TIFF 2012 – Sightseers Review (Matt Hodgson)

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Sightseers (2012)

Starring Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies, Jonathan Aris, Richard Glover, and Monica Dolan

Written by Alice Lowe, and Steve Oram

Directed by Ben Wheatley

Last year Ben Wheatley planted himself firmly on my radar with Kill List, his incredible second feature that left the crowd at TIFF absolutely stunned. One year later and Mr. Wheatley finds himself deservedly back at TIFF with his third feature, Sightseers. His latest film is of a decidedly different tone than Kill List. While Kill List takes the audience into a a very dark place that you can’t climb out of even if you tried, Sightseers is a comedic journey across the idyllic English countryside, although it wouldn’t be a Ben Wheatley movie if it wasn’t twisted in one way or another.

Tina (Lowe) and Chris (Oram) are a brand new couple in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. They rarely argue, have trouble keeping their hands off each other, and have decided to go on a roadtrip to take in pastoral England. Complete with a trailer for sleeping in, the couple pack their bags, leaving Tina’s overprotective mother at home. The trip starts out as expected, but it isn’t long before rude tourists start to bother Chris. Fortunately, Chris has a very specific way of dealing with people who grate on his nerves, but will Tina embrace his unconventional methods or will she run away screaming?

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

With two days left of the festival, Sightseers is hands down the best movie I have seen at TIFF 2012. The wonderful script was written by the two leads, Lowe and Oram. The storyline and the central characters are hilarious and emotionally endearing at the same time, which is truly remarkable considering the dark subject matter that is usually in the foreground of the story. During the Q & A Lowe explained that her and Oram had been pitching Sightseers as a television series and it was only after working with the material for five or so years that we finally have a feature film to enjoy. I’ve seen many movies, particularly independent features, that have been written in a matter of months, weeks, and sometimes even days. Sightseers is a testament to the advantage of having ample time to know the characters and the story inside and out, as Lowe and Oram clearly did. The characters feel incredibly real, while it is hard to imagine that the comedic beats could have had better timing.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Behind the camera Wheatley continues his rapid climb to the top of my ‘favourite directors’ list. He has such an expert understanding of the dark and macabre, while also demonstrating an amazing understanding of the comedy that can be found in the most unlikely places. Also, I don’t know of any other directors who are so easily able to steer away from cliche, turning the expectations of audiences on their heads. Having also seen his short that was a part of The ABCs of Death, I am at the point where I would watch a 90-minute weather report, so long as Wheatley was behind the camera.

Sightseers is dark, hilarious, and absolutely absorbing for the entire run-time. Wheatley has hit another one out of the park in what I consider to be one of the best movies I have seen all year.

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Kill List Review (TIFF 2011) – Where the hell am I?

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Sitting down for The Raid, during the first night of Midnight Madness, the programmer, Colin Geddes, briefly went through the lineup with us. He told us about the action packed The Raid, the all-night game of cops and robbers in Sleepless Night, the crossbow wielding killers in You’re Next, etc. When he got to the closing night film, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, he said ‘You are going to walk out of here at 2am and not know where the fuck you are’. That was quite the introduction to a film, and could have been hard for the film to live up to. The Q&A after the film brought me back down to earth, but I have to admit, while the credits were rolling I did experience a mild case of amnesia and wondered why I was sitting in a movie theatre. That is the power of Kill List, unfortunately to enjoy the same experience you need to know next to nothing about the film, a difficult task given how easily information is passed around these days. Also, it kind of makes it hard to write a meaningful review and not ruin the film. Here’s my best shot.

Kill List is about a retired hitman named Jay (Neil Maskell), his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and young son. Jay didn’t retire because of old age, rather we are lead to believe that an event eight months ago in Kiev forced him into retirement. As a result, Jay hasn’t brought home any money for nearly a year and the relationship with his wife has become quite unstable. One evening over dinner, Jay’s friend Sam (Harry Simpson) suggests returning to the profession for one job, a total of three hits and a pile of money for their troubles. Jay’s in a bind, and doesn’t take long to agree. However, this is one assignment that the friends will regret for the rest of their lives, that is, if they live through it.

I’ve tried to keep this write-up as spoiler free as possible. There are enough detailed reviews, trailers and just general spoilers out there to ruin Kill List for a large number of people. My advice would be to avoid all information about the film and just wait for a chance to watch it. However, if you need some information about the film, then let me tell you that Kill List is dark, violent, gritty, dark, almost humourless, and dark; an abysmal gulf of hatred lies at the heart of the film. The pace of the film is quite slow for the majority of the runtime, but when Wheatley changes gears, prepare for a unique cinematic experience. I couldn’t be higher on Kill List, and for an estimated budget of £500,000, Wheatley seems like a film guru.

Note: When I write reviews I try to stay clear of other opinions, so that I do not compensate for a film that I feel is being wrongfully dismissed, or conversely, come down too hard on a film that I feel is being overly praised. However, with Kill List it was impossible not to notice the polarizing nature of the film before I wrote the review. Many reviewers loved it, others despised it. I have trouble understanding why some would hate this film, but it is possible that some of these unhappy critics knew too much about Kill List going in, and in turn, were let down in some sense. Just a thought, and another reason to go into this movie completely ignorant of the plot.

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