100 Films @ 10: Great Scenes

Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie was simply “three good scenes and no bad ones”. For today’s list, I’m focusing on examples of the former.

There’s no set average for the number of scenes in a feature film, but a good rule of thumb is that a typical movie scene lasts two or three minutes — which means I’ve probably seen in excess of 48,000 scenes as part of this blog. That’s rather a lot to recall, so I’m not presuming to say these ten are the very greatest from that lot. What they are is ten that stuck in my memory particularly, for one reason or another. Even if they’re not the greatest, they are great.

10
The Swimming Pool

from Let the Right One In

The bullies that have plagued young Oskar throughout the film corner him in a public swimming pool and, brandishing a knife, inform him that if he can’t hold his breath for three minutes he’ll lose an eye. They push Oskar under the water. The seconds tick by. Then, we reach the real reason this scene is here: as the shot holds on Oskar underwater, we hear the muffled sounds of breaking glass, then screams. Feet run backwards across the water. Heads and limbs drop into the pool. The water begins to turn red. This could’ve been a brutal action climax like any other, but by staging it in a brightly-lit swimming pool, by not showing us the meat of the action, and by achieving it all in one shot, director Tomas Alfredson creates a sequence of supernatural force that is eerily grounded.

9
The Opening Shot

from Touch of Evil

Long takes are all the rage nowadays, made even easier by advances in digital cinematography and editing, but this hails from a time when they were a bit more special. It remains one of the most famous because of its content: we see a bomb planted on a car, then follow it as its unsuspecting owners drive through the streets. When will it go off? And, beyond that, Welles’ preferred soundtrack — overlapping snippets from multiple sources as the camera moves through the town — helps establish the melting-pot world of the film about to follow.

8
The Train Robbery

from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Another opening scene where the photography is the star. This time, it’s the work of the great Roger Deakins, as a gang of crooks await a train in a forest at night, lit only by the orange glow of lanterns. Then the train itself arrives, its stark headlight throwing sharp relief on the shadowy trees. Deakins himself has said it’s his best work, and who are we to disagree? The effectiveness is only heightened by the slow, deliberate, tension-mounting pace maintained by director Andrew Dominik.

7
The Superfreak Dance

from Little Miss Sunshine

After all the trials and tribulations of the movie, the Hoover family finally make it to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant and little seven-year-old Olive gets up on stage… where she dances a striptease-style routine to Superfreak. It neatly satirises and pillories the ludicrous sexualisation of these beauty pageants. Then the sequence only gains in stature when the officials try to pull Olive off stage early, which ends up with the whole family throwing dignity to the wind and dancing with her — the previously disjointed family finally united.

6
The Tanker Chase

from Mad Max 2

I already discussed this at length in my review, so to quote myself, it’s “an almighty action sequence […] a speeding battle through the outback. It feels wrong to just call it ‘an action sequence’, like that’s selling it short. You get the sense that this is why the movie exists; that co-writer/director George Miller’s goal with the entire rest of the film has been to get us to this point. It’s not just ‘the climax’, it’s ‘the third act’, and it’s stunning — the choreography of it, the editing, the stunts, as dozens of vehicles chase each other, people run around on top of them, jump between them… I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say it must be one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film.” It’s so good, they later remade it as an entire movie. And if you want to see something equally awesome, here’s the Mad Max 2 scene re-scored with music from Fury Road.

5
The Henley Royal Regatta Boat Race

from The Social Network

You could cut this 100-second sequence out of The Social Network and it would have no impact on the film’s plot, but it would also rob us of one of the most striking sequences in the CV of director David Fincher — and considering his continued visual mastery, that’s saying something. The tilt-shift-style photography came out of necessity, as the sequence was shot just months before the film’s release and they had to shoot the close-ups somewhere else entirely, but it gives the whole thing a unique visual style that, particularly when combined with a version of In the Hall of the Mountain King from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is something very special.

4
The Poem

from Skyfall

Whoever thought we’d one day find moviemaking artistry in the James Bond series? Skyfall isn’t even the first time that happened (see: the opera escape from Quantum of Solace), but the reason this sequence is even better is the way it sums up the film’s themes. As I described it in my review: “Bond races to an inquiry where M is giving evidence, in pursuit of Silva who is intending to finalise his revenge, with the soundtrack sharing only Judi Dench’s voice delivering a reading from Tennyson: ‘though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,’ she says, cementing [the] themes of what the role of the secret service (and, indeed, Britain) is in the modern world; and continues, ‘heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,’ as a weakened, past-it Bond races to her rescue. It’s so perfect it could have been written for the film especially.”

3
The Truck Flip

from The Dark Knight

Pure spectacle seems hard to come across in movies post-CGI, where anything that can be imagined can be created on screen by even relatively small-scale movies. But when you combine the first time a narrative feature film had been shot in IMAX with an incredible stunt performed for real, you’re reminded of the magic of cinema. It’s the most memorable part of a car chase sequence that is exceptionally well executed on the whole, too.

2
The Montage

from Requiem for a Dream

To quote my review: “I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes [at the end]. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.”

1
The Basement

from Zodiac

When I first thought of this idea for a top ten, this was the first thing that came to mind. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive investigator Robert Graysmith visits the home of a suspect’s friend. The pair are alone in the house, and they both go down into the basement to see something… when Robert hears someone upstairs. Describing this scene does it no justice — it’s one of the most hair-raisingly chilling in screen history.

Tomorrow: New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody talk about… film music.

100 Films @ 10: Most Represented Directors

It’s 100 Films’ 10th birthday at the end of the month. To mark the occasion, I thought in the run-up to it I’d publish some lists based on the last ten years of my blog, because who doesn’t love a list?

How many lists have I got? Why, 100 of course!

