Best thing: While this film certainly tries to be sparing with the special effects, the limited contact the protagonists make with the planet's surface is all the more magical as a result. That dramatic build up makes a final visual effects sequence particularly breathtaking.
Worst thing: Once we've reached the fantastic reveal near the end, there's too much time spent wrapping everything up. It rather undermines the impact of the climactic moment to have us hanging around afterwards.
It's been a long time that I've been planning to see this obscure sci-fi title. Reviews on Letterboxd have been fairly mixed but intriguing enough to keep me interested.
While this was definitely over-shadowed by the release of Gravity I don't think the filmmakers allow let the lower budget here to hold them back. The limited visuals outside of the ship only make us more excited for what we do see and sharing the experience of the astronaut on the surface is quite magical.
If anything it is the format of the film that lets the film down. Not the found footage sections, but rather the documentary-style expository wraparound sections. They seem to be trying to set up the mystery and they simply aren't needed. A title card is enough.
We do get some exploration of the characters but we could do with more and the wraparound sections detract from that.
Even with its problems this is still good, but it's a pity because aspects of this that are brilliant. Some aspects are awe-inspiring, some are deeply creepy and the scene that clearly SHOULD be the very end of the film absolutely knocked me for six. But sadly there are pacing issues here because they keep on interrupting the story.
Tale Of Tales (2015)
Best thing: I love all the effects work surrounding the flea. It gets pretty crazy in a way that I think needs to be seen to be believed.
Worst thing: In true fairytale style I’m often very unsure how to feel about what happens. This isn't a clear Disney fairytale format with clear morals, which makes this more awkward for the viewer but probably isn't actually a bad thing for the film.
I recently watched the old series of Jim Henson’s Storyteller and there are clear similarities between the kind of stories there and even the dark themes. However, while Storyteller was willing to make things sweet and cheerful and skew towards a happier outcome, Tale of Tales makes no such concessions.
Great performances, beautiful filmmaking, incredible effects work and, while there are fun moments, overall this film features a deeply unsettling tone. There's very definitely a resolution to the stories, but not one that is interested in skewing towards happiness or in necessarily tying up loose ends in a bow. (Not a neat bow anyway.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find Toby Jones to be one of the main highlights here. He's always brilliant and Tale of Tales is no exception. Vincent Cassel is in a role similar to those he has played before and he does that role just as well as ever. Shirley Henderson is also a very welcome presence here.
An all-star fairytale extravaganza. While it might leave you scratching your head, the ideas and visuals will stick with you. This is a film providing an experience unlike anything you are likely to see anywhere else. I should note, however, that the European sensibilities of the director mean there is quite a bit of nudity here. I think most will agree that this isn't really suitable for younger audiences.
Best thing: The aliens: Both their appearance and their language script. I was wondering when watching the trailer how the alien could possibly live up to expectations, but it worked and I think both the visual and the sound design helps to really sell the otherness of what is essentially a giant octopus (albeit with Giger-esque elements).
Worst thing: Distracting the daughter from her own illness by calling her "unstoppable". She literally goes from saying to her daughter that both parents were arguing about an illness, then she says that the illness is "unstoppable like you" and the daughter exclaims "I'm unstoppable?" and smiles. Why isn't the daughter asking about the illness? Or even asking in what ways she's unstoppable? They just have a hug and the whole moment is completely unrealistic. Children aren't generally satisfied to stop with profound statements. They ask questions. They are persistent too. They don't shift from "why are mum and dad arguing?" to "I'm unstoppable? Let's have a hug!"
Is it me, or is Arrival incredibly similar to Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar? An alien force provides us with a new opportunity, the state is not sure how to react, the protagonist's relationship their daughter is connected somehow and the result is a new era for mankind. Meanwhile we have some sentimental orchestral music in the background.
But frankly I thought Interstellar worked better. Perhaps less importantly, Interstellar has some action moments like a character being rescued by a robot, at least one space explosion, and some intense spacecraft manoeuvres.
I don't agree with the claims that this is a return to intelligent sci-fi. Certainly it's very well made in terms of the atmosphere it builds up, but it I don't feel that it remotely pays off on its central premise. Just as The Martian tackled the question of how practical engineering and botanical solutions could help you survive when stranded on Mars, Arrival seemed to promise to tackle the question of how to make first contact with an alien from a linguistics perspective. Yet sadly the film only really pays lip service to the problems its protagonist should be solving.
Wittgenstein's philosophy of language established pretty convincingly that meaning is use. You can't just write a word and point to it in order to establish meaning. It needs a social context in which it can be used and in which the rightness or wrongness of a term can be established. Otherwise we have what Wittgenstein referred to as a beetle in a box. If you and I both have closed boxes containing what each of us calls a "beetle" and yet neither of us shows the other what the object is, we have no real way of knowing whether we are referring to the same thing.
