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Category: Reviews

Reviews

Review: Mary Queen of Scots

January 20, 2019

A new biopic of Mary Queen of Scots examines the role of women in power featuring an amazing cast.

What’s Going On?

This is a biopic of Mary Queen of Scots and tells the story of her life upon her return to Scotland until her death. Mary’s life is full of power-struggles, romance, intrigue and war. Despite Mary being the title character a great deal of time is spent on her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I who faces many of the same challenges.

The film starts with Mary returning to Scotland after living in France for several years (she was married to the heir of the French throne but he died) and the governing council instantly takes a dislike to her. David Tennant’s John Knox (representing the Protestant Church of Scotland) is dismissed from the council almost immediately, not for being Protestant, but because Catholic Mary wants toleration of religion – a wise move for a Catholic monarch ruling over a Protestant country. But this is only the start of Mary’s problems. Her half-brother does not support her, neither do many of the powerful nobles, with a great many of them seemingly on England’s side. Then there is England, Elizabeth’s council, recognising the threat Mary poses as a Catholic claimant to the throne of England, push aggressive action. There is also intense pressure on Elizabeth to marry and have an heir, if she were to die then Mary would be the next in line.

The film is essentially about how Mary deals with all these problems and certainly these are problems that are capable of destroying a person or burying them.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by Josie Rourke who, while new to film, is a successful theatre director. The film is based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots : The True Life of Mary Stuart.

In Front Of The Camera

While there is a good ensemble cast including Guy Pearce and David Tennant the focus is clearly on the two leads; Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie playing Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, respectively. Ronan is surely one of the best actors working today and can play anything from a vampire to an assassin to a queen and Robbie is coming off for me what was one of the best performances of 2018 in I, Tonya.

Essentially, both women are fantastic in this film. Ronan looks young and innocent and can be playful with her friends but from day one is determined and strong. Virtually every man around her, including those on her side, seems to undermine her at every turn, while shouting at her they will insist her emotions have got the better of her and some outright say they will not obey a woman ruler. And she absorbs all of this and carries on.

I think Margot Robbie might have got the more interesting role as a lot more is made is of Elizabeth’s insecurities. She is jealous of Mary’s youth and beauty – especially after illness diminishes her own – and, of course, Mary’s child. On the one hand she wants peace and friendship but is also riven by envy and numerous political problems and Robbie portrays all of this wonderfully.

Is That What Really Happened?

Obviously, Mary Queen of Scots is a real historical figure and the film is based on a history book about Mary, but is this what happened? It needs to be said it is entirely possible to enjoy this film ignoring historical inaccuracies or without knowing any of the history, and while it’s based on history this is not a documentary.

But to those who this will bother (like me) the film is very loose with history and I think the film certainly has an agenda in bolstering the reputation of Queen Mary whilst focusing on some of the negatives of Elizabeth. Certainly, it is hard to imagine the Elizabeth in this film staring down the Spanish Armada. In fairness though, those films have been made and Elizabeth is respected as one of England’s greatest monarchs so touching on her insecurities and failures may just provide a more rounded character.

It is important to periodically reassess the evidence and see if the popular image is accurate and Mary is deserving of that as any other historical figure.

Does It Work?

Ultimately this film is something of a let-down. While the two stars are very good in their roles, the film does not contain the requisite drama to engage the viewer and considering the material they had to work with this is very disappointing. The film had the opportunity to tell the story of two of the most interesting women in the history of the British Isles but just isn’t up to the task.

The difficult relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is handled well and the film makes it clear why they are sometimes desperate to be friends while at others clear enemies. One problem with the film is that the supporting cast’s relationships with the queens are not as well done. Darnley swings dramatically from charming noble to ignorant drunk around Mary and her half-brother is split between seething resentment and familial bonds . The crux is the director has tried to portray these characters in a particular way but is forced by history to make them seemingly act uncharacteristically.

The film does look stunning. The scenery, the sets and especially the costumes are wonderful. Near the end of the film Queen Elizabeth is shown in increasingly extravagant and dazzling outfits – as her own natural beauty fades. The sets of the English and Scottish courts neatly display the disparities between the two kingdoms with the former outshining the later dramatically.

Throughout the film is the issue of women in power. People of both countries complain about their woman rulers, with especially Mary’s ability to rule call into question. Mary is called a harlot, and worse, for the rumours of an affair while I’m quite sure previous kings’ potential infidelities were not used as proof of their inability to govern. The Scottish nobles are constantly dismissive of Mary and on occasion are willing to manhandle her. Mary’s new husband never stops complaining about how Mary swore to obey him but runs the country without her and bristles at the idea that he has a lower status than her.

Overall the film is good and stars put on a masterclass of acting but feels like a missed opportunity for a great film.

Verdict: (3 / 5)

Reviews

Retro Review: The Witches

January 17, 2019
The Witches

This week, we’re hopping on our broomsticks and whizzing back in time (they’re special time-travelling broomsticks, you see) to 1990, when life was simpler and selfies hadn’t been formally acknowledged as a thing yet.

Let’s take a retrospective look at Roald Dahl’s The Witches.

Why now?

The Witches was made available on Netflix during the first week of 2019.

In a nutshell

A young boy and his grandmother, who has a rather in-depth knowledge of witches, travel to a seaside hotel for the summer, where they inadvertently encounter a convention of the cackly old crones presided over by the Grand High Witch herself. Cue plenty of classic nineties OTT acting, white mice, and absolutely terrifying Jim Henson makeup effects.

Who’s it for?

Children…and also, not for children at all, sometimes. The Witches is one of those anomalous films that’s aimed at kids but is at times disturbing enough to leave parents with a few bad dreams of their own. Much like Gremlims, for instance. I wouldn’t recommend letting very young children watch it.

Who’s in it?

Luke and his grandmother Helga are played by Jasen Fisher and Mai Zetterling respectively, while Anjelica Huston owns the role of the Grand High Witch. Rowan Atkinson, right at the beginning of his Mr Bean days, plays the hotel manager.

The good stuff

If you like a good dose of nineties nostalgia and don’t mind a few slightly cringe-worthy moments, you’ll like this. This is Roald Dahl story-telling at its best: funny, satirical, mesmerising in its simplicity and horrific in equal measure. It’s wonderfully over-the-top at times, and the makeup effects for the witches are unforgettable (no matter how hard you try). Huston is superb as the Grand High Witch, genuinely scary even without her grotesque prosthetics and mechanised claws, and Atkinson is, well, Mr Bean incarnate. It’s a fun, silly film to watch, with or without the kids.

