London Has Fallen (2016)

2017 #14
Babak Najafi | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Bulgaria / English, Italian, French & Japanese | 15 / R

London Has Fallen

The unwanted sequel to the less-good of 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” double bill sets its rip-off sights lower: the entire plot feels rehashed from a weak season of 24. It may as well begin with a gravelly-toned voiceover informing us that “the following takes place between 9AM and 9PM Greenwich Mean Time.” Fortunately, events don’t occur in real time.

Those events take place in the wake of the British Prime Minister’s unexpected death. Granted a state funeral, the American President (Aaron Eckhart) is naturally in attendance, along with 39 other world leaders — most of whom are suddenly wiped out in a series of terrorist attacks. POTUS’s Secret Service chum (Gerard Butler) must get him out of the embattled capital, away from an enemy who seems to have foreseen their every move.

From there, the film is a relentless assault on the notion of good filmmaking. The narrative is so poorly structured that it doesn’t feel like there’s a climax — it’s only apparent with hindsight that what seemed like the back-half of Act 2 is actually meant to be the big finale. The main villain is only dealt with in a tacked-on coda; so too is the obligatory mole, whose presence appears to be solely motivated by a futile attempt to plug plot holes.

Going Underground

The dialogue is horrendous (“You should have let us kill him quickly, because now… we’re going to kill him slowly”) and the CGI is ceaselessly cheap — shots of the various terrorist attacks wouldn’t look out of place in a Sharknado movie. A single-take action sequence feels like it should be exciting filmmaking, but is actually more like watching someone else play a video game.

Even with that, London Has Fallen does just about pass muster as a brains-off actioner, in the truest sense of the term: you’ll need to switch your brain off to endure the rampant xenophobia and American flag-waving.

God, I bet Trump loves this movie.

2 out of 5

London Has Fallen featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #83

Fear can hold you prisoner.
Hope can set you free.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 142 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd September 1994 (USA)
UK Release: 17th February 1995
First Seen: TV, c.1999

Stars
Tim Robbins (Jacob’s Ladder, Mystic River)
Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy, Invictus)
Bob Gunton (Demolition Man, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls)

Director
Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Mist)

Screenwriter
Frank Darabont (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Green Mile)

Based on
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a short story by Stephen King.

The Story
When Andy Dufrense is incarcerated in Shawshank State Penitentiary, he soon finds himself helping the corrupt warden money-launder his bribes. With a measure of protection from the guards, Andy’s common decency leads him to try to improve life for his fellow inmates, all the while thriving on the hope he’ll one day get out.

Our Heroes
Andy Dufrense is an intelligent fella, who earns himself protection and privileges by helping with the guards’ finances, and befriends fellow inmates by overhauling the prison library. He’s serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife and her lover, despite claiming he’s innocent — like everyone else in Shawshank. Conversely, his new best friend, Red — the film’s narrator — is the only guilty man in Shawshank. He’s the guy you go to if you want anything smuggled in, like, say, a rock hammer…

Our Villains
Warden Samuel Norton is outwardly a good Christian and forward-thinking prison governor, but is actually a corrupt and vicious sonuvabitch, only too happy to use Andy’s skills to fiddle the books — and punish him harshly for any signs of dissent. His right-hand-man is the captain of the guards, Hadley, who’s not above giving a wayward prisoner a life-altering beating, or worse…

Best Supporting Character
The prison’s librarian, Brooks, who’s been locked up for almost 50 years. The old chap gets paroled, but the outside world has become a very different place by 1954, and he has a heartbreaking fate.

Memorable Quote
“The funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” — Andy Dufresne

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Memorable Scene
Left alone in the warden’s office, Andy comes across a record. He puts it on the turntable, locks the door, and switches on the PA system, broadcasting opera to the entire prison. Guards and prisoners alike stop where they stand to listen. Meanwhile, the warden bangs on the door and demands Andy turn the music off. He leans toward the record player… and turns it up. The insubordination will cost him, but, for a few minutes, the beautiful music makes the prisoners feel free.

Making of
The American Humane Association monitored filming that involved Brooks’ pet crow. During a scene where it’s fed a maggot, the AHA objected — because it was cruel to the maggot. They demanded the filmmakers use one that had died from natural causes, which was duly found.

