Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Film Review | The Artist (2011)

It's always nice, after the awards season is over, to seek out the winners and the runners up I haven't yet seen. Sometimes it's clear to see why a film was successful, at others it's hard to see why they were even nominated. When a film wins as big as The Artist did this year, it's pretty much a must-see in order to make up my own mind. With such a hefty haul of golden statuettes in tow, The Artist was always going to need to be something pretty special to feel like its array of plaudits are deserved. And it's with a huge amount of pleasure that I can confirm that they most certainly are.

Set in the late twenties and early thirties, The Artist follows the life of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the silent era. When the transition from silent films to talkies begins, Valentin's career takes a serious hit; at the same time, the star of actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whom Valentin helped to get started in showbusiness, begins to rise.

The reasons behind The Artist's comprehensive success are several, but not complicated. Often described as a silent film, technically this isn't true - it's an "almost silent film". However, director Michel Hazanavicius shows incredible control and artistry in using pretty much all the hallmarks of silent film-making to wonderful effect. So we have intertitles to relate what characters are saying, which feel entirely natural and never off-putting, as well as antiquated edits and camera effects. It all works masterfully and brilliantly.

The musical soundtrack that accompanies the vast majority of the film is a charming homage to film scores of yesteryear, whilst at the same time feeling fresh and never stuffy. Hazanavicius occasionally chooses to place breaks of a few seconds between musical numbers - just as an orchestra finishing one piece and beginning the next - which not only heightens the authenticity of his film, but also reminds the viewer of the power of the visual element they are continuously beholding.

But that's not the half of it. Like I said, The Artist isn't, in the true sense of the term, a silent film. Hazanavicius does on more than one occasion choose to include diegetic sound, at least once without any warning. In doing this, the director injects an energy and power into the most ordinary of sounds to create some of the most brilliantly effective and original scenes I can remember seeing in a film for quite some time. Hazanavicius takes what most filmmakers take for granted and turns them into the tools of a master virtuoso.

The Artist features the reliable talents of long-serving Hollywood supporting men John Goodman and James Cromwell, who only go to prove even further through the silent medium how genuinely and thoroughly talented they are as actors. But nothing can be taken away from the leading duo of Dujardin and Bejo. The latter infuses Peppy Miller with an innocence and spark that makes her character a joy to behold; we wholeheartedly believe she is a hopeful young girl with big dreams at the start, just as much as we believe she can become a successful Hollywood star when talking pictures take over from silent films.

But if The Artist is defined by one performance it will always be that of Dujardin. He inhabits the role of Valentin, creating an incredibly human character of pride and delusion, but also heart and a natural desire to entertain. Dujardin's performance is mesmerising and flawless, and one that is sure to go down as one of cinema's best ever. The chemistry between Bejo and him is tangible and enchanting. It also helps that both actor and actress have just the right aesthetic to feel like genuine stars of the time. Finally, I can't speak of performances without mentioning one of the most delightful human-canine pairings I can remember in any film, that of Dujardin and Uggie the Jack Russell, an endlessly talented and genuinely charming man's best friend.

The Artist's story of rags to riches and vice versa is certainly not a new one. But the way in which Hazanavicius tells it with such humanity and gusto means that each scene is utterly compelling. Forget any rom-com or family favourite you've seen - The Artist is a strong candidate for the ultimate feel-good film. Hazanavicius deals with some serious, even dark, aspects of the human condition, certainly; but by the time the final credits roll you will be left intoxicated with the warming glow of a truly enchanting piece of cinema that will stay with you, bringing a smile to your face every time you think of it.


Monday, 27 February 2012

Film Review | The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005)

As the more recent film The Last Exorcism proved, putting a fresh spin on an exorcism film without falling into genre clichés or simply making something not very good can be tricky. Daniel Stamm's film attempted to mix exorcism with a "found footage" style, with largely unimpressive results. Five years previous, Scott Derrickson's The Exorcism Of Emily Rose attempted to blend exorcism with another quite distinct genre: courtroom drama. It's an intriguing mix, and one that surpasses the efforts of Stamm's later film.