…haha, no — that would be ridiculous. There are ten — one for each year of 100 Films. And each one has ten items on it. Ten times ten is… why, it’s 100! What a coincidence.

For the first list, I’ve put opinion aside for pure facts: these are the ten directors who’ve been most-reviewed on this blog. That excludes films only featured in my 100 Favourites series — this is just their work that has been covered as part of my ‘main’ blog.

It may be worth noting that, because it’s purely based on statistics, this isn’t a list of my ten favourite directors… though as they’re ones I keep watching movies by, I guess it’d be a fair starting point.

10
Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan has made nine feature films, and seven of them are reviewed here. Throw in an extra one for the IMAX version of The Dark Knight and his short documentary, Quay, and he edges ahead of runners-up John Carpenter, Ernst Lubitsch, George Miller, and Billy Wilder.

9
Tim Burton

The next four directors are technically tied, but I’ve found a way to differentiate them. First: the Burtonesque Tim Burton, whose eight entries can be split into six main-list films and two reviews of things I’d already seen (Batman and Batman Returns).

8
Ridley Scott

Next, the man we can probably thank for all the Director’s Cuts we get these days, the more classical of the two Scott brothers, Sir Ridley Scott. He also has eight, of course, which factors in six main-list films, one alternate cut that I nonetheless counted on my main list (Blade Runner: The Final Cut), and one non-main-list film (Alien: The Director’s Cut).

7
Zack Snyder

Our third eight-film filmmaker is everyone’s favourite “visionary” director of superhero movies (right?), Zack Snyder. All eight of his films were on the main list, though two of them were alternate versions (the extended cuts of Batman v Superman and Watchmen).

6
Clint Eastwood

Simple and straight-up, much like the man himself, Clint Eastwood has a pure eight films.

5
Steven Soderbergh

The top five heads into double figures, with ten films for one-time enfant terrible and now retiree Steven Soderbergh.

4
Martin Scorsese

Perpetual awards season snubee, Martin Scorsese also has ten feature films, but edges ahead thanks to his part in anthology film New York Stories.

=2
Roy William Neill / Steven Spielberg

Unlike other directors on this list, there’s no reasonable way to differentiate this pair. You may not know the name Roy William Neill, but he helmed eleven of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, and those four years of work have landed him near the top of this list. Conversely, Steven Spielberg is probably the most famous film director working today, if not ever, and his eleven films span 44 years, stretching from his first (1971’s Duel) to his most recent Oscar nominee (2015’s Bridge of Spies).

1
David Fincher

Topping the list is my go-to pick for favourite director, David Fincher. He’s helmed ten movies, but I’ve reviewed twelve — that’s eleven main-list features (including the Assembly Cut of Alien³) and one extra for the marginally-extended director’s cut of Zodiac.

Tomorrow: when directors re-cut.

Se7en (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #81

Seven deadly sins. Seven ways to die.

Also Known As: Seven

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 22nd September 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 5th January 1996
First Seen: TV, 12th June 2001 (probably)

Stars
Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby)
Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, American Beauty)
Gwyneth Paltrow (Sliding Doors, Shakespeare in Love)

Director
David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac)

Screenwriter
Andrew Kevin Walker (8MM, Sleepy Hollow)

The Story
In an unnamed city, two homicide detectives investigate a series of grim murders inspired by the seven deadly sins.

Our Heroes
William Somerset is a detective who works calmly and methodically, and cares more than most. Serving out the last few days before his retirement, he lands a helluva final case. His new partner is David Mills, a hotheaded but idealistic new transfer who’s keen to prove himself. Despite their chalk-and-cheese temperaments, or perhaps because of them, the pair may be ideally suited to catch the elusive killer.

Our Villain
John Doe, a proper psychopath, and on a mission too. I say the detectives are ideally suited to catch him, but, well (major, major spoilers…) they technically don’t and he essentially wins.

Best Supporting Character
R. Lee Ermey’s police captain, purely for the moment when he answers a phone. I love that bit of humour far more than it probably warrants.

Memorable Quote
“What was in the box? What’s in the box? What’s in the fucking box?!” — Mills

Memorable Scene
The climax — just Somerset, Mills, and John Doe, alone in the middle of nowhere… and then a deliveryman shows up. “John Doe has the upper hand!”

Technical Wizardry
The film’s visual style really helps to sell the tone — dark, foreboding, grim. This is in part because it’s always raining, a decision made to increase the sense of dread, and because of Darius Khondji’s cinematography, which employed bleach bypass (see also: Minority Report), a process that serves to deepen shadows. Additionally, for the film’s Platinum Series DVD release it was rescanned from the original negative, meaning the whole film had to have its colour grading re-done. Some of the changes were quite extensive (as detailed in the DVD/Blu-ray’s special features, if you’re interested).

Truly Special Effect
A serial killer thriller might not sound like a special effect showcase, but John Doe’s extreme methods lead to some pretty unusual and gruesome corpses — rendered with suitably sickening prosthetics, of course. ‘Sloth’ is particularly harrowing, though ‘lust’ is so bad it’s left almost entirely to our imagination — though, again, someone had to design and build the… instrument.

Making of
John Doe’s shelves of handwritten notebooks were real and created especially for the film. They took two months to create at a cost of $15,000.

