Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Denial (2017) (Review)

How do you prove the Holocaust actually happened? That is the premise faced by Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust studies, and her legal team, after a Holocaust denier files a libel lawsuit against her and her publisher.  The Mick Jackson-directed film, based on a true story and adapted from Lipstadt's own 'History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier', examines this question and the burden of proof in a libel case on the accused in the United Kingdom court system. Released in the UK on International Holocaust Day, it carries a hefty thematic framework and delicate subject matter that unfolds in this rather low-key but effective drama.

When Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) speech is disrupted by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a scholar of Nazi Germany and disputer of the Holocaust, she finds herself embroiled in a court case in which she must proof that David Irving specifically knew he was lying in claiming the Holocaust did not occur. Along with her legal team, led by Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) as lead solicitor and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) as lead barrister, they must face the denier and dismantle his absurd lies and claims.

A mainly British cast are terrific and grounded here; Weisz, a spectacularly underrated actress with recent appearances in The Light Between Oceans and The Lobster proving as such, delivers an engaging and nuanced turn as the inspiring Lipstadt who has to stand by, silently, as she watches others fight her case. It's powerful and restrained, reflective of her character's need to be compliant with her legal teams' strategy, in order to starve Irving's already-inflate ego of the fuel he needs, with her quiet acquiescence in doing such excellently demonstrated through her body language and expressions. Andrew Scott, a personal favourite of mine, isn't given a lot to do here but still manages to craft his dry but determined character with enough personality and intrigue to do right by Lipstadt, with just a faint amount of humour in his delivery, occasionally alleviating this heavy picture. Tom Wilkinson's cross-examining of Irving in the final act is masterful, eloquent and resounding and he is another key player that brings another terrific performance to the fold. Timothy Spall takes what could result into a pure panto role and applies just the right amount of sliminess and squirminess to David Irving's hateful character that feels perfectly suited to the Peter Petigrew actor (who genuinely used to terrify me in the days he played Lord Voldermort's side-kick). Speaking of which, his character evoked an unshakeable air of Mr Donald Trump about him, including one scene outside the courtroom in which he makes a vulgar comment about a woman before attempting to change subject completely. It's a chilling, monstrous performance and I think that says more than enough.

Understated and quietly powerful, Denial offers a satisfying and tasteful dramatisation of one of the most pivotal court cases in history which couldn't be more timely if it tried. Low-key in its approach and never overly complicated in its telling, Denial's decision to put the facts and accuracies of the story front and centre is greatly felt and really respected, with a refusal to descend into cheap tricks to shock or scandalise, courtesy of a compelling and streamlined screenplay from David Hare putting clarity as the focus. Its slender 110 minute runtime is a little scattered with a stronger need for balance but it remains relatively brisk and sharp throughout. Vitalised by a real quality about it - whether thats due to the steady way it is shot, the addition of the 'BBC Films' tag, the complex subject matter it handles or very probably a combination of all of the above - Denial feels like a prestigious product of impassioned and dedicated work. Veteran director Mike Jackson utilises his skill to deliver some impressive camera work; the long, lingering shots of the Auschwitz portray an uncomfortable tranquility and stillness, contrasted with the horrors the camp enclosed, with Jackson demonstrating this in a respectful and sensitive way; the whole sequence is without its loud, gratuitous and ostentatious moments and uses this slice of historical iconography in a moving and refined way. The same can be said for the way he considers the themes of the piece too, examining the importance of preserving and protecting our history and truth in an impactful way that never loses focus of this message.

Despite the power of its themes, subject matter and performances, Denial is a slightly flawed piece of film-making. It follows a very formulated path that it never deviates from, with the step-by-step story lacking the element of energy and vitality; there is an argument to be heard that the story depends on a level of patience from its audience, considering it actually covers a two year time period, and that can be really appreciated - but that doesn't all together impede the film from feeling a little by-the-numbers. It takes a good thirty minutes for the film to find the route it wants to take, and even longer to actually get there, but the second and third act are solid enough to forgive this weakness. However, the most striking issue this film has it that it does not feel placed on the right platform to tell this story on: throughout the entire story, there was a sense that the material would work in a superior way as a two-part television series, broken up over two one-hour slots, absolutely at home on BBC Two. Please don't think that is an outright criticism of the film, as we all know by now that film and television are much of a muchness in terms of quality and entertainment value nowadays, and Denial does work in its current format - but it maybe isn't the platform to afford all the justice this true life story deserves.

You cannot deny the importance of a story as powerful as Denial. It is told in an impassioned way by a dedicated team both in front and behind the camera; the cast are all-round impressive, with Weisz and Spall deserving particular praise for their opposing performances, in almost every respect. It never tries to oversell the moments and handles them with the right amount of respect and dignity, delivering the facts above all else. Its conclusion, despite knowing the outcome, is cathartic and satisfying, with the theme of truth powering through and shining even in the film's duller moments. It does have its flaws and the flaws can be frustrating but the importance of the story is undeniable and trumps any of the film's downfalls. It's devastatingly timely.


Summary: Understated and quietly powerful, Denial may not be the most exciting, most gripping, or most intense of films, but it very well may be the most important film you see this year. It's devastatingly timely.

Highlight: The Auschwitz scenes are so, so powerful. The film really hits its stride here.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Hacksaw Ridge (2017) (Review)

Hacksaw Ridge became one of this most awarded films of the award season earlier this week, scoring a total of six Oscar nominations, including nods in Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. Based on the incredible true story, the film details one conscientious objector's journey throughout the Second World War where he refused to lift a gun. His courageous story unfolds in this 137 minute cinematic cyclone of blood and gore, and love and faith. Brought to us by director Mel Gibson, with the central role of the pacifist played by award-nominee Andrew Garfield, does this anti-war film live up to the expectations? And more importantly, does it pay respect to the courageous man's story?

Due to his feverous religious beliefs as a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss (Garfield) intends to serve in the Second World War as a combat medic. His refusal to carry a gun earns him the fury of his regiments, who put this down to cowardice rather than his piety, outcasting and subjecting him to their abuse as his fellow soldiers cannot look to him to save them in the line of fire. After multiple attempts to have him forcibly removed from the unit fails, Doss must prove his strength and bravery on the battlefield, in the most deathly of circumstances, as the soldiers look to take 'Hacksaw Ridge' in the Battle of Okinawa.

Hacksaw Ridge is not an easy watch and most certainly not for the fainthearted; but you appreciate it all the more for not pulling its emotional punches. It includes some of the most brutal and ferocious battle scenes featured on screen in years, with the blood, guts and gore never restrained or moderate in demonstration, yet (surely) only capturing a fraction of the absolute horror of war of which we will likely never encounter ourselves. It's heart-racing, thunderous and sickeningly intense, throwing audiences right into the line of fire along with these characters in the only way we can really experience such destruction. It is unbelievably well-crafted and made, with a real determination to do right by the real-life story, delivering it with historical accuracy thanks to writing from Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Mel Gibson, while as heavy as ever with his use of violence and destruction akin to that of war, never forgets to percolate the rich and powerful themes of religion, faith, patriotism, forgiveness and humanity. It's psychologically devastating but the whole thing is captured in a way that refuses to allow the human story to fade into the background, as even in the sheer bloodlust and frenzy of the picture, it is the characters that shine the brightest - one, of course, in particular.

Andrew Garfield is simply mesmerising as Desmond Doss in the best performance of his career to date. There remains a sturdy composure to his character, even in the many faces of adversary (from death on the Ridge to his abuse from his fellow soldiers). Defined and fuelled by a real innocence and humility of the character who always aligns his faith with his actions, Garfield portrays these characteristics and moral tension at the heart of the piece with a emotive, pitch-perfect performance that excellently nails the mannerism (accent and all) of the hero. His sheer force of will to save "just one more" is deftly portrayed as nothing short of inspiring with Garfield and Gibson in the driving seat and his slow-motion runs across Hacksaw can impact the hardest of hearts. The entire sequence of the battle, which takes up much of the second half of the film, is completely absorbing and compelling, mainly due to the warmth and humbleness of Garfield's visceral performance and the true life figure himself. Garfield earns his Best Actor nomination here and, if truth be told, I am backing him every step of the way. As with his work in Silence, it proves why he remains one of the most skilful, talented British stars and it is a relief to see him break out into these roles he handles so masterfully. Some supporting actors get a look in too, with the likes of Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey and Teresa Palmer giving solid performances, and although they are not quite in the same league as Garfield, all add what is necessary of their characters to the film.

