The Witch (2015)

aka The VVitch: A New-England Folktale

2016 #171
Robert Eggers | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Brazil / English | 15 / R

The Witch

There’s a lot to commend in this debut feature from writer-director Robert Eggers, the story of English settlers in 17th Century America who are banished from their community and begin to be affected by a supernatural force in the woods.

With dialogue lifted from contemporary reports of witchcraft, it has a level of period authenticity that is rarely seen. I thought it was an immensely effective choice for evoking an entirely different era, but others find it a distracting affectation. Also distancing for some viewers is the understated style — it’s more of an arthouse period flick than a gore ‘n’ guts chiller; like a horror movie made by Terrence Malick. Much like the dialogue, I thought that gave it a level of realism. You know this isn’t a true story because such occult happenings aren’t real… but if they were, they’d be like this.

It’s not a horror movie that suits all tastes, then, but I thought it was v.v. creepy and v.v. good.

4 out of 5

The Nice Guys (2016)

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

The Nice Guys

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

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5

The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

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

100 Films @ 10: Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes Films

Yesterday I ranked the film series that have been a part of 100 Films down the years. The Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective and Nigel Bruce as his trusty sidekick Dr Watson may only have placed 6th on that list, but they have been a regular presence on my blog for most of its life as I slowly worked my way through all 14, from The Hound of the Baskervilles in Year 2 to Dressed to Kill as the record-breaking #200 in Year 9.

It seemed only fitting to include the series in my tenth birthday celebrations, therefore, so for today’s top ten I’ve gone back over all my reviews (and memories) and used them as a guide to rank my ten favourite instalments.

10
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

“The basic concept is a nice idea for a war-set spy-thriller, but not really for a Sherlock Holmes mystery. […] The consensus seems to be against me, but by the end I was quite enjoying Voice of Terror. It may be a Sherlock Holmes film in name only, but taken instead as a cheap spy thriller it makes for passable entertainment.” Full review.

9
The Hound of the Baskervilles

“One of the novel’s strong points is its occasional Gothic styling, and this is something the film version does very well. Dartmoor looks fantastic, like something Tim Burton would have created were he working in the ’30s. It’s clearly a set, but it’s dramatic and moody and completely effective.” Full review.

8
Terror by Night

“a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. […] That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.” Full review.

7
The Pearl of Death

“Holmes first rescues the priceless Borgia Pearl, but then quite spectacularly loses it. The notion of Holmes being doubted, of having to prove himself to reassert his reputation, is a good one — one recently borrowed by avowed Rathbone fans Moffat & Gatiss for their modern-day Sherlock, in fact.” Full review.

6
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon

“The name’s Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, as Universal’s loose adaptations of Britain’s Greatest Detective deliver a low-key proto-Bond, 22 years before Goldfinger applied the same tricks to Britain’s Greatest Spy. […] As with Voice of Terror, I enjoyed a lot of Secret Weapon in spite of its distinct un-Holmes-ness — it’s another pacey, exciting World War Two spy thriller.” Full review.

5
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

Faces Death leaves behind the proto-Bond WW2 spying of the last three films (“it can almost be viewed as the starting point of a completely new Holmes series” asserts one review I’ve read) to involve Holmes in a genuine detective mystery […] packed with proper deduction, which is excellent.” Full review.

4
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“There’s rain-lashed, fog-drenched Victorian London streets! Brutal murders by foul foreigners! Dastardly plots against the crown! Galloping carriages! Romantic subplots! A smattering of comedy! A song-and-dance number! (No, really, there is.) And a final shoot out… in the Tower of London! You can’t escape the joyous feeling that this was designed as pure entertainment, literally including something for everyone.” Full review.

3
The Woman in Green

“Starting with a particularly vile series of murders that mask an even more detestable scheme and genuine peril for our hero, I can imagine some fans would find The Woman in Green to be too big a step outside the Rathbone Holmes comfort zone. For me, however, these elements mark it out as one of the series’ best instalments.” Full review.

