Eye in the Sky (2015)

2017 #8
Gavin Hood | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & South Africa / English & Somali | 15 / R

Eye in the Sky

Drone warfare is a fairly hot and contentious issue of our times, though as it seems to have “just kinda happened” I’m not sure how much significant public debate there’s been around it. It’s certainly provided fodder for moviemakers, however, with multiple productions seeking to be “the one about drones”. I’ve heard the best of these is Good Kill (though IMDb ratings disagree), but that’ll have to wait for another day (I’ve been sitting on this review since frickin’ January because I’ve still not got round to Good Kill!) Even if Eye in the Sky is the inferior film, it’s no slouch.

After a multinational mission is launched to capture wanted terrorists in Kenya, surveillance observes them prepping suicide bombers. The mission objective is changed to “kill”, but commanders watching from afar via drone are forced to reconsider their options due to a civilian presence near the target. It’s a tense thriller driven by a compelling moral dilemma — in fact, the dilemma is an old one: would you sacrifice one innocent life to potentially save dozens more? It’s just that it’s now framed in the super-modern context of using drones to dispatch death from the other side of the world.

Someone's got to make the call

Getting ahead of myself a little now, but events build to a very tense climax. That’s how you want your thrillers to end, isn’t it? It also pays off the sometimes slow, borderline stagey “people talking in rooms” film that precedes it. Maybe that’s unfair — yes, it’s people talking in rooms, but there’s dynamism in what they’re debating and, er, the number of different rooms it takes place in… It also has a very plausible line in the passing of the decision-making buck, up the chain through the military, then through politicians. I guess for this to work the operation depicted had to be British-led because, as the film reveals, the American military machine would’ve had no such compunction about possibly killing a little girl.

Much of the film lets you make up your own mind about its ethical conundrums, which is a strong point; but then, after all the actual debating is done and decisions have been made, it uses its final scene to show an outcome it could’ve left open-ended. This makes it seem to come down quite heavily in one direction. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having a position and advocating it in art, but for a film which seems designed to tackle a contentious issue and put it up for genuine debate, it ends up feeling a tad one-sided. That said, there’s a long and well-liked screed on Letterboxd about how “it’s a film with an agenda that pretends to have none”, that agenda being to “have you rooting for the bombing of a little girl” — which is funny because I felt that, if anything, it came down a little too heavily the other way.

Emote control

One thing that distracted me to an inordinate degree was the agents on the ground using cameras disguised as birds and bugs — not just models with cameras in them, but imitation creatures that have the ability to fly around, reposition, etc. Even if such tech is possible nowadays, would Kenyan forces have access to it? And even if it’d been provided to them by their US/UK allies, would the equipment produce results of such good quality, or be capable of sending the images across such distances? Surely real-life drones are the size and shape they are (i.e. pretty big) for a reason? I guess the applicable point about this is: if you’re trying to make a serious modern-day moral thriller, don’t throw James Bond tech in there.

Nonetheless, Eye in the Sky manages to put a very-present moral issue up for debate, framing it as a kind of case study so that it also serves as a tense thriller. Thought-provoking and nail-biting.

4 out of 5

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Now You See Me 2 (2016)

2017 #54
Jon M. Chu | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France* / English, Mandarin & Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

Now You See Me 2

Con thrillers are much like magic tricks: they set you up to expect one thing, then reveal something else was going on all along. The major difference is that, unlike most magic tricks, con thrillers eventually show you how it was done. So whoever came up with the idea of combining those two things into a movie where magicians use their skills to pull off elaborate heists was practically a genius in my book — what a magnificent marriage of ideas! Unfortunately, the resulting films — Now You See Me and this sequel — aren’t much good at magic, routinely substituting CGI for the tricks, and they’re not great at cons either, substituting a headlong rush and a barrage of twists for a plot that hangs together. And that’s why these films are fundamentally empty: they don’t understand that the impressiveness of both magic and a reveal-based narratives lies in doing it for real, not in pretending to do it.

Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the first movie — in spite of its flaws, it was a daft bit of fun. The sequel (which misses a trick from the off by not being titled Now You Don’t) is too stupid to even manage that level of entertainment, instead devolving into a morass of nonsensicality. It’s not even that its plot has zero credibility as a plausible story — it’s the very way it’s put together as a film. Scenes feel disconnected from one another. Bits within them seem to have been snipped out. Sequences of varying scales seem to have been created from the notion of “what if we had a scene like this?” with no thought given to if it fits in the film, or even if it makes sense within itself. I’m left wondering if the movie had to be heavily trimmed for time; or did it never make any sense and this is the best they could stitch together?

