Streaming Options: The Assistant Review

One of the newest films that have taken to streaming due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is MeToo/ sexual harassment drama, The Assistant. The film was due to have a cinema release date around this time, but due to cinemas closing around the globe, the film has become available on all regular streaming platforms, including YouTube, Google Play and Amazon.

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The film is centred around on a young woman, Jane (played by Julia Garner), who begins an internship at a film production company, with the ultimate goal of becoming a producer. While dealing with the job’s long hours, and not being able to see her friends and family, she begins to face harassment and systemic oppression by her co-workers. Not only that, she begins to learn the shady behaviours and practises in use for hiring new female employees.

The film is a timely one, and one that could only be made now, in this day and age. It feels like it is very much set in a pre-Me Too era, and before Harvey Weinstein and Time’s Up. It’s a slightly painful movie, in that we see that all of the old practises (like bullying, sexual abuse and The Casting Couch) were were not only done, but also, blindly accepted by everyone around Jane.

The film, however, from the outset, sounds like it should be an acidic and angry take on these issues, however, the end result it much different. Don’t get me wrong, you will most likely leave the film feeling angry and disgusted, but the film itself is instead more of a slow, affecting drama, with more of a slow, methodical pace.

If the film was made by a filmmaker like, say, Spike Lee, the film would instead of had a more angry, spiteful and anarchist way of telling it’s story, and if it was told by a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, it would possibility have more room for escapism and possibly a happy ending.

Instead, The Assistant dips into more of the misery involved, showing the pain-staking misery that Jane is feeling, and the dull, monotonous work that she is doing. In fact, the ending of this movie almost has a message that if she wants to succeed in this industry, then she must have to accept these horrors, and try her best to ignore them. This is why this film would pretty much only work now – in a world where these horrors have been widely publicised, the film feels like a haunting time capsule to a time that once was, or even more haunting, how it still is in some places.

This, by extension, is also what makes the film so interesting – it has a very “show, don’t tell” approach to it’s storytelling. The director, Kitty Green doesn’t straight up tell you what is happening in the office, but instead, let’s you make up your own perceptions of what’s happening. This is important as it puts you right in Jane’s shoes, as like her, we slowly uncover the horrors in the office.

This is extended by the way in which Green deals with the movie’s villains. Jane’s boss, who is doing all the shady encounters with his employees is actually never seen – only discussed by his employees and heard screaming and shouting over the phone. This makes it all the more effective, as we are left to imagine just how scary and awful he is.

This slow, affecting drama is kept throughout the whole movie, with the exception of one particular scene. In this scene, Jane goes to complain to a manager, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen) about the sexual abuse, to which he at first acts sensitively, but as the scene progresses, almost laughs her out of the office. The scene then ends with an absolute brutal stinger from Wilcock, which not only spells out what is going on in the office, but, makes you realise the whole office is involved in an almost cult-like network that protects this sort of thing from getting out. And Green brilliantly does this all with 4 words – “you’re not his type”.

The scene is decidedly different from what we’ve seen before, and is the moment where the film really spells out what it is actually about. It is brilliantly performed by Macfayden (who you’d be fooled from the marketing is second biggest part of the film), who much like his character in Succession, gets the perfect mixture between false charm and creepy sliminess. But, ultimately this scene is absolutely crucial to the plot, as it just confirms to Jane what has been going behind closed doors.

Despite all of this, however, the film really belongs to Garner. The 26-year-old actress is finally getting a chance to show her talents in a lead role to a movie, having already appeared in the hit Netflix TV show, Ozark (of which she won an Emmy for). Appearing in almost every scene, she holds a confidence unseen by almost anyone her age. Also, Green often positions Garner in a tight close-up through a lot of the film, but she never struggles with this, and this only showcases her brilliant acting ability.

A haunting and timely portrayal of sexual abuse and workplace bullying, The Assistant is absolutely terrific. It is worth watching even it is just for seeing Garner’s acting talents, and the brilliance of Green behind the camera. You should definitely check it out, as it’s definitely one of the best films on streaming right now.

Rating: 9/10

Streaming Options: Calm with Horses Review

If you are running out of fresh, new films to watch on Netflix and Amazon Prime (and also, AppleTV+ and Disney+), then one of the other options for you is Calm with Horses, the directional debut for Nick Rowland, from a screenplay by Joseph Murtagh. The film is available from the usual streaming providers, including Google Play, Amazon and YouTube to rent and buy, from the cheapest price of £3.49.

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The film is set in dark rural Ireland, in which the young ex boxer, Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is a feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family. His devotion to the family, however, is divided; and this is made more complicated by him trying to be a good father to his autistic 5 year son, Jack, and his friendship with Jack’s mother, Ursula (Niamh Algar).

One of the most acclaimed films of the (to be fair, early) year so far, it fair to say that Calm with Horses is absolutely terrific. The film is a really emotional, hard-hitting drama that will leave you emotionally shattered by the end of it. It is also a really haunting portrait of a man who is properly torn between his personal and professional life.

That, for me, is the most successful element of this film. There have been countless dramas about a gangster caught between his criminal life and his personal life, and most of the time, they don’t do either of them successfully. There are some brilliant examples, obviously (like Goodfellas or Breaking Bad), but sometimes, it can feel like they don’t properly depict someone who is divided in his life.

One of the ways the film does this brilliantly is the supporting characters. In his personal life, he has Jack’s mother, Ursula, while on his criminal life, he has his best friend and partner in crime, Dymphna, played by Barry Keoughan. We really believe the connections that he has with both of these people, and his makes Arm’s divide even more heart-wrenching.

Also brilliant are these two supporting performances. Ursula is played by Algar, who has been an up and comer on the rise for the past few years, appearing in a variety of underrated projects, including the great television series, Pure (2019-present). While, Keoughan has been more of a mainstream actor, appearing in acclaimed movies like Dunkirk (2017), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and American Animals (2018), whilst working with iconic directors like Christopher Nolan and Yorgos Lanthimos. The two give so much depth to what could of been one-note characters, as each of them are also going through a bit of a divide, albeit in a smaller-scale way.

But, the film really belongs to Jarvis. The actor is fairly new to the scene, and was a musician prior to this, only appearing in some high-profile projects like Lady Macbeth (2016) and Peaky Blinders (2019). And, what is really accomplished is that he doesn’t feel like a new actor, he really commands the screen, and has real gravitas. He overall, gives a really heartbreaking, emotional performance which makes you like him and feel empathy for him all at once.

Other than the performances, the film is also really well shot. It has really gorgeous cinematography, and this makes the film seem very sophisticated and classy. In particular, the car chase sequences towards the end are also really well shot. Car chase sequences are often really hard to get right, as they can sometimes appear messy and noisy in their construction, but Calm with Horses gets it really right, and they never appear confusing or discombobulated.

With a plot that is quite miserable in it’s concept, the end result for the film is that it could have easily of been misery porn. However, it never feels like that, mainly because there is a small strand of black humour running through the film. This comes from the interactions that Arm and Dymphna have with various other characters, and it really works and is very effective.

Overall, Calm with Horses is really terrific. It shows us that everyone involved (from director, Rowland to stars, Jarvis, Keoghan and Algar) has a bright future ahead of them, and is just a solid, emotionally-wrenching drama that really clicks. I will definitely be looking at it during my run-down of the best films of the year.

Rating: 8.5/10

Normal People – BBC Miniseries Review

Normal People is the new show that everyone is talking about. The 12-part series has taken over from Killing Eve and Bodyguard to become the BBC’s buzziest and most hyped new show. It is based off a book of the same name by Sally Rooney, which, like the TV show, received high acclaim from critics and audiences.

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The show has become a huge success, and has broke viewing figures records. It reportedly gave BBC Three it’s best ever in it’s first week on iPlayer, receiving 16.2 million programme requests. Overall, BBC Three has received up to 21.8 million requests for the programme, and this is doubled the amount of the previous record set by the first series of Killing Eve (which was 10.8 million). So, this only shows you the far-reaching and high success of this series.

The series stars newcomers, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal as it’s two leads, and is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald. It follows two young people, Marianne Sheridan (Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Mescal), who meet in sixth form as 16-year-olds, and despite their contrasting personalities, begin a secret affair and fall in love. The series follows the couple through their university years to their undergraduate years, as they weave in and out of their romantic lives. Other central characters that recur through the series include Connell’s mother, Lorraine (Sarah Greene) and Marriane’s mother and brother, Denise (Aislin McGuckin) and Alan (Frank Blake), along with Marianne and Connell’s various friends.

It’s safe to say that this series really lives up to the hype, and is overall, really terrific, and ranks quite easily as one of the best TV shows of the year so far. The series starts off slightly slow, but grows over-time, to create some heartbreaking drama towards the end of the series.

At the beginning, we see Connell and Marianne at sixth form college, and this part is possibly a little bit disconnected from the overall narrative. It is very necessarily to the overall plot, as we understand that they have known each other since they were children, but the show starts to get really interesting when the characters enter university. This is where the characters start to deal with more grown-up challenges, and this makes for more mature and dramatically interesting drama.

From about episode 4 onwards, we see how a wonderful depiction of how people can weave in and out of people’s lives. For roughly about four to five years, the couple move away from each other, and get a series of different partners, yet they always find themselves coming back to each other. It is also a really wonderful portrayal of a person can grow and change over time, and trying to find a way to keep a relationship and romance alive while this is happening.

The ever-evolving dynamic between the two of them is also really interesting. This is especially true at the beginning, where Connell is very popular student at school, with a lot of friends, while Marianne is unpopular and bullied. However, this all changes when the pair enter university, and the dynamic flips – Connell struggles to fit in and becomes a quieter, less popular student, while Marianne flourishes, gaining popularity and beauty. However, as each other are the only ones who have seen each other in both university and school (apart from their family, obviously), we understand that they share a special bond where others do not.