Next time…
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker originally thought of 8MM as a sequel, and David Fincher was interested, but it didn’t happen and we wound up with the only-half-decent Nicolas Cage-starring Joel Schumacher-directed version instead.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Original Screenplay)
2 Saturn Awards (Writing, Make-Up)
5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure Film, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Supporting Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Director, Music)
Places with more taste (i.e. where it won Best Film): Empire Awards, Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Awards, MTV Movie Awards; plus Best Foreign Language Film at Blue Ribbon Awards, Hochi Film Awards, Sant Jordi Awards (Audience Award)

What the Critics Said
“designer unpleasantness is a hallmark of our era, and this movie may be more concerned with wallowing in it than with illuminating what it means politically. Yet the filmmakers stick to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something indelible comes across — something ethically and artistically superior to The Silence of the Lambs that refuses to exploit suffering for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering about the world we’re living in.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“The rain never ends. There is seldom any sunlight, or any warmth. The city feels like a city of the damned, as if its denizens are souls trapped in some circle of hell from which there is no escape. A feeling of dread pervades everything; there is never any inclination that anything remotely like justice or hope or salvation is even possible here. […] it’s all style and atmosphere but… to criticise the film for that, almost feels like missing the point — it’s so integral to the piece, the atmosphere is actually one of the film’s characters” — the ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Se7en quite thoroughly (and, if I do say so myself, quite well) as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, concluding that “some would claim that Se7en is no more than a standard murder thriller with a stock mismatched pair of detectives. In some respects they’re right, but in enough respects they’re wrong. There’s a killer high concept behind the crimes, but it’s really the execution of the film that makes it so much more. It’s in the performances, the way those stock characters are written, their subplots, the story’s pace, the cinematography, the music, individual sequences like Somerset in the library or the climax that rise not only to the top of the genre but to the top of the very medium of film itself.”

Verdict

When asked, I normally say Se7en is my favourite movie. That’s partly pre-picked just to prevent any such conversations turning into a dreary slog where I um and ah through hundreds of options, but naturally there’s some truth in it. On the surface it’s merely a police procedural, but it’s the way it handles that material that elevates it. It’s a dark film about terrible deeds, which both suits its subject matter (murder isn’t really just a fun little mystery to solve, is it?) and presents a worldview that makes us consider who’s really right and who’s really mad — John Doe is clearly an evil psychopath, but does he have a point? It’s also made with supreme artistry by director David Fincher and his team — I’ve already mentioned DP Darius Khondji, but it’s also superbly edited by Richard Francis-Bruce. And I’d argue it has one of the greatest climaxes ever filmed. There are more easily enjoyable movies in my 100 Favourites, but there are none that are any better made, nor any that better expose the dark heart of humanity.

#82 will be… a big damn movie.

The Game (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #34

Players Wanted

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th September 1997 (USA)
UK Release: 10th October 1997
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Michael Douglas (Wall Street, Basic Instinct)
Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Milk)
Deborah Kara Unger (Crash, Stander)

Director
David Fincher (Panic Room, Gone Girl)

Screenwriters
John Brancato (The Net, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)
Michael Ferris (Terminator Salvation, Surrogates)

The Story
What do you buy the man who has everything? After high-flying businessman Nicholas Van Orton is enrolled in a mysterious alternate reality game by his estranged brother, it’s no surprise that unusual things start to happen. But as those happenings begin to take on a sinister edge, it may be Nicholas has been targeted by something more serious, and potentially life-threatening.

Our Hero
Nicholas Van Orton is an immensely successful financier, but so low on friends that he even spends his birthday completely alone. He could do with fun in his life, or so believes his brother… or does he?

Our Villains
The game is run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services, or CRS. But they just run games… or do they?

Best Supporting Character
Early on in his experience, Nicholas runs into waitress Christine, who has also been affected by the game… or is she actually a part of it? Just who can he trust?!

Memorable Quote
“You know, I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again. Here’s to new experiences.” — Ted

Memorable Scene
On the run and tired, Nicholas hops in a cab. He doesn’t notice the doors lock, until the maniacal cab driver begins to speed down the hill. As Nicholas desperately tries to escape, the driver leaps out — and the cab soars into the river, with Nicholas trapped inside…

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

What the Critics Said
“Crafted with a commanding, aloof precision by David Fincher in his first outing since hitting the jackpot with Seven, this unusual dive into the ambiguous world of an undefined pastime without apparent rules generates a chilly intellectual intrigue that will arouse buffs, trendies and techies more than it will mainstream [audiences. It] projects the same sense of suffocating enclosure and mounting despair in a style that will inevitably be compared to that of Stanley Kubrick in its steely technical mastery and remote, disenchanted worldview, all in the service of a story that resembles a highbrow puzzle as much as it does an involving narrative.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“just when we’ve finally come to a part of the story we can accept and trust, it turns out that we’ve once again been led astray. In this cinematic game, Fincher’s directorial ability wins out; his ability to pace his films; to completely draw the audience’s attention in whichever direction he requires, as well as keeping them emotionally attached to the protagonists is a balancing act which Fincher has mastered time and again over his career, and The Game is no exception.” — jyapp8715, Through the 4th Wall

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed The Game as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, saying it “is by far at its best on your first viewing, when you don’t know how it will end and it’s stuffed with mysteries and twists. That’s not to say it doesn’t bear repeat viewings — as with most twist-ending-ed films, there’s naturally some interest in seeing it again knowing what’s going on — but a lot of the film’s enjoyment comes from being played with, the back-and-forth of what the truth is.”

Verdict

In fairness, The Game probably comes near the bottom of my top 100, because I remain a little dubious about its re-watch value — not because it’s poorly made (far from it), but because the twists and reveals are such a big part of its appeal, and once you know them, you know them. Also, arguments continue between its fans and its haters about whether the plot makes sense or not, and how much that actually matters — personally, I think it makes enough sense (maybe for some parts you have to switch on your “it’s a movie” filter, however). The reason it makes my list nonetheless is the quality of a first viewing, especially if you do buy into its conceit and just go with it. Few other films have kept me guessing from the start up to the very closing moments, and consequently on the edge of my seat throughout. That experience may be unrepeatable, but as one-time deals go, it was immeasurably memorable and effective.