2
The Spider Woman

“Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser skillfully mixes elements from various Conan Doyle tales [including] The Sign of Four, The Final Problem, The Adventure of the Empty House, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot and The Adventure of the Speckled Band. […] Several of these borrowed elements — the faked death and The Woman — lead to some delicious scenes, such as when Holmes reveals he’s alive to Dr Watson, offering one of those occasions where Bruce’s comedic rendition of the role actually works.” Full review.

1
The Scarlet Claw

“[Roy William Neill’s] direction is incredibly atmospheric, from a wonderful mist-covered opening scene, replete with an incessantly tolling bell, to regular instances of shadow-drenched photography afterwards; not to mention various pleasing camera angles and moves. The story — in which townsfolk believe a mythical beast has returned to murder its residents — presents a well-constructed mystery all round, though as it moves into the second half some of its twists become all too guessable. [Such] little niggles may stop the film from being perfect but, like the similarities to The Hound of the Baskervilles, while they’re certainly there, they’re easy to overlook in the name of a rollicking good horror-mystery-adventure.” Full review.

Tomorrow: as seen on TV.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

It Follows (2014)

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

It Follows

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

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

Pretty in pink

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

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

Normal teens

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

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

Ahem.

Rules? What rules?

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

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

Sex

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

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

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

Wet

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

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

5 out of 5

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

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

2016 #157
Billy Wilder | 112 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U

Witness for the ProsecutionCharles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich shine in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play (in turn based on her short story), about a man accused of murder but who proclaims his innocence (Tyrone Power), the barrister who decides to take the case (Laughton), and the man’s wife who agrees to alibi him but seems somehow suspicious (Dietrich).

Despite expanding the action from the play, it’s still dialogue-heavy and a little stagey in places — but between the engrossingly labyrinthine plot, those captivating performances, and some humour added by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, such potential criticisms are irrelevant.

Helluva twist, too.

5 out of 5

A new adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution begins on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #97

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

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

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

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

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Beowulf)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 97%

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

Verdict

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

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

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

Midnight Special (2016)

2016 #145
Jeff Nichols | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Greece / English | 12 / PG-13

Midnight SpecialI’m not sure I’d even heard the name Jeff Nichols before Midnight Special came along, at which point most of the gushing reviews that followed seemed to mention him with cult-like reverence. He’s the writer and director, by the way, for anyone still in the dark, and unbeknownst to me (and, I rather suspect, most people outside certain cinephile circles) he’d amassed something of a following over his first three movies (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, two of which I’d at least heard of). It’s kind of odd to feel like everyone else loves this guy and has been eagerly anticipating his next work and is now discussing how it chimes with his existing canon, when you’ve not even heard of him.

Anyway, his latest film* has a plot that makes me want to dub it Starman: A World Beyond… though that might indicate something about the ending, so, uh, shh! Anyway, the story concerns a dad (Michael Shannon) who’s kidnapped his son (Jaeden Lieberher) from some kind of cult, and is now on the run from both the authorities and the cultists who want the kid back. All the furore stems from the fact that the kid has some kind of special abilities, one of which has given them a destination to head for and time to be there…

The story’s style has made a comparison to Spielberg the go-to, not only for reviewers but for the writer-director himself, who’s labelled the film an homage to E.T. and Close Encounters. You can see that influence, certainly, but it lacks the effortless charm that Spielberg brings to his movies. If this is Spielberg, it’s by way of more indie arthouse fare. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. You could argue that it’s more refreshing than any of the I want to believestraight-up Spielberg rehashes we’ve seen over the past four decades; conversely, a strand of wilful obscurity means it may be ultimately less satisfying. Again, some people derive satisfaction explicitly from that lack of resolution or explanation, while others will find it damagingly frustrating. Even more than Spielberg, I felt the thing most evoked by this structure was The X Files: intriguing sci-fi mysteries that eventually lead to semi-reveals which don’t quite satisfy in themselves in part because they’re trying very hard to remain open-ended.