The cast try to understand the plot...

Some spectacle-driven movies can drift by without too much sense, but a con movie — where a major component is the explanation — is not one of them. Indeed, Now You See Me 2 endeavours to make sense. It tells you there was a twist; a clever plan; that someone pulled the wool over someone else’s eyes. Sometimes it does even pretend to explain how they supposedly achieved that… but it doesn’t actually explain it. It tries to just sweep you along in a whirlwind of “surprise!” moments. That might be fine if you don’t care how it hangs together, but if you pause to consider who knew what when, and who plotted what and how… well, the film doesn’t want to give you a chance to think about any of that. That just contributes to my belief that, if you did stop and try to piece it all together, you’d discover it doesn’t actually make sense.

A few minor positives come from the new cast members. Lizzy Caplan is really good, a funny addition to the team, and Daniel Radcliffe entertains as the smiling villain, although thanks to the flurry of reveals he doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves. Actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine feel like they’re phoning it in for a paycheque. Well, sometimes a movie’s worth doing if it, say, pays for a nice house, eh Michael?

Watching it doesn’t bring any such benefits, though, so don’t bother.

2 out of 5

* I had this down as a USA/UK/China/Canada co-production. IMDb now says USA/France. Other places say just USA. One of the main production companies is from Hong Kong, according to IMDb. So who the hell knows? ^

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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

Blade Runner 2049

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

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

Buried secrets

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

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

Hot robot-on-robot action

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

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

Blade Runner 79, more like

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

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

Shoot to retire

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

5 out of 5

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

The Accountant (2016)

2017 #73
Gavin O’Connor | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Accountant

In this action-thriller from the director of the overrated Warrior, Ben Affleck stars as Chris Wolff, an autistic accountant who excels at auditing complex financial records. No, wait! I did say action-thriller, because Chris’ clients are mostly criminal organisations, and he uses the martial arts training his father instilled as a child to double up as a hitman. See, it’s exciting really.

When Chris is called to audit a robotics company (run by John Lithgow) who have found irregularities in their books (why this criminal accountant is called to work for a legit company I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was explained in the film), he unexpectedly bonds with Dana (Anna Kendrick), the company accountant who spotted the problem. After his audit unearths evidence of embezzlement, both Chris and Dana find themselves the target of bad people (led by Jon Bernthal) who want to keep the company’s secrets. Meanwhile, a couple of FBI agents (J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are on the trail of the mysterious criminal known primarily as “the Accountant”…

Maths!

The Accountant has lots of moving bits and pieces — I’ve not even alluded to all of them in that summary — but to call it a complicated film would be either too generous or a disservice, depending on your point of view. There’s a clarity to it all that keeps it easy to follow but suitably engaging, even as it plays out multiple storylines in a couple of time periods (there are flashbacks aplenty to Chris’ childhood training). And if you’re thinking, “finally a film that makes accounting exciting!”, I’m sorry to disappoint you but Chris’ maths skills are really just a MacGuffin to get the ball rolling. What it does deliver is a decent thriller plot, with a couple of twists to keep things lively. It’s also a pretty satisfying narrative — I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie that so thoroughly tied up everything into nice neat little bows. I suppose that’s at least kind of appropriate given the hero’s condition.

The action element is mainly reserved for the second half, when Chris has to deal with the people out to get him. This isn’t one for adrenaline junkies — it’s not a nonstop fight-fest like, say, a Bourne movie — but there’s a suitably violent climax nonetheless.

Shooting!

In some respects The Accountant shouldn’t be a good movie. It treats autism as a superpower, which is both inaccurate and turning into a cliché; but it doesn’t do it so egregiously that it feels entirely tacky. The whole side story with the FBI also feels kind of clunky, though at least eventually goes somewhere — whether that somewhere is relevant and clever, or pointless and daft for the sake of a twist, is up to your own judgement. Same goes for the other major final-act reveal.

Yet, for all that, it’s kind of fun. Not in the obvious jokey way that, say, Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, but in the way that it provides decent characters, decent thrills, decent action, and a thorough set of conclusions that put pins in everything, including things you didn’t even think needed tying up. There may be points in the middle when you come close to rolling your eyes and almost wanting to give up on it, but by the end it’s all pretty satisfying.

