The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Review: Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (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.

Let me preface this review with a remark. This movie is essentially critic-proof. It doesn't really matter that it currently has a critic score of 28% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing; the audience score is currently 72%. It's already made over $424 million worldwide so it's not going to make the slightest bit of difference whether I say 'this is the greatest film ever made in the history of cinema' or 'watching the entire Twilight saga in one sitting is preferable to this inane pile of garbage'. What I will say is this: there was a lot I liked in the film, and a lot I didn't. 

The film has, since its very inception, been a polarizing one. When this project was announced at Comic-Con in July 2013, it broke the Internet. Reactions ranged from 'best thing ever' to '#ruined' and the furore only intensified when Ben Affleck was cast in the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Over 30 petitions sprung up online, ranging from removing him from the role to trying to make it illegal for Affleck to play either Batman or any other superhero on film. Unsurprisingly, when the casting of Jesse Eisenberg and Gal Gadot were announced as Lex Luthor and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, there was more vitriol online. Eisenberg was neither old enough nor imposing enough; Gadot was bizarrely too small to play an Amazonian princess. Rumours abounded a month or so ago that the studios were 'nervous' about the film, which was instantly pooh-poohed. As it turns out, they had a right to be nervous. 

With a film that's offering the potential of two of the greatest superheroes in the whole of comic book history coming together for an epic smackdown, you might expect to feel exhilarated, thrilled, engaged, your heart in your mouth and your bum on the edge of your seat. You don't expect to feel bored. And I did. For quite a lot of the film. 

The script- by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer- is so portentous (occasionally dropping into pretentious), so doom-laden and so without nuance or subtlety that it's a tough watch in places. You're never left to intuit how people feel; the characters tell you blatantly and outright. There's an over-reliance on dream sequences- albeit Batman's fevered hallucination of what would happen if Superman isn't checked is visually interesting- and do we really need to see Bruce's parents being killed again? Apparently, we do, because it's important that we know that Bruce Wayne's mum was called Martha. This becomes vitally important later on as it's the only reason Batman doesn't stomp Superman's face into the dirt. Because their mums have the first same name. Frankly, that's shoddy and lazy writing that a creative writing student would be embarrassed to hand in. 

I guess one of my other major issues with the film is that I don't really get on with Zack Snyder's style of direction. One of my major criticisms of Man Of Steel was that the final fight sequence was too big, too frenetic, too hyperactive. Well, it's the same here, especially the final smackdown between Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman against Doomsday. I gave up trying to figure out who was doing what to whom in most of the fight sequences (not helped by the fact that there's some really dreadful lighting choices made throughout). I get that the worlds of Metropolis and Gotham are supposed to be gritty and dark, but Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy conveyed that same atmosphere without decimating the lighting budget. There's so much shaky handheld camerawork- which always makes me feel nauseous- and there's some really odd editing choices too. 

It also doesn't help that the already laden dialogue is further weighted down by a ridiculously bombastic score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. This did have one saving grace however: the majorly kick-ass theme for Wonder Woman, whose electric violin riff brought some much needed life to proceedings. 

That said, it's not all bad. Generally speaking (with one major exception), I enjoyed the acting. For all those naysayers who criticised Affleck's casting and derided him before he'd even said a line of dialogue, you're wrong. He works really well as Batman, as a grizzled, older, more world-weary fighter who's had 20 years of fighting and for what? He also makes a particularly good Bruce Wayne and the script manages to drop a couple of interesting hints which will hopefully be explored in the standalone Batfleck film. Henry Cavill remains as stoic and dignified as he was in Man Of Steel, whilst Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne and Diane Lane were all solid support. 

My two favourite performances came from Gal Gadot, whose sensual yet determined Diana Prince added a much-needed spark throughout and who commanded the screen as Wonder Woman in the last battle, and Jeremy Irons who was frankly born to play Alfred. Here, he's a slightly more sarcastic and abrasive but is still the faithful old retainer, delivering slightly heavy-handed speeches to Master Bruce. 

The bum note is Jesse Eisenberg who was so annoying as Lex Luthor that I wished my superpower was to be able to reach into the screen so i could slap the irritating little runt. He wasn't menacing, he wasn't imposing, he wasn't any kind of credible threat. He was mooning around on screen with a performance full of quirky tics rather than any real characterisation and basically acting like a spoiled little brat. As much as I actively dislike Kevin Spacey's performance in Superman Returns, at least his Luthor felt like a threat.

