It Comes at Night (2017)

2018 #55
Trey Edward Shults | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

It Comes at Night

Described by Kim Newman in his Empire review as “existing between a Sundance and a FrightFest film”, which is a neat way of putting “arthouse horror”, It Comes at Night went down very poorly with many viewers, seemingly because it was mis-sold by its trailers. As someone who went in pretty much cold, however, I thought it was very good.

Sometime after some kind of contagion has wiped out civilisation, we’re introduced to a family — Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — who’ve sequestered themselves in a secure house deep in the woods. But their existence is disrupted by the arrival of a couple (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) and their young son seeking refuge. Although Paul is deeply distrustful, he agrees to take them in. But is there some one, or some thing, else waiting for them in the woods?

Well, I should be careful there, lest I slip into doing what the trailers did. I watched one after the movie, and it certainly wasn’t a great representation of the film. So was it wrong to advertise it as a horror movie? Yes and no. I mean, it’s not your typical horror flick, but it is moody and creepy and tense, and scary because of it. I’m tempted to compare it to something like The VVitch, though their styles do diverge as they go on (I could say how, exactly, but it might be construed as a spoiler). It partly depends how you define genre. You could argue It Comes at Night is actually a psychological thriller with a dash of sci-fi (thanks to its post-apocalyptic setting) — and it definitely is those things — but, functionally, it’s a horror movie. It’s built to unnerve and scare you. It’s only really once those immediate terrors are out of the way — i.e. when the film ends — that what it leaves you to chew over is its commentary on paranoia and trust.

Distrust

In the case of the latter, and the way it executes its sci-fi-ish setting, it all feels very realistic and plausible. That realism is underscored by the pace, structure, and characterisation. The combination of the writing and an array of good performances mean all the characters come across as believable, supportable people — there are no clear heroes and villains here. And even things that look like clues to solving some mystery turn out to be, if not red herrings, then functional dead ends.

It’s a very well-made film on the whole. The cinematography by Drew Daniels looks incredible. Well, some of the daytime stuff just has a grainy, handheld, documentary-ish feel, which is appropriate and well done if fundamentally unremarkable; but everything in the house after dark — seemingly lit only by handheld lanterns and torches — looks fantastic. And all that darkness is suitably scary, of course. Plus film grammar nerds are going to love something subtle the visuals do later on, if they even notice it — it’s that low-key that it might pass you by, but it’s really effective. (Writer-director Trey Edward Shults discusses what it is, and why they did it, in this interview. I had so much of that article copied into my notes for this review that I decided I may as well just share the whole thing.) I also liked the score by Brian McOmber. Sometimes it feels a mite familiar from other movies of this style, but it remains highly effective — not overblown, but atmospheric, without being a mere background hum.

The best way to see It Comes at Night is as cold as possible — perhaps off the back of a positive, accurate review, say. A lot of the low viewer scores and negative comments do seem to stem from being mis-sold by the trailers, and I hope that, divorced from that, the film will be able to latterly find an appreciative audience; one not interested in gore and jump scares, but in tension, paranoia, and the psychology of fear.

4 out of 5

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You Were Never Really Here (2017)

2019 #45
Lynne Ramsay | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

You Were Never Really Here

Writer-director Lynne Ramsay tackled serious dramatic subjects in her previous features (none of which I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say, so I apologise if my “this is a change of direction” intro is off base), but here shifts into genre mode to adapt Jonathan Ames’ noir-ish crime-thriller novella, albeit while retaining a good deal of the arthouse idiosyncrasy you’d expect.

The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged-or-so guy who lives with is elderly ailing mother (Judith Roberts), and seems even more tired of life than she is, plagued by memories of things he’s witnessed. That history has given Joe a (as Liam Neeson would put it) very particular set of skills, which nowadays he puts to use for private clients, via multiple middle men, primarily (or wholly — the film doesn’t clarify) to rescue abducted children. But when he’s hired to rescue a US senator’s wayward teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), things end up going sideways in unforeseen ways.

Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. He uses it to take out multiple Very Bad Men in this film. But if the combination of “genre: thriller” and “using a hammer to take out bad men” makes you think You Were Never Really Here is about to unleash a low-budget action-fest upon your eyeballs, I refer you back to the writer-director being Lynne Ramsay and my mention of “arthouse idiosyncrasies”. I thought I’d mention this point upfront because I’ve seen others be disappointed by the lack of overt action in the film. Ramsay has instead chosen to keep most of the violence offscreen — we sometimes see the build-up or the aftermath, or both, or maybe neither, but only rarely the act itself. It’s not that kind of movie. And that’s not a problem, so long as you’re not expecting those kind of kicks.

Much to think about alone

Instead, the film becomes more of a character portrait, interrogating who Joe is and why. What kind of man does a job like that? What events in his life brought him here? What toll does it take on him? Or is there no toll because the damage has already been done? Explicitly writing these questions, which the film does seek to consider, causes me to question the worth of a serious-minded exploration of such a character’s psyche. It makes me wonder: are there real-life people like Joe? Does anyone actually do this job in the real world? Is the universe Joe moves in — a netherworld, parallel to our own but hiding from everyday view — a true one, or just the stuff that fills genre fiction? And if the answer to “is this real?” is a “no” — if these characters, situations, and environments are all just genre fodder — is there value in getting psychologically real about it?

