Nocturnal Animals (2016)

2017 #55
Tom Ford | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nocturnal Animals

In her second Oscar-worthy role of 2016 that didn’t even get nominated, Amy Adams plays rich art gallery owner Susan, who out of the blue receives a package from her ex-lover Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing an advance copy of his debut novel, which he’s dedicated to her. With the weekend alone to herself, Susan reads the novel — in which the family of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are terrorised by a gang led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before copper Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps them seek justice/revenge — in the process reliving memories of her tumultuous former relationship.

At first the plot of Edward’s novel seems more interesting than the framing narrative that contains it — after all, you’re pitching a tense thriller against a woman reading a book while she remembers falling for a guy. But as it becomes clear that the novel is just a pulpy thriller, and as the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s history reveal a mystery of their own, the balance begins to shift. The question is not really “why is the book dedicated to Susan”, because she clearly knows that from very early on. Instead, the quandary for the viewer is: what exactly did she do that merits this lurid tale being her… what? Punishment, maybe?

Although the story is black as night, it’s a beautifully constructed film — as you might expect from someone with a background in design like writer-director Tom Ford. It’s not just the visually appealing work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey or the film’s various designers that is so striking, though. The three narrative strands are expertly handled. There’s never any doubt about which is which, even when Ford at times intercuts between all three in one sequence, but he hasn’t resorted to simplistic tricks (like vastly different colour grading, say) to pull that off. It’s subtler, and more effective, than that.

Shocking reading

To guide the characters through his sombre narratives, Ford has put together a helluva cast. Of course there’s the primaries — Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson are all superb — but turning up for just a scene or two are the likes of Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, any of whom could be leads in their own right. It does make it slightly disconcerting when you assume someone that recognisable will turn up again later and then they don’t, but I suppose that just sits with the generally unsettling tone of the film.

Taking its artfulness to heart, some people have dismissed the film as being no more than an artily-dressed-up simplistic revenge story. Personally, I think the point of the story-within-the-story is to be simplistic. I don’t think Edward is meant to be a very good writer, and that’s why he’s produced a very pulpy novel. What matters is the effect this bluntly allegorical piece of trash storytelling has on the person it’s primarily aimed at — i.e. Susan. And there’s still ambiguity for the audience in just what Susan is interpreting from the novel. I mean, Edward is Tony, that’s obvious; and maybe he’s Bobby, too; and Susan must be Laura… but who is Ray? Is Ray just the concept of what happened between them made flesh? Or maybe Susan is actually Ray? Or perhaps Edward is Ray too? Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, I don’t know.

Who's who?

Equally ambiguous is the ending to the present-day framing narrative, but I’m not sure I have much to add to that other than what you can easily find online, so no spoilers here. Other than to say I think the main plot points are all solved (the story-within-the-story wraps up, and how it mirrors the characters’ history has been revealed), but there are some open-ended points that the viewer choose how to read as they see fit.

Nocturnal Animals has been a pretty divisive film. Lots of people compare it to last year’s even more controversial The Neon Demon, in one way or another — I’ve seen both “at least it’s better than…” and “it would make a good double bill with…” Well, I really ought to get round to that, then, because I admired Nocturnal Animals very much. It’s a beautiful movie about ugly deeds and ugly thoughts.

5 out of 5

Nocturnal Animals is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Nightcrawler (2014)

2017 #63
Dan Gilroy | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller is part “state of the nation” observational drama and part character study.

The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who, like so many in modern America, struggles to find paid employment. Indeed, as the film opens he’s resorted to stealing fences to hawk to scrap metal dealers — and, when cornered by a security guard, also resorts to violence. That’s the kind of man Bloom is, which will become important as the film goes on. On his way home he comes across the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, and witnesses the freelance news cameramen rushing to the scene. For some reason this job strikes Bloom as glamorous, so he buys a camera and a police scanner and throws himself into it. His boundary-pushing enthusiasm soon puts him on the way to success, racing around nighttime L.A. chasing bloody imagery. It’s a cutthroat industry, but Bloom is prepared to go pretty far for exclusive footage…

Any well-informed viewer isn’t likely to glean much from Nightcrawler about the state of modern America. That Bloom is desperate for employment is more of an inciting incident than a dissected issue, though it does also partially fuel a subplot when he employs an assistant. That US TV news is all about shock value — “if it bleeds it leads” — is a truism that’s decades old, too. If the film contributes anything to that discussion it’s to wonder if things have reached a nadir. Writer-director Gilroy says he was trying to tell an objective and realistic story, but it’s coming from a very cynical, almost satirical place about TV news. Or maybe local US news really is that extreme, I don’t know. Either way, this observational stuff isn’t bad, but nor is it revelatory.

