Monday, 29 October 2012

LFF: For No Good Reason Review

Director: Charlie Paul

Starring: Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner

Synopsis: A documentary about Ralph Steadman, the artist behind many Hunter S. Thompson illustrations, along with decades of unique and revolutionary artwork.

The Gonzo visionaries were famous mainly for all the wrong reasons; they defied convention, acted out unmorally and set daring new trends. Ralph Steadman was one such visionary whose work has, up until this day, provoked millions of people. In Charlie Paul’s documentary, the genius and novelty of Steadman’s work is sought to be explored.

Paul brings along Johnny Depp (a close friend of Steadman and his notorious partner, Hunter S. Thompson) as interviewer/narrator, making this film seem like a project among friends (also giving it a commercial boost). In this regard the niceties of close companionship fog the more introspective aspects of documentary filmmaking. Fortunately, with Steadman feeling comfortable with Paul and Depp, he does delve into some more personal recollections, though maybe not as often as one would hope. It succeeds in foregrounding a figure many may not know of – a name that only appears at the bottom of his art, without any indication of his personality – as well as detailing the style of his strange yet beautiful art.

Steadman rose to fame when he was employed to work alongside Hunter S. Thompson to illustrate Hunter’s articles and book. This relationship is, as one expect from knowing about the infamous Gonzo journalist, was chaotic. It had its ups and downs throughout the adventures the pair had together – something Paul focuses on heavily. With Hunter being such a larger-than-life figure, the documentary does become fixed on him in parts. It’s something that is perhaps unavoidable but does make you pine for more material and anecdotes about Hunter, fatefully putting Steadman in the corner.

Thanks to Steadman’s time in Hunter’s company he has developed a sharp and wicked wit that, for when he gets his limelight, elevates his profile. He isn’t just some pale and crotchety artist who lingers by the side; he has an intense voice and morale that justifies a film about him. Moving past Hunter, we hear and see Steadman in the company of Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam and William Burroughs. He has lived a fascinating life in the company of great artists (much like himself), educated through each experience and meeting.

Steadman’s interests lie not only in art but political activism. The two endeavours are collected in a great montage that flicks through dozens of drawings – some animated at points – giving another life to the works of a smart and creative set of art. It’s a moment that sets you in great awe of the man – there are literally hundreds of drawings, all with a unique flavour.

Not only exposing the agenda and history of Steadman, the film must magnify that distinctive flair; it does in sections of the film, and they are among some of the most seminal sequences of the documentary. Watching Steadman work is a thrill. Many documentaries about artists flash through their life and merely present to you the final piece, in For No Good Reason the process is explored. The smears and harsh splatters of Steadman’s brush reflect a realm of emotions and messages. As Steadman paints a few new pieces he runs his own commentary over what a certain flick of the brush, or what a change in colour, may mean. What’s more, he reveals the technique of his design that for artists is exceptionally enchanting.

All great documentaries implore you to seek out the work of the person in focus and this film achieves that. You leave the cinema determined to read the stories Steadman illustrated, find the collections and even try your hand at some of the art. There is only a niche demographic for For No Good Reason which, whilst distressing, is perfectly understandable for a film about the wacky Gonzo personalities.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Walking Dead Season 3 Episode 2 Review

The five watchful eyes of the shadowy prisoners may be a concern of the audience's but for not for Rick and those trying to help out the wounded Hershel. Daryl carefully targets the unknown bunch but only for the brief moments Rick and the explorers stay in that room. As suddenly as the convicts are introduced they are quickly ignored in light of Hershel's injuries. It is a fantastic U-turn of events, highlighting the shining feature of Season 3's "Sick": Subversion of expectation.

Of course the imprisoned survivors are not totally forgotten and as Hershel is brought to the cell-base, the five follow. As a brief conversation has informed us, the five do not know the extent of damage and ruin of the outside world. They had thought the group were a rescue team but quickly realise that that isn’t the case. Their insecurity leads to a hostility (and fear) of what Rick and co want from them and their prison refuge.

