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Ich bin dein Mensch (2021)
Thoughtful and refreshing German rom-com
I'm quite enamoured with fiction regarding artificial intelligence at the minute, so I jumped at the opportunity to watch this film about a woman who is paired with a humanoid robot who has been programmed to be her ideal partner.
I thought it was a very astute film full of incisive commentary on intimate human relationships and the imperfect nature of love. There was plenty of clever wit throughout, and the performances of Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert were brilliant (Eggert took home the Best Acting award at the Berlin Film Festival). I thought the script by writer-director Maria Schrader was very well written. There's often the risk with films that tackle themes such as these to come across as pretentious, but it was handled well and came across down to earth while also thought-provoking. The minimalistic and isolated score from Tobias Wagner also served well to complement some of the themes of loneliness explored within.
Overall, I'm Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch) is a very refreshing and unique take on the romantic comedy genre with a lot of hidden depth and thoughtfulness. An excellent addition to Maria Schrader's screenwriting and directing career.
Matt Damon holds this together
Stillwater is a slow but compelling drama aided by a great lead performance from Matt Damon. The first half was superior in my opinion with the second turning into a sort of lite version of Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners. The cinematography was great at times, obviously aided by the beautiful scenery of the South France coast and I also liked the original score, although it faded a bit towards the end. Abigail Breslin's wonky performance was definitely one of the weak links of the film. At times she was good, but at others she was utterly unconvincing and definitely took me out of the film. One of the strongest aspects was the relationship between Damon's character and the young French girl Maya, who was played superbly by Lilou Siauvaud in her film debut.
While not great, Stillwater is still a very solid film that is definitely worth checking out. Just don't go in expecting a tense and high octane thriller rather than a more slow and methodical character study.
One of the best of the year
What an absolutely wonderful film this was, one of my favourites this year. It has a distinct Wes Anderson feeling to it with the use of static, symmetrical shots and quirky characters and dialogue. However, unlike with Anderson, it isn't overdone, and the more comical aspects are very well balanced with the more serious subject matter and themes. The lead performance from Amir El-Masry was revelatory, and there was excellent support from Vikash Bhai, Ole Arebiyi and Kwabena Ansah.
Witty, poignant, but ultimately hopeful, Limbo is a wonderful film that is essential viewing in the current climate.
Free Guy (2021)
GTA Online meets The Truman Show
Free Guy is the newest film from director Shawn Levy, who is probably best known for his work on the Night at the Museum series. The film follows Guy (played by Ryan Reynolds) who lives a blissful life in 'Free City', unaware that he is in fact, an NPC in a Grand Theft Auto-like online video game. When he comes across programmer Millie (Jodie Comer) in the game, he begins to become self-aware of his situation and must work together with her and programmer developer Keys (Joe Keery) to save his fellow NPCs from being deleted by the nefarious publisher of the game.
Essentially a reimagined Truman Show for the modern age, the film offers some interesting and occasionally though-provoking commentary on what it means to be alive and the nature of consciousness. While it may have not been explored to the same level as a film such as Her (which was a bit of a shame), it provides a bit more depth to something that could have just been a big dumb action adventure picture.
I'm not much of a fan of Ryan Reynold's, but he did a good job here. His character felt very much like a semi-homage to Jim Carrey's performance in the aforementioned Truman Show mixed with the charming naivety of Will Ferrell's 'Buddy' in Elf. I also really enjoyed Taika Waititi as the villainous video game publisher 'Antwan' who was deliciously over-the-top and a joy to watch. Unfortunately his character only turns up around halfway through the film as he really breathed some extra life into the proceedings and really helped propel the second half of the film.
The humour was very hit and miss but there were some genuinely funny jokes and recurring gags. As the whole thing revolves around video games, there were a large number of references to real-life games and popular gaming Youtubers such as Pokimane and Jacksepticeye. I felt a lot of this was rather cringey and will age the film quite badly in the future, although it will probably appeal to younger audiences.
