Tuesday, 30 October 2012


In the audaciously old-fashioned late-’70s political thriller “Argo,” director/leading man Ben Affleck is taken far away from the homely setting of his first two directing gigs — Boston-based crime dramas “Gone Baby Gone" and “The Town” — but somehow appears to be right at home. His third time in the big chair sees him transported well over 5,000 miles east from his native state of Massachusetts to a revolutionist Iran, where he tells the stranger-than-fiction true tale of a half-dozen U.S. diplomats hiding in Tehran and the CIA man who concocts a wildly unorthodox plan to secretly extract them.

That man is played by Affleck, who, in spite of the exotic relocation, directs “Argo" with the same ease, confidence and unabashed brio he wielded in his triumphant 2007 debut and its captivating 2010 follow-up. He is tasked with tackling and telling a complex real-life story kept top secret by the American government until 1997. In turn, he delivers an instantly engrossing, bitingly satirical espionage drama infused with raw excitement, eye-popping tension and a surprisingly hefty amount of rib-tickling humour. He has also managed to make what is currently 2012's best film — so much for the fading star of “Gigli.”

The year is 1979, as reflected not just in the film’s garish fashion sense (dirt-brown bell-bottoms and glasses the size of windshields are in no short supply) but also in its Sidney Lumet-esque hardboiled edge. Footage of the Middle East in revolt floods the American news stations in the lead-up to the overthrowing of the opulent, oppressive Shah by his own people. When the Shah is granted asylum in the U.S. to treat his cancer, the situation in Iran intensifies, with rioting, Star Spangled Banner-burning citizens demanding the Shah return to the country to be tried and ultimately hanged.

The nerve-frying tone is set in an opening sequence soaked in suspense, as the American embassy in Tehran is stormed and seized by Islamic militants. Affleck shoots this set-piece as if it were the calamitous climax of a zombie movie: a horde of rebels beat at the weakening entrance gate, break their way through doors and windows and, once inside the building, scramble down corridors in search of American staffers. 52 diplomats are bound, gagged and held hostage in the embassy while six, unbeknownst to the invaders, slip out via the back door.

These six seek refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber, “Titanic”), who puts himself at great risk in opening his door to them — outside, American sympathisers are hanged from cranes in broad daylight. Super-sideburned agents at the CIA headquarters in the U.S. hurriedly slap together sneaky schemes to stealthily rescue those who are soon to become Iran’s most wanted, but none of them seem feasible. That is, until top extractor Tony Mendez (a shaggy-haired, scraggly-bearded Affleck, underplaying his part to terrific effect) thinks up an ingenious plan: fabricate a fake sci-fi B-pic and convince Iranian officials that the six American fugitives are a Canadian movie crew on an especially jeopardous location scouting trip.

The non-existent “Argo,” inspired as Mendez watches “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” is to be a space opera very much in the vein of the then-recently released “Star Wars.” A script is assembled, posters are created, actors are cast and an article in Variety is written. In on the game are sizzlingly cynical veteran Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) and Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman, “The Artist”), whose interaction with Mendez and each other provides much of the film’s humour. “Can you teach someone to be a director in a day?" questions Mendez. Chambers quips: “You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.”

The satirical, Hollywood-nudging humour of “Argo" (the real movie) surprisingly never jars with the bone-rattling intensity. In one risky sequence, Affleck boldly combines both elements, intercutting between a costumed read-through (featuring actors who strongly resemble background extras from “Flash Gordon") and a scene in which American hostages are lined up in a manky basement, supposedly to be shot (in fact, the rifles aren’t loaded). There’s a striking parallel here: the people pulling the strings in both situations are putting on a show, and it’s all bullshit.