Some would say “no”, because we don’t necessarily come to this kind of genre fiction for realism, even when it’s given a dark or gritty spin. I mean, take a slight genre sidestep into something like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, for an example: they’re shot with a documentary-esque style, but no one thinks they’re plausible portraits of real life espionage activities. Stories like You Were Never Really Here have a greater reality claim than that, but I still question their actual adherence to our real world. But surely these extreme spins on reality are invented, at least in part, to justify simultaneously inventing heroes to put into them, who can then sort it all out by wielding some weaponry and special skills that we might not accept in a totally true-to-life story-world.

Much to think about together

Maybe I’m over-theorising this now. But You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that leaves gaps to invite you to think about it, to fill in your interpretations and personal notions. It’s a film with a lot of quiet space — literally, in the sense of its often minimal dialogue and, shorn of action scenes, little of the thudding and thumping you’d expect in the sound department; but also figuratively, with long scenes that make room for you to think about what you’re witnessing; scenes that don’t hand-feed you every piece of information, so you put it together yourself. (If you want an example: no one ever tells you where Joe got his skills, but flashbacks give you visual clues to put it together.) Maybe the film isn’t trying to say “guys like this exist outside of genre pieces, and they’re like this” — maybe it’s saying “if guys like this existed outside of genre pieces, what would they really be like?”

In the source novel, the title is explained via Joe’s methods: he uses fake identities, surgical gloves, and hides from cameras, all so that he was “never really there”. In the film he’s more low-tech and somewhat less scrupulous, meaning the same explanation doesn’t quite wash. I thought perhaps Ramsay meant it to have a new, arty meaning. Maybe it doesn’t — maybe it’s just the title of the book, so it stayed. Or maybe everything I’ve written is right, and people like Joe were never really here, in the real world… but if they were, they’d probably be like this.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of You Were Never Really Here is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Serenity (2019)

2019 #27
Steven Knight | 106 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Serenity

Sorry, Browncoats — this has nothing to do with Joss Whedon’s sci-fi classic. But if you’re instead worried this might supplant that in the general consciousness, never fear: despite coming with the pedigree of a cast headlined by Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (plus Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane), and a quality writer-director in Steven Knight (the man behind Locke and Peaky Blinders), this Serenity is a dud of epic proportions. I mean, the fact that, even with those names involved, it’s being dumped in the UK as a Sky Cinema Original should tell you something…

On the remote tropical paradise of Plymouth Island, Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fisherman mostly taking tourists out on his boat, but eager to catch that one tuna that eludes him (a tuna isn’t quite as romantic a nemesis as a white whale, but I guess we’ll have to go with it). One day, his ex (Hathaway) turns up on the island with a proposition: she’ll pay him $10 million to drop her abusive husband (Clarke) in the ocean for the sharks. She has extra leverage in that hubby is beginning to get abusive towards the son Baker left behind, but who he still cares about. If that wasn’t enough of a moral quandary, there’s more to Plymouth Island than meets the eye, including a fishing equipment company rep who’s desperate to meet with Baker, but keeps just missing him…

An indecent proposal?

Serenity pitches itself as an island noir, and on the surface it ticks many of the right boxes, especially once Hathaway turns up, looking every inch the part of a classic femme fatale. You can tell she’s hamming it up a little too, playing into the role (with McConaughey, it’s harder to be sure…) It’s also beautifully lensed by DP Jess Hall, capturing both attractive sunny climes and a more overtly noir-ish vibe once a dramatic storm rolls in. But concurrent to that it’s clear some other mystery is going on, and here things get a bit more awkward, the film fumbling not to give too much away too soon. Personally, I think it fails — I guessed the twist pretty early, which I’m pretty sure was not intended, but if you don’t then it’s not cleverly built up to, it’s just muddled.

Once the twist is confirmed — and I say “confirmed” rather than “revealed” because, even though I guessed it, it seemed so loopy that I thought I must be wrong — the whole affair takes on a different light. But it’s not a well thought-through one. It’s the kind of twist that changes your perspective on everything you’ve seen, which is usually a neat development, but here it raises way more questions than it answers. To go into them would be spoilery… so, spoilers follow throughout the next paragraph.

So, we’re supposed to believe this kid has programmed a fishing game starring his dad — not wholly implausible. But it’s one where his dad frequently gets his kit off and shags around for money? I guess we could excuse this as the kid’s been playing too much stuff like Grand Theft Auto and thinks that’s what happens in games, if we’re being kind. But one day he decides to rewrite this game to make it about his dad committing murder, which the character in the game then objects to, and the game turns its own existing rules into an NPC to fight back? What, did this kid accidentally just program a full blown AI? Or several AIs? Or are we going with a Toy Story-esque notion where video game characters are actually sentient? And then somehow his dad actually doing it in-game encourages the kid to murder his real-life stepdad, which we learn thanks to some cheap news voiceover?