The not so good stuff

Like many nineties or late eighties movies viewed from the vantage point of Generation Z, The Witches will have aged considerably in its look, pacing and cinematography. Contemporary viewers may find themselves rolling their eyes at points or wondering where the CGI dragons are, but if you go into it understanding the context of the time and the source material from which it’s drawn, you won’t be too disappointed. It’s hard to be too critical of anything inspired by Dahl, even if the man himself hated the film’s ending.

The bottom line

The Witches is an enjoyable watch, and worth it just to see Anjelica Huston in one of her most celebrated roles. It’s funny, weird, disturbing and scary, and came along at a time when computer-generated images weren’t quite there yet, so puppetry was used instead to great effect.

Flick it on some evening and lose yourself in Roald Dahl’s brilliance for ninety minutes.

Verdict: (4.5 / 5)

Reviews

Review: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

January 12, 2019

A new year is upon us, and very little is out in cinemas at the moment. So it’s the perfect time to catch up on films that passed us by last year. So, I watched a Netflix title I had long been interested in. And because the animated Disney film holds a special place in my heart, I decided to review Andy Serkis’ much delayed Jungle Book adaptation, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.

The story

Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is left alone in the wild after the tiger, Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) kills his parents. The panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) brings him to a wolf pack for protection. He, the wolves and Baloo the bear (Andy Serkis) agree to raise Mowgli as their own and protect him from Khan. As he grows older though it becomes clear that Mowgli will not survive in the wild. But he is too accustomed to jungle life to live as a human. With, a human hunter stalking his friends in the jungle and Shere Khan out for blood, can Mowgli find a way to survive and bring peace to the jungle?

What did I like?

Firstly, I will briefly contextualize this review by sharing my thoughts on Disney’s live-action version of the Jungle Book. Because the Disney version had a large impact on Mowgli’s production and the audience reactions that accompanied it, so I think it bears commenting on. Personally, I found the 2016 Jungle Book disappointing. The cast was great and the mix of CGI and live action looked amazing, but the 2016 Jungle Book was a supposedly dark adult movie, that clogged up the runtime with constant references to the original movie, including bizarre out of place musical numbers and lacked any sense of threat or growth for the main character.

Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016)

The Disney versions success delayed Mowgli’s post-production, with Netflix eventually claiming the rights to the film. Personally, I think this helped the film. After the safe blockbuster Disney film, I found myself craving something different. As Netflix is less restrictive (according to Serkis) this allowed the film to be just that. Different.

From the beginning this film sets a bleak tone. We see Shere Khan attack Mowgli’s parents and later threaten to kill him. Only deterred by the ferocity of the wolf pack banding together. This version is not about the Bear Necessities. This version is about survival and how harsh and unforgiving the world can be. Make no mistake; this is not a film for young children. This movie contains blood, violence that affects even the younger characters and scenes that seem ripped straight out of a horror film. There are light moments that allow respite from the horror and give personality to the characters but importantly these moments do not detract from the overall tone. They do not overstay their welcome and the brevity feels like it fits each character’s personality. It is a taxing experience but a well-done and worthwhile one.

The film’s also well crafted. Quickly absorbing us into this world. The film tells a classic underdog story. Mowgli is an outcast in both the human and jungle world but he has strong ties to them both. So he tries his best to live life his way, but the ferocity of man and nature constantly beat him down. Giving us a hero that we can easily root for and a good challenge for him to overcome. All of the supporting characters are engaging, have their own show stealer moment and feel integral to the story. And the animation used to bring the world to life looks mostly stunning.

Finally, the acting from everyone is great. All the voice actors add so much personality to their characters. Christian Bale’s Bagheera feels stately and wise, which greatly contrasts with the savage nature he tries to keep covered up. Andy Serkis gives his Baloo the temperament of a drill sergeant, an incredibly refreshing take on the character. And Benedict Cumberbatch instils terror every time Shere Khan is on screen. With his growling, angry inflections adding so much menace to him.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)

What I do not like?

One of the big hindrances that Mowgli has is the way it uses motion capture. The film uses facial capture technology to record the nuances of the actor’s performances. Later transposed onto animals. While this is an interesting idea, it’s practical use is quite jarring. Because the animal characters look realistic, the combination of an animal’s face with the recognizable features of a real-world actor, creates a striking disconnect that can often take viewers out of the experience.

Star Rohan Chand also shows himself to be the weak link of the film. Not to say that he is wholly bad. He does a good job for a young actor and shows that with more training he will grow to be a fantastic actor. But he is asked to convey a lot. And when he is asked to show raw emotion, he shows his limits.

Finally, the film does have some editing problems. The first half flows smoothly. But just before Mowgli’s jungle expulsion, it feels like significant portions of the movie were cut. Many crucial events are not shown. Such as Shere Khan taking over the wolf pack and Mowgli going to find his friends. We also don’t get enough time to feel Mowgli’s growing fondness for the humans in the man village. So the idea that he is the champion of both worlds does ring a little hollow. And several characters feel like they needed at least one more scene to fully realize their purpose, such as Kaa the snake (Cate Blanchett). The movie is ultimately satisfying but I would love to see a longer version.

Verdict

Mowgli, at it’s weakest, shows some of the hindrances of motion capture. As well as Rohan Chand’s limitations as an actor. And the problems of not giving a project enough time to breathe in the edit. But at it’s best Mowgli is an engaging, thoughtful and terrifying coming of age movie.

Like Watership Down, Return to Oz and Dark Crystal, Mowgli uses traditionally family friendly story tropes to tell a tale for adults. It’s destined to be a film that scars children for life when unsuspecting parents put it on. But it treats its characters and mythos seriously without becoming laughably overbearing. Every one of the voice actor’s performances is amazing and invests so much personality into the proceedings. Although he sometimes struggles, Rohan Chand shows that he has a bright future ahead of him. The story and action is gripping and intense and at the core is a relatable story about an outcast finding his purpose in the world.

Verdict: (3.5 / 5)

Reviews

Review: The Favourite

January 6, 2019

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest work is a historical film about a dangerous rivalry for the affections of the Queen of England.

What’s Going On?

