Nocturnal Animals (2016)

2017 #55
Tom Ford | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nocturnal Animals

In her second Oscar-worthy role of 2016 that didn’t even get nominated, Amy Adams plays rich art gallery owner Susan, who out of the blue receives a package from her ex-lover Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing an advance copy of his debut novel, which he’s dedicated to her. With the weekend alone to herself, Susan reads the novel — in which the family of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are terrorised by a gang led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before copper Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps them seek justice/revenge — in the process reliving memories of her tumultuous former relationship.

At first the plot of Edward’s novel seems more interesting than the framing narrative that contains it — after all, you’re pitching a tense thriller against a woman reading a book while she remembers falling for a guy. But as it becomes clear that the novel is just a pulpy thriller, and as the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s history reveal a mystery of their own, the balance begins to shift. The question is not really “why is the book dedicated to Susan”, because she clearly knows that from very early on. Instead, the quandary for the viewer is: what exactly did she do that merits this lurid tale being her… what? Punishment, maybe?

Although the story is black as night, it’s a beautifully constructed film — as you might expect from someone with a background in design like writer-director Tom Ford. It’s not just the visually appealing work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey or the film’s various designers that is so striking, though. The three narrative strands are expertly handled. There’s never any doubt about which is which, even when Ford at times intercuts between all three in one sequence, but he hasn’t resorted to simplistic tricks (like vastly different colour grading, say) to pull that off. It’s subtler, and more effective, than that.

Shocking reading

To guide the characters through his sombre narratives, Ford has put together a helluva cast. Of course there’s the primaries — Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson are all superb — but turning up for just a scene or two are the likes of Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, any of whom could be leads in their own right. It does make it slightly disconcerting when you assume someone that recognisable will turn up again later and then they don’t, but I suppose that just sits with the generally unsettling tone of the film.

Taking its artfulness to heart, some people have dismissed the film as being no more than an artily-dressed-up simplistic revenge story. Personally, I think the point of the story-within-the-story is to be simplistic. I don’t think Edward is meant to be a very good writer, and that’s why he’s produced a very pulpy novel. What matters is the effect this bluntly allegorical piece of trash storytelling has on the person it’s primarily aimed at — i.e. Susan. And there’s still ambiguity for the audience in just what Susan is interpreting from the novel. I mean, Edward is Tony, that’s obvious; and maybe he’s Bobby, too; and Susan must be Laura… but who is Ray? Is Ray just the concept of what happened between them made flesh? Or maybe Susan is actually Ray? Or perhaps Edward is Ray too? Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, I don’t know.

Who's who?

Equally ambiguous is the ending to the present-day framing narrative, but I’m not sure I have much to add to that other than what you can easily find online, so no spoilers here. Other than to say I think the main plot points are all solved (the story-within-the-story wraps up, and how it mirrors the characters’ history has been revealed), but there are some open-ended points that the viewer choose how to read as they see fit.

Nocturnal Animals has been a pretty divisive film. Lots of people compare it to last year’s even more controversial The Neon Demon, in one way or another — I’ve seen both “at least it’s better than…” and “it would make a good double bill with…” Well, I really ought to get round to that, then, because I admired Nocturnal Animals very much. It’s a beautiful movie about ugly deeds and ugly thoughts.

5 out of 5

Nocturnal Animals is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Nightcrawler (2014)

2017 #63
Dan Gilroy | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller is part “state of the nation” observational drama and part character study.

The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who, like so many in modern America, struggles to find paid employment. Indeed, as the film opens he’s resorted to stealing fences to hawk to scrap metal dealers — and, when cornered by a security guard, also resorts to violence. That’s the kind of man Bloom is, which will become important as the film goes on. On his way home he comes across the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, and witnesses the freelance news cameramen rushing to the scene. For some reason this job strikes Bloom as glamorous, so he buys a camera and a police scanner and throws himself into it. His boundary-pushing enthusiasm soon puts him on the way to success, racing around nighttime L.A. chasing bloody imagery. It’s a cutthroat industry, but Bloom is prepared to go pretty far for exclusive footage…

Any well-informed viewer isn’t likely to glean much from Nightcrawler about the state of modern America. That Bloom is desperate for employment is more of an inciting incident than a dissected issue, though it does also partially fuel a subplot when he employs an assistant. That US TV news is all about shock value — “if it bleeds it leads” — is a truism that’s decades old, too. If the film contributes anything to that discussion it’s to wonder if things have reached a nadir. Writer-director Gilroy says he was trying to tell an objective and realistic story, but it’s coming from a very cynical, almost satirical place about TV news. Or maybe local US news really is that extreme, I don’t know. Either way, this observational stuff isn’t bad, but nor is it revelatory.

If it bleeds it leads

Where the film really flies is in its characters. There are impressive supporting performances, from Riz Ahmed as the uncertain and kinda gullible young guy Bloom employees as his assistant, and Rene Russo as the outwardly confident but actually kinda desperate TV news producer Bloom sell his work to; plus an almost cameo-level appearance by Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler who rubs Louis up the wrong way.

