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. 

7 October 2012

Review: Looper

(Dir: Rian Johnson, 2012)

Rian Johnson has been making a solid name for himself within film geek circles. His feature debut Brick is a worthy cult classic and his follow up The Brothers Bloom was a fascinating film that made it onto my favourite films of 2010 list. Combined with his directing a couple of Breaking Bad episodes, the announcement that he’d be making a time travel movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis pretty much set geek hearts alight. His previous work proves that he is not only a writer/director that likes intelligent, clever stories, but one that also has a great creative and visual eye. Thus Looper has been the source of anticipation for quite some time now.

Like all good time travel movies it’s important to get the rules set from the start. The year is 2044. Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper. Somewhere in the future time travel has been invented but it’s judiciously controlled. A system is set up whereby loopers are employed to kill people who've been sent back to 2044; people who supposedly need to be disposed of. It’s a dirty business and probably not strictly legal. A confluence of events means Joe’s older self (Willis) is sent back for Joe to terminate. He doesn’t do it and Old Joe goes on the run. Joe needs to stop him as you don’t let these future people escape... especially your older self. That’s the basics in a nutshell.

So, to address the biggest factor in a time travel movie – does the filmmakers concept of it work? Principally, yes. Rather than being about the act of time travel and “science” behind it, more focus is given to the aftermath, meaning it serves more as a catalyst and nice framing for the events that occur, making for a more engaging story, mostly. It can be all too easy to tie your story into knots and confuse the audience when travelling through time. Not so here, with the story presented in a pretty logical manner that doesn’t require any head scratching if you just go with it.

But there is a problem with the story. The first half of Looper functions beautifully, fantastically setting the scene, showing us its fascinating future vision and allowing the introduction of the compelling concept of how far you’d go to stop your future self. Then the story arcs off into an unexpected direction that is somewhat akin to hitting a brick wall. This chosen route offers some even further challenging questions, which I thought were explored well conceptually, but in the actual context of the story and the flow of the film it did nothing more than slow it down to the point where interest was starting to wane. One of the elements that informed this aspect of the story, the more fantastical TK side, really felt like it didn’t need to be in this film.

The real strength of Looper is the talent involved. Gordon-Levitt has had a particularly strong year already with The Dark Knight Rises and Premium Rush, the latter of which probably wouldn’t have been as good without him in the lead. Joe is ultimately an antihero. We’re rooting from him and we would probably aspire to his life in the context of the future we’re shown, but he’s still a flawed character who is really nothing more than a glorified hitman. And so he successfully traverses that line of likeability, which is certainly aided by the make-up to heighten his likeness to his older self, helping to make him look a tad less JG-L like. Willis is his usual reliable self, somewhat playing to his archetype but always enjoyable to watch. Emily Blunt plays her character well too but she is ultimately superfluous to the story.

Looper looks great, as ever with anything Johnson directs, and I was intrigued by the vision of the future it presents. The whole package is interesting so it’s a shame that such a strong first half is let down by a dominating plot thread in the second half that should really have been jettisoned and considered for a separate film. It wasn’t the right direction for Looper but is something I would want to see explored elsewhere. Unsurprisingly its utilisation of the time travel concept is successful and helped by approaching it somewhat economically – it may not live up to the heights of Primer (that is the master of all time travel films after all), but it is more successful in this area than most. As much as I liked Looper, and don’t get me wrong I did like it a lot, I feel disappointed that it didn’t live up to it’s potential. I hope it continues to do well at the box office though as we need more bigger budget films with this type of intelligent approach.

Review: [REC]3: Génesis

(Dir: Paco Plaza, 2012)

It’s amazing how regularly a series of horror films becomes victim to the law of diminishing returns. Disappointingly the [REC] series has fallen very deeply into this trap, offering less and less as we progress. [REC] was one of the best horror films of the last decade, plain and simple. It’s effectiveness stemmed primarily from the first person perspective, the isolation, a genuine feeling of no escape and the intensity this built too. I discuss the film in a bit more detail somewhere amidst a lengthy exegesis on my recent feelings on horror – here[REC]2 tried to ape its predecessors success, utilising the same setting but with more frustrating plot points and a major misjudgement in giving the protagonists automatic weapons to go up against the infected. When the odds are stacked like that and with the extended rattle of gunfire, the efficacy of such potentially creepy environments quickly dissipates.

And so to [REC]3: Génesis, the third installment that genuinely offers something different to what got us to this point. We’re no longer in a quarantined city apartment block we’re at a wedding reception out in a slightly more rural area. It’s Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo’s (Diego Martín) day; we watch them get married and move onto the reception where things inevitably turn into a fight for survival, as the events we’ve previously seen unfold in the city reach them.

I quite liked this as a setting for a zombie movie - a lot of people in one place and a big building with a number of rooms/settings can be interesting and gives plenty of scope for not knowing what’s around the corner. Both Dolera and Martín do a decent enough job as the leads and are both pretty likeable with a clear goal that extends beyond just survival. It’s impressive how beautiful Dolera manages to look covered in blood, make-up running and with her wedding dress ravaged. None of this is enough to create an effective horror film though.