So far so noir

Serenity is such a ridiculous mess of a movie that it almost swings back round to being entertaining in its audacity. For me, though, it would need to be better constructed to pull that about-turn off. If it had fully considered the twist and its implications, thought it all through and played by all the necessary rules, some of the people who are laughing at it would still be laughing at it just for the basic concept, but I’d admire it at the very least for committing to its bit. Because it doesn’t, the only reason to consider watching is to marvel at its bizarre eccentricity.

2 out of 5

Serenity will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight, with a limited UK theatrical release from tomorrow.

Unsane (2018)

2018 #219
Steven Soderbergh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.56:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Unsane

Probably the best-known thing about Unsane is that Steven Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone. Well, he’s not the first person to shoot a feature on a phone, nor will he be the last, but I guess he must’ve been the most high-profile. It’s a shame that’s all people seemed to talk about, though, because the content of the film is worth a look too.

It’s a psychological horror-thriller starring Claire Foy as Sawyer, a young professional woman struggling with a past trauma, who tries to simply get an appointment with a counsellor but ends up accidentally committing herself to a mental hospital. Although initially only in for a 24-hour assessment, her attempts to get out are only seen as further proof she has problems, and her ‘voluntary’ stay is extended against her will.

This early part of the film plays more like a drama than a horror movie, in that it’s fairly grounded in plausible reality — it doesn’t seem to be some nefarious scheme that gets Foy incarcerated, but rather bureaucracy and misunderstanding. Later the film takes a swing into outright horror territory, and I’ll discuss that in a moment, but it’s the first act that is most genuinely frightening. Events move inexorably forward in such a way that you can imagine yourself in Sawyer’s shoes, imagine yourself making the same unwitting mistakes that she does, imagine what you might try in that situation to get out of it, and imagine how you’d fail just as badly as she does. The film doesn’t gloss over any “if only she’d done this it would’ve been fine” moments — she tries everything rational, and it still goes wrong.

Hello, Domino's?

But, as I said, later things change a bit: Sawyer claims that one of the men working at the hospital is actually her stalker. Obviously this just contributes to the staff thinking she’s deranged, because of course a mental health institution wouldn’t employ a convicted stalker, but it makes us wonder: is it the stress of the situation getting to Sawyer, making her see things? It would certainly be ironic — the place that’s meant to ‘make’ her sane actually driving her insane. Or maybe the staff are right, and Sawyer is an unreliable narrator?

From there the film only becomes further immersed in genre-ness. It loses that “what would you do?” aspect, but I was engaged enough by then to just go with the story; others have found the tonal shift jarring, however. It definitely keeps you guessing — even after a mid-way reveal, you’re still unsure what further twists it may or may not pull. But it’s a funny old movie, in a way, because the shift from believable real-life horrors to inhabiting a more overt Horror mode means it sits at a hitherto unimagined crossroads between schlocky madhouse B-thriller and arthouse psychological drama. Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing we should expect from Soderbergh by now: a genre movie reimagined with auteurist sensibilities. Even when it takes the shape of a B-movie thrill-ride, there remains some psychological truth to the trauma Sawyer’s suffered and how it affects her. It’s also casually damning of things like the US healthcare/insurance infrastructure, which is, of course, a real-life problem. It’s always nice to sneak a valid real-world point into what is essentially a thrills-and-chills flick.

Just say no

The sense of unease is further emphasised by the shooting style, because it looks… odd. Odd how? It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s partly the aspect ratio, which for some reason is 1.56:1. I’m perfectly used to watching films in 4:3 or 1.66:1, so pillarboxing doesn’t bother me, but it being a nonstandard shape is surprisingly disconcerting. It also seems that Soderbergh hasn’t just used the iPhone camera as-is, but has attached at least one different lens. I suppose some might argue that’s cheating, but normal to add lenses to the basic camera in other modes of filmmaking, so why not? I’m no expert on lenses so can’t quantify what he’s done exactly, but there’s a sort of wide-angle, sometimes even fish-eye, effect that is, again, strange. Combine all that with an even-less-definable quality that seems to wash over the whole image, like it’s lacking resolution or definition or something, and I’m not sure if the film’s visual style is down to the limitations of the tech or if it’s a deliberate emphasis of them. Whatever the reason, it kinda makes me hope no one ever chooses to shoot a film on an iPhone again, because while it can be done, the results aren’t great.

And yet those results really do fit the mood of this film. I kinda hope no one copies that tech choice ever again, but, nonetheless, Soderbergh’s made it work for the story he’s telling. That story — with its ups and downs, it’s whiplash tonal changes, its very imaginable horrors and its only-in-a-movie ones — means the fact Unsane was shot on an iPhone is probably the least interesting thing about it.

4 out of 5

Unsane is available on Sky Cinema as of yesterday.

Steven Soderbergh’s next film, High Flying Bird, was also shot on an iPhone. It’s released on Netflix on 8th February.

Glass (2019)

2019 #7
M. Night Shyamalan | 129 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Glass

About 18 years ago, I first watched Unbreakable on DVD. It was the new film from M. Night Shyamalan — a name no one knew a year or two earlier, but the huge success of The Sixth Sense had somehow catapulted him to the top of the zeitgeist, where he was talked about as the new Hitchcock or Spielberg. Maybe no one could spell or pronounce it (I remember a lot of “Shamalamadingdong”s), but for some reason this wasn’t just “The New Film from the Guy Who Directed The Sixth Sense“, it was “The New Film from M. Night Shyamalan”. Anyway, it had met a mixed reception, but for some people it worked, and I joined their ranks. From there, it seems to have developed something of a cult following — it has many ardent fans, but others still don’t get it.