The Favourite is a film set in the court of Queen Anne in the Eighteenth Century. Queen Anne was a real queen of England and most of the characters in the film are also based on real people. However, I don’t think the film pretends to be entirely historically accurate or even wants to be. The film focuses on the rivalry between two women at court who are trying to be Queen Anne’s “favourite”. At the beginning of the film, this position is unquestionably held by Sarah Churchill (Winston Churchill is a descendant of her) who not only dictates many matters at court but settles a lot of state business as well. This position is challenged by the newcomer, Abigail Hill, a young cousin of Sarah’s. Their feuding escalates throughout the film, having consequences not just for the court but for the whole nation.

Behind The Scenes

The film is based on a book by historian Ophelia Field. The book is a biography of Sarah Churchill and it seems that the film has only picked certain aspects for the film. The film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, a director who is having a run of successful films (The Lobster, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer) and expectations for The Favourite were high.

In Front Of The Camera

The stars are of the film are a trio of brilliant actors: Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Rachel Weisz (Sarah Churchill) and Emma Stone (Abigail Hill) and all of them are amazing. Colman portrays Anne as a weak ruler who is too easily swayed by those around her. She excesses in food and drink (Sarah often challenges Queen Anne on her diet), dotes on pet rabbits and can switch from praising a person to striking them in a moment. Of course, at this time the queen was still ruling the country, so her temperament had a huge effect on England.

Emma Stone gives a great performance as Abigail Hill, technically a member of the aristocracy who has fallen on hard times and is always on the lookout for ways to improve her position.

I would say it is Rachel Weisz who gives the best performance. Sarah Churchill is many things in this film and they are often contradictory; she is a loyal friend and a bully, a confidante and a blackmailer, a conscientious agent of government and a seller of influence and Weisz conveys this complex character perfectly. Weisz’s Sarah is a determined and forceful woman who will impose her will on politicians and even the Queen.

Does It Work?

The film is amazing – at times funny, at times touching but whatever is going on you are unable to look away. I’ve already stated that the three principle actors are all superb but this is just the start of how good it is. The film effectively creates an eccentric court life nearly completely cut off from reality. We catch glimpses of scullery maids and there is a brief moment spent in a brothel and that’s about all we see of ordinary people. Some of the politicians talk about the needs of the people but you get the feeling that’s only a convenient political weapon. Speaking of the court it is very helpful that the two political parties, the Tories and Whigs, each have their own distinctive style and so are easily recognised – with Nicholas Hoult looking especially ridiculous.

The rivalry between Sarah and Abigail is played out wonderfully. Sarah is a lifelong friend of the Queen, they have a history of decades of shared jokes, anecdotes and acts of friendship. Whereas Abigail perhaps brings something new and exciting. There is an interesting counterpoint between the two competing favourites. Sarah is not always pleasant to the queen, for example saying that she says she looks like a badger when going to meet a delegation from Russia. The Queen is upset and lets Sarah go in her place. Is Sarah being honest to an old friend to spare her embarrassment or is she simply manipulating her so she can exercise power? Again, Sarah does handle a lot of political matters; is this because she knows the Queen is ill-equipped to handle this and the country needs a leader or she wants power for herself? Certainly it seems the Queen is easily led, often taking the lead from whoever last spoke to her. Conversely, it is made clear that Abigail purely tells the Queen what she wants to hear as and only takes an interest in politics when it benefits herself. Abigail’s analogy that sending reinforcements to an army is like arriving late to a party is not based on strategy but purely on wanting the support of the Leader of the Opposition. What makes things even more complicated in this rivalry is that Sarah’s husband is the man commanding this army; no reinforcements could mean his death.

But I would hate to give the impression that Sarah is completely innocent in all of this. At the beginning to the film the Queen shows Sarah her new “present” – she’s going to build her a palace. While initially Sarah says it’s an extravagance the country cannot afford during wartime (something the Queen didn’t seem to quite understand) she does still get the palace. Also her honesty often overlaps with cruelty and she is shown to be every bit as vindictive and grasping as Abigail.

Aside from the rivalry for favourite the film also paints a vivid picture of English politics where a monarch who has no understanding of the issue has final say. A country where friends can exert influence that will make them rich at the country’s expense or change the course of war. It is shocking to think that for a long time this was how countries were ran.

In short this is a masterpiece of a film with three actors giving three of the best performances you’ll see all year.

Verdict: (4.5 / 5)

The Favourite (Trailer)
Reviews

Review: Bird Box

January 5, 2019

This week’s review sees us drifting downriver with a blindfolded Sandra Bullock and two scared kids as we take a look at another Netflix original: Bird Box.

Why now?

Bird Box began streaming (no pun intended) worldwide on 21 December 2018.

In a nutshell

The film starts off with Bullock’s character Malorie telling a young boy and girl that they’ll be taking a boat down river, and not to remove their blindfolds for the duration of the journey, otherwise they’ll die. Skip back five years and we see why, as supernatural entities begin appearing around the world, causing anyone who looks at them to immediately commit suicide.

Who’s it for?

Anyone over the age of 15, if the certification people are to be obeyed. There isn’t a whole lot of anything in this movie other than violent death scenes that would require a viewer to be a bit older, but it’s certainly not for children or those of a nervous disposition.

Who’s in it?

Bird Box has a nice little cast. Sandra Bullock is the protagonist supported by Trevante Rhodes, BD Wong, Tom Hollander, Jacki Weaver and John Malkovich, among others.

Bullock is, as you might expect, as strong as ever in the lead role – assured, funny, empathetic and believable playing Malorie, a character who’s well capable of preserving herself and others while remaining vulnerable enough in the midst of an apocalyptic situation for us to relate to her as a person (not that we’ve been in too many end-of-the-world scenarios, but you know what I mean).

Malkovich puts in a notable performance as Douglas (are we supposed to hate him or like him?) while Rhodes is a strong support for Bullock’s lead. Hollander is sufficiently creepy in his role, too.

The good stuff

I’ve recently acquired an inexplicable taste for horror movies, so I couldn’t resist flicking this one on as soon as I watched the trailer. And it didn’t disappoint – it is scary, and it is a relatively-fresh breath of air in its genre. And it’s another bull’s-eye for Netflix’s efforts in horror after the superb Annihilation.

I enjoy movies where a group of random strangers are thrust together and have to collectively figure out how to survive. I wouldn’t do so well in that scenario myself, but it’s fun watching others have a go at it. The plot of the movie, which cuts back and forth between the river journey and how it all kicked off five years prior, is engaging enough to keep you hooked in without giving you too much of a chance to dig any deeper into potential plot-holes; the tension is pumped steadily into the house where much of the retrospective action takes place and when the scares do come, they’re worth the wait.

