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Kicking the Tweets
Sunday
Aug212011

Fright Night (2011)

Slay (I Missed You)

Now, this is how you remake a movie! For the last several years, Hollywood has gone out of its way to support the snide but seemingly true notion that it has run out of ideas. From prequels to requels to sequels, from re-imaginings to reboots, I've suffered through tons of glossy, uninspired updates to classic films--the best of which I can count on my middle finger.

The two big questions at the heart of these celluloid Xeroxes are A) Why are they necessary? and, B) Why remake good movies instead of improving upon bad ones?

Both can be answered, of course, with the words "brand recognition". In the cut-throat, fickle, and risk-averse world of mainstream film, a name that the target audience is already familiar with is always a safer bet than something original (one might site Avatar or the Pixar movies as arguments against this theory, but both James Cameron and The House that Toy Story Built are themselves brands: audiences know exactly what to expect before they reach the ticket booth. The newest flavor from the Coca-Cola Company is just a slightly tweaked formula for carbonated sugar-water, and film remakes are simply recycled products with better film stock and slick, new floating-heads posters.

This proven, pathetic fact is what makes director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Marti Noxon's new version of Fright Night such a mind-blowing surprise. With a series of deft touches, they preserve the spirit and story structure of the Tom Holland's 1985 vampire picture while offering up a contemporary version that is in many ways smarter and more engaging than the original. Often, I worry that the new generation of filmgoers will mistakenly consider a remake to be the definitive version of a particular film. But Fright Night stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor, and both have unique qualities that distinguish them as great horror movies.

The new film stars Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster, a high-schooler whose summer of maturation has netted him sudden popularity and a hot girlfriend named Amy (Imogen Poots). One evening, he comes home to find his mother (Toni Collette) chatting up the hunky, new next-door neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell). Jerry is smitten with both girls and acknowledges Charley as a sort of masculinity-improvement project.

Meanwhile, Charley's former best friend, diehard geek Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), tries to warn him about a series of disappearances in the area; Ed believes that Jerry is a vampire, and that he may have killed one of their friends who'd gotten too close to his secret. Charley blows him off and accuses him of being jealous of his newfound social standing.

Soon, Ed turns up missing and Charley begins to suspect something's not right with the new guy on the block. Using a nifty little test that I won't spoil here, the teen learns the truth; more importantly, he gives himself away in the process and creates a charming, deadly enemy. If you're familiar with the original Fright Night, then you know that Charley seeks the help of a professional demon-slayer named Peter Vincent. In 1985, the character was a washed-up horror-movie host; today, Vincent is a middle-aged Las Vegas illusionist whose schtick involves vanquishing undead hordes with fireballs and wire-work. After much convincing, Vincent offers to help Charley defeat Jerry, which leads to a weird, bloody climax in the vampire's lair.

Though the film's destination isn't surprising, the journey feels completely new, thanks to Noxon's re-tooling of key elements and an expansion of the teen characters' relationships that was sorely missing in the original. Holland's movie felt very small; consequently, I never believed that Charley, Amy, and Ed were really in high school; they seemed like an insular trio of virginal, obsessed-nerd archetypes. By playing up the tension between Ed and Charley and Charley's new crowd, Noxon gives everyone's motivations a gravitas beyond the supernatural struggle between good and evil.

She also messes with Fright Night fans' expectations about who the characters are. As originally portrayed, Charley was a kind but sassy geek, and Ed his obnoxious sidekick. In the new film, Charley is kind of a dick who runs around with people that the Charley we know and love would never have associated with. And Amy comes off as a stuck-up Aeropostale model who wants her man to be less dweeby and more preppy. It's a bit much to take at first, but with these changes, Noxon turns the movie itself into an illustration of what her characters are going through: Ed sees his old, familiar pal morphing into a shallow creature; Charley sees Amy as the unattainable dream girl who can save him from his LARP-ing past; Amy sees Charley as the kind of nice guy that one can't find among the ranks of the super-popular. We, the audience, aren't sure of this new version of our old friend, mostly because we're too scared to admit he/it has grown up a bit.

