22 December 2012

Review: Taken 2

(Dir: Olivier Megaton, 2012) 

Let’s be clear about this from the outset – Taken is not a good film. It only has one thing going for it – watching Liam Neeson play a no nonsense hard man, which is something he’s toyed with throughout his career, but here he fully embraces it. Aside from a handful of entertaining action scenes the rest of the film is a chore to watch, and it’s not like it has the charm or fun factor of those classic eighties action flicks. Inexplicably it made a ton of money in the US, found its true market on DVD, and so here we go again.

Yes, you guessed it, Taken 2 is one of those sequels that no-one ever needed. I had planned to avoid it and then the need to watch something light and dumb with friends arose, so despite my better judgement it happened. But I at least went in expecting the bad, and boy did it not fail to deliver. The plot is this simple – all those bad bad people Neeson’s character Bryan Mills killed in the first film... well, Rade Serbedzija is after vengeance for them all, which involves kidnapping Mills, his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and attempting to again ensnare his daughter (Maggie Grace), whilst they’re all in Istanbul. This is all starting to sound like the bad running joke about 24 that Jack Bauer’s daughter was never safe.

So let’s start with the one solitary positive: the credits take less than ninety minutes to roll which makes the film feel mercifully short. That's it. Now for the myriad issues...

This is a terrible excuse for an action film. For starters there isn’t even that much action in Taken 2, but what there is has been so shoddily edited that it’s almost impossible to make out exactly what’s going on, which allows the violence to appear tame, bloodless and suitable for a toothless 12A certificate. At least the first film didn’t feel overly restrained in this manner. There’s at least one fist fight scene that should’ve been good fun to watch but ends up a mostly indiscernible blur due to the ridiculously fast editing.

Then you’ve got the cheese. Oh god the cheese. Both Taken films feature some of the most cringeworthy, painful to watch family scenes ever filmed and they just seem to get worse in the sequel. The only way to get through it is to laugh, otherwise you'll find the uncontrollable need to keep facepalming just too much. These scenes predominantly bookend the film but take up way too much time when Neeson could be meting out his own brand of justice.

Now of course you should suspend your disbelief when watching films, but Taken 2 features some of the most incredulous plotting ever. The way Grace’s character tracks her father down, with his help of course, is one of the most ridiculous things I have seen in a film for quite some time. Or never mind the crap about her struggling to learn to drive and suddenly she’s a master behind the wheel, particularly one with a proper (read European) gear stick. Neeson’s character is certainly far less enjoyable to watch this time round despite him again being the best thing in the film. Then of course there’s the "homage" to Drive’s “I give you a five minute window” scene, and the stealing of that film’s music (twice), which only serves to remind what a fantastic film Drive is and how dire Taken 2 is in comparison.

The message here is plain and simple – don’t watch Taken 2, it’s a bad, bad film. Shooting for a lower certificate may have made the film more of a financial success but doing so has had an extremely detrimental effect on how it’s assembled and what it can show. Never mind that thematically for a film of this nature this lower certificate is questionable anyway. Taken 2 is boring, laugh out loud funny when it’s not supposed to be, incredulous in the worst way, terribly written and poorly directed (with this, Colombiana and Transporter 3, Olivier Megaton has a mountain to climb to prove himself even a half decent director). All we can hope is that there won’t be anymore Taken films. Please let there be no more.

21 December 2012

Review: The Man With the Iron Fists

(Dir: RZA, 2012)

The Man With the Iron Fists is clearly a labour of love. Directed, written by and starring RZA (aka Robert Diggs, member of the esteemed rap collective Wu-Tang Clan), this is his debut feature as a director and it's obvious that a lot of his passion went into this project, even if it does seem a bit random. Set in a village in 19th Century China, it’s about a son who must avenge his father’s death whilst different clans vie to steal a shipment of the Emperor’s gold due to pass through a village, with another faction determined to just protect the village and their way of life.