#35 will be… the hands that built America.

Fight Club (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #29

Mischief. Mayhem. Soap.

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: 18 (cut, 1999) | 18 (uncut, 2005)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th October 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 12th November 1999
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Edward Norton (American History X, 25th Hour)
Brad Pitt (Interview with the Vampire, World War Z)
Helena Bonham Carter (Room with a View, The King’s Speech)
Meat Loaf (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny)

Director
David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network)

Screenwriter
Jim Urls (Sweet Talk, Jumper)

Based on
Fight Club, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

The Story
The film’s nameless narrator is growing increasingly disillusioned with his mundane consumerist lifestyle, when he bumps into Tyler Durden. A free-spirited soap salesman, the pair have a fight for the heck of it. Finally experiencing some kind of genuine feeling, they set up an underground club for fighting, but it gradually becomes clear that Tyler may have bigger ideas…

Our Heroes
I am Jack’s nameless narrator. I am also Jack’s friend, Tyler Durden. Yes, just his friend…

Our Villains
The establishment! Capitalism! What’ve you got?

Best Supporting Character
Helena Bonham Carter hasn’t been fucked like that since grade school.

Memorable Quote
“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club! ” — Tyler Durden

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” — Tyler Durden

Memorable Scene
Called into his manager’s office to discuss his bad behaviour, the Narrator decides the best method of getting his own way is by enacting physical violence… on himself.

Technical Wizardry / Truly Special Effect
For what’s essentially a drama, Fight Club is overloaded with special effects and visual trickery. I don’t know if any are particularly groundbreaking in and of themselves, but several are particularly striking. A personal favourite, thanks to the perfect execution of the idea, is the shot where the Narrator’s condo is transformed into a living IKEA catalogue.

Making of
Marla’s original post-coital line was, “I want to have your abortion.” The studio objected to such an offensive line, so Fincher agreed to change it on the condition that the new line had to be used. The studio agreed, apparently unaware that such an agreement was never going to end well. Fincher wrote the replacement line, “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.” The studio asked for the original line back; Fincher refused. (It must say something about American values that abortion is considered more shocking than underage sex.)

Next time…
Nothing from the film, but Chuck Palahniuk has continued his novel in 10-issue comic book series Fight Club 2. A second comic series, Fight Club 3, is planned.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound Effects Editing)
1 MTV Movie Awards nominations (Best Fight for Edward Norton fighting himself)
1 BRIT Award nomination (Best Soundtrack — it lost to Notting Hill)

What the Critics Said
“Three factors elevate Fincher’s apocalyptic stew to something approaching art. First is Norton’s performance, as sneaky and shocking as that in his film debut Primal Fear. Second is Palahniuk’s story, which dances on a razor’s edge between life and death, expression and repression, ecstasy and agony. Third is Fincher’s dedication to making a film that looks and sound likes no other, one that powerfully illustrates what dementia looks like from inside and out.” — Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Score: 79%

What the Public Say
“it’s hard to believe Fight Club is now 15 years old. As I was watching the film last night I found it hard to review because it is so ingrained in pop culture now it would be almost sacrilegious to say something bad about it. […] The first time I saw Fight Club I did not see the twist of [REDACTED] coming. I remember being surprised, but also very confused. I didn’t really understand how it worked then. On the second viewing it is easy to see a million clues pointing to this from the very beginning. Director David Fincher is very clever in how he orchestrates the film by giving you all these hints. He’s very good at walking that tight rope of not giving away too much. The twist is definitely one of the highlights of the film and why it is so memorable. It doesn’t feel cheap to me as some of these things normally do.” — Sherise, The Girl that Loved to Review

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Fight Club as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, saying “Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless […] To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.”

Verdict

A controversial film to this day, Fight Club is a violent, explicit exploration of the turn-of-the-millennium Western male psyche, which hasn’t necessarily lost its relevance in the ensuing decade-and-a-half. Criticised by some for endorsing the anarchic lifestyle it depicts, praised by others for satirising that mode of thinking, and criticised by other others for not satirising it well enough, the film can certainly provoke a spread of views. There’s little doubt that David Fincher’s direction is memorably slick and inspired, however, and it has one of the most talked-about twists in movie history.

#33 will… boldly go where no comedy has gone before.

Go (1999)

2015 #119
Doug Liman | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

When people call 1999’s Fight Club “the first film of the 21st Century”, it sounds a bit clever-clever. When you watch 1999’s Go, you see what they mean. Fincher forged forward; Liman encapsulated “just been” — indeed, it’s been called the most ’90s movie ever made.

A darkly comic portmanteau of young adults embroiled in drugs and violence, Leonard Maltin accurately dubbed it “junior Pulp Fiction”. In ’99 it probably seemed one in a long line of Tarantino rip-offs; those still happen now, rendering Go an early-comer.

Nonetheless, it has qualities that merit viewing, especially for 90 minutes of ’90s nostalgia.

4 out of 5

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

2015 #35
David Fincher | 158 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Sweden & Norway / English | 18 / R

Stieg Larsson’s much-hyped novel comes to the screen for the second time in David Fincher’s much-hyped English-language re-adaptation. Somewhere between the pre-release build-up (do you remember the fuss over the trailer’s release? And all those magazine covers and articles?) and now, something clearly went awry: its UK TV premiere back in March was buried mid-week on ITV2.

If you’ve read or seen a previous version then you know the story, which hasn’t succumbed to a massive reworking for the American remake — it’s still set in Sweden, even. If you don’t, it sees disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) being invited by the patriarch of the rich Vanger family (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the murder of his beloved niece, which happened 40 years earlier. At the same time, we follow the trials and tribulations of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a troubled twenty-something hacker who must contend with abusive guardians, before eventually teaming up with Mikael to close his investigation. The novel’s original title translates as Men Who Hate Women, and that’s a pretty succinct summary of the grim, violent, nasty places the stories take us.