Awards
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound)
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Writing)

What the Critics Said
“The mood swings rigorously through every emotion as the cranky, wiseguy and downright crazed array of criminals bare the brunt of the turbulent life within the doomy Shawshank catacomb. […] If you’re miserable enough to look for gripes then, yes, it does drift on too long and who needs prison buggery again? Yet the ending has such poetic completeness you’re too busy contentedly chuckling to worry about sore behinds. This may have confounded American audiences — it flopped big-time on planet Yank — but a more divine movie experience you will not find this side of Oscardom. […] If you don’t love Shawshank, chances are you’re beyond redemption.” — Ian Nathan, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“it has these amazing feel good moments yet it doesn’t feel contrived. Most of us film lovers can see right through that. If Shawshank was guilty of that, it wouldn’t have stayed in the number one spot for all these years. […] I think there are a lot of things that make The Shawshank Redemption such a widely loved film and the movie just gets so many things “right” that they all combine to give us something spectacular: Feel good moments like the beer & opera scenes (which never fail to move me no matter how many times I watch this movie). Andy & Red’s friendship. The lesser characters such as Brooks & Heywood (and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Brooks Was Here” theme from Thomas Newman). Seeing the posters on the wall change, showing the passage of time. Alexandre Dumbass. The pet bird. Rita Hayworth. And, of course, the overall message of hope. More than anything, though, I think it’s Stephen King’s story and Darabont’s ability to give us scenes of pure beauty in a movie based someplace as awful as a prison” — table9mutant, Cinema Parrot Disco

Verdict

The Godfather sat seemingly unassailable atop IMDb’s Top 250 for nine years, until The Dark Knight kicked it off, not everyone agreed, and when the dust settled Shawshank was the new #1, a position it’s now held for eight years. Naturally that means there’s been a backlash in some circles. It’s a particularly snooty kind of reaction in general, I find, probably because Shawshank is exactly the kind of movie primed to emerge as a consensus favourite: it has drama and darkness, but also humour and optimism, and elicits emotions across the spectrum — it’s neither too grim to depress people into not enjoying it, nor too sentimental to make them do that mock “throwing up” noise some people do when things get really schmaltzy.

I wager some people confuse the notion of “consensus favourite” with “produced by committee”, which sound similar — a large group of people coming to agree on something — but are actually very different. The latter typically produces bland work that no one loves; something that wouldn’t curry favour with the former. Is The Shawshank Redemption the greatest movie ever made? Not in my opinion. I’d wager not in the opinion of most of the people who’ve given it a score on IMDb that’s contributed to it being #1. But it is a very good film indeed — and, clearly, most of us can agree on that.

#84 will be… not a fucking Merlot.

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.

Lucy (2014)

2016 #44
Luc Besson | 86 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & USA / English, French & Korean* | 15 / R

LucyAfter years producing movies in the Taken stable, Besson directs one himself. Unfortunately it’s a poor effort — not a bad movie, exactly, but a deeply silly one.

Forced to be a drugs mule, Scarlett Johansson accidentally ingests the product and unlocks her brain’s unused potential — yes, that long-debunked chestnut. Such daftness passes muster in, say, superhero origins, where no one’s expecting plausiblility, but Lucy seems to want to genuinely consider scientific ideas… between mediocre action sequences, anyway, which feel like they’re pulling punches to hit 12A/PG-13, even though it’s 15/R.

Less than an hour-and-a-half long, it still feels a slog.

2 out of 5

* IMDb also lists Spanish and Chinese, but I swear they’re only spoken very briefly. If we’re being that picky, Italian’s in there too, I think. ^

Amistad (1997)

2016 #16
Steven Spielberg | 155 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English, Mende & Spanish | 15 / R

Feeling in need of more intellectual fare after helming The Lost World, Spielberg turned to a project already in development at Dreamworks: an adaptation of a non-fiction book about the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, and the ensuing legal battle. Although not poorly received by critics, there’s a sense that the consensus view dubbed it “black Schindler’s List”, the implication being that by aping the earlier film it was inevitably inferior. I don’t think that’s a watertight chain of logic, but, nonetheless, Amistad is clearly a ‘minor Spielberg’.