The leader of the prisoners is an unnamed muscular Mexican-looking guy, hell-bent on exercising his power. Rick’s gruff voice and forceful demeanour, aside his fiery troop consisting of T-Dog and Daryl, is a definite threat. Nevertheless, Rick wants to stay in the prison for security reasons and talks the Latino aggressor out of a fight. The prisoners’ naivety is not something Rick feels like exploiting and whereas he could tell them to find a new life in the empty world (to which their 10 month incarceration has denied them any awareness of), sending them off to inevitable demise, he teaches them about the state of affairs.

“It’s all gone.” Rick explains. The look of disbelief on each of their faces leaves the audience to imagine how they experienced the outbreak and how they slowly came to realise the dead were walking. “Have you got a cell phone or something, that we can call our families?” one of the convicts asked to which Daryl assertively responds, “You just don’t get it, do you?” The caged men have a startling innocence toward the epidemic which later leads to a chaotic run in with the walkers.

As the men step out into the sunshine to witness the destruction and death all around, they still have little motivation to venture out. The leader is adamant that now that they know of some safety (as the intrusive Rick and co have found it in their old cell) that the prison will become their kingdom and their cell returned. Daryl becomes increasingly irritated by the pushy nature of the convicts and holds his crossbow to the eye of the leader, telling him, “You could try your luck out on the road”. Eventually a compromise is met as, trying not to lose face, the head criminal says, “If these three pussies can do all this, the least we can is take out another cell block.” They just need some weapons to do so. Negotiations go well and both teams will help one another out to keep everyone unharmed or, worse, from dying.

The food is the bargaining chip; the five have clearly “not been starving” from their appearance and so food from the cafeteria should understandably be divided (“if you pay, we’ll play” states Rick). At least with both parties getting what they want, they will have no need to stay in each other’s company. The “little left” claimed to remain is more food than the lead survivors have seen or consumed in years and they gladly take all they can.

As one half of the episodes deals with the clash of co-inhabitants, the other keeps a watchful eye over Hershel. The frail old man, whose expertise in medicine and doctorial procedures is a necessity to the groups’ wellbeing, needs to stay alive. However, the extremity of his injury, not to mention the lack of supplies to keep him well (save some provisions Carl single-handedly gets), makes his survival very uncertain. Had this scenario taken place in Season 2, the solemnity of the moment may have smothered the show’s pace. Fortunately, Season 3 has (so far) got a better handle on structure and tone meaning that Hershel on his death-bed is a harrowing and dramatic event, given just the right amount of attention. His daughter Maggie is understandably distraught and worried of what “we’ll do without him” whilst Glenn and the others think more positively. Neither side can be sure of Hershel’s outcome so the moments of laboured breath are distressing.

As said, moments like these are not lingered on for too long and as they take up chunks of the run-time, they do in sections (editing through cross-cutting to keep the momentum). It allows for the relationship of Rick and Lori to have some analysis – the complexity of their feelings toward one another are interesting enough for the minutes captured yet any more reflections on the matter could become dull (Bill Gierhant, the episode’s director, capably cuts through this multiple moments).

As far as we’re aware, this season will include several explorations of the prison perimeters. Episode 2 changes it up slightly by adding the company of the convicts. These men would know the layout very well but their handle on killing the walkers that have taken over it is laughable. As Rick, T-Dog and Daryl stand back, the five rush the walkers screaming, punching and shanking their way through the undead. They do little damage to the already-maimed corpses but give the audience something to chuckle about. They get the hang of it eventually but one guy’s insecurity about the situation leads to him getting infected (by a disgustingly hand-less walker). He needs putting down and as he pleads the leader violently hacks him down (almost as if saying to Rick, “Watch your back”).

Before a sudden turn of events with Rick’s band versus the prisoners, Carol asks Glenn to her out with Lori’s expected caesarean by having a walker’s body to practice on. However Hershel makes it out of his run-in, he won’t be able to carry out the C-Section and Carol’s idea is “sane” (to quote Glenn).