It's not always worth spending a long time on the downfalls of the film, and with Hacksaw Ridge there are few, but they do prevent this from being a flaw-free picture. The tonal difference between the two halves of this film (the corny but serviceable Homefront and the calamitous battle) is staggering and a little overwhelming; it really jumps from one extreme to the other and while you could justify this as a reflection of the young soldiers being thrown in battle with such little preparation, as a viewer you almost want to see a more spaced-out build-up. I am so very on the fences about the pacing and structure of this piece but something doesn't quite work with it, although I understand the symbolism of the decision. Speaking of symbolism, the religious qualities feel a little on-the-nose at times and the very beginning scene feels ham-fisted beyond belief, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise intensely powerful and inspiring story. Oh, and can we please stop using in medias res Hollywood - it genuinely ruins the impact of the film's ending and feels entirely unnecessary. I'd go as far as arguing the film loses half a star for using during the opening seconds.

Hacksaw Ridge paints a powerful portrait of the importance of faith and basic respect for one and other, with an emotional and moving tale of a man who refused to lift a gun, making the decision to save lives rather than take them. It is a tough balancing act, but the film remains deeply effective and gripping, as well as violent but dignified at the same time, all of which coalesces into a worthwhile experience. For all its blood, gore, explosions and injury detail, it never forgets the human story it is telling and guarantees that the themes are always front and centre of the picture. Andrew Garfield delivers a career-best performance and Mel Gibson crafts this harrowing and violent tale with enough thought-provoking and moral questioning to ensure you are totally engrossed in this pacifists' story. Each and every one of us can find inspiration in this one man's adherence to his true morals and beliefs and in turn will find the true meaning of strength and bravery in the darkest of circumstances in this film.


Summary: Hacksaw Ridge is a powerful, emotionally-charged and inspiring picture that examines the full horror of war on both an intimate and wider scale - all topped off with a mesmerising performance from Andrew Garfield.

Highlight: Garfield's performance of a man determined to save as many people as possible. "Just one more" stays with you long after the credits role and he will likely become a source of inspiration for many, many people.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Split (2017) (Review)

M. Night Shyamalan's career has been defined by peaks of his early days (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs) and troughs of recent times (The Last Airbender, The Happening and the god awful After Earth), so Split provides a rich opportunity to prove himself as the visionary director he was once seen as becoming. Co-producing the film alongside Jason Blum's Blumhouse, Split is a psychological horror-thriller film, a sub-genre that feel greatly disregarded of recent years, so it's no surprise that the film opened to mammoth box office dollars and a positive critical reception over the weekend. Is the film, starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley, a return to form for Shyamalan or another major misfire from the once promising director?

 When three teenage girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnsapped by "Dennis", one of 23 split personalities inhabiting the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), they are held in his underground cellar. Savvy Casey decides to befriend the personalities and use their weaknesses to achieve their freedom or risk facing the rumoured 24th personality, "the Beast". Psychiatrist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) has growing concerns for Kevin's safety and believes that the psychological unbalance could lead to the final, dangerous personality being unleashed. It's an admittedly ludicrous plot line but your enjoyment in Split partly rests on whether you can accept its absurd story and the undeniable fun it provides.

First and foremost, most of Split's success rests on the impressive range of James McAvoy. His versatile performance as Kevin, a man with twenty-three known, distinct personalities including 'Barry', 'Patrica', 'Dennis' and 'Hedwig', all of whom appear periodically throughout the film when they are given their time in the 'spotlight', is great. Clearly having fun with the performance, he is fearless and committed as the various branches of Kevin's characters and paints them as individuals well, which is one of the biggest hurdles for the story to overcome; he is no Tatiana Maslany but it is a solid and considered performance. Anya Taylor-Joy proves not only to be leading the newest generation of scream queens (The Witch and Morgan in the past twelve months alone prove just as much) but a genuine rising star too, with yet another captivating and convincing performance. Her character's history is well-written and conceptualised with brief flashbacks fleshing out the teenager and explaining her actions, adding further reasons to root for this character - although it does feel a little manipulative on occasions. Betty Buckley's character brings some clarity to the picture (where it can be cleared up, that is) and gives the film the context it really needs in an effective enough manner.

Shyamalan gets the ball rolling with a productive first act that indeed crafts an intense and atmospheric tone that begins to deliver on the promise of its intriguing premise; from there on, it gradually heads down hill. Despite a firm understanding of the twists and turns before heading into the film, with a general gist of what is to expect from spoiler-heavy trailers, the reveal of the personalities is still well-realised and effective, slowly developing the girls' understanding of their dire situation that works all the more profoundly because of the dramatic irony utilised. It manages to isolate the girls even more than they already are, giving them a vulnerability that encourages you to root for them over the half-criminal, half-victim Kevin, despite his somewhat innocence in all of this. It plays with its thematic content incredibly well, with the themes of 'survival' and 'victim' interlaced throughout the picture, setting off an unusual horror dynamic and tone to explore. One scene at the beginning of the film wonderfully plays with some framing techniques, splitting its three female characters to suggest some hidden development still to come; it doesn't grow into anything but sets that uneasy tone the first act nails so ably.

But then the cracks begin to emerge and the film begins to splinter. Shyamalan generally discovers some interesting shots and discussion points within the film but they never fruitful mature into anything meaningful due to lacklustre scrip work. The girls are split up, the themes become a little uncomfortable and poorly handled and the narrative finds itself chopping and changing focus, and plot strands emerge that make little to no sense whatsoever. There is little sense of cohesion from the first act onwards, in fact, asides from the impressive score that attempts to bring it all together. It's been marketed as a psychological horror-thriller but it is never scary enough or thrilling enough to warrant that tag; in fact, I heard far more laughs than screams or gasps in the busy screening. More often than not, it struggles to make an impact and I'd go as far as saying that the middle act is completely forgettable and, shockingly, fails to find an identity of its own. It's already slim 117 minute runtime feels too long and Split treads water more often than it should, interrupting the pace and intensity in that middle stretch. It's third and final act manages to reignite some of the sparks that made the first act so compelling but it doesn't have enough kindling and substance to keep it burning after a dull second stretch. It feels more like a showreel for McAvoy's great talent and a showcase to affirm that Shyamalan still has what it takes to become the promising director his early filmography lead you to believe. 

As with any general split, it starts off small and controlled and eventually frays at the edges, with its problems and flaws growing increasingly difficult to ignore. A victim of a terrific central premise, it demonstrates signs of delivering the potential and promise teased in the first act alone - but it eventually becomes too unfocused and complex for the sake of doing so. If we stuck with the idea of Casey attempting to talk to each of the identities, uncovering their flaws and exploiting their weaknesses, it would perhaps be a far superior horror-thriller, one fuelled by a smartness and sophistication; instead, it's rather run of the mill, ludicrous and frustrating popcorn flick that botches its climax with an uncomfortable development and shoehorned twist. It becomes a little laughable and that is the one place you never want to strand your horror film, ultimately feeling tonally unbalanced. Shyamalan The Director does decent things here but Shyamalan The Screenwriter lets him down - it's almost as if he is suffering from his own split.


Summary: Split has all the markings of an effective psychological horror-thriller film, but some weak writing and uncomfortable themes botch its second (and most of its third) act, instead making it a mediocre genre entry only lifted by its three solid performances and a little creativity from Shyamalan.

