Anon (2018)

2018 #95
Andrew Niccol | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 + 1.78:1 | Germany / English | 15

Anon

Sky Cinema’s latest acquisition in their attempt to establish a “Netflix original”-style brand is, ironically, also a Netflix ‘original’… just not in the UK (in the US, it was released on Netflix last week). It’s also probably their most promising grab yet… although when its forerunners are Monster Family and The Hurricane Heist, that’s not saying much. But this is a new sci-fi/thriller from the writer-director of Gattaca, so that’s gotta be worth a look… even if he has spent most of the intervening two decades making some, shall we say, less-well-regarded movies.

It’s set in a near future where everyone has ocular implants that feed a constant stream of data, like non-stop augmented reality, identifying people and places, putting digital adverts on the side of buildings, and so on. These devices are connected up to a central network that allows what everyone sees to be monitored and played back when needed — for example, if a crime is committed. It’s the ultimate eyewitness, literally. When someone’s murdered, the police can just play back the last few moments of the victim’s life to see the killer. But when bodies start turning up whose final moments have been tampered with, detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) finds himself on the trail of an off-the-grid hacker (Amanda Seyfried) with the ability to alter records — and when the entire system is based on the notion that what’s recorded is unequivocal truth, her skills are a massive potential threat.

Mad skillz

Many a lazy review has described Anon as “like a Black Mirror episode”, which is not wholly inaccurate but is getting to be a stale descriptor — Charlie Brooker didn’t invent high-concept dystopian sci-fi about the dangers of future technology, so why wheel out the comparison every time anyone else dares venture into the same ballpark nowadays? Nonetheless, that is the ballpark Anon is playing in, but mixing speculative sci-fi with an equal dose of hardboiled noir to keep things spicy.

That’s not my only problem with other reviews, though, many of which have put forth low scores and negative reactions. I saw some of them in advance of my viewing, so while watching I kept thinking, “it must go badly wrong later, because so far it’s great.” Well, that moment never came. I wouldn’t say the film is perfect — some parts, especially later on, are a tad hurried, meaning more clarity of motive would be nice — but, for me, the whole worked. There are some interesting sci-fi ideas (all the stuff about being able to trust what you see, including a standout extended sequence where the hacker messes with Sal’s head), plus it feeds some ever-relevant commentary on privacy and surveillance, with the added texture of a noir-shaped plot and atmosphere for good measure.

In fairness, there’s clichéd stuff too, though I’m not sure how much it should bother us. For one example, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Sal has a “dead kid” backstory, something which is a bit overdone at this point, but your mileage will vary on how much that stuff bothers you — while some of us just think it’s a tired trope, for others it seems to completely ruin the film. Conversely, I read someone criticise it for using “noir clichés” and just thought “that’s called genre, kid”. I also saw a review which decided the film was worth 1-out-of-10 just because there was a scene where they were smoking indoors, so there’s no accounting for what different people will consider important in their assessment of artistic quality.

Gunning for other reviewers

In my opinion, Niccol and co have offered up a well-realised near-future world — not necessarily fully imagined (it’s never explained how we got to a point where everyone has these implants, seemingly enforced by law, but that doesn’t really matter), but the way the tech is depicted and how it affects everyday life is very believable. We’re thrown into the deep-end of this environment, with just enough exposition to keep up, before the film quickly moves onto the intriguing mystery that challenges the rules of this world — and considering we’ve only just learnt the rules, being able to get straight to how they’re being circumvented is impressively economical storytelling. It’s also a neat setup for having to go back to old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger-type detective work in a modern setting — this future is so high-tech, the only way to stop the criminal from detecting the operation against her is to put Sal undercover using no-tech communication.

It’s a really well made film, too. The locations are suitably evocative — the police buildings are defined by huge brutalist concrete slabs — which have been attentively framed and shot, without show-off-y camerawork. Then there’s the on-screen graphics during the point-of-view shots, which are detailed and thorough in their content, design, and execution. Their plausibility lends an automatic verisimilitude to the whole situation. And the POV shots had another nice surprise in store…

Brutal

Regular readers may recall that I’m a fan of a good variable aspect ratio, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Anon features that technique — it’s unusual to see it outside of huge-budget films that have been shot/formatted for IMAX, and even then there’s no guarantee the multi-ratio version will be widely available (cf. Marvel only including them on 3D Blu-rays; Brad Bird not allowing Ghost Protocol to be released with it at all). In Anon, the ‘drama’ scenes are presented in your movie-standard 2.35:1, but it expands to a screen-filling 16:9 every time we see through someone’s eyes. These changes are very effective. The film employs the technique early and then often, so it doesn’t have the “wow” factor that some IMAX films achieve even when viewed at home, but it’s suitably immersive. Indeed, this would probably play really well on a vision-filling IMAX screen. The fact I wouldn’t have a chance to see it even if it did get IMAX showings means I’m not too sad it’s a direct-to-streaming release.

That said, it’s kind of a shame Sky snapped it up over here. This is anecdotal evidence I know, but I know far more people with Netflix (like, pretty much everyone nowadays) than with Sky Cinema (I’m not sure I know anyone but me, actually, and I only subscribe occasionally), and I’d like to be able to recommend this to people, especially so as to go against the grain of the criticisms that I feel have been unwarrantedly negative. Well, obviously I can still recommend it, but how useful is that if people aren’t going to get the chance to see it on the basis of that recommendation?