For what they've been through, our lead survivors have had to put up with a lot. They have endured the harshest environments and the most perilous situations and so some overly aggressive alpha male will not be tolerated. The sparring of stares between Rick and the Latino has made their rivalry dangerously volatile. As they break through another room, the convict leader throws a walker at Rick who escapes thanks to Daryl. Having ignored Rick’s governing about only opening one door (and stupidly pulling open both), aside the attempt to slash Rick with a knife, and have his head chewed off by a zombie, the Latino is pushing his luck. In a moment of unbridled antagonism Rick takes his machete and plunges it into the head of the leader. Pushing a zombie into and on top of him was a cruel attempt to thwart Rick's move into the prison; stupid also as the convicts are outnumbered and outgunned. The remaining lot are shocked and scared (as are the audience who perhaps weren’t expecting it); one runs away and is left to be mauled by a group of walkers, whilst the other two are given their own cell and left to live their lives away from Rick et al.

The last scenes include Hershel waking back up (after a frightening gasp during Lori’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), Rick and Lori almost finalising their marriage and Carol cutting open her zombie in lull of practice. The latter scene is seen through a shaky and unknown point of view, ending on a sense of mystery and dread - could an unexpected event take place in episode 3? I’d count on it.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth. Episode 1, "Seed", was also reviewed here.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

LFF: Crossfire Hurricane Review

Director/Writer: Brett Morgen

Starring: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, Brian Jones

Synopsis: A documentary chronicling The Rolling Stones – from their humble beginnings to their 50th anniversary.

It has been a fantastic year for British institutions – the Royal family celebrated a diamond jubilee and a wedding, Britain swept the board at the Olympics, and James Bond turned 50. Aside the televised and cinematic commemorations, the music of The Rolling Stones floated through the air waves of countless radio stations in light of their 50th anniversary. The Greatest Rock and Roll Band are back and to honour their decades of hits, a come-back was enthusiastically announced and a new documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, has been made to tell their story.

Documentaries on The Rolling Stones are a dime a dozen yet Crossfire Hurricane boasts the exclusive productive partnership of each member (discounting the late Brian Jones). The headline treatment of Jagger, Richards, Watts, Wood, Wyman and Taylor’s input appears like a salacious pull for this film, however, the audio-only interviews are disappointingly infrequent and only moderately insightful. To have each Stones member giving their two cents about their time in the band should warrant near-interrogative questioning from Morgen. Alas, the director conducts his Q&As with a distinct lack of fervour; he rarely probes into the thoughts of the rock stars, leaving you with nothing new to reflect upon.

Fans of the Stones can watch Crossfire Hurricane and see new behind-the-scene footage, but learn nothing new beyond that. The said footage has been closeted for good reasons, mainly due to the tawdry quality of it. The remaining scenes are recycled videos and newsreels seen dozens of times – all suffocating what should be introspective interviews. Many television and radio programmes from this year, that have told the same story, utilized the significant Gimme Shelter recordings along with the same snippets from infamous concerts, making this documentary insufficiently original. On occasion, Crossfire Hurricane gladly gives you information repressed up until now (quick notes on their “exile”, testimony from Charlie that he follows Keith’s lead guitar, and confessions about relationships over the years) though these are few and fleeting.

Every member of The Rolling Stones has (and had) an electric personality that deserves attention. Brian Jones, in particular, had such a sadly short life – most of it spent in The Stones – and a memorable personality that many want to learn more about. Crossfire Hurricane’s main strength is talking about Jones at some length, with additional remembrances from the band. Keith’s recollections are beautifully illustrated by personal photographs showing the two laughing and joking around, highlighting the brotherhood of the band with tremendous poignancy. Despite Morgen favouring TV and tour clips instead of explorative interviewing, the documentary still has the ability to instil a sense of adulation and respect for The Stones – Jones’ quasi-eulogy certainly helps in this regard.

With half a century of stories, Brett Morgen foolishly dwindled down the extensive history of The Rolling Stones to a 111 minute documentary. Had this material been in the hands of someone like Martin Scorsese (a huge fan of The Stones and director of previous documentary/live gig Shine a Light), and perhaps broken up into two or three parts, this would constitute as the ultimate chronicle of the band. Ronnie Wood – a key member since 1975 – is only given scraps of screen-time to tell us about his part. Furthermore, post-1975 is barely spoken about, reminding you that Crossfire Hurricane should have had the subtitle “Part 1” attached to the project title.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

LFF: The Central Park Five Review

Directors/Writers: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon

Starring: Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr, Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Jim Dwyer

Synopsis: A documentary exploring the “Central Park jogger” case about the rape and assault of a young woman supposedly by five young boys. Focusing mainly on the mistakes made in the case and the false accusations against each boy.