Despite being “a slavery drama”, most of the film functions as a legal drama: though it begins with the slave uprising, and later has an extended flashback showing their kidnap and transportation, the thrust of the film lies in the courtroom arguments about who owns the ship’s ‘cargo’ and consequently what should be done with them. This is a period when capturing Africans into slavery, and by extension their subsequent transportation, was illegal by international agreement, but actually owning slaves was not yet banned (at least in the US). It’s before the American Civil War too, so there’s a political dimension: if these ‘slaves’ are freed, what tension might that spark between the north and south?

Though Spielberg is certainly not immune to the Africans’ plight — the depiction of life on a slave ship is appropriately harrowing — it’s clear from early on which side he expects us to identify with, in terms of cultural background if not shared morality: as survivors of the mutiny talk the next day, the slavers’ Spanish dialogue is subtitled but the slaves’ African dialect is not. It’s a simple but effective technique to align us with one side — as I say, not morally (in no regard is Spielberg trying to apologise for the slavers), but socially. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable: later, when we need to understand the Africans to follow a scene’s point, their dialogue is suddenly subtitled, and from then it’s sporadically translated as needed. I can see why that choice was made, but it makes the unsubtitled bits feel like a cheat.

In most other regards, it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. In a few ways that works: it’s got classical cinematography, both the use of film (obviously, this being well before mainstream adoption of digital) and the framing, the pace, the editing. In other respects… well, it feels very late ’90s now, the overall style of the screenplay and the treatment of the story reminding you that it’s not actually a moderately-recent film (which I guess I’d personally filed it away as, being the most recent of Spielberg’s pre-2010s films that I’d not seen), but is now nearly 20 years old. And, though I may be damned for criticising him twice in as many weeks, John Williams’ score is a little heavy-handed.

This can be said of Spielberg’s approach to the drama, too. Some of the courtroom stuff is suitably mired in legal technicalities and argument, but by film’s end it gets a little bit too… what’s the word? Not “preachy”. Not “sentimental”, exactly, though it’s born of that old criticism of Spielberg. “Melodramatic” may be on the money, though. It doesn’t help that everything reaches a climax — not only narratively, but also in the way it’s written, shot, acted, and scored — only for it to be revealed that it’s just the end of act two. Okay, that’s the truth of what happened (or near enough, for the purposes of this dramatisation), and by adapting it in that way it emulates the emotions the characters experienced; but from the audience’s perspective, you feel like you’ve reached the end… only to be served up another half-hour of movie. And it’s a long film too, so you feel that. It gets by because it’s fundamentally a good film, with strong performances and technical merits, but it’s a little bumpy for a bit.

There also seem to be a startling array of factual inaccuracies to level at the film. As ever with fictional adaptations of real life, it’s a difficult line. No fact-based fiction is 100% like reality, especially when you factor in unavoidable variances in people’s memories and opinions. However, the more serious or famous the events being depicted, or the more they’re being used to indicate some wider point about their setting, the greater the responsibility to present something that is at least passably accurate. I think some would contend that Amistad is not that. I’m no expert, but this section on Wikipedia, which is bolstered by multiple citations to suggest its accuracy, indicates the extent of the issue.

It’s easy to criticise Amistad, because Spielberg makes the production of very good movies look effortless, so the missteps stand out all the more. The story of La Amistad and its ‘cargo’ is a powerful one, and Spielberg has — naturally — turned it into a good film; but by remixing history to over-egg the message, it loses a little something. A valiant effort, but a film like 12 Years a Slave makes many of the same points in a less grandiose manner.

4 out of 5

Now You See Me (2013)

2015 #79
Louis Leterrier | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 12 / PG-13

Louis Leterrier, helmer of the Clash of the Titans remake everyone would rather forget and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie everyone does forget, directs this magic-inspired thriller — a film all about misdirection that pretty successfully pulls off one of its own.