All that is well and good, but what about the vampire stuff? It's pretty terrific. As with his small but memorable role in Horrible Bosses, Colin Farrell brings an unexpected twist on his gorgeous, L.A.-player persona in the choices he makes as Jerry Dandridge. Twenty-six years ago, Chris Sarandon (who, along with Lisa Loeb, who pops up in a cool little cameo) played Jerry as a cultured Yuppie who happened to have moved to the suburbs. His old-fashioned charms made the transformation into quietly menacing dark lord that much creepier. Farrell goes a completely different route, making Jerry into a beefed-up Vegas douchebag who, if he weren't draining strippers of their blood would certainly be slipping them roofies.

Gone is the subdued politeness; in its place is the pompous, beer-laugh arrogance of a guy who knows he's the coolest thing on the planet. He hides in plain sight, and I can't imagine the neighbors would be surprised to see him in a domestic-abuse story on the evening news. Farrell's effectiveness in the role is up for debate. I like the new take, but there's a phoniness to his slick persona that rubbed me the wrong way; I can't be sure it Farrell had trouble being cool while playing cool, or if he was playing Jerry Dandridge as a predatory chameleon still getting used to his new skin.

David Tennant is absolutely great as Peter Vincent 2.0. Rather than imitating Roddy McDowall, he creates a unique character from the archetype. This Vincent is an irredeemable, hard-core drunk who hides in his mansion-suite and buys mystical relics off eBay in his spare time. Everything about him is a magnified illusion--from his hair to his love for the occult, and his dismissive cruelty towards Charley hits harder here. My one major beef with the character is that we learn his parents were killed by a vampire, which explains both his supernatural empire and his reluctance to pursue its real-world implications; he's a coward, through and through. But the victim-parents angle goes one step too far (it practically hurdles off a cliff when we learn just who killed his parents; this throwaway line feels like a studio note compared to the rest of the film's solid writing).

Speaking of pushing boundaries, I saw Fright Night in 3D, and would like to, once again, express my disgust at this ticket-inflating trend. All 3D does in a movie like this is exaggerate the cheapness of the CG effects. The only half-way entertaining use of the technology came in the form of a stake launched at the screen, which was caught in mid-air and snapped in two. The other money-shots look like out-of-the-box After Effects plug-ins, from the generic blood splatters to the godawful vampire faces, which mix computer imagery with practical effects. I guess the idea was to re-create the look of the wide-mouthed cartoon-character vamps found in the original film; but I wished the makeup and effects departments had followed the writer and directors' leads and developed something new--at least something that isn't completely ridiculous and scare-free.

Oddly enough, the production design almost makes up for the effects problems. Richard Bridgland does some great, spare work here, toning down the grand, Goth spectacle of Jerry's house from the original in favor of a utilitarian prison/food-storage-locker in the remake. Some of the most intense moments find Charley trapped in a white corridor, trying to free a neighbor from one of several locked rooms where Jerry keeps his victims. Later, when he and Vincent face off against the head vampire in his basement, we're treated to these eerie, gravity-defying dirt walls and small caves that look like they actually sprouted from sub-division construction, but which definitely don't belong there (very much in line with the way the monsters in the Alien series enhance their surroundings using organic matter). It's rare that both the events and visuals of a horror movie's climax offer up this many continuous surprises.

While not a perfect film, Fright Night 2011 is stunning proof that not all remakes have to be lousy, that there is room for innovation and personal touches. This movie doesn't feel like a product so much as a brilliant, fan-created, alternate-universe homage. I know I spent much of this review drawing comparisons, but the best way to experience Gillespie's movie is to set aside everything you know about Holland's; my greatest challenge in watching it was turning down the volume on my Critic Brain, which has become so used to harping on remake discrepancies over the years that I couldn't trust Noxon's vision until twenty minutes into the show. I can't wait to see it again, to appreciate the odd choices that lead to cool payoffs; to paraphrase "Evil" Ed, this movie is so cool.