The most telling trait about The Man With the Iron Fists are two names in the credits – Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth – the former in the spurious role of “presents...” and the latter as producer, co-writer and with a small cameo. The film is a throw back to martial arts and samurai films of the seventies and eighties, think along the lines of the Lone Wolf and Cub ilk, and suffused with the grindhouse aesthetic of this era. It’s this latter element that’s telling of the involvement of Roth and Tarantino, ensuring it’s a fun film. So contrary to this in a sense, there’s an admirable attempt to have a proper story driving through the film, which unfortunately feels too convoluted at times, pulling us away from the real reason people turn up to watch a film like this anyway - to see some crazy fighting.

From the outset the film is violent and bloody, but the fight scenes are extravagantly coregraphed. There’s a strong fantastical element running throughout, meaning these scenes take on the somewhat gravity defying “wire fu” style as seen in more successful films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But there are also general story elements that embrace this too – see David Bautista’s character Brass Body, or how the titular man with the iron fists comes to be as such. Fortunately the film isn't totally swamped by these fantastical elements. The complaints I have on this side of the film come down to the editing frequently being too rapid, making it harder to fully enjoy what’s happening on screen; and you still can’t get away from how much more satisfying it is to watch practical effects than cgi – computer generated blood being one of the key irritating things here (fortunately we've at least come a long way from Blade in that regard!).

Most surprising is the presence of Russell Crowe as Jack Knife. I expected his involvement to merely be an extended cameo yet it happily turns out he's one of the lead characters. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Crowe, but he’s evidently having too much fun playing an extravagant character in a less serious film, and as such he adds a lot to it. Of the other recognisable faces, Lucy Liu and Byron Mann are also enjoyable to watch. RZA’s character is perhaps a bit too sombre and he’s not the greatest actor in the world, but at the end of the day this is the sort of film where you expect a lot of sub-average acting.

It’s pretty difficult not to enjoy The Man With the Iron Fists and if it’s a film you actively seek out, then you'll know what to expect and shouldn’t be too disappointed. There were a few occasions where I thought the direction was a bit shonky, but this is a debut and of course the nature of the film means it matters less. I do wish there had been more practical effects work however – maybe it’s just me but sometimes cgi blood and the like just look too fake and distracting, serving only to hamper enjoyment (Ninja Assassin is a prime recent example). I’m still amazed Russell Crowe was in this film, but aside from him clearly having shit loads of fun, what I liked most was the grindhouse feel that made it a little more than just a standard martial arts film. The Man With the Iron Fists isn’t anything special but it is a lot fun if you're after a modern take on this genre.

18 December 2012

48 frames per second

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first feature film to be shot and released at 48 frames per second (48fps), which is a really exciting new technological development. To the uninitiated, films are traditionally shot and projected at 24 frames per second, with more frames equaling much better picture quality and also giving a very different look and feel to the film. But you may not have seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 48fps as this higher frame rate version is only in select cinemas, is only in 3D and most cinemas who are projecting at 48fps will only have one screen doing so.

It's fair to say that reactions to 48fps have been mixed and I can see why - at times things look really unnatural for a film, but at other times it just works. And when it works, damn does it really work! The picture quality in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is at times phenomenal, with such clarity and detail that an unrivaled sense of realism is added to events on screen. And shots that would look beautiful at the traditional 24fps are just taken to another visual level. Yet on occasion 48fps can seem really jarring as it enhances what's not real too, causing the visual quality of the film to suffer. Any of the scenes in the Shire that take place outside don’t look quite right, as well as some other outdoor shots, particularly ones with lots of CGI. But scenes shot with a bit more darkness (indoors for example) looked even better than you might expect - it seems that lighting is one of the key points to making this work. The CGI point is relevant too as this increased resolution makes anything computer generated far more obviously so and thus potentially distracting. CGI when applied to a real world environment will need to be carefully applied. Take the scenes with Gollum and the goblins though, which worked well visually because they were darker and had the whole environment created digitally.