Four low-key magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious, unseen other to stage a massive Las Vegas show, in which they teleport an audience member to a bank in Paris and rob it. But they didn’t, of course, because magic isn’t real. Or did they? So begins a cat-and-mouse tale, as the FBI (represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (represented by Mélanie Laurent) chase their ever-mounting criminal campaign, followed by a magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) and big-money investor (Michael Caine).

Really, the whole film works on many of the same principles as a magic show: it’s there to dazzle you, confound you, make you guess how the tricks were done. That there’s eventually a reveal and a twist is an end unto itself, regardless of the believability of the plot or the depth of the characters (neither of which you get in most magic shows, of course). Personally, I love magic, and I love finding out the truth behind it, so both of those boxes were ticked for me. OK, this isn’t real magic, a fact only emphasised by an over-reliance on CGI at times; but it plays by enough of the right rules to work for most of its running time.

That seems to have made it pretty divisive, however. Reading online comments, it’s a real love-it-or-hate-it movie, in quite a literal sense — some people properly despise it. Their criticisms aren’t wholly unfounded: the characters are thin; at times it’s unclear which side we’re meant to be following or most invested in; the use of CGI in the magic somewhat undermines it; a good deal of the plot stretches credibility. Conversely, the credibility is questionable from very early on, so the counterargument goes that it’s the whole MO of the film — you don’t complain about Iron Man not being possible in real life, do you?

The biggest flaw is perhaps that of the characters and the issue of whose side we’re meant to be on: at times it seems like we’re meant to consider the magicians the good guys; at others, the agents chasing them. Does the film want to have it both ways? It can’t, either because that’s never possible or because Leterrier and co aren’t up to pulling it off. Nonetheless, there’s not enough time invested in any of the characters. When at the end one of the magicians comments that they’ve “had an incredible year together”, we just have to take them at their word because we’ve not seen any of it, not even a montage. That preserves the film’s mysteries, but when every character is hiding something — or if they’re not, we need to suspect they might be — it’s hard to relate to any of them. For me this isn’t a huge issue — I can live without likeable or engaging characters when the film has other stuff going on — but I know it’s a deal-breaker for some.

If nothing else, the film is slickly made, the camerawork and editing swish and flashy in a good way. Again, some people don’t approve of this aspect, but I don’t quite understand people who criticise it. I don’t mean people who criticise the film for just being those things, people who want it to offer more in terms of character or plot because they think it’s lacking — that’s a fair enough accusation. But why is a slick/swish/flashy style inherently bad in and of itself? Such a style certainly fits the magic world. I guess it’s just not to everyone’s taste.

Ultimately, Now You See Me is no more than an entertaining thrill ride; the kind of film that races breathlessly ahead so as you don’t have time to think too deeply about its mysteries, or its plot holes. Clearly it’s an experience you have to get on board with or you’ll loathe it, but, personally, I was entertained and thrilled.

4 out of 5

Jesse Eisenberg’s new movie, American Ultra, is flopping in the US now and out in UK cinemas from September 4th.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

2015 #55
Antoine Fuqua | 107 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Olympus Has FallenThe first of Summer 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” movies, Olympus Has Fallen casts Gerard Butler as the top Secret Service agent who’s also super chummy with President Aaron Eckhart and his kid (Finley Jacobsen). However, after Something Goes Wrong™, Butler is moved to a desk job… but then, when the White House is attacked by terrorists, he’s the only good guy left standing inside. You know the rest, even if you haven’t seen White House Down.

The remarkable thing, watching both movies, is just how many plot beats are so similar. Even when they’re not exactly the same, they’re functionally identical. For example, a plane shoots up Washington merely as a distraction to get the President sent to the White House’s bunker; in White House Down, an explosion at the Capitol is staged merely as a distraction to get the President sent to the White House’s bunker. Both films feature a kid sneaking around the building; a former-Secret-Service traitor-in-their-midst; major characters, including the Speaker of the House, managing the crisis remotely… At least the villains are different: White House Down was based on the Middle East conflict, the villains being Americans wanting it to continue; Olympus Has Fallen is based on the Korean conflict, with nasty foreign villains. Maybe that’s why America liked this better: foreign bogeymen rather than unpatriotic Americans. To be frank, the latter is more interesting.