But the film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Wild-eyed, eager to please, but not quite right in how he interacts with other human beings, and with a real thirst for the gory profession he lands upon, Bloom has a sense of morality that is quite removed from the norm. From the start we’re in no doubt that this is a guy prepared to take relatively extreme measures to secure what he wants, but how far will he go? As he begins to establish himself as a respectable businessman — or, at least, someone who wants to be thought of as respectable — how much has his attitude changed, if at all? Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the role, skilfully negotiating Bloom’s swings from smarmy charm to emotionless non-engagement with the horrors he films. He’s physically transformed too: he lost weight, didn’t eat, and stayed up nights in preparation for the role. On the Blu-ray, Ahmed comments that the literal hunger Gyllenhaal was enduring contributed to his performance as a guy who is so hungry (for success) he’ll do anything necessary to achieve it.

(Talking of the Blu-ray, it’s only special feature (aside from an audio commentary) is a five-minute featurette that briefly features the two real-life nightcrawlers who consulted on the film. They share a couple of quick anecdotes about what the real job is like, which is quite fascinating — it’s a shame there’s not a fuller feature about those guys and their work. I don’t know if it would sustain a whole feature documentary — maybe it would — but a decent length DVD extra would’ve been nice.)

Nighttime L.A. car chase

Outside of its characters, Nightcrawler impresses with technical merits. The lensing of nighttime L.A. by DP Robert Elswit is highly evocative, a netherworld where flashing red-and-blue lights illuminate scenes of carnage. The film’s pace is apparently unhurried but constantly engrossing. You’re not exactly sucked into this world alongside Bloom (Gilroy’s right that presenting him as unnecessarily aggressive upfront serves to stall sympathy from the viewer), but you become an interested observer, unable to look away — like a rubbernecker at an accident, appropriately enough. Several scenes, especially in the film’s second half, generate a level of nail-biting tension, while a climactic car chase is an action scene for the ages. Gilroy’s brother Tony, a producer on the film, was one of the architects of the Bourne franchise, and you wonder if he brought some expertise to the realisation of that sequence. This isn’t a film for adrenaline junkies on the whole, but that scene is a kick.

Driven by a sharp character examination from writer-director Dan Gilroy, brought to life in a compelling, committed performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is an appropriately cynical exploration of modern morality as embodied by one outsider, moulded in the shape of a fantastic noir thriller.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Nightcrawler is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, after which it will be available on iPlayer.

Nightcrawler was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Cold in July (2014)

2016 #118
Jim Mickle | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Cold in July

After a family man (Michael C. Hall) shoots dead an intruder in his home, the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) threatens his family.

People often call for more originality in their stories, then criticise a film like this for jumping around in genre and tone. Personally, I didn’t think it changed much in either. The plot is far from straightforward — twists take the story in unexpected directions with each act (if not even more often) — but as a whole it remains a neo-noir crime thriller.

Filling out the film beyond its story, there are some great performances — Shepard, in particular, says very little but conveys his whole character and attitude. It’s very nicely shot by Ryan Samul, and there’s an amazing score by Jeff Grace.

At first blush Cold in July may look like just another crime thriller, but, with an unguessable narrative supported by strong filmmaking, it stands out from the crowd.

5 out of 5

Cold in July placed 9th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

The Nice Guys (2016)

2016 #156
Shane Black | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Nice Guys

I’ve been struggling to think what to write in this review because, really, why I loved this movie can be thoroughly summed up in two words: it’s hilarious.

Screenwriter Shane Black has been doing this kind of action-thriller buddy comedy for decades now, but he’s still got it where it counts — there are quotable lines galore, and visual gags that would be just as quotable if you could quote a visual. As a director he may not be a great visual stylist or anything, but in an era of ShakyCam and obfuscatory editing, his helmsmanship has a welcome clarity.

As the titular duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal heretofore unseen comedic chops (at least as far as I was aware). Crowe is more of the straight man, though gets his share of good lines, while Gosling bumbles around with pratfalls and slapstick, like in a perfectly-executed bit with a toilet cubicle door… which I would quote but, you know, visual gag. Like most of the best characters, they’re entertaining just to be around, often making scenes of exposition as entertaining as actual set pieces. Most of the villains serve as foils for our heroes, but young Angourie Rice shines as Gosling’s clever kid.

What do you mean there's not much chance of a sequel?

Tonally, it’s every inch a spiritual sequel to Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I’m very much OK with that. If you copy someone else it’s plagiarism; if you copy yourself it’s your style — you know, that kind of thing. If someone lets Black do another one of these once he’s finished with The Predator — either literally The Nice Guys 2 (as has been mooted, but probably ruled out by the so-so box office) or just something else in the same vein — I would be a very happy bunny.

5 out of 5

The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

It placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #97

It’s the story of a man, a woman,
and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 104 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 22nd June 1988 (USA)
UK Release: 2nd December 1988
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday, Super Mario Bros.)
Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Addams Family Values)
Charles Fleischer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gridlock’d)
Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, The Virgin Suicides)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Beowulf)

Screenwriters
Jeffrey Price (Doc Hollywood, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
Peter S. Seaman (Wild Wild West, Shrek the Third)

Based on
Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, a novel by Gary K. Wolf.

Animation Director
Richard Williams (Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, The Thief and the Cobbler)

The Story
When cartoon movie superstar Roger Rabbit is accused of murder, rundown private detective Eddie Valiant overcomes his dislike of toons to take the case — which masks a much bigger conspiracy…

Our Heroes
Eddie Valiant is an alcoholic Hollywood PI who used to work high-profile cases involving toons, but now dislikes them because one killed his brother. Nonetheless, an innate sense of justice (and a pair of handcuffs) brings him to the aid of Roger Rabbit, the manic major cartoon star who’s accused of murder and on the run for his life.

