The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Review: Nocturnal Animals (UK Cert 15)

Nocturnal Animals is the second film from fashion-designer-cum-director Tom Ford (after 2009's A Single Man)

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a Los Angeles art gallery owner whose privileged surroundings are providing her little comfort as her marriage is breaking down and her husband is sleeping with another woman. She receives a manuscript of a novel called Nocturnal Animals, written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) whom she cruelly mistreated then dumped. She begins to read the manuscript, a violent revenge thriller in which a young family are terrorised by a brutal gang of rednecks. 

Honestly, this film was one of the most pretentious piles of bilge I've had the misfortune of sitting through this year. Now, people who know me know I quite like films that certain people may describe as 'pretentious'. But this... this takes the cake. And then frames it badly on camera and gives it a lingering close-up to show how deep it really is. 

I don't know what's worse: the poor camerawork, the heavy-handed symbolism, the shoddy editing, the awkward and obvious juxtapositions or the facile script that has characters either spouting inane platitudes or fortune-cookie bon mots. The most egregious thing is A Single Man was a subtle, nuanced, occasionally very beautifully shot film. What happened? There's no subtlety here. No nuance. You are sledgehammered over the head with every piece of imagery- even down to casting Isla Fisher as Tony's wife Laura (because she looks so much like Amy Adams, don't you see? Isn't that clever?)- and, when you need to put a blatant jumpscare in to check whether your audience hasn't actually slipped into a coma, you're on shaky ground. Also, I have major issues with the opening which depicts several obese naked women doing a drum majorette routine in slow motion. Quite what is this supposed to mean? Is it a metaphor for the grotesque and soulless world of Los Angeles? If so, there are perhaps more appropriate and more tasteful ways to do it than to go down the route of fat-shaming. 

Performances are a mixed bag, to be fair. Amy Adams is an extremely talented actress that will undoubtedly win an Oscar one day, given the right role. And God love her, she's trying here. She's trying in earnest to turn this rotten sow's ear into a silk purse but there's only so much you can do with a script with the emotional depth of a stagnant puddle. Still, she tries to imbue Susan with some semblance of character which the script is sorely lacking. 

Gyllenhaal plays a dual role, as Edward and as Tony, the main character in the novel which is handily dramatised for our viewing... well, I'd usually say pleasure but in this case I'm gonna have to make an exception and say endurance. As Edward, he's sweet, naive, sensitive. As Tony, he's all of those things and then he isn't as the cruelty of the world breaks him. That is literally what this film is like. I'm really hoping one day Aaron Taylor-Johnson will look back on this film and cringe. Like I did, every time he was on screen. He's the leader of the redneck gang that intimidate Tony and his family and his performance is just dire. It is buttock-clenchingly, sphincter-tighteningly bad. He's about as intimidating as a wet paper bag and has clearly been directed to go for wide-eyed crazy as a default. 

However, there are some saving graces. Laura Linney is superb in her cameo role as Susan's ghastly, materialistic mother whilst there's a certain amount of gravitas to Michael Shannon's performance as Detective Bobby Andes, the taciturn and morally flexible lawman who helps Tony get some kind of justice for his family.  

I didn't enjoy the film. I found it boring, pretentious and convinced of its own worthiness. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? Seriously, if you watched Noctural Animals and liked it or enjoyed it or 'got' it, feel free to leave a comment below or drop us an e-mail and let me know what I'm missing. Because I genuinely couldn't see it. 

Frankly, if this is the best he can come up with, then might I respectfully suggest Tom Ford sticks to fashion design (which he knows a lot about and is very good at) rather than film-making. 

Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Awards Season 2017: Film Independent Spirit Awards Nominations

So here we go, Awards Season 2017 is off with yesterday's announcement of the 32nd Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations. As you will probably know by now, these awards recognise films made wholly or partly outside the traditional studio system. 

Below is a selection of nominations:

Best Feature
American Honey
Manchester By The Sea

Best Director
Andrea Arnold (American Honey)
Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Pablo Larrain (Jackie)
Jeff Nichols (Loving)
Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women)

Best Male Lead
Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea)
David Harewood (Free In Deed)
Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
Jesse Plemons (Other People)
Tim Roth (Chronic)

Best Female Lead
Annette Bening (20th Century Women)
Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Sasha Lane (American Honey)
Ruth Negga (Loving)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)

Best Supporting Male
Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash)
Ben Foster (Hell Or High Water)
Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea)
Shia LaBeouf (American Honey)
Craig Robinson (Morris From America)

Best Supporting Female
Edwina Findley Dickerson (Free In Deed)
Paulina Garcia (Little Men)
Lily Gladstone (Certain Women)
Riley Keough (American Honey)
Molly Shannon (Other People)

A full list of nominees can be found here.

