Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 - Dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Since 2009, the ‘Paranormal Activity’ series has eclipsed the ‘Saw’ franchise in topping both the domestic and worldwide box office gross during the weeks leading up to and proceeding the Halloween weekend. A combined worldwide gross of just over $370 million dollars from the two previous outings made a third film inevitable, and despite the on-screen decade changing to encompass a prequel, the basic voyeuristic concept stays exactly the same. In their first fictional feature-length debut, ‘Catfish’ directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman take over the reins of the popular franchise and while they infuse their own directorial sensibilities upon the project, it ultimately fails to both engage and frighten the audience to any satisfying, bowel-movement inducing degree.

The year is 1988 and Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) are two seemingly normal sisters who are looked after by their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and their step-father Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). After numerous things go bump in the night, Dennis decides to set video cameras up at various locations throughout their home including their own marital bedroom, the young girl’s room and the downstairs living area. As the day and nights go by, videographer Dennis along with help from his technologically savvy friend Randy (Dustin Ingram), begin to notice that all is not what it seems within the household and that a malevolent being may be specifically targeting members of his family. What takes place next comprises of loud noises, unexplained moving objects and another edition to the paranormal franchise in which the audience slowly experiences a family’s descent into madness as they try to both understand and overcome their experiences at hand.

The third film in the ‘Paranormal Activity’ series isn’t a terrible film by any standards, but it does fail exponentially in two key areas. First of all, the third film of the scare-inducing trilogy offers up absolutely nothing that is new or innovative in any way, shape or form. The closest Joost and Schulman come in attempting to conjure up a bit of ingenuity is in the use of a mounted camcorder on top of a rotating axis, yet this device is severely underused and instead they opt more for the use of on and off-screen diegetic sound effects. While the narrative itself starts to become interesting as it slowly opens a revealing door of uncertainty to the viewer, potentially exposing what may be behind over two decades of terror in the lives of these two young women. But it instead opts to cut ties during the final act leaving many questions unanswered leading to underwhelming end to the potentially exciting exploration of the mythology behind over two decades of paranormal activity.

Secondly, if audience members have seen the first two films then they will well versed in how the series approach scaring the paying members of a theatre senseless. The scene shifts from hand-held filming to a stationary shot during the night as the members of the family sleep, before an extended period, usually between thirty seconds and a minute, of absolutely nothing happening is utilized to emphasize the vulnerability of the characters, and then the ‘scare’ happens. Whether it is a banging door or screeching off-screen diegetic sounds, or some form of unexplained paranormal phenomenon such as levitation, after the first two films this predictability becomes ingrained within the viewer and it is easy to simply evade the scare because you can adequately predict when it is going to come. Aside from two sequences in which Joost and Schulman change the record so-to-speak and provide two very well crafted scenes, the majority of ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ reuses the exact same format as the previous two films and therefore becomes stale, and most often than not, predictable.

Joost and Schulman have essentially created a re-hash of the first two films, except with young children replacing the older, more mature leading characters of the previous instalments. Both young girls give exceptional performances considering the majority of the film hinges upon their interaction with the world around them, and the film itself is competently composed, even if the two decade old tapes do look like they have been meticulously preserved in a state of perpetual perfection. But, it is first and foremost a film within the prosperous horror genre, and ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ fails on a fundamental level to provide any substance, any originality, or any scares that manage to eclipse the terror of previous two films and add a new level of horror to the already spine-chilling series.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Texas Killing Fields - Dir. Ami Mann

Originally scheduled for the director Danny Boyle in 2008, but when the British-born filmmaker abandoned the project a year later, based on the murders of young women in a Texan oil field known to the locals as the ‘Killing Field,’ Ami Canaan Mann, the daughter of the acclaimed director Michael, took over the directorial helm of the Sam Worthington vehicle the ‘Texas Killing Fields’. Mann’s feature-film debut is a flat, slow police procedural drama that fails to utilize the acting talent at hand and instead relies entirely upon a stale script. ‘Texas Killing Fields’ would make for a barely competent television drama, but as a theatrical release, it falls incredibly short of being engaging entertainment for the big-screen.