In interviews, Shyamalan mentioned that Unbreakable’s plot had originally been just the first act of the film, until he decided to expand it to the whole movie, and so he had ideas that acts two and three might become two further movies and form a trilogy. There began a long wait for the film’s fans, ever hoping that one day Shyamalan — whose reputation went steadily and increasingly downhill with every film he made from that point — would come back round and continue what he’d started. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I’d begun to give up hope: in December 2016, I added Unbreakable to my 100 Favourites series, and in that post I wrote, “16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.”

Six-and-a-half weeks later, Split was released. You probably know the rest.

Mr Glass, the Horde, and the Overseer

…but in case you don’t: Split was a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, only revealed in its very last scene when Bruce Willis suddenly appeared and name-checked Samuel L. Jackson’s character. I say “only” revealed — I found out on Twitter, the first day after the film went on general release. Damn you, internet! But anyway, the point is: suddenly the hope was back alive. And it was confirmed to be so shortly afterwards, when Shyamalan announced that a sequel to Unbreakable and Split had been officially greenlit.

Now, I’ve devoted a massive chunk of this review to that history lesson for one reason: to make it clear just how much I was anticipating this movie. I’m certainly not alone in that; but if you’re not someone who saw Unbreakable almost two decades ago and have been hoping for a sequel ever since, I hope the last few paragraphs gave you some perspective of how those of us who did feel about Glass finally being here. This is my most anticipated superhero movie in a year that also includes an Avengers that will tackle the fallout from a humungous cliffhanger, a new X-Men (a series I also love), a new Spider-Man (which I think looks great), and more (the most superhero movies in one year ever, apparently). So, for some of us, this has a lot of expectation to live up to.

And I think expectations — whether they come from the previous films, the trailers, critics’ reviews, or what have you — are going to have a big effect on people’s reaction to Glass. Expecting a Marvel-style superhero throw-down? It was never going to be that, you fool. Don’t like movies where most confrontations come through dialogue? Okay, but did you actually watch Unbreakable and Split? (Those are both criticisms I feel I’ve seen in other reviews I’ve read.) Want to see Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson face off again in a film that’s fundamentally Unbreakable 2? That’s not an unreasonable hope, but Glass is as much a sequel to Split as it is to Unbreakable, perhaps even more so. Certainly in tone, Glass has more in common with the slightly-pulpy, almost-B-movie style of Split than it does with the quiet, characterful mode Unbreakable operated in. That first film was a Drama, all about believable people coping with their personal issues, whereas the two follow-ups are much more genre movies. That said, they’re still genre movies that have been filtered through the unique mindset of this particular writer-director — don’t expect a great deal of easy satisfaction here.

Confounded?

Do expect twists. Of course there are twists — it’s a Shyamalan movie! Indeed, it’s almost the most Shyamalany of Shyamalan movies, because Glass has more than one surprise reveal to pull out during its final stretch. Some are almost obvious, especially if you’re aware of fan theories from the previous films. Some are entertaining, the kind of rug-pulls you’d expect in the last act of a movie whose villain is a genius. Some are… more startling. Some people will appreciate the boldness; others will feel it undermines what came before, or what they wanted to see here. I don’t think anything is an outright “that doesn’t make sense” betrayal of the world Shyamalan has created in this trilogy, but some people will be displeased about the directions he chooses to go.

Talking of which, one of the big complaints I’ve read (and, fair warning, kinda-spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph) is that the middle of the film wastes time trying to convince us these characters’ powers aren’t real, when we’ve already seen that they are. I think that’s a somewhat unfair criticism; one that comes from not properly investing in what we’re watching. Dr Staple is trying to convince the characters of reality, that they can’t have powers; and, as I saw it, the point of those scenes is to make us doubt it too. Yes, we’ve seen them do extraordinary things, but as Dr Staple lays out, can those things not just be explained by science and/or personal delusion? They’ve shown special skills, but are they really superhuman abilities? Several characters are swayed by her argument… so was I, to a point… except then I remembered the critics who’d said this was “a waste of time”, and therefore I guessed Shyamalan couldn’t be building to a reveal that these characters didn’t have powers after all, because if he were then it wouldn’t be a waste of time. So thanks for that, whichever Negative Nelly’s review I read that spoiled it.

Is Dr Staple stable?

As Dr Staple, Sarah Paulson is the main new addition to the cast for this finale. Her character’s a bit of a blank slate — we don’t really get to know her, why she’s doing this job, why she believes their powers can’t be real (other than the sheer implausibility of it, anyway). She exists to challenge the leads and their beliefs, not really to be a character herself. Or is that blankness just a facade, and that’s its point? I’ll say no more both out of an awareness of spoilers and because I’m not sure myself. It’ll be interesting to rewatch the film and see what, if anything, else presents itself about her on a closer rewatch.