Saturday
Aug202011

Antitrust (2001)

Roesmary's Bitrate

This never happens: A few weeks ago, my friend Bryan lent me an out-of-print, high-tech thriller called Antitrust (this is the same guy who re-introduced me to Hackers and turned me on to the masterworks of Shane Van Dyke, so I've come to value his suggestions). He told me who was in it and touched on the plot, describing it as a "fun, forgettable movie". It's so forgettable that, until I looked at the DVD cover, I completely forgot that I'd seen this movie in a theatre on opening weekend.

Antitrust came out ten years ago, but there was a giant hole in my memory where Ryan Phillipe's pouty, uber-nerd adventures should have been. Aside from infrequent bursts of déjà vu, I didn't remember anything about the story or performances, and it's easy to understand why this fled my brain in the first place.

Peter Howitt's film opens well. A group of California college kids are on the verge of locking in venture capital for their modest, garage-based tech firm. They dream of developing the best open-source code possible and making the world a better place--which puts them at philosophical odds with Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), a Bill Gates-type who many in the cyber-hippie community believe built his vast, for-profit empire on top of stolen, rights-free code. The first twenty minutes are like a teen-heart-throb version of The Social Network: lots of code-speak, arguments about ideals and money, and a mysterious Internet billionaire who uses his charms and power to seduce an eager, naive genius. Things turn south, though, when people start turning up dead.

Despite looking like a lame, middle-aged mama's boy, Winston is a ruthless, calculating monster who employs hit men to take care of the competition. His company's tendrils reach out all over America, placing spy cameras in the garages and bedrooms of every emerging tech genius his agents discover. A duo of goons blows up the images of these kids' computer screens in order to read and copy the code they're developing.

It's kind of a cool idea, but the fact that this is supposed to be an approximation of Bill Gates renders the premise laughable. Maybe because Antitrust came out when world-wide technological integration was still in its infancy (okay, maybe it was a toddler in 2001), writer Howard Franklin felt a David and Goliath story wouldn't be interesting enough without hot chicks and murder. But Robbins plays Winston as a creep from the get-go: even when he's being nice, there's a bizarre, kiddie-toucher vibe that telegraphs his mid-picture turn as a rage-filled lunatic. This leaves no room for surprise, character development, or a reason to remember the film.

Speaking of predictability, I've got a tip for any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: it's generally a good idea to surround your protagonist with at least one reliable character--even if your movie is called Antitrust. Following the mysterious death of his best friend, Teddy (Yee Jee Tso), Milo begins to uncover the extent to which Winston has manipulated his life-path. Milo's co-workers, girlfriend, and even the Department of Justice agent looking to hire him as a mole for an antitrust investigation are all in on the conspiracy. As the movie wears on, the ongoing revelations that absolutely everyone in his life is a traitor--save for the three geeks he grew up with--becomes laughable, especially because Milo is the last person to figure any of this out.

Despite all that, Antitrust is worth watching, if only for its time-capsule quality. It's weird to think of a movie from early 2001 as a period piece, but there's a plucky innocence here that reminded me of a time when popcorn movies about computers didn't have to be about terrorism; all of Winston's unconscionable actions are meant to protect his prize innovation, which is essentially YouTube. Antitrust also reminded me of that brief, golden era when Rachel Leigh Cook was in just about everything.

If you're looking for a sub-par War Games wannabe whose relevance was diminished the moment Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod, then Antitrust is the movie for you. For everyone else, stick with the better version of this picture, the one directed by David Fincher that I still remember seeing last year.

Trivia: Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke served as Antitrust's production designer. I'm not sure if that's at all relevant, but I had a "you're kidding" moment while watching the opening credits.