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It is also lovely to see how both characters are filled with contradictions. Connell is handsome and popular, but also, quiet, shy and academically gifted, while Marianne is quiet, smart but also, rebellious and unruly all at once. This only makes both of the characters even more complex and interesting, and makes for a richer viewing experience.

One of the reasons why the show works so well is the performances by it’s two leads. They have both not appeared in many projects before – Edgar-Jones appeared in Gentlemen Jack and the 2019 adaptation of War of the Worlds, while, Mescal has appeared in a lot of stage shows – but this is the first big, leading role for the two of them.

The two are very young (21 and 24, respectively), and yet, they are both able to demand the screen very well. They are both able to handle their character’s large varying emotions, and transformations over time, and do this so well, showing that they have a maturity well beyond their years. They also really look the part – they are both good-looking, but do genuinely look like they could both be popular and unpopular at various levels of academia. It possibly needs a bit of a jump to get used to twenty-somethings portraying teenagers, but you can get used to that fairly quickly.

The series is also really wonderfully directed by Abrahamson and McDonald. The directors split the amount of episodes they direct – Abrahamson directs the first 6, while McDonald directs the last 6. Abrahamson has been a key director on the scene for the past decade – he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the acclaimed 2015 drama film, Room, and also directed the terrific 2013 comedy movie, Frank.

The real revelation, here (apart from Edgar-Jones and Mescal, obviously) is McDonald. She has always been a bit of a “director for hire” – directing many episodes of various episodes of TV shows, like Doctor Who (including, directing possibly the show’s best episode – “Blink”) and Fortitude – however, with this series, she feels like a properly accomplished and sophisticated director.

What’s really wonderful about the direction is that it never feels like a show of two halves. There is definitely a big moment at the end of episode six, which sets up the rest of the series, but, that doesn’t mean that the series ever feels disconnected or badly paced.

Also, something that is so wonderful about the series is that it simultaneously has an over-arcing narrative, while having individual, stand-alone episodes. There are many episodes that feel like singular drama pieces, especially the latter episodes – including, an episode about Connell suffering from depression; an episode about Marianne in an abusive relationship, and an episode about Marianne and Connell’s adventures in Sligo. However, the series still manages to feel like a whole piece of entertainment, and this is probably due to Abrahamson and McDonald overseeing all the episodes.

Much like all the work of Abrahamson, the series is really hard-hitting and emotional, but also weirdly hopeful and life-affirming all at once. A real asset to this is the camera work, which uses a lot of shaky cam. This adds a realistic edge to the series, and only makes all the drama feel more hard to take.

The show feels so natural and realistic that it almost doesn’t feels like you are watching a TV show. It is instead just feels like you are watch two friends together. It may be because of each episode’s short running times (ranging from 23 to 34 minutes long), but often, it does feel genuinely surprising when each episode has ended.

There are some faults with the series, and this is down to some of the supporting characters. Some of the characters feel slightly one-note and caricatured, particular Marianne’s mother and brother, as well as one of her boyfriends, Jamie (Fionn O’Shea). They are all essential to the plot, as it advises why Marianne the way she is, but they could of just been written with a little more development or depth.

With the show proving a huge success, it does seem possible that the show will get a second season (even though there is no source material left to adapt). However, I, personally think that there is no need – I like how it is a one-off, as it works with the portrayal of young love. Also, the ending that we get is absolutely gorgeous.

Overall, being the new show that everyone is talking about, Normal People actually does live up to the hype. It is a sensual, heartbreaking, yet hopeful depiction of young love that will leave you devastated. It is definitely up there as one of the best TV shows of this year, and is certainly worth a look.

Rating: 9/10

Streaming Options: The Half of It Review

It seems like over the years, Netflix had made a name for themselves as producing very likable, warm, lovely if not ground-breaking original movies. There are certain exceptions to this rule (like Roma (2018) and The Irishman (2019)), but ultimately this seems to be Netflix’s niche. That seems to be exactly what they have done with their newest original movie, The Half of It, a coming-of-age comedy-drama.

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The film centres on student, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a friendless teenager, who lives with her widowed father, and makes extra cash writing homework papers for her fellow students. Soon, popular football player, Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) asks her to write a love letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), a girl who Ellie also happens to have a crush on. As Ellie and Paul continue this, complications arrives between the three of them, and a love triangle develops.

The film is one of the better teen movies to come out recently. The film has been inevitably compared to the 2018 teen phenomenon, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, also a teen movie and also, broadcast on Netflix. The film also has some comparisons to To All the Boys in it’s sweet romance and cute humour. Also, as is always the case with teen movies, the film has been inevitably compared to the work of John Hughes. Instead of the obvious examples (like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club), however, the film feels more influenced by his 1987 underrated gem, Some Kind of Wonderful, especially in it’s love triangle-based plot. Also, both of those films are unlike a lot of teen movies in how it is more melancholic and sombre, with only small bursts of subtle humour.

What is very successful about the film is the central performance by Lewis. She is a very empathetic figure, that is able to be funny, serious and charming in equal measure. Her voice is a real asset to her performance – it is deep, booming and makes her stand out. Her appearance is also really wonderful, as she looks properly “nerdy” and that she could be an outcast from the popular crowd. In this movie, Lewis has shown that she will probably have a big future ahead of her.

Despite that, however, the other main characters, Paul Munsky and Aster Flores, respectively, could of done with a little more development. The two actors (Diemer and Lemire, respectively) are perfectly fine, but the characters just could of done with a little more definition, as they end up feeling a little like one-note stereotypes.

Apart from that, however, the film is quite cute and sweet, for the most part. The plot is familiar and has been done before, but saying that it’s got a spin this time with it’s queer twist. It is very interesting and refreshing to see a teen film that a gay subplot, especially as it is just accepted and not discriminated by the other characters.

It’s also nice to see a film with an Asian woman as a lead in a Netflix Original. The subplot of seeing her Asian father not being able to speak proper English, and tries to understand language through watching many American movies (like His Girl Friday and Casablanca) is really quite lovely, and adds a realistic edge to the film.

There is also a particular visual style that Alice Wu brings to the film. This includes how after some scenes, we see a famous quote that somehow relates to the situation. Also, the film is shot very symmetrically, and in someways, has echoes of a Wes Anderson film. This visual style adds a fun and quirky edge to the movie, and makes it stand out from the usual teen romantic comedies.

Other than that, I really loved the film’s melancholic edge, and how it steered away from the regular joke-heavy teen movies. When the film tries to include more humour (around the end of the film), the end result is that it starts to feel a little out of place, and possibly a little unnecessary. However, for the most part, this makes The Half of It stick out from the crowded genre of teen coming-of-age movies.

Overall, The Half of It is a really entertaining and lighthearted coming of age movie. The film may not reinvent the wheel or anything, and doesn’t feel like a revival of the genre that some folks may think it will be. But, if you are looking for a sweet, cute and fun diversion, The Half of It is definitely worth a watch.

Rating: 7/10

How Buffy’s Hush became a iconic episode of television

Buffy the Vampire Slayer will always be remembered as one of the most iconic cult television series of all time. The series debuted just before the Golden Age of Television began in the turn of the 21st century, and influenced an endless number of other TV shows. Today, we never would of had the 2000s reboot of Doctor Who, Spaced, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and numerous others without the magic of the fantasy horror television series.

The series was Joss Whedon’s brainchild, with the central premise of subverting and skewering horror cliches. Mainly focusing on Buffy Summers, a teenage girl, who also happens to be a vampire slayer by night, and her various attempts to save her town, Sunnydale from monsters and the like. Joining her are her friends, Xander and Willow, Xander’s girlfriend, Anya and her mentor/ father figure, Giles. The series began in 1997, and ran for three brilliant, well-crafted and popular seasons. However, it was the fourth season’s episode, “Hush” (episode 10) that took Buffy to another level.

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At this point in the story, all of the characters were dealing with more grown-up and adult challenges, detailing the characters’ journey in college and beyond. Buffy has a flirtation with a college tutor, Riley, who unknown to her, is actually a member of The Initiative, a secret government-orientated team that also protects Sunnydale from demons. Meanwhile, Willow and her boyfriend, Oz have just broken up, and Anya and Xander have started a relationship, however, Xander struggles with Anya’s blunt honesty. In this episode, some mysterious demons, called The Gentlemen, come roaming into town. They steal the voices of everyone in town (including our main characters) in order to achieve their ultimate goal – to collect 7 human hearts.

Hush was Whedon’s attempt at doing something very different with Buffy. The show, much like all of Whedon’s work, had been largely praised for it’s particular style of dialogue – called “Buffy-speak” – containing a variety of witty one-liners, pop culture references and fast-paced banter. In Hush, however, Whedon completely removed that element (at this point, probably the most iconic moment from the show) in an extremely daring and risky experiment.

At this point, Whedon most probably felt very fulfilled as a screenwriter, writing some of the best dialogue on television. However, he still wasn’t fulfilled as a director. The terrific maverick originated from a family of writers and screenwriters, and he originally started off his career as a script doctor for a variety of television projects and movies. There was a worry for him, however, in the fourth season of his television series, that he was becoming, what he called a “hack”, and not pushing himself him creatively.

And, with this new experiment, he was able to focus solely on visual storytelling. He was able to focus on directing, cinematography, sound and music. From the time that voices are stolen, the camerawork is very different, and a lot more ambitious than any other episode of the show. There is a brilliant moment where the camera goes from a wide shot to a close up in one long pan, and this is one of the many innovative camera shots from the episode.

And, then, The Gentlemen arrive. In possibly the most iconic scene from the episode, we are introduced to The Gentlemen, who levitate through town, hunting for their first victim. Again, there, the camera uses these a lot of gliding panning shots, and point of view shots that makes for really quite terrifying viewing. Also, the score by Christophe Beck is particularly scary and tense, and the prosthetic design of The Gentlemen are very grotesque.