Despite having the title role, Samuel L. Jackson is mainly reserved for the third act, but when he comes to life he revels in the part so much that I didn’t mind having to wait. James McAvoy gets to show off like he did in Split, only this time with an even greater number of distinct personalities. Some people think he’s overacting; I think it’s impressive. Split was more of a showcase for his skill, because here he has to share screen time with so much else that’s going on, but Shyamalan helps him out by actually giving different alters their own separate character arcs. In places that’s done quite subtly, so I think some might miss just how much McAvoy has to do.

While McAvoy gets to negotiate multiple arcs, the last of the three headliners, Bruce Willis, barely has one. Some have said he phones in his performance here, but I think that’s unfair. Shyamalan hasn’t actually given him that much to work with, which is a shame — some people will feel like they’ve waited almost two decades to get more of David Dunn and been shortchanged. Well, David was always a quiet, introspective character anyway, so in some respects it’s fitting. In the two or three scenes where he was allowed to really do something, I felt like Willis had recaptured the part.

(Anya Taylor-)Joy to the world

It’s not just those four who have a significant role to play, either. For me, Anya Taylor-Joy actually has one of the film’s best parts, and gives one of its best performances. Here, again, is where Glass is at least as much a sequel to Split as to Unbreakable, in the way it devotes time to the development of her character and to her relationship with McAvoy’s. Also returning is Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, David’s son. I wasn’t sure if this was a case of managing to lure back a child actor who’d drifted off, or if the guy had continued to work since. Well, having IMDb’d him, it turns out he’s been working virtually nonstop since Unbreakable, but it just happens I haven’t seen anything he’s been in (well, except he was in one episode of Mad Men, apparently). His is a somewhat less complex supporting role, but he’s particularly good at conveying Joseph’s thoughts in a few key dialogue-less moments.

But the biggest returnee of all is behind the camera: writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. (Who is also in front of the camera, actually, with a cameo that exists largely to reconcile his cameos in the two previous films. It’s an amusing bit of fan service.) Shyamalan has, I think, always been a good director. He shows a good eye for strong and rich visuals, be they simple face-on close-ups or more innovative shot choices, but without being needlessly flashy. The film incorporates flashbacks using deleted scenes from Unbreakable, which at least one reviewer took to prove Shyamalan has deteriorated as a director in the past 20 years, but I thought they integrated seamlessly. His weakness has always been more as a writer, and your mileage will vary on how much that’s a problem here — as I discussed earlier, it’s quite a talky film, with the characters confined to a limited set of locations, and that likely won’t please some viewers. There’s also some thuddingly terrible dialogue (you may’ve read about the “showdown” line), but he’s been responsible for worse.

Mastermind

Reading other reviews and audience reactions, it’s clear that Glass is going to be divisive to some degree. In some ways to seems to deliberately confound expectations, which will frustrate some viewers even as it delights others. It’s not interested in being a typical comic book movie, or even really in deconstructing the genre, another thing I think some viewers were expecting it to do. Instead, comic books are a launchpad for its own mythology, and Shyamalan’s own ideas about what’s important from them. In that respect it’s very much his movie, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s not a stone-cold classic like Unbreakable — it lacks the subtle feel for real-life human emotion that makes that film so powerful — but I enjoyed it a lot. I’d certainly rather have something that tries to be fresh, to do something different, to push at boundaries, than an attempt at empty repetition for the sake of easy results.

4 out of 5

Glass is in cinemas now.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

2018 #261
David Slade | “90” mins | TV (HD) | 2.20:1 | UK & USA / English | 15

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

The latest addition to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror universe is the kind of work that pushes at the boundaries of form and medium — and therefore is the kind of work that challenges how I count things here at 100 Films. Is it a film? An episode of TV? A video game? Or is it genuinely something new? Well, it’s not really a video game — it’s not interactive enough to qualify as that. So is it a TV episode, then? It carries the Black Mirror branding, and that is a TV series. Plus it’s not a theatrical release… but then, neither are most Netflix films. Indeed, Bandersnatch carries its own listing on Netflix (as a standalone title, not an instalment of the series), and is promoted by Netflix as an “interactive film”. So, taking them at their word, I’ve decided that means it counts as a film.

It’s also, I think, very accurate branding — they debated internally how it should be promoted, and I think they’ve landed on the right term for it. As I said before, it’s not really a video game — it’s not as interactive as a gamer would expect it to be. The debate between film vs. TV episode is tighter, but when isn’t it these days? Either way, it’s not just your regular passive Netflix-viewing experience, because it is interactive. In practice, it plays like a video version of Choose Your Own Adventure books — you know what those are, right? I’ve heard some Young People don’t, which saddens me in my apparently-old-now early 30s. If you don’t know, in a CYOA book you’d read a passage of story, then be asked to make a choice on behalf of the hero; for Option A, you’d turn to page X, and for Option B you’d turn to page Y, and so on from there, with your choices dictating your path through the story.