When discussing linguistics Amy Adams seems to acknowledge these problems. Kangaroo could mean "I don't know", the word 'purpose' could vary in meaning depending on who is refers to, the sankrit word for 'war' means "a desire for more cows". Language is more complicated than just pointing at something while a word is written on a notice board. And when Amy Adams realises that just showing the word "Louise" won't be enough to make a proper social connection and insists on putting her hand firmly on the glass screen which separates the aliens from the humans, that suggested to me that the film was taking these problems seriously. "Now that's a proper introduction," she announces. Just saying words or writing words for the aliens isn't enough to provide a meaning. There needs to be a social connection; a shared context in which those words attain a meaning for both parties.
Imagine I point at two nuts and say "booglavoo". What might booglavoo mean? It could mean nuts, but it might mean two. Or it could mean the colour brown (if the nuts are brown). It could mean food, or 'look over there', or dangerous, or poisonous. This is called ostensive definition; just pointing at things to establish meaning. Ostensive definitions are not enough to develop a language. It's easier to translate foreign languages because they often have similar grammatical structure and, even when they are further removed, humans already have similar purposes with which they use that language. Wittgenstein would say that if a lion (or in this case, alien octopus) were to speak to us, we would not understand him because lions are a completely different form of life. How could we possibly establish a common purpose with an alien life form which has an entirely separate culture, biology and thought process?
But what is Amy Adams' method anyway? "Ian Walks" is written down and then they watch Ian walk back and forth, so presumably they also did "Ian Runs" and "Louise Runs" and "Louise And Ian Jump". But later on their translations of the alien text seems to connect specific human terms to specific symbols and one of the terms is "death process". How did they teach "death process"? Did they point to something dying with the phrase "death process" written down? Imagine the opportunities for that to be misinterpreted! Am I weird in thinking that they glossed over the most interesting and intelligent aspect of the story and, frankly, the most central aspect of the story? If this is about how we would communicate with aliens, it seems to me that this whole concept was ditched in favour of cheap sentimental manipulations through the concept of a dying young girl.
Arrival has a twist that completely overrides the main concept. The main concept is how to communicate with an entirely different life form. Early in the film we are told that an expert linguist is required to solve this problem. (A white female linguist who apparently was the only person who they could enlist to translate what was being said by Farsi insurgents, which seems a little weird. Nobody in the military speaks Farsi?) By the end of the film any questions of linguistics and a shared meaning between humans and aliens are almost entirely irrelevant. The final revelations of the film do connect with a particular linguistic concept, but they reach so far beyond that concept that we may as well be talking about magic.
During the first half of this film I was still gripped. By the end I was thoroughly disappointed. So many other people seem to be able to just roll with what they are given here, but I just found it all way too frustrating watching the filmmakers give up on such an original and promising central premise.
Slaughterhouse House 5 (1972)
Best thing: The war story segments are great and it was interesting to see the encounter with the academic defending the bombing of Dresden even while our protagonist, an American soldier and survivor of that event is in front of him.
Worst thing: The weird luxury greenhouse he's transported to. This becomes a vital part of the story and I think it could have done with a more interesting filming style if it's really supposed to be other-worldly. It just looks like a sofa in a studio set. It's almost like we've been transported to a mediocre American sit-com.
I really ought to read the book at some point but it's pretty clear to me that this is a poor adaptation. The war drama is fine but the sci-fi elements just feel ludicrous. I don't feel like the film sells it to me.
I actually was pretty gripped by the war drama parts, but this is very much a sci-fi story and to enjoy the film to the end requires that you embrace the ludicrous sci-fi elements and I just don’t think the filmmakers pulled off that end of things at all well, leading to what I found to be a very unsatisfying finale.
Hardcore Henry (2015)
Best thing: Brilliant action sequences that are wonderfully exciting, as well as a very cool menacing villain.
Worst thing: The attempts at humour fell a bit flat for me. There's some very laddish almost homophobic humour here which I thought grated. When prostitutes are crowding round the protagonist to "make him feel better" it's quite a dumb attempt at male fantasy fulfilment, made more annoying by the fact that those unnamed prostitutes are quickly killed off.
"Shut your brain off" is never a good piece of advice when it comes to movies, but fortunately that's not exactly what this film asks you to do. There are interactions between characters as well as exciting visuals. The first person style is also used to full effect to produce some very neat adrenaline fuelled chase sequences.
People have compared it to a videogame and it certainly looks like a first person videogame, but to transfer that to live action is highly impressive. It's impressive enough when Freddie W does it on his Rocketjump youtube channel, but here the CG that I'm sure was probably involved at some point is completely unrecognisable. As cartoonish as the story might be, the world in which it takes place feels entirely real.