One of the aspects that took me by surprise was how much of a positive effect 48fps has on 3D. Three of the biggest issues of films utilising the extra dimension are the irritating motion blur that comes from any moderately paced editing, the way it forces you to focus on a single part of the shot leaving the rest out of focus and the darkness that comes from the tinted glasses you’re wearing. Admittedly this last one should not be an issue if the cinema is using the right wattage bulbs in the projector, but the picture at 48fps is so bright and vibrant this isn’t an issue. Due to the extra detail coming from shooting this way, motion blur is eliminated and the entire screen remains in focus. After a half hour or so I switched glasses to my converted RealD 2D glasses for a short while, and upon going back to 3D the picture didn't seem to get any worse, and I suffered no visual fatigue. This was all very pleasing. But as to whether the The Hobbit should’ve been in 3D in the first place is another matter, but this does at least make the prospect of watching films in 3D more appealing in the future.

I think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was the wrong film to launch 48fps with though. The Hobbit is a fantasy set in a time period we'd probably associate with medieval, meaning the audience is forced to make a greater leap to suspension of disbelief to make it believable, particularly considering such a strong fantastical element is involved. Applying this layer of hyper-realism that 48fps seems to offer doesn’t appear quite as appropriate in this context. Show us something modern that looks intrinsically closer to what we see as our reality now and we theoretically should buy into it more. Or, create an entire futuristic world in a computer and this tech will add a lot (James Cameron is on it of course, proposing the next Avatar films at 60fps, which should look quite stunning). The reason The Hobbit is the first film at 48fps is purely down to Peter Jackson taking the initiative and New Line allowing it. The other problem is we already have such familiarity with this world due to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so after all those hours experiencing this world one way, it’s presented to us with a completely different look. That may just be too much for some people.

On the basis of what I've seen, I’m firmly on the side of 48fps. It’s a nascent technology so there's ironing out to do around its limitations, best practices and possibilities, but that’s fine, these things take time. With the right story and setting it could seriously enhance a film, making it more believable and just generally more amazing visually. I’m excited about what this means for the future of film because on the basis of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we have something pretty damn interesting to look forward too. It’s just a shame that we won’t likely see anything until the next part of The Hobbit in a year.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

(Dir: Peter Jackson, 2012)

It’s fair to say there are a lot expectations riding on The Hobbit. Not only is it the first film to utilise a new tech (find out more here), it’s following in the footsteps of one of the most highly revered trilogies of all time. The Lord of the Rings films were actually successful in taking an epic story and wrapping it into three interesting and lengthy films. Having not seen these films since Return of the King was released at the cinema, I recently took the time to rewatch all three extended editions as a preparation of sorts for The Hobbit, and I was left more impressed than I expected to be (my memory of them was evidently diminishing). I thought they benefited from the expansion of their world afforded by the extended editions, making me realise how rich in depth they are. I may not rate them as highly as some do, but the approach was seemingly right.

So it would seem logical to apply this approach to The Hobbit. Yet there has been a lot of disconcertion about the plans to split the film into three parts, not least because of the slightness of the book and how thinly this may spread the films. Alas it seems these fears are justified. The biggest single issue with this first part of the The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, is that it is just too long and far too languid. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, it could’ve done with a good forty five minutes or so chopping as it takes far too long to get going nowhere. Not much actually seems to happen in this passage of time and it feels like it’s trying to build up for an epic story, but then when the plot is revealed (the dwarves need help reclaiming what’s theirs essentially) it feels so insubstantial.