Up until this point, Buffy hadn’t really delivered on the horror part of the series. Although, it was often called an horror series, it took more of a subversive, postmodern and often, very funny take on the genre, but up until Hush, it hadn’t been that properly scary. But this scene, felt like something from a proper, old-fashioned horror film, like something out of Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

But, what makes Hush so special is that, despite it’s experimental nature, it still feels quintessentially Buffy. The whole concept of The Gentlemen as villains are very much in keeping with the concept of Buffy, in how they are masculine figures who are trying to fighting against our female protagonist. In fact, the whole concept of these figures taking everyone’s voices without their permission almost feels like an analogy for sexual assault – The Gentlemen takes everyone’s most important weapon (their literal voice), and it heavily affects them.

Also, this experimental plot is still very important to the overall plot. Here, the idea of people’s voices taking is all an commentary on the importance on communication. Throughout the episode, Buffy and Riley are struggling to communicate properly because of they just keep talking (but with no real meaning behind it) when they are around each other. However, when talking is taken away (involuntary), they are forced to face their feelings for each other, and finally kiss. This is also shown through the supporting characters. In the episode, Xander is struggling to communicate with Anya, and tell her exactly how he feels about her. However, when all the voices are taken away, he is finally able to show her his love for her when he “saves” her from Spike, and kisses her.

At the same time, Hush is an absolutely brilliant episode of the show – it is witty, funny, experimental, strange and properly scary, but for many reasons, it is also an absolutely iconic episode of television. One of the reasons for this is it’s experimental nature. Buffy and The X Files, both airing at the same time, were famous for does something weird and against the usual norm.

In later seasons, Buffy would carry this on – producing the musical comedy, “Once More with Feeling” (Season 6, Episode 7) and the hard-hitting existential drama, “The Body” (Season 5, Episode 16), but Hush was the one that set the ball rolling. It has now become a little old hat for a TV Show to do something experimental, and against the norm – one of the most recent successful examples includes the “ronny/lily” episode of Barry – and this wouldn’t of happened if it wasn’t for Buffy’s Hush.

But also, the reason why this episode has become so iconic is because it feels properly cinematic. Before the Golden Age of Television began, “television” almost felt like a dirty word – it went to describing something that felt a little bit insubstantial or unsophisticated. But, here, with Hush, Whedon created an episode of television that was properly cinematic. It’s concept felt like something for an old silent horror movie, while it’s cinematography and camera work felt like something for a proper movie, and something for the screen.

This set the ball rolling for many TV shows to centre around having brilliant, ground-breaking cinematography and ambitious plotting. It influence is as far-reaching as the 2010s, where we wouldn’t of had TV shows like Hannibal, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Fargo and numerous others, without it.

Overall, there are many reasons why Buffy is such an iconic show, for example, without it, we wouldn’t of had a musical trend on television, a witty and popular culture-savvy way of dialogue, an re-emphasis on vampire in horror fiction, and genre fiction channelling big, weighty themes, including feminism and death. However, Hush is properly the most iconic and legendary episode of the show, ever. Like series writer, Jane Espensen has stated about the episode – it “redefined what an episode of television could do”, and television owes a hell of a lot to this one episode.

Dead to Me Season 2 Review

One of the most surprisingly successful Netflix originals from last year was Dead to Me, a pitch-black comedy drama, created by Liz Feldman. Now over a year after it’s debut, the hit show returns for a second season. The show features the lead starring duo of Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, along with a supporting cast including James Marsden, Max Jenkins and Suzy Nakamura.

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The general premise of the first season was that it centred on Jen Harding (Applegate), a suburban “soccer mom”, who is struggling to deal with the sudden death of her husband, Ted, after he is killed in a hit and run by an unknown driver. She is now attempting to look after her two sons, the 17-year-old, Charlie (Sam McCarthy) and 11-year-old, Henry (Luke Roessler) without their father, while attempting to track down his killer.

Soon, Judy Hale (Cardellini) enters the picture, after she and Jen meet at a grief counselling session (Judy is grief for her miscarried baby). Despite their contrasting personalities and lifestyles, the two form a close bond, however, it is complicated over the fact that Judy and Steve are in fact responsible for Ted’s death. When Jen finds out, she angrily banishes Judy from her life. However, that season ends on a cliffhanger, in which Judy discovers that, presumably after a shuffle, Jen has killed Steve.

This time, season 2 mainly centres on Jen and Judy attempting to cover up Steve’s death. While Judy struggles with guilt over losing Steve, Jen covers up a deep and dark secret from the night of his death. This is pretty a repeat of the premise from the first season, but this time with the roles reversed – this time, Jen is the one who hiding a dark secret from Judy, and one that could wreck their friendship. This role reversal premise is a simple one, but an effective one, and works really well for this mostly successful second season.

The real draw of this show has been the relationship between the two leads and the lead performances of Applegate and Cardellini. Both of them are great character actors, having appeared in a number of roles, both big and small in a variety of projects, both in film and television. Applegate has a comedic force in many films and TV shows, most famously appearing the Anchorman films, but also in Bad Moms, Married… with Children and Samantha Who?. While, Cardellini has been a figure in the industry for the past 20 years, first appearing as the lead in the cult classic, Freaks and Geeks, and then going on to appear in many TV shows, including Mad Men, ER, and Bloodline, as well as have supporting turns in some big films, including Green Book, the Scooby-doo films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Both parts are played to perfection by both actresses, and they are very good at playing their respective stereotypes – Jen as the brutish, tough one, and Judy as the more sweet, caring and down-to-earth one. The show’s also a great vehicle for both actresses to show their range, as Applegate (an often comedic actress) gets to play a more meaty, dramatic role, while Cardellini (an mainly dramatic actress) gets a chance to play with both comedy and drama. Also, this season, it does genuinely feel like the two are very equal in their development and screen-time. Last season, it felt more of Applegate’s show (she was the only one to get nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe), but this time, it feels like she and Cardellini are very much sharing the stage, which is probably down to this new twist of how they have both now lost someone in their lives.

The relationship between the two of them is also really quite fascinating, and one of the most rich and complexly written on television. The two simultaneously need each other, and are bad for each other all at once. They have negative impacts on each lives, including how both have lost someone they love due to the other, and how they wouldn’t be in many of their predicaments (including trouble with the police) if it wasn’t for their friendship. However, at the same, they make each other better – through their friendship, Judy becomes more tough and willing to love herself, and not put up with the emotional abuse from her fiance and mother, while, Jen becomes a nicer and more caring figure, wanting to be a better mother figure to her children. This all creates a tension between the pair that is simultaneously caring and loving, but also, stand-offish and tense all at once, and this makes for fascinating viewing.

The pair are also very interesting for their contrasting personalities and lifestyles, and they make a very interesting odd couple-type pairing. Also, the different ways the two cope with grief are also very interesting – Jen, on one hand, stays heavily guarded, and copes with anger and violence, while, Judy, gets very emotional, and looks towards a more spiritual side of life. Feldman has stated that she wrote the series as a commentary on grief, and was influenced by how, she, herself has handled with grief through dark humour and laughter in her life. And, through Jen and Judy, Feldman explores how deep, dark, but also unexpected and weird grief can be.

Another great asset to the series is the show’s writing. The writing does very much hinge on campy and ridiculous, and does feel very influenced by soap operas, or soap opera-like shows, like Desperate Housewives and Big Little Lies. It feels like every episode there is a fresh and newfangled twist, that are always very thrilling and exciting, even if sometimes, it can verge on ridiculous.

It does feels that Feldman and her writing team have smoothed some of the edges of the first season. The first season felt a little rough, and sometimes it felt like it was going to collapse in on itself at any moment, and be a victim of it’s large amount of twists and ridiculousness. This season, due to focusing more on the emotional depth of Judy and Jen’s relationship, as well as the great performances by Cardellini and Applegate, feels a lot smoother and well-rounded than the first season.

Despite this, however, sometimes, towards the end, the writing verges on desperate. There is a large amount of cliffhangers in the last episode that feel a little desperate to cling onto the momentum that they have managed to hold for two seasons. I do wonder with the sheer number of twists, and crazy plotting whether they will be able to sustain this show for much longer. A third season would be welcome, but they should possibly end it there, or at most in the fourth season.

This season also has a lot of new subplots that are very welcome. In this season, we see the return of Marsden, but this time as Steve’s twin, Ben (I told you about the soap opera writing), who starts a relationship with Jen. Another welcome addition is Natalie Morales as Michelle, someone’s whose mother is admitted to the nursing home where Judy works. She then begins a relationship with Judy in a very sweet and interesting subplot.

Overall, this season was a really pleasant continuation of the first season. Through Applegate and Cardellini’s brilliant performances, and the show’s bizarre yet unexpected writing, Netflix has delivered with another great original series. Bring on season 3, which will hopefully be out by next year.

Rating: 8.5/10

Horror Tuesday: Audition (1999) Review

For this week’s Horror Tuesday, I decided to review the 1999 horror film, Audition. The film, directed by Takashi Miike, is often counted as one of the best J-horror films of all time. Despite it’s fairly modern release (only 21 years old), the film has become one of the most iconic horror films ever made, becoming an influence on various film-makers, like Eli Roth and the Soska sisters.

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The film follows widower, Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), whose son suggests that he should find a new wife. Aoyama agrees, and with help of a friend, begins a series of auditions to find a new suitor. After interviewing several women, Aoyama becomes interested in Asami (Eihi Shiina), and the two begin to date. However, as film unravels, it is revealed that Asami is very much not as she seems.

In fact, calling this film a horror film is a little bit of a spoiler about the film, as it does not start of life as a horror film. At first, the film almost feels like a romantic comedy, or romantic drama, and doesn’t even have a hint of horror in it. It almost feels like a remake, or reboot of Sleepless in Seattle in which our lead character is a widower who is looking for new love.