I also liked the cameos from the other nascent members of the Justice League which provided enough of a hint of what's to come without feeling too much like a cynical ploy (although there are a few bits, especially at the end, where the fact that this is now going to be its own franchise is celebrated a bit too blatantly). There are a couple of very striking visuals as well, such as Superman saving the little girl from the fire during the Mexican Day of the Dead. 

Ultimately, this film was underwhelming for me, which was a disappointment. I do feel like some of the criticism that the film has come in for has been a little harsh, but there's only so much you can do to detract from a film's inherent flaws. That said, I am still intrigued to see where the DC Expanded Universe goes from here. I'm really looking forward to both Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman

Rating: 3 out of 5


Sunday, 27 March 2016

Review: High-Rise (UK Cert: 15)

I have a love/hate relationship with Ben Wheatley. Kill List was unnerving and – at times – bloody terrifying, right up until the ending. Sorry, but if I have to go on Google to try and work out what the hell happened in the last few minutes, then the film’s not done its job.  With his follow-up, Sightseers, it depended how sick and un-PC your sense of humour was. Me, I loved it. A Field in England was little more than an excuse to show off Laurie Rose’s cinematography skills (a plot would have helped). Now, here we are with Wheatley’s latest: High-Rise. You might wonder why Wheatley’s new film is adapted from a J.G. Ballard novel that’s forty years old, but, in the Tory Britain we live in today, it’s soothsayer, prophet of doom relevant.

Tom Hiddleston (Avengers Assemble, Only Lovers Left Alive) is Doctor Robert Laing, who moves into a flash new apartment block. Meeting his neighbours, he realises that, while everyone pays the same rent, not everyone is treated equally; the wealthier folk on the higher floors have electricity, hot water, full access to the facilities whenever they want, while those on the lower levels are forced to make do with electric at certain times (if the power comes on at all) and wait around several weeks for any maintenance issues to get fixed. Tensions mount and it’s not long before anarchy descends, with rape, murder and pillaging becoming as everyday as putting out the bins.

Wheatley’s long-time cinematographer Laurie Rose is back behind the lens, and once again he comes up with some creative, not seen anything like it before imagery: Hiddleston taking out his frustrations on the walls of his apartment while he paints; it’s both cathartic and oddly erotic. The aftermath of an orgy, the flat now a dive, bathed in intense white light, while some of the weary, hungover guests still joylessly rut away. There’s more than a passing hint of the meticulousness and symmetry of Stanley Kubrick’s framing; you’re both entranced and repulsed by what you see, à la A Clockwork Orange or Eyes Wide Shut. Wheatley made the smart decision of keeping the novel’s seventies setting. The wallpaper, gigantic sideburns, and vintage cars make High-Rise unlike anything you will have seen for a good long while.

The trouble is High-Rise’s subtext, it’s not exactly subtle. Thirty minutes in and you already know who’s in the firing line and where things are going. As the divide between Britain’s upper and lower class widens, the country is destined to come crumbling down; The British people are distracted by celebrity and consumerism, ignorant to the pressing problems going on around them. You can’t argue with what Ballard was trying to say in his novel (spookily, released on the eve of Margaret Thatcher becoming prime minister), it’s how Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump force feed you the social commentary, so much so, you’re wondering what else the film has to offer. The answer? Not a lot else.

I get that you’re meant to judge the characters you see onscreen rather than care about them, the issue with High-Rise is that nothing vaguely thrilling or attention grabbing happens to anyone. Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange was a loathsome, hideous human being, but you were compelled to watch because his own brutality was matched by the brutality of the state in trying to make him “better”. Here, there’s no build-up to the Lord of the Flies anarchy that ensues, it just happens, and keeps happening, and keeps happening, and doesn’t go anywhere. Rose’s cinematography and Mark Tildesley’s production design can only do so much. Without a narrative, without some significant change in the characters, there’s nothing to keep you watching.

The cast look like they’re sleepwalking through the film, with virtually nothing to do. I’ve not read Ballard’s novel, but maybe the point of Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing is that he sees the tower block rotting from the inside and is indifferent to it all? Whatever the reason, Hiddleston has little to do acting-wise except be icy, reserved, and shag his way through the female cast.