The filmmakers also employed a clever trick to maintain the suspense, one that directors have used countless times in the past to great effect – you don’t see the monsters for a very long time (or in this instance, technically not at all). Think of the shark in Jaws, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, or Norma Bates in Psycho. The suggestion of horror in Bird Box is often greater than what’s actually seen, and that makes it all the more powerful.

The not so good stuff

As mentioned previously, Bird Box is a relatively-fresh idea, but it’s not totally original. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (which is a terrible movie) was centred on the same idea of people committing suicide under the influence of some invisible entity, so I felt like this one was a slight rip-off. Indeed, Josh Malerman, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, feared that his rough draft (written prior to The Happening) was too similar to Shyamalan’s idea and would be passed over. This is a much better take on the idea, though, so he needn’t worry.

My only other gripe was the ending, which was a bit of a come-down after all the tension leading up to it – it’s not the worst, but a little more closure would have helped.

The bottom line

Bird Box is another solid horror showing from Netflix, and well worth a watch. It’s plenty scary and intelligently executed by the filmmakers and cast. I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely give it a second viewing at some stage.

Verdict: (3.5 / 5)

Reviews

Retro Review: Black Christmas (1974)

January 2, 2019

And so, Christmas has come and gone. But with everyone still celebrating I am going to use this opportunity to review my favorite Christmas film. A film I watch every year and one of my all-time favorites. But this one contains very little holiday cheer. In fact, as the trailer said, after Black Christmas, those traditions will never be the same again. So, while everyone is partying, I will be listening with dread for every creak on the stairs. Today I look at Bob Clarks, festive slasher classic, Black Christmas [Minor Spoilers Ahead].

The Story

The ladies of Pi Cappa Sig are getting ready for the Christmas holidays, but someone keeps making prank phone calls to the house, setting the girls on edge. But what they don’t know is that the caller is actually hiding in their attic. When he kills sorority sister Clare, the rest of the ladies try to find her. The police also begin investigating the case due to a link with another missing girl. But with everyone battling their own demons and the killer so close, will the girls escape before it’s too late?

What did I like?

It’s hard to review one of your all-time favorite films. Not only do you have to justify why this movie deserves credit as a favorite, but you also must be professional and not gush just because you personally love the film. I say this to give the following review context and state that I tried my best to not be biased.

The main reason I always return to Black Christmas is for the expert way it builds tension and atmosphere. Jump scares aren’t used every few minutes to keep the audience awake. This is a slow burner that uses the Hitchcockian technique of letting us know more than the characters. We know the killer is in the house long before our leads do, so we are constantly on edge. Hoping the ladies realize before another is killed. But it also never drags. From the beginning we are placed in a paranoid state of excitement as we watch the killer break into the house and skulk around upstairs. And Carl Zittrer’s score, though used sparingly, sends chills down the spine due to the angular and off kilter sounds he uses. Making any scene with the killer near, very uncomfortable. So, we are always nervous about what is coming. Lastly, the film remembers a key ingredient that other horror films forget.

It takes time to develop its characters, so we care about them and don’t want them to die. Unlike many slasher films that would later adapt its techniques, the characters in Black Christmas are not simple archetypes. And have multiple layers to them. Jess (Olivia Hussey) is a great lead because she is driven and flawed but never unlikable. Facing a pregnancy, Jess wants an abortion because she still has things she wants to do with her life. This causes her boyfriend, Peter (Kier Dullea) to become angry. He believes she is being selfish and as the film progresses, he becomes more unstable. Giving him ample motive in the characters eyes to be the killer. But you, slowly realize, all he wants is a family, giving him a reason for his madness.

The supporting characters are also quite nuanced. Barb (Margot Kidder), the groups bitchy alpha is shown to have family troubles that impact her emotionally and even blames herself for Clare’s disappearance. Phil (Andrea Martin), although looking like the stereotypical nerd, is just a regular person who acts as a voice of reason for the other characters and she provides some of the most endearingly personal moments in the film. Other greats include the humorous Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon), Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath) and Mrs. Mack (Marian Waldman), the house mother. Each character is humanized, and all the performances feel real. Consequently, it becomes easy to invest in them and harder to watch when the killer begins prowling again.

Another reason this film succeeds as a horror film is how it handles its killer. The killer is very much grounded in reality. But what makes him scary is that nothing about him is explained. We never get a reason for why he chose this sorority to attack. And the only insight we get into him are the insane ramblings that we are privy to while he hides in the attic and what he says over the phone. But even that could be lies to scare the girls or the products of a damaged mind. The fact that nothing about him is certain makes him even more terrifying.

The story also features great use of symbolism. The abortion aspect acts as both a reference to the Roe Vs Wade case and ties into the Christmas theme. The idea of birth and family is at the heart of the Christmas tradition. But this film shows that the traditional family way of life is fading. Many of the girls would rather spend time with each other than their families and the unwillingness to accept this is what drives Peter, and arguably the killer, to the depths of despair. But importantly, without reading into it, the film still works as a well told crime story. The characters act in realistic ways, that never contradict their personalities. And everyone is given motivation for their actions, but never are they obviously spelled out for the audience.

What I do not like?

There are things that many may not like about this film. For example, the story has several large contrivances. These include the fact that the police never check the attic for the missing girl and Barb’s false nightmare scare.

Many may also feel the films comedy does not gel with the rest of the film. Because such serious subject matter is juxtaposed with jokes about mating turtles, some may feel the tone is inconsistent.  

Lastly, because of all the films that took inspiration from this movie, the film may lack the bite it had when it was originally released for modern audiences.

But these aspects never detract from the overall experience and in several ways, enrich the experience. The extra comedy makes the characters feel more real. The contrivances are either never big enough to dwell on or draw attention to and enrich other aspects of the story. And although modern audiences may recognize a lot of the film from other places, it is gratifying as a piece of history to see the origins of these clichés and how they are supposed to be used.

Verdict

Some may find certain aspects of the film dated, contrived or perhaps out of place. But Black Christmas (1974) remains a fine example of how to make an engaging and chilling horror film. Relying on suspense, character, mystery and telling an engaging story rather than viscera, jump scares and shock value. It’s a film that, for me, has aged like a fine wine and every time I revisit it during the holidays I always find something new to appreciate and love about it.