If it bleeds it leads

Where the film really flies is in its characters. There are impressive supporting performances, from Riz Ahmed as the uncertain and kinda gullible young guy Bloom employees as his assistant, and Rene Russo as the outwardly confident but actually kinda desperate TV news producer Bloom sell his work to; plus an almost cameo-level appearance by Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler who rubs Louis up the wrong way.

But the film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Wild-eyed, eager to please, but not quite right in how he interacts with other human beings, and with a real thirst for the gory profession he lands upon, Bloom has a sense of morality that is quite removed from the norm. From the start we’re in no doubt that this is a guy prepared to take relatively extreme measures to secure what he wants, but how far will he go? As he begins to establish himself as a respectable businessman — or, at least, someone who wants to be thought of as respectable — how much has his attitude changed, if at all? Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the role, skilfully negotiating Bloom’s swings from smarmy charm to emotionless non-engagement with the horrors he films. He’s physically transformed too: he lost weight, didn’t eat, and stayed up nights in preparation for the role. On the Blu-ray, Ahmed comments that the literal hunger Gyllenhaal was enduring contributed to his performance as a guy who is so hungry (for success) he’ll do anything necessary to achieve it.

(Talking of the Blu-ray, it’s only special feature (aside from an audio commentary) is a five-minute featurette that briefly features the two real-life nightcrawlers who consulted on the film. They share a couple of quick anecdotes about what the real job is like, which is quite fascinating — it’s a shame there’s not a fuller feature about those guys and their work. I don’t know if it would sustain a whole feature documentary — maybe it would — but a decent length DVD extra would’ve been nice.)

Nighttime L.A. car chase

Outside of its characters, Nightcrawler impresses with technical merits. The lensing of nighttime L.A. by DP Robert Elswit is highly evocative, a netherworld where flashing red-and-blue lights illuminate scenes of carnage. The film’s pace is apparently unhurried but constantly engrossing. You’re not exactly sucked into this world alongside Bloom (Gilroy’s right that presenting him as unnecessarily aggressive upfront serves to stall sympathy from the viewer), but you become an interested observer, unable to look away — like a rubbernecker at an accident, appropriately enough. Several scenes, especially in the film’s second half, generate a level of nail-biting tension, while a climactic car chase is an action scene for the ages. Gilroy’s brother Tony, a producer on the film, was one of the architects of the Bourne franchise, and you wonder if he brought some expertise to the realisation of that sequence. This isn’t a film for adrenaline junkies on the whole, but that scene is a kick.

Driven by a sharp character examination from writer-director Dan Gilroy, brought to life in a compelling, committed performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is an appropriately cynical exploration of modern morality as embodied by one outsider, moulded in the shape of a fantastic noir thriller.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Nightcrawler is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, after which it will be available on iPlayer.

Nightcrawler was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Demolition (2015)

2017 #32
Jean-Marc Vallée | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Demolition

Jake Gyllenhaal is a high-flying banker struggling with the grief of his wife’s death by taking his life apart — literally — in this slightly strange drama from the director of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild.

It’s more of a comedy-drama, actually, despite the apparently serious subject matter, because a large chunk of the plot revolves around Gyllenhaal making a complaint to a vending machine company, pouring his heart out in the process, and then being kinda stalked by the customer service rep, and… well, that’s just the first half. I said it was strange.

Despite some witty moments, the emotional truth just isn’t there to hold it all together. And the trailer song I once mentioned is barely featured in the film itself, so that was disappointing.

3 out of 5

Enemy (2013)

2016 #136
Denis Villeneuve | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Canada & Spain / English | 15 / R

EnemyBetween his popular English-language debut Prisoners and his apparently-not-quite-as-popular-but-definitely-better-in-my-opinion drugs thriller Sicario (its IMDb score is a whole 0.5 points lower, which is more than it sounds), French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made this less-widely-seen psychological thriller. I think it may’ve struggled to find distribution (here in the UK it definitely went either straight to digital or was a day-and-date cinema-and-digital release), which, once you’ve seen it, is unsurprising: it’s considerably less accessible than any of Villeneuve’s other English-language features.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam, a discontented university lecturer, who one day spots a bit player in a movie, Daniel St. Claire, who looks exactly like him. Discovering the actor’s real name is Anthony, Adam tracks him down and discovers… well, that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say things get more than a bit weird at times.

