100 Films @ 10: Most Effective Director’s Cuts

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Whether they be director’s, extended, ultimate, or any number of strung-together adjectives someone in marketing thought sounded exciting, direct-to-home-media alternate cuts of movies are all the rage nowadays. They have been for quite a while, actually — thanks no doubt to the booming sales of the DVD era — so for today’s top ten I thought I’d run down some of the most effective. I don’t necessarily mean the best (these aren’t “the ten best films that happen to have extended editions”), but rather the ones that have the biggest positive impact on the end result — which is sometimes the same thing, of course.

I know the initially stated point of these top tens was to look back over the last ten years, but this time I’ve widened the remit to include all extended cuts, mainly because that only added one title. Losing out because of that is X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, which does contain significant changes, especially to the climax, but didn’t really belong because I actually think the theatrical cut is smoother.

10
Léon
Version Intégrale

To undermine my introduction right away, the extended version of Léon doesn’t actually make massive changes to the movie. Some of the additions bolster character development, but the film wasn’t shortchanged on that in the first place. It is great though, but it’s also just more greatness. Does that mean it shouldn’t be here? Well, if you’re watching the US Blu-ray, it’s the longer version that has the proper title card, which is reason enough to prefer it in itself.

9
Watchmen
Director’s Cut

There are three cuts of Watchmen, but it’s the middle one that is director Zack Snyder’s preferred version of the film (aptly, given its subtitle). I’ve still not got round to the semi-experimental Ultimate Cut so can’t truthfully comment on whether Snyder’s right, but when I reviewed the Director’s Cut I asserted that, thanks to “a little extra room to breathe and a few worthwhile extensions, and in spite of the odd tweak that doesn’t work, this is the superior cut of the film.”

8
I Am Legend
Alternate Theatrical Version

The extended cut of I Am Legend has one of the most meaningless subtitles of all — it wasn’t released theatrically, so how is it an “alternate theatrical version”? That said, “alternate” is definitely a more apt descriptor than “extended”: although this version is longer, the biggest change is a completely different ending. That makes a difference to the film’s tone, as well as paying off some subplots. But it only changes the movie so much — those misguided CGI creatures are still there, after all.

7
Salt
Director’s Cut

This middling action-thriller starring Angelina Jolie is not the first film that’s going to come to mind to most people (for any reason, ever), but it exists in three different cuts that make some striking differences. I discussed them in depth in my review, but on balance the one they labelled the Director’s Cut is best.

6
Alien³
Assembly Cut

The second Alien sequel was a fraught production for a number of reasons, which wound up in an obviously-compromised theatrical version. A little over a decade later (doesn’t sound so long with hindsight, does it?) the original “assembly cut” was released — not a director’s cut because, understandably, David Fincher wants nothing to do with the movie. The different version doesn’t save the film entirely, but it does clarify some of it, thereby improving it.

5
The Lord of the Rings
Extended Edition

From Fellowship onwards, the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic are the preferred versions, deepening characters and expanding the rich world of the story. But by the time of the third and final movie, they’re essential: in a rare misstep, Jackson chose to completely excise one of the trilogy’s primary villains, Christopher Lee’s Saruman, from the theatrical version of Return of the King, so only in the extended version is the storyline of a major character actually resolved. That film won Best Picture nonetheless, which is why these aren’t ranked higher: the extended cuts are better, yes, but the theatrical versions are an incredible cinematic achievement regardless.

4
Sucker Punch
Extended Cut

Zack Snyder again, with another director’s preferred cut only debuting on the home release. This time he had to cut the film for censorship, revising it multiple times until the MPAA gave it the necessary PG-13. In the process, he removed several lines and scenes that helped to clarify what the hell was going on, which is rather helpful in such a crazy-ass movie. I’ve never bothered with the theatrical cut, but — in its extended form if no other — I think it’s something of an underrated movie.

3
Blade Runner
The Final Cut

Arguably the daddy of all alternate cuts, Blade Runner’s so-called Director’s Cut wasn’t really anything of the sort — Ridley Scott was busy and couldn’t be properly involved, merely providing notes for a studio after a fast buck. Years later, he was able to do it properly, resulting in the aptly named Final Cut… which is kinda just a polished version of the earlier Director’s Cut, but there you go. (Incidentally, there are some people who prefer the theatrical version. I’ve still not got round to it myself, but… well, there are also some people who prefer the theatrical cuts of Lord of the Rings. What I’m saying is, there’s no accounting for taste.)

