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The Watched (2024) Review

There’s a metatextual quality to The Watched’s story of mythological mimicry

Feeling like you’re being watched is unsettling at best, but being watched by unseen creatures every night takes paranoia to a whole new level, as does, one suspects, being watched by your veteran director father while making your own debut feature. Hashtag NepoNoia. The Watched, known outside the UK as The Watchers, dives headfirst into the dark heart of Irish folklore, where mystery and malevolence lurk at the heart of an improbably impenetrable forest in western Ireland.

Mina (Dakota Fanning), a disaffected young woman seeking an escape from past trauma makes ends meet – in between in-disguise anonymous hook-ups – by working in a Galway pet shop. When she’s tasked with transporting a rare parrot to Dublin Zoo, she inadvertently finds herself stranded in a dense and mysterious forest. Unable to find her way out or even back to her car, she stumbles upon three strangers, Ciara (Georgina Campbell), Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and Madeleine (Olwen Fouéré), who begrudgingly take her in and school her in the rules of survival in this most unusual of forests.

Writer/ Director Ishana Night Shyamalan, adapting A M Shine’s novel, sets out to prove her movie making credentials with a film that brims with an eldritch atmosphere so thick it feels as if the very air in the forest is alive with menace. Cinematographer Eli Arenson masterfully captures the claustrophobic and haunting essence of the forest, wrapping the audience in a visual embrace that is as enchanting as it is unnerving. Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of Mina is as potent as you’d expect from an actress of her calibre, even though the writing and characterisation compels her to a more emotionally disengaged performance than we’re used to from her. The other residents of the incongruous blockade in the deep dark woods are perhaps less nuanced and well-drawn, although the ever-reliable Olwen Fouéré leverages the layering on of Irish folklore so thick you’ll expect the screen to start spouting shamrocks to enhance her screen presence.

It’s fairly clear that the filmmaking apple doesn’t fall far from the twisted tale tree, as Shyamalan Jr pays obvious homage to her father’s The Village in both atmosphere and signature colour choices. There’s a slight sluggishness to the pacing, too where it occasionally feels like trudging through a bog, every narrative step laborious and slow and the script frequently falters thanks to stilted dialogue and an ill-balanced plot which leaves parts of the story underdeveloped or, worse, hurriedly dumped in clumsy expository scenes. Of course, there’s a twist and if there’s anything that underlines the hereditary filmmaking at play here it’s that Ishana Night Shyamalan can’t quite stick the landing either. Like father, like daughter, they just can’t reliably pay off their set-up.

For much of its runtime, The Watched is a decent folk horror, although it falls short of the primal unease of Into The Earth and lacks the intensity of films like The Witch or Midsommar, failing to make the most of the rich mythology it’s mining or find a satisfying place for the story to go once it hits its premature crescendo. Still, for a debut feature, it shows promising instincts and perhaps we have to allow that M Night Shyamalan’s presence as producer prevented I Night Shyamalan from seeing the wood for the trees and realising the metatextual irony of a movie about changelings coming to resemble her father’s work so strongly. Hopefully she’ll find her way out of her father’s no doubt well-intentioned shadows and navigate her own path through the overgrown brambles of Holly Wood.

The Equalizer 3 (2023) Review

Equalizer 3 dares to ask what if Michael Myers was a good guy?

Imagine if Michael Myers, the infamous Shape from the Halloween franchise, decided to use his particular set of skills for good rather than evil. That’s essentially what you get with The Equalizer 3, where Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) stalks the streets of Italy, bringing justice with the same relentless efficiency and blood-curdling brutality you’d expect from the Shatner-masked horror icon.

The Equalizer 3 finds Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) recuperating in a quaint Italian village from a near-fatal injury at the hands of a child, an event which provokes something of a crisis of faith as he reflects on a lifetime of violence. Seeking peace, he is inevitably drawn back into action to defend the locals from Mafia thugs. Dakota Fanning co-stars as CIA Agent Emma Collins, reuniting with Washington years after their collaboration in Man on Fire. The tranquil setting contrasts sharply with McCall’s violent retribution, much like the serene suburban streets do with Michael Myers’ murderous rampages.

Denzel Washington’s performance remains as watchable as ever, his portrayal of McCall compelling and nuanced, bringing depth to a character that blends elements of a hero and a monster. The action sequences, although sparse, are intense and satisfyingly gory, although this time there’s a discomfitingly personal aspect to the kills, corroding their sense of righteousness. McCall wants his victims to know it’s him that’s killing them, and he looks them in the eye as they die, showcasing his lethal skills with a finesse that’s as captivating as it is chilling.