Jeremy Irons (The Lion King, Die Hard with a Vengeance), as the tower block’s architect, Anthony Royal, has some occasional weighty dialogue to get you thinking (“I wanted this building to be a crucible for change… Clearly, I missed something”.), but apart from an impressive plum British accent, and an even more impressive white suit, Irons plays your typical, authority figure gone mad, Doctor Caligari role.

Luke Evans (The Hobbit, Fast and Furious 6) is the only cast member given any real acting work, as journalist and documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder, though his transformation from a morally dubious, opportunistic, seventies Piers Morgan to embracing the anarchy around him just seems to happen. He goes off screen one minute and comes back a changed man.

High-Rise is less a film, more a series of chaotic scenes of Britain’s well-to-do killing and ripping each other’s clothes off. It’s like something you expect to see at the Tate Modern. There’s no tension, barely any humour, and quickly outstays its welcome (and at almost two hours, that’s a long time). If the BAFTAs had an award for style over substance, High-Rise would win it hands down.

2 out of 5


Thursday, 24 March 2016

Review: Deadpool (UK Cert 15)

It's taken years for Deadpool to have his own film but, boy, has it been worth the wait. 

It's essentially an origin story, but not told in the traditional way. Instead, we see in flashbacks how cancer-ridden mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) became the spandex-clad Deadpool via a clandestine operation overseen by the smarmy Ajax (Ed Skrein). Wade goes after Ajax for revenge. Carnage and fourth-wall-breaking ensues. 

Watching Deadpool reinforces just how badly X-Men Origins: Wolverine misjudged the character. Deadpool is a gobby little sod- his nickname is the Merc with the Mouth, for God's sake- and Ryan Reynolds' glib rat-a-tat delivery gives the film most of its humour. You don't neuter a character like this by sewing his mouth shut (although that gets a nice sly dig when Wade and Ajax talk before the operation). For me, this is Ryan Reynolds' best performance- he's likeable, snarky and cool but also shows a tender side with Wade's relationship with Vanessa (an equally brilliant and totally kick-ass Morena Baccarin). 

All supporting characters do well - Ed Skrein exudes just enough villainy as Ajax (or should that be Francis?) and Gina Carano is pretty menacing as his mostly-mute sidekick Angel Dust. Two X-Men turn up- a fact that is not lost on Deadpool and which gives rise to one of the funniest lines in the entire movie. These are Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and the brilliantly-named Negasonic Teenage Warhead (an assured film debut by Brianna Hildebrand). T.J. Miller and Leslie Uggams provide some great comedy relief as Wade's friend Weasel and his room-mate Blind Al and Stan Lee's cameo is just superb.

The script is achingly self-aware, crammed to the ginnels with pop culture references and the aforementioned fourth-wall-breaking. But it never feels quirky or try-hard, nor pandering to diehard fans at the exclusion of others. It's full of neat little Easter eggs which fans will get a kick out of but, if you don't know the reference, it won't impair your viewing.

Brash, loud, vulgar, cheerfully offensive, unremittingly violent and just downright bloody funny, it's a winner from start to finish. 

Rating: 5 out of 5


Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Review: Hail, Caesar! (UK Cert 12A)

Twenty-five years after Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers return to the world of the movies for their latest film Hail, Caesar!

Hollywood in the 1950s. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a fixer for Capitol Pictures studios, keeping any scandalous stories about the stars out of the press. However, when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney)- star of Capitol's latest prestige picture Hail, Caesar! A Tale Of The Christ- is kidnapped, Mannix must try and get the actor back before the press find out. 

There are a lot of competing storylines throughout the film- as well as trying to find a kidnapped star, Mannix has to deal with an unmarried pregnant ingenue (Scarlett Johannson), an actor best known for Western pictures suddenly placed in a period drama (Alden Ehrenreich) as well as fielding off twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) whilst on the hunt for Whitlock. He also has to deal with a job offer from aerospace company Lockheed which would give stability but take him away from the movie business. 

Because there's so much going on, several of the roles amount to little more than glorified cameos, with Jonah Hill and frequent Coen collaborator Frances McDormand particularly shortchanged. That said, performances are generally solid across the board, with a strong and stoic performance by Brolin in the lead. Mannix is a tough guy, determined to keep his stars in line and not afraid to let them know their place and their responsibilities, but there's more to him than that and Brolin gives an affable and very real performance. Interestingly, Mannix was a real-life person, who worked as a fixer for MGM. This is a heavily fictionalised version of his life and career.