There’s no denying that Enemy is atmospheric, but the actual story was a bit too elliptical for my taste. It was all going fairly swimmingly until it suddenly stopped just before it appeared to be going to offer answers. That naturally suggests you need to go back and reconsider/deconstruct what you’ve already seen, but it nonetheless makes it feel a bit frustrating, at least initially, and makes reading theories online a virtual necessity for deciphering the movie’s meaning (unless you want to try to work it all out by yourself, of course). I’ve read a few of those theories, and I’m not sure any have won me over 100%, but they did enhance my understanding. Nonetheless, I find myself sticking with my initial assessment.

I wish I knew how to quit my boring jobWhile looking up those various explanations, I read at least one review that asserted it’s a good thing that the film doesn’t provide a clear answer at the end. Well, I think that’s a debatable point. I mean, there is an answer — Villeneuve & co clearly know what they’re doing, to the point where they made the actors sign contracts that forbade them from revealing too much to the press. So why is it “a good thing” that they choose to not explain that answer in the film? This isn’t just a point about Enemy, it’s one we can apply more widely. There’s a certain kind of film critic/fan who seems to look down on any movie that ends with an explanation for all the mysteries you’ve seen, but if you give them a movie where those mysteries do have a definite answer but it’s not actually provided as part of the film, they’re in seventh heaven. (And no one likes a movie where there are mysteries but no one has an answer for them, do they? That’d just be being mysterious for precisely no purpose.) But why is this a good thing? Why is it good for there to be answers but not to give them, and bad for there to be answers and to provide them too? If the answers the filmmakers intended are too simplistic or too pat or too well-worn or too familiar, then they’re poor for that reason, and surely they’re still just as poor if you don’t readily provide them? I rather like films that have mysteries and also give me the answers to those mysteries. Is that laziness on my part? Could be. But I come back to this: if, as a filmmaker (or novelist or whatever) you have an answer for your mystery and you don’t give it in the text itself, what is your reason for not giving it in the text? Because I think perhaps you need one.

Could be pregnant, could be a third scatter cushionFortunately, Enemy has much to commend aside from its confounding plot. Gyllenhaal’s dual performance is great, making Adam and Anthony distinct in more ways than just their clothing (which is a help for the viewer, but not for the whole film), and conveying the pair’s mental unease really well. It would seem he errs towards this kind of role, from his name-making turn in Donnie Darko on out, which does make it all the odder that he once did Prince of Persia and was very nearly almost Spider-Man. I guess everyone likes money, right? As Anthony’s wife, Sarah Gadon also gets to offer a lot of generally very subtle acting. Her character’s evolving thoughts and feelings are not to be found in her minimal dialogue, but are clearly conveyed through her expressions and actions. On the other hand, Mélanie Laurent feels wasted, her role as Adam’s girlfriend requiring little more than being an object of desire — a part she’s completely qualified for, but also one she’s overqualified for.

Some find Nicolas Bolduc’s yellow-soaked cinematography too much, but I thought it was highly effective. Especially when mixed with the location of Toronto, a city we’re not so familiar with seeing on screen (or I’m not, anyway), it lends the setting a foreign, alien, unfamiliar feel, which is at once modern, even futuristic, but also dated, or rundown. The dystopian sensation is only emphasised by the distant yellow smog that seems to permanently hang over the city. It’s pleasantly creepy, but not the creepiest thing: the use of spiders is scary as fuck. I’m not properly arachnophobic, but I don’t like the buggers, and some of their surprise appearances are more effective at delivering chills (and potentially nightmares) than many a dedicated horror movie. (Incidentally, there’s a bit in Object of desireArrival that instantly called this to mind. I don’t know if it was a deliberate self-reference or just Villeneuve recycling techniques.)

For a certain kind of film fan, I imagine Enemy is Villeneuve’s masterpiece (at least among his English language features; I’m not au fait with his earlier work). For the rest of us, I’d guess it slips in behind his other movies as an interesting but frustratingly arty also-ran.

3 out of 5

Donnie Darko (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #26

Twenty-eight days, six hours,
forty-two minutes, twelve seconds…
that is when the world will end.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 113 minutes | 134 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 26th October 2001
UK Release: 25th October 2002
First Seen: cinema, November 2002

Stars
Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time)
Jena Malone (Saved!, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition)
Noah Wyle (A Few Good Men, The World Made Straight)
Drew Barrymore (Never Been Kissed, 50 First Dates)
Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing, Ghost)

Director
Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box)

Screenwriter
Richard Kelly (Domino, Southland Tales)

The Story
Troubled teen Donnie Darko is saved from a jet engine falling on his bedroom by a vision of a grotesque rabbit that tells him the world will end in less than a month. Over the coming weeks, more strange and possibly supernatural events occur, and it all gets quite complicated and stuff.