I didn't have high hopes for this one when I saw the trailers, but I've walked away from it pleasantly surprised. It's a fun and explosive action comedy that also dips into some more interesting themes that'll give you some food for thought. Maybe you'll think twice before mercilessly mowing down pedestrians on Grand Theft Auto in the future.
Le daim (2019)
Jet black comedy with strong lead performances
An exceptionally deadpan black comedy with a flavouring of Nightcrawler. Unfortunately, the wonderfully weird premise of the film never truly gets into a full swing and the very short runtime leaves you feeling slightly unsatisfied. Jean Dujardin and Adèle Haenel (who I will be checking out more of) both put in great performances and certainly helped the film through. I'm still not quite sure I understood what the point or message that being conveyed here was, and that likely detracted from my enjoyment and appreciation.
Blood Red Sky (2021)
Solid start but quickly nosedives
Essentially a greatest hits mix of Air Force One, From Dusk Till Dawn, Snakes on a Plane and Train to Busan. The film starts fairly well but quickly spirals into an uninteresting mess. The overbloated runtime certainly doesn't help. There are some good makeup and gore effects and the film is fairly competently shot though.
In the Earth (2021)
Wonderfully intense folk horror
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Ben Wheatley's films. I absolutely loved the wonderfully visceral and terrifying Kill List, but I really disliked High-Rise and couldn't really get on board with A Field in England. However, all of his films have usually left an impact on me in some form or another, whether it be positive or negative.
His latest film In The Earth is an intense, psychedelic folk horror made during the COVID-19 pandemic that reflects the residual fears and impact the events have made on the world. The film follows a scientist and park ranger who travel into a large and dense forest outside of Bristol to try and locate a missing researcher who went into the woods to examine the plant life in order to try and improve crop growth efficiency. Things quickly become darker as they discover an abandoned camp and come across a grizzled woodsman survivalist who seems to have an unusual connection with the forest.
I thought the film was wonderful. The atmosphere, the music, the visuals, the performances were all great and it was one of the most intense and visceral cinema experiences I've ever had. It builds up slowly and effectively with an excellently paced delivery that kept a sense of unease and anxiety within me throughout. The use of sound and editing helped to create a palpable sense of dread, with the audience anticipating something that may or may not come.
At the centre of the whole thing is a Lovecraftian mystery regarding an ancient spiritual force known as 'Parnag Fegg' that connects all life forces within the forest via a dense and vast network of mycorrhiza (fungus) beneath the forest floor and an enigmatic standing stone. Things are never really truly explained and we don't get much sense of how everything works, but that's what makes the experience so terribly unsettling. The terror of the unknowable and the incomprehensible.
There's also some more traditional horror film brutality we would typically come to expect from classic grindhouse cinema, and it executed with a dry wit and delightful glee. Wheatley clearly revels in making his audience squirm.
Overall, I think this may be my favourite Ben Wheatley film to date and it's one of my favourite releases from 2021 thus far. It is a very unconventional horror film though, more of a kaleidoscopic terror trip than anything else which could prove alienating to many. However, I absolutely loved it.
The Twilight Zone meets Stephen King in Shyamalan's best film for years
M. Night Shyamalan's latest film Old blends classic Twilight Zone mystique with some elements of Stephen King's work. The film follows a group of people trapped on a mysterious beach surrounded by rocky cliffs and raging waves that appears to cause them to age at an alarming rate.
Shyamalan's work can be incredibly hit and miss, with films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable widely regarded as masterpieces, whereas films like The Happening and Avatar: The Last Airbender provided the opposite reaction from audiences. All things considered, Old must be one of the strongest films he has made since The Village. It takes a little while to get going, with some very wonky dialogue and idiosyncratic acting and line delivery, but once we arrive at the beach all of this gels together to create an exceptionally unnatural experience that really complements the central idea of the film. There's also notably some very unconventional camerawork throughout that only helps to purvey this feeling further. There were times where I felt genuine unease and anxiety as well as times where I laughed out loud - there's some very bizarre and unnerving moments from Rufus Sewell's character.