And, what is so brilliant about the film, is that slowly, over-time, the film changes. Around the time that Asami is introduced, the film gains a new tone, and one that is sinister and irksome. This suspense builds and builds, and only gets more and more scary.

This change is a slow one, but one scene where the film really starts to show it’s hand is in the infamous “bag scene”. This sequence comes in about half way through the film, and begins the real horror of the film. This occurs when Aoyama goes to ring Asami to check up on her, and here, she is very different to her previous demeanour. Here, she is sitting on the floor, in a white shirt and staring at the floor, waiting for the phone to ring. This one shot completely contrasted everything we’ve seen before, and is a huge shock for the audience.

And then, suddenly, after Asami and Aoyama end their phone call, the bag still positioned in the background, moves around all of a sudden, revealing there is a person inside. This makes us simultaneously understand that Asami is a crazed maniac, but also makes us wonder what exactly is going on with her. Also, from the brilliant direction and sound in this scene, it is a perfect example of a beautifully crafted and executed jump scare, and should be looked at by every young film-maker wanting to work in the horror genre.

After this, the film truly turns into a horror film, all of which leads up the horrific ending. Speaking of the ending, this film is a fantastic example of a film, of which the whole point is the build up to the last 15 minutes. This is not done that much in horror films – possibly because if takes a lot of confidence to create a film that is slow for a lot of it’s run-time, but has an explosive ending. There are a few fantastic horror films that have done this in the past, including A Quiet Place (2018), Halloween (1978), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Audition could rank up there with all of these classics.

This ending, which I won’t spoil, is utterly horrific, disgusting and disturbing, and possibly one of the grossest sequences I’ve seen committed to film. This is the sequence where you could argue that the film goes to into the extreme gore genre of film, and you can tell the film’s influence on Roth and the Soska sisters. However, what this film gets right, where many other films have failed, is all in the build-up. Miike understands that if gore is going to have any effect on the audience, then it must be done sparsely. Otherwise, the film’s gore will not have any meaning, or effect on the audience, and they will just be fatigued by the film. Therefore, in Audition, when the gore begins, we are completely disgusted and horrified at what we are seeing.

What also makes the films so worthwhile is the characters and performances. Asami is an utterly iconic female character in horror cinema (as is her ending costume of the leather apron with leather gloves), and Eihi Shiina plays her to perfection. What’s really interesting about her is that she is filled with contractions – she is shy, timid, pretty, and sweet but also, scary, terrifying and dangerous. Also, a great trick that Miike pulls when he shoots Asami is that at the beginning, he never shoots her in a close up and always in a long shot. This brilliantly gives the impression that even the camera and the film-maker are utterly terrified of her, and rightfully so. Aoyama is also such a real foil to Asami. He makes a truly sympathetic leading character, and we feel bad for him and how he lost his wife, so when horrible things start to happen to him, the audience really feel it.

In conclusion, Audition is not for everyone (especially those who are not fans of extreme gore), but for those looking for a really well-crafted horror film, then this is definitely one to watch. It’s the type of film that should be watched in film school for filmmakers wanting to work in horror genre, as it expertly crafted and brilliantly made. And, to boot, it is absolutely fricking terrifying.

Rating: 9/10

8 Things Every Filmmaker can learn from Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.

Everything you have heard about Parasite is true! The film was the latest from legendary South Korean filmmaker, Bong Joon-ho, and took the world by storm earlier this year. Amongst much critical and audience acclaim and box office success, the film made history by becoming the first foreign language film to win Best Picture, and also won 3 other Oscars, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. The film has all the markings of a modern classic all over it, and is a real masterpiece of cinema. Here, I will take you through 8 things that every filmmaker can learn from the film.

(The following has big spoilers about the film. So, if you haven’t seen it, watch it immediately)

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Make sure that if you do a twist halfway through, that before and after the twist are both interesting

Much has written about the fact that Parasite is a film of two halves. In fact the film is almost two separate, completely different films in one. Joon-ho has stated that he started off the script as a film all about a family, that all con and cheat their way into getting jobs into a luxurious, upper class house. However, it wasn’t until later in which Joon-ho came up with the second half, which almost feels like it comes from a different film. Normally, among critic’s circles, this is often used a criticism for certain films (“the end didn’t make sense, and felt like it was from a completely different film”), but with Parasite, the result is most definitely, not uneven.

One of the reasons for this is because both halves (or both of these two separate films) are both, in a standalone way, great films. Certain films that try to be two different films blended into one can fail for one of two reasons. Firstly, their opening can be too slow, boring or just plainly, too ordinary, because the filmmakers know that they have a big twist coming up that will grab the audience’s attention. The result of this is that the film will most likely lose it’s tension as the audience will have guessed that there is a twist coming up (even if they haven’t guessed the twist itself).

Secondly, the second half will not be as good. We have all watched numerous films, where we all say “it started of great, but lost it’s way towards the end”. However, what Parasite does so brilliantly is that it’s, well, brilliant, for all of it’s run-time. The second half is just as good – maybe even better – than the first, and tops everything that we’re just seen. The biggest compliment about Parasite is that it ranks up there with Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, Psycho for both being films that are completely successful in pulling this feat off, where numerous films have failed.

But you can still have your big moment where you reveal the twist

Parasite is not the first film to pull off this feat, in fact, there are many films that turns into a completely different film halfway through. If you look at the films of Jordan Peele and Edgar Wright, like Get Out (2017) or Hot Fuzz (2007), both of these films are genre-blending rides that starts off life in one genre, and by the end, feels like you are watching a complete different film. However, with both of these films, it is gradual change that happens slowly over the course of the run-time. And that is also the truth with Parasite. However, what is so revolutionary about Parasite is that, while doing this, it still has the big “Oh My God” moment, where we Joon-ho makes us realise that the film is changing in front of our eyes.

The moment in question comes when Moon-gwang arrives at the Park house, and descends into the secret basement under the house. Here, it is revealed that she has been hiding her husband there for 4 years, which leads into the second half of the film. In a brilliant panning shot as the camera goes through the dirty and grubby walls of the basement (in contrast to the posh and beautiful ways of actual house), Joon-ho is directly telling us that we are going to embark on a different film, and one that is a lot darker and stranger.

How to deal with Exposition

Parasite is a masterpiece of many things, but one thing, that it is particularly a masterclass in, is screenwriting. One of it’s real feats of it’s script is how it deals with exposition. Joon-ho and his writing partner, Han Jin-won deal are really great at being quite flippant with exposition, and not labouring over it, and just trusting that the audience will understand and take in this information.

Think about the famous “Jessica. Only Child. Chicago. Illinois.” song that Ki-woo (“Kevin”) and Ki-jung (“Jessica”) sing to each other, just before Jessica goes for an interview in the Park household. The song they’ve used is an mnemonic device, that allows them to remember a lot of information in memorable way. This is a condensed way telling the audience that the two of them have been arranging a backstory for Ki-jung, and have been doing it for a while.

Not does the script deal with exposition well, but it makes it straight-up entertaining. Much has been discussed about the already iconic peach scene, and this is a perfect capsule of this. The scene is a jab-packed montage, that is chock full of information that moves the plot along. Not only does this montage get through a lot of information quickly and efficiently, but does it in a punchy, pacey, fun, and most importantly, entertaining way.

Always give a reason to like every character

Another wonderful part about Parasite’s script is that EVERY lead character is somewhat unlikable and likable all at once. They are all simultaneously hard to root for and easy to root for at the same time. If you think about it, there are no real villains in the film – every character is simultaneously a hero and a villain.

The central family – Ki-taek, Chung-sook, Ki-woo, Ki-jung – are people who we all root for at first. They are down on their luck, they are all unemployed, and all they really have are each other. But, what is very sympathetic about them is that they do actually deserve more – they are all very smart, crafty and intelligent, and in Ki-jung’s case, supremely talented. Even, when they gets their jobs in morally dubious ways (like lying about their job experience, and getting two people fired), we still align ourselves with them, not because they are getting jobs they want, but getting jobs that they deserve.

Not only this, but all the secondary characters apply to this. The rich Park family, Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo do nothing actually wrong during the film – unlike, the Kims, they don’t con or lie their way into getting things – but they are still very privileged and entitled. Moon-gwang and Geun-sae are also complex – yes, Moon-gwang uses her bosses’s house to hide her husband, but his life was also in danger from threatening gangsters.

The reason why Parasite is so good is because all the characters are so complex, rich and beautifully drawn. We are given a reason to like and dislike about every character, and this just makes Parasite all the more richer, deeper cinematic experience.

But, still remember, to keep your storytelling visual

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For all of the smart writing, and twists and turns that the movie offers us, what’s wonderful about Parasite is that it’s still a very visual movie. The film may be a marvel of screenwriting, but it is also a marvel of direction and cinematography. There are so much memorable and vivid images that stick out to the viewer long after the film has ended.

Think about the shot of Ki-jung holding a peach and blowing on it; or the long, panning shot of Chung-sook discovering the secret basement; or the shot of Geun-sae looking up the stairs, and scaring Da-song, or the slow-motion shots in the peach montage. With a mixture of the direction by Joon-ho and cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo, Parasite tells a lot of it’s story in a very visually striking way.

Writer-director, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) once said that if you want to watch some of your favourite movies in the right way, then you should watch them with the sound off, and then you will understand visual story-telling. This is something that could definitely be said of Parasite, and this could ultimately be the reason why the film has received such broad, international appeal.

Don’t be afraid to give your audience a break now and then.

For the majority of it’s run-time, Parasite is so weird, strange, and brilliant, that’s it’s almost hard to take. From about the peach scene to the aftermath of the twist, the film almost plays out like an assault – so much happens, the plot is so complicated and the film is trying to do so much, that it could be quite hard for the viewer to take everything in. But, then Bong Joon-ho takes a break.