2
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ultimate Edition

Guess who’s back? Zack Snyder’s third entry on this list is his most effective revised cut he’s yet done. There are aspects of Batman v Superman that mean some people will never like it, but it’s hard to argue that the Ultimate Edition isn’t an improvement, clarifying plot details and character motivations left, right, and centre. Seriously, though, what is it with Zack Snyder and cutting scenes that explain the plot?! At least when he does a director’s cut (which is most of the time) he really makes use of it.

1
Kingdom of Heaven
Director’s Cut

Guess who’s also back? The other great proponent of the director’s cut, Ridley Scott — though he’s more prone to using and abusing the term than Mr Snyder (the director’s cut of Alien is, famously, nothing of the sort). I’ve never seen the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven so can’t actually vouch for this myself, but, by adding a massive 45 minutes of material, Scott’s lengthier cut turned a theatrical dog into a film some regard as a masterpiece. I can’t think of another director’s cut that has ever instigated such a thorough reappraisal of a film’s critical standing.

Tomorrow: ten good scenes and no bad ones.

100 Films @ 10: Most Represented Directors

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It’s 100 Films’ 10th birthday at the end of the month. To mark the occasion, I thought in the run-up to it I’d publish some lists based on the last ten years of my blog, because who doesn’t love a list?

How many lists have I got? Why, 100 of course!

…haha, no — that would be ridiculous. There are ten — one for each year of 100 Films. And each one has ten items on it. Ten times ten is… why, it’s 100! What a coincidence.

For the first list, I’ve put opinion aside for pure facts: these are the ten directors who’ve been most-reviewed on this blog. That excludes films only featured in my 100 Favourites series — this is just their work that has been covered as part of my ‘main’ blog.

It may be worth noting that, because it’s purely based on statistics, this isn’t a list of my ten favourite directors… though as they’re ones I keep watching movies by, I guess it’d be a fair starting point.

10
Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan has made nine feature films, and seven of them are reviewed here. Throw in an extra one for the IMAX version of The Dark Knight and his short documentary, Quay, and he edges ahead of runners-up John Carpenter, Ernst Lubitsch, George Miller, and Billy Wilder.

9
Tim Burton

The next four directors are technically tied, but I’ve found a way to differentiate them. First: the Burtonesque Tim Burton, whose eight entries can be split into six main-list films and two reviews of things I’d already seen (Batman and Batman Returns).

8
Ridley Scott

Next, the man we can probably thank for all the Director’s Cuts we get these days, the more classical of the two Scott brothers, Sir Ridley Scott. He also has eight, of course, which factors in six main-list films, one alternate cut that I nonetheless counted on my main list (Blade Runner: The Final Cut), and one non-main-list film (Alien: The Director’s Cut).

7
Zack Snyder

Our third eight-film filmmaker is everyone’s favourite “visionary” director of superhero movies (right?), Zack Snyder. All eight of his films were on the main list, though two of them were alternate versions (the extended cuts of Batman v Superman and Watchmen).

6
Clint Eastwood

Simple and straight-up, much like the main himself, Clint Eastwood has a pure eight films.

5
Steven Soderbergh

The top five heads into double figures, with ten films for one-time enfant terrible and now retiree Steven Soderbergh.

4
Martin Scorsese

Perpetual awards season snubee, Martin Scorsese also has ten feature films, but edges ahead thanks to his part in anthology film New York Stories.

=2
Roy William Neill / Steven Spielberg

Unlike other directors on this list, there’s no reasonable way to differentiate this pair. You may not know the name Roy William Neill, but he helmed eleven of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, and those four years of work have landed him near the top of this list. Conversely, Steven Spielberg is probably the most famous film director working today, if not ever, and his eleven films span 44 years, stretching from his first (1971’s Duel) to his most recent Oscar nominee (2015’s Bridge of Spies).

1
David Fincher

Topping the list is my go-to pick for favourite director, David Fincher. He’s helmed ten movies, but I’ve reviewed twelve — that’s eleven main-list features (including the Assembly Cut of Alien³) and one extra for the marginally-extended director’s cut of Zodiac.

Tomorrow: when directors re-cut.

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

2017 #20
Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In a Valley of Violence

The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

The dog's the star

The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

Cool cowboy

Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

The Past Month on TV #14

After last month’s bumper-bonus TV review (with three major series to review, plus a couple of big specials), the past four weeks have been pretty quiet. I’ve certainly watched stuff, just very little of it feels worthy of comment.

