The Dinosaur Project (2012)

Though it’s desperate to be the next Jurassic Park, there’s little Spielbergian bite to this low-budget Brit flick.

Instead we get wobbly cameras and equally wobbly acting from a cast of unknowns as a group of explorers hunt dinos in the Congo.

The found-footage hook is starting to feel pretty ancient, and the human drama is patchy at best, but Dinosaur Project is entertainingly silly.

Its money shots generally impress, and the breakneck pace bounds over a multitude of sins – including Park’s deadly dilophosaurus getting a makeover as a cute little critter that’ll have the nippers cooing. 3/5

Via Total Film

In The Dark Half (2012)

Made on a microbudget with support from South West Screen’s iFeatures scheme, ITDH is a striking debut from director Alastair Siddons.

The engagingly bolshy Jessica Barden (Tamara Drewe’s gobby teen) stars as Marie, who’s consumed with guilt when a boy she’s babysitting dies.

Part kitchen sink-er, part pseudo-ghost story, this has a firm grasp on the genres it casually straddles, with creepy sound design fostering a dreamy, portentous mood.

Despite slack pacing, the final twist is so good comparisons with The Sixth Sense aren’t out of the question. 3/5

Via Total Film

The Imposter (2012)

Most documentaries are obsessed with truth. That is, getting to the bottom of it, uncovering hidden facts or exposing terrible deceits. Not so The Imposter. Under the sure hand of Brit director Bart Layton, it’s a film about truths, plural, Layton’s gorgeously-shot jaw-dropper of a documentary chipping away at the notion of subjective truth, and the lies we tell ourselves and each other.

Needless to say, this is brain food cinema. At the centre of it all is a case so bizarre that it’s almost the dictionary definition of ‘stranger than fiction’. In 1993, 13-year-old Texan boy Nicholas Barclay went missing. Three years later, his family received a phone call from Spanish authorities informing them that they had him in their custody. The teenager sent back to Texas, though, looks nothing like the Nicholas the Barclays remember – which doesn’t stop them welcoming him into their home as their long-lost son anyway.

It’s a story that boggles the mind. “It sounded like something that couldn’t possibly have taken place in the real world,” Layton says of the case. As remarkable as the story is, though, Layton’s delivery of it surpasses all expectations, because this is no ordinary documentary.

For a start, the reconstructions are masterfully handled, shot through a noir-ish haze and affording the film a vital thriller edge. Cleverly playing around with documentary conventions, Layton weaves the interview material (he speaks with all of the Barclays and the titular ‘imposter’) with this reconstruction footage, creating something fast-paced, slick and totally involving.

One half talking heads doc, other half gripping thriller, Layton’s stylised approach could easily have turned into a bubblegum conceit with little substance. Luckily, the director uses his impressive visuals intelligently, doggedly digging at those bigger issues – the ones regarding truth and lies. The result is as bright as it is entertaining.

To reveal any more about the film would spoil its numerous surprises. Suffice to say, it’s populated with a cast of memorable characters (hangdog PI Charlie Parker seems to have stepped right out of a ‘40s noir), and screeches toward a conclusion that will have you asking just as many questions as Layton’s film answers.

If it were a Hollywood thriller starring Nicolas Cage, we’d be writing The Imposter off as implausible rubbish. As it is, Layton’s film is one of the finest documentaries of the year – and one of the most riveting real-life thrillers you’ll ever see. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

The Pact (2012)

Haunted houses, Japanese ghost girls, grainy found footage. Ghost stories once had the power to strike fear in the hearts of cinema-goers. After years of reboots, remakes and just plain rubbish, though, that power has dwindled. This year’s Woman In Black aside, films about spooks and phantoms have generally, uh, given up the ghost. Which, one assumes, is precisely why director Nicholas McCarthy has set his no-budget chiller, The Pact, in the last place you’d expect – sunny, modern day San Pedro. All the better to scare you with.

As a concept, it works beautifully. Introducing us to the film’s main setting, a flat-pack home in a suburban neighbourhood on the fringes of an industrial site, McCarthy instantly wrong-foots expectations. This isn’t the gothic haunted residence of The Innocents or The Others – it’s an everyday abode as gaudy as it is mundane.

Except it’s here, in her recently deceased mother’s house, that Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) mysteriously disappears one evening. All we know is that somebody (or something) was in the house with her. When Nicole’s sister Annie (newcomer Caity Lotz) pitches up looking for her, she finds nothing more than an empty house. It’s not long, though, before things are going bump in the night, and Annie starts to uncover unsettling secrets about her family.