Friday
Aug192011

Arthur (2011)

Downer Economy

Steven Gordon's 1981 comedy, Arthur, was one of my dad's favorite movies. Perhaps Dudley Moore's witty and charming portrayal of an alcholic millionaire gave him hope that his own struggles with booze might someday pay off in fantastically hilarious fashion. Or maybe he, like America, just loved John Gielgud (who they'd probably mistaken for John Houseman; and sometimes Alec Guinness).

Whatever the case, I only remember snippets of that film, having not watched it in almost twenty years. This leaves me in a unique position to review Jason Winer's remake: aside from Moore and Gielgud's wonderful chemistry and a performance by Liza Minnelli so bizarre that it might actually have been based on a real-life crackpot, much of the original escapes me.

For better or worse, Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham have left the outline untouched in their update and made a largely personality- and humor-free version whose greatest innovation is to turn the Gielgud character into a woman. The story is the same, and it's dirt-simple: Russell Brand plays Arthur Bach, a multi-multi-multi-millionaire known for being a drunken public nuisance. His mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James), arranges for him to marry a gold-digging, high-society wannabe named Susan (Jennifer Garner) in order to preserve the dignity of the centuries-old family business.

When he's not busy crashing the Batmobile into the Wall Street bull or hosting orgies on his magnetized hover-bed, he manages to meet and fall in love with an unlicensed Grand Central Terminal tour guide/aspiring children's book artist named Naomi (Greta Gerwig). Vivienne threatens to cut Arthur off from his money if he follows his heart, leaving us with Two Big Questions:

A) Will Arthur choose the cute, smart girl or the outrageous fortune?

B) Will this film finally force me to break my "Never Walk Out on a Movie" rule?

I won't dignify "A" with a response. The answer to "B" is...almost.

I fell asleep in the middle of Arthur, after having popped in the DVD at 8pm; not a good sign. I endured the first hour of Brand's big-gummed, showy attempts at hilarity and the curious talent vacuum it created for the actors around him before finally vowing to trudge through the rest in the morning. For most of the run-time, Arthur is an ugly movie about excess and alcoholism that says nothing new, interesting, or funny about either (not that these issues are inherently funny, but a strong comedy writer can turn tragedy into at least poignant chuckles).

The talent Brand displays here is quite amazing. His performance is terrible, a high-pitched approximation of Dudley Moore's "hammered" voice, crossed with a line delivery that's somewhere between five-year-old girl and asshole socialite. What's special is his singular ability to make the seasoned actors in the cast look like squeamish amateurs. This is the worst performance by Garner that I've seen (her agent really needs to stop booking these Career-driven Shrew roles), and Gerwig, whose brief role in The House of the Devil proved that she has chops, comes off as an indie talent smiling through a mouth full of shit in order to make a name for herself in a big Hollywood role.

I absolutely blame Brand--though I know that doesn't make logical sense, unless there is actually a black hole emanating from those crazy, Tex Avery eyes--because in the few scenes in which he doesn't appear, all of the actors do remarkably well. Gerwig's conversation with Arthur's nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren) is great not just for this movie, but for any movie. In fact, I'd support an Oscar nod for Mirren for having single-handedly righted this sinking ship. Brand's charisma-sucking phenomenon is truly amazing; like a light switch, when he pops into a scene, the spark and dignity vanish as if they'd never existed.

The only thing that stops Mirren's performance short is the film's writing and direction. I know Arthur is rated PG-13, but not even kids need this much hand-holding. Under normal circumstances, announcing that Hobson is terminally ill in a review would be an unforgivable spoiler. But because Baynham and Winer practically announce it during her second scene, I'm fine bringing it up (those cutaways to Hobson's troubled, concerned looks can only mean two things: cancer, or regret at having signed on to this mess--and Mirren's too classy a performer to betray the craft like that).