We are always aware of the mounting threat presented by the militants and the Iranian people, and how Mendez’s scheme could crumble to pieces at any second. Affleck frequently cuts to the overtaken American embassy, where hostage-takers and local children painstakingly piece together shredded files revealing the identities of the six individuals missing from their current stash. In one terrifying scene, a crowd of Iranians push and shove at the exterior of a car containing Mendez and his band of jittery, Western rescuees. In another, a disgruntled shopkeeper points and bellows at them in the middle of a crowded marketplace. But there is humour here too, as one of the Americans, posing as a cinematographer, haplessly peers down the wrong end of a view-finder.

And then there’s the climax, in which Affleck intercuts between the chasing, hotheaded militants, a Hollywood studio where a ringing phone begs to be answered, and of course an Iranian airport, where freedom is within arm’s reach. Truth be told, nothing as action-packed as anything shown on-screen during these heart-pounding scenes really happened in 1980 — in reality, the plan went quite smoothly. But Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio (a shoo-in for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award) know how to work their audience, and can’t resist the urge to thrill.

To describe “Argo” as gripping would be to undermine the grasp in which it holds us. It grabs us in its opening and refuses to let go. At times it shakes us, at others it just keeps us in its clutches, and sometimes it tickles us. In the end, it has squeezed every last droplet of tension out of us, leaving us to walk out exhausted from all the suspense but ultimately relieved, satisfied and fulfilled. It is with “Argo" that Affleck has developed into a master filmmaker with an understanding of story, character and drama — this is stirring, old-school entertainment with a great sense of timing, setting and humour.


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Paranormal Activity 4

Four movies in and over $500 million later, the phenomenally prosperous, shoestring-budgeted “Paranormal Activity” franchise finally creeps its way into the oft-explored realms of paedophobia, aka fear of children. While famously dissected by such established horror classics as “Village of the Damned,” “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” the bad-seed genre archetype was perhaps epitomised in Richard Donner’s “The Omen,” featuring pasty-faced, pint-sized antichrist Damien. Now, in “Paranormal Activity 4,” we have young Robbie, a peculiar little devil around whom supernatural phenomena seems to occur.

Robbie is played by Brady Allen, a six-year-old with short blonde locks and big, olive-green eyes. To look at him, you would think him to be sweet and harmless, but in his performance he wields the same subtle, skin-crawling menace that Harvey Stephens used to bone-chilling effect in Donner’s 1976 opus. His character is a quiet, composed, emotionally reserved loner with a bizarre tendency to disappear and reappear with no logical, or natural, explanation. His presence is unsettling, serving to compensate for the disappointing diminishing returns of this fourth installment’s haunted house department — the terrors of household objects moving of their own accord can only go so far.

Followers of the found-footage horror series should recall the disquieting climax of the underrated second installment, in which a demonically possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) butchered her sister and brother-in-law in their spacious suburban home before abducting her newborn baby nephew, Hunter, and walking off into the darkness with him. “Paranormal Activity 4” picks up five years after their disappearance, when a Nevada family of four gain two new neighbours in the house across the street: a mother, whom we do not see nor hear for quite some time, and young Robbie. Though it is not explicitly stated, we are left to assume that this quirky child is the missing Hunter.

Our heroine is Alex (Kathryn Newton), a bright and bubbly 15-year-old girl with a peculiar habit of filming mundane daily activities with a digital camcorder. Alex lives with her younger brother, Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), and her parents, Holly (Alexondra Lee) and Doug (the late Stephen Dunham, to whom the film is dedicated). Although it’s an element that sadly doesn’t go anywhere, the family dynamic is interesting: while they do not argue, mum and dad essentially ignore each other, acting as if all is fine when it is not. Things get even more interesting when Robbie temporarily moves into Wyatt’s room while his mysterious mother is treated in hospital for reasons unknown.

Alex has a boyfriend, the cocky and perverse Ben (Matt Shively), who could easily be obnoxious, but Shively has a goofy charm about him. It is Ben’s idea to surveil Alex’s house when the expected paranormal activity begins (bumps in the night, self-opening doors, etc.), apparently sparked by Robbie’s arrival. Seemingly restless, Robbie wanders about the house late at night, one time caught conversing with an “imaginary friend” called Toby (franchise fans will recognise the name) in the living room.

