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.

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Blair Witch (2016)

2017 #66
Adam Wingard | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Canada & USA / English | 15 / R

Blair Witch

Twists in movies come in all shapes and sizes, but rarely do they come in the marketing. This latest film from the writer-director team behind You’re Next and The Guest was initially promoted as The Woods, only for its true name to be revealed at the first public screening. Quite neatly, during said screening they switched all the posters in the lobby for ones featuring the real title. It’s a shame it wasn’t possible to give every viewer that “oh shit, it’s a sequel to The Blair Witch Project!” surprise, because it’s probably the most interesting thing about the film.

Set however-many years after the original movie (and ignoring the first sequel, just like the rest of us have), it’s about the younger brother of one of the original missing documentary-makers, who comes to believe that his sister is still alive, somehow, in those woods, all these years later. So he sets out with a couple of friends to investigate, and of course one of them documents it, using all sorts of cameras — handheld, body mounted, even a drone. So, yes, this is once again a found footage movie. Well, they are all the rage.

In fairness, the first Blair Witch was the father of found footage, so it only makes sense to retain the form. However, I’d argue that everything that worked about the original movie did so because of how it was filmed — that the cast had been put in that situation ‘for real’ and the filmmakers were fucking with them. It gave it all a rough plausibility, which is largely what made it scary. Conversely, this Blair Witch feels scripted and constructed from the off. That’s fine for most movies, even found footage ones, but here it stands in sharp contrast to how the original worked, and I think it undermines this movie. Almost everything feels inevitable, and you know all the important stuff will be captured on camera (at least one major stunt in the original film was missed because the scared actors didn’t happen to point the camera at it).

A deserted house in the middle of a creepy forest? What could possibly go wrong!

As a horror movie, it does achieve moments that are kind of scary, but they’re undercut by a certain obviousness. I mean, of course a deserted house in the woods is scary when you know there’s a murderous witch inside and you’re limited to seeing it only from one character’s torchbeam-lit perspective. The whole movie is powered by similarly cheap jump scares: friends creeping up on each other; cameras glitching whenever they’re turned off; or, indeed, on — that kind of thing. The only genuinely terrifying bit, at least to me, was a final-act crawl through an underground tunnel. This is not a good movie for claustrophobics. And it only gets worse when you learn they made the actress do it for real.

In some ways Blair Witch is just a remake — a bunch of young people running around in the woods from something scary that we don’t see. Early on it seems like it will bring something interesting to the party with its use of new technology to update the concept: whereas in the original they had one simple video camera, here there are ear-cams with GPS, webcams they can mount in trees, even a drone. Sadly, none of these contribute anything except more angles for the editor to use. Plot-wise there’s a shiny new twist, though I wonder how many people guessed it a long time before the end. Credit to the filmmakers for not overplaying it — it’s there just to be noticed; it’s not highlighted when it’s revealed — but I was so expecting it that such credit doesn’t get them far.

Eh, that's a bit of a reach

According to, er, themselves in their commentary track, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett actually had a lot of interesting ideas about and explanations for the inexplicable stuff that’s going on in the movie. Unfortunately, they buried these notions so deeply in the finished work that it feels as if they’re not there at all; and now there’ll be no sequel to expound upon them, and the guys were in such a bitter mood when they recorded the commentary (within days of the film being a critical and box office flop) that they don’t explain them, apparently out of spite. Well, I guess we’ll have to take their word for it, then.

Maybe if they had bothered to explore the implications of their new tossed-in ideas then there’d be something to appreciate here, but instead it’s just 80 minutes (and it feels longer) of shaky footage of people running around in the dark. I suppose that, as a horror film, some of it works in the most literal sense of being scary in the moment. But it doesn’t feel earned; it doesn’t feel like it’ll be haunting me later, in the way the most effective horror movies do — in the way the ending of the first Blair Witch did.

2 out of 5

Blair Witch will be available on Netflix UK from tomorrow. It’s also currently available to rent on Amazon UK at a discount for Prime members as part of Prime Day.

You’re Next (2011)

2015 #172
Adam Wingard | 91 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 18 / R

From the makers of The Guest, a horror-thriller that’s really a dark comedy.

Murderous home invaders get a surprise when one of their targets is a secret badass. She’s cool; everyone else is thinly sketched. I’d’ve liked more character development; some viewers think it’s already too slow getting to ‘the good stuff’. That’s very violent, but imaginative and funny — the lead villain suffers an exceptionally inventive amusing demise.