The real problem with Olympus Has Fallen is that it’s just as daftly OTT as White House Down, but with none of the self-awareness. There are slow-motion shots of characters screaming “no” as someone dies; bullet-torn American flags are tossed to the ground… It’s just as clichéd, but without the knowing wink that makes the other one fun. Foreign bogeymenIn fact, it takes itself very seriously indeed — Fuqua even puts characters’ names and jobs up on screen, as well as timecodes and locations, as if it’s a dramatisation of a real event. Obviously we all know it isn’t, making it feel incredibly odd. The CGI is just as bad as White House Down’s, though the exterior White House stuff looks more real than the obviously-greenscreen locales of the other film. Strikingly, this cost less than half as much ($70m vs. $150m).

On the bright side, the battle on the White House lawn is a good sequence. It’s played as straight as the rest of the film, but on this occasion it works. That said, it’s still just a big shoot-out, of which equally-strong examples can be found in many other action films. White House Down may come up a little short in the exceptionally-memorable sequences stakes too, but at least things like the car chase around the White House lawn — complete with the President firing a rocket launcher! — are trying a bit harder to be original.

Most of the time, the po-faced-ness would render this no more than an adequate and semi-forgettable actioner. By direct comparison to White House Down and all its irreverent fun, This. Is. AMERICA!however, Olympus Has Fallen looks like a far lesser movie. It’s a shame it made it out of the gate first, and that some viewers are not blessed with enough of a sense of humour, because their comparative success has left some quarters with the impression this is the better movie and White House Down is just a clone. Hopefully that’s a wrong we can eventually right.

3 out of 5

Sequel London Has Fallen is out in October.

The Lego Movie (2014)

aka The LEGO Movie

2014 #132
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia & Denmark / English | U / PG

The LEGO MovieDespite looking like a 100-minute toy commercial with an irritating theme song, plus a moral message about nonconformity that seems like it’ll get bungled (but doesn’t), The Lego Movie is so much more — and better — than that.

Boundlessly creative, clever, and witty with the possibilities of its titular topic, featuring technically incredible animation (the close-up detail!), and boosted by a talented cast including leading man du jour Chris Pratt — plus a completely unpredictable final act twist — the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs co-directors have, against the odds, produced another charming and immensely enjoyable animation.

The song is awful, though.

4 out of 5

Transcendence (2014)

2015 #16
Wally Pfister | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 12 / PG-13

TranscendenceChristopher Nolan’s regular director of photography (he’s lensed seven Nolan films, from Memento to The Dark Knight Rises inclusive) makes his directorial debut with this near-future sci-fi thriller.

Johnny Depp plays scientist Will Caster, one of many artificial intelligence developers who are targeted in a coordinated series of assassination attempts by an anti-technology terrorist group. When he dies, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and best friend (Paul Bettany) use his brain patterns to recreate him as an AI. With access to the entirety of human knowledge as found on the internet, plus a mass of computing power and a lot of money, artificial-Will sets about research and development that will change the world. But his new advances may have a more sinister edge…

Transcendence is best known for the massive negative reaction it received on release, from critics and viewers alike. To be frank, I don’t really know why. Some say it’s too slow — well, I thought it moved like the clappers. What I thought was going to be the story was done in under an hour, from which point it spiralled off in new and interesting directions. How good is its science? I don’t know. I also don’t care — it’s about the characters and the spirit of what they do, more than whether it’s all literally possible. As a layperson, I didn’t think it was so ridiculously implausible that it took me out of the movie.

Dell? Maybe if they'd used a Mac...Another element that’s probably too challenging for some is where our allegiances are meant to lie. (Some spoilers follow in this paragraph.) At the start, it’s clear Depp & friends are the heroes and the murderous anti-tech terrorists are the villains. As events unfurl, however, artificial-Will perhaps goes too far, Bettany teams up with the terrorists, and eventually so do the government and Will’s other friends. There is no comeuppance for some characters who are initially begging for it; a good one self-sacrifices somewhat heroically. This doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mould at all (well, the last bit does, sometimes), no doubt to some’s annoyance. The number of people who clamour for any sliver of originality or texture to their blockbusters, but then are unhappy when they actually get it…

Also up for debate is the film’s relationship with technology. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to call it sceptical, maybe even Ludditish. That reading is only emphasised by Pfister’s Nolan-esque insistence of shooting on 35mm film, rather than now-standard digital, and going so far as to grade the movie photochemically rather than use a DI. This is an effects-filled film, too, so in all kinds of ways a computer-based post-production would’ve been the sensible way to go. Whether this insistence on old-school methods is artistically merited or not, it serves to underscore the film’s suspicion of where rampant technological advances may take us in the future.