Sundrenched setting aside, there’s pretty much nothing new in The Pact. Despite that, you can’t help but admire the skill with which McCarthy delivers his slow-burn scares. He excels at making us fear cramped, claustrophobic spaces. Narrow, gaudily-decorated corridors. Tiny broom cupboards. Shadowy bedrooms. All are exploited to suffocating effect, and The Pact works brilliantly as a celluloid jack in the box – each act builds steadily to a blow-out crescendo that’ll leave the hairs on your arms standing on end.

Last year, Insidious took the same approach. But where that film devolved into messy farce, The Pact is tripwire taut throughout – right up to its lingering, creeping final shot. It’s also a thoroughly modern spooker, utilising Skype, laptops and mobile phones to reveal hidden nasties (“Mommy, who’s that behind you?” asks a little girl in one nifty update on pantomime horror cliché).

Where The Pact falters is in its characterisation. While there’s no doubting Annie’s a ballsy heroine (after the things she encounters, we’d forgive her for running right out the door), she’s also one that we know next to nothing about. Beyond the fact that she has a sweet pair of wheels and a healthy disrespect for authority, of course. Poor old Casper Van Dien gets the worst treatment, though, as a sympathetic cop who acts as little more than a sounding board for Annie’s theories.

Considering The Pact started life as a short film (it showed at Sundance 2011), it’s surprising McCarthy didn’t attempt to dig further into his characters for the feature length version. Clearly, his priorities lie elsewhere. With its creepy psychic girls (“Oh, she’s here,” murmurs a gaunt Haley Hudson in a clear nod to Poltergeist), quavering long takes and refreshing lack of false scares, it’s a modest, contained tension-cranker that just wants to scare the crap out of you. In that, it mostly succeeds. 3/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

The Making Of Prometheus

Prometheus

The last thing the Alien franchise needed was another sequel. Or, for that matter, another mandible-crunching clash with a Predator. Still, after 1997’s divisive Alien: Resurrection, rumours of an Alien 5 were more persistent than a Facehugger with a crush. Sigourney Weaver didn’t help matters, repeatedly pledging her allegiance to keeping the franchise alive.

Just last year she spoke to Moviefone about returning one last time to round off Ripley’s story. “I would have liked to do one last story where we go back to the planet, where Ripley’s history is resolved,” she said. Sadly, the likelihood of that happening is looking bleaker by the year. “I doubt [it will happen] just because the way the industry is,” she added. “While I can’t speak for them, I think for Fox, once you’re 60, you’re not going to be starring in an action movie. I think it’s too bad that that’s the case.” Another reason it’s unlikely to happen? Ridley Scott’s going back to “the planet”, or LV-426, himself, and he’s left Ripley at home…

Read the full article at TotalFilm.com

Dark Shadows (2012)

“Welcome back to the shadows, we’ve missed you,” intones one character in Tim Burton’s latest genre-blitzer. It could easily be directed at Burton himself.

Dark Shadows is a return to the kind of gloomy, quirky material the filmmaker has shied away from since Sleepy Hollow (notwithstanding Sweeney Todd).

With its gorgeously gothic prologue, Dark Shadows seems like the perfect Burton-Depp vehicle. Based on a little-remembered 1960s soap opera, the duo’s favourite themes are all present and correct – not least their obsession with outsiders attempting to assimilate into modern society.

As the auteur goes about crafting a beautifully tangible 1760s Liverpool – flush in rolling fog and doused in sea spray – the opulent palette is complimented with the kind of richly intriguing ‘origins’ story that the Twilight franchise ummed and ahhed over for three whole films.

Because rich-boy Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) has pissed off a witch (Eva Green). Venting her rage, she transforms him into a vampire and locks him in a coffin to fester undying until the end of time.

Snap forward to 1972, and Barnabas awakens to discover the now decrepit Collins estate is home to comely descendent Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her moody daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), useless husband Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), haunted step-son David (Gulliver McGrath) and alcoholic therapist Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).

Despite the impressive ensemble, Depp remains the star of the show. De-coffined into that goofiest of eras, his horror at psychedelic ‘70s toot is genuinely funny (Trolls! Lava lamps! Karen Carpenter!). Things hit a high note early on when, post-resurrection, Barnabas is confronted with a symbol of terrifying modernity: the blazing twin peaks of the McDonald’s sign.

But unlike the deft arcs of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, though, Shadows is a mess of extraneous sub-plots and surplus characters. It’s easy to believe reports that script revisions were being handed out during filming, not least with regard to the nonsensical, blow-out finale.

As cameos, barely-there romances and never-explained spooky happenings all chaotically collide, Shadows quickly forgets its own ethos (“Family is the only real wealth,” as muttered by Barnabas’s dad in the film’s opening moments) in favour of scene after scene of Depp’s wide-eyed, reactionary culture clashing.

Even Eva Green’s sensual villainess – rocking power suits, a big blonde ‘do and a rasping smoker’s drawl – proves disappointingly fangless, hampered by the film’s most puzzling of oddball B-plots (including warring fisheries, obviously).