No reading required

Bandersnatch is similar, only without all the manual flicking back and forth: every so often (roughly every three to five minutes, determined as the optimal period of time by Netflix’s product testers) you’re presented with two choices on screen and have ten seconds to pick one. Which you choose decides what you see happen next. (If you don’t choose, Netflix decides for you. Make no choices whatsoever and you’re led on a predetermined route that gets you through a full story in the shortest time possible.) Sometimes these choices are small (which breakfast cereal to eat?), sometimes significant (accept a job offer?). Netflix remembers them all, even the minor ones, which have knock on effects later. They made a rod for their own back in this respect, because having to account for viewers’ early choices led to requiring alternate scenes later on that only vary in how they include the viewers’ fundamentally-meaningless earlier choice. But that’s Netflix’s behind-the-scenes problem, not ours as viewers. Suffice to say, they’ve put the work in, and those little touches help make for an even more immersive experience: the choices themselves may have no bearing on the plot, but the fact the film remembers them and then uses them again later is a kind of meaning in itself.

By this point you’re probably wondering what it’s actually all about, especially if you’re not merely wowed by the technology. (If you are wowed by the technology, check out this article at Wired which goes into more detail about what was required.) Set in 1984, we’re introduced to 19-year-old Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who lives with his dad (Craig Parkinson) and wants to be a video game designer. He’s managed to wangle a meeting with the company who publish games by his idol, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Stefan’s pitch is Bandersnatch, an adaptation of a classic Choose Your Own Adventure novel by Jerome F. Davies, who went mad. Stefan found the book among the possessions of his dead mother, an event which has left him seeing a therapist (Alice Lowe). As Stefan begins to write the program for Bandersnatch… well, what happens next is up to you.

Everybody play the game of life

You can already see how content is reflecting form (you’re playing a Choose Your Own Adventure game about a guy writing a Choose Your Own Adventure game, just in case you needed that spelling out for you), and, well, I don’t want to spoil anything (as much as you can spoil anything about a film where every viewer will have a different experience), but it goes further down the rabbit hole than that. Trust Brooker and the Black Mirror team to have taken a new, emerging technology and made a drama about it — I mean, that’s pretty much the series’ MO. You can rely on them to not make things as straightforward as they first appear, either. Most of the time the film offers two options, each leading you down a different path, but sometimes it mixes it up (to say how would be to spoil the experience, like attempting to relate a joke from a comedy). And if you’re curious about how alternate pathways play out, don’t worry, you won’t have to watch the film from the start every time: after certain “game over” points, Bandersnatch offers the chance to jump back to earlier decisions and choose differently. If you’re interested enough to continue, this is definitely worth doing: as I said earlier, Netflix remembers all your choices — there are sometimes advantages to choosing that ‘continue’ option instead of starting from scratch at a later date.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bandersnatch, considering all the myriad choices and paths and possibilities it presents to the viewer, is that it all makes sense. That might sound like Filmmaking 101, but it’s a massive pitfall that would’ve been so, so easy for them to fall into. And they made it a more complicated job for themselves too, insisting the choices viewers make were genuinely meaningful and affected what happened and where the story went. It’s very cleverly written and constructed — it’s not designed to force you down a certain path, or give you a fake choice that doesn’t really change anything, but instead to do those things while still building to a cohesive whole. Yes, of course it’s not total free will to do whatever you fancy, and sometimes there’s no escaping a certain choice or development… but, with the way Brooker has married story and presentation medium, that’s all kinda part of the point.

Suspicious Stefan

If you think about how Bandersnatch was made — the challenge it presented to Brooker as writer, to director David Slade, and to the cast having to negotiate their characters’ various emotional arcs across different permutations of similar scenes — it becomes even more impressive on a technical level. And that’s partly because you don’t have to consider the behind-the-scenes logistics to find this an enjoyable experience. They’ve executed it so consummately that you can just watch it, play it, experience it without needing to perform mental gymnastics to make it fit together, because they’ve accounted for all that and filmed the necessary alternate stuff and been certain it all pieces together. So you can instead apply brain power to what the film has to say about choice and free will, and to working out which alternative options you could choose and which parts of the story you perhaps haven’t experienced yet.

Plus, to an extent, how much you get out of Bandersnatch is rewarded by how much you’re prepared to put in. As I mentioned earlier, at the simplest level you can just put your remote down and watch it play out a 40-minute-ish Black Mirror episode via its default choices (selected by Brooker), giving you the most basic version of the story (I haven’t done this, but I’m tempted to give it a go). Or you can play through until you reach one of the five endings that bring you to the choice of a credits scroll. (Netflix’s official line is that there are five endings. Depending how you count it, there are definitely more.) Or you can keep going and going, taking those “continue” options and seeing where different choices lead you. Sometimes, they lead you to entirely new places. And while there are multiple endings, there’s an “official” ending, too; one where the credits roll and you end up back at the Netflix menu screen (or, I guess, go to something else playing, if you’re one of those weirdos who hasn’t turned that feature off), rather than another continue option.

Play on

I played on until I came across that particular finale — partly because I’m a completist, partly because I was so engrossed in what I was watching. Did I experience every permutation the film has to offer? No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t; but I’m also pretty sure I experienced the bulk of the major ones. Did I get “lucky” that it took me so long to find that final-ending, meaning I saw a lot of the film before I got there? Put another way: is there a quicker path to that final-ending which would mean you saw less of the whole film than I did? Maybe there is. Or maybe there isn’t — maybe the only way to that ending is trial and error through multiple permutations. Or maybe there are multiple “final” endings, and when you’ve exhausted what the film feels it has to offer it throws you the appropriate one. Such are the secrets of Bandersnatch, which Reddit users will surely reveal in time. They’ve already made a start, although a thorough-looking flowchart doing the rounds on Twitter has already been proven to be missing at least a few possibilities.