Our Villain
The cheerily named Judge Doom, the sinister and literally-black-hatted judge responsible for Toontown who has developed a special substance especially for killing toons, called “Dip”. Very keen to introduce Roger to it.

Best Supporting Character
Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s human (well, cartoon human) wife. A slinky, sexy, 2D femme fatale, she’s the cartoon character even people who aren’t attracted to cartoon characters are attracted to.

Memorable Quote
“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” — Jessica Rabbit

Memorable Scene
When Judge Doom and his henchmen discover Roger in hiding, he and Eddie escape in a cab — an anthropomorphic toon cab called Benny. Cue a chase involving a real human in a cartoon vehicle, which exemplifies the film’s technical chutzpah.

Technical Wizardry
The whole film is a technical marvel, what with many of the lead characters being created in 2D animation integrated into live-action footage. What’s even more impressive is that they’re 2D characters who exist convincingly within a 3D space. Production went to a lot of effort to pull this off, including using life-size models on set. (And if you need proof of how hard it is to do right, watch Cool World.) In total, 326 animators worked full-time on the film, drawing and painting 82,080 frames of animation. Animation director Richard Williams estimates that, after including storyboards and concept art, well over a million drawings were completed for the film.

Making of
With a production budget estimated at $70 million, Roger Rabbit was the most expensive film produced in the ’80s. Animation is expensive, of course, and the team were dedicated: when Eddie takes Roger Rabbit into the backroom of the bar to cut the handcuffs, the ceiling lamp is bumped and swings around, meaning lots of work for the animators to match the shadows between the live-action footage and the animation — something most viewers aren’t even going to notice, at least not consciously. Apparently “bump the lamp” has since become a term used by Disney employees to mean going the extra mile to make something special even when most viewers won’t notice.

Next time…
Three short animations starring Roger Rabbit were made to promote the film and screened with other movies (they’re all available on the DVD/Blu-ray release). Although the original book is very different (and therefore any sequels to it are presumably unlikely to provide suitable movie material), Gary K. Wolf has nonetheless penned two follow-ups: 1991’s Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? and 2014’s Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? Talk of a movie sequel has occurred ever since the original film was a hit — J.J. Abrams met with Spielberg in 1989 to work on an outline and storyboards, for example. Nat Mauldin wrote a prequel titled Roger Rabbit: The Toon Platoon, about Roger and his animated friends having to rescue Jessica from the Nazis in 1941, but Spielberg decided he couldn’t satirise the Nazis after directing Schindler’s List. Retitled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit, the screenplay was reworked to cover Roger’s rise to fame on Broadway. That version got quite far: Alan Menken wrote five songs and test footage was shot that mixed live-action, traditional animation and CGI, but it was abandoned when the budget spiralled over $100 million. Nonetheless, various people involved have expressed their interest ever since, with numerous scripts supposedly in the works. Even Bob Hoskins’ death hasn’t stopped such talk, though it seems to have led to a definite focus on any follow-up being a prequel.

Awards
4 Oscars (Editing, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award to Richard Williams for “animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters”)
3 Oscar nomination (Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound)
1 BAFTA (Special Effects)
4 BAFTA nominations (Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design)
1 Annie Award (Technical Achievement)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Director, Special Effects)
5 Saturn nominations (Actor (Bob Hoskins), Supporting Actor (Christopher Lloyd), Supporting Actress (Joanna Cassidy), Writing, Music)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“This splendidly entertaining film, which craftily combines live action with cartoon animation, […] is an absolutely new and novel motion-picture concept. Illusion on the big screen has never been better executed or more uproarious in effect. Assuming you can withstand the laughs during the first 10 minutes of the film — with its dazzling, breakneck animated sequence and introduction of the goofy star, Roger — then brace yourself; you`re in for the ride of your life, disbelieving all you will see and hear.” — Roger Hurlburt, Sun Sentinel

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not a children’s film; it’s too noir for that; there’s scenes of drinking, smoking, sexual intrigue and murder. The strong animated aspect, however, draws children into the film and these dark overtones engage them in a completely different way. That’s one of the things that’s so special about Roger Rabbit; you feel as if you’re watching a film made for an adult audience using elements that appeal to one’s more childish side. The USA and UK ratings of the film are a PG, so younger audiences can still watch. However, the twisting noir-esque plot focusing on Judge Doom’s attempt to destroy The Red Car trolley service and ToonTown in order to build a freeway can be hard enough for adults to follow. […] This is why the film works so well; everyone is committed and the characters show no awareness that they’re in a PG rated noir with elements of comedy; they commit as if they are in a 1940s, life-or-death, grown-up movie.” — queenieem, the6fingeredblog

Verdict

“Effects movies” used to mean lots of model work and now of course means non-stop wall-to-wall CGI, but you could also apply it to Roger Rabbit, considering the monumental effort involved in animating half the cast, not to mention props and locations. But that would undersell it, because while the technical achievement remains impressive today (bearing in mind the limitations of the time) it’s all in service of the characters and the story. Even as you marvel at the visuals, you’re engrossed by the mystery and kept amused by the gags, including clever and witty references to cartoons and film noir.