Shyamalan is probably best known for the twists in his films, and in this one I felt it only served to detract from what came before. The original concept was interesting enough on its own to need the assistance of the twist. At least things that were set up during the course of the plot paid off toward the end, although I thought some of it wasn't particularly well executed. The ending was certainly the weakest point for me and reinforces the idea that in a way similar to Stephen King, Shyamalan struggles to write satisfying ends to his stories.
This one has been getting mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike, but I'm definitely in the positive camp. I'd advise you go into it expecting some unconventionality, but recognise that this serves to drive the film, rather than detract from it.
Ridiculous but an improvement on the first
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions ups the ante and raises the stakes from the original. Sort of like a cross between The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and a much tamer version of Saw, Tournament of Champions follows Zoey and Ben, the survivors from the first film who find themselves trapped in a new and more elaborate game concocted buy the shadowy organisation Minos, alongside a bunch of other previous winners.
There are some pretty intense sequences in this film and the rooms overall are an improvement on the original. There's a particularly good one set in a bank vault with a laser security grid. I thought the characters as well were less obnoxious and more likeable this time around, but you won't be particularly gutted to see any of them killed off. The distinctly sub-par acting also didn't help, I actually laughed at one point because the line delivery was so poor.
It was weird to see the film open up with a 'previously on Escape Room' recap that you'd expect to see on a TV show, and the ending was just as facepalmingly silly as the first. However, even if the film is utterly ridiculous and pull of plot holes the size of The Grand Canyon, It's a fairly entertaining and enjoyable experience that I'd recommend checking out if you enjoyed the first Escape Room.
Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)
Space Jam: A New Legacy is a soulless and joyless experience that doesn't even succeed at being entertaining in any way. While the original Space Jam (1996) was also a corporate cash grab, it at least had a distinct sense of charm and fun that is severely lacking here. The film felt more like a 2 hour long advertisement for the various properties that Warner Brother own than an actual film. The references to R-rated properties such as Mad Max, The Matrix and Game of Thrones seem out of place for a family film (cynics could say the film is targeted at millennials)
The plot centres around the strained relationship between LeBron James' relationship with his youngest son Dom, who wants to be a video game developer rather than a basketballer like his Dad. After the two are sucked into the 'Warnerverse' they are pitted against one another in a game of basketball based on the game Dom has been developing ('Domball'). This is not an emotionally investing storyline mainly due to James' stilted performance which may be worse than Michael Jordan's in the original. I guess there is a positive parental message here regarding letting your kids chase their own dreams rather than impose your own onto them. It could have been executed much better though.
I like to find the positives where I can, and the animation and CGI in the film is really vibrant and pops off the screen. It's easily the highlight of the film but unfortunately it has nothing to back it up with - I found the film exceptionally tedious and the jokes were mostly cringeworthy and unfunny. The most humour I got out of the experience was how awfully brazen and out-of-place a lot of references were. Pennywise the Clown and the Night King enjoying a game of basketball? Rick and Morty dropping off the Tasmanian Devil onto the heroes? What even was going on in this film?
Really I can't recommend this film in any capacity. It's an overly long and thoroughly dull slog through Warner Brothers self-congratulatory vanity project that seems to lack any sense of self-awareness. I couldn't wait for this one to finish.
Fear Street: 1666 (2021)
Disappointing after the improvement of Part 2
After Part 2 I had some hope that this trilogy could be salvaged. Unfortunately, Fear Street Part Three: 1666 just serves to hammer the final nail in the coffin of the series.
The period setting felt like a mix of The Crucible and The Witch but didn't succeed at the style of either. The accents were awful as well. At least the production values were better than other period horror pieces I've seen recently (*cough* The Reckoning *cough*).
Mercifully, the obscene number of obnoxious needle drops is dramatically reduced from the previous two instalments (there aren't many bangers released during the 17th century to be fair), but they still manage to squeeze them in where they can.
The film does manage to link together everything into a full overarching narrative, but I can't help but feel that Part 2 was almost pointless to the overall story. This is quite ironic given that I thought the second part was the strongest part and the high point of the trilogy, but ultimately it'll just serve as a mildly entertaining interlude within a highly mediocre set of films. I wouldn't waste my time watching this trilogy, I didn't even really get much entertainment out of it and it felt like one giant slog.