This is a strong found footage film. The adrenaline fuelled journey from place to place with a wonderful level of exciting variety in the violence and setting kept me consistently on the edge of my seat. The story is admittedly pretty simplistic and Sharto Copley's character can get annoying at times. (The attempts at humour with his character really didn't appeal.) I'm not entirely sure what Tim Roth is doing here either...
Anyway, it's a lot of fun.
Best thing: The mother is absolutely hilarious. Were she in every scene she might have been able to single-handedly carry this film. It's not only her line delivery but also her reactions. She livens up any scene she is in.
Worst thing: Unfortunately the main protagonist is a scumbag. She is caught trying to steal an entire ATM machine to pay for her drug habit and she treats her parents horribly when she is forced into house arrest with them. Yet for some reason the story is from her perspective and we are expected to invest in this human vermin. Perhaps a better actress could have made us care about this character? Perhaps a better script would have made her obnoxiousness funny rather than irritating? But what we get is an unlikeable uninteresting central character.
Horror comedies are my genre of choice, so when I heard Housebound was getting some good buzz I was excited. But frankly I don't understand the appeal.
It's not very funny, it's not creepy and the story is ludicrous. Perhaps there was a good film in here somewhere, but the script and the filmmaking would need a complete overhaul. As it stands, I was bored.
Music would occasionally pipe up as if to say "look, that thing happened!" But with no investment in the scumbag main character (and not enough focus on the long-suffering mother, played by the actress with the genuinely brilliant comic expressions and timing) I wasn't pulled in by the drama at all.
A War (2015)
Best thing: The child performances are great. They feel like genuine characters and they are never irritating. We get a real feel for what these children are like.
Worst thing: The suggestion that one child's bad behaviour was his father's fault for being away in the army felt a bit unfair.
This is naturalistic filmmaking done right. It feels natural and yet there is never a dull moment.
I'm also impressed that what is essentially a courtroom drama is nearly as gripping and tense as being threatened by gun-toting Somali pirates. The director has a good feel for effective drama.
Love And Mercy (2014)
Best thing: Paul Dano
Worst thing: John Cusack
Okay so my best thing, worst thing picks for this review kinda over-simplify things. But I feel that any of the scenes in the past where Paul Dano is central are brilliant, but generally the scenes where John Cusack is central tend to leave me less enthusiastic.
And the real problem here is that of the two stories being told, Paul Dano is central to the more interesting one.
While Paul Dano gets really interesting interactions between his grumpy sceptical and resentful father, his spellbound hired musicians, and his more outgoing brothers with different priorities. All while being part of the Beach Boys phenomenon.
Meanwhile John Cusack gets an unconvincing romance while Paul Giamatti reprises his 'evil producer' routine from "Private Parts". John Cusack is no longer part of the Beach Boys phenomenon. We're supposed to be intrigued by John Cusack's story because he's not enormously successful anymore. It's really unclear to me why the movie ends where it does other than because it's the latest point chronologically. (Which doesn't seem all that important when the movie constantly jumps back and forward in time.)
There are parts of this movie that are brilliant and I think if you cut out the John Cusack parts I might even love it, but judging it as a whole I found it dragged.
Great performances and the Beach Boys stuff is fascinating (even speaking as someone who has never really taken much interest in the Beach Boys' music).
Biopics are tough to get right, but this does something very special with Brian Wilson’s story, regardless of my misgivings about the movie as a whole.
Ava's Possessions (2015)
Best thing: I like the demon possession effects and the regular use of neon lighting.
Worst thing: The complete lack of humour. And possibly the song that gets written about her within the film.
The trailer for Ava's Possessions was hilarious and as a big fan of horror comedies I couldn't wait to see this film. The sorry-not-sorry attitude of the protagonist regarding her transformation into a demonic pea-soup belching creature just felt like it had so much potential.
But the film doesn't have that pacing, energy or comic timing. The story is simplistic and while there are some cool ideas, they don't come up often enough.
It's amazing that the trailer isn't just funnier than the movie, but somehow actually contains more genuinely funny jokes than the whole movie. Jokes should work better with a proper build-up, but here it seems like the trailer editor has a far better sense of comic timing than the filmmaker.
Ava's Possessions is unbelievably dull and bland and, considering that it is a comedy, I have to hold that heavily against the film.
Seriously the trailer is MUCH better...
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Best thing: There are so many great moments in this film. I'm going to pick the scene where our protagonists have to back up their vehicle on a rickety platform. I was just so tense during that scene.