Set in 2011, “Paranormal Activity 4” is more technologically advanced than its wholly camcorder-framed predecessors. Our perspective is often from recorded Skype conversations between Alex and Ben, as well as from MacBook Pro webcams scattered throughout the house and set to record. Most notably, there is the Xbox Kinect (product placement klaxon!), which projects a grid of thousands of tiny motion-tracking dots visible through a camera on night-vision mode; this leads to two sequences in which Robbie’s friend is shown to be a little more than imaginary.

We also view the action through Alex’s iPhone and camcorder, which stretches logic during certain scenes of life-threatening peril, but at this stage we must simply go with the flow. I liked the character of Alex: she’s pleasant company and is the only member of her family to notice anything wrong with Robbie (her parents, of course, ignore her pleas and laugh at the footage she shows them). Towards the film’s conclusion, Alex (as all scream queens must do) makes some questionable decisions in regards to her own personal safety, but Newton lends to her character a convincing inquisitive nature.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (makers of the breathtaking 2010 documentary “Catfish") dangerously evoke iconic images from classics of the genre: the tricycle tracking shots of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining;” the bathtub abduction of Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street;” the above-bed levitation of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist." Such risks pay off well: what we have is an entry in an already iconic franchise acknowledging and homaging its forefathers in a way that is admiring and respectful.

Joost and Schulman, along with screenwriter Christopher Landon, were also the helmers of the terrific third entry, which was inventive with its scare tactics and successfully expanded upon the mythology of the franchise. This is less the case with “Paranormal Activity 4," which (the Robbie character aside) feels very routine and adds little of anything new to the “Paranormal Activity" story. I assumed there would be discoveries made in the (frankly absurd) climax, as was the case in part three, but alas, it is one of those endings that raises more questions than it answers. Presumably the inevitable fifth entry released next Halloween season will provide definitive answers and wrap things up to a more satisfying and conclusive degree.

The first “Paranormal Activity" scared us with the thought that an unknown and malevolent entity could enter our bedroom as we were sleeping, only to be discovered the next morning upon viewing the recorded footage. The sequels have increasingly relied on loud noises and whiz-bang special effects, which are much less frightening. The intimacy of the in-home found-footage method, tied with the naturalistic performances of the leads, keep us gripped, but I miss the minimalistic, psychological terror of the first one.


Friday, 19 October 2012


While aesthetically incomparable to its down-and-dirty Danish original, Luis Prieto’s pumped-up British neo-noir “Pusher” is the most slavishly loyal remake to come along in quite some time. Based on the edgy 1996 cult thriller of the same name directed by then-unknown debut filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, Prieto’s English-language redo (which is exec produced by Refn) is faithful to a fault. Structurally identical to and often word-for-word exactly the same as Refn’s original screenplay, this unashamed cinematic copycat would be a truly superfluous exercise in mimicry if it weren’t for the heart-racing kineticism and ferocious viscerality injected into its veins.

Crucially, this neon-lit retooling relocates Refn’s Copenhagen-set story to an East London well-traversed by Guy Ritchie and co, yet again shown to be a place of cockney gangster lowlifes, bustling nightclubs and skull-cracking public beatings. Mixed up in this world is Frank (Richard Coyle, “W.E.”), a small-time drug pusher whose no-nonsense attitude towards his profession is an irritant to jittery clients short on their payment. He shares a glamorous lifestyle of clubbing and coke-snorting with Tony (possible “Inbetweeners" candidate Bronson Webb), his brattish mop-head partner in crime, and Flo (model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn), his pole dancing girlfriend with a heart of solid gold.

