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Following: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Following (1999) movie poster Following

US Theatrical Release: April 2, 1999 / Running Time: 70 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Jeremy Theobald (The Young Man), Alex Haw (Cobb), Lucy Russell (The Blonde), John Nolan (The Policeman), Dick Bradsell (The Bald Guy), Gillian El-Kadi (Home Owner), Jennifer Angel (Waitress), Nicolas Carlotti (Barman)

Buy Following from Amazon.com: Criterion Blu-ray • Criterion DVD • Instant Video

Over the past ten years, five films directed by Christopher Nolan have grossed more domestically than the five made by Michael Bay and the seven made by Steven Spielberg in the same period.
Obviously, Nolan owes much of that success to his Batman trilogy. But credit is due for him landing that franchise, swiftly undoing the brand's damaged reputation, and making it must-see entertainment for the masses while extending his strong critical track record.

How did Nolan, a Brit expatriate in his early thirties, get entrusted with a series as big as Batman? Well, the acclaimed 2001 American independent film Memento put him on the map. And his thriller remake Insomnia starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams proved he could work well on a studio film with major movie stars and a substantial budget. Those traits attached to his evident talent were enough to get Nolan such a landmark gig. Seeing the series through three warmly-received chapters, he never made Warner regret their decision, even if Batman Begins needed some time to find its audience. Today, Nolan's is one of the best-known and most admired names in cinema, the original mind-bending blockbuster Inception adding to his legend.

Such clout makes the writer/director an obvious subject for admission into The Criterion Collection. Nolan got that last week with Criterion's Blu-ray and DVD release of Following, his low-budget first feature film.

Scruffy aspiring writer Bill (Jeremy Theobald) looks for inspiration by following and observing random people on the street. Bill looks on as Cobb (Alex Haw) shows him the ropes of home burglary.

Two years before Memento, this British drama established Nolan's flair for creative storytelling with twisty nonlinear narratives as well as his tastes for mystery, suspense, crime, theft, and mistaken identities. Shot black & white in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio on 16 mm and running just 70 minutes with credits, Following has a distinct student film feel, but it also manages to be an arresting, fully realized tale loaded with promise.

The movie centers on a young man who calls himself Bill (Jeremy Theobald). It opens with him giving his account of his strange tale to an interrogator. As an unemployed, scruffy aspiring writer, Bill begins shadowing random pedestrians, hoping to gather ideas for his characters. He establishes some rules for this game, like never following the same person more than once, but breaks them. Bill is caught and confronted by Cobb (Alex Haw), the well-dressed man he has been following for days.

Turns out that Cobb has his own stealthy sketchy pastime, which he doesn't hesitate to share with the jumpy Bill. Cobb is a burglar who gets his kicks out of disrupting random people's lives. Though he apparently lives comfortably off of fencing stolen CDs and the like (with major help from credit card fraud), Cobb's not as interested in financial gain as he is in rifling through personal effects and assessing their owner's status. Shown the ropes of this thieving existence, Bill is seduced by this sociopath. He secretly claims to be using the experiences purely for artistic inspiration, but the truth of that is not altogether clear.

Still, Bill feeds that angle as justification to a blonde woman (Lucy Russell) who has been victimized by Cobb and him. Just as Bill seems to have ulterior motives, so does Cobb. To say any more than that would be to rob Nolan's taut debut of some of its ample power and unpredictability.

The third leading role is filled by a character known only as The Blonde (Lucy Russell), a burglary victim with conflicted feelings. A latex gloved hand breaks and enters through a door's glass pane.

It is easy to see this movie as a precursor to the director's next one, the more polished and visceral Memento, with which it shares numerous sensibilities, themes, and beats. Long interested in film, Nolan had cultivated his craft as president of University College London's film society, producing corporate videos, and writing/directing some short films.
None of that experience clearly qualified him for feature filmmaking, but with a budget of just $6,000 and a crew consisting largely of family and friends, there wasn't much at stake. Nolan proves to be assured and visionary right out of the gate, instantly at ease with challenging moviegoers to keep up with his sharp mind.

Following is a trip, whose turns you don't see coming even if you are most likely watching this subsequent to Memento and Inception, Nolan's only other entirely original screenplays (both Academy Award nominees at that). The limitations of that measly budget disappear due to Nolan choosing an intriguing premise with narrow scope. Economical filmmaking often seems to fuel creative juices and that's certainly the case here. With such a lean script and runtime, there is no room for inessential characters or subplots. Everything is executed with precision and intent.

As a result, this is understandably both Nolan's slightest and least flashy film. Nonetheless, this is one of the strongest first-time feature filmmaking efforts I've seen. If you strip away the recognizable actors, budgets and visual effects of Nolan's recent works, you'd see something resembling Following, only the movie doesn't suffer from those absences. Its core is solid enough to grip you non-stop for its brief entirety and to keep you thinking long afterwards.