Who's that girl?

Nonetheless, recommend it I shall. Perhaps Anon can’t equal other works at the top-tier of its genre, but I feel some have been unfair in writing it off. Any familiarities in the shape of its plot are in aid of creating that noir atmosphere, while the sci-fi concepts are reasonably considered and executed. For fans of the genres involved, it’s definitely worth a look.

4 out of 5

Anon is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Ted 2: Extended Edition (2015)

aka Ted 2: Unrated

2016 #94
Seth MacFarlane | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

Ted 2Comedy sequels often struggle, and writer-director-producer-star Seth MacFarlane’s in-between feature was sporadically odious, so I approached Ted 2 with trepidation. While it can’t match the freshness of its predecessor, it’s certainly no AMWtDitW.*

The plot (about Ted trying to become a legally recognised person) exists to string together comedic set pieces. Perhaps that’s why the pace feels off: individual parts are funny, but it’s slow going. That’s not the fault of the extended cut (details here) — the additions include at least one of the funniest bits.

Not a surprise success like the first, then, but an amusing couple of hours.

3 out of 5

* The length of that title is anathema to a word-limited review. ^

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

2015 #52
Seth MacFarlane | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Navajo | 15 / R

A Million Ways to Die in the WestThe second feature from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, after the justly popular Ted, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a disappointing mixed bag, half pretty-decent character- and situation-based comedy, half cringingly infantile toilet-humour tomfoolery.

MacFarlane stars as Wild West sheep farmer Albert, whose love of his life (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the owner of the town’s moustache shop (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert accidentally befriends new-in-town Anna (Charlize Theron) who, unbeknownst to him, is the girlfriend of the West’s most notorious outlaw (Liam Neeson) and is only laying low in his small town for a couple of weeks. A plot of love triangles and gunfighting ensues, littered with the aforementioned extremes of comedy.

One of the film’s problem is that said story is definitely too long in the telling — it feels like its reaching the end about halfway through, then it just keeps going… and going… The bigger problem, however, is the depths plumbed by its ‘humour’.

If you stick with it, there are some genuinely funny, clever bits. There are even some genuinely funny, not-clever-but-amusing bits. Unfortunately, there’s a shedload of puerile gags that just demean the whole thing, and it doesn’t help that some of the worst are early on, setting up poor expectations. They’re so bad I’m embarrassed to have seen them, so I’m certainly not repeating any examples — though one, involving Harris, the result of laxatives, Challenge acceptedand two other men’s hats, briefly has a funny bit in the middle when he tries to acquire the second hat. The film also uses swearing as a comedic crutch too often. I’m not one of those people who’s only tolerant of swearing if they feel each and every use is absolutely justifiable, and I don’t object to it as just part of dialogue, but too often the film leans on someone saying “oh shit” (or whatever) as if that’s a serviceable punchline.

For movie and pop culture fans, there’s entertainment to be had from some fun cameos and allusions, many of them literally “blink and you’ll miss it” (watch out, for instance, for a Family Guy cast member’s name, and a catchphrase callback the writers inserted accidentally). One cameo in particular has been criticised by some for just being the guy turning up, but… honestly, that would be fine if you didn’t know about it in advance. If you spend the film waiting for him to turn up, the joke (such as it is) is already ruined — the gag is just him being there when you don’t expect it; so if you do expect it, there’s no gag. That’s the problem with a Surprise Cameo at any point after opening night. Would it be better if there was a joke beyond just the Surprise Cameo aspect? Well, yes. Does it work as just a Surprise Cameo? If you don’t know it’s there — if it is indeed a surprise — then, well, yes.

Death by bottle?The movie’s best running gag is its titular one. At first it just seems like the concept is going to be limited to Albert sitting in a saloon and listing ways to die, which isn’t funny; but then it keeps cropping back up, sometimes unexpectedly, which really works. The whole fair thing — a running gag within a running gag — is particularly effective. If the film had traded more on this, less on farting and other bodily functions, it would’ve been much improved.

Indeed, the following comment from iCheckMovies summarises my opinion perfectly:

A peculiar mixture of high and low brow comedy which makes it ultimately a bit uncomfortable. However there’s a sweet romance story hidden in there and a fun western (with some very clever gags) if you can get past its more crude side. Feels very much like it would have been quite a fun PG or 12 rated film if they had cut out the more unpleasant side.

That last sentence, in particular, is right on the money. The film’s good bits are genuinely likeable; if not a classic (as the Radio Times weirdly reckons), then a perfectly enjoyable comedy. The frequent doses of crude and toilet ‘humour’ drag the overall likability down massively, however. I think a PG-13 cut would be forced to be a superior movie. Black sheepI dread to think what the 19-minutes-longer unrated version is like.*

I’d like to be able to recommend A Million Ways to Die in the West. The bits I liked, I really enjoyed. The bits I hated, however, I really despised. The best I can say is that your mileage may vary — is it worth suffering the lows to have the highs?

3 out of 5

A Million Ways to Die in the West debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4pm and 8pm.

* Though it does at least bother to explain why there’s suddenly a reference to Albert’s mother being dead late in the film — it screams “we deleted a scene!” in the theatrical version. ^