However much time you choose to spend on it (Netflix say a thorough session would take two-and-a-half hours, although the BBFC certification reveals that there’s over five hours of footage required to make the whole thing function), Bandersnatch is a genuine experience, once again putting Netflix at the cutting edge crossroads of modern visual entertainment. Is it a film? A TV episode? A video game? All of those things? None of them — something else? Something new? Those who must experience such new things will need to try this out, of course — they probably already have. But it’s one for regular viewers, too, with a rewarding story to tell; one which could only have been adequately told with this newly-imagined technology. In my opinion, it’s a magnificent success, and a must-have experience.

5 out of 5

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available to watch/play/whatever on Netflix now.

It placed 10th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

2018 #253
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

Sartana locked up

A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

Greed

Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

Happy Death Day (2017)

2018 #43
Christopher Landon | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Happy Death Day

How much does pure originality matter? Happy Death Day is a high-concept slasher movie that could be described as Groundhog Day meets Scream via Legally Blonde. Normally those kind of “X meets Y” descriptions give a general sense of tone or some coincidental similarities, but if you could put those three films in a blender, Happy Death Day is almost certainly what would come out. (There’s probably a more apposite sorority comedy than Legally Blonde for the third ingredient, but that’s not my subgenre of expertise.) But while there’s no doubt that Happy Death Day is derivative, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

The film introduces us to college student Tree (Jessica Rothe), who wakes up hungover in a stranger’s dorm room on what turns out to be her birthday. Later that day, she’s murdered… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Later that day, although she takes steps to avoid it, she’s murdered again… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Yes, she’s in a time loop — one which, she theorises, can only be stopped if she finds and stops her killer.

It’s a clever conceit — yes, borrowed from Groundhog Day, but utilised in a different way. For me, the plot/structural similarity is easy to overlook because, hey, it’s a great idea, why not recycle it with a different kind of story? This variation is enjoyably done, too — not an outright comedy, but with enough wit to make for a fun movie. There’s a very real danger of it being repetitive — repetitiveness is baked into the very concept, obviously — but, like Groundhog Day, it dodges that with amusing variations and intelligent filmmaking. Okay, the logic is sometimes a little askew (for example: no matter how quickly or slowly Tree leaves the dorm room at the start, the same random events happen outside), but that’s storytelling expediency rather than a major problem with the film’s logic, in my opinion.

Screaming groundhog

In the lead role, Jessica Rothe is excellent. She fills what could’ve been a pretty standard slasher movie heroine with different levels of reconcilable personality and a surprising amount of heart. She’s a likeable, root-for-able character to spend the day with over and over (and over) again. And when you know how the movie was filmed (i.e. like almost every other movie: not chronologically, but by location, having to shoot scenes from different time loops side by side), the way her performance is accurately nuanced becomes even more impressive.

In my opening comparison I picked Scream specifically because Happy Death Day has the feel of those late ’90s / early ’00s teen horror movies — the heyday of franchises like Scream, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc. Back then this surely would’ve been a huge hit, but I feel like very few people were talking about it when it came out last October. That said, it achieved a respectable Rotten Tomatoes score (70%), grossed $122.6 million (off a budget of just $4.8 million), and this week they made headlines by announcing the sequel’s title, Happy Death Day 2U, which seemed to go down rather well. So maybe I just missed everyone celebrating it first time round.

I hope it continues to find a wider audience, because I think it’s a lot of fun. It may be built from blocks borrowed from other films, but they’ve been arranged in such a way that I think it still feels fresh, and they’ve been assembled skilfully enough that it’s enjoyable either way.

4 out of 5

Happy Death Day 2U is scheduled for release on Valentine’s Day 2019.

I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969)

aka Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino / Sartana the Gravedigger

2018 #169
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy / English | 15

I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death

The second official movie to star Western antihero Sartana is, according to the blurb on Arrow’s Blu-ray release, “a more playful film than its predecessor, possessing an inventive visual style and developing its central character into a more creative and resourceful figure.” That’s bang on — and it’s a better film for it.

It starts with a bang, too: a bank robbery that turns into an action-packed shoot-out. The leader of the gang is posing as Sartana, which puts a price on our hero’s head. He sets about trying to prove his innocence and get his revenge, while three fellow bounty hunters set about trying to kill him.

Your Angel of Death is a lot slower paced than the non-stop action-fest of the first film, but that has its benefits: the plot is a lot clearer, and there’s more time invested in characters and non-violent set pieces (like Sartana’s card tricks), which I thought made for a more enjoyable watch overall. The storyline gives the film a “whodunnit” element, as the guy who framed Sartana is as much a mystery to us as it is to him. The film develops Sartana into a more interesting character, too, because his resourcefulness really comes out here. He doesn’t just shoot fast — he plans his strategy, uses objects as weapons in cunning ways, sometimes coming up with such things on the fly.