Speaking of which, when a golden money-making opportunity falls onto his lap out of thin air, Frank fails to realise that the five-figure deal is too good to be true. The secret trade-off goes pear-shaped when the boys in blue turn up, forcing Frank to dump a bag of coke into a nearby duck pond before being mercilessly interrogated by peanut-flinging plainclothes officers for 24 hours straight. Upon his return to base with neither the gear nor the dosh in hand, Frank’s story is met with fierce skepticism by his supplier, the initially jovial Serbian kingpin Milo (a truly frightening Zlatko Buric, reprising his role from Refn’s original), who believes every word to be a lie. Frank is delivered an ultimatum: either he pay Milo back every penny within the next 48 hours, or else.

A frantic race against time is set in motion, as a cash-strapped Frank runs about the English capital, attempting to collect £55,000 before it’s game over for him and his kneecaps. The pulse-pounding electric soundtrack (featuring original tracks by British band Orbital) is a perfect match for Frank’s rib-shattering heart rate as the clock ticks away and the stakes climb higher, and as Frank is forced to perform unspeakable acts in the name of saving his own life, a life which he becomes more and more aware is vapid and hollow.

An effective scene of sustained suspense sees him crashing the house party of a slimy client (Paul Kaye, ”Anuvahood”) whilst wielding a pistol in each hand, intending on emptying the man’s private safe. This scene is scored to Still Going’s remix of Austra’s “Beat and the Pulse," the thumping theme song from the film’s riveting trailer. It is the style of “Pusher” that is integral to its success, with Prieto curiously channeling not Refn’s debut but the film that rose Refn to international fame: super-stylish, existential B-movie “Drive,” which boasts one of the finest soundtracks in recent memory.

Also integral is Coyle, once a sitcom star in Steven Moffat’s “Coupling” and now a tough-nut leading man. The Sheffield-born actor is more lean and athletic than Kim Bodnia, the short-tempered mad dog Frank of Refn’s film. This is a more reserved Frank, intimidating through a quiet intensity, a fierce determination and an undeniable skill concerning a baseball bat and a man’s decreasingly recognisable face. Coyle portrays the same sense of mounting, sweaty-browed desperation that Bodnia portrayed so convincingly in ‘96; he does so with escalating despair, a fervid ferocity and the slightest hint of growing lunacy.

The film leaves no room for doubt as to the sheer odiousness of its characters. These are scumbags, people who actively take part in a world of inevitable violence, deceit, torture, paranoia and substance abuse. Frank is not a good man; indeed, he is more than capable of bludgeoning his best friend into a bloody pulp without a moment’s thought, and then refusing to apologise afterwards. But Coyle is such a captivating screen presence that we feel sympathy for Frank when he is unexpectedly hurled face-first into shit creak with such tiny paddles to row him back to safety. He may be a scumbag, but he’s one who’s been dealt a severe injustice, and, simply put, that’s just not on.

“Pusher" is not as hard-hitting as its original: it’s missing the blunt rawness that made Refn’s film so bitingly intense, and its gritty East End setting is all too familiar. But it is stimulating adult entertainment and an above-average London gangster flick elevated by a gripping leading performance and a visual and aural aesthetic that simulates something akin to an adrenaline rush. Fans of the ‘96 version are sure to be irked by the frequent repetition of its scenes and dialogue, while “Pusher” newcomers can just sit back and enjoy the rapidly escalating violence.


Friday, 12 October 2012

Hotel Transylvania

Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells must be spinning in their graves in response to computer-animated kid-friendly horror farce “Hotel Transylvania.” In it, their classic monsters — Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Invisible Man, respectively — are casually stripped of their century-long, bone-chilling menace and reduced to ghoulish goofballs who shriek and shiver in the presence of humans, play bingo (with the balls replaced with miniature, number-whispering skulls) and breakdance on the disco floor. Worse still, the film ends on an over-produced music video, as these timeless figures of horror/sci-fi literature sing directly to the camera in that grating, auto-tuned gargle that sounds like the desperate, guttural cries of an injured llama. Did Abbott and Costello not do enough damage?