Nonetheless, there was this:

The Missing (Series 2)
The Missing series 2While everybody’s busy fawning over Happy Valley (never watched it) and Line of Duty (series one was quite good; I need to catch up), I reckon The Missing is one of the best dramas British TV has produced in a good long while. The second series (which aired towards the end of last year over here and, coincidentally, started last Sunday in the US) is every bit the equal of the first, and possibly even better — and considering how good the first was, that really is an achievement.

Featuring a brand-new case (what with the first one having been resolved), sibling screenwriters Harry and Jack Williams have this time made their story and scripts even tighter, partly in awareness of the scrutiny fans exacted upon the first run. What that means in practice is every mystery has an answer; nothing is thrown away, nothing is a mistake. That’s even more impressive given some of the audacious twists they pull off, which I shan’t spoil here.

As well as the enjoyable plot theatrics, the emotional lives of the characters are as on point as ever. Maybe none are quite as effective as the toll exerted on James Nesbitt’s character in series one, but the cast is arguably more well-rounded beyond a sole lead. Talking of which, the only major returning character, Tchéky Karyo’s detective Julien Baptiste, is even more central this time, which can only be a good thing because he’s a top character expertly brought to life. The writers agree: while a third series of The Missing is contingent on them having a good idea for a story, they’ve talked about potentially conjuring up a Baptiste spin-off instead.

I’ve recently been thinking about my favourite TV series of the last ten years. There are rather a lot of contenders, considering the golden age of “peak TV” we’re currently living through. Frankly, I’m not sure if The Missing will quite crack the top ten, but it’s definitely in the conversation.

The British Academy Film Awards 2017
The BAFTAs 2017aka the BAFTAs, obv. I have to say, I thought it was a pretty dull show this year. For starters, Cirque du Soleil — impressive, but what’s it got to do with the last year in film? Why did no one write Stephen Fry some good material for his opening monologue? Then there were the awards themselves. Short on surprises — the big prizes went where expected, the smaller ones erred British. None of the American winners are committed to giving a decent speech here because they’re saving it all for the Oscars. Well, apart from the Kubo guy — he knows his award is going to Zootropolistopia next fortnight and so he gave us his best stuff. Good on him.

Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 6 Episodes 2-6 — Caribbean murder.
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 4-9 — Sherlockian murder.
  • The Flash Season 3 Episodes 10-11 / Arrow Season 5 Episodes 9-11 — not much need to investigate the murders here, as the heroes are doing them half the time.
  • Who Dares Wins Series 9 Episodes 5-6 — they’ve had to cut out the National Lottery bits now they’ve dropped that from TV, and they’re shunting it around the schedule like an unloved heirloom they’ve committed to display but really rather wouldn’t… and it is a kind of terrible show, really… but the lists, man, they keep me coming back. #addict

    Things to Catch Up On
    LegionIt must be a slow time for TV — I don’t even feel like I’ve been missing all that much. Well, X-Men spin-off Legion recently started and I haven’t got round to that yet, and 24 spin-off / sequel / continuation 24: Legacy started in the UK last night, so I’ve barely had a chance to watch it (I’ll have something to say about that next month, then). So I really have no excuse for not watching Westworld yet. Oh, and I need to get on with starting my long-planned re-watch of Twin Peaks, because there are only…

    94 days until new Twin Peaks.

    Next month… the final series of Broadchurch begins.

  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition (2015/2016)

    2017 #19a
    George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

    Mad Max: Fury Road - Black & Chrome Edition

    During post-production on Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, director George Miller had a chance to watch composer Brian May (not that one) at work. As was standard practice, May was working with a ‘slash dupe’ copy of the film — a cheaply-produced duplicate print, which has the defining characteristic of being in black and white. Miller was instantly smitten, believing this was the best-looking version of his film. 30-something years later, during post-production on the fourth Max movie, Fury Road, Miller had the film’s colourist convert some scenes into black and white, and he once again discovered his preferred version. Only this time he mentioned it publicly and promised it would be released, which is more or less how, about 18 months after the film’s theatrical release, we ended up getting the so-called Black & Chrome Edition on Blu-ray. It finally makes its way to UK shores today… though only in a Zavvi-exclusive Steelbook edition, which has both already sold out and was dispatched to purchasers (like me!) last week. So, uh, so much for that.

    Let’s start by getting some people’s obvious complaint out of the way: “Why do you need to buy it again? Why not just turn down the colour on your TV?” Well, you could, and you’d get an approximation of the effect; but if you have an appreciation for the fine details of film photography and colouring, that doesn’t cut it. The Black & Chrome version isn’t just the existing colour turned off — other things have been tweaked to heighten the experience, most obviously the contrast. Here’s a video that handily compares a selection of shots from the colour version, the Black & Chrome version, and the colour version simply desaturated:

    If you’re thinking “but the two black & white ones look the same!” then maybe this isn’t for you. And that’s OK — it’s an alternate version, after all.

