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.

Children of Men (2006)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #19

The year 2027:
The last days of the human race.
No child has been born for 18 years.
He must protect our only hope.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English… and German, Italian, Romanian, Spanish, Arabic, Georgian & Russian, apparently.
Runtime: 109 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 22nd September 2006 (UK)
First Seen: cinema, October 2006

Stars
Clive Owen (Inside Man, Shoot ‘Em Up)
Julianne Moore (The Hours, Still Alice)
Michael Caine (The Italian Job, Batman Begins)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, 12 Years a Slave)
Danny Huston (The Proposition, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)

Director
Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Gravity)

Screenwriters
Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Gravity)
Timothy J. Sexton (Live from Baghdad, The Liberator)
David Arata (Brokedown Palace, Spy Game)
Mark Fergus (First Snow, Iron Man)
Hawk Ostby (First Snow, Cowboys & Aliens)

Based on
The Children of Men, a novel by P.D. James.

The Story
In the near future, mankind has become infertile, and no child has been born for 18 years. The world has gone to hell, with Britain one of the few countries that still has a functioning government, albeit a controlling, totalitarian one. In this world, government drone Theo is persuaded by his ex-wife, now head of an activist group, to escort a friend out of the country. Turns out that friend is a young woman… who’s pregnant — a situation that interests a lot of dangerous people…

Our Hero
Theo, disillusioned former activist, who’s roped back in, initially by kidnap, later with the promise of a hefty payday. Before long it turns out he’s actually a good guy at heart, of course.

Our Villains
“The rest of humanity” wouldn’t be a wholly bad answer here, as Theo and co keep bumping up against people violently concerned with their own interests. Within that, there’s the issue of if the activist group’s motives can be trusted…

Best Supporting Character
Theo’s friend Jasper, a former political cartoonist turned pot dealer, played by Michael Caine as a John Lennon-inspired old hippy.

Memorable Quote
“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.” — Miriam

Memorable Scene
Any of the (faked-)single-take action sequences is a worthy pick here. Alternatively, fans of a certain rock group will appreciate the inflatable pig floating over Battersea Power Station.

Technical Wizardry
As our heroes escape in a little Fiat, they’re attacked on a country road, the camera moving around the small person-filled vehicle in a single take. They used a special camera rig, along with a car modified to allow the windscreen to tilt out of the camera’s path, and seats that tilted to lower the actors out of the way too. The “single” shot took six takes in four locations, transition effects to seamlessly join shots, and CGI to create the motorbike, windscreen, blood, roof, and more.

Making of
The other most memorable single take is near the end, a running street battle during which Clive Owen’s layperson does his best to not get killed. It took 14 days to prepare the shot, with a delay of five hours every time it had to be reset. It was filmed over the course of two days, but only one complete take was actually captured. In the middle of one take, some blood spattered on the camera lens; Cuarón shouted “cut”, but was drowned out by the sound of tank and gunfire. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki persuaded the director to leave it in, and that’s the shot in the final film. Pay attention during the sequence and you can see the liquid and dirt that gets splattered on the lens disappear during one of the ‘seamless’ cuts.

Awards
3 Oscar nominations (Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Production Design)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
1 Saturn Award (Science Fiction Film)
2 Saturn nominations (Actor (Clive Owen), Director)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

What the Critics Said
“[Cuarón] increasingly shoots the film’s set pieces in virtuoso long takes — gliding tracking shots that evoke Tarkovsky and handheld work that suggests Kathryn Bigelow. What makes these scenes stunning is not only mind-boggling choreography and timing, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera somehow capturing multiple planes of action even while continuously changing position, but also their ability to realistically evoke the frightening chaos and simultaneous madness of war. […] Such overwhelming studio work might be too arty for those who like their genre served sans showiness. But Cuarón is implementing a verisimilitude that both matches the film’s edge-of-your-seat escalations and demonstrates a new understanding of blockbuster realism.” — Michael Joshua Rowin, Stop Smiling

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Cuarón uses sequences evocative of Holocaust imagery and detention camps to implicitly communicate a world rife with injustice and pain. In designing the look of the film, Cuarón told his art department that he did not want inventiveness, but reference, so that an audience would be able to adequately recognize a distorted form of their own reality. For the reader and viewer who encounter this uncanny world, it feels all the more real because of its familiar elements.” — Mariel Calloway

Verdict

I saw Children of Men on a whim back in 2006. I can’t even remember why — I don’t think I’d seen any trailers or reviews, and it had been open for a good few weeks already. It was a time when I went to see loads at the cinema, though (in those days I paid good money to see Fun with Dick and Jane — does anyone even remember that?), and I think it may’ve been the only thing still on. Anyway, it meant I actually got in a little ahead of the hype that has gradually (and justifiably) grown around the film since, and still loved it. Cuarón mixes intelligent near-future sci-fi with exciting, and excitingly-realised, action sequences to create an action-thriller of a movie that stimulates both the mind and the adrenal glands. A fantastic film in every respect.

#22 will be next… to give the Devil his due.

Sin City: Recut & Extended (2005)

aka Sin City: Recut ∙ Extended ∙ Unrated

2014 #126
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
with Quentin Tarantino | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18

Sin CityAdapted from a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, Sin City is a noir homage, replete with high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, dialogue so hard boiled you couldn’t crack it with a sledgehammer, and all the requisite downtrodden heroes, corrupt authority figures, dangerous dames, etc. There’s also the very modern inclusion of shocking ultra-violence and nudity, but I guess a fair degree of that would’ve crept into classic noir if the mores of the time allowed — pretty much the point of the genre is the dark grubbiness of the world, after all.