Highlight: Performances are decent enough and the first act is genuinely interesting.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Jackie (2017) (Review)

Natalie Portman's star turn in Jackie, the true life story of Jaqueline Kennedy and the impact and aftermath of her husbands assassination in 1963, today scored her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress which positions her as one of the categories' front-runners. The biopic drama, directed by Pablo Larrain and written by Noah Oppenheim, arrives against an equally fraught political backdrop, suitable for the turbulent times that any major political turn can ensure. How does Jackie stand up during this very busy award season, and is it worth your attention?

Set during her role as First Lady of the United States in the White House and the day of and those following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. It offers a glimpse into the lives of those left behind on the fateful day in 1963 and the impact it had on a more personal level, through the eyes of Jackie Kennedy and those around her.

As you have heard, and/or expected, Natalie Portman is sensational as Jackie Kennedy, nailing the former First Lady's mannerism, characteristics and accent to the point where you have to double-take as to whether some moments are archive footage of the real Jackie or filmed as part of Portman's performance. It's commanding, seamless and engaging at all times, translating into a moving and often harrowing performance that demonstrates the struggles of being both a mother, wife and figure of inspiration to many; essentially, she plays a lady who has, for a good part of her life, put on a performance, meaning this gives Portman an opportunity to showcase a more personal side to Jackie, including her relationships with a variety of people, be that her family, friends or government officials. It's carefully crafted and finely tuned with a strong possibility that this will go down as one of her career-defining performances, Oscar trophy or not. Surrounding supporting players, despite being incomparable to the name-above-the-title, help round the picture off with solid performances that support the emotional journey the film takes us on; Greta Gerwig is an terrific choice as Nancy Tuckerman, Social Secretary and friend to Jackie, as if Peter Sarsgaard's Robert Kennedy, including one pivotal scene in which he mediates on whether JFK's legacy will simply be that of an assassin's bullet. It's powerful that this spark of rage is really rather true, making it a rather devastating retrospective.

Jackie, by design, operates through a fragmented narrative structure that reflects the fractured thoughts and memories of its titular figure during her time of turmoil, brought together more by its haunting score from Mica Levi than its narrative cohesion and flow. Levi crafts an undeniably effective soundtrack, more than earning its Best Original Score nomination, with atmospheric material that excellently conveys the unsettled situation, perfectly digging under your skin and ensuring it stays with you not only throughout the film but for a good while after you've left the cinema. Matching the beauty of the score is cinematographer Stephane Fontaine that truly captures the era with stunning saturation and lens flares that transport you right into Jackie's world, as if you are intruding on her grief. The whole thing looks absolutely splendid, thanks to a production team that has paid great interest in historical accuracies, including the hair, make-up and costume departments, as well as the glorious, regal sets. All of this is wonderfully helmed by director Pablo Larrain who unites the prestigious picture with some magnificent camera work, including the funeral procession and march which plays with angles excellently, as if to demonstrate both Jackie's strength (through the low angles) and vulnerability (through the high angles), wavering as she makes the heartbreaking journey to bury her husband's body. Larrain also manages to craft an intense, almost forensic viewing experience; we feel as if we are intruding on the first families' grief, with lingering shots that place a sense of discomfort with the audience, who shouldn't be seeing such a public figure in such a personal, raw and grief-stricken light.

Emotional intensity is heightened and heightened during the film's third and final act, which deftly recreates the momentous seconds in the motorcade with such precision, beauty and brutality, containing one heart-wrenching aerial shot of Jackie holding her husband's head and brains in her lap as they rush to the hospital. We know the gunshot is coming - it's set in stone - but it still manages to create such an emotional punch and rush that you feel on edge during the whole recreation; but otherwise, the film lacks a sense of urgency, almost wading along and drenched in a stillness most of the time that becomes incredibly frustrating. It should feel continually unsteady but instead there exists a relative calmness that ponders around far too long. And while we are certainly transported into Jackie's world that feels deeply rich and textured on the surface, it does not feel as lived-in as we want it to. While it's a blessing that this film confidently puts Jackie as the indisputable focus, it's also a curse in that we want to feel connected to Jackie and John's relationship to understand what she has lost, rather than being told through very brief flashback and moments that don't equate to much. It's disheartening that the film cannot quite muster up a fully fleshed-out history for the pair and although we know of it through history, it could do with being shown on screen to give the film extra emotional weight. I wanted to be moved to tears but it didn't always get me there.

Funereal and deeply affecting, Jackie is a visually delightful and thematically sharp film that puts an astonishing performance from Natalie Portman at the centre. Smart structural decisions underpinned by a phenomenal score make for a captivating yet uncomfortable watch, with its musings on grief and loss on both a wide and very personal scale very effective. We are transported into a stunning world that, while not as developed as we want it to be, which in turn leads to a few issues in intensity and emotional connection,  manages to craft an absorbing take on a beloved figure that feels multi-layered and completely enthralling.


Summary: Jackie's strength lies in the details of a terrific production team, wonderful direction and cinematography and an exquisite central performance from Natalie Portman, which portrays the themes of grief and loss on an intimate scale incredibly effectively.

Highlight: The recreation of the assassination scene in so, so powerful and leaves a lasting image.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

2017 Oscar Shortlist Predictions

2016s most celebrated films will be holding their breath over the next few days, hoping they have done enough to nab themselves a nomination at the 89th Academy Award ceremony. January 24th will see the unveiling of the shortlist, lining up the lucky hopefuls in with a chance of snatching gold next month at the biggest award ceremony of the season. Front-runners have already begun to pull ahead but the field is still open for anyone and, with every award season, we expect a few surprises and snubs along the way.

As I did last year, I've decided to set my Oscar predictions in stone (aka on my blog) for the major categories. I can't claim to have seen all of these films yet (as a good handful won't be released in the UK for a little while yet), so my predictions will be formed not only based on my own personal opinions, but with an amalgamation of goodwill, buzz, word of mouth, voting patterns and how the film has already performed across the circuit so far. Then, when the nominations have been revealed, be sure to check back to see how I did. Keep your eyes peeled closer to the date of the ceremony to see my winner predictions and ranking of the nine pictures in the race.

Anything bolded is updated information, following the nominations announcement and my brief comments on each category, including notable snubs and upsets..

Best Picture

Just a few years ago, The Academy expanded their shortlist for this category, meaning that between five and ten films can be shortlisted for the Best Picture award, with the final number of nominees depending on how the field has been split. Typically, eight or nine are named and left to fight for victory in what many consider as the biggest race of the night.

Hacksaw Ridge
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester By The Sea

As with the previous two years, I am expecting eight films to receive a nomination in the prestigious category. La La Land, Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight appear to be the clear front-runners at the moment and a snub against any of them would be a massive shock; Arrival seems to have stuck around and managed to resonate with people incredibly well, so a nomination here would be unsurprising but not guaranteed; Hacksaw Ridge and Hidden Figures seem to have become both potent crowd-pleasers and critically-acclaimed pieces of cinema in past couple of months, picking up steam as the season has progressed; Zootopia could very well pull through and in turn become just the fourth animated film in history to earn a nomination in the Best Picture category, what with the current political climate striking some remarkable parallels that may just be too difficult for the Academy to ignore; and Sully seems to be exactly the type of film the Academy panders towards (a true story, based on a white male, performed by an Academy favourite and directed by an Academy favourite - and that's not to be offensive or suggest the film doesn't deserve the accolade, just simply an observation).

That final nomination was a toss-up with Silence but considering Sully was far more crowd-pleasing and easily accessed release, I expect the Academy to tip in its favour. A nomination for Lion wouldn't at all surprise me although I don't think it's done quite enough to be rewarded. Hell or High Water, despite being high on many other prediction lists, does not seem to have caught fire as well as fans of the western drama had hoped and may have been forgotten come ballot time. Love for Fences seems to have dwindled the closer we get to nomination day and Jackie's esteem seems to be entirely focused on the lead performance, rather than the final package. Loving has passed under the radar and Patriot's Day probably won't make the cut either. Deadpool would be quite a surprise, on the basis that I don't think it's very good - if you're going to award a blockbuster this year, let it be The Jungle Book or Captain America: Civil War.

