Sightseers has your eyes from start to finish. From the opening shots of a moaning old woman, clutching fast to the soul of her adult-child daughter Tina (Alice Lowe), through the visual spectacles that follow Tina and her boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) on their cross-country caravan tour, you're engaged. And quite often in the unsettling feature, this works against you. Ben Wheatley's film, conceived and written by his two starring players, doesn't want you slump comfortably into a comical story about a road trip around Great Britain. What it wants, instead, is to jar you inside and out.
After its soft-spoken introduction, the film shifts abuptly to a platform of physical and emotional violence: validating everything that Tina's sadistically overbearing mother (Eileen Davies) warned her about, Chris transforms from a good-natured romantic to a sociopathic murderer. Not a metaphor, the dude starts killing people left and right, with provocations as slight as littering, heated arguments, and judgmental eye-rolls. The murders prove a cinematic outlier — embedded in far greater realism than the likes of Tarantino, sensationalized well beyond the average death you'd see in an action-adventure. You're pulled in full force to every one of Chris' prideful, wrathful murders, begging for the scene to change back to a tepid conversation between the fellow joureyers.
But then, even these scenes become scathing. Although we're chauffered through some of Chris' darker turns at close proximity to the mad explorer, our real journey is with Tina, whose horror and amazement with her beau's deeds are all so morbidly steeped in her desperate need to feel good about herself. Tina's arc has her fleeing the grasp of her mother for the first time to pioneer a bout of self-efficacy, unprepared for the hurdles that amount when Chris rears his bizarre hobby, or undertakes an adulterous transgression with an intoxicated bachelorette partier.
Every ounce of Tina, from the first seconds of the film throughout, is drenched in a lonely, anxious pain. Her proverbial road trip offers up countless speed bumps on the path to a gratification she seems to have dreamt up or seen on television, never having received any sort of kindness from her mom, whose only affections appear to have been reserved for the pet terrier that Tina inadvertently killed one year prior. And as we watch her struggle and shrivel at the whim of her own tormented, self-unaware psyche, it's almost too much to handle.
But luckily, Wheatley makes Sightseers manageable. Operating alongside all the darkness and pain, the galaxy of loathing that is this story, is an odd air of color. Shot like a marvelous picture book, the movie doesn't marry its subject matter with gritty aesthetic, but with a bright, beautiful visual spectrum. Even the smaller, personal scenes look pristine — the arguments inside the camper are terrifically staged, the mobile cocoon of Chris' eccentric pal a delight for the eye.
And of course, the comedy. In spite of yourself, in spite of the goings on onscreen, you'll laugh at Sightseers. You'll laugh at Chris' outbursts, knowing full well that they are building toward certain horror. You'll laugh at Tina's misgivings, completely aware that they stem from a lifelong solitude and self-loathing. Somehow, the movie manages darkness and brimming light at the same time. When you're laughing, you're not forgetting about the turmoil, you're just accepting it.
Again, the only shortcoming of the film might be that it is at times too powerful. With such a visceral experience carrying throughout, it lands in a conclusion that seems to spring from, and lead to, nowehere. We're hard-pressed to figure out what we're meant to have learned, understood, or even experienced in Sightseers. For some, this will translate as a flaw — if you like to walk away from a movie with new thoughts and ideas, you'll find frustration in Sightseers. But if you're content just feeling, vividly, for an hour, and leaving the theater a little bit shaken as a result, then you'll have a fun, albeit tremendously upsetting, time with Sightseers.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.