The Reckoning (2020)
Poor period horror. What happened to Neil Marshall?
The more Neil Marshall films I see, the more I'm convinced that Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005) were complete flukes. Doomsday was the last film of his I saw which I thought was fairly decent, but unfortunately every effort since then just... isn't good.
The Reckoning has a certain level of competency and interest to it, but ultimately that just causes the film to come across painfully dull and mediocre rather than enjoyably poor. In many ways, this is the worst sin a film can commit. Let's not even start on how perfectly clean and coiffured everyone looked for a film set during the Black Death, or the costume and set design that looked like cosplay at a medieval tourist attraction.
The only real positives I can draw out of this is that some of the cinematography is pretty nice and Sean Pertwee as usual is good, even if his character is fairly cardboard cut-out and moustache twirling (complete with actual moustache).
We can only sit and hope that Marshall manages to recapture the form he displayed at the start of his filmmaking career. If you want some great period horror, watch The VVitch instead.
A Lesser Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Francis Lee's newest film Ammonite explores the relationship that develops between palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) when they spend 6 weeks together on the beaches of Lyme Regis.
I couldn't help comparing this film to Lee's previous work God's Own Country as a lot of the plot beats and execution seemed very noticeably similar. There's also quite a few nods to Céline Sciamma's wonderful romantic drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire scattered throughout. Herein lies a problem. I never felt the same chemistry between Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite as I did between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in Portrait (except for maybe one scene). Not to detract from the performances of the leads here - Winslet was great and Ronan probably played the boldest role of her career thus far - but chemistry is a huge part of a film like this.
The colour palette of the film is also very grey and muted, perfectly reflecting the drab majesty of the English coast. Likely this was intentional, but it seemed to contrast with the fiery passion that rears its head throughout (again comparing to the vibrant colours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire). The production and costume design were both excellent and was probably the strongest aspect of the film.
The historical accuracy of the film has come under scrutiny from critics, as while Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison did indeed meet and become close friends, there is no evidence that the two ever shared a romantic relationship. You could view this as a hypothetical scenario, given that in the 19th century, women were hardly free to pursue and openly express same-sex romantic relationships. The film therefore serves as more than a historical drama, but as a tribute to the potential untold stories of forbidden love throughout history.
To summarise, Ammonite is a slow and quiet love story with explosions of passion, but ultimately it feels like a muted version of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Fear Street: 1994 (2021)
Stale Scream wannabe
There's not a lot going for Fear Street Part One really, It's not scary, (even the made-for-kids TV series of Goosebumps has more scare value), it's overwhelmingly bland, and the poor pacing leaves it bordering on tedium at times.
The production value is good. It shares some similarities with the Netflix series Stranger Things in how stylishly it is composed and presented, but it lacks that special something the Duffer brothers series had. Ultimately that serves to exacerbate the empty feeling the film had. Everything looks fine, but it just feels completely unimaginative and uninspired, mirroring the proceedings of the script.
Also, if you thought Cruella had an obnoxiously overbearing soundtrack, just wait until you watch this. Opening with NIN's 'Closer' (the second time I've heard that song in a horror film this year), the film proceeds to barrage you with a whole range of era-relevant music to let you know the film is set in 1994 just in case the title didn't give it away. Funny thing is, some of the songs they used were released after the time in which the film is set. Thankfully they cool down with this onslaught for the second half of the film. I honestly wouldn't have even noticed the film was set in the 90s without the musical cues and obvious references to dated technology as the characters just don't feel like kids plucked from that era. Look to a fellow horror film like It for something that pulls this period-matching off in a far superior fashion. The characters in Fear Street feel like 2021 kids existing in the 90s.
Some people have been claiming this as the next Scream and after my viewing of this I can only assume they haven't watched either film. There is certianly a nod or two here and there, but homages and references alone does not a horror classic make. In fact, mostly what it does is remind us of better films we could be watching instead. A far stronger slasher has recently been released in Christopher Landon's Freaky, which takes classic genre tropes and adds a fun and fresh new twist. If you had to pick one to watch, choose that one instead.