The film follows the trial of Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), charged with causing the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) upon whom he performed an exorcism. Defending him is successful lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), who initially takes the case to further her own career. However, Bruner soon begins to pay more attention to Father Moore's insistence that dark forces surround the trial.

Essentially, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose is a relative success. The courtroom scenes are well made, if at times unremarkable and occasionally lacking in production values. The horror scenes, showing through flashbacks the events leading up to the exorcism, are again fairly effective but rarely anything more than that. A couple of scenes do stand out however: the sequence in which the demon supposedly first enters Emily's body is particularly uncomfortable, and the exorcism scene itself provides a good few chills. Other sections feel less successful, however; the dispatching of a key witness in the trial feels hackneyed both in terms of plotting and execution.

Wilkinson is reliably strong, making Father Moore feel sympathetic and honest, whilst also maintaining a slight sense that he may not be all there. Linney too does well in the lead, although she feels a lot more at home in the courtroom than being spooked by things that go bump in the night. Carpenter also deserves praise for making Emily either believably possessed or believable as someone who believes herself to be possessed, depending on your take on the film.

As a different spin on exorcism movies, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose must be commended for its comparative success. It provides relatively compelling courtroom drama, complete with a host of interesting witnesses and a suitably slimy prosecutor played ably by Campbell Scott, alongside a fairly effective horror story. It never threatens to be anything more than pretty good, but it's still a worthwhile watch, and an enjoyable and undeniably original entry into the exorcism subgenre.


Sunday, 26 February 2012

Film Review | Timecrimes [Los Cronocrímenes] (2007)

One of my all-time favourite Treehouse Of Horror Halloween specials on The Simpsons comes unsurprisingly from the series' golden era . It's the one where Homer fixes a toaster, only to accidentally create a time machine. The one thing Homer manages to remember as he travels back and forth from a prehistoric past is that even the smallest change can drastically alter history. After squashing one insect, he returns to the present to find Ned Flanders as the planet's evil overlord. The remainder of the story sees Homer return to the past again and again to try and put things right. He doesn't manage it, which is okay for Homer as the Halloween specials are non-canonical, but is an important lesson for any would-be time travelers. Obviously the protagonist of Timecrimes hasn't seen that episode.

Timecrimes follows the life of Héctor (Karra Elejalde) one evening as he and his wife (Candela Fernández) move into a new house remotely located in the Spanish countryside. Héctor spies something moving, and then a young woman undressing, in the nearby woodland. After his investigations lead to him being stabbed in the arm and pursued by a man with a heavily bandaged face, Héctor stumbles into a research lab looking for assistance. And that's when things get really strange, as Héctor soon finds he has time-travelled around an hour and a half into the past.

Stylistically, Timecrimes has a feel very similar to that of another recent time travel film, Shane Carruth's Primer. The world the characters inhabit is pretty everyday, and the slightly washed out, sepia tinted palette director (and writer) Nacho Vigalondo opts for gives the whole thing a darkly authentic feel. The time travel technology, much like that in Primer, has an amateurish charm, which coupled with its apparent unpredictability helps to drive the plot and lend credibility to some of the twists and turns it takes.

The cast is small but solid, with Elejalde leading things with a performance that impresses more and more as the film progresses. The evolution of his manner and temperament, particularly in the film's final act, make Héctor a compellingly flawed protagonist throughout.

The plot just about manages to hang together. The whole thing is presented in a linear fashion, which helps us as the viewer keep track of things as they get more and more complex. The first act is potentially the strongest, as we are thrown into a mystery thriller which piles on the tension and unanswered questions minute by minute. It is in the film's second act where things dip in interest and quality. The answers given to questions posed in the opening act are either predictable or don't feel believable enough - some of the decisions Héctor makes, and his comprehension of the situation as a whole in this part of the film, seem downright idiotic. There are a couple of good twists thrown in, and a sequence where Héctor returns to his new house in the dark is pleasingly tense, but the action feels plodding and unremarkable which leads to things getting a little tedious at times as things head towards the final act. Thankfully, the finale provides the same thrills as the first act, whilst throwing in a few more unexpected twists. By the time the credits roll, the unsatisfying nature of the middle segment can be (mostly) forgiven.

