Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

2017 #132
Denis Villeneuve | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

Blade Runner 2049

Last weekend, a film about an android negotiating an existential crisis when he learns he may actually be human, told over almost three hours with a slow pace in an arthouse style, topped the US box office. Put like that, Blade Runner 2049‘s debut sounds like a stonking financial success. Alternatively, it’s a widely-advertised critically-acclaimed $150-million-plus effects-heavy sci-fi spectacle with a pair of movie-star leads, in which context its $33 million opening weekend only looks remarkable for how poor it is. For those of us who did bother to see it (and us Brits turned out — it did good numbers on this side of the pond), such concerns are almost immaterial. In creating a belated sequel to an innovative, influential, and beloved classic movie, 2049 has (to borrow a phrase from another unexpected big-screen sci-fi sequel) done the impossible — because it’s really bloody good — and that makes it mighty.

Set 30 years after the original movie, 2049 introduces us to new characters and a new mystery: when blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) makes a shocking discovery at the home of a Replicant he’s just retired, it starts him on a mission to find something previously thought impossible that could have world-changing implications; something with connections to the events of 30 years earlier. While unfurling this mystery/thriller plot, 2049 is also about K’s personal development/crisis as a character. Although they kept it out of the marketing, it’s only a mild spoiler to say he’s a Replicant (as if the single-letter name didn’t hint at that already, it’s also mentioned casually within the first couple of scenes), and the case he works causes him to question his place in the world.

Buried secrets

This is a movie with a lot to think about. It doesn’t do the thinking for you either, instead leaving space for the viewer to interpret not only what themes they should be thinking about but also what they should be thinking about those themes. This seems to have been a little too much for some viewers — I’ve seen anecdotal reports of people falling asleep or walking out. That’s not necessarily just because they were asked to do some work, of course: it could also be the pace and length. It’s definitely a long film — a shade under 2 hours 45, though obviously there’s a fair chunk of credits — and, watching it with a grotty cold, as I was, it certainly felt long. But I would also put that entirely down to the cold. It’s not a mile-a-minute thrill ride of a movie, but I think it’s the length it needs to be. It leaves room for ideas to sink in.

Not only that, it allows you time to luxuriate in the visuals. This is possibly one of the finest-looking films ever shot. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is long overdue an Oscar, we all know this, but if he doesn’t finally earn it for 2049 then there is no justice. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know the kind of thing to expect. When people say “you could hang any frame of this movie on your wall” it’s usually a ludicrous overreaction, but here it’s as true as it ever could be. (Also, having complained in several reviews recently that I think my cinema of choice is showing films too dark (a not unheard of problem — they run the bulbs too dim to save costs), 2049 looked absolutely fantastic. Maybe it’s just that other filmmakers aren’t as good as Deakins.)

Hot robot-on-robot action

It’s not just the film’s technical merits that recommend it either, as there’s an array of superb performances here. Gosling has a difficult job as K: he starts out almost as a blank, an emotionally reserved Replicant but also a character that we need to identify with, and later struggling with his innate programming as he’s presented with challenging ideas. It might be easy to do this in a very outward manner, all handwringing and moistened eyes and so forth, but Gosling keeps it low-key — in keeping with the overall style of the film, of course. I guess some will find him cold, but I still thought he was a relatable, likeable character.

Elsewhere, Harrison Ford is definitely a supporting character, despite his prominent billing. That’s okay, though. He gets some great, meaty material — surely the best stuff he’s had to work with in a long time, and he delivers on it too. Deckard isn’t as obvious a personality as Han Solo or Indiana Jones, but it doesn’t really matter how much Ford does or doesn’t feel like his role of 35 years ago: Deckard has a place and a function and a story in this new narrative, and that he sells. As a fan, it’s impossible not to think of the long-standing debate from the first movie: is Deckard a replicant? 2049 manages to smartly dodge this question that you’d’ve thought it has to answer. If you’re watching out for how it handles it, it’s an impressive bit of work. And the debate does still rage: as shown in a recent joint interview, Ridley Scott still thinks Deckard definitely has to be, but Denis Villeneuve disagrees. You can make up your own mind (if you think it even matters).

Blade Runner 79, more like

Among the rest of the supporting cast, the stand out for me was Ana de Armas as Joi, K’s hologram girlfriend. You may’ve seen some reviews that say 2049 has a “a woman problem”, and maybe it does, but I still thought Joi was an interesting, nuanced character. Her role is very much in how she affects K, that’s true, but that the film tackles a love story between a robot and an AI is fascinating in and of itself. Maybe theme trumps character. Maybe they contribute to each other.

Really, it’s no surprise that 2049 has struggled at the box office. Despite trailers that emphasised the action, reviews were keen to point out it isn’t an action movie. Although they’ve mostly been glowing, maybe people looked beyond the star ratings to the content, which highlighted the truth: it’s a slow, considered movie; one that makes you think, rather than simply entertains. It’s not for everyone. All of that said, it’s kind of surprised me how few people it’s for: I’ve not even seen reviews pop up from many of the blogs I follow that routinely review new releases. (If you’ve posted one and think I’ve missed it, feel free to mention it in the comments.) One I did see is by long-time Blade Runner fan the ghost of 82, which is more spoilersome than this piece and so digs deeper into some of the film’s questions.