In that regard, it’s arguably a little too woolly on its sci-fi elements, and executes the chase-thriller aspect of its plot too slowly, to be fully considered a genre movie; but it’s also too indistinct on its cast to fully convince as a character-driven drama. You can certainly begin to infer some things about what their exact motivations are, what they’re thinking and feeling and why they’re doing what they do, but I’m not sure if it’s actually there or if I’m endeavouring to build something out of the little that we’re given. That said, if I’m prepared to do Zack Snyder the courtesy of reading something into his work that may or may not be there (cf. Sucker Punch), then Jeff Nichols deserves at least the same level of kindness. But for the kind of movie whose style makes it seem like it should be about Character or Theme over more genre- and/or narrative-focused concerns, it feels there’s an awful lot of attention paid to plot over anything else. Speaking as a fan of sci-fi and high-concepts and B-thrillers and blockbusters, I actually think I’d’ve liked it more if it toned down the sci-fi and the plot, and instead focused on the characters’ soul-searching and the unusual family dynamics.

That said, there’s some great imagery. Mainly the sci-fi stuff at the end — I don’t think it’s unfair to describe most of the movie as looking solidly unremarkable, but the climax is pretty darn good. However, I’ve read many reviews that criticise the effects. Are we not past that yet? Especially when it comes to a film of this budget and scale. Nuclear familyI thought they perfectly conveyed what they were intending to convey — usually, just a kind of otherworldly light. It’s not like it’s even over-stretching its means, like so many network TV series or Sharknado-esque movies do when they try to emulate a $200 million blockbuster on a TV budget. If you’re expecting some grand CGI, maybe go watch one of those $200 million blockbusters instead of an $18 million drama.

Midnight Special seems to provoke a wide range of responses — I mean, you can say that about most films, ultimately; but some more so than others, and skimming across reviews and comments online, this is definitely one of them. Fans of American indie-ish drama-driven semi-genre movies, or of more thoughtful science-fiction, will surely want to give it a go, but how much you’ll connect with its characters or its ideas seems to be a roll of the dice. I liked it well enough, but I don’t remember seeing any particular indication of what’s inspired the notion that we should all be fawning over Jeff Nichols as the best auteur to happen to cinema since sliced bread. (Sliced bread’s early movies were great, weren’t they?)

3 out of 5

Midnight Special is on Sky Cinema from today.

* In a coincidental similarity to when I started viewing the work of another much-hailed star-to-be indie director (Ben Wheatley), I’m beginning with his fourth film. ^

Unbreakable (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #95

Are you ready for the truth?

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 22nd November 2000 (USA)
UK Release: 29th December 2000
First Seen: DVD, 2001

Stars
Bruce Willis (Armageddon, Looper)
Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Avengers Assemble)
Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride, The Conspirator)

Director
M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village)

Screenwriter
M. Night Shyamalan (Stuart Little, The Visit)

The Story
When security guard David Dunn is the only survivor of a train crash, and without a scratch on him, he encounters comic book fan Elijah Price, who has an unusual theory: that David is indestructible, a real-life superhero.

Our Hero
David Dunn is just an ordinary guy, with a low-key job and a wife and kid, but after his near-impossible feat of survival he begins to test himself. Could he be more remarkable than he ever imagined?

Our Villain
Spoilers! Which, considering this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, is basically a red flag saying “here’s where the twist is”. All I’ll say is, keep an eye on David’s kid, Joseph. I mean, pointing a gun at your parent is never innocent, is it?

Best Supporting Character
Comic book art dealer Elijah Price was born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that makes his bones extremely fragile and prone to fracture. Losing himself in the world of comic book superheroes throughout his childhood, he develops a theory: that if he represents an extreme of human weakness, there must be someone at the opposite extreme…

Memorable Quote
Elijah: “Why is it, do you think, that of all the professions in the world you chose protection?”
David: “You are a very strange man.”
Elijah: “You could have been a tax accountant. You could have owned your own gym. You could have opened a chain of restaurants. You could’ve done of ten thousand things, but in the end, you chose to protect people. You made that decision, and I find that very, very interesting.”