I’ve always liked Roger Rabbit, but I re-watched it recently for this project and discovered I really love it. I think it’s underrated, even — it’s a masterpiece.

#98 will be… the beginnings of another stage of human evolution.

Se7en (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #81

Seven deadly sins. Seven ways to die.

Also Known As: Seven

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 22nd September 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 5th January 1996
First Seen: TV, 12th June 2001 (probably)

Stars
Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby)
Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, American Beauty)
Gwyneth Paltrow (Sliding Doors, Shakespeare in Love)

Director
David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac)

Screenwriter
Andrew Kevin Walker (8MM, Sleepy Hollow)

The Story
In an unnamed city, two homicide detectives investigate a series of grim murders inspired by the seven deadly sins.

Our Heroes
William Somerset is a detective who works calmly and methodically, and cares more than most. Serving out the last few days before his retirement, he lands a helluva final case. His new partner is David Mills, a hotheaded but idealistic new transfer who’s keen to prove himself. Despite their chalk-and-cheese temperaments, or perhaps because of them, the pair may be ideally suited to catch the elusive killer.

Our Villain
John Doe, a proper psychopath, and on a mission too. I say the detectives are ideally suited to catch him, but, well (major, major spoilers…) they technically don’t and he essentially wins.

Best Supporting Character
R. Lee Ermey’s police captain, purely for the moment when he answers a phone. I love that bit of humour far more than it probably warrants.

Memorable Quote
“What was in the box? What’s in the box? What’s in the fucking box?!” — Mills

Memorable Scene
The climax — just Somerset, Mills, and John Doe, alone in the middle of nowhere… and then a deliveryman shows up. “John Doe has the upper hand!”

Technical Wizardry
The film’s visual style really helps to sell the tone — dark, foreboding, grim. This is in part because it’s always raining, a decision made to increase the sense of dread, and because of Darius Khondji’s cinematography, which employed bleach bypass (see also: Minority Report), a process that serves to deepen shadows. Additionally, for the film’s Platinum Series DVD release it was rescanned from the original negative, meaning the whole film had to have its colour grading re-done. Some of the changes were quite extensive (as detailed in the DVD/Blu-ray’s special features, if you’re interested).

Truly Special Effect
A serial killer thriller might not sound like a special effect showcase, but John Doe’s extreme methods lead to some pretty unusual and gruesome corpses — rendered with suitably sickening prosthetics, of course. ‘Sloth’ is particularly harrowing, though ‘lust’ is so bad it’s left almost entirely to our imagination — though, again, someone had to design and build the… instrument.

Making of
John Doe’s shelves of handwritten notebooks were real and created especially for the film. They took two months to create at a cost of $15,000.

Next time…
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker originally thought of 8MM as a sequel, and David Fincher was interested, but it didn’t happen and we wound up with the only-half-decent Nicolas Cage-starring Joel Schumacher-directed version instead.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Original Screenplay)
2 Saturn Awards (Writing, Make-Up)
5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure Film, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Supporting Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Director, Music)
Places with more taste (i.e. where it won Best Film): Empire Awards, Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Awards, MTV Movie Awards; plus Best Foreign Language Film at Blue Ribbon Awards, Hochi Film Awards, Sant Jordi Awards (Audience Award)

What the Critics Said
“designer unpleasantness is a hallmark of our era, and this movie may be more concerned with wallowing in it than with illuminating what it means politically. Yet the filmmakers stick to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something indelible comes across — something ethically and artistically superior to The Silence of the Lambs that refuses to exploit suffering for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering about the world we’re living in.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“The rain never ends. There is seldom any sunlight, or any warmth. The city feels like a city of the damned, as if its denizens are souls trapped in some circle of hell from which there is no escape. A feeling of dread pervades everything; there is never any inclination that anything remotely like justice or hope or salvation is even possible here. […] it’s all style and atmosphere but… to criticise the film for that, almost feels like missing the point — it’s so integral to the piece, the atmosphere is actually one of the film’s characters” — the ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Se7en quite thoroughly (and, if I do say so myself, quite well) as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, concluding that “some would claim that Se7en is no more than a standard murder thriller with a stock mismatched pair of detectives. In some respects they’re right, but in enough respects they’re wrong. There’s a killer high concept behind the crimes, but it’s really the execution of the film that makes it so much more. It’s in the performances, the way those stock characters are written, their subplots, the story’s pace, the cinematography, the music, individual sequences like Somerset in the library or the climax that rise not only to the top of the genre but to the top of the very medium of film itself.”

Verdict

When asked, I normally say Se7en is my favourite movie. That’s partly pre-picked just to prevent any such conversations turning into a dreary slog where I um and ah through hundreds of options, but naturally there’s some truth in it. On the surface it’s merely a police procedural, but it’s the way it handles that material that elevates it. It’s a dark film about terrible deeds, which both suits its subject matter (murder isn’t really just a fun little mystery to solve, is it?) and presents a worldview that makes us consider who’s really right and who’s really mad — John Doe is clearly an evil psychopath, but does he have a point? It’s also made with supreme artistry by director David Fincher and his team — I’ve already mentioned DP Darius Khondji, but it’s also superbly edited by Richard Francis-Bruce. And I’d argue it has one of the greatest climaxes ever filmed. There are more easily enjoyable movies in my 100 Favourites, but there are none that are any better made, nor any that better expose the dark heart of humanity.

#82 will be… a big damn movie.