I jest. “Hotel Transylvania” is a kids’ movie, and a harmlessly silly one, produced by Sony Pictures Animation (they who most recently treated us with Aardman’s splendid “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists” and “Arthur Christmas,” and who dumped on us the insipid live-action/CGI hybrid “The Smurfs”). Given its cast, it could easily be a Happy Madison production too: it features the familiar voices of Kevin James (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”), David Spade (“Grown Ups”), Andy Samberg (“That’s My Boy”), Jon Lovitz (“The Benchwarmers”) and studio head honcho Adam Sandler (“Jack and Jill”).

I say “kids’ movie” and not “family movie" for a reason; there is a distinction to be made between the two. “Hotel Transylvania” is sure to be a hit with the littluns, who will revel in the vibrantly rendered animation, be bewitched by the boundless energy with which the film races along and maybe even cower at the sight of Dracula’s fangs. Older audiences will be harder to please; in spite of giggling at some of the more adult-oriented gags, I myself became tired of the film come its second half, when it dawned on me that the film had precious little story to tell. Unlike Sony Animation’s previous two efforts, “Hotel Transylvania” is sadly not suitable for the whole family.

The titular resort, constructed in 1895, houses monsters, the sort Universal Studios were making movies about in the Golden Age. A rural gothic castle, it is owned and managed by Count Dracula (Sandler, mimicking the great Bela Lugosi), a black-caped vampire who notably doesn’t sink his fangs into human necks (“Human blood is so fatty, and you never know where it’s been," he explains). Monsters from all over the globe come to Hotel Transylvania for a break from the everyday stresses of the human world, where they are chased and persecuted; as it was in Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.,” humans are seen as a dangerous species to be feared and avoided.

The design and guests of the hotel see “Hotel Transylvania” at its most creative. In the opening scenes, the reception is populated with creatures from every walk of supernatural life: making appearances are Bigfoot, the Blob, Frankenstein’s monster (James), goblins, gremlins, the Invisible Man (Spade), an obese mummy (Cee Lo Green), Quasimodo (Lovitz) and whole families of walking skeletons and wolf-people. The bellhops are all zombies; the cleaners are all witches on broomsticks; the security team are living suits of armor; used as “do not disturb” signs are shrunken heads who hang from the doorknobs. Our introduction to the building is like the opening of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” only without the riveting, Danny Elfman-scored musical number.

Dracula has a plucky adolescent daughter with an adventurous spirit. Having just turned 118, Mavis (Selena Gomez, “Monte Carlo”) wishes to venture out of the confines of the hotel and experience the wonders of the human world, specifically Hawaii (mispronounced as “Ha-wee-wee”). Knowing all too well the perils of such a trip, the over-protective Dracula concocts a plan: using a specially made-up fake village on the outskirts of the land, he convinces Mavis that the human population consists entirely of angry, pitchfork-wielding yokels (as played by the zombie staff, one of whom tries to walk off with a busty, female mannequin). The trick works like a charm, and a disheartened Mavis decides that staying home in the safety of the hotel is for the best.

As it is surrounded by a misty cemetery stalked by the undead and a fearsome forest haunted by cackling ghosts, no human has ever come close to the horror hotel. Until now... Hopelessly naive, spectacularly gormless American backpacker Jonathan (Samberg) happens upon the secret retreat on the night of Mavis’ birthday, oblivious to the otherworldliness of its guests. Spotted by Dracula upon entering the building, the unwelcome mortal is dressed up as a pale-skinned, Eraserhead-haired ghoul until the Count can get rid of him, a task that proves tricky when fellow guests take a shine to “Johnny-stein”’s laid-back attitude, in particular a swooning Mavis.