This film is always going to be compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's impossible not too when the same characters and locations are involved, but I’m sure if The Hobbit had come out first then it wouldn’t seem so, lacking. The Lord of the Rings feels so weighty in comparison, with an impending sense of doom providing a real narrative drive towards defeating an insidious enemy. Alongside this there are a wide range of varied and interesting characters with multiple subplots and relationships striating the trilogy. And of course there's Frodo with the literal weight of the world on his shoulders. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey lacks all of that. Martin Freeman is decent as Bilbo but none of the dwarves are interesting or even really developed. Hell, Gandalf is far less interesting here too. The enemy appears to be Smaug, but we're not given any cause to be overly worried and his presence is barely felt in this first installment. Honestly, the whole film just feels too twee and simplistic - neither of which is a positive.

That said, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t a bad film and it was a pleasant enough experience escaping back into this world. It’s just when there's something of such high quality looming over it, the comparisons are inevitable and the very evident shortcomings are magnified. Of course this is somewhat the fault of the book, but it would be less of an issue if the filmmakers hadn't decided that the film version should attempt to expand on this. The set-up for the second film suggests potentially more interesting things to come (reading the book when I was about ten means I don’t remember the story whatsoever), but let’s hope Peter Jackson is more judicious with the editing next time round. Obviously these thoughts are based on seeing only a part of the film, so perhaps in the context of the whole my opinion might change. We'll see.

9 December 2012

Review: Sightseers

(Dir: Ben Wheatley, 2012)

If you consider the most inexplicably overrated films of 2011, Ben Wheatley's Kill List sits atop that list alongside Attack the Block. Kill List is a curious one. It was mostly critically lauded, yet from speaking to people who've seen it it appears to be divisive, with some absolutely loving it and others not sure what the fuss was about. I sit on the far side of that latter view, emerging from the cinema thinking it one of the worst films I'd seen all year, completely baffled by the five star reviews. Essentially I thought it three badly sketched stories forced together without reason or coherence in a sub-sub-Lynchian manner. And the praise lavished on Wheatley for this... I'm at a loss... 

And so here we go again. Sightseers is Wheatley's follow up to Kill List and is receiving a frankly baffling number of rave reviews. The story is simply about a couple who've been dating for a few months, Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe), who go on a caravanning holiday around northern Britain. Except Chris turns out to be something of a murderous sociopath.

So for starters the film is not exactly original. It's pretty much the archetypal, psychotic lovers on the run leaving a wake of destruction in their path, type of film. Think Badlands, Natural Born Killers, et al; except it's with a British twist and a certain mundanity. It's not explicitly about the murder; that happens in short graphically violent bursts, albeit slightly more toned down than in Kill List. These are two mundane people and Sightseers is more about their boring relationship and how they discover more about each other or even liberate themselves.

Mundane is one thing, but both characters are completely unsympathetic and unlikeable. Chris seems to have something of a moral code about who/why he is killing people, which seems interesting at first, but this turns out to be bullshit as he wilfully contradicts it. Then we learn that perhaps the point of the whole thing is more of a societal commentary about the working and upper classes, but it completely misses the mark and just feels awkwardly shoehorned in. Tina's character on the other hand starts off the wrong side of kooky and annoying, only getting worse as the film progresses and she wants to impress Chris. There are absolutely no reasons for us to care about her and they both come across like wronged petulant children that you wish would just disappear. As unlikeable as Tina is though, I thought Lowe's acting was pretty decent.

The film is billed as a comedy, which is something that's drastically needed to help save the audience from being suffocated in this quagmire of blandness. But it's not even remotely funny. It raised a light chuckle in me two or three times, which does not a comedy make. Honestly, the writing's not very good. I came away with only two positives about Sightseers - Wheatley knows how to use a camera to frame some nice looking shots. Most of the time the film does look good and visually he makes the most of the British countryside and scenery. It's also a well scored film utilising a good selection of songs. I liked these two aspect of it, but they're not enough to actually make the film any good.