Minority Report (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #61

Everybody runs

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 145 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 20th June 2002 (Australia)
US Release: 21st June 2002
UK Release: 4th July 2002
First Seen: cinema, July 2002

Stars
Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July, Mission: Impossible)
Samantha Morton (Morvern Callar, Synecdoche, New York)
Colin Farrell (Tigerland, In Bruges)
Max von Sydow (The Virgin Spring, Shutter Island)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds)

Screenwriters
Scott Frank (Out of Sight, The Wolverine)
Jon Cohen

Based on
The Minority Report, a short story by Philip K. Dick.

The Story
Washington, D.C., 2054: a special police department, PreCrime, arrests murderers before they even commit a crime, using information gained from three ‘precogs’ who have visions of the future. When the precogs report PreCrime’s captain, John Anderton, will kill a man he doesn’t even know, he goes on the run to prove his innocence.

Our Hero
PreCrime Captain John Anderton believes in the infallibility of the system, no doubt motivated by the disappearance of his son years earlier, which has also left him a divorced drug addict. He’s played by Tom Cruise, so of course he’s charming and heroic nonetheless.

Our Villains
The PreCrime unit is under consideration for nationwide adoption, so is being audited by sceptical Department of Justice agent Danny Witwer when Anderton is accused. While Witwer might seem antagonistic, you know there’s some other Big Bad behind the whole thing…

Best Supporting Character
Agatha, the lead precog, who sometimes has a different vision to the other two, which produces the so-called ‘minority report’ that may prove Anderton’s innocence — so he breaks her out. Unsurprisingly, an individual who spends her life hooked up to a machine in some kind of dream-state while having visions of different futures isn’t necessarily suited to the real world.

Memorable Quote
Fletcher: “John, don’t run.”
Anderton: “You don’t have to chase me.”
Fletcher: “You don’t have to run.”
Anderton: “Everybody runs, Fletch.”

Memorable Scene
So he can’t be identified by the future’s ubiquitous iris scanners, Anderton has undergone an eye transplant with a dodgy backstreet surgeon. He’s told he can’t take the bandages off for 12 hours or he’ll go blind. While he’s still convalescing, police searching for him arrive at his location. With thermal imaging confirming how many people are in the building, they unleash spider robots to scour each floor and scan everyone’s eyes. Hearing their approach, Anderton attempts to hide in an ice bath, but the thermal scan notices his disappearance. The officers close in on his location, as do the spiders… but he can’t take his bandages off… but the officers will recognise him…

Technical Wizardry
Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński gave the film a very distinctive visual style, described by one critic as looking “as if it were shot on chrome, caught on the fleeing bumper of a late ’70s car”. Aiming for a film noir feel, the shoot was deliberately overlit, then the film was bleach-bypassed in post-production, a process that desaturates the colours but gives the blacks and shadows a high contrast. Kamiński used the same technique on Saving Private Ryan. Here, coupled with the chrome-and-glass production design, it succinctly evokes a dystopian future.

Making of
Spielberg wanted the film’s near-future world to be based in reality rather than the usual extravagant imaginings of science fiction. To create this plausible future, he convened a three-day ‘think tank’ of fifteen experts, including architects, computer scientists, biomedical researchers, and futurists. Their ideas didn’t change key points of the film’s story, but did influence the creation of the world. Production designer Alex McDowell maintained a “2054 bible”, an 80-page guide listing all of the architectural, socio-economic, political, and technological aspects of the future decided by the think tank. The film’s Wikipedia article has a whole section about technologies seen in the film that have since come about or that are in active development.

Next time…
A sequel TV series aired last year (with none of the original cast (well, except for one)). It didn’t go down very well with either critics or viewers, and swiftly had its episode order reduced before being completely cancelled.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
1 World Stunt Award (Best High Work)
4 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actress (Samantha Morton), Director, Writing)
7 Saturn nominations (Actor (Tom Cruise), Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow), Music, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, DVD Special Edition Release)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report doesn’t look or feel like anything he’s done before, yet no one but Spielberg could have made it. Ferociously intense, furiously kinetic, it’s expressionist film noir science fiction that, like all good sci-fi, peers into the future to shed light on the present. The director couldn’t have known, when he and writers Scott Frank and Jon Cohen set about adapting Philip K. Dick’s short story, how uncannily their tale of 2054 Washington, D.C., would resonate in [2002’s] political climate, where our jails fill up with suspects who’ve been arrested for crimes they haven’t yet committed.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Score: 90%

What the Public Say
“This film is an excellent example of why Steven Spielberg is one of the great master directors of American cinema. It’s a perfect balancing act, a movie that sacrifices neither ideas nor action, nor emotion, nor mystery, in the service of its story. […] How can we categorize this movie? It is a sci-fi neo-noir that prefers to tell its story on Earth and with humans, much like Blade Runner (1982) and Gattaca (1997). It’s a twisty mystery, a classic whodunit of double-crosses, murder, and troubled pasts. It’s also an innocent-man-on-the-lamb chase movie, not unlike The Fugitive (1993). And it all fits together; it works, it feels like, yes, this is the way this story should be told.” — David, The Warden’s Walk

Verdict

Spielberg once described Minority Report’s story as “fifty percent character and fifty percent very complicated storytelling with layers and layers of murder mystery and plot,” which I think is indicative of why it’s such a successful experience: it mixes exciting, propulsive plot and action sequences with thematic concerns that use science-fiction ideas to explore real-world issues, both tangible (the prevalence of state control and policing) and metaphysical (free will vs determinism). It makes for a rounded, thrilling movie.