A flaw I will absolutely acknowledge, however, is the film’s opening: set five years on from Will’s death, we see Bettany in a power-less world, where laptops are used as doorstops and discarded mobile phones are strewn across the street. Regular readers will know how much I hate pointless flashforwards at the start of films, but this is one of the worst ever — it gives away almost everything that will happen, Another photo with Rebecca Hall inrobbing the entire film of tension and nullifying any sense of surprise, and the movie doesn’t compensate with, say, a feeling of crushing inevitability. The climax in particular becomes a drawn-out exercise in connect the dots: we’ve been shown how this all ends up, now we’re just seeing the minutiae of how it got there. There’s no twist or reveal to speak of, just a wait for it to marry up with what we already know.

Some say Depp is wasted in a role where he cops it in the first act and is basically a computer voice from then on. There are pros and cons to this. From an acting standpoint, Hall and Bettany are really the co-leads; from a storytelling perspective, it’s them plus Depp. It pays off repeatedly to have a proper actor, rather than a glorified extra, as the third pillar of that relationship. Plus, having the film’s sole above-the-title star absent himself so early is an effective move — “he can’t die, he’s the star! …oh, he did.” Etc. As an acting showcase, it doesn’t give Depp much to do, other than reign in the flamboyance that is his go-to these days. Points for appropriate understatedness, then.

It’s left to Hall to carry the weight of their relationship. While he’s alive the pair don’t make for the most convincing “most in love couple ever” you’ll ever see, that’s true, but her emotions and dilemmas after his death and in the years that follow are more affecting. That said, this isn’t a low-budget drama. There’s definitely potential with this concept to make a film like that — one that focuses more firmly on the ethical and emotional effects of recreating someone after death (I think there’s an episode of Black Mirror that does something similar, in fact, but I’ve not seen it). Those considerations are in the mix here, but it’s a $100 million blockbuster too, so it has to allow plenty of time for military machinations and an explosive climax.

TranscendentI guess that’s probably the explanation for Transcendence’s poor reception, in the end: it’s too blockbuster-y for viewers who’d like a dramatic exploration of its central moral and scientific issues, but too lacking in action sequences for those who misguidedly expected an SF-action-thriller. I maintain it’s not slow-paced, especially if you think it’s going to be, but nor does it generate doses of adrenaline on a committee-approved schedule. It’s not all it could have been, but if all you’ve heard is the mainstream drubbing, it’s probably better than you expect.

4 out of 5

Transcendence debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 2:30pm and 8pm.

Se7en (1995)

2011 #14a
David Fincher | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Se7enI usually say that Se7en is my favourite film.

I don’t know if it’s just a recent thing, but with the proliferation of online “profiles” thanks to Facebook and, long before that, forums and various other websites*, it feels like we’re asked such questions on a regular basis these days, never mind as a go-to topic when conversation is struggling. So when people or websites inevitably ask what is your favourite film, they expect you to have one. I don’t think they like it if you begin to list 20, or 30, or… So I say Se7en.

This once led to me doing a presentation on the film; specifically, on Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay. It went quite well and I was going to use the notes as the basis for at least some of this review — I’m sure there was something interesting in them. I even listened to one of the commentaries (it has four) to glean extra info (in over a decade of buying DVDs now, I’ve only listened to about ten commentaries). Unfortunately the notes are lost to a harddrive buried deep in a box somewhere, or a hardcopy buried deep in old notes goodness knows where, so that’ll have to wait for another day. I just wanted you to know you were missing out. (Don’t get too upset — I’m sure it wasn’t that good.)