Memorable Scene
As well as his indestructibility, David comes to believe he may have a form of ESP, that allows him to glimpse people’s criminal acts when he touches them. Encouraged by Elijah, he goes to a bustling train station, stands in the middle of the crowd, and holds out his arms…

Next time…
Reportedly the plot of Unbreakable was merely Act One of Shyamalan’s original concept, until it wound up expanding into an entire movie. Talk of a sequel and/or trilogy used to occur regularly, but Shyamalan made a bunch of crap no one liked instead. 16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)

What the Critics Said
The Sixth Sense was no fluke. Unbreakable, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s dazzling reunion with Bruce Willis confirms he’s one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today. […] The deliberately paced Unbreakable, make no mistake about it, is a vehicle form-fitted to Bruce Willis’ burgeoning gifts as an uncommonly subtle and affecting actor. Willis should get the Oscar nomination he deserved for The Sixth Sense, and Jackson’s enigmatic Elijah – who has devoted his life to searching for the sole survivor of a disaster, for reasons that won’t be explained here – is equally commanding in a difficult if somewhat underwritten role.” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

Score: 68%

What Quentin Tarantino Says
“The final film, alphabetically, on my top twenty list is M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s Unbreakable, which I actually think, 1) not only has Bruce Willis’ best performance on film that he’s ever given. I think he’s absolutely magnificent in the film. It also is a brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology. In fact, so much so that, to me, the film was very obscure when it came out as far as what it was about. I actually think they did themselves a disservice, because you can actually break down what the film is about by basically one sentence, that I should think would’ve proved far more intriguing than their ad campaign, which is basically, “what if Superman was here on Earth and didn’t know he was Superman?”, which is what the film is about. Course, you don’t know that until actually you see the movie. Anyway, Unbreakable is, I actually think, one of the masterpieces of our time.” — Quentin Tarantino’s Favourite Movies from 1992 to 2009

What the Public Say
“The story is unique… I mean we see stories about superheroes everywhere… everywhere, and despite things here and there changed, they are still the same stories we have heard a thousand times before. This film had an original story that was both compelling and intense. The use of the camera angles is so well done it is a shock that Unbreakable is not at the top of everyone’s favorite Shyamalan film. It is masked under the presumption that it is moving slowly, because in reality… a lot is going on.” — Dave, Dave Examines Movies

Verdict

Some people view Unbreakable as the start of M. Night Shyamalan’s inexorable quality slide after the debut peak of The Sixth Sense (not that it was his debut). Those people are wrong. Partly because that degeneration doesn’t really start until the final act of The Village; partly because Unbreakable is Shyamalan’s best film. We’ve now had countless big-screen takes on superhero mythology, but none are quite like this. Man of Steel may have attempted to ask “what would happen if Superman were real?”, but it’s Unbreakable that better answers that question. With subtle performances, including arguably a career-best turn from Bruce Willis, and a plausible handling of its fantastical material, which nonetheless develops into a satisfying climax, Unbreakable is still one of the most original and best superhero movies ever made.

#96 will be… gunpowder, treason, and plot.

Enemy (2013)

2016 #136
Denis Villeneuve | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Canada & Spain / English | 15 / R

EnemyBetween his popular English-language debut Prisoners and his apparently-not-quite-as-popular-but-definitely-better-in-my-opinion drugs thriller Sicario (its IMDb score is a whole 0.5 points lower, which is more than it sounds), French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made this less-widely-seen psychological thriller. I think it may’ve struggled to find distribution (here in the UK it definitely went either straight to digital or was a day-and-date cinema-and-digital release), which, once you’ve seen it, is unsurprising: it’s considerably less accessible than any of Villeneuve’s other English-language features.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam, a discontented university lecturer, who one day spots a bit player in a movie, Daniel St. Claire, who looks exactly like him. Discovering the actor’s real name is Anthony, Adam tracks him down and discovers… well, that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say things get more than a bit weird at times.