The biggest problem ultimately stems from the direction. This is a horror film without any scares or jumps - the antithesis of the first film. Most of the horror comes from seeing people covered in blood and looking zombified, until the latter part when the film decides to get into the business of trying to be more graphic. Strange then that although this is welcomed it feels dissonant with how tame the rest of the film is. Then there’s the really clunky way in which religion is brought back in to explain events. It’s not new as it was very subtly there in the first film and more prevalent in the second, but here it just feels cheap and badly shoehorned in.

Camerawork is also something of a notable point. The first twenty minutes establish the film in the vein we’ve gotten used to with handheld footage cutting between three different camera perspectives. And then suddenly we’re watching a more traditional film for the duration, which immediately robs the story of any potency. The thing is it’s actually really well shot with some great looking scenes, but that’s pretty meaningless when it’s not actually aiding the story. This change to a traditional style also means there’s a score over the film, but it isn’t very good, regularly feeling out of place and jarring when all it should be doing is enhancing.

[REC] never needed a sequel and it certainly never needed a third of fourth film. It’s commendable that something different has been tried in [REC]3: Génesis, as the original idea had already given all it could during the first sequel, but we’re not presented with anything better here. Yes there are a couple of good ideas but they’re not enough to cover for what is essentially a pretty lacklustre horror film. Director Paco Plazo co-directed and co-wrote the first two films alongside Jaume Balagueró, and Balagueró is separately working on the fourth (and hopefully final) film, [REC] Apocalypse. It’ll be interesting to see how that compares and which one of the pair really is the better director. Either way I can’t see myself ever having a desire to watch these sequels again – the lack of any decent horror and law of diminishing returns is too great. 

6 October 2012

Review: Holy Motors

(Dir: Leos Carax, 2012)

Is life really an act and if so, who’s watching our performances? This slightly abstract concept about reality really intrigues me. After having read it twice I came to the conclusion that Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama is one of my favourite books. There are a multitude of reasons this is so, and I know it’s a book that probably frustrates many, but there’s this one thing in particular that really fascinates me about it - the camera crew that lead character Victor has following him around. No matter the crazy shit that’s going on they’re always there documenting his life... but to what end are they doing this and do they even actually exist? Cultural milieu and narcissim aside, is there really an audience? And I don’t mean in The Truman Show "big brother" sense.

Holy Motors is fascinating because it’s lead character is seemingly stuck in this position. Or is he stuck?  What is real and what is fake blur because nothing that happens seems real, yet everything exists in the reality of Paris, sometimes mundane sometimes outlandish, so how can any of it be fake? I’ll provide a little context, but only a little because a lot will take away too much away – Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) wakes up and leaves for work, getting into a stretch white limo where his driver / assistant Céline (Edith Scob) informs him he has nine appointments that day. And so he sets off on them. The word “appointments” may be somewhat misrepresentative.

Lavant is actually pretty incredible here, the range and ability he has to portray on screen in this single film is something that is possibly beyond most actors. This is what the phrase "chameleon like" means. It's one of the best performances I've seen the year. I was reminded of Cosmopolis, only partly because portions are set in a limo, but because that was a film driven by singular conversations and debates, which once completed moved the lead character onto another encounter. In Holy Motors there is a similar type of motion where once an appointment is completed it's done and it's time to prepare for the next.

And again I’m wondering who the “audience” is? Where are they? They must exist. Is anything here what it seems? Both Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue appear in different segments, in some ways playing very much to type (Eva Mendes the beauty for example), but also in a way that feels outside of what might be expected from them. These are the most recognisable faces in Holy Motors, they're not the core. Their presence adds an extra sense of fascination to a film that seems to revel in it’s fair share of “what the fuck?” moments. 

And let's not forget the preoccupation with death. This pervades, particularly later on, but it's presented in such a range that it encompasses the savage, the heartbreaking, the inevitable. Perhaps this is the core of the film? It comes to us all; it comes in different ways. The world keeps turning. Is this Monsieur Oscar rehearsing for it? He seems tired. But you can't prepare.

The more I think about Holy Motors the more intrigued I am and the more I like it. It’s really well shot and it’s effectively brave filmmaking from Carax. It’s thoroughly confident too and follows through with conviction. I want to go into more detail but I should say less - I went in entirely cold, not knowing the plot nor having seen the trailer. I was just aware of high plaudits, the poster and that it might be a little "out there", which was enough to get me in. This is a film truly best experienced without foreknowledge.

I'm aware this "review" reads like a mess of half-formed thoughts, ideas and interpretations, but it's kind of what and how I've been thinking about Holy Motors since watching it. I left the cinema a little uncertain about what I'd witnessed on screen and it's all been sinking in since. Initial coherence perhaps isn't a priority. And I'm still preoccupied with this thought about the audience. Who do we inhabit these roles for and why? I don't know the answer. Holy Motors is highly recommended if you don't like having your hand held.