Our Hero
“Donnie Darko. What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like some sort of superhero or something.” “What makes you think I’m not?” The eponymous teenager is a troubled young man, possibly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who begins to perform acts under the influence of his imaginary rabbit friend.

Our Villains
Who’s the greatest evil: Frank, the six-foot imaginary rabbit who proclaims the world is going to end; Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker with dark secrets; or moral-crusading gym teacher Kitty Farmer?

Best Supporting Character
New girl in town Gretchen may be the only person who ‘gets’ Donnie. Bonus points to Kelly for writing a geek-fantasy girlfriend character who doesn’t conform to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype.

Memorable Quote
Donnie: “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?”
Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” — Kitty Farmer

Memorable Scene
Donnie wakes up in the middle of nowhere at dawn, in his pyjamas but with his bike discarded nearby. As he rides home, we see snapshots of his small town and his family, all set to The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen.

Memorable Music
The film makes strong use of contemporary pop music. It all seems to sit perfectly, which is a little ironic as a good number of tracks were changed because they couldn’t afford the rights on such a low budget. The director’s cut restores some of the original choices, which was a mistake. The film’s soundtrack composer, Michael Andrews, and his chum Gary Jules recorded a cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World for the film, which wound up being the coveted UK Christmas number one for 2003 (beating the likes of The Darkness’ Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End), and Bill Nighy’s Christmas is All Around from Love Actually).

Next time…
Whoever owns the rights attempted to cash in with sequel S. Darko, about Donnie’s younger sister. Richard Kelly wasn’t involved at all. It was not well received.

Awards
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards special citation for “the best film not to receive a proper theatrical release in Canada”.

What the Critics Said
“has a texture and tang all its own, despite its remarkable mixture of genres and expressive modes — horror, romance, science fiction, teen flicks, and Robert Bresson meets Generation Y, to name a few. There’s also a dry realism in its evocation of suburban life, which abrades nicely against the bouts of slow- and fast-motion photography that jiggle time and make the ordinary shiver. Kelly, who also wrote the script, has a great ear for family dinner-table arguments about politics, teenage debates about the sexual habits of Smurfs, and the quotidian absurdities of small-town colloquy. Local busybody Kitty Farmer’s near-hysterical complaint to Donnie’s mother, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” (the name of their daughters’ dance troupe), is for some unfathomable reason my favourite line of dialogue this year.” — Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound

Score: 85%

What the American Critics Said About the Director’s Cut
“First-time writer-director Richard Kelly’s breathtakingly ambitious Donnie Darko was one of the best pictures released in 2001. Now that it has returned in a 20-minute longer — and richer — director’s cut, it seems sure to be ranked as one of the key American films of the decade.” — Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

What the British Critics Said About the Director’s Cut
“If it’s your first viewing, you should still be wowed by an astounding masterpiece. But this is undoubtedly the lesser of the two cuts, and since you have the choice, you should stick with version one. […] All this director has done is cut a star off his five-star debut.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“Maybe Richard Kelly’s fate is to be the cult circuit’s Michael Cimino — forever admired for one great film amid subsequent missteps, including a director’s cut of the same movie. Kelly has yet to match the mysterious mood or magnitude of his filmmaking debut […] a collision of time-travel sci-fi, commentary on ’80s Reaganomics malaise and teen angst that’s simultaneously witty and poignant. Non-Darkolytes should start with the enigmatic theatrical cut and proceed further if curious.” — Nick Rogers, The Film Yap

Verdict

When it finally made its way to UK shores, about a year after its initial US release, Donnie Darko was something of a hit — it made more money here than Stateside, in fact. I know several people who stumbled upon it “just because it was showing”. Conversely, I made a special trip to see it at a distant cinema at an inconvenient hour, having heard about it from US reviews. I would’ve been 16, which is probably the best kind of age to become enamoured of its misunderstood teen hero and its complicated, semi-inexplicable sci-fi story. I haven’t actually watched it for years, and never made time for the divisive director’s cut, but (whatever I’d think of it now) it remains a key touchstone in my teenage film experience.

#27 will be…

Prisoners (2013)

2016 #22
Denis Villeneuve | 153 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yesterday I wrote about Predestination, a twisty sci-fi thriller in which I guessed all the twists long before the end, but it didn’t matter because the film had more to offer. Today I find myself in the same situation: Prisoners is a thriller (though not of the sci-fi variety) centred around some mysteries that lead to big twists, all of which I guessed with complete accuracy about one-third of the way through.* I don’t say this to boast — well, I do a little — but my other point is this: while it proved a bit of a distraction, occasionally feeling like I was sitting through aimless red herrings as I waited to be proved right, there’s more to Prisoners than just OMG moments.