Shoot to retire

Now that it’s ensconced as a classic, it’s perhaps easy to forget that the original Blade Runner wasn’t massively popular with critics and didn’t do well at the box office back in 1982. It started out with a cult fanbase, which grew into the more widespread esteem it enjoys today. 2049 isn’t doomed to the same fate, but perhaps it’s destined for a similar one. Mainstream audiences might be ignoring it right now, but this is a movie that many people are going to be thinking about, talking about, rewatching, thinking and talking about some more, and being influenced by, for years — decades — to come.

5 out of 5

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now. Go see it.

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Death Note (2017)

2017 #115
Adam Wingard | 100 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18

Death Note

Something of a global phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga, is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, was adapted into a series of live-action films (I reviewed the first two last week), adapted again as a live-action TV series, and was even turned into a musical. Although it’s taken a while, finally the inevitable is here: an American remake. After passing through several studios, it’s wound up with Netflix, under the helmsmanship of Adam Wingard. Thus, I was hoping for the new film from the director of The Guest. Instead, I got the new film from the director of Blair Witch. And much like Blair Witch, this is a ham-fisted reimagining of a once-popular franchise.

This incarnation of the story concerns Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a Seattle high school student who one day discovers the mysterious Death Note, a notebook with the power to kill just by writing someone’s name in it. Goaded into using it by the demonic death-god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), Light soon teams up with his crush Mia (Margaret Qualley) and they set about murdering criminals. Their actions become famous under the alias Kira, which they hope to use to establish a new world order. But hot on the case is a mysterious super detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield), who engages Kira in a battle of wits.

As with so many things nowadays, the US version of Death Note has been dogged by accusations of whitewashing. As seems to be the case at least half the time, these accusations are largely unfounded. If this had kept the Japanese settings and character names but given them white faces, fair enough, but it hasn’t — it’s relocated to America, with American characters. It’s no different to all the other new-country remakes that have always happened (and also goes on the other way, with US movies remade in Bollywood and Asia, we just don’t hear about them very often here).

Light vs L

Unfortunately, Death Note: America has genuine problems to contend with. Despite that reimagining status, it’s still understandably shackled to the broad shape of the original work. Consequently, it glosses over some of the more interesting implications of the premise in its rush to make Kira famous and introduce L. Partly that’s what happens when you condense so much story into just 100 minutes, but it’s also because it’s beholden to bringing in L and starting his cat-and-mouse game with Light. When I reviewed the Japanese live-action movies, I didn’t think Light and L’s battle of wits was as clever as the films clearly thought they were, and it’s even worse here.

There would seem to be more fertile and interesting ground for exploration in why Light and Mia are trying to establish a new world order — what exactly they think that means; what motivates them to do it; and how they intend to achieve it. On the whole, the film doesn’t seem to be making time to dig into the psyche of its characters — why they’re doing what they’re doing, how it changes them — instead just going through the motions of a thriller plot. It feels like it’s had 20 minutes of character stuff cut out that would grease the wheels of the plot. The worst offender is the climax: there’s no weight to the big finale because we’ve been given no time to care about these characters or their relationships with each other.

Ello, L

For all the faults of the way the other version I’ve seen executed Light and L’s chess-like interactions, at least they consistently involved Light using the Death Note and its rules to try to trick L. Here, after the eponymous book and its abilities have been established, it’s basically just used to control other people to make them forward the plot, only returning to its real purpose come the climax. This is another reason the focus on Light and L’s duelling doesn’t work here: at least the original thought they were both geniuses and behaved as thus; each of them was motivated by proving they were cleverer than the other, everything and everyone else be damned. Here, L is still some kind of savant, whereas Light seems a pretty normal teenager, motivated by… well…

So, in the original, Light does his utmost to keep the Death Note secret from everyone to protect his identity as its user. Here, almost as soon as he’s got it he blabs about it to the girl he fancies. Why? Same reason most guys try to show off to girls: because he thinks it’ll impress her. It’s a change of motivation, but okay, why not? But he’s given very little indication that such a thing would impress her. What if she’d been appalled and gone running to the police? She doesn’t, of course, because this is a geek’s fantasy, so she a) loves it, and b) within minutes is shagging him. (Presumably. This may be an 18 for gore, but sexy times are implied by no more than a little light clothing removal. Perhaps they just sat around in their undies while murdering people with their magic book, I dunno.)