In the end, Timecrimes is a well made and original film. Whilst comparisons have already been made to Primer, the influence of films such as Memento can also be seen, and whilst it never reaches the heights of either of these two, Timecrimes is certainly a worthwhile watch in its own right. Without the less impressive second act, this would have been a truly excellent film; as it is, it's flawed but still very good. Apparently, an English language remake directed by David Cronenberg is currently in the works - on the strength of the original, I'm looking forward to it already.


Saturday, 25 February 2012

Film Review | Thor (2011)

If you were to choose the ideal director to bring a superhero franchise to the big screen for the first time, chances are Kenneth Branagh would not be anywhere near the top of your list. Branagh's previous directorial efforts have mostly been in adapting Shakespeare's works into film, as well as other high-brow literary classics such as Frankenstein. But the more you think about it, Branagh's ability to bring to the big screen The Bard's at times larger-than-life characters, full of conflicting emotions and often taking part in great battles, could be the perfect fit - especially for one of Marvel's more fantastical franchises.

When our eponymous hero (Chris Hemsworth) arrogantly defies the orders of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), his father and King of Asgard, Odin strips Thor of his powers and casts him out of Asgard to Earth. There, Thor crosses paths with astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) on his path to redemption, which is hampered by his double-dealing brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

There are a lot of good things about Thor. The cast as a whole are strong, and feel at home with the combination of the fantastical and real world action. Hemsworth, a relative newcomer, is an excellent choice for Thor, making the hero's journey from conceited hothead to selfless superhero entirely believable. Hemsworth's comic timing is also impressive, providing some real laughs as Thor's old-world Asgardian mannerisms clash with the modern day. The relationship he develops with Jane Foster is touching and authentic, with Portman and Hemsworth displaying pleasing chemistry.

Thor does have its problems, however. Whilst the sections set on Earth are convincing and provide some enjoyable action sequences, the sequences away from our planet are less successful. The realisation of Asgard on screen is laden with CGI effects giving it a somewhat artificial sheen. The film also at times feels a little too much like a precursor to forthcoming film The Avengers. Thor's back story is successfully established, but other characters feel a little underdeveloped. Loki in particular, despite Hiddleston's solid performance, never felt like a genuine threat as the main antagonist. The film's ending has a similar feel to that of Captain America: The First Avenger, in that things are left on something of a cliffhanger that doesn't fully satisfy the character arcs established in this film, which leaves you wondering whether Thor was intended to work as a standalone film, or only as set-up for The Avengers.

As an addition to the Marvel film universe, Thor works and is certainly a worthwhile watch. But it's also yet another example of the problems of superhero origin stories and striking the right balance between including all the pieces of the hero's tale and telling a compelling story in its own right. In comparison with the other pre-Avengers films, it's way above The Incredible Hulk (but then most films are) but never reaches the successes of the Iron Man franchise, and sitting just below Captain America. In the end, Thor is enjoyable, but never outstanding.


Friday, 24 February 2012

Film Review | The Experiment (2010)

With two Oscar winners leading the cast, the fact that The Experiment ended up as a straight-to-DVD release is either a surprise or a warning before watching. Turns out it's a warning; despite its intriguing high concept, the film fails to impress even with the talents of Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker propping it up.

The idea behind the film is simple: twenty-six men are selected to take part in an experiment in which they will spend two weeks living in a simulated prison environment. Five of the men are selected to be the prison guards, whilst the remaining participants become prisoners. Barras (Whitaker) and Travis (Brody), who strike up the beginnings of friendship during the selection process, are assigned as a guard and a prisoner respectively.

Simply put, The Experiment is a flawed film through and through. The script is schlocky and feels decidedly inconsistent, whilst the production and acting belie the reason for electing to keep this out of the cinema. Whilst the concept provides ample opportunities for exploration of a number of issues, very few of these are actually explored; rather than psychological drama, things wind up more and more as mindless violence and unpleasantness. The climax of the film too feels decidedly muddled and limp without any real satisfaction.