    In his introduction (the only new special feature on the Blu-ray), Miller admits that at times you lose some information by not having the colour; however, at other times it looks even better, and he reiterates that he thinks this is the best version of the movie overall. Somewhat famously, the theatrical version of Fury Road has hyper-saturated colours as a reaction against the usual post-apocalypse movie look of heavy desaturation. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Miller’s preferred version is the opposite extreme — but can you imagine any studio exec agreeing to release a $150 million black & white movie?

    Also in that introduction, Miller expands on the appeal of the desaturated version: “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract, something about losing some of the information of colour, makes it somehow more iconic.” He’s got a point. The starkness of the imagery really heightens the effectiveness of some shots and sequences. Indeed, taking a look at some parts of the colour version afterwards, it all felt so ‘busy’ thanks to the additional visual information. You may remember that, a few years ago, Steven Soderbergh shared a black and white version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the point being to highlight the shot composition and editing, easier to focus on with the distraction of colour removed. And he’s right. Not in the sense that this feels like watching an assignment for film school, but in the sense that the point of the framing and focus is emphasised further without colour.

    Black and Doof

    And it does look beautiful. Cinematographer John Seale is clearly a master of lighting, something that’s only more apparent without colour. Indeed, Soderbergh said the same thing of Douglas Slocombe’s work on Raiders: “his stark, high-contrast lighting style was eye-popping regardless of medium.” Most of the movie looks like it’s been etched from silver — or, of course, chrome. The greys and whites are metallic, the blacks deep points of contrast. It looks gorgeous. It’s let down slightly by the nighttime scenes, however. They weren’t so hot in the colour version either, having been clearly shot in daytime and aggressively graded blue. Presumably that finished version was used for this, because rather than the stark imagery of the rest of the film, the nighttime stuff is kind of murky, the blacks kind of blue-ish, and it’s far less pleasing. (If you want to see for yourself, compare this screenshot to the others here.) Fortunately, that doesn’t make up much of the film.

    Separate to the colour issue, Miller has expressed the influence of silent movies over Fury Road, including cutting the film without its soundtrack to make sure that it worked on a purely visual level. When he first promised the black and white edition would be released, he also said there’d be an isolated score option, to give the viewer the option of seeing the most stripped-back version possible. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. (He also promised a commentary and additional special features, which aren’t there either.) At times I tried to imagine how it would work in relative silence, and aside from a couple of places where you might want an intertitle or two, and the pre-climax scene where Max explains the new plan to Furiosa, it’d get by fine. So thoroughly committed is Fury Road to visual storytelling that even many of the dialogue scenes don’t actually need their dialogue — think about the early bit where Hux and Slit argue about who’s going to drive, for example. Sure, the dialogue makes explicit that Hux is normally the driver and Slit is taking his steering wheel because Hux is semi-incapacitated, but their body language conveys the gist of their disagreement clearly. It’s a shame Warners didn’t go the whole hog and let us have the option to experience the film with just the score, or score and effects, because I think it would’ve been equally interesting.

    Furiouser and Furiosa

    Obviously Fury Road: Black & Chrome is always going to be a curiosity for the dedicated fan rather than the primary way of viewing the film. Next time I watch it I imagine I’ll go back to the full colour version… but that’s mainly because I’ve only seen that version once anyway, so I want to re-experience the full impact of its wild colourfulness. However, for appreciating the quality of the photography, and for emphasising the legendary iconicity of Max and Furiosa’s story, I think Black & Chrome may well be the way to go.

    5 out of 5

    Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition is theoretically released on UK Blu-ray today. It’s also available to own digitally from Amazon, iTunes (as an extra on the regular edition), and presumably other retailers (if they still exist) too.

    Steven Soderbergh’s variation of Raiders of the Lost Ark will probably be reviewed at a later date, because I really want to watch that now.

    The Mystery Blogger Award

    Mystery Blogger Award

    Let’s break this down…

    1. Put the award logo/image on your blog.
    Boom, done! Next!

    2. List the rules.
    Doing that.

    3. Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
    I was very kindly nominated by sgliput of Rhyme and Reason ~ Poetry Meets Film Reviews.

    4. Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well.
    The Mystery Blogger Award was created by Okoto Enigma.

