Friday, 4 December 2009

Film Review: Harry Brown

(Directed by Daniel Barber, running time 103 minutes)

It’s been nearly 40 years since the British crime classic Get Carter, in what became an iconic role for veteran actor Michael Caine. After all these years, with many film roles ranging from action to comedy, thrillers to dramas, we all in the UK still can’t get enough of the vintage cockney accent. So when I learn that Caine is back again in a lead role for a gritty British crime thriller, I can’t help but rub my hands in anticipation... let’s just hope it’s not a disappointment.

Michael Caine plays Harry Brown, a retired ex-royal marine with his wife on her death bed, spending his last days in run down flat on a crime ridden inner-city estate ruled by gangs of teenage thugs and drug dealers. If things couldn’t get any worse, his last remaining friend Leonard (played by David Bradley), after constant harassment from the local gangs led by young thug Noel Winters (played by Ben Drew), is brutally beaten and stabbed to death after a confrontation. With only himself left and the police seemingly doing nothing, Harry sets out on a violent vendetta against Noel and the gangs.

Now already I have a slight issue with describing the synopsis, since that’s as clear cut as I would like to make it. In truth, there are multiple developments in the story with enough exposition to explain the dark events that unfold. And this film is very dark. From the very beginning, the audience is painted a picture of the most squalid and run down section of London imaginable, no doubt directed at those of you who might have lived in a pleasant rural village most of your life. What’s emphasized most of all however is the teenage thugs that seem to be the embodiment of all things “chav” and “yob”. It’s almost scary how believable these gangs are, especially since we don’t want to believe such people could thrive in a supposedly developed country. Yet they do. But before you start clenching your fists, the film doesn’t leave out the parents in this social matter. Noel’s father for example is in prison, implied being even worse than what is shared on screen while another seems to have been sexually abused by every foster family that took him in. With such unstable backgrounds, it’s nice to know youth violence isn’t completely white washed because Harry Brown is clearly making a political and social comment on modern affairs, and to do this well you have to be rational about it. To put in bluntly, the world around Harry is both dark and gritty yet real and heart breaking.

Yet despite the film’s good intentions, it’s Michael Caine we came to see. Simply put, Caine is definitely giving it his best and it shows. Despite at first appearing as nothing more than a typical old age pensioner, Caine quickly becomes Jack Carter of the 70s, even though he’s now in his 70s. After accidently stabbing a mugger in self defense, the character Harry is quick to return to his World War II days. He then proceeds to harass, taunt and even torture various gang members, all maintaing his status of quiet old man on the estate, hence why the police hesitate at first. Through all the turmoil that arises (especially towards a particularly heavy climax), Harry Brown is a very likable character, and to pull this off despite the inevitable debates over vigilante justice that will arise as a consequence has to say something about how well Caine can still pull off such performances.

Even with a great lead, the message of Harry Brown is a fickle one. Although I mentioned how the antagonists aren’t depicted so black and white, how they should be punished on the other hand is as simple as pulling the trigger. By all means, in most films the audience is supposed to cheer on the final execution, which seems all you can do with such sickening characters on show, but given the concerns raised about the state of the country in the film, there are moments that make you wonder if it was written by an editor for the Daily Mail (even I left the cinema with tight fists). Further more, while Caine is excellent, the film is not Get Carter or the Italian Job. By this I mean the film is so dark and violent in it’s gritty modern setting, there’s no time or space for the dry wit or irony, and considering Caine is essentially playing the same role as the previously mentioned, there’s not even one line to drag the film from it’s depressing little corner that can be disappointing for fans of the classics. Don’t get me wrong, there are one or two lines that, to be low brow, just ooze with cool but because of the tone of the film, almost every thing about it is sad. Saying this now, you should prepare yourself for a heavy ride.

Harry Brown is an odd ball when it comes to its message and while you get what you’d expect from a gritty crime drama/thriller; being dark, violent and crude, because of such a heavy tone, that’s all it is. But what you do get is a well constructed revenge piece/general social statement and above all else it’s hard to complain when Michael Caine still reigns supreme in a leading role that might very well be his last of its kind.

Also stars Charlie Creed Miles, Emily Mortimer and Liam Cunningham.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Film Review: Paranormal Activity

(Directed by Oren Peli, running time 86 minutes)

WARNING: Due to the shaky camera technique used in the film, some may experience nausea at one point.

I don’t believe in ghosts, and if they were real I can’t understand how they have power over the living. Because of this, if I were a character in a horror film I would obviously play the skeptic who appears in just the first quarter only to be killed off as a result of his own cynicism. What is a text book example of horror film cliché here, thankfully doesn’t apply much elsewhere in the latest of shaky camera faux documentaries; Paranormal Activity.

The set up couldn’t be any more simple: young couple Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat as actors) are haunted by an unknown spirit and film each night’s sleep while at the same time their constant personal difficulties and unease from an ever increasing, you guessed it, paranormal activity. Besides some quick exposition explaining that Katie of the two has been haunted as such before, the film jumps straight ahead with character interaction by day and long still horror sequences at night, with the latter as the clear highlight.

Where other shaky cam formats like The Blair Witch Project rely on distorted movements and cries from a cast of teenagers to induce horror (a rather feeble attempt in this one’s opinion), Paranormal Activity however removes the shaky element most of the time in favor of wide angle lens shots of the couple’s bed room at night as they sleep while at any moment something out of the ordinary could phase one square foot of the screen. It is at these moments where the film truly shines as a more competent form of film horror in a cluttered industry of cheap shocks and over the top gore. Further more, not only does more actually happen than the Blair Witch in both horror and well placed dialogue, but we can see clearly what to be afraid of (the activity, not the ghost, you never do) even when the camera is shaky and the audience can understand it through and through. The paranormal activity in question starts out as nothing more than a flickering light and swaying door before making it’s presence known further like making loud footsteps and noise, among some other really unusual and sinister happenings I won’t spoil for you. Every time these moments occur and become more extreme, I found myself and those around me more fixated on the big screen than usual. Our intentions were to spot the activity as it develops but half the time you won’t, which of course makes it all the more shocking and thus likely to make you jump from your seat. And this is coming from someone who has been borderline completely desensitized in the horror genre.

But this film is not without shame, primarily in the dialogue department during the day. While the two lead characters and brief minor roles are believable enough in their delivery, I have to remind myself that not only are these people being terrorized by a malevolent spirit, they 100% believe it. As a result I find the segments where they talk with friends and each other about other matters rather odd since real people as they’re trying to portray would be entirely fixated, enthralled or even insane over the notion of genuine contact with the other side, let alone whether it’s out to get you or not. The character Micah jokes initially too much about the situation and is, at first not likable as a consequence. Further more at one point during the day time segments, Katie outright says she can feel the entity looking at her while breathing over her shoulder... hair moving and everything. So why is it Micah isn’t phased nor does anything paranormal happen during other mid-days, particularly towards the end?

But I digress since this is most likely me just nitpicking. Most of the dialogue does actually contribute to the plot such as why they don’t simply just move house or use exorcism, instead of just confirming that the characters are feeling scared... which we already know of from the very beginning. Paranormal Activity as it stands is one of the better examples of it’s (sub)genre, relying on building real tension and surprises instead of resorting to throwing the camera in people’s darkened faces. If you’re not a fan of this style of film making before, I doubt it will change your mind but at least you can take comfort in knowing someone did try harder.