Despite its strengths, The Equalizer 3 suffers from pacing issues, with long stretches of inactivity that disrupt the film’s momentum, and the climax lacks the inventive set-pieces of its predecessors. Instead, it opts for a more shadowy, methodical takedown of villains, reminiscent of Myers’ nocturnal hunts. Despite the gravitas of his performance, there’s more than a whiff of late-era Steven Seagal in Washington’s more lackadaisical approach to the role this time. It may be that age is catching up with the veteran actor and so the action necessarily needs to slow down a little, but the move slowly, mumble softly and infrequently is straight out of the Under Siege star’s late-era playbook. While it’s nice to see Fanning and Washington together again after so long, the subplot involving Dakota Fanning’s character feels underdeveloped, serving more as a narrative filler than a meaningful part of the story, although it does – in the end – provide a little more connective tissue to the first two films.

Compared to the previous instalments, The Equalizer 3 leans more heavily into the horror-like qualities of McCall’s character, making it feel like a slasher film with a moral twist. While the first film balanced action with character development and the second amplified the stakes, this third entry feels more like a character study of a vigilante who could easily be mistaken for a monster if viewed from a different angle. It’s an intriguing blend, but one that may not satisfy all fans of the franchise.

The Equalizer 3 serves as a fitting end to McCall’s journey, presenting him as a vigilante who operates with the chilling precision of a horror movie villain. The beautiful Italian setting and Washington’s unwavering performance provide a solid foundation, but the film’s pacing issues and lack of character depth prevent it from reaching its full potential. It’s a curious blend of action and horror elements, giving us a glimpse of what it might be like if Michael Myers had a moral compass and a penchant for justice.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if Michael Myers decided to fight crime instead of terrorising babysitters, The Equalizer 3 might just be the movie for you. It’s a blood-soaked ballet of retribution, performed with a quiet, chilling efficiency that will make you think twice about who the real monsters are.

Please Stand By (2017) gives pause to those whose loved ones may have to one day rely on the kindness of strangers.

Please Stand By (2017) gives pause to those whose loved ones may have to one day rely on the kindness of strangers. #ReviewThere’s a slightness to “Please Stand By” that may appear to some to be a superficiality. There’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in this story of Wendy, a “Star Trek”-obsessed autistic young woman heading off on a cross-country quest to hand in her 500-page screenplay to an open submissions contest at the Paramount lot in Hollywood. But what seems unremarkable – even pedestrian – to the majority masks a whole subsurface world of emotion and anxiety for those who know or care for or love someone who has a cognitive or developmental disability.

Anchored by a well-judged performance from Dakota Fanning and featuring great support from the likes of Toni Collette and Alice Eve, “Please Stand By” may offer some small measure of whimsy and wit by riffing on “Star Trek” fandom but, like the finest examples of that storied TV show, it uses that plot as a backdrop to explore not only Wendy’s personal journey and her relationships with her semi-estranged family but also holds a mirror up to society as a whole, reflecting the mundane, everyday callousness with which we can treat the most vulnerable among us.

Indeed, watching as a parent of a child with additional needs, I can’t speak directly to the accuracy with which autism is portrayed but I can say it wasn’t the more melodramatic, soap opera-esque twists and turns of the cross-country plot which alarmed me or gave me cause for concern. It was the smaller things, the petty, mundane everyday ignorance with which those in authority or a position to help this vulnerable young woman treated her. The impatience of ticket clerks, shop keepers and others who don’t or won’t take the time to think for a moment and offer compassion and support instead of irritation and dismissiveness; the inflexible attitude informed by the enforcement of rules rather than the employment of empathy. It was those small, trivial moments which chilled me far more than the somewhat predictable moment when Wendy is fleeced by a pair of opportunistic grifters. The inability to rely on the kindness of strangers is something which should make us all blanch.

In placing the character, to begin with, in a home rather than with her family, the film provides the Wendy with a refreshing degree of autonomy and agency and ultimately the quest to hand in her screenplay becomes something of a rite of passage in itself, with wider consequences for Wendy’s life going forward. It’s quite the harrowing journey as Wendy struggles determinedly to reach her goal despite the odds stacked against her, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t attempt to lighten the load with much in the way of humour or light-heartedness until the closing moments when – somewhat anachronistically at the moment – there is the redemptive act of human kindness you’ve been crying out for, in the form of an LA Cop – specifically a compassionate, Klingon-speaking cop named Frank (Patton Oswalt).