    5. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself.
    1) The last five Blu-rays I bought were: the new remastered release of Heat, The Last of the Mohicans, The King of Comedy, The Mask of Zorro, and… Red Sonja. Yep.
    2) I spend most of my spare time… writing this blog. I really should get some other hobbies.
    3) I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement for my job, which means I can’t tell you what I recently learned about a certain rodent abode and their plunderous pentalogy. (It’s not that exciting really, just more interesting than the stuff I usually know about.)

    6. Nominate 10 – 20 people.
    That’s… quite a lot of people. As these awards sometimes have a tendency to go round and round, and I know not everyone’s interested in doing them, feel free to consider yourself invited if you’re reading this. Reply in the comments or on your own blog, the choice is yours!

    7. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog.
    See above.

    8. Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question (specify).
    1) Which film haven’t you seen that you most feel you should’ve seen?
    2) R2-D2 or BB-8?
    3) With the Oscars imminent, which previous Best Picture winner do you think was the least deserving?
    4) Tea or coffee?
    5) What’s in the box? What’s in the box?! (This is the weird and/or funny question.)

    9. Share a link to your best post(s).
    I mean, they’re all pretty great, amiright? Thanks to that bracketed S, I’m going to mention a regular feature rather than one specific post: the Arbie awards that I hand out each month.

    As you can see, the rules don’t actually mention answering the nominator’s five questions, which I can’t help but feel is an itty-bitty oversight on the part of the creator. Nonetheless, here are my answers to sgliput’s queries…

    What film(s) do you love that others seem to ignore or not even know about?
    I’m sure there are loads, but I’m going to go with Josie and the Pussycats.

    If you had to eat one food (or kind of food) for the rest of your life, what would it be?
    Pizza is the food of the gods. Also, flexible.

    If technology allowed us to live in an ideal virtual Matrix-world, would you choose that over reality?
    I mean, if I could do all that cool kung fu stuff, maybe. But as it’s other people who contribute an awful lot to making the world a shitty place at times, how ideal would a virtual world with those people in it really be?

    What one film do you think is vastly overrated?
    I’m sure there are loads of these as well, but the one that always springs to mind is No Country for Old Men.

    For a fun question, you have three paradox-free wishes that won’t come back to bite you (says a genie). What would they be?
    Paradox free? Well, I’d have to wish my old dog, Rory, back to life; I’d wish for, like, a billion pounds, because then I’d be pretty well set; and I’d wish for a thousand more wishes, too.

    TTFN.

    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

    2016 #137
    Alfonso Gomez-Rejon | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

    This is a film about a high school student who makes movie parodies for fun, who befriends a dying girl. It won the Audience Award at Sundance. I’m not sure there’s any other knowledge you need to judge if you’ll like this movie or not. Except normally that’d have me thinking “oh God, here we go,” but I liked it enough to put it in my Top 20 of last year.

    So, I admit, I went into the film feeling pretty cynical about it. I was expecting to find a movie tailor-made to be an indie cinephile’s dream comedy-drama. There are elements of that about it, but I must also admit I ended up being won round and affected by the film, to the point of feeling quite emotional and often a little teary for, ooh, most of the second half. Was I just manipulated into feeling that way? Well, that question is a fallacy. All film is emotionally manipulative, because it has been constructed to achieve a purpose, and the people who complain about feeling manipulated by sappy dialogue or heavy-handed music or whatever have just seen behind the curtain, as it were. For these reasons it kind of annoys me when critics or ‘film fans’ get annoyed about a film being “manipulative”, but maybe that’s a rant for another time.

    Me and Earl and the Criterion Collection

    Anyway, as I was saying, I kind of didn’t want to like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl because I didn’t want to fall into the obvious trap of “this movie totally gets me because I love Criterion editions too!” But I thought it worked in spite of those pandering affectations. Or maybe I just couldn’t resist them on a subconscious level? In some respects it doesn’t matter how it achieved it: the film wanted to make me feel a certain way, and I did feel that way — success.

    Perhaps another reason it worked for me was the positioning of Greg (the titular “Me”) as a high school “Everyman”, not affiliated with any of the school’s multitudinous social groups. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a film before. What movies (and TV) have taught us about American high schools is that they are chocka with rigid cliques, and everyone belongs in one group or another. Is that true? I have no idea — but as far as movies (and TV) are concerned, yes it is. I don’t think it’s the case out in the rest of the world (well, at least not in the UK); not so rigidly and antagonistically as it’s depicted as being in US high schools, anyway. Nonetheless, I could identify with Greg’s status as someone able to drift around groups being generally well-liked but also almost entirely unnoticed, which perhaps helped me buy into him and his emotional journey a little more, thereby explaining the film’s ultra-effective emotional manipulation effect.