There’s no denying that Enemy is atmospheric, but the actual story was a bit too elliptical for my taste. It was all going fairly swimmingly until it suddenly stopped just before it appeared to be going to offer answers. That naturally suggests you need to go back and reconsider/deconstruct what you’ve already seen, but it nonetheless makes it feel a bit frustrating, at least initially, and makes reading theories online a virtual necessity for deciphering the movie’s meaning (unless you want to try to work it all out by yourself, of course). I’ve read a few of those theories, and I’m not sure any have won me over 100%, but they did enhance my understanding. Nonetheless, I find myself sticking with my initial assessment.

I wish I knew how to quit my boring jobWhile looking up those various explanations, I read at least one review that asserted it’s a good thing that the film doesn’t provide a clear answer at the end. Well, I think that’s a debatable point. I mean, there is an answer — Villeneuve & co clearly know what they’re doing, to the point where they made the actors sign contracts that forbade them from revealing too much to the press. So why is it “a good thing” that they choose to not explain that answer in the film? This isn’t just a point about Enemy, it’s one we can apply more widely. There’s a certain kind of film critic/fan who seems to look down on any movie that ends with an explanation for all the mysteries you’ve seen, but if you give them a movie where those mysteries do have a definite answer but it’s not actually provided as part of the film, they’re in seventh heaven. (And no one likes a movie where there are mysteries but no one has an answer for them, do they? That’d just be being mysterious for precisely no purpose.) But why is this a good thing? Why is it good for there to be answers but not to give them, and bad for there to be answers and to provide them too? If the answers the filmmakers intended are too simplistic or too pat or too well-worn or too familiar, then they’re poor for that reason, and surely they’re still just as poor if you don’t readily provide them? I rather like films that have mysteries and also give me the answers to those mysteries. Is that laziness on my part? Could be. But I come back to this: if, as a filmmaker (or novelist or whatever) you have an answer for your mystery and you don’t give it in the text itself, what is your reason for not giving it in the text? Because I think perhaps you need one.

Could be pregnant, could be a third scatter cushionFortunately, Enemy has much to commend aside from its confounding plot. Gyllenhaal’s dual performance is great, making Adam and Anthony distinct in more ways than just their clothing (which is a help for the viewer, but not for the whole film), and conveying the pair’s mental unease really well. It would seem he errs towards this kind of role, from his name-making turn in Donnie Darko on out, which does make it all the odder that he once did Prince of Persia and was very nearly almost Spider-Man. I guess everyone likes money, right? As Anthony’s wife, Sarah Gadon also gets to offer a lot of generally very subtle acting. Her character’s evolving thoughts and feelings are not to be found in her minimal dialogue, but are clearly conveyed through her expressions and actions. On the other hand, Mélanie Laurent feels wasted, her role as Adam’s girlfriend requiring little more than being an object of desire — a part she’s completely qualified for, but also one she’s overqualified for.

Some find Nicolas Bolduc’s yellow-soaked cinematography too much, but I thought it was highly effective. Especially when mixed with the location of Toronto, a city we’re not so familiar with seeing on screen (or I’m not, anyway), it lends the setting a foreign, alien, unfamiliar feel, which is at once modern, even futuristic, but also dated, or rundown. The dystopian sensation is only emphasised by the distant yellow smog that seems to permanently hang over the city. It’s pleasantly creepy, but not the creepiest thing: the use of spiders is scary as fuck. I’m not properly arachnophobic, but I don’t like the buggers, and some of their surprise appearances are more effective at delivering chills (and potentially nightmares) than many a dedicated horror movie. (Incidentally, there’s a bit in Object of desireArrival that instantly called this to mind. I don’t know if it was a deliberate self-reference or just Villeneuve recycling techniques.)

For a certain kind of film fan, I imagine Enemy is Villeneuve’s masterpiece (at least among his English language features; I’m not au fait with his earlier work). For the rest of us, I’d guess it slips in behind his other movies as an interesting but frustratingly arty also-ran.

3 out of 5