Bloodthirsty crush

Believe it or not, Death Note is not a total washout. Indeed, the best things about the film are easily identified. Firstly, there’s Willem Dafoe’s voice performance as Ryuk. If you need a manipulative death-god, he’s a perfect choice. Secondly, the visual realisation of said death-god, a mix of strong CG and keeping him in the shadows. It’s light years more effective than the ’00s movies. On the downside, Ryuk’s role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo: after an initial appearance to explain the rules, he just pops up briefly to remind us he’s still a bother.

Thirdly, then, there’s the death sequences that occur on the first couple of occassions Light uses the Death Note. This film skips the “they just die of a heart attack” phase and goes straight for the “you can dictate how they die” jugular. In this version, that means a Final Destination-a-like chain of random events occur that make the deaths fairly amusing. Also, graphically violent — enough for that 18 in the eyes of the BBFC. These go AWOL again as the film has to get busy with its plot, which is a shame. Basically, someone should’ve tapped Wingard to make Final Destination 6.

Fourthly, and finally, the score is very likeable. It’s full of the ’80s horror movie synths you’d expect from the director of The Guest, though it’s undercut somewhat by a few bizarre song choices, mostly during the climax.

In the dark, no one can see your CGI

Having read a few reactions to the film online, it strikes me that on one hand you’ve got fans criticising it for not being faithful enough, while on the other you’ve got critics picking on it for things that I’d argue are inherent in the source narrative (at least based on what I’ve seen before). That doesn’t excuse this adaptation entirely — they’ve changed so much that fixing logic issues could definitely have happened too — but it’s an amusing juxtaposition of reasons for displeasure: it’s a film scuppered both by being faithful and by not being faithful. Unfortunately that means that, whether you’re comparing it to a previous version or not, it fails to be a coherent experience.

2 out of 5

Death Note is available worldwide on Netflix now.

The Fugitive (1993)

The 100 Films Guide to…

A murdered wife.
A one-armed man.
An obsessed detective.
The chase begins.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 130 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cinema, 1993) | 15 (video, 1994)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th August 1993 (USA)
UK Release: 24th September 1993
Budget: $44 million
Worldwide Gross: $368.9 million

Stars
Harrison Ford (Witness, Air Force One)
Tommy Lee Jones (JFK, No Country for Old Men)
Sela Ward (54, Independence Day: Resurgence)
Joe Pantoliano (Risky Business, The Matrix)

Director
Andrew Davis (Under Siege, Holes)

Screenwriters
Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, Fire Down Below)
David Twohy (Waterworld, Pitch Black)

Story by
David Twohy (G.I. Jane, Riddick)

Based on
The Fugitive, a TV series created by Roy Huggins.


The Story
After Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is murdered, he is framed for the crime. Managing to escape custody, Kimble sets out to prove his innocence, while being pursued by a team of marshals intent on recapturing the fugitive.

Our Hero
Dr. Richard Kimble, respected surgeon, convicted of killing his wife, a crime he didn’t commit. When an accident on his way to prison allows me to break free, he goes on the run to clear his name.

Our Villain
The mysterious one-armed man who did kill Mrs Kimble. Why did he do it? Why can’t he be found?

Best Supporting Character
U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard is the big dog on Kimble’s trail after he escapes custody. He just aims to bring the doctor back in, but maybe his sense of justice will ultimately prevail…

Memorable Quote
Kimble: “I didn’t kill my wife!”
Gerard: “I don’t care!”

Memorable Scene
Kimble runs through drainage tunnels, pursued by Gerard, when he suddenly reaches the outlet — a massive drop over a dam. Gerard approaches, gun raised, his man cornered, Kimble left with no escape route — except to jump…

Truly Special Effect
The famous bus/train crash was done for real with a real train and a real bus on a real track, because that was actually cheaper than doing it with miniatures! The scale of the setup meant it could only be done once, so it was shot with multiple cameras — several of which were destroyed and their footage rendered unusable. Conversely, a couple of others were caught up in the crash but continued rolling. Although it may’ve been driven by cost-saving, the fact it was done for real makes it all the more effective, one of cinema’s iconic stunts.

Letting the Side Down
Despite years in development that created literally dozens of drafts, filming began without a completed screenplay — and sometimes it shows. Just don’t try to think through the logic of the villains’ nefarious scheme, nor wonder why the supposedly super-smart marshals never twig that may Kimble is investigating his wife’s murder.

Making of
The sequence in the St Patrick’s Day parade was conceived by director Andrew Davis late in the day — so late that it wasn’t part of the shooting schedule and there wasn’t time to plan it. On the day, the cast and crew made an early start so they could complete all of the schedule material before heading over to the parade. Shooting with a Steadicam, the director, cast, and cameraman improvised the action and shot it more-or-less in real-time.

Next time…
Five years later, Tommy Lee Jones reprised his Oscar-winning supporting performance as the lead in U.S. Marshals. It wasn’t as successful. Personally, I didn’t realise it was a sequel for years and have never bothered to see it.