    The Dying Girl

    A lot of what works lies in the performances. As “the dying girl”, Rachel, Olivia Cooke is fantastic. She’s got the showy role, but manages to play it with subtlety. Instead of the usual indie movie Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the lead character / narrator is the Quirky one and she’s a cynical girl who undercuts him, which is kinda fun. Nonetheless, as the film’s “Me”, Greg, Thomas Mann has a less obviously showcasing part, but the way he handles it — especially as the film moves away from the “he’s a Quirky film fan who’s uncomfortable in high school just like you” aspect — is essential to how the film’s relationships and emotions function.

    Nowhere is this better exemplified than in a two-hander between the pair: achieved in a single static shot that lasts five minutes, they don’t look at each other while they argue and their friendship struggles. It’s a frankly stunning scene from all involved: kudos to Jesse Andrews (who wrote both the original novel and the screenplay) for the plausible and complex dialogue; kudos to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon for the confident blocking of both actors and camera; kudos to both of the actors for their layered, emotive, but not grandiose, performances.

    Several supporting cast members are also worthy of note: Jon Bernthal as a cool teacher; Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom; and Nick Offerman for once again perfectly judging the level of funny his character needed to hit to be comic relief but also stay tonally consistent with the rest of the film.

    Fake Criterions

    A final stray thought before I wrap up this rather bitty review: I’ve read a few comments that make a point of mentioning this is not like all those other “teen death” movies, or that if you’re sick of all those then this one’s still good, and so on. I’m kind of aware these “teen death” movies exist and that there’ve been a few, but I’ve never bothered to watch one (because, frankly, they’ve all sounded rubbish), so I am immune to any overkill other viewers may experience. But if there’s a lesson here (and I’m not saying there is) it would be that you don’t have to watch every high-profile film that comes out (unless you’re a critic and being paid to do it).

    4 out of 5

    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl placed 14th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    It Follows (2014)

    2017 #17
    David Robert Mitchell | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    It Follows

    It’s always fun when you come across a divisive movie — “which camp are you in?” It Follows is one of those (naturally — I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it otherwise). Some say it’s an instant horror classic, others that it’s slow, boring, unscary, and can’t even follow its own rules. I’m not qualified enough as a horror viewer to claim the former, but nor do I hold with the latter.

    If you’ve not already seen it, it’s based around an original horror concept — that, at least, has been near-enough universally praised. After teenager Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend, he reveals that he’s passed a curse to her. She will be followed by something. It always takes human form, but that form changes — it could be a face in the crowd, someone she knows, whatever it needs to get close to her. Only people who have (or have had) the curse can see it. If it catches her, it will kill her, and then return to hunting the previous target (i.e. the boyfriend). The only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else and pass it on — though, of course, if they get killed then it’s back to you. The one advantage you have is that it only walks, and slowly — but it never, ever stops. Naturally, Jay doesn’t quite believe it… until things start happening to change her mind, and along with her friends she tries to find a way to shake the curse permanently.

    Pretty in pink

    A deadly force that moves towards you slowly but unceasingly and unstoppably — sounds like the stuff of nightmares. And it literally is, having been inspired by a series of nightmares writer-director David Robert Mitchell had as a child. He has not made those childhood fears into a childish movie, however. Far from it. Even leaving aside a couple of splashes of gore, the creature’s frequently nude form, and all the sex stuff, It Follows is adult in its filmmaking attitude. Much like the creature, it often moves slowly, letting its story and situations breathe. This is not a multiplex movie; not a teen-friendly horror flick for date night. It feels more like an indie drama, with Mitchell creating a slow, methodical pace, which doesn’t linger on things — he trusts we’ll spot them. It’s subtle filmmaking, respectful of the audience and our ability to work stuff out. There’s the subject matter, too, about disaffected youth killing time… until they start being stalked by a murderous force, anyway.

    One thing I’d say it excels at is creating that ambiance of teenage life. That sense of endless time to do nothing, to be bored — who gets bored once they’re a grown-up and there’s not enough time to do everything you want to do, never mind have time to kill doing nothing? There are parents, but they’re barely present — they exist, but they also aren’t part of your life. They never really tell Jay’s mother what’s going on, nor get the police involved, beyond an initial, fruitless investigation into the boyfriend. Well, why would they? Like being a teen, adults have no real power in your world (i.e. your friendship circle); you can’t talk about all your ‘problems’ with them. Some of this is literally applicable to the film (seriously, are the police going to believe a teenage girl who says she’s being stalked by an invisible killer?), but it’s also part of the film’s broader metaphor.