I guess this film is an okay way to kill 100 minutes and it could serve as a starter point for a younger audience getting into horror, but I doubt I'll ever be revisiting this or even thinking about it next week. The lore and worldbuilding was one of the stronger aspects of the film, so it should be interesting to see what they do with the next two films and how they tie it all together. Hopefully they'll be better than this though.
"The most frightening thing about Fear Street: 1994 is just how tedious most of the film is." - Erik Kain, Forbes.
One of the finest films showing the futility of nuclear war
Testament is probably the least bombastic and explosive film about the aftermaths of nuclear war you'll ever see. What we are presented with instead is a deeply intimate and poignant family/small town drama centred around the Oscar-nominated lead performance from Jane Alexander.
The film is set in the small town of Hamelin in California which manages to remain unscathed when nuclear bombs rain down on the major cities in the US. The townsfolk count themselves lucky to have survived the attacks and attempt to bunch together to continue living their lives as normally as they can. Fairly quickly though the hopelessness and despair starts to seep in as the bodies start to pile up and the fallout and radiation from the bombs begins to take hold of the community.
We never see the terrifying immediacy of mushroom cloud explosions, blown-out buildings or charred corpses we observed in films like The Day After and Threads, but Testament offers something more: the overwhelming despair of watching society disintegrate and fall apart in slow motion whilst accepting your own mortality in a seemingly empty future.
This is one of the most sobering films made about the futility of nuclear warfare and the direction from Lynne Littman is stellar. She manages portray this story in a manner that doesn't come across preachy or voyeuristic. Definitely check this one out if you can.
The Tomorrow War (2021)
Overly long and overly dull
I decided to give this one a try after hearing and reading some positive things about it. It didn't really seem like my cup of tea, but I was assured it would be a fun and fairly mindless callback to the classic sci-fi flicks of yesteryear. Boy was I misinformed.
I'm not sure how they managed to make a massive budget ($200 million dollars!), explosive sci-fi film about a future alien war so awfully dull, but my goodness did they do it.
I have to say that the alien designs and effects were really good (probably some of my favourite since Starship Troopers) but unfortunately I can't save that sort of praise for much else in the film. The characters weren't particularly interesting making it hard to feel any sort of connection when the film tried to pull off some more emotional moments, or just be invested in the plot in general. Chris Pratt just didn't work for me as a likeable or convincing lead for this, and what a waste of a talent like JK Simmons. I thought the concept of the film was fairly interesting, but it was far too dragged out. There's no justification for this film to be well over 2 hours long.
Essentially you can think of The Tomorrow War as a cross between Edge of Tomorrow and Independence Day, but with the result being an overly long and tedious film that is nowhere near as good or entertaining as either. I wouldn't waste my time with it.
A warm and compelling family drama
An American production written and directed as a semi-autobiography by Lee Isaac Chung, the film follows a Korean-American family who move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s to start a farm and chase their own American dream.
The story is fairly simple but it serves the film well. The family dynamic is portrayed very well and is wholesome and heart-rending in equal measure.
All the cast put in great performances, and Youn Yuh-jung and Steven Yeun both rightfully earned their Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor wins and nominations respectively, but I'd like to highlight Alan S. Kim's wonderful performance as David. He brought real heart to the film and was very charming and funny. I feel he should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor and I wish child actors would get more recognition for their roles.
The score from Emile Mosseri was beautiful and unobtrusive and it definitely pushed Soul for Best Original Score while I also loved the bright and naturalistic cinematography. There was so much lovely, detailed attention paid to the lush greenery surrounding the farm. It really helped to complement the thematic elements of the film.
Ultimately, Minari is a compelling and beautifully shot family drama led by fantastic performances from both the adult and child actors. This one will definitely be making my top 10 of the year so far.
A bundle of gory fun with a show stealing performance by Vince Vaughn
Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day, Scouts Guide To The Apocalypse) adds to his collection of tongue-in-cheek horror films with the new gender bending horror-comedy Freaky. The film is essentially a homage to classic teen slashers such as Scream, Halloween and Friday the 13th as well as body swapping classics like Freaky Friday. Indeed the original title was pitched as 'Freaky Friday the 13th' as a direct reference to both influences, but copyright meant they were only able to salvage the first word in the moniker.