After an aside into magical character drama and big-business thriller, Fincher has moved back towards more familiar stomping ground here: a boundary-pushing thriller with themes so dark many wouldn’t want to touch it. It also followed hot on the heels of the well-received Swedish screen adaptations of the novels, another reason to stay hands-off; doubly so given that this sticks equally closely to the source novel. The merits of the various versions can be debated ad infinitum, naturally. I’ve not read the novel so can’t compare, but reportedly the Swedish film’s characters are more like those in the book and the plot is even more closely adapted. That said, to a casual viewer, the two films feel very similar in terms of story and character. There are certainly changes, but nothing especially major. For example, the ending has been tweaked — not “completely changed”, as some reports had it, but just streamlined slightly. Some will struggle to even remember the difference if their experience of a previous version was long enough ago. Die hard fans, however, seem to regard it as a massive re-visioning of events. It isn’t.

I could go on with this comparison, but there are plenty enough articles to do that already, and I don’t really want to. Yet it’s quite a hard thing to avoid, purely because the two films materialised so close together. Even distant remakes invite comparison, but when they come out virtually back-to-back it just emphasises the point. So too the fact that the Swedish films were widely and readily available, and that they were acclaimed by both critics and audiences, not cheapo idiomatic versions before the big-budget American one came along. Indeed, though I called it boundary-pushing earlier, few boundaries feel pushed because it’s so close to the Swedish version. Of course, in and of itself — and if you’ve not seen the foreign-language film — there’s a lot of shocking, extreme stuff here. Even for the director who gave us Se7en, this is at times pitch-black material.

And that there is another comparison that dogs the film: Fincher’s previous work. However much of his own touch the director brings to proceedings — and he has produced an incredibly well-made film; in particular, it’s beautifully shot, and there’s a vein of interest to be mined in discussing the fact it was consciously made using a five-act (as opposed to the usual three-act) structure (but not here today, sorry) — it feels unable to innovate or hone the genre in quite the way Se7en or Zodiac did. This is not a movie that will be remembered among the very top-level of his work.

Well, I say that — who knows? Enough films have been reevaluated with time in the history of film that you can’t ever quite be certain. At the moment, the context of comparing it to the Swedish film holds it back, but where that has Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth in its favour, this has the skill of David Fincher, not to mention a not-half-bad (indeed, Oscar nominated) Lisbeth from Rooney Mara, as well as a quality supporting cast. And the best use of Enya since at least Fellowship of the Ring. Then, from a personal perspective, Se7en and Zodiac are among my most-favourite films, so in that comparison battle Dragon Tattoo almost has a hand tied behind its back. Historical context hasn’t improved since, either, with Fincher’s follow-up being another morally-dark bestselling thriller adaptation, pigeonholing them (for some commentators) as a pair of Fincher-by-numbers placeholders until he comes up with something original again — if he ever does (as naysayers would proclaim).

So my rating may come as a bit of a surprise given the focus of this review, which is primarily my fault for finding it so tough to shrug off all those contexts and comparisons. But hey, that’s something the film itself struggles with in many people’s eyes, too. If the viewer can divorce it from those ties, however, I think it’s still an exceptionally good thriller.

5 out of 5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on ITV2 tonight at 11:10pm.

Gone Girl (2014)

2015 #18
David Fincher | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Gone Girl“Horrible people do horrible things to each other” is the Post-it Note summary of this dark drama-thriller from director David Fincher, adapted by screenwriter Gillian Flynn from her own novel, which is short on heroes and overloaded with villains. An alternative brief summation is, “modern society is shit.”

Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike) are a married couple living an affluent-seeming life in middle America. One morning she goes missing, their house showing signs of a violent struggle. Nick calls the police, naturally. He has an alibi, but there are gaps — both to the police and for us, the viewer. Flashbacks reveal the courtship and subsequent middle-class-hardship of the Dunnes, their picture-perfect marriage built pretty much like one might build a picture of a perfect marriage. As the media descends on Nick’s small hometown, he’s swept up in the narrative of a nation deciding his guilt or otherwise in tweet-sized bursts of opinion, due process be damned. The heightened situation and an ever-lengthening chain of increasingly incriminating evidence bamboozles Nick into some ill-advised decisions, which only compounds the public’s negative perception of him. And halfway through there’s a killer twist that turns everything on its head, sending the film spiralling out in all kinds of new directions.

Depending on which set of critical reactions you choose to follow, Gone Girl is either Fincher’s latest masterpiece — possibly his most masterful masterpiece — or Fincher-by-numbers, a director treading water with a film so tailor-made for him that it’s all a bit too obvious. I think the latter is to reduce the greatness of Fincher’s work — and Flynn’s too, not to mention the talented cast and everything else that’s superb about this movie. Girl, goneHowever, that opinion may stem from the same point as my view on the more praise-filled reactions: that Gone Girl is not a film as great as Se7en, Fight Club or Zodiac, but that it is, along with The Social Network, a half-step behind them. Who knows, perhaps if I re-watched the pair they’d catch up with the pack; but then Se7en is my oft-cited “favourite film ever”, so good luck with that.

So, the people who have written Gone Girl off as a thriller made of audacious twists but, ultimately, no more than that have, I would wager, missed something. Analysis pours forth already — Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko and several other lesser films, wrote a lengthy comparison to Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s posthumous final film that had a mixed-to-poor reception on its release but, in the ensuing decade-and-a-half, seems to have been re-evaluated as something of a classic. Kelly’s piece is worth a look for those who don’t mind pieces that include multiple uses of the word “heteronormative” (no, wait, come back — he’s not as bad as most people who insist on using that phrase! And you’ll be pleased to know “cisgender” doesn’t even come up once), but do be aware it thoroughly spoils the plot of Gone Girl (and, I presume, Eyes Wide Shut, but as I’ve not seen that I’m not sure how much I’ve been spoiled).