As with almost all films I love, be they ones I’ve held dear for years or newly discovered as part of 100 Films’ primary thread, I’m not sure where to begin praising it. Perhaps the cinematography, 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. SlothBlack 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.

It’s only appropriate, because the story is pretty much as black as they come. For those who’ve made it this far without finding out, Se7en concerns the police investigation into a series of murders themed around the seven deadly sins. In case you haven’t seen it, I shan’t outline any examples, but none are pretty. The worst, in my opinion, is Lust. However many times you see the film, that segment doesn’t get any easier to watch. It’s a three-way combination of an incredible, haunting performance by Leland Orser (in just one short scene); a photograph of the implement, which we see for mere seconds; and the moment when the film that was prepared to show us the ‘living corpse’ of Sloth victim Victor refuses to show us a body. Since the last time I watched Se7en I have seenLust all but one of the Saw films, the uncut Witchfinder General, and various other gory horrors like Flesh for Frankenstein, but none are as gruesomely affecting as the Lust crime.

I imagine it’s contextual. Se7en is, in its way, quite heavily stylised — “dark”, as I discussed — but it’s done so in a very grounded way. To get film studies-y about it, we are asked to believe this is the real world and a plausible series of events are occurring in it. Films like the Saw series, however, clearly exist in a horror movie version of the world (however much some of the filmmakers may be under the impression that it’s a series of grounded thrillers). You view Saw with a horror movie mindset, expecting extreme situations and extreme special effects-driven gore; Se7en, even with its cruel and unusual murders, is always a police thriller. The frame of reference — plus the quality of writing, direction and acting — is what makes Lust so much more affecting.

The acting is brilliant, subtler than some might expect or be aware of initially. To take one example, look at the scene in the bar that (coincidentally) follows Lust. Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) discuss, more-or-less, Somerset’s reasons for retiring. He sets out his stall, his thoughts and reasons, well rehearsed from telling others and himself. Greed, GluttonyMills delivers his riposte with greater hyperbole — of course, because that’s the character — perhaps bedded in a form of naivety and idealism, ending with a repetitious “I do not agree. I do not.” Then we see Freeman’s face, completely static, but you can read in it everything you need to — his anger at Mills for making him realise that it’s all a lie he’s been telling himself, and anger at himself for believing the lie. That’s one scene; Freeman is incredible throughout.

For all the darkness, there’s also a nice vein of humour. Not too much, not a desperate attempt to compensate, but a well-judged amount. One of my favourite comic moments in any serious film (“this isn’t even my desk”); the vibrating home; “if I shaved off a nipple…” From an objective point of view it helps us believe in and, more importantly, like the characters. Which is, really, all in aid of one thing:

The famous ending. It’s a twist, yes, but it’s more than that; and it’s mainly the performances that sell it. The twist, first, is perfectly played. We never see what’s in the box; we’re never even told; but we absolutely, positively, unquestionably know what’s in there, as surely as if we were Somerset seeing it with his own eyes. Even once you know what’s coming, though, it’s what follows the twist that’s incredible: three men in a field, three impeccable performances that bring everything we’ve spent two hours watching to a perfect head. Envy, WrathThis is where liking the characters pays too, because we are on Somerset’s side and we’re on Mills’ side and we agree with both and disagree with both and don’t necessarily know who’s right or what to do or what we would do. I can spend the whole film anticipating this scene, knowing exactly what will happen in it, how great a piece of filmmaking it will be, yet it still makes my hair stand on end.

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, for one thing, but it’s really the execution of the film, not the victims, 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 (arguably, of course) rise not only to the top of the genre but to the top of the very medium of film itself. There’s so much more; this review only scratches the surface. Se7en transcends its limitations in any one area by becoming far more than the sum of its exemplary parts.

PrideThe quality of a crime thriller is often so tied to its mystery that the film can only sustain so many viewings — sometimes, only one — before you know it too well. I have seen Se7en at least seven times now, which for me is a lot — a helluva lot, even — and yet I still get something from it every time. That’s a rarity, that’s a reason to love it, and that is why it may well be my favourite film.

5 out of 5

I watched Se7en as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

* All these people who attribute such things to Facebook, usually in a critical way, are just a bit behind. (That’s a personal bugbear dealt with, then.) ^