The opening of the film introduces us to our serial killer 'The Blissfield Butcher' (Vince Vaughn) as he brutally dispatches a house full of teenagers in a whole manner of gruesome ways. Before he leaves he steals an ancient mystical dagger known as 'La Dola' which he later uses to attack teenager Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton). This inadvertently causes the two to swap bodies. With only 24 hours to reverse the transition, Millie must track down La Dola before The Butcher uses his new found identity to reek havoc on the local high school population.
I have to say that this was some of the most fun I've had with a new release this year. The kills and violence were bloody but darkly comedic and over the top, and the jokes came at a steady pace and mostly landed (there were some BIG laughs in my screening).
I felt the film was a little slow to get going in the opening stages but it really comes into its own when the switch happens and we get to see Vince Vaughn flex his acting chops as he pretends to be a 17 year old girl. Watching all six-foot-five of him fully commit to this role was a joy to watch and served as the beating heart and driving force of the production. It's nice to see him return to a more comedically focussed role after a series of straight-edged dramatic performances in Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) and Dragged Across Concrete (2018). Kathryn Newton did a great job as well replicating a middle aged serial killer possessing a teenagers body and brought a lot of menace and sardonic style to proceedings. The supporting cast do a decent job, but the film definitely slumps in the parts where Vaughn is off screen.
In summation, Freaky is a huge bundle of gory fun led by a show stealing performance from Vince Vaughn. While it may not be the best film you'll watch this year, it's definitely one that's worth a watch just to see the actors having an absolute blast.
Wonderful lead performances elevate this intimate drama
Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth both put in career-high performances here as Tusker and Sam, a couple embarking on a road trip through The Lake District in the UK to reunite with friends after Tusker is diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Both actors have wonderful chemistry on screen and produce a lot of laughs as well as heartfelt and heartbreaking moments. They manage to convey a wonderfully intimate and fully believable relationship, not just through dialogue, but the quiet moments they share together.
I wasn't as moved by this film as I probably should have been (it certainly didn't effect me the same way Florian Zeller's The Father did), but the wonderful performances from the leads helped me to connect with the characters where it mattered. The ending also felt quite rushed and anticlimactic after the emotional crescendo of the final act and I felt it was disappointing and could have been handled better. I was split between a 3.5 and a 4 for this film, but the ending sealed it for me.
While Supernova may not have the same impact or emotional weight as The Father, it provides a powerful look at the emotional toll that dementia has on relationships and the difficulty in accepting that all things must come to an end.
Pixar tries to replicate Studio Ghibli and only partially succeed
Set on the picturesque Italian Riviera and at times feeling like a pale imitation of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Luca is the latest film released by Pixar and follows a sea monster with the ability to walk on land as a human who explores the coastal town of Portorosso (a nod to Miyazaki's Porco Rosso maybe?) with his new friend Alberto.
The early critical response for this film was unenthusiastic and lukewarm while more recent audience feedback has been very positive (just look at the average rating here on Letterboxd). Luca has certainly been resonating with some and I can see why. It's full of charm and tells a gentle story of youth, friendship and chasing dreams. It tries to pull off the simplicity of Ghibli films such as Kiki's Delivery Service or Ponyo and definitely succeeds in some regards such as the idyllic setting, but unfortunately this film fell flat for me.
The characters were uninteresting, making it hard to connect with any of the emotional moments or beats the film was going for. There were a few moments from Luca's parents Daniela and Lorenzo that had me chuckling, but this was mostly the only reaction that the film could elicit from me.
The animation is generally wonderful and is undoubtedly the best part of the film, but the character models are just plain ugly. They resemble some sort of horrid cross between the characters from the game 'Two Point Hospital' and Aardman's Wallace and Gromit. It almost felt like more effort had been made into realising the world and environment than the characters themselves.