The saving graces, unsurprisingly, are Brody and Whitaker themselves. Brody's performance is predictably solid, providing some of the film's most emotional and original scenes - a claustrophobic sequence of Brody's Travis in "solitary confinement" presented entirely through night-vision CCTV is one of the film's strongest. That said, Travis' character arc overall feels somewhat flat: he doesn't develop a great deal from start to end, nor does he appear overly affected by some of the ghastly things he has both witnessed, been subjected to and taken part in. Lost's Maggie Grace on generic love interest duty does nothing to improve this, hampered by the stagnant lines she is given to deliver.

It is Whitaker who provides the lion's share of the film's worthwhile material. His performance as Barras is genuinely unsettling, the way we view the character shifting all the time with Whitaker keeping us very much on our toes. Whitaker even manages to make the script work when he delivers it. You'll never be able to hear the word "toilet" the same way after experiencing Barras utter the name of that particular bathroom facility.

The only fathomable reason for watching The Experiment, therefore, is to see the strong performances of Whitaker and Brody, and you can see them as good as they are here in many other, much better films. Without the two big name leads, The Experiment would be utterly forgettable.


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Film Review | The Descendants (2012)

When is a comedy not a comedy? You can probably concoct a dozen or more witty responses to that question, but the answer I have in mind is this: when it's a comedy directed by Alexander Payne. That's not to say Payne makes bad comedies, or bad films - invariably quite the opposite in fact. But whilst his films are regularly placed in the comedy genre, you only have to look to his two works previous to The Descendants - those being Sideways and About Schmidt - to know that Payne isn't one to go for sidesplitting humour. I wouldn't even put his films in the comedy-drama subgenre; they're best described as "dramas with a few funny elements". The Descendants certainly doesn't buck that trend, in fact taking Payne further towards the dramatic end of the scale.

The film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a land magnate living in Hawaii whose wife Liz (Patricia Hastie) is involved in a boating accident, leaving her in a coma. Matt finds himself having to care for his two daughters, seventeen-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), by himself for the first time in years, whilst at the same time negotiating the sale of a pristine plot of land inherited through his family and dealing with a few unwelcome truths about exactly where his marriage was prior to the accident.

The Descendants is, simply put, a film that regularly exudes excellence. Payne is in complete control throughout, constructing the audience's relationship with each of the central players carefully. The script is tight and always authentic. His presentation of the Hawaiian islands as the film's setting is also pitch-perfect to the story's needs. Payne captures the beauty and vibrance of life on the islands whilst at the same time, through notably mundane but expertly crafted shots of Hawaiian suburbia, echoing the sentiment of Clooney's character at the start of the film that "paradise can go fuck itself".

The performances of the cast as a whole are very strong. Woodley and Miller never put across hackneyed Hollywood stereotypes of children, giving refreshingly genuine performances. Woodley in particular deserves praise for revealing layer upon layer within Alex's character; starting off the film as a wayward brat beyond control, Woodley gives Alex more and more depth throughout showing her developing maturity and support for her father through an incredibly difficult time.

Clooney leads things superbly, showing yet again why he is one of the most dependable leading men in contemporary cinema. His performance finds itself somewhere between Intolerable Cruelty's Miles Massey and Up In The Air's Ryan Bingham, with just a hint of Everett McGill from O Brother Where Art Thou? in the film's more overtly comic scenes - nobody does running in flip-flops quite like Clooney. Much like the leading male characters in Payne's previous works, Matt King is simultaneously sympathetic and flawed: we feel immensely for the things that are happening to him, whilst at the same time can't help but feel that most of them have in an indirect way been caused by him at least in part. Clooney strikes the balance perfectly; King is very much an ordinary person dealing with extremely trying circumstances, but Clooney's performance makes him consistently compelling.

If there is a fault to The Descendants, it is linked back to my opening point. Whilst both the drama and comedy, when presented discretely, are of high quality, there are also times when they make uncomfortable bedfellows. Alex's friend Sid (Nick Krause) provides some unsatisfying examples of this in the first half of the film and feels somewhat like he's wandered out of an Adam McKay film. Thankfully the character settles down nicely in the second half, but jarring moments of humour and extreme pathos still crop up every so often.