Detective Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) is a local Texan police officer who believes extensively in only working on cases in his own town’s jurisdiction, while his partner Detective Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a former New York City police officer who can’t but help others in their time of need. Whether it is a young girl named Anne (Chloe Moretz) who resides with an abusive family, or Det. Souder’s former wife Detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), who polices a nearby community in which a Texan oil field known as the killing fields is situated. When Pam requests the help of Heigh in the recent disappearance and murder of women within the confines of the killing fields, he reluctantly obliges, despite the objections of his partner due to their own case against two low-life pimps who are systematically kidnapping and forcing teenage girls into a life of prostitution. What follows, is two differing journeys as both men attempt to bring the guilty to justice through their own, loose methods.

Sam Worthington’s Detective Souder is a brash, uncompromising individual who rarely comforts, but always intimidates, even when he is simply taking a statement from a young, teenage victim. It is briefly suggested that this distance and animosity originates from a rough upbringing, but it is never explored in any suitable detail, and Souder instantly comes across as an unlikeable character that is unable to redeem the glaring flaws in his personality by the conclusion of the picture. The same can also be said for Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as a likeable and hard-working detective, despite a good performance from Morgan, he is entirely clichéd in his traits and comes across as a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out. The only encouraging performance of the piece comes from the surprisingly mature Chloe Moretz, who at only fourteen years of age has already established herself as young, up and coming actress.

Aside from the acting and the lack of characterisation, the other glaring flaw of ‘Texas Killing Fields’ is the complex narrative at the heart of the picture, while Souder is investigating Rule (Jason Clarke) and Levon (Jon Eyez) over the kidnapping and forced prostitution of runaway teenage girls, Heigh is helping Detective Stall investigate the killing fields, and the story of a neglected teenager in Little Anne is also thrown in their for good measure. With so many different narrative streams taking place all at once it is easy to become confused about what is exactly taking place on-screen, who is being interviewed and what criminal case they are actually discussing or investigating. On more than one occasion the editing compliments this confusion by cutting needlessly to a scene or character unrelated to the previous sequence without any standing or context. This constant juxtaposition between cases also ceases any emotional connection to any of the characters or their plights.

Ami Mann had the potential, the actors and the setting to create a film which would transcend the typical crime-thriller picture and instead impose another strong character piece with an engaging narrative upon this cinematic year, however instead she has come away with an almost amateur looking motion picture which does nothing to compliment the genre. While the Louisianan outback masquerades beautifully for the desolate Texan fields, the rest of the film is quite horrible to observe, it is a boring, slow, predictable, one-dimensional crime-thriller that should have never been commissioned for theatrical distribution.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Red State - Dir. Kevin Smith

Trailers and television spots concerning ‘Red State’ in the United Kingdom have constantly emphasized the fact that Quentin Tarantino “f**king loves this movie.” While that may be true, Kevin Smith’s latest film has proved to be a film which teeters on the see-saw of opinion: critics and writers alike either love it or hate it. But this is not only the problem with the finished product, but the film itself, it is a mix-match of contributing elements, some that work; the performance of Michael Parks and John Goodman, and others that don’t; the lack of depth in the script and the sudden transition in the narrative from an exploration of the most extreme Christian fundamentalism to an all-out fire-fight within the blink of an eye.

Jarod (Kyle Gallner), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) and Travis (Michael Angarano) are three typical Middle American high-school students with only two things on their mind; sex and alcohol. When an opportunity arises for the young men to use an internet website to rendezvous with an older woman named Sara (Melissa Leo) they jump at the prospect and head straight for her trailer thirty miles away in a small town called Cooper’s Dell. However, they choose the wrong woman to mess with, after passing out due to being drugged on the floor of her trailer they find themselves imprisoned within the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist Christian group whose leader is the psychopathic Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Abin Cooper, who also happens to be the father of Sara, is the leader of a small, yet faithful congregation who believe that God’s word is scripture and it is there right in this world to enforce it, but before they able to enforce their extreme religious rights upon the world, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) becomes involved as a fire-fight breaks out at the Church’s compound.

Smith’s latest outing, which is his first in the horror genre, fails because it starts rumbling but is unable to keep going the political and social commentary rolling towards an appropriate conclusion. The central theme of the film concerns the fundamentalist evangelical Christians who wish to literally wipe the sinners off the face of the Earth as they believe they themselves are doing God’s work. Their work, their protesting and their stubborn, dismissive manner is representative of the Westboro Baptist Church, who are briefly mentioned in passing both verbally and visually, but what starts out as a quite brave condemnation and examination of a group of human beings generally avoided in feature films, instead, descends quickly into a comment on the handling of events depicted in the feature by authoritarian bodies in the United States and the methods they employ. If Smith had spent more time examining the relationships and the conflicts of the small, troubling convent of seemingly mild-mannered, everyday individuals, then maybe his final mediation on the nature of evil and hatred within human beings would have had more impact than the somewhat dull and underwhelming conclusion that he instead tacks on the end of his film.