Verdict: (5 / 5)

And so that wraps up my Christmas reviews. I hope you enjoyed them and that you have all had a Merry Christmas. Hopefully, these reviews have given you some new films to add to your Christmas rotation. I will be returning in the new year with more retro reviews, so, for now, I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Reviews

Retro Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

December 24, 2018

With the big day fast approaching its time to review another one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies. But this is not just any Christmas movie. This is arguably not only the greatest Christmas movie ever, but one of the greatest movies of all time, period. So, join me as we look back at Frank Capra’s seminal classic, It’s a wonderful life.

The Story

Clarence, an angel hoping to get his wings, is tasked with saving George Bailey (James Stewart) from committing suicide on Christmas Eve. To figure out how to help him, Clarence looks back over George’s life. He finds that George has always put others before himself. From saving his brother from drowning when he was a child to taking over the family business when is father died. Thus, saving the town from being monopolized by the cruel Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). But because of this he always missed out on personal opportunities. When the threat of bankruptcy emerges, George snaps. Abandoning his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and children, George slowly begins wondering if the world would have been better without him. So Clarence decides to grant George’s wish. Can Clarence save someone who has seemingly given up?

What did I like?

It’s hard to condense all the positive aspects of It’s a wonderful life into a review that doesn’t run on for over 2000 words. But I will try my best.

Firstly, the film has connected with so many people over the years because everyone can relate to the story. Everyone at some point has doubted their place in the world or had to forgo their dreams because life just gets in the way. It’s a story that really grounds the film and helps us easily relate to the situation and the characters. It is not always an easy film to watch, especially when George’s depressed attitude comes to the forefront. Which may hit some viewers a little close to home. But it’s message that no matter how small you think you are, everyone matters to someone, is something everyone wants and deserves to hear, especially at Christmas time.

With it’s grounded story, you would think the supernatural aspect would feel jarring. But it never does. Because It’s a wonderful life both smartly sets up the supernatural presence early on, effectively informing the audience about what is coming and keeps the mystical happenings low-key. The world is re-arranged without George off-screen and the biggest power Clarence exhibits is the ability to teleport by asking his boss for help. Thus, the film can be both mystical and realistic without either seeming to betray the other.

And the story is helped along by well-written characters inhabited by great performances from every member of the cast. No one puts a foot wrong. James Stewart’s George and Donna Reed’s Mary are fantastic leads because they feel like normal people. Everything about them, from their dialogue and the way it’s spoken, to how the actors look at each other and the way they imbue great personality into the smallest gestures, makes them feel like normal people you could see walking down the street. And they wring every ounce of emotion out of all their scenes.

The supporting players are also great. Making the film feel like part of a real community, rather than actors simply playing roles. Special praise goes to Ward Bond and Frank Faylen who provide great comedic relief as loveable cop Bert and taxi driver Ernie. Lionel Barrymore also exudes sliminess as Mr. Potter. Who easily makes you hate every minute he’s on screen. But, aside from when he “acquires” George’s money, he never comes across as cartoonishly evil. He just feels like a man doing all he can to stay in power. And Henry Travers’ Clarence has a sense of childlike hopefulness and absentmindedness. Which combine wonderfully to easily make him cinemas most lovable angel. Even Gloria Grahame’s Violet, who doesn’t contribute anything major to the plot, feels like she belongs in this story. And her playful flirting feels charming, especially at a time where unmarried women were often demonized.

Surrounding a fantastic, relatable story, wonderful characters and amazing performances there is some gorgeous production design. The town of Bedford Falls looks accurate to the times and feels very much like a lived-in world. But also manages to feel timeless because of the lack of technology on display to date the film and the picturesque way it captures the idea of small-town America. And Dimitri Tiomkin’s beautiful musical score perfectly compliments and heightens every scene. With joyful and haunting strings and festive sleigh bells that really give a sense of the characters pain, triumphs and festive mood.

Honestly, I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of everything that makes this movie great. But I have to move on. Or else my editor will hate me for making his job even harder at Christmas.

What I do not like?

How do you find fault with one of the most highly regarded movies of all time? Well it isn’t easy, and it makes me feel awful, but there are still minor issues that may bother some people.

One problem is that the films pacing feels slightly uneven towards the end. Because all the action revolving around Clarence and George’s journey to affirmation only comes into play in the third act, the build-up to the climax feels a little rushed. The emotional payoff is still great and the third act is the most memorable part of the film. But the final portion could have used a bit more room to breathe.

Also, some points make the film feel slightly dated. The revelation of what happens to Mary if George was never born is a good example of this. In this darkest possible timeline, where gentle Bert and Ernie are cynical and hostile; playful people like Violet are abused and shoved around, the idea that the worst thing that could happen to Mary is that she is not married and works at the library, feels a little too old-fashioned. And you can look at the Bailey’s family housekeeper and see examples of racial stereotyping.

Finally, the use of banking and building and loans as a central plot thrust may leave some people perplexed at times. Sometimes the minutia of the profession does feel a little inaccessible. However, these scenes never go on too long and you are still able to follow the story. It just might mean you momentarily zone out when talk shifts to banking matters.

Verdict

Despite slight blemishes brought on by age, a finale that may have benefitted from a bit more time and the sometimes impenetrable banking subject matter, It’s a wonderful life is a film that deserves to be watched every festive season. It’s grounded story with a wonderful festive message, loveable characters, flawless acting, production design and emotional score make it a true masterpiece. And it deserves its reputation as the best Christmas movie ever made.

Verdict: (5 / 5)

But…it is still not my favourite Christmas movie. What is? You will have to wait for my next review to find out.   

Reviews

Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp [spoiler-free]

December 15, 2018

In an unprecedented turn of events, I’ve written not one, but TWO reviews in a single week.

[sound of crowd gasping]

Let’s take a look at Ant-Man and the Wasp, that delicious filling squeezed between two chunky slices of epic Avengers action.

Why now?

Ant-Man and the Wasp was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 3rd December.

In a nutshell

Scott Lang has been on house arrest for two years following the events of Captain America: Civil War. He’s just days away from freedom when Hank Pym and his daughter Hope van Dyne get in contact – they’ve realised that Lang may hold the key to rescuing Hank’s wife Janet from the Quantum Realm, which Lang had entered towards the end of the first film. It isn’t long before trouble arises in the form of Ghost (a spectral villain with an unwavering agenda, also involving Janet) and Lang dons his Ant-Man suit again alongside his new-found partner, the Wasp.

