonderfully written dinner scene between the two a highlight of Ol Parker's script. 

That's not to say the script is perfect - there's a bit of contrivance, especially with the hotel inspector subplot (the answer to that is quite obvious)- but it pulls off the balance between laughter and pathos and, what's refreshing is, it doesn't batter you over the head with some of the plot points. They're handled nicely and subtly and there's one in particular that will bring a lump to your throat.

You could argue that there's no need for this film (truth is, there's very rarely a need for any sequel). That said, this is a gentle and inoffensive slice of escapism and a pure joy from start to finish.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Thursday, 5 March 2015

Review: It Follows (UK Cert: 15)

With It Follows, David Robert Mitchell puts his own spin on the unstoppable supernatural force subgenre: no uttering strange incantations or taking something that doesn’t belong to you; here, if you have sex with someone who is cursed, the curse passes to you. Wherever you go a spirit (could be male, female, old or young) follows you – always walking, never running – and it always finds you. All you can do is give the curse to someone else, by sleeping with them.

It Follows has some imaginative cinematography, an impressive John Carpenter-inspired score by Disasterpeace (real name, Rich Vreeland), and plenty of frank, true-to-life dialogue (Mitchell, who wrote the screenplay, knows how teenagers think and behave). The massive, hard-to-ignore problem is that the film’s not scary. At all. Not even slightly.

Mitchell has a fantastic, original idea for a horror film, and he wastes it. The opening is intriguing enough: a young girl runs out of her house, steals her dad’s car and makes several phone calls saying goodbye to the people she loves. In the next scene she’s dead, her body lying on a beach, contorted into an impossible shape. Mitchell makes the wise decision of only showing glimpses of his nameless spirit, but despite using wide shots to great effect, making you search the screen to try and work out where the ghost will appear next, there is no tension here, no threat. The spirit rarely appears and, when it does, it’s easy enough to avoid (keep running, shoot it in the head, or, if all else fails, lock the door and you’ll be fine). Earlier – and better – ghost stories, such as Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon or Hideo Nakata’s Ring keep their antagonist out of sight, yet still manage to scare you, to convince you that a powerful force is after its main character and can’t be stopped.

Scenes that, on paper, should be tense, look away from the screen set pieces are let down by ropey CGI. It Follows’ ghost is silent, so if your back’s turned you’ve no clue it’s there. This happens during one scene as you wait for the inevitable pay off. What follows looks terrible. CGI has been the downfall for many low budget horrors (the closing seconds of Paranormal Activity), and It Follows falls into this same trap. The film’s climax falls flat; it’s unintentionally funny thanks to some dodgy CGI toasters and hairdryers.

Mitchell even has the nerve to throw in some cheap scares, the kind that sub-par horror films have dredged up since the seventies: a football hitting a window, a shelf collapsing in an old house. If you’re a fan of horror, these shocks won’t even register.

It Follows isn’t a complete mess. Instead of the easy option – take some dark locations and point and shoot – Mitchell plays around with the visuals. One highlight has Maika Monroe on a park swing at night. She turns her head and the camera cuts to where she’s looking. Nothing. She turns her head again. Nothing. Looks behind her. Again, nothing. This goes on for just over a minute, no music, just Monroe’s breathing. While Mitchell avoids an obvious scare, the smartest thing would have been for nothing to happen here and cut to the next scene (that’s what early John Carpenter or Dario Argento would have plucked for).

Mitchell’s young cast are all using mobiles, Kindles and social media sites, contrasting this with shots of run down Detroit. Like the malevolent ghosts of M.R. James’ stories, there is no explanation for why the spirit in It Follows does what it does, but the various crumbling buildings at sunset suggest that this is an ancient evil, let loose in these technology-driven times.

Maika Monroe gives an excellent portrayal of a young woman who is not only working out how she sees herself, her body, and how others (especially boys) look at her, she also struggles when she figures out the curse’s Get Out of Jail Free card. The boy who gives her the curse tells her she’ll be fine; “You’re a girl, you’re pretty”, but it’s not about that. Sex is important to Monroe’s caring, gentle Jay, something she only does with a man she loves. Jay takes a long time to work out what she wants to do; she’s having sex to stay alive, but this still makes her feel cheap.

Much of a horror film’s power comes from the isolation of the protagonist. It Follows bucks this trend, Jay having friends who are willing to go out of their way to help her, even risk their own lives. The whole cast are believable: shy, introverted Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who can’t convey what’s going on in his head, or Yara (Olivia Lucardi), an attractive girl still working out how to dress and make herself look. You can’t fail to notice that Jay’s female friends all comfort her, give her emotional support, while her male friends quickly volunteer to sleep with her. In a subtly written scene, Paul asks Jay why she chose to have sex with Greg (Daniel Zovatto) and not him. Jay explains it’s because she cares about Paul that she didn’t sleep with him; Greg’s tough, he’s proactive, she knew he would be okay. Jay couldn’t take that risk with Paul and end up losing him.

Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows is something special. Using old-school electronic synths, Vreeland deftly flits between gentle, vulnerable sounding pieces, to discordant and brooding. Vreeland’s score can remind you that here we have a protagonist who is still figuring out how to find love and how express it, but also that there is something coming after Jay, something wrathful, that could be anywhere at any time. If anything, too much pressure is put on Vreeland and his music; there is no pace to Mitchell’s script, its antagonist isn’t anywhere near as frightening or convincing as it needs to be. Vreeland is doing all the work here, and while his music is outstanding, it can’t hold up an entire film.

It Follows is a waste of a great idea. Mitchell’s script doesn’t even take the time to examine what you would do in Jay’s situation. Would you chat up a guy in a bar, pass it on to a willing friend/victim, go on one of these meet for sex websites? Also, how different is it for men who have the curse compared to women? None of this is discussed in any great detail. Despite being influenced by early horror films that ooze atmosphere (Jaume Balagueró’s The Nameless, Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge, the Pang Brothers’ The Eye) It Follows won’t scare you; you’re less likely to be thinking about it after you leave the cinema, more wondering why the poster has so many rave reviews. Mitchell’s second film isn’t the worst horror film of recent years, but it’s one of the biggest let downs.

2 out of 5