Though it’s delightfully odd in places, and entertaining when it works, Dark Shadows is little more than a sumptuous mood board; a portmanteau of intriguing ideas with little or no pay-off. Burton’s yet to return from the dead. 3/5

Via movieScope

The Lucky One (2012)

Just glancing at the syrupy plot synopsis for The Lucky One should have you clutching desperately for the insulin. Ex-High School Musical star Zac Efron is Logan Thibault, a Marine who’s served three tours in Iraq. After surviving numerous scrapes with death, Logan attributes his good fortune to the picture of a mysterious woman that he discovered in a bombsite.

Back on home turf, Logan sets out to track down the woman in the photo, Beth (Taylor Schilling), and winds up working with her and her grandmother (Blythe Danner) at their idyllic dog shelter.

If you’re still here, you’re either an Efron groupie or a hopeless weepie-lover. The Lucky One is resolutely targeted at the Notebook crowd, and Efron is clearly looking to ape the success that Ryan Gosling had after beefing up that Rachel McAdams tear-jerker. The similarities don’t end there. Both Notebook and Lucky One are based on impossibly romantic Nicholas Sparks novels, and both depict implausibly flawless man.

Efron’s Logan is almost robotically perfect. He’s good with kids, animals and his hands. His biceps are as bulging as his eyes are blue. He can even play the piano. “No guy could ever be this good,” notes Beth, and she’s right. Logan feels like a composite of an ideal lover – sensitive but strong, introverted by confident – and he exists solely to rescue Beth from her problems.

It’s Danner to the rescue, then, Gwynnie’s mum grounding proceedings with an earthy likeability. And despite the predictable drama, Lucky One squeezes in a few surprises. It’s almost impossible not to fall for its apple pie charms – not least when it’s got a lead as pretty as Efron – and The Lucky One is cosy, familiar and undemanding. It also features some of the best dog acting since The Artist’s Uggie. 3/5

Via Out In The City

Avengers Assemble (2012)

This year’s Spider-Man reboot may have cornered the market when it comes to superfluous adjectives, but that hasn’t stopped Joss Whedon delivering what is surely 2012’s loudest, funniest and warmest superhero movie.

That’s a pretty (yes) amazing feat when you consider Avengers Assemble is essentially a sequel to the towering likes of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s been in the offing pretty much since Robert Downey Jr first strapped on a metallic super-suit and branded himself Iron Man. Four years and as many Avengers-assembling Marvel movies later, it’s up to Whedon to unite various plots, subplots and cameoing characters in the Avengers’ first movie outing. You almost feel sorry for him.

Except after years championing stellar ‘ensemble’ projects like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Whedon makes rallying The Avengers look like a stroll in the park. Even being slapped with a whopping budget ($220m) doesn’t seem to bother him. Whedon, see, is a character man, and handing him a collection of superheroes to play with is like locking Dr Frasier Crane in a room with a sex maniac who has mummy issues.

And what characters they are. With Iron Man (Downey Jr), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Captain America (Chris Evans) all clashing egos and – at times – fists, the characters are what we’re here for. Whedon gleefully shows us the world’s shiniest superheroes scrapping (Iron Man vs Thor!), bonding (Black Widow and Hawkeye!) and sniping (Tony Vs Everybody!), and Whedon’s a generous leader, granting all of our colourful combatants numerous funnies. Better still, Black Widow finally has something to do, transforming into a well-rounded heroine under Whedon’s mindful gaze, and Ruffalo’s is easily the best movie Hulk yet.

In a movie with eight leads, though, it’s no surprise there’s not much to go on in terms of plot. The film doesn’t even have its own villain, instead plucking Loki (Tom Hiddleston) out of 2011’s Thor and giving him some beefed-up domination designs. The absence of a particularly exhilarating plot, though, is more than made up for in the spectacle of having so many superheroes crammed into a room together. The resultant snippy banter is as thrilling as the film’s two main set-pieces.

Character is key, then, but thanks to that Hulk-sized budget, Avengers is big with a capital BIG. The film’s final 30 minutes are a maelstrom of apocalyptic action as an entire city is brought to its knees by Loki and his minions. Meanwhile, a second act aircraft siege is just as exhilarating, with each of our heroes forced to show what they’re made of. This is no soulless Michael Bay action-fest, though, because throughout the set-pieces we’re glued to the characters, each of whom has more wit and humanity in their little finger than any of the leads in Transformers.

