Sunday 19 August 2012

The Imposter review

The Imposter (15, 98 mins)
Director: Bart Layton
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

British filmmaker Bart Layton has managed to out-Herzog Herzog with this striking documentary account of the case of a missing boy, a vulnerable family and a brazen fraudster.

In 1994, 13 year old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his Texas home town. Three years later in Spain, tourists came across a boy who seemingly had no identity but who, as we learn very early on, was actually a 23 year old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin.

Through resourcefulness, acting ability and a mountain of lies, Bourdin somehow convinced first the authorities, including child protection agencies and the FBI, and then the family that he was in fact Nicholas.

He returned to Texas to live with them, and through newly filmed interviews with Bourdin and Nicholas’ family, who even now speak in the context that what transpired was real, the story develops into a heartbreaking insight into what loss and grief can do to people looking for answers.

What’s most significant is their utter willingness to accept the boy as Nicholas, even though physically he’s completely different and speaks with a French accent. Whether this is delusion or something else, something more sinister, is only one of many questions raised.

Bourdin all the while remains a slippery yet fascinating character at the centre of it, a fantasist, possibly a sociopath, who is up front about what he’s done and well aware of it. He’s a complex guy, who back in 1997 played the role and played the odds by doing things like talking as little as possible so as not to be found out. The fact that he’s still able to elicit mixed feelings, and even occasional empathy in the viewer, is a testament to how good an actor he is.

But it’s the skill and good taste with which The Imposter is structured and assembled that really marks it as the remarkable and gripping tale it is, its mystery and cinematic elements giving it a freshness and thrust not found in many docs.

In truth there does come a point, perhaps around the halfway mark, that it seems as though the story has played out, and familiarity and repetition threatens to set in. But then just when you think it has exhausted its potential, it takes a turn into a whole new territory, introducing a private investigator and all manner of developments that cast fresh light on everyone involved.

Aided by atmospheric dramatic reconstructions, it evolves into a mesmerising thriller, increasing the pace and the intrigue as suspicions are raised about certain things. And where it’s all going to go is a question even this terrific film can’t answer.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

The Expendables 2 review

The Expendables 2 (15/R, 102 mins)
Director: Simon West
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The proposed joy of mindless action-fest The Expendables from a couple of years ago was its bringing together of a marquee list of action legends old and new, from Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lungdren, to Jet Li and Jason Statham.

And yet it didn’t quite deliver on that promise, since it was never quite as silly as it needed to be and, since pretty much all of them made it to the end, they weren’t even that expendable.

Everyone is back (although some barely), plus a couple of new faces for this second go around, which begins with a rescue. The identity of who they're rescuing is cute, one of a lot of nice winking touches that make this a bit of silly fun for an audience in the mood rather than one looking for great cinema. This involves wholesale massacre of an entire encampment of goons, and sets the scene for an astronomical body count to come.

Their mission proper comes when the shady Church (Bruce Willis), who reckons Stallone owes him for a previous transgression, gives him a job to pay the debt which involves retrieving the contents of a safe.

But the contents are stolen by Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s actually fairly decent value as a bad guy, leaving the Expendable team to slaughter their way through Albania, in what appears to be WWII judging by the sets and costumes, to find their way to Van Damme.

It all makes for a shameless 80s throwback where the object of the exercise is to blow things up often enough and loudly enough that no one notices the otherwise crippling flaws and gaping plot holes.

It’s spectacularly bloody, and delivers exactly what you might expect, no more, no less, and on those terms it almost succeeds, though it’s put together with no great precision or imagination. For all its ensemble appearance, it’s still largely the Stallone and Statham show. Li disappears completely after the opening salvo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Willis don’t exactly figure highly, though there is much more of them than there was first time around.

Banter-wise, it’s a dead zone, which might not matter so much if there wasn’t so dang much of it. But it’s so ridiculously cheesy that still there are lines or the appearance of an iconic face to make you smile, even if more often than not you’re laughing at it and not with it.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy review

The Bourne Legacy (12A/PG-13, 135 mins)
Director: Tony Gilroy
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Reboot fever strikes once again, extending a franchise its owners obviously think has plenty life left in it, even if its star has other ideas.

Matt Damon’s departure from the spy series could have signalled its end, but in a rare move for a reboot, not only is its star replaced, but the main character.

Signs going in are encouraging enough, with a new star in Jeremy Renner who has shown twice in the past few months that he’s perfectly at home in an ongoing action franchise. And as we saw in The Bourne Identity, when it came to super-assassins, there was never just one, so the series has been primed from the start for spinoffs and continuations, even if unintentionally.

The Bourne Legacy begins as Identity did, and as Ultimatum ended, with a body floating in the water. But this is no corpse, it’s Renner’s Aaron Cross, on a training mission in Alaska fuelled by pills and injections.

Wisely it’s not a slave to formula, and Cross is not just another amnesiac. So we’re introduced to Rachel Weisz’s scientist as a way in to a government-backed conspiracy run by Ed Norton that’s been producing pharmaceutically enhanced soldiers, of which Cross is one.

The spectre of Jason Bourne still looms large over this, with the story actually taking place concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, for reasons that at first look like they might be quite interesting, but which turn out to be fairly spurious.

Norton has been looking into the CIA programmes that spawned Jason Bourne, Treadstone and Black Briar, which it would seem are only a small part of parallel programmes at risk if the Bourne situation explodes, leading Norton to shut it down, but not reckoning on Cross surviving.

Director Tony Gilroy comes on board to replace Paul Greengrass, who many credited for much of what was good about Supremacy and Ultimatum. Yet Gilroy has form, as writer of the original trilogy, and as director of Michael Clayton. And looking at the results here, Clayton is the film it resembles more than most, a talky yet largely compelling affair that forgoes action for intrigue, with a lot of science thrown around without pause for breath or explanation.

Every effort is made, sometimes too much effort, to shoehorn this into the Bourne universe, and it would certainly help to have some familiarity with the previous movies to have any hope of keeping up with a labyrinthine plot.

So it’s sure not dumb, its crisp, high-level dialogue driving several lengthy dramatic scenes. And yet the first proper action is a long time coming, with plenty downtime until the next sequence making this, whisper it, occasionally a trifle dull.

The bursts of hand to hand combat are as rapid and brutal as ever, but they're thin on the ground. Renner’s Cross is composed and wry, much more talkative than Bourne ever was, and when he’s able to use his skills and training to get out of impossible situations, the film certainly comes alive.

But the main vehicle action sequence, a frenzied motorbike chase through the streets of Manila, is more chaotic than precise; more edited together than envisioned with the skill of Greengrass, and with a disappointing recourse to CGI.

So if you're expecting more of the same, you’re not going to get it, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even if it often tries hard not to be, The Bourne Legacy is very much its own beast, a conspiracy drama that’s fine on those terms, but which suffers in comparison with its forebears.

Monday 6 August 2012

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