4 out of 5

The Accountant is available on Sky Cinema from today.

21 (2008)

2017 #114
Robert Luketic | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

21

21 is based on a true story. Actually, it’s based on a book that’s based on a true story. Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich was a non-fiction bestseller, telling the fun and exciting story of the MIT blackjack team, a bunch of college kids who learnt card counting and took Vegas for millions of dollars. It was such a popular book that all the attention made people look into it, and it turned out it was heavily fictionalised — Mezrich not only exaggerated events, he flat out invented whole chunks of the story. (At the same time, he also left out some good stuff.) In turn, the book has itself been heavily melodramatised for this movie adaptation. What we’re left with is probably about as close to the truth as Game of Thrones is a fair depiction of the Wars of the Roses: some of it happened, but not to those people, not in that way, not at that time, and certainly not all of it.

As a film, it’s been mashed broadly into the heist movie template. Setting aside the veracity and treating it purely as an entertainment, this has pros and cons. Whenever it’s whizzing around in Vegas it’s kinda fun, with flashy camerawork and a slick feel for the excitement of being a successful high-roller. But when it puts that aside to get stuck into the characters’ thinly-drawn personal lives, it gets kinda dull. Part of the point of the book is how boring normal life began to seem to the team when compared to their Vegas lifestyle, but 21 tacks on more interpersonal subplots that just become finger-drumming.

Counting cards

Trying to make the chosen genre function isn’t helped by the fact that there’s no complicated heist here. The blackjack team are doing the same thing over and over — that’s basically how their system works as a moneymaker — and once the system’s been explained and we see it in action, the film only has a few ways to jazz that up. Between that and those subplots, at over two hours 21 is much longer than it needs to be, but doesn’t focus that time in the right areas: at least one major character undergoes a huge personality change across a single montage.

21’s got enough pizzazz to make it enjoyable purely as a lightweight movie experience, but you do have to wonder: would the incredible real story, by dint of being true and not movieised to fit a genre template, actually have been more interesting?

3 out of 5

Jaws (1975)

The 100 Films Guide to…

See it before you go swimming.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 124 minutes
BBFC: A (1975) | PG (1987) | 12A (2012)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 20th June 1975 (USA)
UK Release: 26th December 1975
Budget: $7-12 million (sources vary)
Worldwide Gross: $470.6 million

Stars
Roy Scheider (The French Connection, All That Jazz)
Robert Shaw (From Russia with Love, The Sting)
Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poseidon)
Lorraine Gary (Jaws 2, 1941)

Director
Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)

Screenwriters
Peter Benchley (The Deep, The Island)
Carl Gottlieb (Jaws 2, The Jerk)

Based on
Jaws, a novel by Peter Benchley.


The Story
As the seaside resort of Amity Island prepares for the lucrative 4th of July weekend, a series of violent shark attacks threaten the lives of residents and holidaymakers alike.

Our Heroes
Police chief Martin Brody is the one lumped with having to work out how to stop a man-eating shark, battling both small-town politics as well as the underwater predator. Eventually he’s aided by Matt Hooper, a young shark expert, and Quint, a salty old shark hunter.

Our Villain
A 25ft great white shark, with a taste for human flesh.

Best Supporting Character
Amity’s Mayor just wants what’s best for his town and its people — which, in this case, is having the beaches open for July 4th, whether people might get eaten or not.

Memorable Quote
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” — Brody

Memorable Scene
A group of young people sit on the beach at night drinking. The eyes of a boy and girl meet. They race off towards the sea, stripping as they go. She gets into the water first, while he’s too drunk to get his clothes off. She messes around in the ocean while he passes out on the sand. Then, she notices something underneath the water — something that grabs her — and… well, it doesn’t end well.

Memorable Music
John Williams’ famous, simple main theme is the definitive musical interpretation of approaching terror. When Spielberg first heard it, he thought it was a joke. Later, he said it was half of what made the film so successful.

Making of
Three mechanical sharks were built for the film, but no one thought to test them in water before taking them on location. They kept malfunctioning, causing a constant headache throughout production — because of them and other issues of shooting at sea, the film’s 55-day schedule ended up taking 159 days, and the $3.5 million budget ballooned to as much as $12 million. On the bright side, Spielberg had to work out how to shoot material around the unavailability of the sharks, which led to him taking a Hitchcockian approach of showing the ‘monster’ as little as possible, which was ultimately a benefit to the film’s effectiveness.