The film is certainly not bad, it has some lovely vibrant animation and a distinct warmth and nostalgia, but it is exceptionally unremarkable and will be forgotten very quickly in my mind at least.
Luca certainly doesn't help to buck the idea that Pixar are losing their golden touch (Soul was maybe an exception to the rule), and it is probably one of the weakest films they've released since The Good Dinosaur. We can only hope that one day we will see the next The Incredibles or Ratatouille, but for now we will have to accept perfectly fine efforts from a studio formally renowned for excellence.
Kill List (2011)
A brutal and disturbing horror that will shock you to your core
Kill List is certainly one of the more interesting and unconventional horror films I've had the pleasure of watching recently. The film begins as a slow-burn violent crime thriller before morphing itself into a terrifying, visceral horror by the ending. Knowing director Ben Wheatley's other work (Sightseers, A Field in England), you'd expect this film to throw some surprises at you and it doesn't disappoint.
The film follows Jay and Gal (played by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, respectively), former British soldiers who have become contract killers in order to make a living. They accept a big job from a shadowy client that involves killing three targets. However, Jay appears to still be disturbed by an unspecified event that occurred during his time in Kyiv, and this manifests within his behaviour on the job that continues to spiral out of control.
The violence is brutal and unrelenting, and the atmosphere is kept deeply unsettling throughout by the use of a score that bears resemblance to Robert Egger's The VVitch (2016). There's a constantly bubbling unease under the surface veneer of the film, as we the audience feel there's something more going on than what we are presented. This mystery viciously bubbles over to the surface and reveals itself in the most uncompromising of manners that will shock you to your core.
Reminiscent at times of films that I won't name for the fear of giving the game away, Kill List is a deeply disturbing affair that will leave a mark in your mind and cause even the most seasoned horror veterans to break out in a cold sweat.
Solid but unremarkable sci-fi thriller
Oxygen is a French psychological thriller directed by experienced horror director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Crawl) and stars Melanie Laurent and Mathieu Amalric.
After a woman (Laurent) wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no memory of who she is or how she got there, she realises the chamber is quickly running out of oxygen and must work with an AI (voiced by Amalric) to find a way to escape before time runs out.
The film is similar to Rodrigo Cortes's Buried (2010) in many regards. Both films follow a single character trapped inside a box with a limited supply of air which serves as the central ticking time bomb of the narrative. However, Oxygen differs in that there's a much greater focus on story and exposition. We piece together alongside the main character the history and sequence of events that led to the current situation through various flashbacks and memory jogs.
Up until around the hour mark, Oxygen doesn't quite have the right to call itself a thriller as apart from the opening scenes, we were treated to a rather dull affair. The setting was no where near as claustrophobic as the pitch-black coffin of Buried, and the sense of dread and impending doom was not portrayed as effectively as it should have.
What Oxygen does better though is produce a more visually striking film with some interesting science fiction concepts that explore thematic elements regarding the nature of consciousness and the drive of human survival. There are some twists and turns that caught me off guard and a strong central performance from Melanie Laurent, but I do feel it could have benefited from the same claustrophobic simplicity that made Buried great.
The Mist (2007)
The monsters aren't just in the mist...
"As a species we're fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another."
The Mist is Frank Darabont's third time adapting Stephen King's writing for film. The first being The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and the second being The Green Mile (1999). While this may not have had the same response or acclaim of the first two, it remains one of the strongest adaptations of King's horror writing and is one of my all time favourite horror films.
Thanks to getting the special edition blu-ray, I got to watch the black and white version of the film for the first time. This is the version that Darabont wanted to release, but studio pressure meant the film would have a traditional colour release so as not to alienate the potential cinema-going audience. The film was meant as a homage to the classic monster and horror movies of the 50s and 60s such as Them! (1954) and Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Stephen King himself has cited these classic works as being influences on his writing.
Indeed, the black and white presentation helps to elevate various aspects of the film and is surely the definitive way to experience it.
The fairly wonky CGI is also harder to notice and actually looks fairly good at times thanks to this presentation style.