In 1989 the “Central Park Jogger” case was one of the biggest news stories in America. It overshadowed any other crime cases (as mentioned by some of the interviewees) and took weeks of interrogation until 5 innocent boys were charged with the crime. In 2002 a convicted serial rapist, Matias Reyes, spoke to one of the convicts in prison and vowed to vacate the 5 boys’ (now men) convictions by confessing to the crime. It is an interesting and long-spanning chain of events that makes this documentary very insightful.

The three filmmakers get interviews with each of the 5 sentenced men and, one by one, recall and analyse the poor validity of their conviction. The only member of the Central Park Five we don’t see is Antron McCray who preferred not to be filmed; the rest of the group are graciously given plenty of screen time. They are an interesting bunch of personalities, all matured by their traumatic experience in their mid-teens, who garner a great deal of empathy.

It is a very scrutinising look at this historic case and kudos to Ken and Sarah Burns and David McMahon for compiling extraordinary research and material (photographic, print or film). Anyone unaware of this event are given detailed descriptions of what was thought to have happened and what actually did. The alternating sides of the story – news footage from 1989 and 1990 countered with testimonies from today – generate a fantastic diagram of right and wrong. The impetus of this documentary is to highlight the intermittent unjust procedure of law, which is does to fine effect. You can often see the Central Park Five welling up in tapes from back then and from today, making you very aware of their unwarranted punishment.

Incidents like this happen all-too-often; Central Park Five vindicates the in depth analysis of a case rather than the mob-culture uproar that leads to hasty and tawdry investigations. The directors do not just focus on the boys’ discriminatory treatment from the police, but the entire New York state (branching out to the entire country and beyond at points). It serves to reflect the frightening sensationalist aspect of some crimes, and the shocking aftermath.
It is overwhelmingly exhaustive in its aim to educate you on this infamous story (albeit, running slightly too long in sections). The fear that this can happen is made intensely aware by the statement: “Confessions will trump DNA; confessions will change witnesses’ testimony; confessions are irresistibly persuasive and almost the effects can’t be reversed.” The spoken word is a powerful tool in any means of life and whether or not it’s truthful, it can have a striking effect. Central Park Five implores you to think before you judge as under the surface of this trial in 1989/90 were five scared young boys who had done nothing wrong. It is a timeless piece of filmmaking that would serve as a great argument for cases similar to this.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

Monday, 22 October 2012

LFF: Seven Psychopaths Review

Director/Writer: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Harry Dean Stanton, Olga Kurylenko, Linda Bright Clay

Plot: Martin (Farrell) is an alcoholic screenwriter whose latest idea for film called “Seven Psychopaths” is lacking inspiration. His friend Billy (Rockwell) tries to lend a hand but instead gets him involved in a kidnapping, murder and the company of psychopaths. Suddenly Marty’s story starts gaining some frighteningly real inspiration...

Martin McDonagh’s knack for dialogue has served him well with retaining an audience. It is clear that since In Bruges, he has become a man people desperately want to work with. Cut to Seven Psychopaths four years after In Bruges and that notion has been substantiated with an all-star cast including Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Colin Farrell. Along with a spectacular cast, McDonagh has moved over to the seemingly glamorous turf of Hollywood, California. His success is well-earned and with his second directorial feature McDonagh looks to become the new celebrated screenwriter.

Brimming with ideas, Seven Psychopaths is not your average popcorn movie. Instead, McDonagh crafts a wildly irreverent black-comedy that proves to be a successful pastiche of the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Charlie Kaufman’s style. There is originality within his script and whilst some may find his muses scattered knowingly throughout the film, McDonagh highlights his own uniqueness. Inane chit-chat of a Seinfeldian sort is nothing new but the brazen way in which McDonagh uses it is. For instance, Rockwell’s Billy constantly speaks of trivial and clandestine affairs as if secrecy is a fabled idea – regularly mentioning his illegal activity or maniacal alter-ego as if no one would worry. The same strange openness is also reflect in the criminal activity with characters sporting guns in public or discussing murders with total disregard for discretion.