#62 will be your mission… should you choose to accept it.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #49

Sex. Murder. Mystery.
Welcome to the party.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 103 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 14th September 2005 (France)
US Release: 21st October 2005
UK Release: 11th November 2005
First Seen: cinema, 2005

Stars
Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin, Zodiac)
Val Kilmer (Top Gun, Batman Forever)
Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III, Source Code)

Director
Shane Black (Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys)

Screenwriter
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout)

Based on
Bodies Are Where You Find Them, a novel by Brett Halliday.

The Story
After accidentally getting cast in a movie, fugitive crook Harry Lockhart is given on-the-job experience with private eye ‘Gay’ Perry van Shrike. When the pair become witnesses to a murder that it looks like they committed, they become embroiled in a conspiracy that they’ll have to untangle to save themselves.

Our Heroes
Harry Lockhart is our narrator: a crappy thief who stumbles into an acting audition while on the run from the cops, and ends up whisked off to Hollywood to play the lead in a mystery movie. To help him prepare for the role he shadows Gay Perry, a top L.A. P.I., who’s consistently, hilariously sarcastic. Also, homosexual.

Our Villains
It’s a murder mystery, so, that’s kind of a spoiler. Also: almost not the point.

Best Supporting Character
Harry happens to run into his childhood crush Harmony Lane, now working as a waitress in L.A. Soon she’s asking him to investigate her sister’s recent suicide, which she thinks was actually a murder. That subplot isn’t at all related to the main case. Nope.

Memorable Quote
Perry: “Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.”
Harry: “Bad.”
Perry: “Excuse me?”
Harry: “Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep—”
Perry: “What, fuckhead? Who taught you grammar? Badly’s an adverb. Get out. Vanish.”

Memorable Scene
Arriving back at his hotel room after they’ve witnessed the murder, Harry goes into the bathroom to take a leak. As he’s doing that, he glances round… and sees the girl’s body in the shower. He turns to look at it in shock… and pisses all over it. Cue hilarious exchange when he phones Perry for help.

Awards
5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Robert Downey Jr.), Supporting Actor (Val Kilmer), Supporting Actress (Michelle Monaghan), Music)
1 Phoenix Film Critics Society Award (Overlooked Film of the Year)

What the Critics Said
“the plot of the film is almost willfully convoluted. But it’s also largely beside the point, an excuse for quite a few good scenes, most of them equal parts homage and subversion. The familiar ingredients of the hard-boiled school (and the noir cinema it spawned) are all here: the half-glittering, half-seedy L.A. setting; the protagonist’s expository voiceover; the jaded but ultimately decent private eye; the dead body that mysteriously turns up exactly where it’s not wanted. But Black gives each element a satiric twist: the tough shamus is gay; the corpse is discovered in a bathroom and accidentally peed on; the first-person narrator is not so much unreliable as simply incompetent.” — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“What’s unexpected about the movie is just how funny it is despite all the graphic murder, incest, torture, suicide, and dismemberment that occurs. […] Black effortlessly moves between legitimately realistic, unsettling violence (a murder witnessed by Harry midway through the film is a prime example of this) to wacky, slapstick violence (a late-in-the-movie Russian Roulette-style interrogation that does not, shall we say, go particularly well, for instance) without ever losing his balance. The real joy of the movie, though, is watching Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. bounce off one another.” — Jake Farley, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

Verdict

One-time “highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood” Shane Black made his directorial debut with this satirical neo-noir, which can be credited with reviving Robert Downey Jr’s career for the third or fourth time (it led directly to him being cast in Iron Man). The film’s best quality is probably its humorous dialogue — choosing just one memorable quote was hard, though many come in lengthy exchanges. Downey Jr is hilarious, of course, but even he’s outmatched by Val Kilmer as sarky investigator Gay Perry. Even more impressively, love interest Michelle Monaghan holds her own against them both. The plot may be so confusing it’s easily forgotten, but the whodunnit reveal is beside the point when the journey there is so entertaining.

#50 will… retrace each and every one of the Baudelaire children’s woeful steps.

Veronica Mars (2014)

2014 #22
Rob Thomas | 108 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you hadn’t heard of Veronica Mars before 13th March 2013, you almost certainly did soon after. That’s the date Rob Thomas, creator of the six-years-dead TV series of the same name, launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to pay for the long-mooted continuation movie. Aiming for a whopping $2 million, it raised that in just 11 hours, going on to bag $5.7 million by the end of its 30-day campaign. In the process it became the fastest Kickstarter project to reach $1 million (and $2 million), the highest-funded film project ever on the site, with the most number of backers for any campaign, and inspired countless think-pieces on how it was ruining/saving the movie industry, or at least completely changing it forever. In reality, very few (if any) big-name Kickstarter movies have come along since, and those that have haven’t inspired the same fervour as Veronica did three years ago.