Moonlight and American Honey are joint leaders with six nominations each, whilst Manchester By The Sea has five.  

The next major announcement for awards season should be on 1st December with the Critics' Choice movie award nominations.


Sunday, 13 November 2016

For Your Consideration: Possible Contenders For Awards Season 2017

Just like Christmas, it feels like awards season starts earlier and earlier every year. Well, this year, that's especially true. It actually starts tomorrow- 14th November 2016- as the Critics' Choice Awards have been brought forward by a month or so meaning that the blog is going to start filling up with awards season shenanigans about two weeks early (usually it'd start with the Independent Spirit Awards towards the end of the month). So, as usual, welcome if you like this sort of thing and apologies if you don't.

[Edit 14/11/16: The Critics' Choice Awards television nominations were announced today; the movie nominations will be on Thursday 1st December. I've updated the timetable below accordingly]

So I've had a look in the crystal ball and come up with some films which I think might get a good showing during this awards season. Virtually all of these have yet to open in the UK so it's all wild prognostication. I might be well off the mark with a lot of these.

La La Land is Damien Chazelle's follow-up to the frankly brilliant Whiplash. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress respectively, it won the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival (usually a good sign of award season success). Expect to see Gosling and Stone nominated for Best Actor and Actress respectively (Stone won the Best Actress accolade at the Venice Film Festival this year) with the film getting Best Picture awards and maybe even Chazelle as Best Director. 

I wouldn't be at all surprised to see The Birth Of A Nation getting nominated a lot. A biopic of Nat Turner (a literate slave who orchestrated an uprising in the South), written, directed and starring Nate Parker, it's got a lot of the usual awards season bait in it.  Winning the Audience award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and given the success of 12 Years A Slave, I think this stands a good chance of featuring heavily. 

Certain Women might not be everyone's cup of tea, but this portmanteau picture following the lives of three women in a small town in Montana looks like it will do well. There's the possibility of Best Actress nods for Laura Dern and Michelle Williams, or even a Supporting Actress nod for Kristen Stewart. Yes, that Kristen Stewart. Bella-Swan-from-Twilight Kristen Stewart. As implausible as it may sound, she's getting a lot of love for her performance in the film. And in a world where Matthew McConaughey has an Oscar and Donald Trump has become President of the USA, it's not beyond the realms of possibility for this to happen. 

Manchester By The Sea, Kenneth Lonergan's thoughtful drama about a man forced to look after his teenage nephew after the death of his brother (the boy's father) might do well, with Best Actor accolades for Casey Affleck and potentially Best Supporting Actress for Michelle Williams and Best Supporting Actor for Lucas Hedges as the nephew. 

Amy Adams seems virtually guaranteed to get her sixth Oscar nomination this awards season, although whether it's for her lead role as an art gallery owner facing up to her past in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals or her performance as a linguist helping out the military to translate alien communications in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is yet to be seen.

Biopics tend to get a good run out during awards season, so I fully expect at least some of these films to get a mention:

Bleed For This, based on the story of boxer Vinny Pazienza who recovered from a severe car accident to fight in the ring again. Miles Teller could be in the frame for Best Actor whilst Aaron Eckhart could also be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Vinny's trainer Kevin. 

Lion, starring Dev Patel, which tells the story of a young Indian boy who is adopted by an Australian couple and then uses Google Earth twenty-five years later to find his biological family. Patel might be up for Best Actor, whilst Supporting Actress nods could go to Rooney Mara as his girlfriend and Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother. 

Sully, Clint Eastwood's latest film about pilot Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger who landed his damaged plane on the Hudson avoiding massive loss of life. Tom Hanks will probably get Best Actor nods for it, with the possibility of Supporting Actor plaudits for Aaron Eckhart. Potentially Eastwood as Best Director too. 

Christine, the tragic true-life tale of 1970s news anchorwoman Christine Chubbuck, could see Rebecca Hall getting nominated for Best Actress. 

Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi's biopic of the three female African-American mathematicians who calculated John Glenn's launch into orbit. There could be Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress nominations for Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae. 

Queen Of Katwe, the inspirational true-life story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. There could be Supporting Actor and Actress nominations for David Oyelowo as chess coach Robert Katende and Lupita Nyong'o as Phiona's mother Harriet. 

The timetable for the major awards in 2017 is as follows:

Film Independent Spirit Awards
Nominations announced: November 22nd 2016
Awards ceremony: February 25th 2017

Critics' Choice Awards
Nominations announced: December 1st 2016
Awards ceremony: December 11th 2016

Golden Globes
Nominations announced: December 12th 2016
Awards ceremony: January 8th 2017 (hosted by Jimmy Fallon)

Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards
Nominations announced: December 14th 2016
Awards ceremony: January 29th 2017

Writers' Guild Of America (WGA) Award
Nominations announced: January 4th 2017
Awards ceremony: February 19th 2017

Producers' Guild Of America (PGA) Award
Nominations announced: January 10th 2017
Awards ceremony: January 28th 2017

BAFTA Film Awards
Nominations announced: January 10th 2017
Awards ceremony: February 12th 2017

Directors' Guild Of America (DGA) Award
Nominations announced: January 12th 2017
Awards ceremony: February 4th 2017

Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies)
Nominations announced: January 23rd 2017
Awards ceremony: February 25th 2017

Academy Awards (Oscars)
Nominations announced: January 24th 2017
Awards ceremony: February 26th 2017

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Review: I, Daniel Blake (UK Cert 15)

Over his career, Ken Loach has never shied away from controversial subjects. From homelessness in Cathy Come Home, through to the Irish War of Independence in the Palme d'Or winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Loach is an uncompromising filmmaker who isn't afraid to tackle big issues head on. His latest target is the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the British welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a middle-aged carpenter who is recovering from a massive heart attack and who has been declared 'fit for work' by the Department of Work and Pensions- despite his own doctors saying he isn't. This means his Employment Support Allowance is going to be stopped. Thus begins the bureaucratic nightmare of navigating the benefits system and the often frustratingly absurb manner in which the DWP operates- sanctioning people's benefits for being a few minutes late to sign on and robotically following the scripts. It would be laughable if it didn't literally mean the difference between life and death: Paul Laverty's script is based on case studies where seriously ill people have been declared 'fit for work' despite all medical evidence to the contrary.

Loach won his second Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival with this film. I would love to have seen the French journalists' reaction to the film (aside from the standing ovation, of course). Given that nearly all of the characters have very broad Geordie accents (and those that don't tend to have broad London accents), I wonder if they had to subtitle it?

Johns' performance is outstanding. By trade, Johns is a stand-up comedian but he's also a superb and very naturalistic dramatic actor. Blake's a genial kind of fella, the kind of bloke you'd be happy to go for a pint with. An analogue man in a digital world which leaves him all at sea (his frustration with having to do claims online is something that rings very true). He is a fundamentally good man caught in a dreadful scenario. He isn't a sponger, or a scrounger, or a benefit cheat (a fact that appears to have got the rightwing British press up in arms). His frustration at the intransigence of the system is writ large and wholly believable.

Hayley Squires is similarly great as Katie, a young mother who Daniel meets at the job centre as she gets sanctioned for being late to sign on. They strike up a friendship which is pleasingly free of any signs of romantic pressure. Katie is a woman on the edge, a mother who would do anything for her kids but who is slowly going under and who is forced into the unthinkable to survive. There's a heartbreaking moment where Katie goes to a foodbank that left me shaking.

The rest of the cast are all pretty good, with Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan impressing as Katie's children Daisy and Dylan (luckily avoiding being saccharine or too cutesy). There's also a nice turn by Kate Rutter as Ann, the one sympathetic and human voice at the JobCentre, who tries to help Blake and gets into hot water for it.

Loach never sensationalises the subjects in his films; he never needs to. For all those who criticise and say this is outlandish and unreal, I can tell you it isn't. It is chillingly real. Factual. Due to the inflexibility of the benefits system, the absurd run-around you get with them, the draconian rules, the ever-present threat of sanctions (meaning your money is either stopped or reduced), and the utter lack of humanity so many people who work for the DWP show, it's no wonder people have died. The only wonder really is that more haven't.