Ultimately, however, The Descendants is far more success than failure. There really is a great deal to appreciate here, and whilst there are seriously emotional moments throughout, the film is immensely satisfying and highly polished. At the time of writing, Clooney is highly tipped to pick up the Best Actor award at this year's Oscars; should he do so, it'll be a win heartily deserved.


Saturday, 18 February 2012

Film Review | A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Despite Philip K. Dick's renown for writing sci-fi with brains, adapting his work for the screen has so far proven that good source material definitely doesn't always equal a good movie. As far as Dick adaptations go things are very hit and miss - for every Blade Runner there's a Paycheck, for every Minority Report, a Next. A Scanner Darkly therefore still had a lot to prove upon its release, although its unique style and the fact it was touted as the most faithful Dick appropriation to date set it in good stead.

The film is set in California "seven years in the future", when the war on drugs has been lost in the USA and a significant proportion of the population are now addicted to a drug known as Substance D. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover detective working to infiltrate the world of addicts and dealers, his identity protected from his colleagues by wearing a hi-tech scramble suit and adopting the alias "Officer Fred". As Fred, he is assigned to focus his attentions on Bob Arctor, thereby having to spy on himself, all the while regularly taking Substance D, which increasingly affects his ability to keep track of both personas.

The premise of A Scanner Darkly is undoubtedly complex but holds the potential to be incredibly compelling. It's a shame then that the film largely falls short of fulfilling its promise. The dual character of Arctor is a demanding role, and it's one that Reeves never manages to pull off. When soliloquising as Arctor, there is very little hint that the two sides of Arctor's life and personality are conflicting internally; when he shares scenes with other characters, Reeves simply merges into the background. Not something you want from your main character. Much of the film's success hinges on our understanding of Arctor and our ability to follow both sides of his personality; Reeves comprehensively fails to make this happen, giving a performance that is decidedly wooden.

The supporting cast do better: Robert Downey Jr. as Barris is a textbook arrogant blowhard who knows a lot less than he thinks he does, creating a vile yet compelling character; Woody Harrelson's turn as likable laidback addict Ernie provides some of the most successful humour throughout; and Winona Ryder as small-time dealer Donna, whilst not as strong here as Harrelson or Downey Jr., provides pleasing support.

It's a shame then that, for large parts of the story, these potentially compelling characters don't have a huge amount to do. Many of the scenes boil down to simply listening to drug addicts talking to each other whilst under the influence which, in truth, really isn't that interesting. When the action isn't following the collective Arctor is simultaneously a part of and spying upon, it focuses upon Arctor's work life away from the group. Aside from some neat touches with near-future technology, this again isn't all that interesting, something which Reeves' flat performance only highlights further. By the time the final act kicks in, the plot progression feels rushed and the moral message somewhat tacked on.

A Scanner Darkly does have some redeeming features however. There are a handful of comedic scenes which are immensely successful - the group's drug-influenced investigation into whether a recently purchased bike has any "missing gears" is genuinely brilliant, and the surreal narration of the botched suicide attempt of Freck (Rory Cochrane) is blackly inspired. The "rotoshop" style used throughout is also impressive, offering the film a pulpy graphic novel feel. The style is also used to great effect at times; it's hard to imagine the depiction of the scramble suits used by Arctor and other characters in the film being quite as effective through traditional live-action filming.

What we end up with is a mixed bag, and certainly not the successful Dick adaptation many had hoped for. Whilst there are things that make A Scanner Darkly worth a watch, the flaws are too hefty to truly recommend it. It's so-so at best, and ultimately a wasted opportunity.


Sunday, 12 February 2012

Film Review | Unknown (2011)

In all honesty, I settled on watching Unknown after considering several other options because of the strong likelihood it would be a routine, middle-of-the-road actioner, which is exactly what I was looking for. Liam Neeson has forged a pretty hefty furrow for himself as a reliably compelling leading man in films where he's working and fighting against "the bad guys" whilst always having the semblance of someone with a brain. He's the thinking man's Jason Statham, if you will. But Unknown, on the whole, surprised me. There are several ways in which it simply met my expectations, but several others where, in truth, it exceeded them.

Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris who, with his wife Liz (January Jones), arrives in Berlin to attend a biotechnology summit. Harris jumps a cab on his own to retrieve a forgotten briefcase from the airport, but is involved in an accident en route. Waking up from a coma in hospital four days later, Harris returns to the hotel he and his wife had checked into, only to find his wife doesn't know him and another man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris.

When at its weakest, Unknown presents ridiculous, fairly mindless action; when at its best, it is a psychological thriller that shares more than a little genetic material with the Bourne films in a very positive way.

The first half an hour is straightforward enough: the pace is kept high, the cerebral challenge low, and the ludicrous premise firmly established. As the film progresses however, the intrigue is ramped up further and further, whilst the pace maintains energy but slows and steadies to allow director Jaume Collet-Serra to craft where the story goes and when. By the time Bruno Ganz's ex-Stasi officer is introduced, you're in the middle of a very satisfying thriller indeed. A scene between Ganz and Frank Langella is the film's high point - tense and understated, with the psychological chicanery at its height.

Its a shame that, as things head into the final act and the majority of the questions posed have been answered, the more ridiculous side of things becomes dominant once again. What you end up with is a cinematic sandwich - the opening and closing thirds providing ludicrous action, enjoyable but never more than just good, with the middle third a slice of satisfyingly excellent psychological thriller.

Neeson is dependably strong in a role which, for the most part, requires him to frown a lot in either confusion or anger; in less skilled hands, the part would be entirely bland and the film limp, but with Neeson at the helm, this is never the case. Support from Ganz and Langella is convincing, and Diane Kruger also does well. At the opposite end of the scale is January Jones however, who saps any scene she is in of either tension or credibility. Jones is wooden to the point of being cringe-worthy, failing to imbue Liz Harris with either emotion or motivation at any point. Thankfully she is largely sidelined by the far superior Kruger for most of the film, barely featuring in the middle third.

All things considered, Unknown is uneven, but still manages to impress. Without Neeson as the lead, this could have been much more forgettable, which is to his credit. Collet-Serra's direction is skilled, but if the whole film had been more like the middle segment Unknown could have been excellent. As it is, what we have is a worthwhile and enjoyable action thriller.


Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Film Review | A Town Called Panic (2010)

The last time someone decided to turn a television advertising campaign into a feature film, we got Johnny English - fairly potent proof that using a character and concept that works for thirty seconds to sell you something is not the most advisable route to cinematic success. I would be hard pressed to pick a more recent advertising campaign that I would see as holding potential in this area - maybe you could get Richard Curtis to string together the entire story of the BT Family, adding in plenty of middle-class heterosexual humour and a character whose main purpose is to swear a lot in places where jokes should be. I digress. I'm sure a campaign that would most likely not be too near the top of your list is the one for Cravendale milk. Not the one about cats with thumbs (although that could hold the potential for a genuinely creepy surreal horror), but the ones before that which featured animated farm animal toys. You know, these ones.

Well, that's essentially what A Town Called Panic is. To be fair, writers and directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar created the concept as a TV series years before being approached by Cravendale, but it's the adverts that are likely to be most British viewers' first thought when watching the film.

A Town Called Panic follows the misadventures of Horse, Cowboy and Indian who live together in the eponymous settlement. We start off with Cowboy and Indian building a last-minute birthday present for Horse with disastrous consequences, but there's no chance you'll be able to predict where things go from there.

The film works about as well as you'd expect. The animation is charming and generates some genuine humour through its simple execution. I enjoyed the quirky, jerky motion of Horse, Cowboy, Indian, their friends and acquaintances, never once tiring of the chosen style. It also fits well with the surreal, slapstick, non-sequitur style of humour. Think Monty Python meets Wallace & Gromit via The Young Ones and you're on the right lines. It's also worth noting that, even though the entire film is in French with English subtitles, none of the humour seemed to be lost because of this.