It’s a worthwhile watch for anyone, but there’s no denying for the right audience, it’s going to touch a nerve. If you know, you know.

7/10 

War Of The Worlds (2005) Review

Dakota Fanning brings the raw emotional terror of alien invasion to life in Steven Spielberg’s visually stunning but narratively stunted War Of The Worlds

I’ve always had a love for H G Wells’ “The War Of The Worlds”, borne out of many a childhood listen to Jeff Wayne’s musical version. While I enjoy the contemporary 1950s version and even the pre-MAGA patriotic fever dream of “Independence Day” (less so its dumber than dumb cousin “Battleship”), I’ve always kind of yearned for an authentic adaptation of the novel, set in the proper time period and exploring the alien invasion from an authentically Victorian – and British – perspective. When Spielberg’s adaptation of the story was first announced, I hoped that this would be the one I had been waiting for, but alas it was not to be. Still, as we find ourselves on the eve of the BBC finally bringing a period-set version of the tale to the small screen, I decided to revisit the 2005 offering.

“War Of The Worlds” is unlikely to top anyone’s list of Spielberg’s cinematic masterpieces and while it may be ‘lesser’ Spielberg to some, that still gives it a fighting chance of being in the upper echelons of movies in general. Aware of how many previous adaptations there have been, Spielberg wisely brings his focus tight around the fractured family of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) – a surrogate for the evidently splintered and factional human race and in doing so makes this a story less about alien invasion and more about how fragile and vulnerable society itself is when faced with disruption and crisis.

Unfortunately, at times, the relentless focus on the family conflict sometimes bogs the film down in soapy melodrama especially in relation to the Ray’s eldest child Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who’s badly underwritten, evidenced by how much the film picks up once he’s rather unceremoniously written.

Ultimately, like the invading Martian death machines, the film stands on its own tripod: three factors, two of which propel it towards greatness and one which holds it back. The first firm footing the film has is in its Director. Spielberg’s visual genius, and the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, suffuse nearly every frame with bleak yet beautiful imagery. Yes, some of the visual flourishes are just indulgences, the wow factor overriding logic, such as the floating clothes of Martian victims which make for a macabre and memorable visual but a weapon which incinerates flesh but leaves clothes untouched makes zero sense, especially to an invading force which seeks to use humans as a food source. It’s undeniably cool looking, though.

Spielberg certainly doesn’t hold back the darkness in this film, though, and he delivers a plane crash aftermath which tops the one “Lost” delivered a year before while the train on fire and the attack on the ferry are similarly standout sequences. There’s some real darkness on offer too, arguably darker than anything Speilberg has embraced before – in one of his action-adventure movies that is – such as the family drowning in the cars falling off the ferry and, especially, the river of corpses which take Rachel (Dakota Fanning) by surprise during one of the movie’s deceptively peaceful moments.

Dakota Fanning is the second factor which gives “War Of The Worlds” its power. Her performance is simply astonishing and she absolutely should have been in the running for Best Supporting Actress, at the very least. Time and time again, she absolutely nails the emotional intensity of a world gone awry from a child’s point of view and provides a chilling evocation of the very real, present day horror of having to raise a child into an increasingly violent, dangerous and unpleasant world.

The film’s third factor, the one that works against it, is its star, Tom Cruise. His performance is actually pretty good but he’s badly miscast as the blue-collar asshole divorced selfish asshole who’s not really interested in his kids but finds himself stuck with them during the crisis. He feels far too clean-cut, square-jawed and heroic to really deliver the necessary grittiness of the role and it works against the film and the family story Spielberg’s trying to tell and so it’s no surprise when most of that dynamic fades quickly from the performances even as the script tries to continue fanning the flames of the conflict. Ironically, it might have worked much better if Tim Robbins and Tom Cruise had swapped roles. Robbins would have been more believable and layered as the deadbeat dad while anyone who’s seen Cruise’s Oprah’s couch moment can attest to how convincing he is as a delusional maniac.

The finale feels very abrupt but it’s mostly down to the breakneck pacing of the film up to that point and actually, it doesn’t really end so much as just kind of stop. It’s something of a misstep for the rescue from the basket of the tripod to be the defacto action finale set-piece which should probably have been reserved for a better showdown between the dregs of the US Army and the afflicted invaders than we get to see. It’s a nice nod the fifties version of the story to give Gene Barry and Ann Robinson cameos at the very end, but it’s also here that the movie makes its most egregious mistake by bringing back Robbie, alive and well, undermining everything the audience has just seen the other characters endure.