Next time…
Jaws was the highest grossing film of all time, so naturally there were a series of cash-grab sequels. As far as I was aware they were universally condemned, so I’d never paid them any heed, but I recently read a review that made me think I should give them a go. It said Jaws 2 wasn’t actually all that bad, Jaws 3-D was trashy fun, and Jaws: The Revenge… well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. Incidentally, the last one is the film of which star Michael Caine famously said, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Awards
3 Oscars (Editing, Sound, Original Dramatic Score)
1 Oscar nomination (Picture)
1 BAFTA (Music (also for The Towering Inferno))
6 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Actor (Richard Dreyfuss), Screenplay, Editing, Sound)
1 Grammy (Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special)

Verdict

It’s easy to start discussing Jaws in terms of it being the first summer blockbuster, or its troubled production, or the effect it had on audiences’ desire to go swimming. But divorced from all that, as a film in its own right, it’s a thrilling adventure movie — a man vs. a shark, when it comes down to it. It’s so packed with memorable shots and moments — be they horrific shark attacks, improvised one-liners, or precisely calibrated jump scares — that it’s no wonder it made Spielberg’s name. Personally, I feel the pace flags a bit once the three men get on a boat and go shark hunting, which slightly holds me back from completely loving it. Quibbles aside, it’s still a classic of suspense.

Death Note (2017)

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

Death Note

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

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

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

Light vs L

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

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

Ello, L

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

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

Bloodthirsty crush

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

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

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

In the dark, no one can see your CGI

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

2 out of 5

Death Note is available worldwide on Netflix now.

Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

aka Desu Nôto: the Last name

2017 #112
Shūsuke Kaneko | 135 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Death Note: The Last Name

Picking up immediately after the first movie, this sequel — part two of two — sees Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the owner of a supernatural notebook that allows him to kill anyone simply by writing their name, join the team of detectives searching for him. Although he had supposedly proven his innocence, Light is still the prime suspect of genius detective ‘L’ (Kenichi Matsuyama). Light aims to discover L’s real name and write it in his Death Note. He’s aided by the emergence of a second Death Note, wielded by TV host Misa Amane (Erika Toda), who has a crush on Light and agrees to help him. They’re observed and aided by their respective shinigami (death-gods), Ryuk (Shidô Nakamura) and Rem (Shinnosuke Ikehata) — but can supernatural beings be relied on in the end?

Fundamentally, The Last Name resumes Light and L’s cat-and-mouse game in the same style as the first movie — in case you didn’t get it, near the start of the film their figurative chess game is represented by a literal chess game. This time there are the added complications of Light being on L’s team and the second Death Note being in play, which at least adds some variety. Light continues to manipulate the book’s rules to help prove his innocence and achieve his goals, which is perhaps where the films are at their most inventive — for example, you forget about the Death Note if you lose possession of it, but regain those memories if you touch it again, so what if you could find a way to give it up, prove your innocence conclusively, and get it back later? The endless games and counter-games begin to get a bit tiresome after a while (together the duology pushes four-and-a-half hours), but they do eventually make for quite a surprising climax.

Figurative chess, literal chess

Produced hot on the heels of its predecessor (see my previous review for how ridiculously tight the production schedule was), it’s no wonder that The Last Name feels very much of a piece with the last movie. The major downside of this is L’s alleged genius-level intellect, which was quite ridiculous last time but is now off the charts as he frequently makes entirely unfounded leaps of logic. All of his ‘deductions’ are correct, of course, because the story wants him to be a genius, but he has no reason to be. No other character ever calls him out on it. Even when events would seem to prove him wrong, other characters, who should know better and stop him, let him keep going. He has a starting hypothesis (“Light is Kira”) and, whenever something disproves it, he pulls a reason out of thin air to keep himself being correct. He guesses right every time, but for no good reason. He should’ve been kicked off the case for being loony several times over.

Something else that’s more noticeable in The Last Name is how this series treats its female characters terribly. (Spoilers for the first film follow.) At the end of the first movie, it’s revealed that Light murdered his girlfriend in cold blood and feels absolutely no remorse, but he’s still positioned as the hero. In this film, every woman that turns up loves either him or his Kira alter ego. When they’re not working to help him, they prance around in schoolgirl outfits, or lounge about showing off their legs, or are chained up in revealing rags. They’re all a bit dippy, too, happy to do whatever Light/Kira says just because he’s deigned to interact with them. Conversely, almost all the menfolk are positioned as geniuses. It’s not outright distasteful, but you don’t have to think too hard to find it a bit eye-roll-worthy at the very least.