Comparisons to Kubrick are nothing new for Fincher, of course; both directors being equally famed for their technical virtuosity and obsessive perfectionism, notoriously expressed in their renown for insisting on dozens, sometimes hundreds, of takes. (There’s a bit in the Gone Girl commentary where Fincher addresses this reputation head on, highlighting a shot that was achieved perfectly on the first take, so they didn’t do another.) However, A.V. Club’s list of the 100 best films of the decade so far (which places Gone Girl at #40) has a different suggestion: “isn’t there a bigger hint of Hitchcock in his choice of projects, the “disreputable” material to which he applies his immense talent?”

PolicierThis is an argument for which I have a lot of time. The majority of Fincher’s filmography is made up of policiers and thrillers of one form or another, and even when he breaks out of that mould — in The Social Network, for instance — he often brings a similar perspective and toolset. Many of these films are borderline-rote, heavily-generic schedule-fillers at screenplay level, and would have been just that in the hands of a lesser director; in the hands of a master filmmaker, however, they become genre-transcending classics. I think that same sentence could be said about most (all?) of Hitchcock’s best films.

Gone Girl is the latest in that vein. Yes, there are the straightforward thrills of a twisty whodunnit plot, but that’s carried off with infinite panache, the film as crisply edited and with as darkly glorious cinematography as anything else on the Fincher filmography. Beneath and around that, there’s a seam of thematic material for the engaged to sink their teeth into. Some have labelled it as a deconstruction of marriage, which is a bit broad. Although there’s no functioning relationship on screen to serve as a counterpoint, I think we’re all capable of imagining one. Rather, Fincher and Flynn are showing what a certain kind of person will do to fulfil their ambitions, especially when that ambition is only multiplied by contact with a similarly desirous other. This is a ‘perfect storm’ of two people — perhaps two fundamentally unlikeable people — setting out to achieve their goals with a “rest of the world be damned” attitude; an all-or-nothing game where the stakes are both life-or-death and, at the end of the day, the chance to live the American (1%-er) Dream. Is that worth what they go through? It is to them.

No news is good newsIs it for the masses, too? Maybe. In his review for Little White Lies, David Jenkins reckons that “ideas of the essential unknowability of other people and the fluid nature of trust… form the basis of the entire movie [and] this is where the 24-hour TV news cycle comes in… As events in the film play out, panel shows, news pundits and twitter feeds are swift to offer their unique spin on things, spouting wild conjecture as if it’s copper-bottomed fact.” I can’t help but be reminded of the social media reactions surrounding the Oscar Pistorius case: so many people on Twitter were so convinced they they knew what happened, and what should be done about it, that they had pre-judged him and were shocked by the trial’s outcome, leading to condemnation of the judge and/or the entire South African legal system, which must of course be inferior to the American one (because it’s different and therefore the American one is by default superior).

It’s this kind of reaction that the film is, in part, observing and commenting on; it is, as Jenkins dubs it, “the ocean of fickle public backwash… the collective hunger to say something, anything, [that] will, in the end, prevent justice from prevailing.” The role of the media may seem like a subplot, or even a sub-theme, early on, but by the end it has become vital to the film’s third act: key decisions are made to influence the media and public; further decisions are based on the media and public reaction to that influence; and, come the climax of it all, it’s the media and its consumers — more than the police, or even Nick Dunne and his relatives themselves — who decide the outcome.

I haven’t written much about Gone Girl’s production elements, because I think with a Fincher film you can trust they’ll be exemplary and you can focus on the dramatic/thematic points instead. One thing that does merit highlighting, however, is Rosamund Pike’s performance. She is incredible, offering a performance with more layers than a pack of onions, all of which she negotiates with supreme skill. Given the story, Amazing Rosamund Pikea lesser actress could’ve given a performance with fewer notes and the film still would’ve functioned; or they would have struggled to contain the numerous sides to Amy’s personality in the form of a plausible human being. Pike does that, and more. She goes on my list of “people who were robbed of an Oscar because it was someone else’s ‘time’” (alongside Paul Greengrass’ United 93 snub in favour of The Departed).

Ultimately, Gone Girl works as a twist-laden dramatic thriller, with reveals and developments that are best discovered unspoiled for the full rollercoaster experience. Underpinning that, however, is the kind of observation and deconstruction of our modern world that has elevated several of Fincher’s best films. Even if Gone Girl isn’t quite among the films in that very top tier, I think it can stand proudly beside them.

5 out of 5

Gone Girl debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm and 1am.

September 2014

“Did you sept emb ‘er?”
“No, I oct obe ‘er!”

(Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any sense. Let’s move on…)


What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?

This month’s WDYMYHS film was the massively appropriate Braveheart. I also watched a film actually about a public vote on the future of their country, No. About a nation seeking to get rid of a nefarious ruler who had reigned over them with malicious intent for far too long, the Scottish referendum is what connects these two movies. (Ho-ho!)

On the topic of WDYMYHS, I also finally posted a review for one of last year’s movies, Touch of Evil. I’ve still got Seven Samurai and The Night of the Hunter to go, as well as one other review, and then I’ll finally be done with 2013. (I’ve been exceptionally tardy with that, haven’t I?)