The film itself picks up nine years after the end of the TV series. A quick opening montage reminds/informs us that Veronica (Kristen Bell) moonlighted as a private investigator while she was in high school, making plenty of enemies in the process and enduring more than a few tragedies, but she eventually managed to drag herself out of that life and start afresh. Just as she’s about to begin a career as a high-flying lawyer in New York, she sees on the news that her one-time on-off love interest Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) has been arrested for murder. Then he phones asking for her help. Just when she thought she was out, etc. So Miss Mars heads back to little old Neptune, California, just in time for her ten-year high school reunion and a murder investigation involving all (well, most of) the familiar faces from the TV show.

There’s no denying that this is primarily a film for fans of the TV series — well, they did fund it, after all. The best way to get the most out of the film is to have watched all 64 episodes of the show first; preferably soon before, in fact, so you can remember who all the minor characters are. However, creator-cowriter-director Rob Thomas is no fool: you don’t produce a successful movie that continues a little-watched TV show by making it a requirement that you’ve watched 64 hours of TV first. (I mean, Joss Whedon knew that with Serenity, and there’s only 14 hours of Firefly.) So Veronica Mars: The Movie is accessible to neophyte viewers. You might sense there’s references and whatnot that are passing you by, but everything that’s relevant is explained.

The long gap between series and continuation actually works to the film’s advantage, too, because this plays as the story of someone revisiting an old life, in a place that’s in some ways different and in others exactly, depressingly the same. The hook here is of Veronica as a kind of addict, but instead of being addicted to booze or drugs, it’s private investigating — she may be nine years ‘sober’, but now she’s being tempted to indulge. Again, this makes even more sense if you’ve watched the TV show, where a subplot deals with Veronica’s mother’s alcoholism, but the general conceit works standalone.

Plus, this is a crime drama — there’s a case to be solved, and that’s self-contained within the film. Okay, most of the players are characters from the series, but everything is introduced and explained within the film. Heck, there are even characters Veronica knew in school who weren’t actually in the TV series, which might give you a flavour of how it works both for fans and newcomers. The case itself isn’t a bad mystery, but at the same time it’s a little subservient to the other goings-on. I suppose you could argue this is really a comedy-drama about a woman reconnecting with her past life and past friends, and she just happens to have a murder to investigate at the same time.

For fans (who will have watched this years ago, hence why I’m focusing on the newbie experience), the film is immensely rewarding. Obviously, because it finally gives some closure to the cancelled series’ dangling elements; but also, it feels like Veronica Mars, not like something from older people that’s only claiming to be what it once was. There’s the sparky characters, the funny repartee, the raft of neo-noir allusions. As cheesy as “teenage private eye” sounds, one of the reasons Veronica worked was because it really used those noir elements, just grafted on to the high school experience. The town of Neptune is practically a throwback in this regard, with rich kids and businessmen who can buy their way out of trouble thanks to a thoroughly corrupt police department, while the poor schmucks at the bottom of the pile get by as best they can, which often is not well. It didn’t even cave to the usual youthification of adding happy endings; in fact, more often than not, things didn’t end well. The movie isn’t quite as bleak as the TV series often was — there’s clearly an awareness this might be a one-time deal, so Thomas wants to leave things suitably wrapped up — but not everything comes up roses. (Where’s the sequel at?!) And to pay things off fully, there’s a tonne of fun references, not just to the show but also to real life (not least the Kickstarter campaign).

To bring up Firefly/Serenity again, I think there’s a reasonable parallel between how those relate to each other, and how they can work for newbies, and how Veronica Mars the TV series and Veronica Mars the movie relate. To wit: in an ideal world, you’d watch all of the series and then the film; but TV series can be long commitments, and for a spot of ‘dipping your toe in the water’, you can also start with the movie and go back to the series for the full picture. Sure, some things are going to be spoiled doing it that way round — but hey, not everyone who’s in the series but not the film ends up dead, I promise.

When I first watched the movie, it was at the end of a first-time binge through the TV series, where it sat very happily. To finally write this review, I watched the film again in isolation. I have a memory, so obviously I’m not coming at it from a totally fresh perspective, but it was as entertaining in isolation as it had been as “one more episode”. Fans will get the biggest kick out of seeing old characters resurface, out of learning what’s happened to them in the past decade, out of seeing big-name cameos alongside familiar faces, out of all the callbacks and nods, out of certain things finally being resolved. But that doesn’t mean newcomers can’t get joy from meeting these characters for the first time, from the self-contained mystery and storylines, from the fresh gags — indeed, from all the things that make the TV show entertaining if you started there. And then, if they like it, there’s the joy of there being 64 more instalments to discover.

More than just a nostalgia trip for people who were there first time round, the movie is a strong addition to the Veronica Mars canon — as someone who didn’t discover the series until the Kickstarter campaign, I thought the film was a heck of a lot of fun, and a wonderful capstone to a mostly-great series. That said, there’s plenty of room for further cases… someday… hopefully…

4 out of 5

Veronica Mars is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video in the UK from tomorrow.

Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1982/1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #13

The original cut of the futuristic adventure.


For clarification: as I didn’t see The Final Cut until after 100 Films started, and I’ve still not seen the theatrical cut, it’s only the 1992 Director’s Cut that is eligible for this list.

Country: USA, UK & Hong Kong
Language: English
Runtime: 116 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 25th June 1982 (USA)
UK Release: 9th September 1982
Director’s Cut Release: 11th September 1992 (USA) | 27th November 1992 (UK)
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Rutger Hauer (Soldier of Orange, The Hitcher)
Sean Young (No Way Out, Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde)
Edward James Olmos (Wolfen, Battlestar Galactica)
Daryl Hannah (Splash, Kill Bill)

Director
Ridley Scott (Alien, The Martian)

Screenwriters
Hampton Fancher (The Mighty Quinn, The Minus Man)
David Peoples (Unforgiven, Twelve Monkeys)

Based on
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel by Philip K. Dick.