    Normal teens

    They’re also a decent evocation of normal teens, not the Cool Kids you usually see in movies and TV — they don’t talk in pop culture references or be all hip and aware, like the cast of Sceam or Buffy or something. They’re more normal… apart from the fact they’re always watching black-and-white B-movies, anyway. They’re fumbling their way through life, and the situation they’re in forces them to wake up a little — and they fumble their way through that, too. Again, more metaphors for the real experience of adolescence.

    Of course, if you don’t want that kind of stuff from your Horror movie, then I guess It Follows would seem slow and disinterested. So what of the scary stuff? As with pretty much all horror movies, your mileage will vary — perusing various reviews and comment threads shows no consistency in that regard. Personally, I found it more than sufficiently creepy. The whole effect is built on being very atmospheric rather than simplistically Scary. It’s not without its jump scares or freaky moments, but it’s the building sense of dread and tension where it most chills; that has you looking in the back of every frame for what’s coming; longing for a reverse shot, because what if it’s coming from the other direction? There are some very edge-of-your-seat sequences where Mitchell establishes there is something there, that something is coming, but then the camera pans slowly around, or it cuts away, and keeps cutting to other stuff, and you’re begging for it to cut back to the original shot, or for the pan to speed up, so that you can see how things are going, how close it’s getting, to LET US KEEP A BLOODY EYE ON IT.

    Ahem.

    Rules? What rules?

    Also from reading others’ comments, it strikes me that the people who are most let down by the film are the ones who are either: a) looking for it to establish and follow a set of rules, or b) reading it as a great big sex metaphor. While it undoubtedly has rules (as a horror movie with a supernatural foe, it requires them) and obviously there’s a sex-related reading (the curse is passed on through sex — how can there not be?), I’m not sure either of these are the film’s main concern; at least, not in the way you’d expect them to be.

    People as high and mighty as Quentin Tarantino have criticised the film for its faulty internal logic, for not following its own rules, but I don’t agree. For starters, some of the faults QT calls out are actually explained in the film itself. For seconds, the rules are never established with perfect clarity. We’re given some rules up front, but they come from a scared teenage boy whose only source for this information is his own experience. This isn’t some sage old wise-man or some ancient textbook, this is just some kid who’s been lucky enough to survive a while — who’s to say his observations are 100% accurate? Personally, I don’t think they are. Some people defend the film by saying there are no rules, that it’s operating under dream logic, and that’s fine because the point is to be scary, but I don’t agree with that either. I think the behaviour of “it” does bend the rules we’ve been told, but that’s because the rules we’ve been told are incomplete. I believe it is operating under a set of specific rules, which Mitchell knows but hasn’t fully shared with us. And further, I think that’s not only OK, but actively a good thing. Rules create a safety net — you know what it can and can’t do, and you can work out what to do to defeat it, and, by extension, a way for the characters to win. But if you can’t be certain what it’s going to do next, that’s scarier — and this is a horror movie, not an instruction manual.

    Sex

    As to the sex stuff, the obvious reading is the good old horror movie cliche of “having sex = getting killed”; or, more specifically, “losing virginity = getting killed”. Except that’s not the case at all. There’s a throwaway reference to the fact Jay isn’t a virgin, never mind the lack of general “it’s my first time” handwringing you’d realistically expect if she were, so if it’s a punishment for sex then it’s a bit late coming. Even more omnipresently, the way to beat the curse (albeit temporarily) is to sleep with more people. If the message was intended to be “sex is bad, mmkay kids” then it’d’ve royally fucked that up.

    There’s an awful lot of theories that can be crafted out of It Follows — about what it’s saying about sex, about teenage life, about growing up, about the inevitability of death. I don’t think it’s the kind of horror movie that’s designed to scare you for 90 minutes in a darkened cinema in a comforting fashion (there are no pauses or fake-out scares to elicit reassuring laughter). It’s designed to chill you on a more fundamental level, and perhaps to say something about something too — though what those somethings are, well, we can debate that.

    I also think its shortage of hard-and-fast rules should not invite derision, but rather our own theories. Like, what’s going on with water — does it really have an aversion to it? If so, why? Can it stop it? Spoilers: apparently not. More spoilers (just skip to the next paragraph if you’ve not seen it): does it require a chance to manifest as one of your parents before it can kill you? We don’t see how it appears to the girl at the start, though note she’s on the phone apologising to her father just before it does. Jay’s friend who dies identifies it as his mom just before we see it fuck him to death. When it finally catches up with Jay in the pool, it’s her dad. Conversely, when it attacks her on the beach earlier it starts by just grabbing her hair — why not get her then?

