We love it when a movie does things a bit differently. "Hardcore Henry", in theatres this week, is certainly different, shot entirely on GoPro cameras through the eyes of its hero as he fights his way through some of the most jaw-dropping action and dizzying stunts since "The Matrix" or "The Raid".
Used well, a clever or innovative filming technique visualises or accentuates the themes of the movie. Films like "Hardcore Henry", "Tangerine" and "Victoria" all use unusual filming techniques, but do they tell unique stories or are they just gimmicks?
By strapping a custom-made GoPro Hero 3 camera rig to the head of a team of stuntmen, "Hardcore Henry" shows you only the viewpoint of main character Henry. You look where he looks. You climb a building when he climbs a building. Your arm is on fire when his arm is on fire.
Buckle up for the trailer:
"Hardcore Henry" is utterly fantastical from the moment you awake in a mysterious laboratory and see your own limbs replaced with cyborg parts, which, let's face it, is pretty darn cool. This is clearly reminiscent of a first-person shooter video game. I suspect the movie will be a love-it-or-hate-it deal, but it's certainly immediate.
The constant motion threatens to give you a splitting headache. But if you fancy seeing yourself leap from an exploding van to a speeding motorbike or fight a horde of enhanced henchmen on the roof of a skyscraper, then "Hardcore Henry" puts you in the middle of the action. It's not the most highbrow cinematic experience in the world, but as a sheer adrenaline rush it's hard to beat.
For a more grounded cinematic experience, "Tangerine" is a slice-of-life story set over the course of a day on the streets of LA. It was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, and it looks amazing. Here's the trailer. (Warning: some very rude words.)
The filming technique perfectly matches the kinetic, fizzy, street-smart film. Like its star, the motor-mouthed Sin-Dee Rella, the camera is in near-constant motion. The mobility of the smartphone allows the camera to bob on the characters' shoulders. The film is restlessly edited and often uses tight close-ups to create scenes that are literally in your face.
More importantly, the film succeeds in turning what you might think is a limitation of the smartphone camera into a strength. The fixed depth-of-field of the iPhone means the camera captures everything in sharp detail, including passers-by in the background, street signs, billboards, everything. Rather than distracting, this adds to the texture of the film. With no artful blurring of the background, it puts you right there on the LA streets.
Another movie that uses an unusual filming technique to put us on the streets with our characters is "Victoria", which is shot in one single, unbroken 138-minute take. From the moment we meet Spanish tourist Victoria dancing in a crowded German bar, the film never blinks, following her along streets, in and out of buildings, into cars and elevators, even onto rooftops. There are no hidden cuts and no CGI cheats. At one point the camera climbs with her up a ladder.
Directed by Sebastian Schipper, the film is a delicious combination of tightly choreographed camera movement and relaxed, largely improvised performances. Like "Tangerine", the effect is to put you right on the street with the characters, the camera breathlessly bobbing on the shoulders of Victoria and her friends as they roam the Berlin, deserted in the small hours, looking for their next adventure.
You're right there with Victoria as she discovers a hidden side to the city, exploring its secret and sometimes dangerous depths. You're pulled into the story as you think about what you would do in Victoria's position, caught up in the rush of a magical night that you want to go on forever even as events spiral horribly out of control.
Not all innovative filming techniques are quite so successful, however.
"Lucifer" is a 2014 film directed by Gust Van den Berghe, in which a mysterious figure who may have infernal intentions appears in a small village. The film is shot using a technique developed by Van den Berghe, called 'Tondoscope', which involves pointing the camera at a cone-shaped mirror. The result is a circular frame instead of the usual rectangle, similar to a fish-eye lens but without the distortion.
Van den Berghe aimed to evoke circular artwork by renaissance painters Hieronymus Bosch and Giotto in his version of paradise, depicted as a circle to create a self-contained space with no horizon, as he explains in this video. You don't have to watch the full explanation. Like the film, it's a bit long and rather pretentious, but it does show you the interesting technique employed to create the film's unusual round frame.
In practice, the round frame feels like you're looking through a porthole or a telescope at the characters.
You could argue the lack of peripheral vision at the edge of each frame evokes the blinkered lack of perspective among the gossipy, judgemental villagers. Or you could argue the feeling of peering through a telescope into these people's lives indicts the audience as a voyeur. At one point, the Lucifer character literally smashes the camera lens.
But the filming technique is disconnected from the story, and it doesn't help that this strange and dreamlike film is impenetrably slow.
This is not a problem for "Hardcore Henry."
"Victoria" is in UK cinemas now or available to buy internationally, while "Tangerine" is available on DVD, Blu-ray and on-demand.