In Bruges handled refinement in the same way, by throwing it out the window. It makes the films wildly fun and memorable. We are privy to an alternate way of life where people say and do what they feel. The most appealing characters are the ones who flaunt their frankness (such as Rockwell, who outshines everybody in this film) and the opposing conventional ones (like Farrell) who are of less interest. McDonagh tries not to sour the film with too much normality, even though it understandably needs to stay grounded from time to time, and gladly adds a torrent of violence and chaos to keep the momentum running.

The narrative is relatively linear but interruptions in the story are superfluous at points. The presentation of the seven psychopaths is not always etched into the story neatly, leading to moments of messy punctuation. This issue is partly a result of the self-reflexive arc that some may find too smart for its own good. McDonagh wryly makes you aware of the issues in the screenplay but this can be a dangerous artistic move. Trying to laugh off the inconsistencies does not negate them completely. Nevertheless, it is a film attempting to bring some ingenuity to the art form and that should be embraced.

Watching Seven Psychopaths is a hugely fun experience that boasts hilarious set-pieces and dialogue, along with an astounding ensemble of actors giving it their all to a project that is clearly exciting and entertaining them as much as it is the audience. McDonagh packs the film full of energy and moments of uproarious comedy, giving you incentive to watch it again and again. Problems do occur in the film such as ideas that may have looked good on the page but barely work in practice, and an ironic tone that sometimes appears aloof. Despite this though, McDonagh’s remarkable drive to pull it off makes it a greatly commendable and magnetic film.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

Sunday, 21 October 2012

LFF: Hyde Park on Hudson Review

Director: Roger Michell

Writer: Richard Nelson

Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Wilson

Plot: Margaret Suckley (Linney) has never much thought about her distant relation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt until one afternoon he requests her presence. FDR tells her she helps him relax and continues to invite her over to Hyde Park on Hudson. Soon the two become great friends but certain tension arise during the first American visit of Monarchs – King George VI (West) and Queen Elizabeth (Colman).

Many of the American Presidents had fantastically rich stories – public or private – that lend themselves well to TV, Film and books. Franklin D. Roosevelt was one such Commander in Chief whose personal life interested many people. His strive alone (getting into office even with a paralyzing form of polio) warrants a full biopic though Hyde Park on Hudson is more focused on his adulterous alter-ego and one pivotal weekend with the Royals.  

Only on few occasions in the film is FDR seen as cruel for his wayward manner with women. Instead, Bill Murray’s portrayal of the 32nd President demonstrates charm, wit and kindness. With alternate casting this persona may not have been as noticeable as the affair angle of Roosevelt’s life was recurrent and would certainly sully the man’s image. Murray’s innate allure enables the film to remain jovial and tread past the sinful implications of FDR’s secret life.

It shares many similarities with The King’s Speech; a happy air to the film, a drama under the surface and the presence of “Bertie” and Queen Elizabeth. In some ways this comparison damages the film’s credibility as it becomes a dreary side-piece to Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winner. Samuel West and Olivia Colman are terrific as King and Queen but you cannot help but think of them in regard to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. They do bring a distinct edge to their portrayals though are all too often caricaturised as posh buffoons. West’s Bertie stands out only when he is the company of Roosevelt; these are the scenes where the film has an original pull and spark.

Too much attention is set on Laura Linney’s Margaret Suckely (though with it being inspired by Suckley’s letters and diary entries it’s understandable) and her interaction with Roosevelt which has very little chemistry or drama. Murray could have easily carried this film on his own, centred only on FDR. What spoils the film is having him surrounded by lacklustre familial and staff characters; only the monarchs prove fascinating company.