“Hotel Transylvania" has fun with its characters, as it should: Frankenstein’s monster’s crudely stitched-up limbs move of their own accord; the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi, “Boardwalk Empire”) is forever tired out by his litter of ceaselessly active cubs; aerobics sessions are made interesting by the vomit-eating fly instructors; you should see the Invisible Man trying to play charades. But most of its characters are one-joke sorts too thinly drawn for us to get a firm grasp of them, which separates them from the comparably macabre families Munster and Addams, each member of which had a well-defined and memorable personality. Not these spooks; even the Prince of Darkness is a bit of a blur.

Directing is Genndy Tartakovsky, famed for creating “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Samurai Jack,” both enormously entertaining, hand-drawn animated kids’ TV shows. His feature-length debut, and his first stab at computer animation, speeds by at the frenetic pace of the former show and features a similar degree of visual invention to that of the latter. These qualities, along with the generally pleasing vocal performances, keep things running smoothly for a while, but soon enough — somewhere around the midway point — the central plot runs out of steam as the relentless energy becomes exhausting and the bare bones of the narrative begin to show.

It’s difficult to shake the feeling that “Hotel Transylvania" was made for the sole purpose of coinciding with the Halloween season; its mid-October release date is certainly very appropriate, and will surely attract a monster audience in the lead-up to the big day itself. As light entertainment for those under 12-or-so, the film is perfectly serviceable and will please its young demographic, but it lacks the spooky thrills and hand-crafted charm that claymated family horror-comedy “ParaNorman” recently displayed.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Taken 2

“Taken 2," the imaginatively titled follow-up to the 2008 surprise mega-hit, calls to mind that important lesson we learned in ’90s Bond spoof “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery:” that even a supervillain’s expendable henchmen have friends and families. In Jay Roach’s parodical tour de force, we witnessed a wife, a son and a group of drinking buddies grieving over their recently lost loved ones, as flattened by slow-moving steamrollers and devoured by ill-tempered, mutated sea bass. In the foreboding prologue of “Taken 2,” we see such characters bitter and enraged, solemnly swearing bloody revenge against the one who took their sons and brothers from them so suddenly and so viciously. Slaughtering badguys left, right and centre has its consequences, y’see.

You will recall the murderous rampage embarked upon by ex-CIA agent and all-round super-dad Bryan Mills in the enormously entertaining (but worryingly xenophobic) first “Taken." The one-man army, played by a grizzled Liam Neeson, stormed through the seedy back alleys of Paris, all guns blazing, in desperate search of his kidnapped teenage daughter, snatched on holiday by slimy sex traffickers. The towering body count rose as the Eurotrash piled up: one memorably grisly scene of semi-comical torture saw Bryan channeling Jack Bauer of “24,” electrocuting a whimpering kidnapper to death via metal rods puncturing his thighs. It turns out that man had a bad dad: the dangerous Murad Krasniqi (Rade Šerbedžija, disappointingly two-dimensional), who now seeks justice.

“Taken 2” is set four years after its popular predecessor, which reinvented its aging Irish star as an all-American action hero. Taken this time — and the word “taken” is used frequently in “Taken 2” — are Bryan and his estranged ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen, “X-Men”), with whom he was beginning to bond again. They are ambushed by Murad’s men in Istanbul, where Bryan has a well-paying bodyguarding gig and where Lenore and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, “Lockout”) pay him a surprise visit. As she sneakily ducks out of a family outing, Kim narrowly avoids abduction this time round, while mum and dad are held captive in a dimly lit basement, chained to pipes — this, however, does not prevent Bryan from using his hidden mobile phone, as the baddies inexplicably leave the both of them alone to go watch some footie.

The clock is ticking. Hung upside down, Lenore has her neck slashed by one of Murad’s men in a manner that will kill her slowly. Bryan ascertains that with the blood rushing to her head Lenore has 30 minutes until she bleeds to death. In a peculiar twist, it is up to Kim, with the audible aid of daddy, to save her kidnapped parents. This leads to two midway set-pieces memorable for all the wrong reasons, as Bryan — using his apparent superpowers — is able to deduce his precise location by getting Kim to 1) draw circles on a map of Istanbul using a pencil and a shoelace, and 2) randomly lob live grenades around the city centre.