Sightseers suffers from a completely mundane and clichéd story, an almost complete lack of humour and having characters you don't give a damn about and frankly would rather not be watching. It really isn't a good film, but it's not quite as bad as Kill List, pretty much due to the presence of a cohesive story. Admittedly I didn't expect much from Sightseers but as ever I went in with an open mind. However I'm more perplexed as to why certain parts of the media have latched onto Wheatley as a poster boy for everything that's presently great about the British film industry, elevating his films to the status of "brilliant" or "excellent" when they're at the opposite end of these descriptors. Is it because he's not conforming to the recent British filmic stereotype of costume drama / rom-com / East-end gangster film? But why celebrate someone who dares to do something different but doesn't do it well? Is that what we've come to accept from our art? I won't deny that he's got a good visual eye, but if he's as good as these people seem to think he is then hopefully he can figure out how to tell a decent story by his next film. Likewise, the media need to regain a grip on reality. Sightseers will, without question, make it onto my list of the most over-rated films of 2012.

20 November 2012

Review: The Master

(Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

A new Paul Thomas Anderson film is something to get excited about. Justifiably he is a writer / director loved by critics and the discerning film fan, due to his stunning visual eye, desire to tell intelligent adult stories and an ability to bring the best out of actors. But with a five year gap either side of There Will Be Blood, his last film, he’s certainly become one to take his time and leave his fans wanting with anticipation. Over the last few years I’ve become convinced that his 1999 film Magnolia is the best film of the last twenty years, if not more; a tour-de-force of storytelling, acting and how to use music. And I don’t make that claim lightly.

And so upon us arrives The Master, which sees Anderson turn his attention to a cult in the early 1950s, essentially a thinly veiled version of the early days of Scientology. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is its leader, visionary and the titular master, who with his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and family, live a luxuriant life growing his ideas of routes to self discovery and improvement, never seemingly set in the same place for too long. Stumbling into their world comes Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a capricious ex sailor who somehow inspires Lancaster but worries Peggy.

Freddie is something of an enigma. He's like a teenage boy with his sexual obsession but is seemingly an alcoholic, imbibing on strange cocktails of his own creation. Is this how he placates the madness that seems to be deep in him or does this just amplify it? Phoenix’s return from career wilderness is impressive – this is his first role in four years and he’s back on form (I’m not counting I’m Still Here as that was not traditional screen acting, rather a piece of performance art which although was excellently played, only left us with a not that good two-hour physical document). The ill-fitting clothes and slightly awkward walk enhance the air of untrustworthiness surrounding Freddie, which exudes from his volatility and his lost aimlessness. Sometimes Phoenix can be so awkward to watch yet he plays characters with such skill.

Hoffman is his usual charismatic self, playing a character who conflictingly sees himself as a grandiose multi-hyphenate genius, yet also just as a simple man. He’s not really that simple a man and maybe that’s why Freddie inspires him, seeing Freddie as that part that’s lost from within himself? The control in Hoffman’s performance doesn't make Lancaster too showy or overtly powerful, thus he remains subtly intriguing. As with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, sometimes it can be a real joy watching certain actors inhabit a role.

The Master is beautifully photographed and there’s a restrained economy to its look, providing a certain austerity that makes it more evocative of the era being portrayed. The decision to shoot the majority of the film on 65mm stock only serves to further enhance its classic feel. I was lucky enough to see the film projected via 70mm, supposedly the director's projection method of choice for this film, meaning the picture quality was excellent, offering a stunning clarity and level of detail. Working alongside this is the excellent use of music - Anderson is a master at using music creatively, in order to say different things and invoke curious feelings in a manner far more effective than the standard cues most films use. This intelligent use seems to pervade all his work and so his decision to again use Johnny Greenwood as composer pays dividends.