Thomas Jane is great in the lead role of David Drayton. I think he's a very solid actor but I can't recall seeing him in anything other than Deep Blue Sea and The Punisher. It'd be interesting to see him get the opportunity to work his acting chops on a more character-based role.
Marcia Gay Harden also portrays one of the most horrible and unlikeable characters I've seen in Mrs. Carmody, an ultra-conservative Christian woman who becomes convinced that God is bringing about the end times after the titular mist rolls into town. She is terrifying at times, whipping the people of the town into a mad frenzy and demanding blood sacrifices to satiate the beasts stalking the outside. Ultimately our characters end up rather taking their chances with the monsters in the mist outside than the ones currently inside the supermarket.
And ultimately, that's what this film is about - not the unseen terrifying monsters that lurk in the mist, but the monsters inherent that hide inside all of us waiting to be let out. There's a lot of sociological discussion here of the behaviour of the human psyche under severe duress, and what it takes for it to break.
"People are basically good; decent. My God, David, we're a civilized society." "Sure, as long as the machines are working and you can dial 911. But you take those things away, you throw people in the dark, you scare the shit out of them, no more rules."
The ending of the film is notorious and remains one of the bleakest and gut-wrenching finales ever put to screen. One thing Stephen King often lacks is the ability to write a strong ending to his stories. Certainly the ending to the novella is very disappointing, but Frank Darabont makes some bold changes in his adaptation that some hate but I personally love. It'll really get to you one way or another.
Overall, I think The Mist is a modern horror classic and you should definitely check it out if you haven't already. Can we get some more Darabont adaptations of Stephen King please?
The best live action Disney film in years
This is a film I did not see myself enjoying as much as I did. Serving as a (sort of) prequel to 101 Dalmations, Cruella is set in 1970s London during the punk rock movement and follows the character Estella (Emma Stone) as she attempts to make it in the fashion industry. She is taken under the wing of the vindictive and domineering Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) and quickly learns secrets that will push her along the path to becoming the villainous Cruella De Vil.
First off I have to praise the performances of both leads. Emma Stone is wonderfully hammy yet charming and surprisingly nuanced as the titular Cruella, while Emma Thompson is cold and ruthless as the fashion mogul Baroness. There was also great support from Paul Walter Hauser as 'Horace', who serves as the main comedic output of the film, a role which he serves with aplomb.
I loved the Rock/Punk Rock style and aesthetic the film had, which is exemplified by the wonderful set and costume design and the excellent and unrelenting soundtrack. The original score from Nicholas Britell was also very effective at establishing the tone and mood and was quite Danny Elfman-esque.
My main problem with the film comes in the form of writing, with some aspects seeming cheap and overly reliant on coincidence and convenience. The latter stages are definitely weaker and the film doesn't end quite as strongly as it should have.
Overall, this is one of Disney's best live action outputs in recent memory although the sympathetic origin story seems tonally dissonant for one of Disney's most despicable villains.
The Father (2020)
Anthony Hopkins is devastating in Florian Zeller's exploration of dementia
Dementia is an awful disorder, and it's every child's nightmare to have to watch their parent deteriorate and disappear right before their eyes. Florian Zeller manages to capture this experience magnificently here in this film adaptation of the play Le Père which he co-wrote with fellow playwright Christopher Hampton.
Anthony Hopkins is everything in this film - funny, charming and also utterly heart-breaking - he completely deserves his Oscar win after putting in what will surely be remembered as one of his all time great performances. The way we enter his seemingly coherent mind and reality only to watch it gradually unravel until he is left as a broken man unsure of his own existence is stunning. Praise also has to be reserved for Olivia Colman who has to portray the daughter having to watch her father go through this nightmare. Some of her best work is done when she is not speaking, but instead letting her face do the talking. She could have easily won a second Oscar for her role here.
The original score from Ludovico Einaudi is also great (but I love everything that man does) and I liked the use of the set design to illustrate the subtle differences in the constantly shifting and changing reality we inhabit for those 97 minutes.
The entire screening was completely stunned into silence as the credits started rolling, as everyone was trying to come to terms with what we had just seen. This may prove to be one of the finest film experiences I'll have this year.