I was prepared to write off Arthur as a harsh lesson in the folly of brand-recognition until something quite amazing happened. I realized that the film, like Arthur Bach himself, is an alcoholic: obnoxious, unfunny, and stupid, it flops about in search of a purpose and, incapable of finding one, spirals further into the abyss of self-satisfaction. But in the last act, Arthur--the movie and the character--gets on the wagon. Following Hobson's death, Arthur realizes that it's time to get serious with his life. He calls off the wedding in spectacular fashion, takes a cab to Queens, and sweeps Naomi off her feet.

He tries to, anyway. In a nice surprise, she tells Arthur that she won't be a replacement for his nanny and sends him off to be poor and lonely. They eventually work things out, of course. Six months later, Arthur is attending AA meetings and getting to know average people in a way that doesn't resemble a shoe's relationship to ants. It turns out Brand can play sober and serious pretty well, and I wish to God he'd been called upon to exercise some of that restraint during the first hour-and-a-half.

The closing moments of the movie returned that sick feeling to my stomach, as we learn that Arthur got his inheritance after all; the lesson, I guess, is that one can still be in touch with humanity and be fabulously wealthy, and that being poor and decent is just a bummer. This awkward, tacked-on fairy-tale ending belongs with the first part of the movie--not the second.

That's my biggest disappointment with Arthur, besides it not once being funny. Hollywood seems to have a troubled relationship with the world's current economic woes. On the one hand, it plays politician by churning out movies in which the recession is addressed and characters must come to grips with the handful of money bubbles finally bursting (sweeping markets, houses and lives away on a tide of worthless paper); on the other, it rewards the clueless and/or deviant scumbags at the very top of the pyramid with happy endings that only their monied, elite kind enjoy in real life. Like Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Arthur pays lip service to the working poor but ultimately flips them off in the end.

This may not be an overtly political film, but it is, by nature and circumstance, a socially relevant one. And what is the message here? Like the Wall Street sequel and the criminally gaudy Sex and the City 2, the filmmakers seem to say that, despite global economic uncertainty, everything will be alright for the upper-point-oh-one-percent, and that poverty results in a plucky, salt-of-the-Earth disposition that most people wouldn't trade for all the money in the world. That's how the Arthur leaves Arthur and Naomi--who, at the very last minute, trades in her values for a Batmobile. I suppose having Arthur learn his lessons through hard times, or at least humility, would have been too much of a downer for this aspirational comedy; which is fine. I might even appreciate a movie like that, were it actually funny. But like the hero of our story, the creators are deathly terrified of doing actual work.

Thursday
Aug182011

The Day the Earth Stopped (2008)

Nothing Gold Can Be Remade

There's no such thing as a movie I refuse to see. Sure, some might rank in the high-hundred-thousands on my priority list, but I've always felt that every picture deserves a fair shake and a watch--eventually. Having said that, the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is so far near the bottom that I might as well forget about it entirely. I mean, honestly, how does one replace Michael Rennie with Keanu Reeves?

But, there I go again, judging.

When Netflix brought The Day the Earth Stopped to my attention by suggesting I might like it, I knew right away that I was dealing with another movie from The Asylum. For newcomers, The Asylum is a consortium of cinematic elves who watch mega-blockbusters and then rush quadruple-Z-grade, direct-to-video knock-offs into production. The best ones involve actor/writer/director Shane Van Dyke in some capacity, a man so sincere and yet so incapable of realizing any kind of creative greatness that he's become, to me, Ed Wood for Generation DIY. In this case, he's the co-writer of a Xerox of a remake of a sci-fi classic; how could I not watch?

The joke's on me, kids. Unlike Titanic 2 or Transmorphers: Fall of Man, The Day the Earth Stopped is not on par with the laugh-a-minute awfulness that The Asylum is famous for. The class-project special effects are there, as are the awful, secondary cast members. We still get a healthy dose of past-their-meager-primes 80s film stars and an end-of-civilization story in which the civilization boasts about twelve people. But the bad dialogue, cheesy sets and awkward performances aren't quite bad enough to be funny; much of Day is just dull.