Worst thing: Early on, when we first meet the love interest character she is shown acting like an animal and rubbing her face on the hand of her lover. She seems to be badly objectified in those early scenes. Though in the second half she finally seems to become a character in her own right.
By the time this movie appeared I'd forgotten why I wanted to see it. I guess this must be a Letterboxd recommendation, probably discovered because people were checking out the original movie later remade as Friedkin's "Sorceror" (a movie whose chances of success were decimated when it was released at the same time as George Lucas' Star Wars which changed cinema forever.)
But I can't really see how Sorceror could really improve on this. Apart from perhaps streamlining the first quarter of the film, there doesn't really seem to be much room for improvement.
A simple story of four men driving two trucks of high explosives for a potentially huge payoff, knowing that one false bump in the road could leave them blown to smithereens. Wages of Fear is one of those unforgettable epics like Laurence of Arabia or Schindler's List. It is poignant yet fun and the central moments will stick with you.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Best thing: Richard Jenkins is almost unrecognisable giving a wonderful performance as the bumbling acting deputy.
Worst thing: Shouldn't there be more background music to build atmosphere? Heck, James Tolkan, the overbearing teacher from Back To The Future, turns up as a drunken piano player and yet we never hear any piano music!
This is the year for violent Westerns starring Kurt Russell isn't it? First Hateful Eight and now Bone Tomahawk. While Bone Tomahawk definitely serves up the better violence, Quentin Tarantino clearly does a better job preparing dramatic tension.
Still Bone Tomahawk is an interesting film and a lot of fun with a very satisfying ending.
It takes a long while to see the villains up close, but when we get to them they are well worth the wait. But couldn't that wait have built up to the climax better? Perhaps some background music to compliment our character development, particularly in the earliest scenes when the film seems slowest.
Pretty good film all the same though. Zahn McClarnon (the native American character from Fargo season two) has a short but sweet appearance to clarify that the evil native American villains are barely human cave dwelling cannibals.
The Intruder (1962)
Best thing: Possibly the best performance of William Shatner's entire career.
Worst thing: The ending feels a little forced. Not overly so, but when you have an out-of-control mob on your hands it's hard to see every one of them agreeing to dismiss their cause. Just look at Trump. His failings were broadcast across the media and he still kept his followers.
"The Intruder" is the film that persuaded Roger Corman to steer the films he produced clear of anything political. (He actually worried that Death Race 2000 was too political.)
A town full of white people convinced that, while they all opposed integration in principle, they are best off grudgingly accepting the law enforcing it. The characters use the n-word quite freely in a casual way that would naturally be demeaning to a black person in the room, but isn't expressed aggressively. But the hatred and inhumanity beneath the surface is stirred up by a reprehensible scoundrel who comes to town to use the racial tensions to set himself up as an influential and powerful figure.
The Intruder is incredibly poignant and intense film which, barring the very neat resolution in the end, doesn't seem to need to cheat. Compare this with Mississippi Burning where the filmmakers expect us to believe that a black man could get away with threatening the mayor or that an FBI agent could get away with attacking a deputy with a razor blade. The Intruder felt a great deal more plausible.
If you love Corman classics like Death Race 2000, The Little Shop of Horrors, X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, or The Pit and the Pendulum, then why not see what a serious political Corman film is like?
It's quite sad to think what other gems we might have had if audiences hadn't shied away from this hard-hitting topical drama. What else might Corman have had up his sleeve as a follow-up? Corman is known for his stingy budgets, but a drama like this can rely on its script and performances. It doesn't need a big budget.
I'd also note that by the end there's at least one black character with a really strong role. Perhaps it's a weakness that there aren't more central performances from the black actors (though I'd note that Mississippi Burning has that same issue), but the black children being integrated into the school do get their moments.
When Shatner does his big speech to rile up the local townsfolk (including casting accusations of communism) I actually think its incredible. Powerful, frightening, creepy. You can clearly see that this is a man both pretending to be civilised yet intentionally aiming to stir up a mob. That scene alone would be enough to recommend the film, but the rest of the story lives up to it that standard too.
Total Recall (2012)
The complaint is often made regarding the original Total Recall that Arnold Schwarzenegger is obviously not the lowly construction worker he thinks he is. So I'm given to wonder why Colin Farrell is more toned and amazingly non-average than in possibly any other of his films I've seen.
I know you have to give sci-fi a bit of leeway for its crazy ideas and certainly I let Snowpiercer run with a lot of ideas that didn't really add up. However, the lift that goes through the centre of the Earth is not an interesting concept or at least, it isn't portrayed in an interesting way here.
The performances here are fine, but the direction just feels incredibly boring. It's remarkable how dull this manages to be. The stakes aren't built up properly.
At least they aren't in the first half. I didn't stick things out any further than that.