Whether or not this works I will leave for you to find out, but know that “Taken 2” twists basic logic like Bryan twists badguys’ necks. Sadly, the impossibly resourceful killing machine doesn’t get to do that very much in his second outing, at least not to the same blood-splattered level he did back in ‘08. To find out why, look no further than the film’s unexpectedly mild 12A rating. For comparison, the giddily sadistic “Taken” was a hard-15 in theatres and an 18 on home release, thanks to the aforementioned electro-treatment scene getting an extended cut. The sequel is a different story: with off-screen stabbings, bloodless bullet wounds and incoherently edited fistfights, it’s difficult not to feel like brutal Bryan’s gone all soft.

The first “Taken" was scribed by French action maestro Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel, helmers of the breathlessly energetic parkour extravaganza “District 13." “Taken 2” sees Besson returning, but sitting in the director’s chair is the boldly monikered Olivier Megaton (real name: Fontana), maker of the dreary “Colombiana" and the dismal “Transporter 3." On the basis of “Taken 2”’s action, Megaton was hired for his name and name only: the film’s more high-octane sequences are plagued with the same visual incomprehensibility showcased in Megaton’s “Transporter” threequel.

The action, clearly inspired by that of Paul Greengrass’ thrilling “Bourne" films, is a puzzling mess. It’s presented in that fashion where we see all-too-brief flickers of movement and are left to piece them together ourselves. This is fulfilled without the stylistic grace or raw sense of excitement with which Greengrass framed and edited his action, instead carelessly sliced and diced to within an inch of its life. You’ll be hard-pressed to tell who’s punching who, who’s shooting who and who’s driving which hurtling vehicle.

Neeson, who continued his newfound action-man status in “Unknown” and “The A-Team,” snoozes his way through much of the film. The Oscar-nominated 60-year-old may growl every line like the wolves he bravely battled in “The Grey,” but he performs with all the care and enthusiasm of a man picking up a paycheck. Most disappointingly of all, at no point does Bryan deliver a classic, “I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you"-esque monologue, supplied only with a curiously out-of-character peace-offering speech during the underwhelming climax.

Before the first “Taken” took back almost ten times its $25 million budget, Neeson was convinced the project would wind up going straight to DVD. That should have been the case with “Taken 2:” this is a half-hearted, ham-fisted attempt at recapturing the visceral thrills of the original film. It will divert some, but the premise is tired by now, and it lacks the bone-snapping verve with which Morel directed the first film. Looking at the numbers “Taken 2” is currently raking in, “Taken 3” seems inevitable: Kim’s pet gerbil may want to keep its cage securely locked.


Thursday, 4 October 2012


The most appropriately titled horror picture of the year is “Sinister;” here is a scary movie that succeeds in ensnaring and sustaining a sense of nightmarish dread that could only have been cooked up in the most fearful of minds. It opens on blood-curdling images that will be revisited several times throughout the film: a family of four being hanged from a tree in their own backyard. Director Scott Derrickson proceeds to squeeze every last droplet of suspense he can out of the situations he presents. At one point, my heart was pounding inside my chest so loudly I feared I might require medical attention. I prevailed and later walked out of the screening with goose bumps dotting my arms and legs.

The film’s setting is 2012, but realistically, it could be any year. True-crime novelist Ellison Osborne (Ethan Hawke, “Daybreakers”) moves into the suburban house notorious for the aforementioned family massacre. He moves with his wife, Tracy (stage actress Juliet Rylance), and two children (Claire Foley and Michael Hall D'Addario), all of whom are oblivious to their new home’s claim to infamy. Ellison hasn’t had a hit in the 10 years following his bestselling book “Kentucky Blood.” He hopes this new subject matter will prove a means for him to reclaim his past glory. It proves itself to be much more than that.