If you're expecting a film with a definite narrative, A Town Called Panic is not it. Just when you think you've got a handle on where the story might be headed, something else turns up completely out of left field. It's not going to be to everyone's cup of tea, as there will undoubtedly be viewers who dislike the lack of a strong narrative thread. Don't try to take the film on anything much more than face value either. This isn't deep meaningful social commentary, but that's pretty much the point of it. It's ridiculous entertainment that at times is ridiculously entertaining.

Despite the animation and humour working well for the majority of the film, even at just over seventy minutes in length there were times when A Town Called Panic felt overstretched. The original TV series episodes were only around five minutes long, so making the concept work at feature length was always going to be a challenge for Aubier and Patar. They manage it for the most part, but there are parts where proceedings have been padded out a little too much. That said, the execution is far more success than failure and there are at the very least three or four laugh-out-loud moments.

There really isn't anything else out there like A Town Called Panic, so that in itself warrants giving it a look. If you like your humour structured and multi-layered, this may not be the film for you. But as a surreal take on animated humour which sets out purely to entertain through its silliness and unpredictability, you could do an awful lot worse. Anway, I'm off to the fridge. I suddenly have a hankering for a large glass of milk.


Sunday, 5 February 2012

Film Review | The Last Exorcism (2010)

Any new entry into the horror subgenre of possession and exorcism films has the unenviable task of being compared to the pinnacle of this particular collection, 1973's The Exorcist. Widely regarded now as one of the best horror films ever made, The Exorcist is both a hard act to follow, and potentially even harder not to borrow from heavily. Many of the exorcism and possession tropes seen in popular culture come from the film (think spinning heads and pea soup projectile vomiting), and exorcism films made since have barely made a mark on modern cinema. Unfortunately, The Last Exorcism isn't likely to buck that trend.

Presented in a documentary style, the film follows Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a disillusioned pastor experienced in performing exorcisms who agrees to take part in a film exposing the hokum he believes all exorcisms are. Marcus travels to the farm of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) after selecting his letter asking for help as his last exorcism, where he also meets Nell (Ashley Bell), Louis' daughter whom Louis believes to be possessed by a demon.

Essentially, The Last Exorcism is a fairly straightforward exorcism film, which in many ways doesn't stray too far from the beaten track. Influence from The Exorcist is clearly seen - it's a girl who's possessed, the specific demon possessing her named. The main way in which director Daniel Stamm attempts to bring a fresh approach to the genre is through the "found footage" style he adopts throughout. The footage we are watching is the film Marcus agreed to take part in, complete with arguments over whether filming is allowed at the Sweetzer farm as well as other locations. Stamm at best brings nothing new to his chosen style, and at worst feels downright ham-fisted in its execution. The film's constant handheld camera footage doesn't always marry with the other choices Stamm makes. His use of incidental and background music is sporadic and haphazard, jarring realism with stereotypical horror conventions and ultimately providing an uneven and unsatisfying final product.

The cast's performances too waver from pedesrian to hammy. Fabian as Marcus never truly connects, which is a big problem seeing as he is the audience's main guide through the events of the film. I felt nothing for him, sapping the story of emotion and leaving the film's concluding act incredibly anticlimactic. The rest of the cast too are satisfactory at best, with none of them getting anywhere near the authenticity needed to make Stamm's real life method work. Only Bell deserves to be singled out somewhat, providing the film's only genuinely creepy moments, of which there are far too few.

The pacing throughout is also not great. Stamm takes too long setting up Marcus in a sluggish opening fifteen minutes. Things pick up when we reach the Sweetzer farm up until Nell's exorcism, only to then go round in circles taking an awfully long time to tell us not very much. After keeping things far too slow, Stamm then manages to rush sloppily through the underwhelming and disconnected finale, introducing new elements and information as if he'd forgotten to include them earlier.

In fact, if you are planning on watching The Last Exorcism, I'll give you this advice: pay attention to what the "vox pop" locals say to Marcus when he first arrives in the sleepy town where Louis and Nell live. It's seemingly the only lip service this important plot element receives, and without it the closing scenes are likely to feel like a complete slap in the face. That said, even with it, you're only softening the blow a little. To be honest, you'd be altogether better off watching a better film instead.