We set our scene on Thanksgiving in the small, slightly rundown Pennsylvania city of Conyers, where the Dover and Birch families gather for the traditional lunch at the latter’s house. As things transpire, they can’t find their two little girls, and a suspicious RV parked down the street has disappeared. Fearing the worst, they call the police, who track down the RV and its driver, an adult with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. The girls are nowhere to be found. He’s the obvious suspect, but he couldn’t’ve taken them… could he? As Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues an increasingly complex investigation, unsatisfied Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) thinks he might need to take matters into his own hands…

There’s a lot going on in Prisoners. While the basic format is straightforward, it’s realised in the form of a multi-stranded narrative full of well-drawn characters with complications of their own. Jackman and Gyllenhaal may be top billed and on the poster (well, an air-brushed waxwork vague approximation of Jackman was on the poster), but there’s actually a powerful ensemble cast here, and it’s their performances that help the film to stand out from the thriller crowd — as well as to overcome the fact I guessed all the twists.

So we have: Maria Bello as Grace Dover, who begins to crack under the mental pressure of her daughter’s disappearance. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch, who, based on their houses, is clearly in a better financial situation than Keller, but is he man enough to help Keller do what he feels needs doing? His wife, Nancy, played by Viola Davis, may at first suggest a fragility to match Grace’s, but it soon becomes clear she wears the trousers in this marriage. As mentally stunted suspect Alex Jones, Paul Dano gives a well-managed dialogue-light performance, not straying into caricature. The aunt who raised him, Holly, played by Melissa Leo, is protective, but also doesn’t seem all that shocked by the accusations levelled against him.

Then we do have our two leads. I think Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki may be supposed to come across as a first-rate cop — he’s certainly so good that he can tear his Captain a new one about not doing stuff properly and not get a dressing-down for it — but he struck me as a little less than ideal. I mean, he’s effectively a small-town cop suddenly stuck in a child-kidnapping (and possibly murder) case — of course he should be out of his depth. He’s not a bad detective, just not the usual genius-level investigator you normally find in thrillers, and at times you feel he’s muddling his way through the investigation as best he can. Aside from giving Loki the slightly-affected tic of blinking too much, Gyllenhaal offers a reasonably restrained performance. (I’d love to know what the blinking was in aid of, but the film is woefully understocked with special features.)

Jackman gets a showier turn as Keller Dover, the dad who prides himself on being a strong, capable, prepared-for-anything kinda guy. This is partly a value his father instilled in him, he tells his son, but you have to think there’s an element of it being a response to the emasculation of not being able to fully provide for his family — there’s not much work around, he mentions, and their home environment clearly isn’t as well-appointed as the Birches’. He does have a basement full of survivalist gear, though, and we first meet him coaxing his son into shooting his first deer. This is a man ready to do what he feels is necessary, and what he feels is necessary takes him — and, by association, several of the other characters, and indeed the whole film — to some dark places.

Not that the film needs any help accessing dark places. The truth behind what’s happened to the girls is very dark indeed… though that would be spoiler territory. I thought it was a good solution, even if I did guess it so early on, but I’ve seen others suggest it’s too neat. I dunno, but I think it’s come to something when a film answering all its questions and explaining all its threads is seen as a bad thing.

Denis Villeneuve’s direction gives the sense of a non-Hollywood background with the occasional arty shot choice or composition, though not to a distracting extent. He’s aided by serial Oscar loser Roger Deakins on DP duty, who once again demonstrates why he shouldn’t have a golden man already, he should have a cupboard full. The photography here doesn’t flaunt itself with hyper-grading or endless visual trickery, but is consistently rich and varied. Deakins may also be the best action cinematographer working — pair what he brought to Skyfall with a climactic car dash here and you have a more impressive action demo reel than you’d expect from the kind of guy who has multiple Oscar nominations to his name.

In the end, I find it a little hard to succinctly assess Prisoners. We have a film of complex characters brought to life with vivid performances, though the latter are not adverse to an element of grandstanding, and some of their actions slip into genre familiarity. So too the narrative, which for all its twists and turns isn’t a world away from any number of airport-bookstore doorstop thrillers — and that length is certainly mirrored in the two-and-a-half-hour running time. The fact that I was waiting for my predictions to be confirmed also colours my perception somewhat, because while I don’t think the film completely leans on its twists, it was a bit of a distraction. Nonetheless, you can’t deny the quality of the moviemaking, particularly Villeneuve’s sweeping direction and Deakins’ rich cinematography.