Avengers Assemble is a staggering achievement. Though it sacrifices complex plotting and a memorable villain for more time with the titular fighters, that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to accept. A nimble, massively entertaining blockbuster that has everybody involved bringing their A game, Avengers is big and beautiful. Spider-Man has a lot to live up to. 4/5

Wrath Of The Titans (2012)

Spectacle. When Warner Bros greenlit a sequel to 2010 remake Clash Of The Titans, they had but one tiny caveat – give us a bigger baddie than the Kraken. No small order considering that hulking hellbeast was the size of two Burj Khalifas stacked on top of one another. Luckily for the makers of Wrath Of The Titans, Greek mythology had already gifted them a super-nemesis in the form of granddaddy Kronos – here a ginormous meanie at least as big as THREE Burj Khalifas. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our spectacle.

That’s the baddie, but what about the heroes? Well, Sam Worthington also had a condition for reprising his role as demi-god Perseus. His, though, reaps less thrilling results – he wanted to prove he could act after condemning his own performance in Clash. That means Wrath beefs up the father-son issues that were already pretty hackneyed in Clash (Perseus now has a kid!), and you can see Worthington straining for the emotional sucker punch throughout. He’s misty-eyed for the entire 99 minutes.

Wrath is a sequel with things to prove. Its predecessor incurred the wrath of just about everybody, and that’s actually a good starting point to be in – Wrath benefits from low expectations. To be fair, it gets a few things right. The action is tighter, the 3D’s better (though still unnecessary) and Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson are given loads to do together (including one supremely hammy final act battle).

Other than that, though, not much has actually changed. The plot is still so paint-by-numbers it’s barely worth explaining. In a nutshell, Hades (Fiennes) and Ares (Édgar Ramírez) have teamed up, and they want to unleash God-birther Kronos (something about getting back the respect the deities goddamn deserve). Attempting to stop them are Perseus, Agenor (Toby Kebbell) and fifth-wheel Queen Andromeda, who’s now played by a breathlessly posh Rosamund Pike.

It’s clear from the get-go that Wrath is more interested in the bust-ups than the brotherly love. Barely five minutes in we’re given a massive scrap between Perseus and a two-headed dragon – no surprise considering director Jonathan ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ Liebesman is at the helm. That’s not a put-down, though. Liebesman brings a gorgeously grubby aesthetic to Wrath – this is real dirt-under-the-fingernails stuff, and the gritty visuals help the (many, many) action scenes no end.

And what is Wrath if not a showcase for glorious, ridiculous, CG-infused action? Skipping along at a hell of a lick, it’s never much more than a string of ever-more bombastic clashes, right up to the earth-quaking climax. Along the way, Bill Nighy offers comedy relief, Kebbell flashes dazzling pearly whites, and a head-spinning labyrinth segment is surprisingly fun (even if it rips off, of all films, Alien Vs Predator). Spectacularly dumb, then, but spectacular nonetheless. 3/5

The Woman In Black (2012)

Daniel Radcliffe is Harry Potter no more. After playing the wand-wielding wizard over eight films and 10 years, the Brit superstar has carefully chosen his first post-Potter role – and instead of debunking to America, he’s stayed right here on home turf for a pleasantly old school ghost story that has him trying new things while sticking to the genre he’s known for.

Not that he’s asked to stretch himself too much in The Woman In Black, a pared-back chiller based on Susan Hill’s much-loved spectral page-turner. Radcliffe plays solicitor Arthur Kipps, who’s still mourning the death of his wife when he’s sent to an isolated village to sort through the estate of a recently deceased woman. While there, though, strange accidents result in the deaths of numerous children, and Arthur keeps catching sight of a woman dressed all in black.

Lovingly scripted by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass), Woman In Black is a very British ghoulfest. While TV series American Horror Story has been offering its own distinct brand of gory histrionics and quirky stunt casting, Woman In Black sways through buttoned-down grief, small town superstitions and twisted family secrets.

Capably helmed by Eden Lake director James Watkins, it’s a spare, atmosphere-heavy mood piece that wants you to feel the horror as well as see it. It’s also damn near a silent movie for a good 30 minutes as Arthur spends a night at a creepy house that may or may not be haunted. To Radcliffe’s credit, he raises his game considerably here, using those big soulful eyes to spine-tingling effect as he lets us into his character’s tortured inner world.

Some may find the film a little too old school. Though Woman In Black is often genuinely unsettling, it never aims to break the mould Sixth Sense-style. The strange ending (different to the book and stage play) is also oddly underwhelming, tying things up too neatly.

Despite that, Watkins’ film is a slow-burn chiller that mesmerises with shadowy imagery and grim story-telling. His Woman In Black is creepier than it is genuinely terrifying, the stealthy camerawork and heavy shadows effectively scratching under the skin, while the odd jump scares induce hair-raising paralysis rather than leap-out-of-seat spasms. For Radcliffe, it’s a step in an interesting direction. Woman In Black represents a growing on-screen maturity for the young actor, and it’ll be fascinating to see what he tackles next. 3/5