If you've seen The Day the Earth Stood Still, you know that the premise involves an alien ambassador landing on our planet, with a menacing robot in tow. The visitor, who looks like a man, warns us that we need to change  our war-mongering ways so as to not become a threat to the universe. In a magnificent display of power, he halts all electrical activity on the planet, while his metal companion melts army canons with its single, fiery eye. The Asylum's imitation covers much the same ground, though to avoid the easiest lawsuit in history, writers Shane Van Dyke (yes!), Carey Van Dyke, and Darren Dalton send two humanoids and an army of 45 towering Autobot rejects to stand point across the globe.

In an interesting spin on the Noah's Ark mythology, the aliens' mission is to find one virtuous human who can explain to them why people are worth saving. The stoic Man (Bug Hall) chats up clueless military personnel while his swimsuit-model companion Sky (Sinead McCafferty) runs around Los Angeles with an AWOL army guard named Josh (C. Thomas Howell, who also directed the film). They're pursued by Josh's former superior officer, Prewitt (Dalton) and his Washington liaison, Sam (Cameron Bender). While dodging bullets and avoiding rioters (of whom we see exactly one), Sky and Josh manage to deliver a baby and bring a woman back to life.

For the first forty minutes, the only remarkable things about The Day the Earth Stopped are McCafferty's porn-star line-delivery and the wild possibilities of a second- and third-tier-Brat-Pack reunion (in addition to The Outsiders stars Howell and Dalton, Judd Nelson also pops up). But somewhere in the middle of act two, the unthinkable happens: this Asylum disaster becomes rather good.

When the focus shifts from towering robots and lab-coat-wearing extras staring concernedly at computer screens, and centers on the relationships between Josh and Sky and Man and Prewitt, the story transcends its low-rent roots and scratches the surface of substance. Hall, in particular, is great as the detached alien messenger; his boyish looks betray the centuries of wisdom behind his eyes and in his words, and he stands out as Day's single great actor (every Asylum movie I've seen features one solid performance--usually given by an actor named "Bruce").

Howell, in his frustrated, manic state, poses a challenge to the audience: Given four hours to save the planet, could you convince a sentient weapon to spare your species? Maybe it's not the deepest twenty-five minutes you'll see in a movie this year, but Day's middle section gets points for poignancy.

This brings up another brain-teaser: At what point do we give a terrible movie credit for not sucking all the way through? I can't, in good conscience, recommend this film to anyone. But why is that? Am I afraid to admit to being moved by an actress whose range is somewhere between "Eagle Man commercial" and "Speak 'n Spell"? Would such a thing ban me from the critics' club?

It's not like the movie suddenly hits a high note and maintains it through the end; the last ten minutes of this turkey are even worse than the beginning, with cheap-looking robots blowing things up and then returning to their home planet (or whatever it is). During the climax, I couldn't tell if Dalton, Howell and McCafferty were phoning in their performances or swinging for the fences, and the hackneyed mush just about erased any good-will I'd afforded the movie only moments before.

Having said all that, I probably enjoyed The Day the Earth Stopped much more than I would have the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Asylum's movies are many things, but "predictable" is not one of them; and I think they offer a nice alternative for people who prefer their cheap thrills dirt cheap, and who like to get in and out of a story in about eighty minutes. Day lacks the brains and creativity of the original, but the two films do share a big, beating heart. Sometimes, that's enough.

Tuesday
Aug162011

Following (1998)

Meddle Gear

I just realized something: Christopher Nolan peaked in 1998. I've not been a fan of his for awhile, as I find The Dark Knight and Inception to be over-produced summer blockbusters that display none of the brains of movies like Memento and The Prestige (for the record, complicated films aren't necessarily smart ones). But having just watched Following, the writer/director's first feature, I can confidently say that he hasn't come close to replicating the joyous suspense in anything he's made since becoming famous.