As a thriller that is also a drama about people caught up in those events, and the lengths to which some of them may be prepared to go, Prisoners is a must-see for anyone with the stomach for some dark material (though don’t let me overemphasise that point — it’s not as bleak as, say, Se7en). Is it a classic in its own right, though? Not sure. But it is very, very good.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Prisoners is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* For those playing along at home: the precise moment I got it (explained in non-spoilery terms) was when Det. Loki visits an old lady and watches a VHS. ^

End of Watch (2012)

2015 #111
David Ayer | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

I don’t think anyone paid writer-turned-writer/director David Ayer much heed when he was one of a pack of people penning historically-inaccurate submarine thriller U-571, inadvertent franchise-launcher The Fast and the Furious, or TV-adaptation actioner S.W.A.T.; nor when he first turned his hand to directing with L.A. crime thrillers Harsh Times and Street Kings. He did have the claim-to-fame of having penned Training Day, though. But then there was this: a found-footage cop thriller starring a shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal, which found its way onto a variety of best-of-year lists back in 2012. At the same time, however, it has more than a few detractors. So which is it?

The film follows a pair of South Central beat cops (Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) who accidentally get caught up in some kind of cartel drug war. That overarching element is so subtly fed in that many a viewer seems to have missed it entirely, instead just seeing the film as a series of episodic vignettes about the life of cops. That’s usually then levelled at the film as a criticism, but I think I’d like it more if that’s all it was. The huge scale of the villainy our leads unwittingly find themselves facing means they encounter increasingly grand crimes, at odds with the “everyday policing” feel of the documentary-esque camerawork and tone. It ultimately leads to an overblown and unrealistic climax that would feel more at home in a Die Hard sequel than a found-footage cop thriller.

Ah, found footage. Some despise it. I’m not sure anyone loves it. I don’t mind it, so long as it’s used appropriately. Here, the found footage aspect is abandoned literally as soon as it’s introduced, rendering it absolutely pointless. If Ayer had just shot the film handheld and up-close, it would wash as a stylistic choice; because he attempts a diegetic explanation for why it’s shot this way, but then breaks the rules of that explanation instantly (and continues to do so, with increasing frequency), it turns a valid stylistic choice into an irritating, ill-thought-out distraction. Plus: you want to be innovative and shoot an L.A. cop movie on digital video? Too late! Michael Mann already got there… in 2006.

Ayer at least sees fit to include a rather cool soundtrack. It’s location-appropriate, so not my kind of music generally, but it works… with the possible exception of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think, which for some British viewers is most familiar as the theme music to the Paralympics and topical comedy series The Last Leg. On the other hand, bonus points for including a snippet of Golden Earring’s Twilight Zone, thereby bringing to mind The Americans season two finale and its incredible use there. (Not enough people watch The Americans. If you don’t watch The Americans, you should watch The Americans.)

Also on the bright side, there are several excellent performances. The scenes of Gyllenhaal and Peña just driving around chatting are infinitely more enjoyable than the somewhat clichéd, under-explored crimes they have to deal with. As the cops’ romantic partners, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are very good when they’re allowed to be, but are too briefly on screen. That’s because the home-life side of things is just a subplot, but I think the film would’ve been more enjoyable if it had been 100 minutes just hanging around with the two officers and their families, all the crime palaver be damned.

Although there are things to commend End of Watch — in particular the performances, and even a couple of tense sequences when the filming style actually pays off — I can’t get on board with it being a best-of-year-type movie. Even if it could’ve been more — and, in spite of that varied CV, isn’t the best thing Ayer’s done (I very much liked his next movie, Brad Pitt WW2 tank movie Fury) — this isn’t a bad effort.

3 out of 5

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

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

2011 #81
Mike Newell | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Prince of Persia The Sands of TimeDisney’s attempt to launch a second franchise in the mould of Pirates of the Caribbean, this time based on a long-running series of computer games, seemed to sink without trace last summer. Despite that failure, it’s not all bad.

To give a quick idea of its quality, Prince of Persia is analogous to an average entry in the Pirates series, only without the craziness and humour provided by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. This probably explains Persia’s relative lack of success: Pirates began with an exceptionally good blockbuster flick, and has since coasted on goodwill and affection for Depp’s character; Persia has neither of these benefits.

There’s not much to get excited about here, however. Like On Stranger Tides, it suffers from a surfeit of ideas that are equally undeveloped. Even though this shares no writing credits with that film, it’s what it most reminded me of. There’s an adventure story that wants to reach an Indiana Jones-esque style but fumbles it. It often feels like the genuinely important bits of plot and character development are quickly brushed over, instead spending inexplicably long stretches on barely-relevant asides. It jumps about like a loon too, feeling like a lot of linking scenes or establishing shots have been excised for whatever reason.