Awards
1 Oscar (Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones))
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Cinematography, Sound, Editing, Sound Effects Editing, Score)
1 BAFTA (Sound)
3 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Editing, Special Effects)
2 MTV Movie Awards (On-Screen Duo (Harrison Ford & Tommy Lee Jones), Action Sequence (train wreck))
2 MTV Movie Award nominations (Movie, Male Performance (Harrison Ford))

Verdict

It must be at least 20 years since I last watched The Fugitive (it turns 25 next year), and it’s an interesting experience to revisit it today. Once upon a time this was a blockbuster; nowadays it’d be a mid-budget thriller… and probably wouldn’t get made because Hollywood doesn’t do those anymore. It’s a pleasingly ’90s manhunt movie — they can’t just track his mobile phone or zoom in with a satellite or what have you — but, aside from the nostalgia kick, the quality is a bit wobbly at times. It has strong performances, a breakneck pace (at least early on), and some stunning sequences, but the behind-the-scenes story of many, many drafts and a rushed schedule occasionally leave their mark on the screen, mainly in that the film’s whodunnit mystery isn’t all that engrossing or surprising. Maybe I’m just being nitpicky — it’s still a quality thriller. (The Blu-ray is a real dog, though. Could definitely do with a remaster.)

Arrival (2016)

2016 #179
Denis Villeneuve | 116 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Heptapod | 12A / PG-13

This review sort of contains spoilers.

Arrival

An intelligent sci-fi movie released by a major studio?* What madness is this? A good kind of madness, because Arrival is one of the best — and, importantly, most humane — science fiction movies for years.

For one thing, it takes an unusual, but completely pragmatic, approach to alien first contact: how would we communicate with them? Most sci-fi movies gloss over this — either we don’t because they’re just killing us, or the aliens are sufficiently advanced that they already speak our language. Here, however, the focus is on Amy Adams’ linguist. The problem is approached as it would be in real life — the production sought advice from real linguists, and the only tech used is stuff we have access to today. Far removed from the usual glossy high-tech sheen of most sci-fi movies, the most important pieces of kit here are things like whiteboards and scissor lifts. It’s very mundane, and that’s the point — it’s grounded in a world we know. Apart from the aliens, of course. But while the process Adams’ character undertakes may be factual, as she begins to work on the aliens’ language its unique properties begin to have a surprising effect on her…

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who boasts about guessing a twist, I did develop a fair idea of where the film was going. (Not completely — at one point (massive pseudo-spoiler here) I thought it might be that Jeremy Renner’s character was the future-father of Adams’ past-child, in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey all-things-happen-at-once way that I was curious how they’d explain.) But whether you work it out in advance or not doesn’t matter, because Arrival is not a middling M. Night Shyamalan film, dependent on its twist. That it’s a revelation to the characters is enough. The emotional journey they go on is what’s more significant, and Arrival is a powerfully emotional movie. This is all carried by Amy Adams in a subtle, understated performance; one that quite possibly deserved to win the Oscar but, bafflingly, wasn’t even nominated.

We're only human after all

Despite the high-concept setup, Arrival is really a character-driven emotional drama that just happens to be about first contact with aliens. Because of that, it’s not a Sci-Fi Movie in the sense that it needs to explain why the aliens are here — despite what some commenters on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards (and similar places) seemed to think. If you’ve seen the film and are thinking “but it does explain why they’re here?”, you’re right, but apparently we need to know more specifics, otherwise the film hasn’t achieved its “stated objectives”. Yes, I agree, people who say that are talking utter bollocks.

Part of what makes Arrival so good is the way it does work on multiple levels. Despite what I just said, you can enjoy it as a pure science fiction movie, about both the logistics of first contact and some big theoretical ideas that I won’t mention because of spoilers. A lot of effort was put into the concepts underpinning the film, both the scientific theories and the functions of linguistics (the Heptapod language was developed for real; the software used to translate it is a functioning program), so it’s got a dedication to detail that rewards those interested in that aspect. It’s also, again as I said, an emotional drama; effectively a dramatisation of Tennyson’s famous adage “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” though a unique lens. The author of the original story, Ted Chiang, started from more or less that place and then found a sci-fi concept he could use to explore it.

I think I'm turning Heptapod, I really think so

In addition to both of those, it’s also got a timely message about the state of humanity and global politics. This factor is even more pertinent now than when the film came out almost a year ago, mainly thanks to Trump. Just look at the recent willy-waggling between the US’s President You’ve-Been-Tango’d and North Korea’s Supreme Leader It’s-My-Party-And-I’ll-Blow-You-All-Up-If-I-Want-To — it’s the very stupidity that Arrival is warning against. In the film, some soldiers who watch too much nutty television and swivel-eyed internet rants almost fuck things up, while level-headed scientists and experts save the day. If only we could take some of the morons in power these days, and the even-worse people who voted for them, and strap them to a chair in front of this movie until they got the point…