Whereas Roger Michell has an interesting CV that flaunts his ability to present memorable relationships (Notting Hill, Enduring Love and Venus), his last effort (Morning Glory) and Hyde Park on Hudson see him losing his touch. Even with a short run-time, it boils down to Murray and the pleasing soundtrack as the only single two elements keeping the audience entertained.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

LFF: Eat, Sleep, Die Review

Director/Writer: Gabriela Pichler

Starring: Nermina Lukac, Milan Dragisic, Jonathan Lampinen, Peter Fält

Plot: Rasa (Lukac) and her father (Dragisic) are teetering on the edge of poverty, with work meaning everything to their survival. Once Rasa is laid off from her factory she must search and search for new employment before and her and her ill father lose their house and ability to live.

Eat, Sleep, Die begins with a thunderously loud synth beat and the flash of “Eat”, “Sleep”, and “Die”, very reminiscent of Gasper Noe’s title sequences. The first scene has a similar quality to something like Irreversible (though with less pizzazz), introducing a tone that is quickly lost. The remaining 100 minutes consist of long, raw scenes following the main character, Rasa.

To follow Rasa throughout the whole film requires empathy which is not always apparent with the brash young woman. Nevertheless, however she appears to the audience, there is always a reason to support her action. Rasa is a tough and caring person whose ambition in life is nothing more than providing money for her and her father to live on – an admirable if saddening set of motivations. The film speaks of the plights of race and immigration that lead to problems in employability, along with issues of economy and the difficulty of getting by.

Rasa is constantly faced with monotony and an assembly line of everyday events and issues, although it seldom distresses her. She is a unique role-model in contemporary cinema – always trying to work even when the prospect is fruitless. Audience’s pathos with what Rasa and her father have to go through (alongside characters in a similar situation) is profound. By the end, bitterness is all that can be tasted yet a sweet sentimentality has evolved since perhaps viewing Rasa as a boisterous youth. Nermina Lukac, only an upcoming actress and not that experienced with acting, gives a powerful performance with direction equally accomplished from the additionally inexperienced director, Pichler.

It is a long chronicle of Rasa’s tedious livelihood but has moments where new paths are seemingly opening, giving the audience something to hope for. It is, in summary, a tale of hope and even though it’s never realised, Rasa’s story is uplifting and poignant. The film closes on the prospect of struggle juxtaposed with spirit; an accurate representation of life and the wonders and problems of it all.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

LFF: Sightseers Review

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writers: Steve Oram, Alice Lowe, Amy Jump

Starring: Steve Oram, Alice Lowe, Jonathan Aris, Monica Dolan, Tony Way, Richard Glover, Richard Lumsden

Plot: Chris (Oram) and Tina (Lowe) have only been dating three months and the time has come for the pair to have a holiday together. They embark on a journey around England to see the sights and visit museums. However, the trip slowly evolves into a cross-country murder spree brought about by Chris’ irritation with the general public and Tina’s desire to please her boyfriend.

Americans rarely score with dark comedies; those most critically acclaimed (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Frighteners, and God Bless America, for example) are more cult hits than box office successes. Whilst the Americans hesitate with showing their morbid side, the British revel in their understanding and enjoyment of it. In the U.K the darkest comedies are usually the most favoured and this adoration for the macabre allows for an influx of this kind of material. It’s one of the reasons we so lovingly adopted Tim Burton into our country, view Chris Morris as an iconic anti-hero and enable someone like Ben Wheatley to carry on making films.

Attempt to navigate your way through the musings of Mr. Wheatley and you will inevitably get caught and cut on barbed wire. His twisted, sharp mind is a dangerous realm but still interesting and amusing. His second feature, Kill List, was an unforgettable mash-up of popular genres that highlighted a knack for comedy and, most of all, horror and violence. His third film, Sightseers, may not have been penned by the man himself but it has his style all over it.

Operatic in some senses (slow motion rendering of tense moments – also seen in Kill List) with gory scenes of death blended with jokes you shouldn’t laugh at but can do nothing but, are staples of what we have become to know of Wheatley. There’s a charm to Wheatley’s unabashed way of viewing the world – and giving his opinions on it (“He’s not a person...he’s a Daily Mail reader”) – which is side-splitting now and then. Sightseers is wickedly funny but may prove too sinister for others.