Following: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), 1.0 LPCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: December 11, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-Disc DVD ($29.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Sony DVD (December 11, 2001)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Even the wizards at Criterion aren't able to make Following transcend the fact that it was shot for $6,000 on 16 mm film. Not that they should have. Without betraying its origins, the studio does make the film look as presentable as it can. The 1.33:1 presentation is grainy and prone to the occasional scratch, but the high definition video uncovers fitting sharpness and detail.

Sound is offered both in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and a presumably more faithful uncompressed LPCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. I listened to the default 5.1 remix, which only barely extended to the rear channels, using them strictly for reinforcement of David Julyan's effective score. Between the cast's accents and the recordings that Nolan recognizes as limited, the dialogue can be a bit tough to make out at times. Fortunately, Criterion supplies their usual English subtitles to remove any doubt over certain lines.

Christopher Nolan recalls the filming conditions of his low-budget first film in this new interview for Criterion. Excerpts of Christopher Nolan's script are compared to their corresponding bits of the final film.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Criterion gives Following a nice-sized supply of bonus features, beginning with the audio commentary Nolan recorded for Sony's 2001 DVD of the film. He describes the unorthodox production methods (shooting a little bit every Saturday morning for a year) and unusual chronology. He also discusses his own home burglary experience that shaped the script. Without much retrospect, the track isn't as exciting as it should be.

The all-HD video extras kick off with an interview of Nolan (26:21) conducted by Criterion in December 2010.
He discusses the making of Following and how its production compared to the earlier and later works of his career as well as some of the other influential indies of the '90s.

Like the feature later introduced on Memento's two-disc DVD, "The Linear Edit" presents Following (1:10:10) in chronological order. Well, mostly chronological, while keeping the original cut's interrogation framework. Unlike the Memento DVD, it plays smoothly all the way through, relying not on seamless branching but a sophisticated complete re-edit. As Following's nonlinear design isn't as dramatic as Memento's reverse, this version isn't terribly different, though it does lack some of the film's artfulness and kick.

An updated version of a Sony DVD feature, "Script to Film" (9:55) offers a split-screen comparison between Nolan's shooting script (or handwritten revisions) and scenes from the final film. Naturally, it shows us how close to Nolan stuck to what he wrote.

It's no ordinary insect that has Jeremy Theobald's attention in Christopher Nolan's 1997 short "Doodlebug." The gift of hindsight allows IFC to declare "Following" the film that started it all in their 2010 theatrical on demand reissue of the film.

Next comes the biggest of Nolan's early shorts: 1997's black & white Doodlebug (2:56). It stars Following's Jeremy Theobald as a man experiencing a kind of breakdown in response to an unusual entity crawling on his floor.

The disc draws to a close with
Following's original theatrical trailer (1:20) and a rerelease trailer (1:30) from a 2010 IFC In Theaters engagement.

The menu sets film clips focused on hands and props to score. The disc resumes playback absolutely and supports bookmarks on the film as well.

It wouldn't be a Criterion release without a booklet. Inside its clear keepcase (the width of a DVD, the height of a Blu-ray), Following gets a lightweight companion that folds open to eight pages. Half of those go to "Nolan Begins", an excellent essay by New York film critic Scott Foundas that likens the film to Inception and somehow manages not to explicitly mention the Batman films.

"Following" is presented as the incredulous account of Bill (Jeremy Theobald) to a policeman. Cobb (Alex Haw) disappears in a crowd in the film's closing shot.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

You needn't be a Christopher Nolan completist to see and enjoy Following. This strong debut features many of the same desirable qualities as the director's later films at a fraction of the budget and runtime. True, this one will not inspire the fandom of Inception and his Batman movies, but it's a sharp, thoughtful, and engaging film you're likely to want to revisit.

Criterion's Blu-ray easily emerges as the movie's definitive edition with the best presentation the simple production methods allow and a satisfying collection of good extras. Even if Nolan didn't go on to become one of the boldest and most powerful voices in Hollywood, this fine set would earn a sturdy recommendation.

Buy Following from Amazon.com: Criterion Blu-ray • Criterion DVD • Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan: The Dark Knight Rises • The Prestige
Millennial Films: Being John Malkovich • The Game • Traffic • eXistenZ • The Big Lebowski
Directors' First Films: Blood Simple. • Shallow Grave • Bottle Rocket • Gone Baby Gone • The Lookout • A Single Man
New to Blu-ray: Catch Me If You Can • Francis Ford Coppola: 5-Film Collection • Premium Rush • Beasts of the Southern Wild
Black and White Criterions: The 39 Steps • The Killing • Down by Law • La Jetée • Beauty and the Beast

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Reviewed December 22, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1999 IFC Films, Syncopy, Next Wave Films and 2012 The Criterion Collection.
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