Who’s it for?

Like almost all Marvel movies up to this point (with the exception of a certain Deadpool), this film is perfectly suitable for kids and adults alike. No sex, no bad language, and only superhero-film violence on the table here.

Who’s in it?

Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly reprise their roles as Ant-Man and the Wasp (can you even believe it?), while Michael Douglas also returns as Hank Pym. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Janet, and Michael Peña provides a substantial amount of the film’s already substantial comic relief. Hannah John-Kamen plays Ghost, and Laurence Fishburne (the man is EVERYWHERE) comes on board as an old friend of Pym’s.

The good stuff

As with the first Ant-Man and Thor Ragnarok, this movie is decidedly lighter and more humorous than many of the other offerings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Obviously, the likes of Rudd and Peña excel in this environment, playing to their strengths, though the chemistry and easiness shared by every actor you see on screen is palpable, especially between Rudd and Lilly. It’s a fun movie to watch, and though I adored Infinity War, it’s a refreshing change from the heaviness of the Thanos-centred narrative. As you might expect from a Marvel movie, the SFX and fight sequences are all top notch, and the shrink/growth technology employed by the two primary heroes is utilised to great effect. Even the other fairly ridiculous aspects of the Ant-Man universe, such as giant ants playing electric drums (oh yes), are perfectly passable in this movie, in keeping with its tone.

The not so good stuff

My only criticism of Ant-Man and the Wasp centres on something that, to be honest, its makers can’t really do very much about, and that my extraordinarily clever analogy in the opening paragraph referred to: it’s a filler movie.

I actually missed seeing it in the cinema during its release because it didn’t feel like a huge priority at the time – I was still digesting the epic blockbuster that was Infinity War and didn’t fancy going to see a movie that seemed to have no real bearing on Avengers: Endgame. Maybe I’m not as hardcore as I thought.

However, don’t be fooled – the whole premise of this seemingly-small Marvel offering may actually have huge implications for the final act in the Avengers story. You may be able to piece together a few theories before even watching the movie (assuming you’ve seen the first one), and the teaser trailer for Endgame was noticeably Ant-Man-centric towards the end. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if what happens in Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t inform the plotline of Endgamein some significant way.

The bottom line

I suggest you grab this one on DVD or Blu Ray soon and enjoy a quiet night in front of the fire with this small but potentially-crucial cog in the big MCU machine. It’s a solid movie with a good cast and a decent storyline that may not leave you quite as thrilled as other Marvel flicks, but should keep you ticking over until Captain Marvelarrives in the spring.

Verdict: (3.5 / 5)

Reviews

Retro Review: The Muppets Christmas Carol

December 13, 2018

With the Christmas countdown officially underway, this is the time of year when old favorite holiday movies are wheeled out to get everyone in the festive spirit. For me, there are three movies that I always watch during the most wonderful time of year, and over the next few weeks, I will be reviewing them for you. The first of which is my families Christmas eve tradition, The Muppets Christmas Carol.

The Story

On Christmas Eve, Charles Dickens (The Great Gonzo) and his partner Rizzo the Rat, regale us with the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine). Scrooge is an old skinflint who makes life miserable for his employee Bob Cratchit (Kermit the frog). He shuns friendship and family and, detests Christmas, preferring to be alone with his misery. But this night the ghosts of his old partners Jacob and Robert Marley (Statler and Waldorf) visit him. They tell him that if he doesn’t change his ways, eternal suffering awaits him in the afterlife. From there he is visited by three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, who makes him confront the root of his Christmas hatred. The Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows him what Christmas means to everyone else. And finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows him what Christmas will be like if he does not change.

What did I like?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted stories of all time. The tale has been adapted countless times in many mediums and there is a new adaptation at least once every few years. So it becomes hard to stand out. But Muppets Christmas Carol defeats this problem. Not only by remaining mostly faithful to the original text, even cribbing prose from the actual story but also investing the story with both the Muppets trademark sense of humor and a real sense of pathos.

The story is delivered with gusto. All the muppets suit the roles assigned to them. This allows for hilarious sight gags upon seeing how characters from A Christmas Carol were changed to fit the muppets. But it also allows this version to have a broad family appeal. The kids can enjoy seeing the muppets and the parents get to laugh at seeing the muppets in a serious literary tale. Anyone can enjoy it. The voice actors all do great work, imbuing life and fun personalities to their puppets. And the human actors are delightful to watch. Michael Caine is clearly having a blast playing the old miser. Adding great relish to his hateful lines. But what makes it better is that the human roles are played entirely straight. There’s no self-awareness, the human actors play against the muppets with 100% seriousness and that makes it all the funnier.

But remarkably, the cast and crew also know when to tone the humor down. The sequences that need to be scary or emotionally impactful always hit their marks because they are played with 100% sincerity.   

And while the film would deserve praise simply for making a muppet movie both gut-bustingly funny and tear-jerking at the same time, the film also does a lot of other things to ensure that it deserves its place as one of the best Christmas Carol adaptations. The inclusion of catchy musical numbers adds an extra layer of charm to the proceedings. Allowing exposition to be delivered creatively and keeping the films pacing up. The puppeteering is also very impressive and still holds up today. The puppets have many little facial ticks and movements that make them feel like real creatures rather than props. The set design is also spectacular. Recreating the novels Victorian setting very well. And taking influence from German expressionist horror films, which help the place feel oppressive. And finally, the inclusion of Gonzo as the narrator.

While only a small addition, the inclusion of a narrator adds to the nostalgic feeling I mentioned in my overview of the Grinch. It makes the story feel like it’s being imparted by an older friend. Thus making it more personal to us, the audience. The inclusion of Rizzo as an audience POVcharacter furthers this as he, like us, is cynical, constantly trying to disprove Charles and making snide comments. This makes it easy to get invested and gives us a personal sense of attachment to the story. Making it all the easier to return to this version again, and again and again.

What I do not like?

It breaks my heart to find faults in all the movies I will be reviewing this season. But they are never the less there and it doesn’t make melove these films any less.

Firstly, the story is heavily synopsized. While this improves some aspects of the story, which in other versions can be a bit plodding, the flashback to Scrooge’s relationship with his fiancé Belle suffers for it. Because we only have a short time to get to know Belle, we don’t feel as invested in her relationship with Scrooge. As such the reveal that this is the major reason why Scrooge is a loner doesn’t carry as much weight. The actors, however, do a fine job of selling the scene, which does manage to salvage it.