Fiiight!There are some good action beats, but there’s also plenty of disorientatingly-edited, CGI-enhanced sequences, as per usual for the genre these days. For the former, see for instance Dastan’s climb up the wall into Alamut (or whatever it was called), or the knife-thrower-on-knife-thrower battle near the end. For explosions of CGI, see the massive logic-shattering ‘sand surfing’ sequence in the climax. Visually they’re clearly trying to evoke 300, but without going quite so far in the stylization stakes. Also worthy of note is the opening, the latest CGI-enhanced rendition of the opening sequence from The Thief of Bagdad and Aladdin: Westernised Middle Eastern streetchild-thief chased acrobatically through streets of Middle Eastern Town by Middle Eastern Guards. (None of the above pictured.)

As this is a Hollywood version of the ancient Middle East, naturally everyone is a Westerner with deeply tanned skin who speaks with an English accent. Everyone in the past had an English accent. Jake Gyllenhaal’s accent is actually very good, in my opinion; Gemma Arterton’s voice doesn’t grate as much as it seemed to in the trailer (I have no problem with her in any other film, but there was something about the Persia trailer that made her sound… weird). That’s probably the best that can be said for either of their performances. They’re not bad, just not in anyway endearing. Dastan makes a fairly bland hero — I think he’s meant to be something of a cheeky chappy, but they didn’t get close to achieving that — whereas ArtertonNot Keira Knightley has the role Keira Knightley would’ve played five years ago. I think she’s meant to be a Strong Independent Princess but, much like Dastan, we’re told we should be inferring it rather than seeing any evidence of it.

Alfred Molina has the best shot at creating a likeable supporting role, but it’s a part that resurfaces for no good reason, acts inconsistently, and all his best elements are cribbed from better films. Like most of the film, then. An attempt is made to conceal that Ben Kingsley is the villain, and it might have worked if anyone else was in the role — heck, I almost believed it even with him… but only “almost”. Like most of the story, it’s all a bit stock-in-trade. It’s good to take inspiration from other action-adventure classics, but it also means that it all feels very familiar. The time travelling dagger, the film’s truly unique point, is too powerful as a plot point, meaning rules have to be established that limit its use… which means that the one unique element doesn’t actually turn up very often.

Prince of Persia is riddled with flaws, it would seem. Its characters are unmemorable, their relationships unbelievable; its plot is disjointed and, while always followable, still half nonsensical; the other half is by-the-numbers predictable; its action sequences occasionally shine, but are largely whizzily edited or CGI burnished (though, in fairness, they’re far from the worst example of either problem). I should probably dislike it quite a lot, yet while part of me says I should rank it lower than even the Pirates sequels (owing to the lack of charming characters or any trace of humour), looking back I kind of liked it. It’s not Good, but it is sort of Fine, and it’s by no means bad enough to inspire genuine hatred.

Glowing daggerPlus, the sword-and-sandals milieu makes a bit of a change. I know we’ve had plenty of swords-and-sandals-flavoured movies in the wake of Gladiator, suggesting this is hardly unique, but whereas they’ve all unsurprisingly shot at the Gladiator mould, Persia is aiming for the PG-13 adventure-blockbusters style. It’s a shame that it’s not better, because said milieu and some of the talent involved could have produced a film in the vein of quality of, say, The Mummy, if we’d been lucky.

If you’re less forgiving than me, knock a star off. Or if you think you’d like the Pirates films better without Depp’s silly captain, maybe leave that star on.

3 out of 5

Zodiac: Director’s Cut (2007/2008)

2011 #16c
David Fincher | 163 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Zodiac: Director's CutHow time flies — I’ve been meaning to re-watch Zodiac ever since I first saw it, but as it turns out it’s taken me 2½ years! It doesn’t seem that long. (Maybe this in some way explains why watching 100 films in a whole year (when at least two blogs have sprung up recently merrily — and, thus far, successfully — attempting it in 100 days) is a challenge to me.)

This time round I’m watching the Director’s Cut version of the film (you may’ve guessed). What’s different? Very little. It’s not just because I haven’t watched it for so long that the changes passed by unnoticed: five minutes of new material comes mostly in 15-second-ish snippets of dialogue. The most significant addition lasts just over two minutes, detailing everything the police have against a key suspect, while the others that contain particularly memorable material are 43 seconds of Avery’s gradual descent into alcoholism and a 59-second extension to the black-screen news montage. As ever, timings and details are courtesy of Movie-Censorship.com. Note that Fincher also deleted a whole four seconds from the theatrical version, plus the end credits are now more complete. Clearly this material wasn’t missed in the theatrical version, but considered in isolation you can see most of it brings something to the film, be that a spot of humour, a character beat or added clarity to the investigation.