It’s a polished sci-fi disaster epic that with a few casting changes could have been something really special and, while it’s never not nice to hear the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman’s voice, his opening and closing narrations feel a little unnecessary.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friends’ best friend. Ocean’s 8 (2018) Review

Sisters are doing it for themselves, specifically Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock), in this affably slick but lightweight heist thriller, the fourth in the modern ‘Ocean’ series and the first not to be directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Released from prison after being stitched up by her ex-boyfriend, Debbie Ocean has not wasted the past five years, eight months and twelve days. Instead, she’s used the time to concoct and refine the most audacious heist of her career: the theft of the Toussaint, a $150 million Cartier necklace, from the Met Gala.

There’s a reassuringly familiar slickness to “Ocean’s 8” and while the direction isn’t quite as sharp as Soderbergh, Gary Ross does enough to keep you from focussing on the difference. The New York setting brings a slightly grittier, drabber feel to this fourth instalment, and explicitly a fourth instalment it is, with even the glitz and glamour of the Met Gala failing to rival the sleazy razzle-dazzle of the Vegas Strip, even though it’s crammed with a veritable who’s who of cameos and who kares? of Kardashians.

The cast are every bit as polished as their male counterparts, with Bullock and Blanchett on top form and Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway contributing far more than you’d expect from the trailers. Although the heist is as intricate and ingenious as you could wish for, it all comes together disappointingly easily with each setback dealt with almost before you’ve had time to ponder the potential pitfalls. Although, this being an Ocean film, you’re always aware it’s never about the con you can see, but the final reveals that end up being the more rewarding.

George Clooney’s Danny Ocean is very much the spectre at the feast of this movie and while the film drops a bombshell update about him early on with almost callous casualness, his name crops up time and time again, baiting the audience’s expectations all the way to the very final shot. He’s not the only explicit link to the first three movies, either, with Elliott Gould’s Reuben – in all his pimped-up finery – pops by to caution Debbie against her plans.

Glossy, amusing and formulaically clever, even the (mercifully) brief involvement of James Corden can’t dull the sparkle of this frothy but forgettable franchise entry.

6/10 

The Alienist Season Review

It’s the late nineteenth century in New York and delinquent children are starting to go missing. Future President and newly appointed Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty)contacts criminal psychologist Dr Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) for help to solve the case. When Dr Keizler and Mr Moore realise that the job is too big for two people they enlist Commissioner Roosevelt’s secretary Miss Howard (Dakota Fanning), who Mr Moore has a previous romantic history with, and Police Officers Lucius and Marcus Isaacson to help with the investigation.

During their enquiries, the team uncover the full gruesome extent of the abductions, the reasoning for them along with a conspiracy amongst high ranking officials and members of high society to keep the investigation and the main suspect secret.

I had high hopes for The Alienist as it was born out of several impressive creative talents, namely Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Eric Roth (Munich). What we get is a lavishly recreated world but one that isn’t quite sure of its axis. Is it an exploration of how people in a position of power exploit the poor and disadvantaged, or of what men are capable of based on the world they live in and experience? Neither is clear.

That’s not to say that this is a good show, as it is jam packed with superb performances from Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning although Brian Geraghty as the future POTUS is by far the stand out when he’s on screen but halfway through what appears to be a pretty standard period detective show, just as it’s starting to find its feet there’s a twist that feels pointless and misguided, completely shifting the show’s direction and pace.

With the twist we are introduced to something far more menacing in its build-up than its execution that unfortunately falls flat in the final reveal and leaves you thinking ‘was that it?’. It’s a real shame as there’s clearly a great premise locked within the shows shell but maybe the time has passed for this type of story. Had “The Alienist” been released five years ago it would be hailed as a masterpiece but it doesn’t forge into any new territory that shows like “Ripper Street” and “Sherlock” haven’t already done. For that reason, a lot of it feels stale.

The ‘will they won’t they?’ side plot between John Moore and Sara Howard feels pointless and undermines Dakota Fanning’s character’s role as a headstrong female struggling for credibility in a male-dominated Police force, but my biggest gripe is that every dramatic scene is proceeded by five seconds of black screen. I’m presuming that this is because it was originally broadcast in the US on TNT and that these were to facilitate ad breaks, but if Netflix wants to keep presenting bought-in series as ‘Netflix Originals’ they would do well to judiciously edit these kinds of things out. Watching it on an iPad is incredibly infuriating.

Less than the sum of its parts and feeling past its sell-by date, “The Alienist” ends up alienating the very viewers it needs to impress. Watch this if you liked: “Ripper Street”, “From Hell”, “Sherlock”, “Se7en”

5/10