Anyway, Sin City: The Film is probably best known for its slavish faithfulness to Miller’s original comics; or rather the way that manifested itself: the film was shot digitally (when that was still remarkable rather than the norm, as it has become since) and almost entirely on green screen, with cast members who share scenes sometimes not even meeting, and whole roles being recorded in a day or two rather than the usual couple of weeks. It helps that the movie is a collection of short stories, meaning no one person is in it for more than about 40 minutes. The point of this was to then emulate the comic’s visuals: black-and-white with minimal grey in between, but occasional splashes of colour and other striking effects — blood is sometimes stark white, sometimes red; one character has blue eyes, another golden hair; plasters or necklaces are sometimes rendered as flat white blocks; and so on.

Hartigan got a gunThe DVD-premiering extended version, dubbed Recut & Extended (or, in the US, “Recut, Extended, Unrated”) is even more faithful to the comics than the theatrical version. Some of the books’ scenes that were excised are now included, and the structure has been rejigged to present each of the four stories one by one in their entirety (whereas the original version had a small amount of intercutting). The total running time is 17 minutes and 40 seconds longer, an increase of some 14.2%… which is a thoroughly misleading figure. As a presentational choice, each of the four stories is offered for individual viewing, plus option to “play all”. However, rather than that showing them as a single film, they play as four shorts back to back, with a full set of section-specific end credits rolling each time. The actual amount of new material in the film itself is reported to be 6 minutes and 55 seconds, or only a 5.6% increase from the theatrical cut. I’m sure the extensions are great for die-hard fans, but for most the additions are all but unnoticeable — look at that Movie-Censorship.com list and you’ll see there are only three or four new bits that could reasonably be described as “scenes” (ranging from under 30 seconds to about two minutes), and then just a bunch of extended ‘moments’.

The lack of notable new material isn’t the issue, though. The real problem is the re-structure. Let’s not beat around the bush: it scuttles the film. Individually, each of the three longer narratives is fine, but when watched back-to-back as if it were still one film, the structure is unbalanced. Then there’s the shorter story, The Customer is Always Right, starring Josh Hartnett as The Man. In the original cut, his character features in a standalone pre-titles style-establisher (both for the visuals and the kind of tough tales we’re about to be told), and then a neat coda bookend before the end credits. These two scenes have been placed together in this version, and it sucks.

They've got a bigger gunFor one, the second scene belongs more truly to The Big Fat Kill (the final story, starring Clive Owen’s Dwight and the whores of Old Town led by Rosaria Dawson). For another, because this recut purports to be in chronological order, The Customer is Always Right plays second. So we get 47 minutes of Bruce Willis protecting Jessica Alba from a paedophile in That Yellow Bastard, then we get a one-scene story that rightly belongs at the beginning (complete with title card, now 50 minutes into the ‘film’), then we get a scene that, actually, belongs in a completely different place. The next full story is The Hard Goodbye (the one with Mickey Rourke under a slab of prosthetics as Marv), followed by The Big Fat Kill — and it’s after this that the second scene with The Man belongs. Divorced of that context, the scene is robbed of almost all its meaning.

I guess Sin City: Recut & Extended isn’t really meant to be viewed as a single film — hence why there are four sets of end credits, and why the cool opening titles featuring Miller’s original art is nowhere to be seen. Even allowing for that, though, I think the second scene with The Man has been badly placed. A chronological cut of a non-chronological film is an interesting idea, but this doesn’t even get that right. And even if it weren’t for the regular interruption by lengthy credits sequences, the re-order makes for a very stop-start viewing experience, something the theatrical version avoided by divvying up one story and having characters make brief cameos in each other’s tales.

Tits 'n' effectsIn the end, I enjoyed Sin City considerably less than I did nine years ago in the cinema. This is partly down to the restructure, but I’m not sure wholly so. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, as things produced at the forefront of emerging technology are wont to do: some of the CGI looks dirt cheap, the shot compositions are often unimaginatively flat, and there’s an occasional internet-video style to the picture quality. It’s not just the visuals, sadly, with amateurish performances from reliable actors, possibly a result of the hurried filming schedule. Just because you can capture an entire part in a single day doesn’t mean you should. Then there’s Jessica Alba, who’s just awful here.

For all that, there are shots that are striking, when the elements come together to make something that still looks fresh and creative even after nearly a decade of the film’s visual tricks being emulated by lesser movies or integrated into general cinematic language. One thing that struck me was that the most memorable moments were all from the trailer — Sin City did have one helluva trailer. The stories and characters aren’t bad, thanks to the hyper-noir style being a deliberate choice, though perhaps it sometimes goes too far with the voiceover narration. Maybe, again, this is the fault of watching the longer cut; maybe there’s just a little too much of it in any version.

Quite often an extended cut will become the definitive version of a film — these days, it’s often a way to get the originally-intended cut past a studio who insist on a shorter running time or PG-13 certificate; or it’s a chance to revisit and improve a project that hadn’t quite worked. Not so with Sin City. This is a version for fans of the books who want to see every last drop included… but even then it falls short, because apparently a few moments are still nowhere to be found. That yellow so-and-soNone of the present additions are game-changing, and though some are good in their own way, there’s nothing noteworthy enough to compensate for the destruction of the original cut’s well-balanced structure. For the average punter — and certainly for the first-time viewer — the theatrical cut is unquestionably the way to go.

4 out of 5

This year’s sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, will be reviewed tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sin City: Recut & Extended received a “dishonourable mention” on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.