If someone was going to ask me when exactly I realised how brilliant Parasite was, I would say the flood scene. This scene takes place after the Kims have escapes the Park household, and they discover that their home, and all of the neighbourhood surrounding it, are destroyed by a devastating flood. This sequence is of a different pace of the rest of the film – it is quite slow, melancholic and very emotional.

In this sequence, that is still essential and necessary to the overall plot, it gives the audience a break, and ultimately a chance for them to take it all in. Joon-ho does this throughout the rest of the film – at the beginning, it starts off as quite slow, and quietly builds the tension, and at the end, after the big climax of the movie, the film gives us a quiet epilogue that cools down the audience after a really tense climax.

This is an effect that shows us that Joon-ho has really got his finger on the pulse of what his audience must be feeling, and this is a very important thing for every filmmaker to remember when making a film.

Have ambition

With Parasite, Bong Joon-ho has attempted to do so much with one movie. The film is attempting to do so many genres, from drama, comedy, thriller, black comedy, horror, crime drama, heist film, ghost story, social satire, family drama, and so many more. The film is also about so many things – all at once it is a story of the upstairs/downstairs, poor/rich divide; young people trying to make a life for themselves; a father feeling like he is not providing enough for his family; a son dealing with trauma, and the effect it has on his family, amongst so much more.

Yes, Joon-ho has always been an ambitious filmmaker. His last film before Parasite, Okja was a satire about animal cruelty and corporate greed that was oddly funny, experimental and very strange. Before that, he was often trying to do one genre, and skewer and subvert it slightly, like the monster movie (The Host), the police procedural (Memories of Murder) and the science fiction action movie (Snowpiercer).

Something that is often said by film critics, is that they would prefer for a film to aim for the stars and fail, than a film being mediocre in it’s ambition and execution. And, this is exactly the case with Joon-ho’s films – sometimes the results are uneven (like Okja), and sometimes, the results are utterly heavenly (like Parasite), but we’re always got to admire his huge balls and ambition.

But, remember – you can achieve so much with so little

Think about all the things that Parasite has achieved – it became the highest-grossing South Korean film of all time; it has received universal acclaim from film critics, including an almost-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes; it became the highest-rated film on the film reviewing social media site, Letterboxd; it won the most awards in this year’s Oscar ceremony, and became the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar.

And, really when you think about it – it has pretty much come from nothing. The film cost the equivalent of 11 million to make (in comparison to Joon-ho’s last film, Okja, which had a whooping budget of 50 million), and it’s not really that much of an extravagant production. In fact for the most part, the film almost plays out like stage play – it has 8 main characters (along with 4 other named characters), and is pretty much just set in 2 locations.

It’s also just a random foreign language film from a random country (South Korea), and then the film, went on to do so well critically and commercially. This film, along with another one of my favourite films from last year, Knives Out, is a living example that all you need to make your film a success, is for it to be of absolute brilliant quality. It should also be a shining example of how, any filmmaker, from any country and working in any genre, can achieve so much if they are really talented.

The film should be taught in film school, as it is an achievement in everything – film-making, screenwriting, production design, cinematography, acting, etc. It is a film that should be looked at for inspiration for any aspiring filmmaker, or any screenwriter, or any-one wanting to work in film industry or, hell, any working in a creative field in general.

Why it’s a good thing that the future of Star Wars is television

If you haven’t heard, The Mandalorian ended it’s first season last week (if time still has any meaning to you anymore). And, with the series proving a huge success, receiving critical acclaim and big ratings, the series feels like a hugely successful revival to franchise. Now, with the franchise announcing a load of new TV shows in production, it seems like the future of Star Wars is television. And I’m here to tell you why that’s a good thing.

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From around 2014/2015, LucasFilm has been trying really hard to revive Star Wars as a franchise. It had been 9 years since the last Star Wars film, where the prequel trilogy ended with Revenge of the Sith. And, although, the prequel trilogy most definitely has it’s fans, the films are often cited as huge disappointments. So when fans found out a new trilogy would be happening, they were apprehensive. However, with the return of original trilogy actors (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and co.) and a load of talent behind the camera (JJ Abrams as director, Kathleen Kennedy as producer and Lawrence Kasdan as writer), it seemed like fans might of started to come around to the prospect of a new trilogy.

And then, The Force Awakens happened. It was one of those movies that gained a huge amount of hype and buzz, not seen like by any film before – except maybe, well, The Phantom Menace. And, for the most part, The Force Awakens was a huge success – critics and fans were all very positive and called it the best Star Wars film in 35 years (since The Empire Strikes Back). After a lot of uncertainty about this franchise, it seems like finally the franchise was back in safe, reliant hands.

This new-found success pretty much continued for the next year. Star Wars released the spin-off, Rogue One, taking place in the same universe, but still completely unconnected to the current trilogy. And, although the film is not without it’s naysayers, the film was also pretty much a big success with critics and audiences. This soon gave LucasFilm and Kennedy the confidence to do a variety of Anthology films, a prospect that could continue long beyond this trilogy ends. Everything was looking rosey for Star Wars, and every-one couldn’t wait to see where the franchise went.

But, then, The Last Jedi happened. Now, before you jump down my throat, I, myself, am a huge fan of the film, but saying that it was hugely divisive amongst fans would be an understatement. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, someone who has made a name for himself by subverting and playing with genre and form, the film did not come across a normal, paint-by-numbers Star Wars film, but rather a film that subverted Star Wars tropes, and by extension, space opera tropes in general.

Fans were very divisive about this, questioning what the real point of this was, and complaining about Johnson effectively abandoning a lot of plot points that Abrams and co set up in Force Awakens, including Rey’s heritage and the significance of Snoke’s character. The film was an experiment, and as much as I am a big fan of the film, it was a big diversion from the story they were telling in Force Awakens. But what did the studio expect from Johnson? He was obviously not going to do the thing that we expected. And not only that, the studio let him. If this was the MCU (the Marvel Cinematic Universe), they would of made sure that a filmmaker feels like he or she has the freedom they deserve, whilst telling an story related to the overall story.

In one movie, it looked like the franchise was in not so safe hands (and just to clarify, I mean the studio and Kennedy as producer, not Johnson). Not only that, but there many things going around the franchise that caused behind-the-scene trouble – including Carrie Fisher’s untimely death and the departures of many directors from numerous different projects, including Josh Trank (from an untitled spin-off), Colin Trevorrow (from Episode 9) and Chris Lord and Phil Miller (from the forthcoming spin-off, Solo).

This only got worse with the release of Solo. The film had a odd production, in which half of it was filmed by Lord and Miller, and the rest of it was finished by Ron Howard. The end result was fine, but just fine, and lacking in any of the same magic of the previous 3 movies. And, not to mention, because with the film’s lukewarm reviews, behind the scenes trouble, and short time between releases (only 5 months), the film was not a success, and the only film from the franchise to become a box office failure.

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This was also very true of The Rise of Skywalker. Now with Fisher gone (who was apparently meant to have a big role in the film), and with Trevarrow now left and Abrams stepping back in, the film underwent a lot of changes and a script re-write. Again, like Solo, the film itself was fine, but just fine. And it felt disappointing that this was the fate that befell the conclusion of a trilogy that showed so much promise with it’s first two movies.

However, since then, the franchise has truly bounced back with the release of The Mandalorian, a TV series that was broadcast on DisneyPlus. Scoring high on both IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, the series has been received very well by fans and critics. It has also scored huge ratings, and has been cited as one of the reasons for DisneyPlus’s huge success.

One of the reasons for this could be because, television is just the right home for Star Wars. One of the great things about television on the whole as a medium is that you can experiment. Just look at various episodes of your favourite shows (say for example: Buffy or The X Files), and the wonderful thing about them is that now and then, they can go against the norm and do something different than the normal narrative.

And that’s just what Star Wars needs. Johnson is a filmmaker who makes strange, experimental movies, and there is a case that his style of film-making didn’t fit in with a big Star Wars trilogy. It possibly would of been better if he had been given a episode of The Mandalorian or any episode of any of the upcoming Star Wars TV shows to write-direct, and this wouldn’t of interrupted the story that the trilogy was telling.

There is also a big possibility that the prospect of doing a trilogy of big, epic movies is a slightly outdated concept. The concept of it back in 2014 was very exciting, as it gave us memories of the trilogies of 70s-80s (with the original trilogy) and 00s (with the prequel trilogy), and even more exciting when Force Awakens came out and was great. However, in this day and age when the MCU is the biggest franchise of the moment, and has a very different take to storytelling (telling a huge story but very slowly in small parts over 23 movies and 11 years), it seems like the idea of a big trilogy of hugely typed movies is something of the past.

Yes, that is why the Star Wars Anthology movies would of been a good idea, as they could be separate, stand-alone entities without going into a overall story. However, with the movie industry the way it is, it just wouldn’t of worked. As shown with Solo, if the experiment fails badly, and the film becomes a flop, it would be hard to get any distributor interested in future Anthology films. However, if an experimental episode of television doesn’t work and flops, it would be nothing – a blip on the radar that isn’t really talked about. Take The Mandalorian, for example – most of the episodes are absolutely brilliant, but now and then, we have the odd average episode (“The Gunslinger”, for example). However, because most of the show is fantastic, no-one really talks about it, or really cares.

And, this is something that could pretty much only happen now. Television has changed so much since 1977, and in the past 43 years, we have a much higher quality of writing and cinematography and a bigger budget for visual effects. Now, certain television shows really rival anything seen on film. So, maybe, this is the perfect time for Star Wars to become television orientated.

Over the next few years, we have season 2 of The Mandalorian coming out in October (and a third season in post-production), and two other TV shows in post-production involving Obi-wan Kenobi and Rogue One’s Cassian Andor, respectively, as well as another untitled female-led series. It seems safe to say that the future of Star Wars is on television, and that is most definitely a good thing.