There’s no doubt that the film will divide audiences (as much as Kill List did) as the black humour will either be guiltily pleasurable or appalling for certain viewers. Some may be un-tickled by the bursts of brutality that are graphic and unflinching yet beyond the bloodshed, however, is a twee love-story that is authentic and sweet in some scenes. It is an inviting film – wanting you to be entertained with the comedy and also the romantic aspects (that can be bizarre at points) – although it may not succeed completely as Wheatley’s odd approach to presenting these motifs can be alienating to the general movie-going public.

Through the editing an uncanny atmosphere is introduced that runs through until the end of film – masterful at points but perhaps too weird for some viewers. Not totally finished with the pagan fascination, Wheatley includes a sequence using a smart Eisensteinian montage between a murder and a ritualistic sacrifice – the best indication of Sightseers’ puzzling panache.

The two lead characters are additionally enigmatic – almost emotionally inebriated in some instances. Both Chris and Tina are terrifically portrayed by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, yet have such hazy psychologies that the audience can never truly connect to them. They are childlike to an extent, leaving them untrustworthy and petty on occasion. The moral ambiguity of their actions is never resolved and whilst it does not have to be, some inkling of how we are to perceive the two could help with our conception of Sightseers’ chain of events. Despite these flaws, you cannot turn away from watching them – whatever’s going through their mind it’s intriguing.

Strange at times, Sightseers will not be for everybody, but for those captivated by the murderous road-trip (complete with some beautiful shots of the English countryside) it will become another great example of the darkest brand of British humour.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Walking Dead Season 3 Episode 1 Review

Season Two of The Walking Dead was exceptional at points but never seemed as exciting as the first. There were a few amazing set pieces (notably the season’s finale) and some wonderful characters introduced, but the pace was ultimately too slow at points. As much as The Walking Dead’s (alternate) realism can be admired, to have the audience gripped by every episode requires an even balance. That’s why as Season 3 starts, it looks to be checking all the right boxes.

                                                          Major spoilers follow

We begin a few months after Hershel’s farm was attacked by a hoard of re-re-animated zombies and Rick and the group are searching for a new sanctuary. Lori is heavily pregnant and so a secure spot is ardently needed – somewhere that is not too vulnerable to attacks. A brilliant dialogue-free opening showing Rick, Daryl, T-Dog and an older, stronger Carl searching and clearing a house is as tense any of the memorable sequences from the show’s start. It’s also fantastically gory, giving you a taste of what the next 40 minutes will include. The world around the main group is becoming increasingly feral, highlighting their peril in a wilderness of zombies and showing the passage of time to first-rate effect. In amongst the long grass, overgrown bushes and sprouting trees are countless zombies. As the group think of settling in to the new house (if only briefly) one look out the window onto a shuffling score of zombies tells them to head off.

The new credit sequence rolls (now using infamous imagery from the past 2 seasons) and we return to the band of survivors deliberating over which direction to take. A short but detailed discussion tells the audience of how far they’ve travelled and for how long. Not needing to have seen all this enables the writers to move on swiftly whilst still retaining the notion of measured time (an improvement on the trudging tempo of some of Season 2). As quickly as they have set off again Daryl and Rick spot a prison facility overrun with zombies; “That’s a shame” Darly states whilst looking over the walls and gates of the secure prison, but Rick is far more optimistic. Cut to Rick et al snipping through the fence and boldly entering the zombie-ridden grounds. If any fans were deterred by sluggish sequences in Season 2, the whole fight through the prison yard impressively wins back their hearts. Every stab, slice and slam that the walkers receive is gloriously visceral. Some may grow tired of the monotonous kills but for the true zombie buffs, its gore-galore!

Having placed their figurative flag in the prison yard, the group relax for the evening, happy in the safety of the chain-wired fences. As if careful not to dull the drama and excitement of the past 15 minutes, the solemn scene is not drenched in dialogue but some poignant singing from Beth and her sister Maggie. It’s a scene of splendour as the family sit around the fire having found a great new location to camp, also felt by the viewers who are looking forward to the following morning’s further exploration.