On a personal note, I would love to see a mention go to A Monster Calls, for it really is one of the most moving and poignant pieces of cinema in recent memory. Nocturnal Animals, after the surprising but deserved appreciation from the BAFTAs, isn't out of the game yet and would be a terrific addition to the list, although it almost certainly wouldn't go all the way. I wouldn't frown upon a nomination for Eye In The Sky, either.

Of my main predictions, six were correct but I called the other three (Hell Or High Water, Lion and Fences) in the runner-up section. Not too bad going really. Deep down I expected Lion to make it and thought Fences would get in an extended shortlist. Hell Or High Water is a little more surprising. Deep down, I knew Zootopia wasn't going to get through but you can hope, right? Sully's exclusion isn't surprising either really - they were both my risky, outside bets.

Best Director

Five is the magic number from this point onwards and the handful I expect to be nominated for the Best Director award are...

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By The Sea)
Martin Scorsese (Silence)

Once again, the directors of 'the holy trinity' this Oscar season seem to have their nominations locked in, meaning Jenkins, Chazelle and Lonergan will almost certainly be among the five names on Tuesday, with a snub for any of them causing a great upset. That leaves two slots - Scorsese will probably be favoured over Clint Eastwood (Sully) in the Best Director category, as reviews have been nothing but complimentary of his ability to continually find beauty in his otherwise testing piece of cinema. Likewise, Villeneuve find similar beauty in Arrival and manages to find a scope in the picture while ensuring it remains intimate and tightly woven.

While Best Director is probably the category I am most confident to lock in, surprises come left, right and centre in this game and there are more than a few directors on the peripheral ready to swoop in a claim one of the spaces; Eastwood has a decent chance, having already won four Oscars and cementing himself as a favourite with the Academy; Garth Davis seems to be a favourite with others for his wonderful work in Lion and Mel Gibson's work in Hacksaw Ridge was labelled 'a return to form' so the Academy may want to pay him some appreciation for that. I'd be very surprised if either Denzel Washington (Fences) or Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals) sneak in but they're not completely out of the race yet.

Again, for me, J.A Bayona deserves a nomination for his work in A Monster Calls, in which he seamlessly combines CGI and animation with the real world while experimenting with different elements, with some of the most beautiful shots populating his film. I'd probably thrown in Jon Faverau (The Jungle Book) for the same reason, although I expect that creative team to reap the awards in some of the technical categories.

Four out of five right here which is faaaaaaar better than I did last year. Mel Gibson joins the five, knocking Martin Scorsese out which isn't too much of a surprise. Part of me expected them to pick Garth Davis over Gibson but it wasn't too unpredictable.

Best Actor

Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)

Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea)
Denzel Washington (Fences)
Jake Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals)
Ryan Gosling (La La Land)

Casey Affleck has probably already written and rehearsed his winner's speech for this one, as he has pretty much swept up everywhere else for his work in Manchester By The Sea, but there is still another four nominees to name before we get to that. Ryan Gosling (La La Land) is probably Affleck's biggest competition at this early juncture and Washington will probably be awarded a Best Actor nomination as a package deal for his general work in Fences (in which he also directs and produces). Andrew Garfield finally looks to be receiving the attention and appreciation he deserves and perhaps his work in Hacksaw Ridge will be awarded a slot, with his tremendous work in Silence also cementing the nomination. Jake Gyllenhaal seems the most likely to lose his place here, especially if Nocturnal Animals didn't resonate with American voters as much as it did with British voters, but I'll still give him the edge over the other options.

The Best Actor pool doesn't seem as wide as the others, so there is bound to be a few upsets caused by the otherwise interchangeable few; Tom Hanks could slide through for his performance in Sully, given the Academy's apparent love for him, while Viggo Mortensen seems to have won over a slight crowd for his role in Captain Fantastic. Joel Egerton seems to be a name thrown around but has gone completely under my radar this season, so I would be surprised to see him crop up here. Otherwise, unless Dev Patel finds himself here rather than in Supporting Actor as they seem to be pushing for with Lion, it's not the busiest category this year.

Lewis MacDougall for, you guessed it, A Monster Calls deserve appreciation here, but we all know the Academy has something against recognising the work of younger actors and actresses *cough* Jacob Tremblay *cough*. Sunny Pawar's performance in Lion faces a similar uphill battle.

Not particularly impressed with the Academy electing Viggo Mortensen over Jake Gyllenhaal but it was to be expected - many had edged Mortensen over Gyllenhaal to begin with. Again, it was a little wishful thinking on my behalf. Otherwise, it's another 4/5 here.

Best Actress

Amy Adams (Arrival)
Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train)
Emma Stone (La La Land)
Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)

Best Actress remains a tough battle but the general word is that this is a two-horse race between Emma Stone (La La Land) and Natalie Portman (Jackie), so they have pretty much guaranteed their nominations here. Amy Adams, as with Andrew Garfield, could have the goodwill of delivering fantastic performances in both Arrival and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice Nocturnal Animals, with Nocturnal Animals benefiting an Arrival nomination more so than the reverse (if you can decipher what I mean here, kudos to you). Isabelle Huppert has the advantage of winning the Golden Globe earlier this month, with no woman ever going un-nominated after scooping up the Drama win, even if the only word I have heard of this film is of her performance. Emily Blunt (The Girl On The Train) surprised with a BAFTA nomination and could reap the awards of serving up a sensational performance in an otherwise unfavourable film (but I really liked it, so who cares?).

Meryl Streep may potentially push another actress out, as her Golden Globe speech is fresh in the minds of voters and is she another Academy favourite that could prove an upset to the leading five. Hidden Figures' Taraji P. Henson has received traction after the film's wonderful success over the previous two weeks. Ruth Negga (Loving), Jessica Chastain (Miss Solane), Rebecca Hall (Christine), Kate Beckinsale (Love and Friendship) and Annette Benning (20th Century Women) are other names flying around but I can't say they have enough support to translate the goodwill into an outright nomination.

I'd like to throw Hailee Steinfeld into the ring for this one, for her sensation performance in The Edge of Seventeen that earned her a Golden Globe nomination earlier this year.

It's infuriating that Amy Adams doesn't get a nomination here for her work in either Arrival or Nocturnal Animals, although many had backed a nomination in the former the whole way. Whether it's voters picking one over the other and potentially spreading her to thin across the category, I don't know, but I sure as hell think this is the biggest snub of the season. Meryl Streep and Ruth Negga push Adams and Emily Blunt out of my predictions and the conversation - the former was expected because of the Academy's infatuation with Streep but Negga was, possibly, the biggest surprise of the entire nominations. Last year I scored 5/5 here - this time I settle for 3/5.

Best Supporting Actor

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals)
Dev Patel (Lion)
Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea)
Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

While these supporting categories don't seem as tricky to predict as last year, given the general trend to push for a nomination in a supporting capacity over the more hotly-contested lead, there still exists a fair bit of difficulty. Dev Patel, in my eyes, should be playing in the major league with lead but most have him down for Supporting for his role in Lion. Everyone else is a little more understandable; Mahershala Ali has won a tonne of support for his supposedly short appearance in Moonlight and is considered front-runner at this stage in time; Jeff Bridges is secondary to the two male leads in Hell Or High Water but makes just as much of an impact; Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Globe win for Nocturnal Animals should not be discredited and is expected to pull through with an nomination, just tipping Michael Shannon for his role in the film; and Lucas Hedges, while some consider an outside bet more than likely given his age, may be the (pleasant) surprise of the morning.

Again, Shannon could take support from Taylor-Johnson and tip the nomination in his favour - or we could see two actors from the same film share the Supporting Actor spotlight. Hugh Grant seems to be an early favourite for at least a nomination but I can't see it happening myself, while Ben Foster awkwardly straddles the Lead-Supporting boundary to the point where I believe the Academy will disregard him all together.