By this point I've probably created the impression that I loved the film, right? Well, not exactly. Despite my exultance above, The Master left me a little cold. It lacks emotion and it’s impossible to care about any of the characters as none are particularly sympathetic. Freddie walks the line of intrigue and annoyance and with Lancaster you always know there’s something seemingly insidious to come in the future from all this. Yes this subject area may be interesting, but without any real connection to these characters it’s difficult to care and be anything more than just a passive observer. The problem ultimately lies with the writing (the actors are giving it their all within the confines of what they have to work with), it’s just lacking a compelling human element. After some time thinking about it I'm still wondering what the point of it all was.

On some levels The Master shows what Anderson does best – his highly attuned eyes and ears make for an aesthetically enjoyable experience, and yet again he brings out the best in his actors, with both Phoenix and Hoffman excelling in their roles (not to mention Adams who is very good too). But it's easy to be blinded by these things. At it's core The Master is missing a fundamental reason for us to care about anyone or any of what’s taking place. It feels like a bit of an empty shell, albeit a beautifully constructed one. Unfortunately it is this that holds it back from being anything more than just a decent film.

28 October 2012

Review: Skyfall

(Dir: Sam Mendes, 2012)

What is it about the Bond film? It’s like the comfort blanket of films. Most of us have grown up watching them and there’s always a particular actor in that role that’s somewhat synonymous with our youth. I always remember watching the Roger Moore films as a kid, even though I’m technically of the Dalton/Brosnan era. Maybe it’s the knowing what you’re going to get? There’ll be exotic locales, amazing stunts and action, beautiful people, a sense of adventure and true escapism. It’s that comfort blanket of escapism and it makes going in to watch a new Bond film quite exciting.

Skyfall very successfully follows in this tradition. Daniel Craig successfully proved himself as the character in his previous two turns in the role, being the best element in both films. Casino Royale very successfully washed away the bad memories of those last couple of Brosnan films, up until the unnecessary final third which should’ve been excised. Quantum of Solace was enjoyable but had numerous issues. And so these last few weeks I’ve been quietly looking forward to slipping back into this world.

I think it’s fair to say that Skyfall’s ace in the hole is Sam Mendes. A slightly leftfield but always curious choice as a Bond director, he’s not exactly an action director but is certainly known for dramatic gravitas. Well, he delivers on the action stakes that’s for sure. All of the action set pieces are thrillingly enjoyable and they are certainly far better shot and edited than Quantum of Solace’s unsuccessful attempts at aping Bourne. But there’s more here than just action, as there is more drama and interesting things going on beneath the surface. The Bond we see here is not just the perfect international superspy that we’re used to seeing - there are flaws and a bit more depth. We also get tantalising snippets about his distant past which other directors might’ve laboured with to reveal all but no, it’s kept tantalisingly brief and doesn’t hinder or slow the film.

The other excellent decision the viewer gets to reap the rewards of is the casting of Javier Bardem as Silva, the villain. In a sense I think all involved have learnt a lesson from The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s superlative portrayal of The Joker. There are shades of that character here in both the writing and acting. Although Silva’s goal is based more around personal retribution than the fantastical megalomania we’re used to with Bond villains, there’s something unhinged and menacingly devious about him. He’s makes for a far more interesting villain and Bardem excels in this role.

Visually this has to be one of the best looking Bond films yet, if not one of the best looking films I’ve seen this year. Roger Deakins has done a fantastic job with the cinematography. He makes the most of the environments he’s working in and compositionally everything looks stunning. Most notable is the use of shadows, reflective perhaps of Bond’s state of mind or just how he operates. There’s a scene in a tower block in Shanghai where the contrast of light and darkness, as well as the framing, is impressive. Whilst the climatic scenes toward the end make use of these tools again to quite frankly stunning effect.

Not everything is perfect with the film though. The story is interesting and drives the film forward well, but post viewing I can’t stop noticing some irritatingly major flaws with it. The characterisation of the leads might be strong, which includes a bigger than usual role for Judi Dench’s M and Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory who are both at their usual standard, but we’re introduced to a handful of other potentially interesting characters who we don’t actually get much from. This is particularly frustrating with the primary “Bond girl” Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who when introduced seems to have some potential depth, but alas that’s ignored and she’s completely underused. There were also a handful of annoying musical cues in the film and the theme song, despite being something of a throw back to the olden days, is thoroughly bland.