Another problem is the fact that Scrooges change of heart comes a little too soon. In many other adaptations, Scrooge changes gradually, only really cracking when he sees the effect his actions have on Bob Cratchit and his family. But here he seems to be a happier person by the time he meets the Ghost of Christmas Present. Which could lessen the impact of the Tiny Tim scene.

Finally, towards the end of the film, the musical numbers stop, and the film just focuses on the action. Which, while appropriate, gives the impression that the musical numbers are a crutch to hold up the first part of the film.

Verdict

Despite its flaws, The Muppets Christmas Carol is, for my money, the best adaptation of Charles Dickens classic tale. The acting is so much fun. It delivers the story in a way that is accessible to everyone. It has charm to spare, with its musical numbers, the nostalgic and relatable use of narration to tell the story and the insertion of the muppet’s giant personalities into the proceedings. But it’s also not afraid to let things breathe and get serious when it needs to. If you only see one version of A Christmas Carol this year, make sure it’s this one.

Verdict: (4.5 / 5)

Reviews

Review: Sorry To Bother You

December 12, 2018

Sorry To Bother You is a comedic over-the-top portrayal of a slightly different America and the scary places the pursuit of success and money can take you.

What’s Going On?

Cassius Green is a man down on his luck, living in his uncle’s garage and unemployed. In fact, it seems like most of America is rather down on its luck. Cassius manages to get a job as a telemarketer and following a colleague’s advice, starts talking to customers using his “white voice”. Cassius and his colleague are black and sound black to the customers. Using this voice Cassius is a huge success and is quickly promoted to “power caller” where he sells very different products. The problem being that not only are these different products but they are morally dubious at best. The more successful Cassius becomes the less ethical the products become, leading to truly unbelievable moral dilemmas.

There are several minor plots that mirror Cassius’s struggles. His activist girlfriend, Detroit, has an upcoming art show and considering she makes earrings that are just the words “murder” and “kill” it is sure to be a shocking show. Then there is the fight to unionise the telemarketers to improve pay and conditions which the authorities are absolutely okay in using violence to settle. Finally, there is the ever-present company WorryFree, seen on television, billboards and more. WorryFree offers shelter and food in return for a lifetime contract which sounds disconcertingly like slavery to many people.  

Behind The Scenes

Sorry To Bother You is the directorial debut of Boots Riley (he is also the screenwriter), best known as a rapper as part of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. I would never have guessed it was someone’s first film and there is a clear vision and purpose with Riley tells a strong story. 

In Front Of The Camera

The film has a big cast and stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green who gives a great performance. At the beginning of the film he is very much a man beaten down by life and for the first third of the film he is always walking with a slump and looking down at the ground. When he becomes successful a very different side is shown and gives a realistic portrayal of a man struggling with his principles. David Cross provides the “white voice” of Cassius, with Patton Oswalt doing the same for another character and both sound rightly non-threatening and bland. Tessa Thompson is great as Detroit, Cassisus’ girlfriend who often acts as his conscience. Armie Hammer plays a very believable scumbag billionaire entrepreneur, Steve Lift, owner of WorryFree, turning unspeakable crimes into more palatable PR-approved concepts that will benefit everyone.  

Does It Work?

The film is very funny and enjoyable. Riley makes interesting points about racism and class struggle in America and beyond. The final third of the film makes a big jump into more extreme situations that some people may simply find too unbelievable but undeniably most of the film is utterly fantastic. The more I have thought of the film the more the ending has bothered me perhaps the sheer oddness undercutting the serious messages in the film.

Cassius internal moral arguments are brilliantly realised and his motives are clear. He was never trying to be rich but only wanted to support himself and those close to him. Cassius’ decisions are very relatable especially when confronted with more extreme choices. 

Riley handles the issues around “white voice” excellently. It is pointed out by one character that the voice is not just an impression of a white person’s voice, but how white people would like to see themselves – sorted out, together and there is an implication that none of the white customers would think this applied to Cassius. When Cassius uses this voice at the lower levels of the company few people question what he is doing, perhaps because he was on the very brink. As he becomes increasingly successful the people close to him are less comfortable with it. There are accusations of “selling out” not just because of using this voice but also the work he is doing is betraying those around him and what he used to believe in. There is another black power caller who uses the “white voice” and even Detroit uses a different voice at her art show – her “White British Voice” – which presumably helps her sell her art. It would be interesting to see how other power callers who were white spoke, does everyone need to put on some sort of character to be successful?

WorryFree is scarily believable and for the most part feels only a few steps away from real companies. Sadly, as are the economic hardship endured by many of the characters and thus making WorryFree the only alternative to homelessness. These problems are not just limited to ethnic minorities but show how all groups in society are struggling and sometimes the divide portrayed in the film wasn’t white people and black people but the rich and everyone else. That said, there are moments in the film that speak purely to issues of race, most – but by no means all – of the rich people are white and Cassius is expected to regale them with stories of Oakland’s gang shootings and rap for them.

On the whole, the film is great and gives the viewer a lot to think about. There are problems with the plot as it goes along and I’m sure some people will simply not be able to accept it for being too outlandish. The film reminded me a lot of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone on a more cinematic scale, a world very much like ours but pushed to be a bit more extreme, like many episodes of these shows the concept and setup of the story is fantastic with the ending being somewhat unsatisfactory.

Verdict: (3.5 / 5)

Reviews

Review: Creed II

December 11, 2018

This week, we’re stepping into the ring as we go toe-to-toe with yet another instalment in the Rocky series (or at least, inspired by the Rocky series) in Creed II. This review is spoiler-rific by the way – you have been warned.

Flying high now…

Why now?

Creed II was released on 21 November and is still in cinemas now (quick, go see it!).

In a nutshell

Three years after the events of the first film, Adonis Creed has become heavyweight champion of the World and a household name. He’s with the girl of his dreams, has achieved his ultimate career ambition and seems to have finally moved outof the shadow of his mentor, Rocky Balboa.

However, Ivan Drago suddenly resurfaces from the bleak depths of the Ukraine (sorry if you’re from there, it’s just the way it’s portrayed in the movie) with his son Viktor to challenge Creed to a long-awaited ‘rematch’ of sorts. Ivan Drago is hell-bent on getting his revenge on Rocky by taking down the son of the man hekilled in the ring all those years ago (the great Apollo Creed), whose deathdrove Rocky to defeat him and, it seems, ruin his life; Viktor Drago – whowould, by the way, give the Incredible Hulk a run for his money – just wants tofinally get daddy’s approval by pummelling the living daylights out of Adonis.