While its greatest power lies in these analogies and emotional beats, it’s also a beautifully made film. Bradford Young’s photography is a little on the gloomy side at times, but it creates a clear mood — director Denis Villeneuve refers to it as “dirty sci-fi”, by which he means “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning”. It’s a pretty accurate description. That doesn’t preclude the film from generating some fabulous imagery, however. The sequence when they first arrive at the spacecraft by helicopter — which follows the choppers over amassed civilians queuing to see the ship, then transitions to a long oner that flies over the makeshift army base towards the giant, unusual alien craft, as clouds roll in over the hills, before continuing on down to the landing site — is majestic, and indicative of the entire film’s attitude to pace. It’s measured, not slow, and all the more effective and awe-inspiring because of it. That’s emphasised by Jóhann Jóhannsson atmospheric score, which almost lurks in the background, his work supplemented by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight during the emotional bookends. (The latter is such an important piece to the soundtrack’s effect that Jóhannsson’s work was deemed ineligible for nomination at the Oscars, which is a shame but I can kind of see their point.)

Majestic

Arrival is a multifaceted film, which works well as both a sci-fi mystery and a reflection of current sociopolitical quandaries, but has its greatest power in the very human story that lies at its heart. The mystery and the twist are almost a distraction from this, actually — I watched the film again last night before finishing this review and enjoyed it even more than the first time. That it’s a movie best appreciated when you can see it in totality, watching it with an awareness of how it will end from when it begins, is only appropriate.

5 out of 5

Arrival is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

It placed 6th 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.

* Only in the US, mind, which presumably means they just bought it after someone else made it, so let’s not give them too much credit. ^

Contact (1997)

2017 #79
Robert Zemeckis | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Contact

Contact is 20 years old today. I don’t remember it going down particularly well on its release (Rotten Tomatoes backs me up on that: it scores just 62%) and I’ve largely paid it no heed, other than it still comes up now and then. I can’t remember what gave me a sudden urge to watch it last month, but doing so was a bit of a “where have you been all my life?!” experience.

It stars Jodie Foster as scientist Dr Ellie Arroway, who’s obsessed with scanning radio signals from space for signs of alien life, much to the ridicule of her serious colleagues. While working at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie becomes romantically entangled with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian philosopher, in spite of their differing views. Their affair is cut short when Ellie’s government funding is cancelled and she leaves to seek independent financial backing, eventually finding it from reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Beginning research anew in New Mexico, her persistence eventually pays off when her team detect a repeating signal, and suddenly her kooky little project is of global concern.

'90s beats

Adapted from a novel by scientist Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), Contact is notable for its very grounded and plausible approach to the science of possible first contact. It’s like the anti Independence Day: rather than giant technologically-advanced spaceships turning up out of nowhere and threatening us, we receive a signal with mathematical properties (maths being a universal language) and consider opening lines of communication. Of course, it gets more speculative from there, but that’s unavoidable if you’re telling a story where we hear from aliens. Regardless, all of the science, as well as the political developments that ensue from it, feels very truthful. I’m sure there must be some of the ol’ corner-cutting Movie Science involved somewhere, but that’s usually necessary for the sake of telling a reasonably paced story. Despite that, some viewers find its methodicalness to be “slow” or “boring”. Conversely, that’s part of why I liked it so much: it doesn’t wave its hands around to obscure the discovery part just so it can get to the Cool Stuff — it is the discovery part.

Concurrent to the “how this might actually go down” plot, Contact seeks to explore the axis of faith and science, putting them in juxtaposition to show that, for all their obvious differences, there are also psychological similarities. That’s the purpose of McConaughey’s character, really: a very religious, but amenable, figure for Foster’s very scientific outlook to bump up against. Their romantic storyline works in favour of keeping this discussion balanced: you don’t end up projecting one as the hero and the other as the villain when they’re both halves of the central relationship. It results in some thoughtful perspectives on where the line between science and religion blurs.

“One day, I'm going to win an Oscar...”

Foster gives an impassioned performance as the dedicated Ellie, who’s so committed to both her cause and the truth that she doesn’t compromise, even when it might get her ahead. Her tunnel-vision focus on science means she can come across as a bit of a cold fish, which makes sense given the character’s backstory, but for some viewers that seems to render her too distant to embrace as the heroine. It goes as far as some saying the film’s ending has no heart because Ellie is so cold. Conversely, I think that’s almost why it works. She’s a person who has shut herself down because of her loss, but she still has some small flame of hope that keeps her searching. What happens at the end fully taps into her emotions, fanning that flame. Surely there’s something powerful in that?

Among the rest of the cast, McConaughey shows he had skills long before the McConnaissance, William Fichtner does a lot with a small supporting role, and Tom Skerritt plays a total dick in a way that feels like a real-life total dick rather than a movie version. By way of contrast, James Woods’ character is the other way round: he’s a good actor, but was perhaps railroaded into being a little heavy-handed as a somewhat-villainous National Security honcho. That said, with the current US administration’s attitude to science, maybe he’s sickeningly plausible today.