    Wet

    And I haven’t even mentioned the awesome synth score by Disasterpiece, or the era-unspecific production design. Maybe that doesn’t signify anything beyond an aesthetic throwback (the score is very Halloween; there’s some modern tech but they’re not all on their mobiles).

    As I said at the start, my experience with the horror genre is too slight to ever go labelling something a genre classic. But this isn’t ‘just’ a horror movie. Like the same year’s The Babadook, there are dramatic elements that stretch out beyond the genre’s usual stomping ground, not to mention an atmosphere of terror that exceeds simplistic attempts to make you jump in your seat every few minutes and call it a day. It’s the kind of film that lingers after the credits roll, as you ponder the gaps it leaves you to ponder, and keep looking over your shoulder, because you never know when something might be following you…

    5 out of 5

    The UK network premiere of It Follows is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

    Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

    2017 #16
    Tim Burton | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK, Belgium & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

    After his beloved grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) dies in mysterious circumstances, Floridian teen Jake (Asa Butterfield) seeks closure by visiting the children’s home in Wales where his grandpa was raised. As a child, Abe regaled his grandson with tales of the home’s other residents and their fantastical abilities — tales which were completely true, as Jake discovers when he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar wards.

    The quickest route to defining the experience of watching Miss Peregrine is by referencing other films, if only in a broad sense. For starters, it’s adapted from a young adult fantasy-adventure novel, and there’s a definite shape to things which reflects other entries in that genre — the whole “ordinary kid discovers a fantasy world of incredible powers and approaching danger” type thing.

    It’s also directed by Tim Burton, and does feel like a Tim Burton movie. However, what’s incredibly pleasant about that is it doesn’t feel aggressively Burtoneseque. As if in reaction to the blandness of his Planet of the Apes remake, much of Burton’s output since then has slipped towards self-parody, and suffered for it. Miss Peregrine has recognisable flourishes, undoubtedly, but is a little more restrained with how it deploys them. Some have criticised it for this, citing it as another example of Burton removing his unique stamp from the picture, much as he did with Apes, but I disagree.

    Her special ability is being a badass

    The final other work I would reference is the X-Men; in any incarnation, but the most relevant filmic one is probably First Class. Or not, because that was all about the establishing of Xavier’s school and the equivalent establishment here is already established. Nonetheless, it’s about a country house owned by a British matriarch-figure who cares for a gaggle of misfit kids with special powers. Rather than the X-Men’s potentially-violent array of action-ready skills, however, the ones on display here are a little more whimsical — like Emma (Ella Purnell), who’s lighter than air, or Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), who can project his dreams through his eyes.

    Also like X-Men, the threat comes from within this secretive world. The starter X-baddie is, of course, Magneto, a mutant seeking to use scientific methods to turn the whole world into mutants. Here, the baddie is Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), a peculiar seeking to use scientific methods to grant immortality to himself and his cronies. Part of their thing is eating people’s eyeballs, which has benefits for them — again, that’s quite Burtonesque… though a mite less whimsical.

    The eyes have it

    Being on board with this whole milieu is important to enjoying Miss Peregrine, because the film does spend a lot of time establishing it. For those not interested in world-building, the action-packed third act must be a long time coming. There is a lot to marvel at along the way though, and Burton keeps things pleasingly real in his filmmaking techniques: there’s a fight between two creatures that was created with stop-motion, while another sequence involved constructing underwater rigs, and the vast majority of Emma’s floating was achieved by dangling Purnell on wires. That’s not to say there’s no CGI — ironically, the foremost example is a sequence that could otherwise be considered a tribute to Ray Harryhausen — but Burton’s filmmaking encapsulates varied techniques to lend a satisfying physicality to much of the film.

    On the whole Miss Peregrine seems to have received a rather muted response, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might be best to qualify that by reiterating that it’s playing with a lot of things I enjoy — “X-Men by way of Tim Burton” sounds fantastic to me, and that’s not a bad definition of this movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s his best work this millennium (though, in fairness, I still haven’t seen Big Fish. Well, it’s only 14 years old.) The shape of the story is no great shakes, but it’s built from magical elements and fantastical imagery, and a game cast of quality thesps hamming it up magnificently and eager youngsters with a slightly earnest likeability.

    Let's go fly a kite

    Actually, in many ways it reminds me of another heightened, stylised young-adult adaptation that suffered from a mixed reception. See you in 2029 for the Netflix re-adaptation, then?

    4 out of 5

    Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.