Naturally, this macho match up culminates in a brutal clash between Creed and Drago, with afew pumping training montages thrown in along the way. Plenty of spoilers inthere maybe, but I doubt anything you wouldn’t have guessed yourself.

Who’s it for?

If you like Rocky movies – and the first Creed film, of course – you’ll love this. There’s almost nothing in it in the way of bad language or sex, but if youdon’t like violence, I would steer clear. There’s a fair bit.

Who’s in it?

MichaelB. Jordan reprises his role as Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed, while Sylvester Stallone makes what is rumoured to be one final appearance as the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa. Tessa Thompson plays Bianca, girlfriend and eventual fiancée of Adonis, whose music career takes off in correlation with Creed’s boxing rise to fame. Dolph Lundgren returns as the infamous Ivan Drago, with Florian Munteanu playing Viktor.

The good stuff

This is another solid instalment in this long-running and much-loved series of boxing movies, but like all other Rocky films, it’s so much more than what the cover poster suggests. The direction and acting are top-notch with Jordan putting in another quality performance as Adonis. Stallone is basically Rockyat this point, and slips effortlessly back into the character he’s beennurturing since 1976 – I think it’s also his most assured and emotionalperformance to date (Stallone’s a better actor than people give him creditfor).

The boxing sequences, like the first Creed movie, are fantastic, and even if you pretty much know what’s going to happen, you’ll still be on the edge of your seat from the first ding of the bell. You’ll also feel every single punch – I flinched constantly during the two fights between Creed and Drago (whoops, spoiler!).

The not so good stuff

There’s not a lot about this movie that I didn’t like. I wasn’t entirely convinced at the start that Michael B. Jordan would ever make it as a heavyweight boxer in real life, but actually, I found myself convinced by the end of the film (through powerful acting and a decent storyline) that he could overcome bigger opponents through speed and technique.

There’s a rather tragic storyline running parallel with the main Creed v Drago plot involving Adonis, Bianca and their little baby (whoops, spoiler!) that, while obviously very sad, I wasn’t entirely sure was necessary. I think the strain put on their relationship by Creed’s fame and/or desire to beat Drago couldhave done the trick just as well, but I understand why the writers did it. Veryminor gripes, as you can tell.

The bottom line

Creed II is predictable, but you won’t care. It’s an engaging, well-written and expertly-crafted film boasting solid performances simultaneously from fading stars and those on the rise.Certainly if you’re a fan of previous Rocky movies you won’t be remotelydisappointed (you may even feel a little thrilled), and if you’re in any wayinclined towards boxing or big guys beating each other to a pulp, you’ll likethis show.

For me, the whole shebang was summed up perfectly in one final shot towards the end of the film: Rocky sitting in the shadows outside the ring wearing a Team Creed jacket while Adonis celebrates his victory amidst the media furore (whoops, another spoiler!). It’s a perfect way to call time on one classic movie character while another steps up for his own time in the limelight.

Verdict: (4 / 5)

Reviews

Passengers V Arrival: A Comparative Review

December 4, 2018

This week I’m trying something different…

I’ve just watched two films that recently appeared on Netflix, both in the same genre, both released in late 2016. Both are big-budget Hollywood productions with A-list leads and quite original scripts. Both are films you’ll have heard of and have probably seen.

I really liked one and strongly disliked the other.

The two films in question are Passengers, starring Christ Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, and Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

I found Arrival to be a smart, well-written and superbly-acted movie that asked challenging questions – I very much enjoyed watching it and highly recommend giving it a viewing if you haven’t already seen it.

And I can tell you right off the bat that I didn’t think much of Passengers, at all. I wanted to, of course – I think Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are awesome, and the premise of the movie is strong – but ultimately, it doesn’t succeed.

So let’s break it down, shall we?

Writing

Arrival works because it’s an intelligent spin on an old premise. Aliens arrive on earth, everybody loses their marbles, and no-one knows how to handle the situation – however, the focus is on communication, an aspect of sci-fi movies so basic that it’s almost always overlooked. Not only that, but the story flashes back and forth between two periods, never quite allowing you to settle, or fully understand what’s going on until the climax. And when it all comes together, it makes sense and leaves you profoundly impacted on an emotional level.

Passengers doesn’t work because, while the idea behind it all is intriguing, it doesn’t make the most of its undoubted potential. What starts off as a strong story very quickly tails off into a very standard sci-fi narrative, complete with lots of things blowing up and inexplicable resolutions. I think it could have worked better as a horror, perhaps.

Acting

Arrival works because Amy Adams nails it, and her supporting cast compliment her beautifully. She’s believable and relatable as the lead; her decisions make sense, and her reactions draw empathy. Undoubtedly one of her strongest performances to date.

Passengers doesn’t work because, once again, its potential is not maximised. Chris Pratt is a wonderfully-charismatic actor with great comedic timing, and while this is a very different role for him, he’s very bland. Similarly, Jennifer Lawrence is one of the best actresses in Hollywood and apart from one or two scenes in the movie, you simply wouldn’t know it. It may be sceptical of me to say, but I fear these two leads were chosen based more on their star power and looks (I haven’t seen Chris Pratt’s butt as often in one movie before) than on their fit for the roles.

Direction

Arrival works because it’s understated and toned perfectly to match its weighty subject matter. Denis Villeneuve received a Best Director nomination for Arrival, with the film also nominated for Best Picture, and it’s easy to see why. This film is masterfully made without being too flashy – unusual for an alien movie.

Passengers doesn’t work because it tries to do big things without addressing the small things first. Morten Tyldum is also an Oscar-nominated director, but Passengers is a shallow, predictable, and ultimately quite boring film which could have been incredibly engaging had a little more thought gone into making it. Maybe that’s harsh, but it frustrates me to see a movie miss the mark like this.

The bottom line

Arrival and Passengers are cut from the same cloth, but they’re executed in very different ways. Where one succeeds by doing something different (and doing it expertly), the other follows a very safe path towards mediocrity, when it could have been equally excellent.

They’re both on Netflix now, so watch them and see what you think!

Verdict

Arrival: (4 / 5)

Passengers: (2 / 5)