Part of me would love to see Alan Rickman win some recognition for his role in Eye In The Sky because he delivers a genuinely solid performance and because it would be a nice way to remember the actor.

Four out of five here, with Michael Shannon pushing Aaron Taylor-Johnson out in a Nocturnal Animals showdown. Not too surprising as it was pretty much 50/50 on who would break into the conversation but Taylor-Johnson's Golden Globe win had me leaning towards him.

Best Supporting Actress

Viola Davis (Fences)

Michelle Williams (Manchester By The Sea)
Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)

No repeat of last year's 'Alicia Vikander in supporting when she's quite clearly a lead actor' so everybody starts on a more of less equal footing. Viola Davis (Fences) looks set to scoop her first Oscar in this category but looks set to face stiff competition from Michelle Williams (Manchester By The Sea). Nicole Kidman looks ready to earn a nomination for her performance in Lion, which has particularly strength going forward as it was considered a 'return to form' after some less than well received performances of recent. Naomie Harris, while supposedly quite a small role, seems to be a name flying around at the moment for Moonlight, while Octavia Spencer could very easily grab a nomination for her inspiring turn in Hidden Figures.

Janelle Monae could snatch a nomination away for Hidden Figures, although I always see it as the Academy choosing only one actor or actress per film per category in these things, to avoid unnecessary complications or awkwardness. Greta Gerwig has both roles in 20th Century Women and Jackie to consider although neither have exactly caught fire for her across the circuit. Margaret Bowman is an outside bet for her funny performance in Hell Or High Water for her performance simply as 'waitress', with a diner scene that continually cropped up on year end favourites last year. It would be a surprise but its not inconceivable. Molly Shannon (Other People) and Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) are two names floating around but I'm not convinced either can go far enough.

I have three names for this one I would love to see in contention; Felicity Jones for A Monster Calls, Lupita Nyong'o for Queen of Katwe and Helen Mirren for Eye In The Sky all at least deserve to be a part of the conversation and I'm particularly throwing my well wishes towards Jones who genuinely moved me to tears with her gut-wrenching performance. It's a tough category again this year.

Five for five. Send me to the prize table (although, admittedly, this was the easiest category to call).

And there we have it for my Oscar 2017 predictions. How well I did will be evident when nominations are revealed on Tuesday morning/afternoon, depending on where you are from. I expect La La Land to pull through with the most overall nominations, closely followed by Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight, with Arrival hopefully in that mix too. Nocturnal Animals will definitely be one to watch and keep your eyes on whether Hidden Figures' success and acclaim from the previous two weeks will have made any difference to the nominations.

Until then...

Another Oscar season, another barrage of snubs and disappointments. Amy Adams' is the most heartbreaking because I really, really expected her to  make it, and possibly, go the distance. Emily Blunt is another disappointment but she was an outside bet to begin with. Nocturnal Animals deserved more love, in line with its BAFTA haul, but I didn't expect it to resonate as well over the pond anyway. Finding Dory not making Best Animated is a little upsetting but I'm sure Disney aren't crying too much - Moana and Zootopia made it instead.

Pleasant surprises with (very unpopular opinion alert) Passengers achieving two nominations for Original Score and Production Design. SO happy Audition (The Fools Who Dream) earned a nomination alongside City of Stars for La La Land.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Manchester By The Sea (2017) (Review)

La La Land vs Moonlight vs Manchester By The Sea; quite probably, that is what the brawl will look like as we head for the tail end of the award season. Barring a complete surprise or dark horse pulling through at this late stage, the Best Picture race at this year's Academy Awards will encompass those three frontrunners who all have everything to gain, nothing to lose and all will have experienced their fair share of losses and triumphs across the circuit. Manchester By The Sea is a drama film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, with eyes fixed firmly on nominations (at the very least) for Best Picture, a Best Actor victory for Casey Affleck and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Michelle Williams. Does the film deserves it position as one of this year's early favourites to scoop up gold next month?

Manchester By The Sea, very simply, follows an uncle who, following the death of his brother, is placed as his teenage nephew's guardian. Fighting his own personal battles and haunted by his demons, he must adapt to his new role in this profound tale of tragedy, loss and regret. Affleck, Williams, Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges star in the critically-acclaimed picture that will do nothing but advance their route to more prominent and flashy Hollywood roles, should they wish to follow that path. Despite the relative simplicity of the story, it juggles a multitude of complex themes that could very easily come crashing in the wrong hands; Lonergan, on only his third feature film, controls it all perfectly from the director's chair.

Quiet and thoughtful, Manchester By The Sea engages from the very first scene with an icy sophistication and disconcerting quality that feels totally alluring to audiences. It's careful and considered, telling a simple story in an astounding way. It's themes of death, regret and loss are mixed with an unusual dark humour that ensures the film never slips into completely depressing territory, preventing viewers from feeling as if they are imposing on these characters during their time of grief; the humour is so important here and is nailed pretty much constantly, scoring everything from chuckles to belly laughs across the board. It's thanks to Lonergan's script that such a fine balance has been achieved between these two opposing tones. He can also be thanked for his work behind the camera; from sweeping shots of the ocean to intimate moments homing in on a sole characters' smallest of expressions, it is textured piece of directing and filmmaking captured wonderfully by Lonergan. His use of flashbacks enables the film to unfold as a slow burner, drip feeding information and revelations that, although arguably foreseeable, is executed in a way that still shocks and breaks us despite our suspicion, demonstrating Lonergan's firm grip on this film. That one scene in particular is unbelievably powerful and profound, with the subtle and elusive hints in the lead up to the reveal never hampering its impact.

A notably small cast streamlines the film and achieves absolute wonders here, with each and every actor feeling essential to the story; no matter how large their role is, they are so richly developed on paper and on screen. Affleck, leading from the front, plays a highly-strung janitor simply existing on the outside and struggling to come to terms with his fateful actions. His performance is nuanced but powerful, playing Lee Chandler, a man riddled with such rage tightly restrained - he is never tempted to push too far into Oscar-bait material and maintains a cold and almost disconnected persona throughout, even in the moments in which he is humanised a little further with each flashback and character beat opposite his teenage nephew. Speaking of which, Lucas Hedges' Patrick is a revelation in the film; his character is never what one expects and he surprises constantly with an unexpected confidence to his character that avoids many of the expectations and cliches of a character like his. Michelle Williams makes only a few appearances at irregular stages throughout the film but her presence is felt in every single moment she gets, with a commanding performance that manages to break our hearts over and over again. As a character hurt just as intensely as Lee, it's an entirely opposing depiction of the pain that still feels grounded and realistic and equally a heart-wrenching to watch. It speaks volumes that what must amount to less than five minutes of screen time will probably earn her an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress but her turn here is so strong that you have no qualms about her inclusion in the line up. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes guarantees that the film is a visual marvel and music from a Lesley Barber ensures that the right moments are either subtle or emphasised, cohesively working in unity with the actors and script at every turn.

Manchester clocks in at 137 minutes and while you are never wishing the film hurries by, you cannot help but feel a little lost by the time it ends, with the conclusion seemingly coming from nowhere and wrapping up rather speedily - in fact, its the quickest pace the narrative moves at. As with Martin Scorsese's Silence, the film doesn't move you quite as much as you expect on first viewing, but creates a response that appears to be far more emotionally-charged when looking at the film on reflection and, potentially, (and I will get back to you on this) on further viewings. On one hand, you wish the film to cover more narrative ground than it actually operates on but not to the degree that it surrenders some of the fantastic character work on offer.

Manchester By The Sea's key success is in its portrayal of humanity and grief, with the film never afraid to linger on characters, draw out moments to uncomfortable lengths and show these troubled emotions in their rawest form. As with this year's A Monster Calls, the film deals with such difficult themes in a truly exquisitely way, with a real beauty evident in this simple story of loss, regret and damage, all of which is tremendously brought together by Lonergan's writing and directing. Of course, Casey Affleck seems to be unstoppable in the chase for the Best Actor Oscar next month and you can totally see why, with such a controlled and steady performance of a greatly damaged man note perfect, with Michelle Williams worthy of her attention too. Manchester By The Sea is a devastating but rather special film that will stick with you long after you leave the cinema and will rightly hold a special place in your heart this Oscar season and beyond.