While it may initially feel like a far-cry away from Kevin Smith’s more acknowledged offerings, such as the critically acclaimed ‘Clerks’ and the films that became a part of his View Askewniverse, the lack of any depth within the script, especially during the first thirty minutes, does it at times make the audience think back to Smith’s more light-hearted contributions. Jarod, Billy-Ray and Travis are presented as three, typical teenage boys, they swear profusely, they talk about sex constantly and they enjoy drugs and alcohol and that is it. They’re supposed to be representative of today’s corrupted teenage generation and their strive for sex and alcohol through reaches of the internet, but Smith portrays such an extreme characterisation of the young men that, even when they come face-to-face with the religious fundamentalists, only a microscopic amount of empathy manages to seep through towards the audience. Yet, the film is saved by two key performances by the veteran actors Michael Parks and John Goodman.

Aside from the young men, Smith does manage to convey the dialogue for both the fundamental preacher Abin Cooper and the ageing ATF Agent Keenan perfectly. The subordinate nature of bureaucracy is rarely seen in motion pictures, especially those conveying an elaborate, action-orientated set-piece such as a fire-fight, but Smith manages to relay the situation on-screen through Goodman in a dark and incredibly dry tone. Keenan is an ‘old school’ agent, he has been there, done that and got the blood-stained t-shirt in the process, but the audience is able to observe the crisis of conscience he has with every decision the high command makes, he wants to stay no, but years of service has rendered him into somewhat of a tired, bureaucratic drone. While Parks manages to take influence from all the religiously fanatical leaders from the last thirty years and he combines the traits from their maniacal lives to create a character that on the outside exudes charisma and influence, but is deep down inside nothing more than a psychopath.

Respect and admiration should be administered towards Kevin Smith for this attempt at trying something new, instead of settling back into a genre in which he has enjoyed continued success; he has instead thrown his hat into the ring and decided to explore differing cinematic tastes to those he is used to probing. While some performances work and the basic principles of the film hold up, nothing is examined in enough depth to truly place the audience in a tantalising and endearing position of thought-provoking spectators becoming involved in a new and varied Kevin Smith experience.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Tyrannosaur - Dir. Paddy Considine

Recently Hollywood and the various film industries across the globe have seen an upsurge in the amount of on-screen performers who are taking a break from acting in front of the camera to instead take control from behind it. Paddy Considine, the star of ‘This is England’ and ‘Dead Man’s Shoes,’ is now a member of this increasingly growing club with his first feature-film debut ‘Tyrannosaur’. Written and Directed by Considine, this is an uncompromising debut film from the former photographer, which examines the destructive effects of violence and aggressive behaviour on the lives of two different individuals who are drawn together through their developing friendship.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a lonely, cynical, and belligerent working class man. He spends his days drinking alone in the Pub and gambling in the local bookmakers where his only friends reside. Violent and abusive outbursts govern his existence thereby creating a solitary creature who acts on instinct rather than reasoning. However, Joseph’s life changes when he meets and befriends Hannah (Olivia Colman), a local Christian woman who is constantly being verbally and physically abused by her sadistic husband James (Eddie Marsan). Both tortured souls, they find solace in each other’s lives and develop a friendship which transcends their misgivings.

‘Tyrannosaur’ is an uncompromising, and at times, difficult film to watch as the characters’ lives are laid bare for the whole audience to observe. Joseph responds to problematic situations through the use of his fists, while Hannah simply acts out of fear and denial. Both Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman give fantastic performances; Mullan is initially a brutish, vagrant looking male who can’t naturally become entwined in society, but as the film develops, empathy begins to grow for a man who accepts his short-comings and the fact that he may never be able to overcome them. With humanity arising slowly from his dishevelled face through his relationship with the young, neighbourhood boy Sam (Samuel Bottomley).