Skyfall delivers, quite impressively so. Craig continues to prove why he’s one of the best actors to play 007 yet, whilst the extra layers added to the character go a long way. It’s a testament to Bardem to say that without him the film would be lacking something. Considering it’s a pretty long two and a quarter hours, the film never drags and moves along at the right pace, whilst Mendes does a great job keeping the reins on and making it all so thrilling. Ultimately Skyfall has enough to it to make it seem more than just a standard Bond film, as it is a damn good thriller in its own right. It’s definitely the best Daniel Craig Bond film and the best since the mid nineties at the least. I just hope we don't have to wait another four years to get wrapped up in this world again.

27 October 2012

Review: Sinister

(Dir: Scott Derrickson, 2012)

This year has seen a shocking lack of decent horror released at the cinema. I can't say I'm unsurprised as it fits the trend we've been seeing for some time, but with nothing standing out this year and with Halloween approaching, surely all hope is not lost? Fortunately not quite – there’s something of a small saviour in the shape of Sinister. It may not be a ground breaking horror and it may not even be overly scary, but it actually has a lot to offer. The plot is as straight forward as they come – a true crime writer (Ethan Hawke) and his family move into a new home where some recent chilling murders occurred. As he investigates them for his book, everything starts to get a bit weird etc etc.

Where Sinister very strongly succeeds is in the atmosphere it creates. There is a pervading weight of creepiness encompassing everything, which is the necessary lifeblood of a film of this nature. Hawke’s character knows something’s not right with this case and this house he's brought his family to, but he has to keep pushing and pushing things as that's his nature. In large part the creepiness comes from a collection of super 8 films that form the basis of his investigation – this isn’t a spoiler, they’re introduced very early in the film – but the darkness of their content just instantly affects the mood. They're superbly assembled. We the audience are just like Hawke’s character, curious and desperate to see what's on them but at the same time wishing we could look away. 

Sinister feels like a well structured film and benefits from offering up an intriguing mystery that needs solving. There’s a tendency in modern horror to lead off with a shock and then every few minutes keep adding them ad nauseum with nothing more offered. But think back to the likes of The Exorcist or The Shining, or even the recent The House Of the Devil. These all excel by focusing on the slow build and by feeling like they want to tell a story, not just be a sensationalist blast that you’re quickly in and out of. This approach is where horror can be at it's most unsettling. As such we get character development between Hawke and Juliet Rylance who plays his wife, including lengthy conversational scenes which all help with believability and context. Having a decent actor like Hawke involved helps with that and although this may not be anywhere near his best work, he his solid and very watchable.

However, despite this successful approach the film still has issues, the biggest of which lies in the story. When the mystery gets closer to being solved it ends up feeling pretty unsatisfying – I don’t want to give anything away but the overall concept behind it all should’ve been worked through in a different manner, more fitting with what preceded. Frustratingly this idea has a lot of potential and it just left me feeling robbed. The other big issue is a common one these days. Despite creating the tools to build some effective atmosphere, Sinister still feels beholden to providing cheap shocks, somewhat undermining the effect. Shocks are of course needed to relieve a little tension and there are a couple of decent ones, but overall there's too many and they're unimaginative, which mostly intrude on what’s actually working in the film. It takes a skilled director to know how to place and approach them effectively. Speaking of things that do work, the sound design is absolutely fantastic, some of the best I’ve heard in a horror film in quite some time. The way this aides the atmosphere is practically immeasurable.