Streaming Options: Why Don’t You Just Die! Review

One of the weirdest and funny movies to come to streaming services recently is Why Don’t You Just Die. The Russian black comedy-drama is the feature film debut of Russian writer-director, Kirill Sokolov, who had previously made 4 short films. The film also stars several Russian stars, including Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Vitaliy Khaev, Evgeniya Kregzhde, Mikhail Gorevoy and Elena Shevchenko.

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The film at first follows a young man, Matvey (Kuznetsov), who arrives at an apartment with only a hammer, and has a physical fight with an older man, Andrey (Khaev). It is soon revealed that Matvey is actually the boyfriend of Andrey’s daughter, Olya (Kregzhde), and Olya sent Matvey to kill Andrey because apparently, Andrey abused Olya when she was a child. Meanwhile, Andrey, who is a police detective, is having issues with his partner and best friend, Yevgenich (Gorevoy), who wants revenge on Andrey. This leads to a dramatic conclusion which leads to Matvey, Olya and Yevgenich going to the same apartment, all to get revenge on Andrey.

This film is a really exhilarating and funny black comedy, that will make laugh and squirm with equal measure. The film, being a first feature for a director, sometimes feels like an eager kid attempting to show his chops as a director, but saying that, it is still quite entertaining. It is also a film where you can plainly see it’s influences bouncing off the screen, from Edgar Wright, Sam Raimi, Wes Anderson and shades of early Tarantino.

The film is especially influenced by Wright and Raimi in it’s use of camerawork. The camera often uses a swooping and always moving technique that feels very influenced by both Wright and Raimi. There are many parts of the film, in which the camera oddly emphasises certain things, like a turn of the doorknob and someone looking through a peephole, that feels like a quintessential Edgar Wright move.

The film also feels very influenced by Wes Anderson by how Sokolov often frames a shot very squarely and symmetrically. There is also something to be said for the bright use of colours in the movie. The film has uses a lot of bright reds, greens, blues and pinks that feels so vibrant, and just adds to the blackly funny, strange feeling of the movie.

The film also has some wonderful asides, and funny sub plots that make the film very unique. This includes how after Matvey comes back from the dead after being called dead from suffocation, we see how in his youth, he did the exact same thing. Also, when Matvey is attempting to be released from handcuffs, we see, in an almost exercise video-type voice-over, how to and how not to get out of the handcuffs. These unique and strange asides feel almost sitcom-like in their format, and this makes the film very auteur-ist and original.

Other than the style, the film’s plot feels very Tarantino. The film has a very Reservoir Dogs (1992) like format, in which we see the film mainly takes place in one location (Andrey’s apartment), and the film explores the events which got all the characters to this certain location. Also, the film has a fragmented narrative, where it is split into 3 parts, and we see each many from the perspective of each main character (Matvey, Mikhail, and then, Olya).

This is possibly one of the weakest elements of the film, as this non-linear narrative feels slightly unnecessary. When the film goes to a new part of the film, it slightly takes the momentum and pace away from the film. I think, it would of just worked a lot better if they had abandoned this narrative, and just stuck to the blood, guts and gore.

The film can sometimes be really quite bizarre, and just plain surreal in some places. The film is great at dealing with death sequences, in particular, there is a scene where one character has a gruesome, bloody death, then gets up, gives a big speech, and then falls to the floor, dead. Also, our lead character (Matvey) gets beaten, abused and hit all the way through the movie (and effectively dies twice), and this is just excepted at normal. The way in which the film deals with all it’s blood and gore is quite surreal, and ultimately, quite slapstick-y, and this has been plainly influenced by Raimi.

The film is also, performed really well. Everyone’s plays their stereotype very efficiently – Kuznetsov as the put-upon boyfriend; Khaev as the brutish and macho father, and Kregzhde as the young and unsure daughter. Kuznetsov is particularly impressive, as he is a mainly reactive figure, and all he mainly does is react to those around him. Another special mention goes to Shevchenko, who plays Andrey’s put-upon wife (and Olya’s mother).

With all of these influences, the film could possibly read as a rip-off, but, what’s weird about the film is that it ends up feeling oddly original, because of the cheer amount of contrasting influences. The film is so weird, strange and auteurist, and definitely deserves a look. I’m sure you will find it entertaining.

Rating: 7.5/10

From Clue to Gosford Park: What are the films that influenced Rian Johnson’s Knives Out?

Knives Out was one of the best and most critically acclaimed films of last year, and became a surprise box office success (scoring 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and grossing $311.5 million on a $40 million budget). It was my favourite film of last year, and for me, it ranks amongst Parasite and Booksmart as the few films from last year that I will most likely continue to re-watch over the years.

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The film is directed by Rian Johnson, who has made a name from himself over the years by producing postmodern, quirky, and subversive films that skewer and take apart a chosen genre. He has already done the film noir (with 2005’s Brick), the con man film (with 2008’s The Brothers Bloom), the time travel movie (with 2012’s Looper), the epic space opera film (with 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and with Knives Out, he takes on the old-fashioned big ensemble whodunit murder mystery. One of the real joys of the film, much in the same vein as the films of Edgar Wright, Johnson has a huge watching list chock full of influences that have inspired him.

Here, I will take you through all the influences for his work:

Firstly, the Agatha Christie Adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Mirror Crack’d and Evil Under the Sun)

Knives Out owes a huge debt to Agatha Christie. The incredibly iconic author has become famous mainly for writing mystery and whodunit novels, with labyrinthine plotting, complex characterisations and smart resolutions. Many of her novels have been adapted for the screen, and in particular, four adaptations have been called influences of Johnson.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is directed by legendary Hollywood director, Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afterman, Network), and remains probably the most famous Christie adaptation, possibly tied with it’s 2017 remake. Often called Christie’s most famous novel, the story is very iconic, and everyone will have heard of it, even if you’re not a fan of the genre. Everyone knows the story – a murder occurs on the iconic train of the title, every-one onboard is a suspect, and Hercule Poirot (played this time by Albert Finney) must investigate who has done it. Poirot is definitely an influence on Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, especially in his over-the-top and caricatured portrayal, and his funny accent. Otherwise, much like Knives Out, the film has a huge ensemble cast, who make up the large group of suspects, and this includes Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (in an Oscar-winning role), Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave. As we get to the ending (which I won’t spoil), the story tries to incorporate all of the characters in the ensemble into a thrilling and satisfying conclusion. Lumet, an always brilliant director, also does a fantastic job at the helm, as he is able to turn the novel into a properly cinematic movie, that does not feel made for television, as often these murder mysteries end up feeling like.

Death on the Nile (1978) is Christie’s follow up to Orient Express, however, in this adaptation, it done almost as a reboot, with a new director (John Guillermin) and a new actor portraying Poirot (Peter Ustinov). The plot is pretty much a repeat of Orient Express (a murder takes place, there are loads of suspects, and Poirot investigates), but this time, set on a boat going around the Nile. This is a interesting change of pace, and makes the drama all a bit more tense (because guess what, in a ship in the middle of the ocean, there is no escape), and also, a lot prettier to look at (the scenery and costumes are very beautiful). Much like Orient Express, the film has a large ensemble cast, includes Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, David Niven and Maggie Smith, very much like Knives Out. This is, for me, one of the best and most successful adaptations of Christie’s work, mainly only more brilliant by Christie’s brilliant plotting. The ending reveal of who exactly did it could be disappointing to some, as it is probably the most obvious culprit, but this is done more of “howdunnit”, giving us surprises with the exact nature of what happened, and who was involved (and this was definitely an influence on Knives Out). This adaptation is a huge example of Christie’s smarts up there on the big screen.

The Mirror Crack’d (1980) is adaptation of one of Christie’s novel, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and probably the most famous movie adaptation of Christie’s Miss Marple character, portrayed by Angela Lansbury. In this movie, Marple is an elderly spinster in a small village, who proves herself to be a bit of an amateur detective. Meanwhile, a costume drama film is being filmed in the village, starring two rival actresses, Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor) and Lola Brewster (Kim Novak). At a party, a gushing, devoted fan, Heather Babcock (Maureen Bennett) is found dead from poisoning after drinking a drink meant for Rudd, leading to Marple to investigate. The plot is a little less ambitious and labyrinthe than the previous two adaptations, but it’s still a smart and though-out film with some surprises. It also feels like possibly Marple was a influence on Ana de Armas’s character, Marta from Knives Out. Both are outcasts from the richer, more upper class characters, and have to play amateur detective to figure out the case. Also, the ensemble cast, possibly not as large as some adaptations, is still packed and star-studded, including Lansbury, Taylor, Novak, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Geraldine Chaplin. It’s not as well directed as the previous two adaptations, and does feel slightly televisual, but this film is still worth a look.

Evil Under the Sun (1982) is seen as the sequel to Death on a Nile, with Ustinov returning to his role for a new adventure. And, you got it, the plot is very similar to Orient Express and Nile (a murder takes place, there are loads of suspects, and Poirot investigates), but this time, set in a posh island resort frequented by the rich and famous. The cinematography is very lush and gorgeous, as is the costume and production design. The cast are as good as ever, however, is a little less star-studded – it does include Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg and James Mason, but also includes less famous cast members, including Colin Blakely, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Roddy McDowall and Sylvia Miles. This adaptation may feel a little old hat to some viewers, as it is very similar to Nile and Orient Express, but saying that, it is still a smart, intricately plotted and fun mystery. Much in the same way of Nile, this whodunnit is formatted as more of “howdunnit”, in which we wonder how exactly it happened, and who was involved. This is a technique that Christie often uses, and although, it sometimes lacks a element of surprise, it makes the story feel tight and believable. This is a effect that Johnson has definitely taken on, as even though, Knives Out is filled with surprises and twists, it’s script is still tight with no filler or wasted screen-time.