Summary: Manchester By The Sea is a subtle and devastating tale of loss, regret and humanity that tells its simple story in a truly beautiful and powerful way. A wonderful cast of actors (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges) and writer and director Kenneth Lonergan ensures Manchester is eyeing up award success.

Highlight: The beautiful way it explores such difficult themes. One moment, in which Lee reaches breaking point during a flashback will stay with me forever.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Lion (2017) (Review)

Positioning itself as another name in the award season game this year, Lion tells a true story of life, loss and love and is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brieley and Larry Buttrose. Directed by Garth Davis and acting as his feature-length debut, it has already roared to great success across the award circuit, easily becoming one of the favourites behind La La Land, Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight for the Best Picture Oscar next month - but is it the real king of the Oscar season?

After the young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) follows his brother Guddu (Abhisek Bharate) to work, they become separated and Saroo finds himself locked on a train which departs before he can get off. Alone and frightened miles away in Calcutta, a faraway town in which an unfamiliar language is spoken, Saroo is forced to survive on his own before being picked up by the authorities and taken to an orphanage. When an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and Joe (David Wenham) offer to adopt him, Saroo (Dev Patel) must adapt to this new way of life and later, make the decision to begin searching for his mother and siblings. An inspiring tale, no doubt, but how does it fare in its translation from reality to page to screen?

As expected, the cast here are solid all-round, with the two actors playing Saroo particularly standing out; Sunny Pawar excellently demonstrates the vulnerability of the boy who wanders the streets of Calcutta desperate for help, expertly expressing - through facial expressions and subtle characterisations - his loneliness and isolation, away from his family at such a young age. Dev Patel has a little more to work with as the older Saroo, who we join roughly twenty years later, and is absorbing as the central character trapped between his two families and identities.  Nicole Kidman is a commanding presence in this supporting capacity, effortlessly conveying the unconditional love a mother has for her son, biological or not. Rooney Mara also features in a glorified, thankless cameo role during the second half of the film as Saroo's friend-come-lover and although she is a terrific actress, their relationship is rather unnecessary to the story, meaning she is given very little of any interest to do and goes pretty much unrewarded. 

A tale of two halves, director Garth Davis and cinematographer Greig Fraser manage to reflect this well throughout the film: the Indian setting featuring some dull and darker colours to start with, conveying Saroo's isolation well, until it opens up once again during the climax where the colours seem to become brighter in front of our very eyes. Australia, on the other hands, is completely different: as Saroo enters this land for the first time, it is overwhelmingly scintillating with its open waters and picturesque beauty, descending into darker colours and tones as Saroo grapples with the idea of tracing back his family. It works really efficaciously in this way, with Davis discovering some really beautiful moments in each half that ensures the audience always has something to appreciate visually.  Luke Davies' screenplay is worth a mention to, as he crafts some wonderful pieces of dialogue demonstrated perfectly during a discussion between Sue and Saroo and her decision to adopt him rather than having their own children - even when the story struggles, the script features some beautiful, touching and poignant moments.

Lion tells an undeniably heartfelt and remarkable true story, often soaring to inspiration heights - but too often it feels cliched and struggles to live up to the groundbreaking genre entry it tries so hard to be and has been set up as. It struggles greatly in the jump from 'then' to 'now', with a twenty year gap suggesting that all about his past life has been forgotten in this period, until, that is, the appropriate moment to utilise new and developing technology comes; it doesn't help either that the film never seems to cover enough ground in its two hour runtime, with patches of emptiness often encouraging clock-watching. And, while extremely powerful in parts, the emotion feel a little too manipulated and drawn out, particularly in the second half, failing to occur as naturally as the filmmakers surely intended and thus meaning the tears do not always feel earned. It's flaws are frustrating, particularly given the first half of really sublime filmmaking, but there is simply not enough material to fill this dramatic space with continual gusto. A large chunk of the timeline is missing and we never really seem to make up for it along the way; one can't help but think that had this film been explored in a fashion similar to Manchester By The Sea (with intercutting flashbacks at regular intervals, rather than being presented in chronological order), we'd be far more swept up in the journey that we are in its current state.

Lion's warm and inspirational true story cannot be faulted or labelled as anything less than powerful or moving, yet the film doesn't always manage to capture this essence in its purest form and somehow loses twenty years of the story along the way, leaving the rest of the narrative a little thin on the ground and thus disengaging. It absolutely has its moments of real greatness, with a really solid start that renders a young Saroo's journey as a profound one - but the second half begins to undo that with too many coincidences and conventionalities that prevents the story's translations on to the big screen from being a wholly successful and effective one. It's a real shame that it cannot maintain the goodwill of its first half, as the general cast do a really tremendous job of making us feel sympathetic towards the characters they bring to life and the hard work put in by the writers and director is unquestionable. A few errors in this piece really has prevented it from ascending to greatness or award season worthiness, but I am absolutely sure there will be many more out there who are more impacted by this piece of filmmaking than I was.


Summary: Lion's powerful true life story does not always translate into a profound and inspiring film, despite terrific performances from the central cast, most specifically Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, and an engaging first half.

Highlight: This film confirmed how much I appreciate a 'where are they now, story update' pre-credits. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A Series of Unfortunate Events - Season One (Television) (Review)

A terrible, terrible thing happened on Friday 13th of January this year, rivalling all other misfortunes the historically horrible day has previously seen; ten years since the chapter closed and a failed film franchise later, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events found a new home on Netflix. Snicket's (the pen name of Daniel Handler, an author too afraid to use his real name to tell the dreadful tales of the Bauderlaire children) recollection of each woeful turn in the three young orphans lives' spanned thirteen novels, with the first four now being adapted in this eight-part television series, with a second season to tell the next five under way (and, presumably, a third and final season to see the story through, planned).

I'd go as far as to say that, along with the Harry Potter series, A Series of Unfortunate Events was the first book series to truly engage me as a youngster and I therefore have a soft spot for the tales told. I liked the 2004 film a lot more than most and as soon as the news leaked about the potential of a television series coming to the streaming service, I'd already signed my name down as firmly 'interested'. Below, having quickly binged the eight episodes on offer (each book is awarded two episodes), I summarise my thoughts of the series as a whole, with a few more remarks about each individual episode with a grade assigned to it. If you've caught up with the series, do let me know what you think of it too.

On the whole, A Series of Unfortunate Events benefits from a longer runtime to explore each of the novels in the television series, with this extra time afforded allowing the series to go into more detail and diving further into each twisted tale than the film adaptation. The Brad Silberling-directed film centred on the first three entires into the series, meaning Netflix's culling of the source material doesn't really come into its own until the final quarter of the series but it still remain a sturdy translation in its own right even when treading familiar ground. As with the film, which received a rather mixed reception, the performances are terrific all-round with the multi-faceted Neil Patrick Harris' Count Olaf (and his multitude of bizarre and intriguing incarcerations) equally dark and hilarious. It's camp, overly exaggerated and hyperbolised but it works for this character and these stories, finding a middle ground that successfully balances the fine line between self-parody and completely farcical rather well indeed. Another indispensable element is the three children and they are as wonderful as their (more experienced) film counterparts as the intelligent, judicious and unconventional youngsters; Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith all deliver well-calibrated performances that ensure audiences warm to them, even when they are written as a little pretentious and grandiloquent (a word here which assures that I too look grandiloquent).