Me Light you long time

Although The Last Name seems to conclusively end its story, that hasn’t stopped the live-action incarnation of the franchise rolling on: a couple of years later there was a spin-off movie starring L (I have it on DVD and was going to review it this week, but, frankly, I couldn’t stomach anymore of the brat right now), and in 2016 it was revived with a miniseries that led into a fourth movie (no sign of a UK release for either of those, though).

As I said at the end of my review of part one, it seems clear these Death Note films were hampered by their hurried production — greater thought at the writing stage could iron out some of the issues I’ve outlined. Conversely, as it’s adapted from an existing work, it’s equally possible the problems are inherent to the material and more time wouldn’t’ve made any difference. Maybe the imminent US version will have reworked it to positive effect…

3 out of 5

The US remake of Death Note is released on Netflix tomorrow.

Death Note (2006)

aka Desu Nôto

2017 #110
Shūsuke Kaneko | 121 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Death Note

Something of a worldwide phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga and is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, but it was also adapted into a series of live-action films, the first of which actually predates the anime.

In case the whole thing passed you by, it’s the story of student Light Yagami (Battle Royale’s Tatsuya Fujiwara) who discovers a supernatural notebook, the titular Death Note, that was dropped by death-god Ryuk (voiced by Shidou Nakamura). Whenever a name is written in the Death Note, that person drops dead. Light begins to use it to execute criminals who’ve escaped justice, a pattern of killings that is quickly noticed by the police and the media, who dub the mysterious murderer “Kira”. While much of the public agree with his actions, the police are stumped in their investigations. Also on the case is a reclusive genius detective known only as ‘L’ (Kenichi Matsuyama), who quickly suspects Light of being Kira, initiating a game of cat and mouse between the pair.

It’s a good setup for a story, a premise that invites moral conundrums and “what would you do?” questions. I can see why it appealed to young people, too — what youth hasn’t wished certain annoying people would just drop dead? (Some places banned the manga because its popularity was leading to kids making their own Death Note books, writing in names of classmates and teachers. Obviously they didn’t actually work, but it was a “psychological health” thing.)

A little Light reading

There’s not much plot in that idea, mind: the Death Note is so all-powerful that there’s little drama in Light using it, especially as he isn’t morally conflicted himself — he’s sure he’s doing the right thing, despite people around him voicing their disagreement with Kira. The story therefore comes to focus on the battle between Light and L, a pair of self-proclaimed geniuses who work to constantly outwit each other. This is where the film begins to falter, because a lot of their supposed intelligence comes from leaps of logic designed to make them look clever.

It’ll also be a problem for any viewers who need a likeable protagonist: although Light starts out aiming to do good, he’s gradually led to be a right evil bastard; on the other side, L is an irritating brat, walking around barefoot, weirdly crouching on chairs, always stuffing his face with sugary treats, and speaking cryptically to the level-headed coppers forced to work with him. I’ve said before that I don’t think a film necessarily needs a likeable hero to work, but it does feel odd that there’s no one to root for here. Partly I don’t think the film’s sure whose side we should be on. It’s made to feel like it should be Light’s, but the film also knows he’s not got the strongest moral compass.

One L of a detective

This “duel of the geniuses” eventually comes to a head in a neatly-conceived climax, but one which doesn’t wrap everything up — the film ends on a very “end of part one” note. Although this film is simply called Death Note and the second was released here as Death Note 2, in Japan they were marketed as a “two-part event” and released just months apart. So I guess the cliffhanger ending is fair enough — it’s not an attempt at launching a franchise (an annoying trend when sequels aren’t produced), but is instead no different than The Matrix sequels, or Kill Bill, or so on.

That said, the production schedule to make that happen is somewhat interesting, especially as it clearly had an influence over the film’s quality. The duology was produced at extraordinary speed. The concept of a two-film adaptation was greenlit in November 2005, Shūsuke Kaneko signed on as director in December, and they were shooting by the start of February 2006. Film 1 was shot in February and March, then came out in the middle of June, just three months later. Film 2 was still being written during Film 1’s post-production, before shooting in June and July, and was released at the start of November, just two months later. There were six assistant directors, including people who’d already graduated to helming their own films, just to handle the volume of work required to fit in the tight schedule — two major movies from script to screen in under 12 months. It’s no wonder the production looks a bit TV-ish at times, with somewhat dull cinematography and Ryuk realised through cheap and cheerful CGI. More vitally, the script or edit probably could’ve done with greater attention, to iron out some of those logic leaps and improve the pace in the middle.