You’re Next isn’t all it could be, but is pretty fun. My score errs towards generosity — those with no taste for horror, or laughs derived from murder methods, will like it less.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The Guest (2014)

2015 #87
Adam Wingard | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

The GuestThe writing-directing team behind You’re Next turn their attention to a different genre with this ’80s-throwback thriller that’s made of awesome.

One morning in New Mexico, David (Dan Stevens) turns up on the doorstep of the Peterson family. A former soldier, he tells them he was with their son Caleb when he was killed in action, and he asked David to visit his family. Mum Laura (Sheila Kelley) welcomes him with open arms and insists he stays for a few days; suspicious dad Spencer (Leland Orser) is soon won round; socially-awkward teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) is quick to see the benefits of an older ‘brother’ who can handle himself; twenty-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) is initially skeptical, then convinced of his merits… but then… Well, I could say more, but who wants it spoiled?

That said, if you’ve seen any of the trailers or other promotion, you’ll have some inkling of where The Guest is going. Maybe not entirely, because they didn’t blow everything in the trailer, but still: this is (in part) an action movie, and Stevens’ ex-soldier does get to show off the skills he learned in active service. Suffice to say, there’s another reason he’s visiting his army buddy’s family in the back of beyond, and it has a lot to do with shady Lance Reddick and his awesome voice. Ok, it has nothing to do with Lance Reddick’s voice, but that is awesome. Lance Reddick’s voice should be in more stuff.

Sexy StevensThe days of chubby Matthew Crawley long since banished, a buff Dan Stevens (there’s a reason his topless scene was also all over the marketing) is entirely convincing as the seemingly-nice-but-possibly-creepy army man who inveigles his way into the Petersons’ lives with pure charm before gradually revealing, both to them and (especially) us, that there’s a lot more to him than a nice guy who happened to kill people in the Middle East. For my money, he’s the best anti-hero in a long time. Occasional flashes of dry humour — a line here, a look there — make him likeable to the audience, more than the charm that persuades the other characters does, so that by the final act we’re still pretty much on his side, whatever else happens.

Maika Monroe makes an equally appealing co-lead, and something of an audience cipher as she digs into David’s backstory. Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett wisely reveal just enough of this to keep us informed but don’t info-dump the whole shebang (apparently they shot and test-screened scenes that explained it all in detail, and the test audience agreed that it was too much unnecessary information. Well done, test audience). Some have taken issue with the “kids discover everything” angle the film unrolls in its second half, but it’s part of the ’80s-ness. I can’t even think of what films to cite, but it feels like something you see in quite a few ’80s genre flicks.

That rather goes for the film as a whole, in fact. It’s definitely set now, and there are more modern precedents for some of it (a review quote on the Blu-ray cover mentions The Bourne Identity — there are some plot similarities, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the same kind of film), but a feeling of ’80s-ness persists as well — but without easy reference to other specific movies. Maybe that’s my knowledge coming up short, She wasn't even born in the '80sbut I know I’m not the only reviewer to feel it. Wingard evokes that era and the feel of those movies, without slipping into parody and without merely ripping-off familiar flicks. I think this especially comes to the fore in the final act — it’s arguably even most distilled in the very final scene — but, again, it’s a feeling, a sensation, a familiarity, not a blatant, I dunno, “look, now we’re in the ’80s!”-ness.

This is underscored by the amazing soundtrack. I think it’s a mix of original score and sourced songs, but the effect is seamless. Apparently it was composed on the same type of synths used for Halloween III, which may or may not give you a sense of where it’s going, but — much like Wingard’s direction and Barrett’s story choices — it’s an ’80s vibe with a modern twang. I get the impression the songs included are recent cuts, not jukebox throwbacks, which I guess is some subculture of modern music. Or possibly mainstream, I dunno. Whatever, it’s all cool. I must get my hands on a full soundtrack (a quick look at Amazon reveals a digital-only release that doesn’t look particularly thorough. Must investigate more…)

In case it’s not yet obvious, allow me to state it bluntly: I loved The Guest. I loved Dan Stevens’ character and his performance. I loved each and every one of the perfectly-placed supporting cast. I loved the wit and the action scenes. I loved the ’80s-inspired plotting. I loved the score. Indeed, I loved pretty much everything about it. The best guestNot everyone loves it — some people outright hate it, even. I suppose it’s a little bit idiosyncratic, in a similar way to something like Hanna… which I also adored, of course. They’d make a fun double bill.

No guarantees, then, but naturally I wholeheartedly recommend you invite The Guest in. To your life, I mean. As in, watch it.

5 out of 5

The Guest is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

It placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.