Where the television really surges on its own accord is through the lead performance of K. Told Freeman as Arthur Poe and the recurring appearance of his wife, Eleanora Poe, played by the naturally funny Cleo King; both bring an absolute charm to the show that was missing in their character(s) during the film, even when their characters are beyond frustrating with their inability and impotence to see beyond Olaf's various disguises. Production designs, including sets and costumes, are magnificent here with a discerning quality that almost off-sets the reality of the piece for something a little cartoonish and, compared with the dark tone of the narrative, is wonderfully uncomfortable. The CGI is not always great - with one glaringly obvious scene painting on an animating Sunny's face, distracting you from the rest of sequence (I I had to go back to remind myself what had happened because I was too busy laughing at the shoddy attempt at CGI) - but it is otherwise passable for the majority of the run. For the most part, Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a few dark hours of fun, slightly bizarre but enjoyable television.

Having previously mentioned how the extra time affords the series more detail the film could not delve into, the continual error with every passing episode is that it is awarded too much time; each episode is roughly fifteen minutes too long, more often than not losing the way in the middle of each instalment (a problem that particularly plagues the second episodes of the two parter). Instead of two hours for each novel, the series would probably benefit from a reduced hour and a half runtime as it tends to find itself muddled in stretching it out to that extra half an hour. It's an easy fix going forward with the remaining two seasons (and nine books) and it will be interesting to see what Netflix learn from the relatively positive reception from season one.

With sweeping statements and generalisations out the way, now let's take a look at each of the eight episodes from the Netflix series individually, with a grade assigned to each episode to help with the comparisons - high points, low points and all!

The Bad Beginning: Part One (A-)

A terrific opening for the show with an episode that requires more than just telling a story; it needs to introduce characters, themes, important elements and it succeeds very well in doing so. It proves that a lot of the casting choices were right on the money, including the decision to make Snicket's narrator so close to the forefront of proceedings. It really sets the ball rolling by setting the tone of the series perfectly and, in fact, the series doesn't really hit the heights of the first episode again.

The Bad Beginning: Part Two (B)

Whilst a little muddled during the middle stretch, and the first signs that two hours to explore the whole novel is a little excessive, Part Two manages to continue some of the goodwill from the first episode. It only begins to scratch the surface of Neil Patrick Harris' brilliantly commanding turn as Count Olaf and hints at exciting things for Joan Cusack's Justice Strauss (another improvement over the film adaptation). A satisfying two-parter.

The Reptile Room: Part One (B+)

Sets and production values really come to life here, with animated and vivid backdrops spectacularly demonstrating what this show could offer. Aasif Mandvi's performance as Uncle Monty is a joy and translates well on to the screen, with a great sequence set in the theatre bringing some real laughs in the season's most comedic sequence to date.

The Reptile Room: Part Two (B)

A little slower and arguably covering too little ground to justify its hour runtime, Reptile Room once again signals the series' difficulty and struggles regarding pace and structure. There is, however, a genius meta moment and fourth-wall breaking in which the series pokes fun at its original origins as a film franchise, which is probably my favourite moment of the whole season and certainly one to look out for.

The Wide Window: Part One (B+)

Very possibly my favourite story of the first run of episodes, The Wide Window is an inspired adaption of its source material. Even though Alfre Woodard's performance as Aunt Josephine isn't as funny as Meryl Streep's, she still brings the character to life well as the next unconventional guardian for the Bauderlaire orphans. It takes on more of a grim and murky colour palette but excellently injects pops of colour throughout.

The Wide Window: Part Two (B)

With some woeful CGI overshadowing some of the most exciting sequences of the episode, the second half of The Wide Window again struggles with pacing issues related to its runtime. It spends a lot of time getting to a conclusion we know is coming. It is, however, one of the most entertaining episodes of the run and tonally works almost as a detective mystery, with some really terrific performances from the younger cast and a reduced role for Harris allowing others to shine.

The Miserable Mill: Part One (B-)

Possibly the least engaging story of the run, The Miserable Mill hints at some exciting narrative developments, with one twist in particular wonderfully being unveiled as a complete misdirection and completely flooring viewers. Although the whole series is a little absurd (usually in a good way, of course), this episodes pushes the whole thing into being too melodramatic for its own good and isn't as exciting as it should be until the final ten minutes.

The Miserable Mill: Part One (B-)

Regaining a little more steam for the second half of the story, this strange story comes to a head with an equally bizarre conclusion that sets thing up nicely for the next season. Catherine O'Hara is delightful as Georgina Orwell and even though the story gives her little to do and the narrative is plagued with conveniences, it's good enough to interest you in the next chapter of the Bauderlaire's story and eagerly await the second series.

Overall Grade: B

What did you think of the Netflix series? Did the series work better as a film or television adaptation and will you be coming back for the next season?

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sherlock, Ranked & Reviewed (Television)

Sherlock is continually (and rightfully) regarded as one of Britain's best television series of recent times, with fans from across the globe falling in love with the BBC's modernisation and adaption of Arthur Conan Doyle's series based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss co-created the series, with lead actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman catapulting to Hollywood stardom because of their roles as Holmes and Watson. With season four potentially wrapping up the entire series as we know it, I take a look at the thirteen episodes that have aired in the show's seven year history, ranked and reviewed each of them to see how they all stack up - now including episode three of the latest run, The Final Problem. Be sure to share your own lists in the comments section!

Will The Reichenbach Fall ascend to new heights? Should The Great Game win this round? Can The Lying Detective lie his way to the list's peak? Or will A Scandal in Belgravia create chaos on top? Without further ado, the game is on...

13. The Blind Banker (S1, E2) (C)

Sherlock soared in its debut outing back in 2011, but it came crashing down in the second episode that feels like an hour-long episode stretched into a 90 minute slot. The Blind Banker is a plodding example of the 'sophomore slump' that only occasionally sparks the creativity and charm of the pilot episode. Despite the slight smugness of the episode, its lazy representation of Orientalism is one of its biggest curses (although it's presents an intriguing case to analyse as part of your Media Studies A-Level, I can tell you!) and forces a disengagement to the entire episode that ensure that this is the weakest to date. On the whole, it's the story that fails to compel and you find yourself willing for the episode to speed towards its conclusion and/or the next episode entirely, even if it includes some terrific character development for Doctor John Watson (not that any is afforded to his love interest).

12. The Six Thatchers (S4, E1) (C+)

Season four's debut episode aired just a couple of weeks ago to rather mixed reviews, with many (myself included) worrying that the show would never reach the insane heights that the lengthy hiatus and previous bar of success had us anticipating. It is as if the entire ninety minutes of The Six Thatchers is positioned in setting up the rest of the season, or instead initialising a soft 'reset' to undergo; this can work with some shows, but not Sherlock, where only three feature length episodes come round every couple of years, ending almost as soon as it has started only for audiences to be thrown back into a long, uncertain hiatus on the wait for something new. There exists a looming sense of predictability and a naggingly dull tone to the episode, with a final twist that should be like a punch to the stomach instead feeling no more than a slight tap. It suffers more because what has come before has been so consistently incredible and it begins to suggest that Sherlock is truly running out of steam.

11. The Hounds of the Baskerville (S2, E2) (C+)

Taking on Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous/popular story was always going to be a daunting and difficult task: unfortunately, it doesn't make the translation into a 21st century setting very well, with a lot of the intensity lost along the way, in what should be a pivotal moment in the entire show's run.  Not only is The Hounds of the Baskerville the weakest link in what many regard as the show's strongest season to date but if it wasn't for the popularity of the source material, this would easily be one of the most forgettable episodes too. Its decision to separate Sherlock and Watson for a solid chunk of its runtime, which is so often the strongest element of the show, functions to the episode's detriment as it loses part of what makes Sherlock so special - Sherlock and Watson's relationship. We do see some good character progression for Watson but it's not enough when the episode is of a poorer standard than one would like of the most famous story in the Sherlock Holmes canon.

10. The Empty Hearse (S3, E1) (B-)

Season three started on the back foot by having to overcome the obstacles left by season two's finale meaning the entire episode feels like it's playing catch up. After years of rampant speculation, theories and detailed graphs, the time came to reveal how Sherlock faked his own death and it didn't quite pay off; Steven Moffat played with a number of theories and possibilities without actually revealing the 'how' and while they were each entertaining, the show caught itself chasing its own tail towards something 'bigger' and 'badder'. It starts off rather well though, with a decent two acts that manages to balance a new, important case and re-establishing our two lead protagonists relationship, all while introducing Mary Watson, played by the wonderful Amanda Abbington. The conclusion to the new case is a little anti-climatic in the end and felt like a cop out, opposed to a satisfying conclusion - but there is enough here to enjoy.