But back to 2014:

September’s films in full
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
#81 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
#82 Crimes of Passion: Death of a Loved One (2013), aka Mördaren ljuger inte ensam
#83 Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)
#84 Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
#85 The Grey (2011)
#86 Dark Shadows (2012)
#87 Braveheart (1995)
#88 Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Frankenweenie#89 The Spirit (2008)
#90 The Wall (2012), aka Die Wand
#91 Frankenweenie (2012)
#92 Always (1989)
#93 American Hustle (2013)
#94 Mad City (1997)
#95 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
#96 No (2012)
#97 This is Not a Film (2011), aka In film nist


Analysis

At the start of the year, there’s rarely very much to say in these sections; by this point… oh, there are so many ways to look at the data! September is where that really kicks in, because it’s a month in which I’ve twice reached #100, the earliest I’ve ever managed it. That means “how near is #100?” becomes a very viable proposition; plus, I tend to get very watch-y as the big target nears — when it’s only a few films away, why not squeeze in a couple more than normal and get there sooner?

On that last point, it’s perhaps interesting to start with previous Septembers. Last year was my best-ever tally for the ninth month, by some 23% as well… and yet I didn’t reach #100 until two months later. In part that was just the aforementioned pushing on to get closer to the end — the same thing happened in October, and after I actually reached #100 (in early November) I only watched a couple more films. This September, meanwhile, is 31% higher than last year’s — or, to put it another way, 55% better than the best-before-2013 was. And yet I still haven’t reached #100…

What viewing 17 films this month does mean, however, is that it’s my joint-second highest month ever — hurrah! That’s tied with March 2013; it would’ve needed only one more to be outright-second (oh well), two more to be joint-first (looking right back to December 2008 for that), and (obviously now) three more — i.e. have reached #100 — to set a new record.

What does having reached #97 mean for the rest of the year? Well, it’s the furthest I’ve ever gotten by September without reaching 100. Next nearest was last year, when I was at #84. From there, I went on to #110, which is another 26 films — if I do the same this year, I’d reach #123, which would become my second-highest total ever (behind 2007’s 129 and just ahead of 2010’s 122). Widening the parameters to include all previous years, my average total for the year’s final three months is 27 — making last year the most average of the lot, in fact.

That might be the most accurate predictor of where I’ll end up (though still prone to wild variation: I may’ve watched 26 more last year, but the year before that it was only 16, and in 2009 it was up at 40), but let’s use the rest of the 2014 to make some wild assertions anyway. So, my year-to-date average suggests I’ll reach #129, which (as mentioned) would put 2014 equal-best with 2007; pushing a tiny bit harder would leave me with a record-setting 130 films. The most recent months bode well for that: if I maintain my average viewing from the last three months, I’ll reach #139; if I keep up the average of the last two months, however, I’d make it all the way to #145; and if I kept pace with September, I’d make it all the way to #148!

Will any of that happen? Probably not (never say never!), but it’d be nice to end up in the 120s at least.


Slipping…

A side effect of the higher-than-average viewing is that the extent of my backlog has worsened. You may have noticed the number of new reviews step up a little in the past few weeks to try to stave it off, but in the end I had to relent: having kept the “coming soon” list at no more than 49 films ever since July 2012, it slipped to 50 this month. Ah well. Efforts will continue to stop it growing any longer.


This month’s archive reviews

A bit of a lax start to the month means just 17 archive re-posts this time…

Also this month, the two bookend posts from my 2011 David Fincher Week. Most of the reviews featured therein have already been brought over to this blog, but Fight Club and Panic Room will round them out tomorrow and Friday.

(You may have noticed my Se7en review appeared here before this post, but as that’s technically the archive repost for October 1st it’ll be in next month’s update. I am nothing if not precise about these things that don’t really matter.)


5… what?

This is the second month in a row without a “list of five”, but they have not necessarily gone the way of the dodo — last month I couldn’t think of anything worth doing; this month I’ve run out of time.

I was considering “5 favourite Tim Burton films”, because I finally caught up on both Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie this month. My list would probably have included Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride and Sleepy Hollow (along with a fifth, obviously), and definitely would have left out Planet of the Apes, Mars Attacks and Beetlejuice. (Lest you judge my selections harshly, bear in mind I still haven’t got round to Ed Wood or Big Fish. Or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.)

What about you, dear reader?


Next month on 100 Films in a Year…

98…
99…
100!

101?

The end of David Fincher Week

You may have noticed that a week ago last Friday I posted a little piece called “David Fincher Week”. Well — 10 days, 8 films, 1,090 minutes of viewing and 9,375 words later (never mind about a month’s worth of personal anticipation beforehand) — said Week is over.

Fincher dominanceOne thing this week has achieved is re-confirming that Fincher is one of my favourite directors. Another is to remind me that I’ve not seen a single one of his films at the cinema.

A third is to have helped me consider each of his films in the context of his others, in order. I would attempt to summarise what I’ve learnt (if anything), but why do that when I can plagiarise myself? So, as I’ve rattled through the films and reviews this week, here’s a little linked-up summary of them all, highlighting where possible quotes that discuss the films in the context of Fincher’s others.


#14
Alien³: Special Edition
(1992 / 2003)

Even though [Fincher] had limited — often, no — control over much of the project, there are still signs that link it with his later films. It’s stylishly shot for one thing, most of the locations either soaked in shadow or cold light, with an often fluid camera. Darkness litters the film thematically too: setting it on a prison colony for murderers and rapists, the violent attempted gang rape of Ripley, the death and autopsy of a 10-year-old girl… Then there’s the Alien itself, from its ugly birth to its violent murders. Fincher may have not turned so explicitly to horror since, but that brand of darkness does flow on into most of his best films: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac.