Clooney is great as Whitlock, a bit of a lunkheaded star who starts to come round to his kidnappers' way of thinking. Ehrenreich is incredibly likeable as young Western star Hobie, struggling with his new role in a period drama and who becomes involved in the kidnapping plot. Johannson is wonderfully spiky as the pregnant ingenue, whilst Swinton gives brilliantly broad performances as the rival gossip columnists. I particularly liked Ralph Fiennes as the effete director of the period drama and Michael Gambon who adds an air of arch knowingness as an omniscient narrator. 

There are some real standout sequences - the aquatic ballet sequence where Johansson channels Esther Williams is particularly well done, as is a Gene Kelly style dance routine featuring Channing Tatum in a sailor outfit. One of the funniest sections comes when Mannix chairs a meeting with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Protestant priest and an Eastern Orthodox patrician over the representation of Christ in the Hail, Caesar! script. 

Hail, Caesar! is certainly more coherent than some other Coen Brothers movies, and whilst it is a lot of fun, it ultimately feels quite insubstantial.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Sunday, 20 March 2016

Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane (Cert: 12A)

While the trailers for Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman felt like one massive spoiler (“So, Doomsday shows up then?”), the marketing team for Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane have done the opposite, showing virtually nothing of the film and teasing us with comments like, it’s a “blood relative” to JJ Abrams’s 2008 handheld horror hit, Cloverfield. There’s a reason for this: The less you know, the more you’ll get out of it.

The film opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) packing her bags and making a run for it. Whilst driving, arguing on the phone with her now ex-boyfriend, she crashes the car and knocks herself out. Waking, Michelle finds herself in an underground bunker, home of Howard (John Goodman – Monsters Inc., The Big Lebowski – all-round acting legend), a conspiracy theorist who is convinced there has been a chemical, even nuclear attack on America, and is keeping her safe. Michelle realises that Howard is not all he seems, questioning what his real motives might be.

10 Cloverfield Lane gets a lot of things right. First off, the acting. Unlike most female leads in a horror or suspense thriller, Michelle has brains, doing everything you or I would do in this situation. She asks all the right questions, looking for new and inventive ways to escape. You care about Michelle rather than feeling like you’re forced to, because she takes up ninety percent of the screen time.

The real star of the show here is John Goodman, who flexes his acting chops in a complex, but subtle performance. When Goodman’s Howard arrives, you don’t trust him. He waits before he speaks, mulling over what he is about to say. He stares at you rather than looks at you, like he is constantly trying to work you out. Also, he has a violent, volatile temper. Virtually all of the film’s tension comes courtesy of Goodman; you struggle to predict what he will do next.

John Gallagher Jr. does a decent enough job as Michelle’s fellow prisoner Emmett, but you get the feeling he’s around to provide the comedy; he drops a well-timed one liner here-and-there, but that’s about it.

There are moments of real, shuffle round in your seat tension in Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle’s script; two highlights being a dinner scene, where Winstead tries to steal Howard’s keys off him, and a harmless guessing game that becomes increasingly uncomfortable. The trouble is, while I didn’t know what to expect from 10 Cloverfield Lane, at the very least, I was expecting something claustrophobic, nail-biting throughout, and while the film has some well-crafted set pieces, there aren’t many. There were times when I was wishing Goodman would come back onscreen, so things would start getting interesting again.

Just as Speed went downhill once Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock got off the bus, or Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx got out the taxi in Collateral, the minute Winstead escapes the bunker (that’s not a gigantic, Batman v Superman spoiler, folks), things take a drastic turn for the worse. 10 Cloverfield Lane will keep you guessing just what the hell is going on, you’ll be coming up with all sorts of crackpot, inventive theories. When you finally find out, it’s hard not to feel the tiniest bit disappointed.

You have to praise 10 Cloverfield Lane for being ninety-odd minutes set in virtually one location and coming up with some smart, squirm-inducing scares. The characters aren’t your usual horror clichés either, both Goodman and Winstead having plenty to do.

With sequels and reboots being Hollywood’s modus operandi at the moment, it’s great to see a sequel that tries to do something different, to bend and sometimes break the rules set up by the first film (admittedly, the script started off as a stand-alone horror before JJ Abrams got wind of it). While 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t entirely succeed, it’s enjoyable enough, and John Goodman turns the film up several notches whenever he shows up. It’s just a crying shame that Trachtenberg’s debut wasn’t the minute-after-minute, pulse pounding thrill ride I hoped for.

3 out of 5