Zodiac researchAs the changes have little impact on the film’s fundamental quality, the points in my original review still stand (if you do read it, just skip the first paragraph — it’s waffly and unrelated). That was quite short, though, so a few extra points I’d like to make after watching it again follow.

The film is incredibly well researched and consequently very fact-based, almost more like a documentary rather than a drama in places. Some might say it’s dry, but the case is so enthralling that it needs to do little more in my opinion — it had me thoroughly glued to my seat, both times. However much I love long movies, there are few that can keep me completely engrossed throughout every minute, but Zodiac is such a film. Besides which, there are little touches of humanity and character peppered throughout, mainly about Graysmith — his kids, meeting his second wife, the eventual breakdown of their relationship — but also for the likes of Avery, showing his slide from popular hot-shot who became part of the story to a forgotten alcohol-soaked has-been.

It’s also an unusual serial killer film narrative. Partly because the killer is never officially caught — that’s just the truth; and anyway, by the end there seems little doubt about who did it. Questions still hang over the conclusion — handwriting samples, a 2003 DNA test, etc. — Averybut the sheer weight of evidence the other way seems to leave little room for doubt. More so, then, is that the murders are done with before the halfway mark. That’s because it’s still following the story of the investigation, true, but a lesser filmmaker could have weighted it differently, rushing through Graysmith’s later enquiries in a speedy third act. Instead, Fincher’s focus throughout is on the people looking into the crime, and it’s as much the tale of their obsession — and what it takes to break their obsession, be it weariness or pushing through ’til the final answer — as it is the tale of a serial killer.

Despite this atypicality, 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. Knowing that what we see actually happened too… why, it’s the kind of scene to haunt your nightmares. 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; Chillingand place-and-time subtitles too, but hey, sometimes you need specificity.

Despite the minimal number of changes, the Director’s Cut of Zodiac is certainly the superior version. Not by a lot, obviously, but if you had to choose between the two, everything else being equal, then it’s the Director’s Cut to go with. And it’s still an exceptional film, one of the very best I’ve seen in this blog’s lifetime.

5 out of 5

I watched the Zodiac: Director’s Cut as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

Zodiac (2007)

2008 #64
David Fincher | 151 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Context time: I’m a David Fincher fan. Se7en and Fight Club number among my favourite films of all time; I’ve always found The Game to be an immensely enjoyable thriller; much the same can be said of Panic Room, especially the famous slow motion sequence, which is one of my favourite action scenes ever; and I love The Hire series of short films, which Fincher produced but (sadly) never directed. I’ve never seen Alien³ (or Aliens, or any other entry in that series bar Ridley Scott’s first for that matter), but considering its troubled production history one might say it barely counts. All this considered, why’s it taken me so long to see Zodiac? Well, laziness, to be honest, but I’m here now. And unlike another recently-viewed highly-anticipated film (namely, Southland Tales), this was more than worth the wait.

As other reviews have pointed out, Zodiac is really a film about obsession, and it makes for as engrossing a tale as the case was for those investigating it. In following the story the film chooses to eschew normal structural niceties for fact-following, yet structure is never a problem. Yes, it jumps from character to character, and if you step back and analyse it that’s odd, but while watching it doesn’t matter one jot — this is more like real life than some shallow crime thriller dependent on a twist ending. That level of realism is key throughout, be it the period detail or the exemplary performances — both are excellent and accurate without being showy. Much like Fincher’s direction, in fact, which is appropriately more restrained than usual, though he can still display a suitable level of flair when warranted.

Some have called it slow, even dull, but I was totally engrossed throughout and never overwhelmed by the number of facts being thrown around — and I was watching it in the middle of the night when I should have been asleep. At 5AM, when it finally ended, I was even wishing there was more. (It seems a shame that the recently-released (in the UK) director’s cut adds barely five minutes.) It does exactly what it aims to: it’s not about the killer’s mind and it’s not a whodunnit; it’s about procedure, obsession, and how one deals with an unsolved mystery. The fact it isn’t definitively solved — and yet, for all the characters, there’s a way out or a solution that satisfies them — is possibly the most telling part of the whole film.

After the disappointment of the long-awaited Southland Tales, it’s especially pleasing that the long-awaited Zodiac is such a triumph. It’s easily up there with Fight Club and Se7en, and perhaps even surpasses them both. My most unreserved full marks since Dark City.

5 out of 5

Zodiac placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.

My more thorough review of the Zodiac: Director’s Cut can now be read here.