Before the next morning’s search we cut to a plot line we’ve been dying to see – the mysterious Michonne (last seen helping Andrea as she fled the farm) and her zombie escorts, armless, jawless and chained together like two dogs. She’s similarly going through houses and shops searching for food and medicine – equipped with a slick samurai sword that cuts the heads off the undead with ease. Still remaining an enigma, the only inkling we get of her character is through her interaction with Andrea later on, to whom she gives aspirin and cares for like a sister...or lover (though that may be reading into their relationship a little too unwisely).

Ramping up the tension and action again, the writer and director craft an excellent scene involving Rick, T-Dog, Daryl, Maggie and Glenn pushing through multiple zombies the next day – swiping with machetes, shooting with arrows and bullets, and stabbing with poles and pokers – in order to gain more ground. Special effects are bettered with every episode and in amongst the skull spearing comes some truly horrific (but pleasing) kills. As one would expect in a prison environment, armoured guards roam around – the group have never come across an armoured zombie before and slight confusion into how to destroy the brain is humorously illustrated. Daryl tries to shoot an arrow through the helmet with no luck, and Maggie furiously attempts to bash through it. It’s only when they realise to thrust their sharp weapons underneath the visor that danger is avoided. It also leads to the group taking the gear for themselves – Rick pulls off one helmet, yanking the skin off the zombie skull in the process (one of the most graphic and nerve-pinching effects-work seen up till now in the show). After defeating what they can of the outside zombies, they venture into the actual prison. This is where Frank Darabont’s presence is missed as the Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile director could have brought his own expertise to this narrative crux. Fortunately, Ernest Dickerson, whose filmography includes directing episodes of The Wire (notably the fourth season’s fantastic finale), Dexter and some previous Walking Dead episodes (interestingly Season 2’s “Seed” which was also about the discovery of a new base – the Hershel farm), has a lot of talent and stylistically brings the group and audience through the new habitat.

After the blood-stained prison cells becoming the rooms for a night’s rest, the next day still includes roaming the darkened corridors. Before those moments Lorie and Hershel have a pivotal discussion about the baby. Lori thinks, as the virus is in everyone, that the baby could be a still-born or worse, that it “rips me apart” from the inside. Hershel offers sound advice saying, “Don’t let fear control you” (a great mantra not only for a story such as this, but in general) and tries to lighten Lori of each of her worries. Lori, due to her affair with Shane, was largely unlikeable throughout last season but it now seems that she’s gaining some empathy from the audience. Fears of a dead/zombie baby or her dying during childbirth and becoming a walker are ideas that, in terms of the show’s reality, are frighteningly distressing.

The last 5 minutes are thrilling and shot beautifully – torch light breaking through the dusty atmosphere and point of view perspectives adding to the tremendous tension. Zombies fill the subterranean spaces, entrapping the group in a maze of death. Hershel trips momentarily and viewers’ nails begin to be chewed off. Then Maggie and Glenn get momentarily separated and audiences’ hairs begin to stand on end. Finally, Hershel gets bitten in the ankle and our hearts pound furiously. It took a whole season for action like this to be witnessed last year and now fans are being given a gift – adrenaline-fuelled catastrophe blended with new adventure. As Hershel is lifted to a secure room, Rick takes initiative and hacks off the old man’s infected leg. We’ve seen blood splattered all throughout this programme but something about the living’s pulsating palates being poured out onto the floor disgusts. It’s an effective way for the SFX department to put their expertise to use for a more cringe-inducing outcome.

 Five more heads appear from the lower end of the room as Hershel lies unconscious; Daryl hops up with his crossbow at the ready. He pauses momentarily and the camera closes in on a bearded man and he exclaims, “Holy shit”; more survivors and now more characters. Dickerson’s direction is masterful and his ability to combine crucial genres into one episode – drama, action, horror, thriller and comedy (odd lines here and there) – highlights his ability to entertain. As long as future episodes are like this, Season 3 could be the best season yet. The episode received 9.2 out of 10 on IGN, with a viewership of 10.9 million viewers. From the trailers Season 3 did look like an exhilarating launch into new territory and episode 1 proudly presented that.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth. Check out Episode 2 Review here.