Loach described I, Daniel Blake as a film about the 'conscious cruelty' of the current government and I left the cinema with my mind racing. I was upset by what I'd just seen. I was depressed about the state of things. There but for the grace of whatever go we all. But most of all, I was angry. Angry that the current system has evolved into such a state that foodbanks are seen as the new normal. Angry that a government body can literally hold someone's life in their hands with little to no accountability. And angry at the lack of humanity being shown to people who deserve it. 

So, thank you, Mr Loach. Thank you for making such a powerful, raw and honest film. And thank you for making me angry.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Saturday, 5 November 2016

Review: The Girl On The Train (UK Cert 15)

An expertly plotted, intricate thriller, The Girl On The Train is based on the best-selling book by Paula Hawkins and directed by Tate Taylor (The Help)

Transplanting the story from London to New York, it follows Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), a woman who forms a fascination with a young woman (Haley Bennett) who she sees from the train every day on her way to work. Rachel builds up a perfect fantasy life for the woman. But when the young woman- whose name is Megan- disappears, Rachel becomes embroiled in the mystery. But can we really trust her version of events? Is there more to Megan's disappearance than meets the eye? Could Rachel have had something to do with it?

I'm an absolute sucker for books or films with unreliable narrators- there's something deeply satisfying about a work that can skilfully pull the rug out from under you- and here, we get not one, but three, narrators who aren't telling us everything. As the layers of the story unfold, what we think we know turns out to be wrong. Dead wrong.

There is an absolutely brilliant central performance by Emily Blunt. Rachel is a fascinating, flawed character- the main character, certainly, but definitely no heroine- and Blunt plays it to the hilt with absolutely no shred of ego involved. Rachel looks haggard, eyes sunk, as alcohol and regret make their mark. She is prone to drunken outbursts and blackouts and has a very complicated relationship with her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). There's no attempt to soften or mitigate the rough edges of the character. She is presented warts and all, and it's one of Blunt's finest dramatic performances.

Megan is a similarly contradictory character; Rachel's imagined perfect life is very different to her reality. Bennett gets to play many facets to Megan- flirty, vulnerable, brazen, distraught- which all build in to her disappearance. Occasionally, Bennett's performance lapses into cliche but that could be to do with the script. To round out our triumvirate of troubled women, we have Anna. Scared of Rachel and mistrustful of her influence on her ex-husband, all Anna wants is to be left alone to get on with her life. What could have been a stereotypical new-wife-threatened-by-the-old is given nuance by Ferguson's performance and- as the story progresses- we come to realise that perhaps there's more to Anna than meets the eye.

You may think that, being such a female-heavy story, the male characters get short shrift. Not so. Whilst it's true that Luke Evans gets lumbered with little to do other than brood and shout as Megan's husband Scott, the other main male characters- Tom, and Megan's therapist Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramirez)- are a bit more rounded and each feeds in to the main story. Whilst I have to say I called the twist, it was less to do with any of the performances and more to do with the law of averages.

The Girl On The Train (both the book and the film) have been compared to Gone Girl, and I can see why. There's some similarities- the unreliable narrators, stories told from the female view, moments of shocking violence (although Gone Girl takes the gold on that one)- but this is far from a pale imitation. This isn't a go-in-and-switch-your-brain-off film. It is taxing, especially to keep track of the differing timelines and points of view but if you're in the mood for a dark, psychological, tricksy puzzle-box of a film, this is well worth a go.

Review: 4 out of 5


Friday, 4 November 2016

Review: Doctor Strange (UK Cert 12A)

So after giving us Norse gods, cryogenically frozen super-soldiers, talking raccoons, and a man who can communicate with ants, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now add magic and mysticism to the mix with Doctor Strange.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon whose life is irrevocably changed when a car accident ruins his hands. Determined to heal, he tracks down a man (Benjamin Bratt) who was able to walk again after being paralysed. The man tells Strange of a place- Kamar-Taj - where, through study of magic, he was able to walk again. Initially dismissing this as nonsense, Strange eventually travels to Kathmandu in search of Kamar-Taj... and finds it. Under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange discovers a whole new plane of existence... but also faces the forces of darkness who threaten to destroy it.

I was intrigued that- just as they did with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy- Marvel would follow Captain America: Civil War by introducing a completely new character into the fold. However, this has proven to be a canny move (especially given the wide-reaching ramifications of Civil War on the MCU).