During one of many ill-advised trips to the attic, Ellison finds a mysterious box containing a rusty projector and five Super 8 film reels. The canisters are labeled innocently enough: “Family Hanging Out,” “BBQ,” “Lawn Work,” “Pool Party” and “Sleepy Time.” Upon setting up the projector in his office, Ellison discovers their contents are less so: each film shows a voyeur’s view of a family from behind bushes and outside windows before depicting their gruesome murders. Horrified but hopelessly intrigued, Ellison investigates: the earliest depicted murder dates back to the 1960s, and in each case the youngest child went missing, never to be seen again.

Ellison takes on the role of an amateur detective. He pins photos, print-outs and post-it notes on a board in his office and observes the snuff movies frame by frame. In one piece of footage, he spots a figure with a pasty white face, blackened eyes and no mouth. Late one night, he sees this figure peering up at him from the bushes in the backyard. Soon enough, Ellison is tiptoeing down dark hallways with a baseball bat in hand as creaks and thuds come from every corner of the house, explained away by others as squirrels running about in the attic.

It is here that “Sinister” evolves from murder mystery story into haunted house horror, a transition made seamless by the consistently bone-chilling tone. This tone is more consistent than that of the comparable “Insidious," which spent much of its runtime unsettling its audience with an eerie aura only to take a turn for the goofy in its bombastic third act. This is not the case here: for the entirety of its length, “Sinister" is raw, old-school horror that builds up skin-crawling suspense and pays it off with lashings of hair-raising terror.

At times, the scares — jump-scares, but damn good ones — are predictable. Keep an ear out for when the soundtrack fades out, when the silence overwhelms, for a deafening thud or otherworldly presence is imminent. We soon get used to this. But then the movie tricks us: the soundtrack — unnerving as it may be — is no longer a comfort, and the monsters start to come out when we least expect them. I’m thinking specifically of the “Lawn Work” film, the punch-line of which caused every one of my fellow movie-goers to leap two feet in the air; I’m not embarrassed to say I joined them.

The snuff movies take on a Hellish nature, like they came from the fiery pits of the Devil’s lair. Initially cheerful scenes of a family’s daily activities ominously filmed from afar are followed by grisly images of bloody murder, complete with pagan symbols and demonic faces. The projector switches itself on in the middle of the night, rousing Ellison, and Ellison alone, from his sleep. The graininess of the footage and the whirring of the projector contribute to the old-school feel that “Sinister” boasts, and the films’ accompanying soundtracks have a diabolical quality to them — “Sinister” features some of the most masterful sound design I’ve heard used in a modern-day horror flick.

The story relies on our belief that Ellison would place his family in a position of danger for the sake of fame and fortune. Hawke, an underrated actor, makes us believe this, and makes us sympathise with him in spite of it. Scenes of Ellison swigging back whisky and wielding a baseball bat will remind some of Jack Torrance, also a writer, from “The Shining.” Hawke inhabits a similarly unhinged mindset, as the horrors his character witnesses cause him to question reality and disturb his once-stable relationship with his increasingly concerned wife. We see Hawke at his relatable best here in what is his finest performance since the multi-layered crime-drama “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

We are told in promotional material that “Sinister” is from the producer of “Paranormal Activity" and “Insidious:" in terms of scares and overall quality, it lives up to the former and betters the latter. I’d advise avoiding the trailer for the film: it gives away several of the big scares, but not all. The director and co-writer, Scott Derrickson, previously made the chilling horror-drama “The Exorcism of Emily Rose" and the stale blockbuster remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still." Horror seems to be his forte: “Sinister” is one of the most effective spook-em-ups of the past few years. With luck, it will turn a buck and not be made into the next “Saw” series, year after year churning out sequel after sequel. But I know Hollywood all too well.