Demonic CGI

The final work still manages to be an enjoyable thriller with a supernatural conceit — a film which definitely has its moments, especially as Light begins to work with the Death Note’s rules to creative effect — but it needed more polish, the legacy of its speedy production resulting in an array of niggles.

3 out of 5

The US remake of Death Note is released on Netflix this Friday.

Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • Money Monster (2016)
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – Big Screen Edition (2009)
  • Headshot (2016)


    Money Monster
    (2016)

    2017 #36
    Jodie Foster | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Money Monster

    Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of a silly financial advice TV show, produced by his mate Patty (Julia Roberts), who one day is taken hostage live on air by a guy (Jack O’Connell) who followed one of Gates’ tips and lost big.

    Director Jodie Foster’s topical thriller takes aim at both Wall Street finagling and satirising media consumption, but has bitten off more than it can chew. Some of its points are on target, they’re just so obvious it barely matters. At least it works quite effectively as a straightforward throwback-style thriller (it’s a bit ’90s), especially on a couple of occasions where it subverts expectations — like getting the hostage taker’s pregnant wife on the phone to talk him down, only she starts laying into him; or when the charming TV host pleads with the public to raise a company’s stock price in order to save his life, but the price goes down. That said, in the grand scheme of the movie these are quite minor niceties — the overall narrative goes exactly where you’d expect it to.

    Perhaps its greatest point comes at the end: the Wall Street guy is exposed as a total villain… and everyone just goes back to their lives. We all know these people do bad shit, but because everyone’s just kind of accepted it (and the people with power to perhaps do something about it are disinclined to attempt it, for $ whatever $ reason $), they’re allowed to just keep on going. You can shout about it all you want and however you want — by making a thriller movie with big-name stars, perhaps — but the best you can hope for is a shrugged “yeah, we know, it sucks”.

    3 out of 5

    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
    Big Screen Edition

    (2009)

    Rewatchathon 2017 #19
    Michael Bay | 150 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen IMAX

    “Big Screen Edition”? This is the version of the second Transformers movie that was released theatrically on IMAX, and later made available on Blu-ray exclusively at Walmart in the US. Which is why I’m only watching it now, when I picked up a cheap second-hand copy. As well as including two big sequences at a more IMAX-esque ratio, it’s also extended — by 30 whole seconds!

    30 seconds isn’t much in the first, and even a die-hard fan would struggle to spot them because they’re frames-long additions here and there. The full details can be found here, should you care. The expanded aspect ratio of the the IMAX scenes are more noticeable. I love a changing aspect ratio, and these are effective at adding scale to the two sequences they’re used in — the midway forest battle that (spoilers!) results in Optimus’ temporary death, and part of the climactic battle. On the downside, two action scenes in a two-and-a-half-hour movie isn’t very much, really.

    As for the film itself, I don’t know if I enjoyed it more than the first time, because I gave it quite a kind review then, but I kind of liked it (enough) for what it is — a big, dumb spectacle. It’s still too long, poorly written (in part a victim of the writers’ strike), and has all kinds of awkward and uncomfortable bits. It’s not a good film, but it is a decent(-ish) movie.

    3 out of 5

    Headshot
    (2016)

    2017 #92
    Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Indonesia / Indonesian & English | 18

    Headshot

    The Raid’s Iko Uwais stars in this actioner as Ishmael, a man who washes ashore with amnesia thanks to a bullet wound in his head — so far, so Bourne. Bad people are out to get him, of course, and when they kidnap the kindly doctor who nursed him back to health (Chelsea Islan), Ishmael goes on a violent rampage to save her and uncover his past.

    Beginning with a focus on the sweet kind-of-love-story between Ishmael and the doctor, Headshot has a slightly different feel to your usual beat-em-up-athon at first, almost like an indie romance drama. That changes pretty sharpish, of course, and we’re thrown into an array of highly choreographed punch-ups. It’s pretty entertaining as that, with some inventive bits here and there, but nothing to challenge the pair of films Uwais is best known for.

    Put it this way: I enjoyed it while it was on, but I sold the Blu-ray on eBay the next day.

    3 out of 5