Pod person

Although not an ID4-style extravaganza, Contact features a great use of special effects — or, rather, that’s why they’re so great: they don’t exist just so they exist; they exist because the story needs them, and they’re more powerful and beautiful for it. This is true not only of some final-act trippiness, but also scenery shots of the giant Machine that gets built, which are made more real by their understatedness. Can you imagine this film now, as it would be made by most directors? There’d be constant helicopter-style shots of the thing. (The exception, of course, would be someone like Denis Villeneuve, as conclusively proven in Arrival.)

I can understand why Contact didn’t catch on with audiences back in ’97. This was the year after Independence Day became the second highest grossing movie of all time, which shows what interested the minds (or, at least, adrenal glands) of the wider viewership. Nonetheless, I don’t understand why it didn’t find stronger recognition among those who appreciate thoughtful, realistic science fiction. It hasn’t really dated in the past two decades (aside from the chunky desktop computers everyone’s using, anyway), and its debates and messages continue to resonate as a reflection of the society we live in, so maybe there’s time yet for its reappraisal.

5 out of 5

Inferno (2016)

2017 #93
Ron Howard | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Hungary / English, French, Italian & Turkish | 12 / PG-13

Inferno

Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s symboligist-cum-crime-solver (that’s the main character from The Da Vinci Code, for everyone who’s forgotten in the decade-ish since that book was at the top of the cultural zeitgeist) for his third adventure (they made a second, remember?) based on the fourth novel, after the first film was based on the second novel and the second film was based on the first novel (not that that matters, it’s just kinda funny).

This time, Langdon wakes up in a hospital bed in Florence, with a gunshot wound to his temple that has caused him to both forget the last two days and have terrifying hallucinations of Hell. When an assassin turns up trying to kill him, he escapes with Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). Still unable to recall how he ended up in this predicament, Langdon discovers a small projector in his pocket, which contains what will be the first clue to another scavenger hunt of famous old artworks and the like. At the end of the trail: a man-made pathogen that could wipe out 95% of humanity. Pursued by several groups who want the virus for their own nefarious (or not) ends, Langdon and Sienna race against time to save the world.

If you haven’t guessed yet, Inferno is a bit silly. Not utterly silly, but silly in the kind of way the previous Dan Brown movies have been silly — pretending they’re taking place in a plausible real world, when they’re not. The kind of silly where a villain leaves a trail of clues for someone to follow and make sure his scheme is executed, rather than, I dunno, putting a timer on it. (Incidentally, this is a change from the novel, where (based on what I read on Wikipedia) his plan makes marginally more sense.) The kind of silly where apparently the World Health Organisation is some international enforcement agency with gun-toting special ops units and the power to override local police. (I don’t know much about the real WHO, but I find this version very hard to believe.)

Brooks and Langdon

On the bright side, Inferno is not nearly so po-faced as the previous Langdon movies. If you suspend your disbelief, it’s a reasonably compelling mystery (or set of mysteries), where for once the ultimate solution doesn’t feel obvious from the get-go. The same goes for the issue of who to trust. As you’d expect from a race-against-time thriller with an everyman hero, there are multiple different forces in pursuit of Langdon, and you know that one of those groups will turn out to actually be on his side, because that’s how these things always go — but which? Well, I thought it was less blatantly obvious than normal, anyway; though I did guess one other huge twist almost from the start (and I’m sure most viewers who are reasonably versed in this genre of movie will too).

That’s another point that’s been tweaked from the novel, it turns out. In spite of being a film that is considered pretty faithful to its source, they do seem to have shaved off any detail or plot development that was a little outside the norm of a Hollywood blockbuster thriller, which is rather disappointing in a way. It was the ghost of 82’s review that alerted me to these changes, through the fact that the novel even has a different ending. I looked it up and it sounds much better. It’s totally unHollywood, and I bet the studio vetoed it as soon as they heard it, but it’s more interesting and complex than the standard fight-over-the-MacGuffin climax used here.

A clue!

The whole style of the film is similarly standardised. The use of a 1.85:1 ratio and Ron Howard’s unremarkable direction make it all feel very televisual, the only giveaways to its big-screen budget being the stunning locations and the presence of Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, et al. There are also hand-holding flashbacks and intercuts to things we saw five minutes ago, just like you get on TV dramas that feel uncertain about whether you’re paying full attention or have perhaps tuned in halfway through. Langdon’s gory visions lend a bit of visual spice, but that’s also what they feel like — an attempt to liven things up.

For all these faults, I actually enjoyed Inferno a fair bit. It’s a decent, pacy thriller; completely implausible, both in its overwrought story and frequently leaden dialogue, but as a race-against-time mystery in beautiful locations, it’s an entertaining 120 minutes. I’d give it 3½, but I don’t do half-stars, so let’s be generous and round it up.