Secondly, the mystery comedies and spoof movies (Murder by Death, The Private Eyes, Clue and Gosford Park)

Other than Knives Out’s intelligent and surprising writing and brilliant performances, the film is just plain entertaining, and also, very, very funny. Johnson has assured that Knives Out is not necessary a spoof film, but more of a pastiche of this tired genre. That being said, the film still a huge sense of humour to it, and because of this, Johnson was very inspired by these comedies/spoofs.

Murder by Death (1976) is a comedy mystery film, directed by Robert Moore and written by legendary Hollywood scriptwriter and playwright, Neil Simon. The plot is a broad comedy of mystery/whodunnit tropes, in which 5 famous literary detectives and their sidekicks (that are send-ups of various fictional sleuths, including Poirot, Marple, Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade) are invited to a bizarre mansion to solve an even more bizarre mystery, very much in the style of Christie’s iconic novel, And Then There Were None. The film is the biggest spoof of all these influences, and feels very similar to various spoof movies of the 70s and 80s, including the works of Mel Brooks (like Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie and Spaceballs) and Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (like Airplane!, Top Secret! and The Naked Gun). The film is not quite as clever or quick-witted as some of these films (especially Young Frankenstein and Airplane), but it is still very funny and entertaining. It is brilliantly written by Simon (or Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and The Goodbye Girl fame), who gives us some very funny one-liners, and some very funny parodic characters. By how this film lovingly tributes whodunit films, it was definitely a influence on what Johnson does with Knives Out.

The Private Eyes (1980) is most possibly the most forgotten about film on this list. The film stars Tim Conway and Don Watts, recurring collaborators that previously starred together in 3 other films together. In this film, the pair play a couple of dim-witted and hopeless detectives, who travel to large English country mansion, to investigate the death of the rich couple who owes the house. All of the staff, including the butler, the maid, a gypsy, a hunchback and a samurai, are suspects. Soon enough, the situation becomes more deadly as the staff starts to be killed off one by one. The film is a lot sillier and more slapsticky than the previous comedies on this film, and is still fairly entertaining. This film is often called an influence on Knives Out for how, despite how the protagonists are very different (Blanc is definitely a lot smarter and more intelligent than Conway and Watts), we are still encouraged to laugh at them, and their over-the-top ridiculousness. It may not be a smart or intelligent as Knives Out, but saying that, it’s silly humour definitely influenced Knives Out’s subversive and funny playfulness.

Clue (1985) is another comedy spoof movie, which is directed and written by Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny), and is based off the classic board-game of Cluedo. The film, centres on six guests who are all invited to a strange mansion for dinner, and when their host is found murdered, they must work together (with the staff) to identify the murderer. Unlike Murder by Death, the film is not a straight-up spoof, but more of a black comedy, with it’s equal moments of thrills and laughs. The film also has an ensemble cast – this time, with comedic actors, including Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. The film, like Mean Girls and The Princess Bride, is a well-renowned cult classic, with a legions of fans, and has become one of the most quotable films of all time (from “flames on the side of my face” to “I am the singing telegram” to “2 plus 1 plus 2 plus 1”). The film is very iconic for how at cinemas, it offered 3 separate, different endings, which have been collected together for home release. The film is hilariously directed by Lynn, who creates the humour with almost watch-like choreography and is always one step ahead of the audience. It may not be a smart of intelligent as Knives Out, but this film definitely influenced it’s funny and quotable nature.

Gosford Park (2001) is a black comedy mystery drama, directed by legendary director Robert Altman (The Player, MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville), and written by Julian Fellowes, who went on to helm the classic British series, Downton Abbey. The film is an old-fashioned whodunnit, in which a bunch of Britons (plus an American film producer), and their servants, gather for a hunting party at the house of the title. Soon, a murder occurs at the party, and all of the characters are suspects. The film as always has an all-star cast, and has a bucketful of British actors, including Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen, Kristen Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Fry, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, and many more. Gosford Park is notable in how it was made at least 15 years after most of the films on this list, and a lot like Knives Out, the film was touted as a revival of a once tired genre. The series is often touted as a prelude to Downton Abbey (which had started life as a spin-off of this film), in it’s soap opera plots, and witty writing. The film is very well written by Fellowes, who gives all the characters a story-line and personality of their own, and is brilliantly directed by Altman, who always manages an all-star cast very well. It’s also got great cinematography, costume design, production design and performances. The film may not be as flat-out funny or thrilling as Knives Out (the humour is a lot dryer, and the film has a much slower pace), but saying that, this is actually the closest thing you will get to Knives Out with how they were both a revival of this tired genre.

Lastly, the more serious twisty-turny thrillers (Sleuth, The Last of Sheila & Deathtrap)

Although, Knives Out is very funny, and is very complexly plotted, the real genius of the film is just how thrilling it is. Yes, all the Agatha Christie adaptations (especially Death on the Nile) are great and all, but a slight criticism is that they aren’t that thrilling, and you could make the argument that they are slightly televisual in how they are directed. What is so brilliant about Knives Out, that it remains a very cinematic experience – it is exciting, thrilling and funny, and popcorn entertainment at it’s best. Because of that, Johnson looked at mystery popcorn thrillers for influences on his film.

Sleuth (1972) is a British mystery thriller that remains one of Rian Johnson’s favourite films. The film is last film by legendary Hollywood director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls), and stars Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. It is a twisty-turner mystery thriller, which centres on Milo Tindle (Caine) confronting his lover’s husband, Andrew Wyke (Olivier). Over the two hours run time, the two manipulate each other, and pull various cons on each other. The film is an incredibly confident and ballsy movie – essentially being a movie with just two actors in one location, and feels like it could be a feature-length episode of the BBC anthology show, Inside No. 9. The influence is especially seen in Knives Out for being set in a lavish, huge and posh mansion, as well for the various twists and turns, and plugging the rug from under the audience’s eyes. It is so much of an influence that a piece of automata from the film, Jolly Jack the Sailor is used in Knives Out.

The Last of Sheila (1973) is a really underrated gem from the 70s. The film is directed by underrated director, Herbert Ross (Funny Girl, Play it Again, Sam, The Secret of My Success, Steel Magnolias), and has a very odd writing team consisting of actor, Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and musical, song-writing legend, Stephen Sondheim. The film is influenced by various murder mystery parties that both Perkins and Sondheim used to host. The film is centred on a wealthy movie producer, Clinton Greene (James Coburn), who, a year after his wife, Sheila, had been killed in a hit-and-run, invites 6 of his friends to go on a cruise with him. Their is a secret motivation, however, as Clinton has figured out that one of these friends must have been the one who killed Sheila. As he plays a Cluedo-type of game with them, another one of the characters is found dead, and a new mystery begins. This is a whodunit, done seriously without many laughs, but still done very efficiently, with the props given to Ross and the writers. The cast are all very good, especially Coburn, Dyon Cannon, Richard Benjmain and James Mason. The film is very notable for how it basically has two mysteries going on at once, and both of them feel very interesting, developed and thought-out. The film also has an almost “false ending”, in which we think everything is resolved, only for them to have an even smarter resolution, which very much inspired Knives Out. An underrated gem, you should definitely check out this movie.

Deathtrap (1982) is another underrated gem, directed by the previously featured director on the list, Lumet, and written by Jay Presson Allen, based on the play by Ira Levin. The film is very similar to Sleuth, but this time we have Caine in the older man role, and Superman’s own Christopher Reeve in the younger man role. The film centres on failed playwright, Sidney Bruhl (Caine), who gets given a manuscript from one of his students, Clifford Anderson (Reeve). Annoyed that the script is much better than his, he invites Clifford for dinner with his wife, Myra (Dyon Cannon), which ends in tragedy for one of the three characters. The film, as always, is brilliantly directed by Lumet, who makes the film very tense and thrilling. Very much in the same way as Sleuth, the film is incredibly ballsy in how it centres mainly on two actors in one location for the whole run-time. The twisty-turny, subversive and thrilling plotting is also on display here, and you can definitely feel that influence on Knives Out. This is another one you should definitely check out, especially if you’re a fan of twisty-turny thrillers.

With all these influences, Johnson has created a film has intricate plotting, witty and subversive humour, and thrilling and tense direction. What’s so wonderful about Knives Out is that is a loving tribute to the murder mysteries/ whodunit genre, whilst reviving the genre with a new and original story. It is simultaneously a film that feels quintessentially Rian Johnson, while doing standing on it’s own as a stand-alone movie. It is such a great movie, that will hopefully grow in stature over the years. I can’t wait to see what Rian Johnson has in mind for the sequel, which is currently is development. Hopefully, it will be just as fantastic.

The Mandalorian Episodes 7 and 8 – “The Reckoning” and “Redemption” Review

Well, that’s it. DisneyPlus’ very first original show, and flagship programme, The Mandalorian has ended it’s first season. The show that originated as a Star Wars spin-off, has received critical acclaim and a legion of fans, and has revived Star Wars back to it’s former glory after two lackluster efforts with Solo and The Rise of Skywalker. The show is the best thing Star Wars has done since The Last Jedi came out (2 years ago), and the two part finale is a brilliant example of just how good it is.

The two part finale consists of the 7th episode, “The Reckoning” and the 8th episode, “Redemption”. In The Reckoning, The Mandalorian (or “Mando”) (Pedro Pascal) receives a message from Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) that The Client (Werner Herzog) has become desperate to gain the Child (or Baby Yoda). The two of them, along with Mando’s old friends, Cara Dune (Gina Carano) and Kuiil (Nick Nolte), create a plan to kill The Client by using a plan consisting of using Baby Yoda as bait. However, the plan is complicated by a rival pursuer of Baby Yoda, Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito). In Redemption, Mando, Cara Dune, Greef Karga, Baby Yoda, along with IG-11 (Taika Waititi), all attempt to run and hide to save Baby Yoda from Gideon and his legion of storm troopers.