While Colman’s striking performance, which is far-cry away from her role on the hit British comedy series ‘Peep Show,’ shows a woman who is conflicted in all manner of her beliefs. Her religious beliefs give her the naivety to believe that her husband can change, while her heart knows that he will only stop hurting her when her beatings become fatal. This is most notable in the scene where James breaks down in tears at her feet after striking out at Hannah, as she cradles his head he constantly professes his love for her repeating the phrase “it won’t happen again, you know it won’t happen again.” Hannah constantly reaffirms his worries saying that she does love him, but as she lowers his head, the camera observes her changing emotions as the audience is shown that Hannah is clearly not a woman in love with James, but instead she is simply afraid of him.

Considine’s first directorial effort is certainly a competent effort, he never attempts to direct the audience’s attention too far from the script or the two central performances at hand, but this itself is the film’s primary flaw. While it is captivating and emotionally unsettling, it is also a narrative which is not uncommon in modern British cinema (or known to some as ‘miserable British cinema’), and it portrays the same judgements and ideals as many of its predecessors did before without providing anything new to the sub-genre at hand, especially in the culmination of the sub-plot involving the young boy Sam and his neglectful mother and boyfriend.

Despite its unoriginality in the narrative’s conclusive mediation, the film still manages to evoke a strong emotional response from the viewer through its combination of horrifying visuals and fragile performances from the two lead British actors, as Paddy Considine begins his feature film journey with a solid and respectable character portrait of two broken individuals.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Abduction - Dir. John Singleton

Two decades ago John Singleton wrote and directed the Oscar nominated ‘Boys n the Hood,’ and a mere six years after his last feature was released, he has returned with what can only described as a terribly generic action thriller. ‘Abduction’ brings together deplorable acting, a terrible script and an unoriginal idea which is executed poorly. Viewing this film is the cinematic equivalent of watching a car crash in slow-motion, the audience observes the disaster and devastation unfold on-screen, but the only way for them to avoid this horrifying event is to simply vacate their theatre seat and approach the box office for a welcome refund on the admission price of their ticket.

Nathan Harper (Taylor Lautner) is your typical teenage boy, but when he is paired with his long-time crush Karen (Lily Collins) on a sociology project, his life begins to unravel as they find his picture on a missing children’s website. Nathan and Karen are left to fend for themselves as they find themselves in the cross-hairs of a major Eastern European criminal, whilst they must also decide whether or not to trust the CIA operative Frank Burton (Alfred Molina) who insists that he is there to help the young couple. What follows is an hour and a half of action sequences involving a teenage boy who not only manages to outsmart many experienced villains, but also the Central Intelligence Agency.

Generic, conventionalised, and unoriginal, are just a few words to describe the narrative of ‘Abduction,’ it’s incredibly surprising that Shawn Christensen’s script was sold to Lionsgate for an estimated one million dollars due to its preposterous and unintentionally hilarious nature. One particularly terrible scene takes place just after Nathan’s ‘parents’ (Jason Isaacs, Maria Bello) have been murdered, as an injured henchman tells the young couple; “I’m not going to die here…there’s a bomb in the oven.” Seconds later, they reach the oven which contains the stereotypical bomb with visible timer before the house is blown into smithereens. While this is just one of many examples, to give Mr Christensen his dues, it is not always the script that sends the film into an infinite hallway of absurdity. Lautner’s performance also readily helps this aspect along.

The young ‘Twilight’ star has so far unfortunately only developed two facial expressions, one which displays his tight-lipped macho bravado and the other is a wide-eyed smile. This is most evident in the scene briefly after they have avoided the bomb in the oven as CIA operative Frank Burton contacts the young man. Asking how he is feeling after he has just watched his parents being murdered, his expression doesn’t change as he nonchalantly mentions that he is ok. Expressions, emotions and acting in general seem to have been excluded from Singleton’s reasoning during the direction of this film, because even the experienced Alfred Molina, Maria Bello, and Sigourney Weaver are shown to be seemingly ‘phoning-in’ performances as they no doubt realised what kind of production they had unfortunately become a part of.

‘Abduction’ should be a film which is written about and praised alongside the likes of ‘Airplane!’ and ‘Young Frankenstein,’ because it is the perfect spoof of the action-thriller genre, encompassing every single cliché together with a laughable script and incredibly dubious acting, yet the sad thing is, this film is not a parody, but it is instead entirely serious motion picture. John Singleton’s latest offering does leave the audience pondering one of life’s most difficult questions however: why was this film commissioned for theatrical distribution?