4 out of 5

Inferno is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Road Games (1981)

aka Roadgames

2016 #132
Richard Franklin | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG

Road Games

I hadn’t even heard of Ozploitation thriller Road Games before April last year, when Make Mine Criterion posted an excellent write-up proposing it for release by Arrow Video. That piqued my interest, so when it was announced for release by Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment the very next day, I jumped on a pre-order lickety-split. Just a couple of months later, a film I had only recently found out about was in my hands, in a better-than-its-ever-looked remaster, having arrived from literally the other side of the world, for about the same cost as a new release from Masters of Cinema or Arrow, i.e. under £14, including postage. (Makes you wonder how Criterion justify their £17.99 price tag…)

Leaving aside the wonders of today, the film stars Stacy Keach as lorry driver Pat Quid, who one night happens to witness some shady goings on that may’ve been a murder. The next day he’s given the task of transporting a container full of carcasses to the other side of the country, because there’s a butchers’ strike over there and Aussies need their meat goddammit! On the road, he spots a vehicle connected to the possible-murder, and wonders if he’s on the trail of a killer — or if the killer’s on his. The tension only deepens when he picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), who may become the next victim…

It's impossible to find good quality stills from Road Games

Road Games’ low-budget roots and exploitation-derived genre tag may give the impression it’s a slasher movie or something, but nothing could be further from the truth (though there is one gory shot — so gory it’s a wonder the film got a PG in the US). Rather, it could best be described as Rear Windscreen, because fundamentally it’s the same story: our hero spies on a guy from a distance because he thinks he saw him commit a murder, but is it all in his head? Where Hitchcock staged that impressively in a single confined location, writer-director Richard Franklin opens it up to the whole Australian outback. In some respects that’s an even more impressive feat — of course neighbours are smooshed up against each other, but long-distance travellers? However, it doesn’t feel like a stretch that Quid keeps bumping into the same people, such is the skill of the construction.

Keach makes for an affable lead, whether chatting to his dog early on or bonding with Curtis after he picks her up. Their shared ponderings about the possible murderer are just as effective as the Stewart/Kelly interactions from the Hitchcock film, though perhaps more conspiratorial. It’s easy to draw these comparisons and mirrorings with Rear Window, but it does Road Games a bit of a disservice — it’s not simply an off-brand remake or set-in-a-different-location pseudo-sequel. That said, the parallels are equally unavoidable. There’s also some Duel in the mix, as the killer notices he’s been noticed and turns the tables on our hapless trucker — an inversion, of course, as in Spielberg’s film it’s the trucker who’s the villain.

Seeing red

Basically, while acknowledging these undoubted similarities, I’m trying not to make Road Games sound too derivative, because I don’t think it is. It’s a masterful mystery, using ever-building tension to create a properly nail-biting thriller, which leads to an unpredictable final act (the benefit of many an independently-produced thriller is that it doesn’t necessarily have to comply with a studio’s view on how it should end). While it may owe a debt to one or both of the aforementioned movies, it’s a gripping work in its own right; one which deserves a bigger audience.

5 out of 5

Road Games placed 12th 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.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

2016 #180
Dan Trachtenberg | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

10 Cloverfield Lane

After Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car crash, she awakens in a basement chained to a wall. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), tells her he’s saved her life: a massive attack has taken place and they, along with an acquaintance of Howard’s called Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in Howard’s self-built bunker to hide from the deadly fallout. But Michelle only has Howard’s word as evidence these attacks happened at all, or that their aftermath is lethal, and can he be trusted?

For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a good psychological puzzle. Michelle has little choice but to trust her captor(s) / quarantine-mates and little chance to investigate the truth for herself, try as she might. I must say I never felt a particularly palpable sense of tension, despite the varied and regularly renewed attempts to make Goodman a threat, but it nonetheless works as a characterful mystery-driven single-location thriller. And then…

We’ve all read reviews where a critic (or blogger!) will write something like, “it would benefit from being 10 minutes shorter”. That sounds very precise and therefore clever, but it’s really a number plucked from thin air. No one who’s written a sentence like that has actually sat down with a film, noted all the bits they’d cut, added them up, and then presented that total in their review. It is, at best, intuition (at worst, it’s random and thoughtless). However, with 10 Cloverfield Lane I can say exactly how much needs to be cut: 9 minutes and 10 seconds. To be exact, those’d be the 9 minutes and 10 seconds between a (spoilery) revelation and the credits rolling.

Roomies

There’s no need to go into detail here — if you’ve not seen the film it’s a massive spoiler; if you have, you surely know what I’m talking about. This climax feels wholly unnecessary and like it belongs in a totally different movie. Tonally, and in terms of the main plot points that drive the story, it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we’ve just watched. If you cut that bit out, it wouldn’t make the rest of the film any less satisfying. And because it’s so unnecessary, I found it intensely irritating.

The bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very solid contained psychological thriller, undoubtedly deserving a strong 4-star rating. Then the final ten minutes happens. It’s so misjudged, in my opinion, that it overshadows what’s come before, to the point that I’ve taken a whole star off my rating.