The Story
L.A., 2019: cop Rick Deckard is dragged out of retirement to hunt and ‘retire’ a gang of Replicants — genetically-engineered androids, almost indistinguishable from humans, used for menial work off-world — who have come to Earth to extend their lives. As Deckard investigates, he comes to question what it means to be human…

Our Hero
Rick Deckard, former blade runner — which means nothing but does sound fairly cool. May or may not be a Replicant. (“He is!” “He isn’t!” “He is!” “He isn’t!”)

Our Villain
Roy Batty, definitely a Replicant. Committed the crime of wanting to live.

Best Supporting Character
Rachael — secretary, love interest, Replicant but believes herself to be human. Do we see a theme developing here?

Memorable Quote
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” — Roy Batty

Memorable Scene
At the imposing headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, blade runner Holden sits employee Leon in front of a strange machine. He begins to administer a Voight-Kampff test, a series of questions designed to provoke a response that the machine analyses. “You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you look down…” “What one?” “What?” “What desert?” Leon’s test isn’t going to go according to plan…

Memorable Music
The synthesised score by Vangelis should by all rights sound terribly dated and oh-so-’80s by now, yet it’s somehow timelessly futuristic.

Technical Wizardry
Visually, Blade Runner is a non-stop marvel: the noir cinematography, the vehicle and set design, the lived-in world, the believable effects… The entire thing is imaginatively conceived and magnificently realised with unwavering plausibility.

Truly Special Effect
The realisation of future-L.A. airspace — packed with giant skyscrapers, videoscreen adverts, flying cars, at night and in the rain — is literally faultless, and only gains impact for being achieved for real with models.

Making of
The Director’s Cut came about after a 70mm print was discovered in storage and an LA cinema got permission to screen it at a film festival in 1990. Only then did anyone realise the print was the workprint version of the film. Warner Bros organised more screenings, advertising them as a “Director’s Cut”. Ridley Scott wasn’t best pleased, which led to some screenings being cancelled. The rest sold out, however, and so Warner decided to create a genuine Director’s Cut. With Scott busy on other projects, film preservationist and restorer Michael Arick was put in charge, using notes and suggestion from Scott to do the best he could. Although Scott considered it better than the theatrical cut, he was never wholly happy with the ’92 version, which ultimately led to the creation of The Final Cut another 15 years later.

Next time…
Between 1995 and 2000, Philip K. Dick’s friend K.W. Jeter continued Deckard’s story in three novels, which apparently attempt to resolve the differences between Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In 1997, Westwood Studios and Virgin Interactive released a “sidequel” point-and-click adventure game, where you play as another blade runner in a storyline that takes place alongside the movie (it’s excellent, by the way, though I imagine you’d have a nightmare making it run today due to its age, which is a shame). Finally, a long-mooted sequel is in development for a January 2018 release.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects)
3 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design)
5 BAFTA nominations (Editing, Make Up Artist, Score, Sound, Visual Effects)
4 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Rutger Hauer), Director, Special Effects)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“This is, [Scott] says, the version he would have released in 1982 if he could have. The Ford narration was added because the studio feared audiences would not understand his story of a futuristic Los Angeles. The new ending, which is ironic and inconclusive and gives Ford an existentialist exit line, was of course dropped by studio executives for a more standard violent outcome. I watched the original Blade Runner on video a few years ago, and now, watching the director’s cut, I am left with the same over-all opinion of the movie: It looks fabulous, it uses special effects to create a new world of its own, but it is thin in its human story.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 89%

What the Public Say
“Its such a dark movie, but such a sad movie too. The sadness threatens to overpower everything. A character has her whole life undermined when she learns she isn’t real, not even her memories or experiences. It’s all a lie, a fabrication, as she is herself. Rick Deckard may not even be real. He might be just the same as Rachael. It’s not an idea I subscribe to, but it’s there, a possibility hanging over everything, underlined by the origami unicorn that he finds at the close of the film.” — ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed The Final Cut in 2009, noting that it was “undeniably one of the most significant films of the last quarter-century thanks to its enduring influence. […] its dystopian future — all constant night-and-rain, busy streets, neon advertising, canyon-like decrepit skyscrapers towering over dirty streets, high technology rubbing with the everyday detritus of humanity — has been copied everywhere. Without this there’d probably be no Ghost in the Shell, no Dark City, no Matrix, no re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, no thousand other things that have nothing close to the brains but do have the look, the style, the feel.”

Verdict

Blade Runner remains something of a divisive film: its thoughtful pace is not to everyone’s taste, especially if they’re expecting a sci-fi action-thriller starring Future Indiana Jones. Instead, it’s a philosophical sci-fi noir, as concerned with issues of what it means to be human as with chases or punch-ups. Remixing sci-fi and film noir influences in a fresh style, realised with some of the greatest design, set-building, and special effects of all time, it’s been inestimably influential on swathes of sci-fi that followed in its wake — and yet, almost 35 years on, it still looks futuristic and feels unique.

#14 will be… Troubled.