Shot in black-and-white and filmed in London, Following concerns a struggling writer who sometimes goes by the name "Bill" (Jeremy Theobald). We meet him in a police interrogation room, where he recounts the last few weeks of his life to a cop (John Nolan). He admits to following people, ostensibly as behavioral research for his novel. What begins as a time-killing exercise evolves into a game with its own set of rules; eventually, one of his marks catches him in the act while dining at a cafe. The man, a dapper Hugh-Grant-type named Cobb (Alex Haw) approaches Bill's table and invites himself to sit.

You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Cobb is a burglar. He carries a duffel bag full of CDs and keepsakes, and his pockets are lined with surgeon's gloves and women's panties. Out of embarrassment and intrigue, Bill accompanies Bob to a flat in the middle of the afternoon; they enter using a key that the owners have stupidly left on top of the door frame. Inside, Cobb shares his philosophy of thievery. It's a beautiful spiel that reveals him to be not just a common criminal but a truly devious meddler who wants his victims to know how deeply they've been violated.

Soon, Bill and Cobb are robbing places together, pawning goods and pocketing loads of cash. On Cobb's advice, Bill cleans himself up with a shave, haircut, and smart suit of his own. His newfound confidence helps him hit on an aloof woman (Lucy Russell) at an underground pub. Bill is nothing like her small-time-mob-boss boyfriend, and that excites her. They begin seeing each other, and the tightrope of Bill's relationship and new career gets narrower and narrower.

To give anything else away would be unfair. As you might expect from Nolan, some characters aren't who they appear to be, and a lot of secrets are hinted at in Following's non-linear presentation. But the movie had me from the first frame to the last with its unusual performances, natural dialogue, and writing so observant it borders on non-fiction.

Unlike later attempts at creating modern noir (the puzzlingly over-praised Brick, jumps to mind), Following doesn't fall into the trap of genre trappings. Nolan realizes that noir is an attitude and not a mode of dress or affected, 1940s speech pattern. By writing his characters as kooky but real, we focus on our desire to know more about them instead of paying attention to the graves they're digging for one another. In particular, Haw plays Cobb as such a suave, compelling freak show that I couldn't take my eyes off of him--which is exactly what Nolan wants for both Bill and the audience.

I don't know if shooting in black-and-white was an artistic decision or a financial one. Whatever the case, Following is a beautiful picture. Nolan's characters fetishize the details of every item they touch and every room they walk into; in this way, the daylight robberies serve two purposes: to contrast the thieves' ghastly activities with the mood created by warm light streaming through shade-less windows, and to allow us to enjoy things we shouldn't be looking at, right along with the characters. Later in the film, as Bill's situation snowballs beyond anyone's ability to help, the details become less definable, as darks and heavy grays take over the screen. In a way, our difficulty in discerning everything that's going on mirrors the protagonist's struggle to learn the truth of his situation.

It's sad to think of what Christopher Nolan accomplished on a nothing budget with a modest crew, compared to what he's cranking out now with all the money in the world and an army of the industry's best hired-hands. The key, I think, is that he's lost the intimacy that movies like Following, Memento, and, to an extent, The Prestige offered. He's much better at realizing and wrangling a handful of characters in tighter narrative spaces than overseeing two-plus-hour action films that are meant to be only as challenging as the dumbest guy in the auditorium will allow. This isn't to say that I hate Nolan's modern output, I simply see through the spectacle and understand that one original performance doesn't make a whole movie great--nor do trippy dream-talk and some transforming CGI buildings.

I would love to see Nolan return to short-form, big-idea filmmaking. He clearly has (or had) a knack for making an epic out of three characters talking, and with that kind of wit and imagination there's no limit to what he might do if either confined to a smaller budget or somehow magically forced to relive what it felt like to be hungry and eager to prove himself. Following is a starving artist's swing for the fences, whereas Inception is the buffet in a fat-cat's skybox.