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.