It’s also, perhaps, interesting to remember this being Fincher’s first film. He might seems like an odd choice, a first-timer paling beside the experienced hands of Scott and Cameron. But that would be to forget that, for both, their Alien films were only their second time helming a feature; and while Cameron’s previous had been sci-fi (The Terminator), Scott’s was period drama The Duellists. A first-timer — especially one versed in commercials and music videos — isn’t all that different, really, and Fincher has certainly gone on to show his worth.

Read my full review here.


#14a
Se7en
(1995)

the cinematography [is] an aspect Fincher put a lot of work into both originally and then again to make it look right on the DVD re-release. This may well be because the film is incredibly dark. Black seems to be its default position — everything else is cut out of the darkness with as little light as possible. Often backgrounds and locations are better lit than foregrounds or actors, making the viewer focus on silhouettes with minimal light offering splashes of detail. Even the scenes that occur at daytime (most, anyway) do so in the middle of ferocious, ceaseless rain that ensures it never gets too bright.

Read my full review here.


#15a
The Game
(1997)

The Game stands out in Fincher’s filmography as not being particularly Fincher-y. He’s made equally as mainstream-friendly fare since — Panic Room, Benjamin Button, The Social Network — so that The Game doesn’t have as shocking a kick as Alien³, Se7en or Fight Club is not so unusual. More so, It’s not as stylishly directed or shot as any of his other films. It’s not badly done at all, but the cinematography is unremarkable and the direction is good without being any more. Many other competent directors could have been responsible — there’s no sign of his unique touch, probably his only film (that I’ve seen anyway) not to display that. To sum up: well-made, just not distinctive.

Read my full review here.


#16a
Fight Club
(1999)

Another point that interests me here is the audience’s reaction to a filmmaker who uses twists. As we’ve seen, Fincher produced three films in a row that had considerable twist endings; two of them often number in lists of the best movie twists ever. So how is it that he didn’t gain a particular reputation for twist endings, whereas M. Night Shyamalan gained one after… well, one film. I’m not complaining about this — the constant need to provide a shocking last-minute rug-pull has gone on to scupper Shyamalan’s career — but the difference of reaction/public perception is intriguing. I’m sure there are reasons — the sheer size of The Sixth Sense’s twist relative to those in Fincher’s films (it’s only Fight Club’s, his third such film, that changes everything we’ve seen in the same way); the way Shyamalan appeared to court the reputation; and so on.

…Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless… To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.

Read my full review here.


#16b
Panic Room
(2002)

it’s still clearly a Fincher film thanks to the visuals. So it’s quite dark and stylish, of course, which at least one review I’ve read credited much more to dual cinematographs Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Not to dismiss either man’s influence and skill, but, piss off. You only need to watch Fincher’s previous films (one shot by Khondji, the other three by three different DoPs) to see that this is a director who knows what he’s after visually (as if his reputation for shooting an obscene number of takes for every little shot didn’t suggest that well enough). To say it’s only thanks to Hall and Khondji that Fincher could produce such a good-looking film does the director a disservice.

Nonetheless, his style is even more evident in the distinctive, physically impossible swooping camera shots.

Read my full review here.


#16c
Zodiac: Director’s Cut
(2007 / 2008)

there are still some properly chilling scenes. Best — by which, all things considered, I mean “worst”; or, rather, “most scary” — of all is Graysmith’s visit to the house of a suspect’s friend, Bob Vaughn, at which point a series of revelations question who exactly should be under suspicion… Another review describes it as “one of the single most chilling scenes ever committed to film” and I’m inclined to agree.

Another triumph of direction comes in how effectively Fincher conveys the time periods the film crosses using relatively subtle means: popular music, appearing in snatches in the background rather than blaring out at us; the actual passage of time with time-lapse shots of a skyscraper being constructed or an audio montage of the major news in a skipped period; and place-and-time subtitles too, but hey, sometimes you need specificity.

Read my full review here.


The visuals may be Benjamin Button’s strongpoint, holding up a variety of era-evoking colour palettes and other design elements as it passes throughout the 20th Century. Flashback-like asides are conveyed in older film styles — scratchy prints for instance, or with a silent movie aesthetic — that on the one hand could seem an inappropriate indulgence, but objectively work very nicely. For a director who has a reputation in some corners for exhibiting excessive flair with swish shots and effects, Fincher shows steady restraint here — as he did in Zodiac, and Se7en, and all the moments in his other films where it was appropriate.

…Viewer awareness of time passing in the narrative is left to the odd snippet of dialogue or obvious jump; aside from a few clear points, there’s a less convincing sense of era than Fincher evoked in Zodiac. Whether this matters or not is debatable — Button isn’t a chronicle of the 20th Century through one man’s eyes, but is rather the story of a (somewhat unusual) life lived during that timed period.

Read my full review here.


it is indeed marvellously directed. As ever, Fincher knows when to keep it simple and when to jazz it up. Witness the incredible visuals in the Henley Regatta boat race, for instance — not brand-new techniques, but the combination of them with the editing and music makes for an outstanding sequence, 90 seconds of pure cinematic perfection.

Conversely, look at all the film’s conversations. Let’s draw on one that’s discussed in the making-of material, the scene between Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker in the club: as Fincher says, he could’ve had a Steadicam endlessly circling them or something similar to make it seem Fast and Hip, but in reality you need to see the conversation, and especially Mark’s reactions, so instead it’s just a good old fashioned shot-reverse-shot. For all his visual prowess, it’s understanding this need for simplicity and (g)old standard techniques when appropriate that Fincher has had a handle on throughout his career.

Read my full review here.



Fincher’s next “gift to us” (as Andrew Garfield put it at the BAFTAs), his ninth film, will be an English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, currently scheduled to reach UK cinemas on 26th December.

I expect I’ll catch it on Blu-ray sometime in 2012.

[P.S. 30/9/2014: I’ve still not watched it. I am a failure.]