9. The Final Problem (S4, E3) (B-)

Maybe my frustration with the episode pushes it further down the list, but The Final Problem fluffs the goodwill from the previous episode's upswing in quality and is a great disappointment when stacked up against the usually terrific season finales Sherlock has become renown for. Similar in tone and structure (and even borrowing the same source material), The Final Problem never works as well as The Great Game does because it doesn't quite understand what it wants to be; a season finale or a series finale, it's as uneven as the Sherlock of recent has become and lacks the usual sophistication of Moffat and Gatiss' writing resulting a mess of twists and turns for the sake of having twists and turns, lacking the carefully considered and plotted intricacy of the first two seasons. The whole thing is summed up rather ironically by the jump from last week's jaw dropping finale to this week's cold opening - they literally brush off the cliffhanger with the most half-hearted explanation in order to hurry on to the 'big' thing of the week, as if we have been cheated out of a revelation to have another thrown at us. If that sounds harsh, it's only because I expect so much more of Sherlock's concluding episodes in particular, and I will admit that the episode does feature some terrific moments (the Molly Hooper phone-call, Jim Moriarty's entrance and the airplane case) which is sadly brought together in a messy fashion.

P.S. There is a huge difference between misdirection and sending some down the wrong path entirely for the sake of the 'rug from under feet' moment later on and Sherlock is always so unpredictable as to which it plumps for that it is beginning to become tiresome.

8. The Sign of Three (S3, E2) (B-)

I admire what the middle episode of the third season was trying to do but I'm not quite convinced they executed it as well as they should have. Set at John and Mary's wedding, The Sign of Three features some of the best sequences in the show to date, including the Mayfly Man case in Sherlock's Mind Palace and a wonderful 'best of' case montage. The rest of the episode, however, has some major tone and structuring issues and it isn't stitched together with the same care and attention as these stand out scenes. Sherlock's wedding speech is tonally awkward, not just in Cumberbatch's wonderful delivery but its presence in the series at all, as though it doesn't quite belong in the series or, as Caroline Frost of The Huffington Post commented "(it is) somewhere between a Christmas one-off, a Comic Relief-inspired parody and one of these special dream-sequence sitcom episodes".  It's not bad at all; it just isn't Sherlock.

7. The Abominable Bride (Special) (B)

In between the eternity that was the wait between season three and four came The Abominable Bride, a one-off Christmas special flashing back in time to the Victorian days the Conan Doyle series was initially set. It offered a unique opportunity and experience to explore how his series was initially written, removing the technology element that defines the BBC's adaptation of the show and conform to various Victorian conventions, such as women taking a backseat in society at all times. Cutting between the past and the present, with the case acting as a parallel to 'Miss Me?' Moriarty as seen 'revived' at the end of season three is a joy to watch, even if the novelty wears off in parts and the third act is by far the strongest.

6. The Lying Detective (S4, E2) (B)

Call it a coincidence but I always find with Sherlock that the middle episode is the weakest (Banker, Baskerville and Sign being the three examples). You'll understand my concern then, after the underwhelming premiere episode, that season four would follow pattern and dip further in quality for the second instalment. Thankfully, it didn't, and The Lying Detective demonstrates some of the charm of the show's previous seasons, just as we began to worry it would never be able to recapture the spark. Some of the most wonderful character work is delivered in the episode, thanks to reliable performances from Cumberbatch and Freeman, and a skin-crawling introduction to Toby Jones' villain, as well as a blistering cliffhanger reveal that imitates that of a season's most intense finale. It finally feels, after a long wait, that Sherlock is showing signs of an ascent back to greatness.

5. His Last Vow (S3, E3) (B)

It feels as though His Last Vow is a two-narrative episode; the Mary reveal being the better half, with the Magnussen half devoid of some of the tension it needed to be as compelling as it should be. Following in Moriarty's footsteps was always going to be a task but his shadow still looms largely over the third season finale, meaning that the villain for this piece gets completely lost, resulting in a less than satisfying showdown, but admittedly delivering an interesting end-point for the finale when all is said and done. A lot does work in this episode and thanks to a great script and a well-structured episode that alleviates some of the concerns with the Magnussen-end of the plot, by intertwining the two narratives pretty well, means it succeeds well enough as a finale. The central twist, which pushes the characters into uncharted waters and leaves a very big question mark for the series to pull and push and prod away at, is really rather effective and deviates greatly from the original story, where Sherlock so often hits its stride. It does succeed for the majority of the time, even though its not quite as sophisticated and rewarding as the show's other season finales.

4. A Scandal In Belgravia (S2, E1) (A-)

A Scandal in Belgravia, season two's opening episode, hits the grounding running by picking up from the end of The Great Game in an anti-climatic by deliciously twisted resolution at the episode's dawn. Belgravia feels fresh and exciting with an element of sophistication and maturity as the series develops into it second leg, while remaining as fun and enjoyable as the first season. Lara Puvler's introduction as Irene Adler is absolute terrific and in doing so, she becomes one of the show's most compelling characters to date; commanding and enigmatic, she becomes a real match for Sherlock Holmes, bringing a really interesting dynamic to explore over the rest of the show - even when she isn't in the room. I might have hoped for an ending that was as bold and brave as the rest of the episode but I can forgive this little grumble in an otherwise top-quality episode.

3. A Study In Pink (S1, E1) (A)

Sherlock's debut episode had so much weight resting on its shoulders - this first of its kind, a modernisation of Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-set series that remains so pivotal in regards to English literature, needed to score big or result in the BBC looking like fools. Thankfully, the fantastic team they have assembled - from the creators to the cast to the crew - are all seemingly working towards the same goal and ensure the pilot episode, A Study In Pink, sets the standard so high. It's a gripping and completely absorbing crime drama with its own identity - that of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson and their adventures in and around 221B Baker Street in the 21st century. It could very easily have failed but thanks to the solid team behind and in front of the camera so determined to make it a complete success, A Study In Pink remains one of the show's absolute stand out episodes.

2. The Great Game (S1, E3) (A+)

Season one's conclusion is most effective because we have no face for the danger - that is, until The Great Game's heart-stopping finale, ensuring it is not only dense, but incredibly tense too. It is continually shrouded in mystery and excitement and nails the one element that makes Sherlock such a compelling show (the investigations, of which there are a number, linked as part of the villain's masterplan). Andrew Scott's Moriarty may just be one of the most powerful villains on television screens, with his portrayal genuinely terrifying and commanding; despite featuring for mere minutes towards the climax of the piece, he is the absolute centre of the entire thing. It is completely staggering that an episode, so early into the series' run, can so masterfully achieve the sophistication and general greatness The Great Game manages to attain for the full ninety minutes.

1. The Reichenbach Fall (S2, E3) (A*)

The Reichenbach Fall is near faultless television. No, scratch that, The Reichenbach Fall is faultless television. Season two's mammoth finale extrapolates every fantastic element of the five episodes of Sherlock before it, combines them and intensifies it to deliver a triumphant episode that feels continually tense, exciting, interesting, emotional, dark and just a little bit funnier than it should be. Cumberbatch, Freeman and particularly Andrew Scott deliver some of their best, most powerful work in the entire series, with sensational character developments and arcs finally coming to a head in the episode - with big thanks to its smart dialogue, stylistic direction and nail-biting climax and cliffhanger that throws everything up into the air. It is a consequential, rewarding and satisfying conclusion to possibly one of the greatest seasons of British television in quite some time, in this show-stopping 90 minute feature-length. In the words of Scott's Moriarty, "in a world of locked rooms the man with the key is king", and The Reichenbach Falls wears the most elaborate and deserving of crowns.

Which episode takes your top spot? Do let me know below!