3 out of 5

The Saint’s Return (1953)

aka The Saint’s Girl Friday

2016 #154
Seymour Friedman | 65 mins | download | 4:3 | UK / English

The Saint's Return

Long-time readers may remember I reviewed all eight of RKO’s Saint films back in 2012. That series ended amidst an argument over rights (and they replaced it with the ever-so-similar Falcon series, which I also reviewed), but a decade later this continuation movie happened. I wasn’t even aware it existed until it was brought to my attention in the comments on another film. It’s technically not part of the same series (it was made years later by Hammer, believe it or not) so it’s harder to come by, but eventually I tracked it down… as a download that was clearly sourced from a VHS (it even lost tracking at one point!) that was quite possibly recorded off the telly.

The story sees Simon Templar, aka the Saint, rushing back to England to help a friend, but she’s killed in suspicious circumstances before he arrives. Investigating her death, Templar finds she was indebted to the River Gang, and sets about bringing them down.

The Saint, with a girl

Although this was made years after the RKO films and by a different studio, it’s not a reboot or remake. Even allowing for those terms having become more applicable recently than they probably were in the ’50s, The Saint’s Return actually seems to be making a concerted effort to appear connected to the earlier series: near the start there’s a small scene where Inspector Fernack, the Saint’s regular nemesis/ally in the NYPD, acknowledges that Templar has left for England, which serves no purpose other than to suggest a connection to the other films. It’s even shot in a way that’s reminiscent of the older films (though, I don’t know, had low-budget studio filmmaking changed much in the intervening decade?)

That said, there are changes: the Saint is now an American, for no particular reason, and it’s more serious than I remember the other films being; but that might be my memory being clouded by the Falcon films, which were similar but lighter. In a rare feat for these movies, it managed to trick me with a plot twist, as I incorrectly guessed who secretive villain ‘The Chief’ would turn out to be. That’s either an achievement or a sign of me underestimating the film just because it’s old and cheap…

The Saint, with another girl

Taking the lead role is Louis Hayward, who originated the Saint on screen fifteen years earlier in RKO’s first film, The Saint in New York. He only played the role once before, but nonetheless makes a convincing return here. The rest of the cast includes Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors, whose charms haven’t dated, and a minor role for one Russell Enoch — aka William Russell, who’d go on to find fame in the title role of the BBC’s The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, before ensuring his screen immortality as one of the original leads in Doctor Who.

Still, there’s more to The Saint’s Return than before-they-were-famous star-spotting. Although it seems to be the black sheep of the Saint film family, it’s actually a pretty good little thriller. Indeed, there were definitely worse films in the series proper. I’m not going to quite stretch to four stars for it but, for fans of the series, it’s worth tracking down.

3 out of 5

Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • Partners in Crime… (2012)
  • Charlie Bartlett (2007)
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)


    Partners in Crime…
    (2012)

    aka Associés contre le crime… “L’œuf d’Ambroise”

    2016 #189
    Pascal Thomas | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 12

    Partners in Crime…

    André Dussollier and Catherine Frot star as Agatha Christie’s married investigators Tommy and Tuppence (here renamed Bélisaire and Prudence) in this third in a series of French adaptations of Christie stories (best I can tell, the first two aren’t readily available in English-friendly versions).

    Based on the short story The Case of the Missing Lady, it sees Tommy and Tuppence Bélisaire and Prudence investigating the disappearance of a Russian heiress at a suspicious health farm, while also quarrelling about their relationship. It’s very gentle comedy-drama, even by the standard of Christie adaptations, with a thin mystery, thin humour, and thin character drama, which all feels a little stretched over its not-that-long-but-too-long running time. I shan’t be seeking out its two antecedents.

    2 out of 5

    Charlie Bartlett
    (2007)

    2017 #9
    Jon Poll | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Charlie Bartlett

    Anton Yelchin is the eponymous rich kid trying to fit in at a regular high school, which he does by becoming an amateur psychiatrist to his classmates, in a comedy-drama that plays as the ’00s answer to Ferris Bueller. It starts out feeling rather formulaic and predictable, running on familiar high school movie characters and tropes, but later develops into something quite emotional. It’s powered by excellent performances from Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr, as the school’s unpopular and unprepared principal.

    4 out of 5

    Florence Foster Jenkins
    (2016)

    2017 #34
    Stephen Frears | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG / PG-13

    Florence Foster Jenkins

    Try to ignore the fact Meryl Streep nabbed an Oscar nomination away from someone more deserving (for example, Amy Adams. Well, no, definitely Amy Adams), and she gives a good turn as the titular society lady who couldn’t sing for toffee but thought she was fantastic, and used her wealth and influence to launch a concert career. She’s only enabled by her doting… assistant? Lover? Husband? You know, the film blurs that line (deliberately, I think) and I’ve forgotten what he was. Anyway, he’s played by Hugh Grant, who is also good.

    It’s a gently funny comedy, as you’d expect from the subject matter, but one that reveals a surprising amount of heart and depth through Florence’s attitude to life, as well as how her men (who also include The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as the third lead; also good) attempt to care for her needs.

    4 out of 5