Performances are really strong: Cumberbatch is brilliant as the haughty Strange, coming to terms with a new reality and grudgingly coming to realise that there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in his philosophy. He also gets some wonderfully snarky one-liners, giving Robert Downey Jr a run for his money. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a dignified, stoic performance as Mordo, another of The Ancient One's disciples who helps Strange in his training. Rachel McAdams provides heart as Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange's colleague and ex-lover who stands by him after his accident- and provides support in more ways than one. Mads Mikkelsen provides a suitable amount of menacing zealotry as the villainous Kaecillius.

There was some dissent amongst commentators at the casting of Tilda Swinton- a white British woman- as The Ancient One (typically an old Tibetan man), with accusations of whitewashing being levelled at the production. Despite this, Swinton's performance is one of the high points. She's powerful, endlessly watchable and surprisingly funny. She eschews any stereotypes of the 'wise old mentor' whilst still fulfilling that role. Similarly, there was initially some criticism when it was announced that the character of Wong- who has been Strange's tea-making manservant- was going to be included in the film. However, the role has been revamped- he is now a fighter and the librarian of Kamar-Taj- and is played wonderfully by the deadpan Benedict Wong.

There are some absolutely mind-blowing visual effects which are just a delight for the eyes and the mind. Especially good are the Inception-style bending of reality, making buildings turn in on themselves in a stylishly Escher-like kaleidoscope. There's also a brilliant fight sequence- done in reverse as scaffolding reassembles itself and bits of building reattach- when Strange defends the Hong Kong sanctum from attack. The effects of the astral plane and projection are great and there's some amazing work done on Strange's Cloak Of Levitation (almost a character in its own right) which provides some of the film's funniest moments. I'd hazard to say this might actually be worth seeing in 3D.

As usual with Marvel films, stay til the very end- there's a mid-credits scene which gives a tantalising set-up for a future Marvel movie and an end-credits scenes which promises some interesting times ahead for the good Doctor.

I've enjoyed all of the Marvel movies to a greater or lesser degree. With Doctor Strange, I think I've found my new favourite. Definitely worth two hours of your time.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children (UK Cert 12A)

Jake (Asa Butterfield) is a young man whose life is stagnant. However, when his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) dies in mysterious circumstances, it opens up a whole new world. It turns out that Abe's bedtime stories of children with strange gifts- peculiarities- living in an orphanage on a small Welsh island overseen by the enigmatic Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) weren't just fanciful tales. But every good tale needs a monster and soon Jake is confronted by the terrifying Hollowgasts as he seeks to help his new friends.

Directed by Tim Burton with his usual flair, the screenplay is by Jane Goldman, based on the 2011 young adult book by Ransom Riggs. One thing the film has made me want to do is actually read the book; I picked it up idly in a bookshop at the start of the year (before I knew the film was being made) but put it back down.

There's a strong central performance by Asa Butterfield (Ender's Game, Hugo) as Jake. Devoted to his grandfather and distraught at his death, Butterfield sells the alienated young teen without being stereotypically mopey or emo. Green's performance as Miss Peregrine is similarly strong- quirky without being annoying, stern without being over-the-top- but I couldn't get away from the nagging feeling that, but for personal issues, it was a role meant for Helena Bonham Carter. Awkward.

The young Peculiar children were all cast well, with Ella Purnell impressing as nascent love interest Emma (who is lighter than air and needs leaden boots to stay grounded) and Hayden Keeler-Stone as dream-projector Horace my personal favourites. There's also a lot of humour gained from the invisible boy Millard (voiced by Cameron King) who is frequently naked. There's also a nice supporting turn by Judi Dench and Samuel L. Jackson seems to be having the time of his life chewing the scenery as the villainous Mr Barron. 

On the topic of villains, the Hollowgasts are well realised and quite unpleasant creatures (especially the whole eye-eating thing) which might cause some concern for younger viewers. Visually, it's a stunning film- the desolation of the Cairnholm island looking great, compared with the bucolic idyll of the Orphanage in 1943. There's even a trip to a sunken ship and the final battle takes place on Blackpool Pier. The score- by Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson- is also particularly good (especially the ethereal theme as Emma and Jake visit the sunken ship).  

Fans of Burton will love it- this is the kind of film he excels at, full of light whimsy and dark fantasy. It's assured, fun and suspenseful. I really enjoyed it.

Rating: 4 out of 5