On the whole Sinister is a decent and effectively creepy film that lets itself down by occasionally acting like a lesser horror film. The atmosphere is oppressive and the mystery is intriguing, but by becoming increasingly concerned with delivering jumps it prevents itself from being as scary as it could be. The attention to detail, production design, presence of Hawke and most notably some truly excellent sound design, make it stand above anything horror wise that I’ve seen in a while. However I’m still left to lament over how truly scary Sinister could’ve been if it had taken it’s core idea in an even more malignant direction.

8 October 2012

Review: The Imposter

(Dir: Bart Layton, 2012)

The Imposter has left me wondering if the perceived “worthiness” of a film blind-sides people into liking it? Ok, let me back-track a minute. About six weeks ago I saw The Imposter at the cinema and I've had a lot of time to ruminate on this. I went in only knew the most rudimentary description of what it was about (I’m not going to describe the plot here, you can easily find it elsewhere online if you must know - a clue is in the name), but I was very aware that it had been gathering rave reviews all round with many people saying it was something special and one of the films of the year. I don’t agree with them.

Circling back to my question… what do I mean by “worthiness”? It’s the perception that a film is worthy of support because it offers up something important, clever or uniquely different, which seems to be a sentiment only applied by the critics and wannabe intelligentsia. It’s a crap phrase really, but my point is that The Imposter seems to have been presented to us by the media as a film that we should be supporting and we should love. But I really don’t know why. Surely it’s not just because it’s a documentary? It certainly can't be because of the subject matter. At the time of writing it’s 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes – 89 fresh reviews and 4 rotten. That's extremely high!

If people keep hearing fantastic things about a film do they feel like their opinion needs to match this, and thus convince themselves the film is that good and become as effusive about it, especially when it's not a bad film? I don’t know anyone else who’s seen The Imposter but judging by what Twitter tells me the general perception is perplexingly one of overwhelming love and positivity.

And what of the format? The decision to watch a documentary seems even more specific to people’s tastes than feature films. This may be because they lack the same sort of narrative drive and fictional element that allows people to switch off and just enjoy feature films, rooted in a perception of education and showing real life. It’s a different experience and the decision to watch must be based on a real desire to learn about the subject rather than be entertained. In some ways this explains why they rarely perform well at the box office, but perhaps also because they are so strongly associated with television these days – if you flick through the channels on an evening you’ll easily find one, except they generally fit the 45-60 minute timing slot rather than running to a feature length's ninety minutes plus. Does this mean to see a documentary in the cinema makes you and the film somehow "elite"?

I’ve digressed greatly so let’s bring things back into focus. I'm not a big documentary watcher but if something intrigues me I will watch it, and with The Imposter I honestly would've waited to rent the bluray if it hadn’t been for the fantastic reviews. It's these reviews that may be responsible for my overall opinion because the film certainly didn’t deliver on the lofty expectations they created. The subject matter is interesting and there’s a certain incredulousness to the story that initially makes it seem unbelievable, but when you think about human nature's capacity to believe it kind of makes sense. The film presents us with multiple sides to the events throughout, which works well for a story of this nature. The other plus is that it does a good job presenting re-enactments alongside the interviews, giving a sense of narrative that keeps things from becoming pure talking heads. 

However this is all seems pretty standard for a documentary these days and Man On Wire managed to carry off something like this far better. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the presentation here and it certainly doesn’t have the awe of Man On Wire, nor the emotional weight that a documentary such as Senna had, which in itself was cleverly constructed. Towards the end of The Imposter the filmmakers threaten something genuinely interesting but fail to deliver on it, undermined by the limited information available and so it all feels very… insubstantial.

The Imposter is a pretty good film, but that’s merely all it is. It’s well constructed and the subject it explores is interesting albeit nothing special, but the facts only allow it to go so far meaning it lacks anything more than providing the audience with a bit of disbelief. People seem to be confusing revealing something unbelievably outlandish with exceptional quality - the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Really this story seems like it would've made a better (and shorter) tv documentary; it didn’t deserve the big screen treatment. It is an imposter of a five star film and quite probably the most over-rated film I have seen so far this year.