Sartana takes aim

Of the three men after Sartana, only the one played by Klaus Kinski gets any serious screen time. Kinski was a bankable actor in these kind of movies at the time, and so after his cameo-sized appearance in the first film he’s back here with a bigger role, as a somewhat camp bounty hunter. There’s a sort of running gag where he’s terrible at cards, and knows it, but can’t help playing anyway, which is quite fun. As for the other two hunters, one is used for a decent shootout-cum-chase sequence early on, but the third is introduced alongside the other two only to disappear entirely until the final duel, which makes the finale somewhat anticlimactic. One nice touch, though: Sartana clearly has a longstanding professional relationship with all three men — comrades in the bounty hunter game, or something like that — which adds an extra dimension to their encounters.

The other standout in the supporting cast is Frank Wolff as Buddy Ben. Sartana initially thinks Ben might’ve set him up, but he was in prison at the time. From there he takes on the role of Sartana’s sidekick, kinda — we’re still not quite sure if he’s to be trusted, which is a nice dynamic.

Barrel to barrel

Giuliano Carnimeo’s direction is less remarkable than Gianfranco Parolini’s work on the first film… or so I’m told: every review seems to mention it, as does Arrow’s booklet. There are some nice flourishes, however, with the most obvious being that almost anytime someone is shot the camera dramatically tips over sideways, mimicking their death. Apparently the film’s more humorous and ironic tone is in keeping with Carnimeo’s style, in contrast to the more straightforward action of Parolini, and that’s a positive in my book.

Your Angel of Death was a more enjoyable experience than the previous film, which was very welcome because (as I mentioned in my previous review) I’d been slightly concerned that taking a punt on this box set would turn out to be a mistake. (Well, there are still three more films to go, so we’ll see!) That said, although there’s a lot of inventiveness and fun, it’s to the film’s detriment that it often feels a little slow. My score errs on the harsh side, then, but to go the other way would be generous.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

Red Sparrow (2018)

2018 #149
Francis Lawrence | 140 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Russian ballerina whose career-ending injury leads her down a path to becoming a “sparrow” — a highly-trained undercover operative for the Russian secret service. Used and abused throughout her training, when she’s sent after a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) in order to find a mole within Russian intelligence, a series of double- and triple-crosses leave everyone in doubt about whose side she’s really on… including, er, us viewers.

Red Sparrow is set today. I think. It’s easy to forget. I had to check on a couple of occasions, including one final double-check before writing this review. The thing is, the politics of it all is very Cold War. Of course, given the current state of geopolitics, a neo-Cold War between Russian and the West is probably at its most believable since the ’80s, it’s just that this film’s handling of it doesn’t feel timely and modern, but like a Cold War story that someone decided should be set today. Partly that’s because a lot of the technology and tradecraft feels like it comes from a previous era too. I mean, one major sequence revolves around floppy disks. Floppy disks! I can’t even remember the last time I saw a floppy disk. Either that bit is based on something real-world (like, there’s a reason why someone stealing secrets would still be using floppies) — and, if it is, the film doesn’t bother to lay out why — or it’s the single most unrealistic thing in a movie that’s about a former ballerina being trained to be a Russian spy skilled in psychological influence and sexual manipulation in just three months — i.e. this is a pretty unrealistic movie all round.

Lady spy in red

Even if we ignore the inconsistencies of its temporal setting, it struggles with what else it has going for it. In its attempts to provide a twisty-turny plot, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. As it flips and flops around about which side Dominika is supposed to be on really, clearly intending for us to feel wrong-footed every half-hour or so, the gears of how it’s setting up an inevitable final “reveal” begin to show through. Either that or I’m a genius for working it out ahead of time, whichever. One great well-disguised twist is better than endless back-and-forthing, but none of the filmmakers here seem to realise that, or don’t have the confidence to rely solely on that final reveal. Another side effect of this is it becomes hard to root for any particular character. Maybe this is the legacy of it being a US production: it can’t quite bring itself to ask us to fully invest in Dominika, a Russian spy, even as it tries to keep her the heroine. Plus the supposed twists wouldn’t work if we were actually let in on what she was plotting.

And away from the plot, the whole movie is sort of… seedy, but without owning it. It wants to be about sex and to somehow be honest about that, while also trying not to titillate in any way. It wants to be realistically violent, while merely being nasty in just one or two scenes. Conversely, it also wants to be a grown-up, labyrinthine Le Carré-esque thriller, but it’s so busy trying to repeatedly fool you that it forgets to properly engage you. It certainly doesn’t succeed in being plausible, with the elaborate plan Dominika supposedly concocted relying rather too much on crossed-fingers-type logic — or, I’m sure the filmmakers would say, her unparalleled ability to read people.

Sexy spy shenanigans

I’d rather it had picked a side: either go all out schlock — more violence, more tits — or go full intelligent thriller — rein in the seediness, rein in the superhuman foresight. As it is, Red Sparrow is not trashy enough to be titillating, certainly not clever enough to challenge Le Carré as the go-to example of intelligent spy thrills, and not stylish enough to get away with it either. It kind of sits in an awkward middle ground between all those things. I didn’t actually dislike it, but it didn’t thrill me either.

3 out of 5

Red Sparrow is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and UHD Blu-ray in the UK today.