Both of these episodes are very much connected, and feel like a two-parter. This is a fairly different rhythm from the rest of the series, as it has mainly been all stand-alone episodes. The first 3 episodes were all quite connected, but still felt like separate entities, while the next 3 episodes were very much independent adventures, all of which had a loose story arc of Baby Yoda and his origins. It seems like the show is taking the template of classic shows, like Buffy, The X-Files and 2000s reboot of Doctor Who in how they are doing separate episodes, with a loose story arc, which comes to it’s conclusion in its finale.

The Reckoning sees a return to many characters that have appeared throughout the season. This is a nice rhythm for the series, as it ultimately just contains two main characters in Mando and Baby Yoda, but a conveyor belt of recurring characters. In this episode, we see the return of Cara Dune, Greef Karga and Kuiil, all of which are interesting and engaging characters. In particular, Kuiil is a really fun character, who acts as a fun foil to our lead character. I do wish, however, that Karga was given a little better arc. It was interesting to see him be a good guy in this episode, but I just wish that he’s been given more a well thought-out character arc.

IG-11’s role in this episode was also very interesting. IG-11, voiced writer-director Taika Waititi (who also directs the next episode), was a droid who appeared in the show’s first episode, in which he was a killing droid and bounty hunter. In this episode, Kuiil has re-programmed him to become a nurse droid, who looks after Baby Yoda. This is a very interesting competent, and it was great to see a character who could of easily been written out be revived.

This episode also introduced to Moff Gideon, who looks set to be the show’s next big villain. The character is portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito, who is well known for his role as the villain, Gus Fring in the television shows, Breaking Bad (2008-2013), most recently appearing in the fifth season of Better Call Saul (2015-present), just last month. It’s no wonder Gus Fring is often called one of best villains of all time, as here, Esposito injects his character with a real menace and peril that other villains lack. It also refreshing to see Esposito performing loudly as Gus is often known for being a soft-spoken and quiet villain.

The end of this episode is also really effective. Without spoiling too much of what happens, the ending is quite a bleak affair that does not suggest a happy ending for the finale. This is very reminiscent of the ending to Empire Strikes Back, in how it has offers a bleak view of the future. It’s also very brave that they do this, and having watched the finale, they stick to it, and don’t reverse it. The ending shot is also really well-shot, and has some really nice cinematography. Ending brilliantly, this leads us to the next episode, Redemption.

Redemption is a really efficient finale, that ties up all the loose ends from the series. The episode starts off really great, in which we see focus on who stormtroopers, who have kidnapped Baby Yoda. The two of them are voiced by the actors, Jason Sudeikis and Adam Pally, two cameo appearances that never proves irritating or unnecessary. The scene is very funny, and entertaining, but still very squirm-inducing as both characters violently punch Baby Yoda.

The next scene is particularly great, as, after IG-11 rescues Baby Yoda, we see him ride as across the desert with him in tow. This is really entertaining scene that will excite any viewer, no matter how old or young. A real highlight is this episode is how it’s directed – the directer, Waititi directs the episode with a real excitement and passion, and feels like one of the liveliest episodes of the series to date. Waititi is a really mercurial filmmaker, and he can do a variety of different projects, from blockbuster films (including Thor: Ragnarok, Star Wars) to passion projects (Jojo Rabbit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows), and here, he shows us that he can really direct action very well.

The action comes to a head about half way through the episode, which is a big battle between the characters. During this scene, Mando gets hurt, and in retaliation, IG-11 attempts to help him but must remove his helmet. This is the first we have seen Mando without his helmet on for the whole series, and this is such a cathartic moment, as we have been waiting the whole series for him to do to that. It is a very ballsy move for them to withhold showing his face for 7 whole episodes, but doing this, really informs you a lot about his character and just how secretive he is.

The action slightly peaks here at this point of the episode, and this would be my only complaint with the episode – is that the episode struggles to be as quite as good as this towards the end of the episode. The episode slightly peaks halfway through, and struggles to get it back. That being said, there are still a lot of great moments that occur towards the end.

This includes when another recurring character throughout the series, The Armorer (Emily Swallow) returns, and in a brilliantly performed and directed moment, The Armorer takes on and kills about 7 stormtroopers. She has not appeared that much in the series, but the episode really shines whenever she appears, and I can’t wait to see where they take her character in season 2. Also, IG-11 continues to have some really great moments in this episode. He has a whole, closed arc in this episode, and it’s great to see a character get closure in this series.

As the episode (and series) wraps up, the film leaves us on some cliffhangers and closed endings. Mando and Baby Yoda get a fairly happy ending, and we can assume that some still living characters are going to return also. Also, Moff Gideon gets a really fun cliff-hanger, which is very exciting, and can only spell exciting things for the next season.

The episode, and by extension, the series, has some a good mixture between giving some closure, killing off some characters (and hopefully, keeping them dead), and some open-ended cliffhangers. I, personally, can’t wait to see where the series will go for the next season, which will hopefully come out in October. Hopefully, it will be just as good.

Streaming Options: Sea Fever Review

If you’re looking for something to watch on streaming services recently, then look no further than Sea Fever, a very interesting and engaging horror thriller from the writer/ director, Neasa Hardiman. The film is available from the majority of streaming service providers, including Amazon and Google Play, where you can rent it for £4.49.

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The film follows a young and solitary marine-biology student, Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) joins a ragged fishing trawler for research, joining a crew 6 others. Whilst out at sea, an strange parasite-like life form grabs holds of the ship, and forces it to stay put. Soon enough, the parasite starts infecting the crew members, and killing them off one-by-one. To save them, Siobhan and the crew members must come up with a way to beat the monster.

Obviously, from the plot alone, you can tell that the plot is a thrilling and claustrophobic horror-thriller in the vein of classics like, 1982’s The Thing and 1979’s Alien, with a little bit of Jaws (1975) also thrown into the mix. Much like these three classics, the setting really adds to the claustrophobia – setting it on a ship in the middle of the ocean that soon gets stuck makes us feel as trapped and confined as the characters in the film does.

Also, much like these 2 classics, the characters are all very well-drawn and interesting. The lead character, Siobhan is particularly great, and the performance by Corfield is also very good. It is also very refreshing to see a woman lead the film, especially as it makes it different from films like The Thing and Jaws, which are very male-oriented. Also, Siobhan’s arc of going from an lonely, solitary woman, who gains friends and confidence amongst the rest of the crew, is very interesting, and felt reminiscent of Ripley’s arc in the 1986 classic, Aliens.

Also, the various supporting characters are also very engaging. The rest of the crew on the boat include the husband-and-wife piloting team, Freya (Connie Nielson) and Gerald (Dougray Scott); the rebellious Johnny (Jack Hickey); the bookish mechanic, Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) and the older “grandmother” figure, Ciara (Olwen Fouéré).

As you can tell from this, all of the supporting characters are really well-drawn and interesting. Yes, they do conform to certain stereotypes, but because of the film’s good writing and good performances, that matters a lot less. In particular, Omid is an riveting character, and the friendship he gains with Siobhan is a real highlight of the film.

When discussing the monster itself, it is a scary and thrilling villain. The monster is not seen through a lot of film, and this only makes it more effective. This is an effect that Steven Spielberg brilliant uses in Jaws (as well as Jurassic Park), and it works so well, as makes the audience imagine more of what the monster is like.

The monster in fact, is very timely, as it is very similar to the Coronavirius pandemic that is going on at the moment. In a especially relatable moment, Siobhan states that possibly all of them might have been infected because they all have open wounds, of which the parasite can infect through. This is particularly scary, as like The Thing, it means that any of the characters can be infected or in peril, without them even knowing it.

I do wish, however, that the film was a little more gruesome and gross. In contrast to The Thing, which is a really visceral and disgusting movie, the film slightly lacks that. However, there is one particularly gross scene, in which one of the infected characters’ eyeballs explode with a lot of bloods and guts as the parasite leaves his body.

I do think that, sometimes, the plot is a little confusing, and sometimes it is not exactly clear what the monster is, what is it’s motivation, and how exactly the parasite is passed around. That being said, when the monster is seen in full, it is still very scary and effectively frightening.

In conclusion, Sea Fever is a film that is really worth a watch. It is scary, thrilling, entertaining, and filled with well-drawn characters and great performances. It’s not perfect, but you should definitely check it out, if you are looking for a good scare.

Rating: 7/10

Streaming Options: Blow the Man Down Review

One of the recent films (well, I say, recent – the past month) to be released on streaming services includes Blow the Man Down. This latest black comedy crime thriller film from writer-director, Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, had it’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April last year. It was then bought my Amazon Studios following this, and was released exclusively on Amazon Prime Video last month.

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The plot follows two estranged sisters, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe), who are struggling with money issues after the death of their mother, and are dealing with her mother’s failing funeral business. They are bonded together after Mary Beth kills a man that she has a dangerous run-in with. It is soon revealed that this man works for a brothel, and this leads the two young girls to face the dangers of the crime world, including having run-ins with the manipulative brothel boss, Enid (Margo Martindale).

From that alone, you can tell that this film has a classic black comedy type of plot, very much in the vein of the Coen brothers or Martin McDonagh. The film fells very inspired by the Coen’s 1996 classic, Fargo, especially in how the film depicts a murder, and the investigation of this by various police officers. In fact, this film feels like a by-the-book retelling of the second season of the television adaptation of Fargo.

The film doesn’t live up to these influences, but saying that, it is still an entertaining romp nonetheless. The real strength of the film is the power of the two young performers, as Saylor and Lowe are both really great in their roles. A lot of the film relies not just on them, but their believable chemistry as sisters, and they pull it off very well. For me, this is really the high part of the film, and works really well.

The film also has a scene-stealing and entertaining supporting role for Margo Martindale. Martindale has been an “Esteemed Character Actress” (sorry, that’s a Bojack Horseman joke), and has appeared in a variety of films and TV shows in supporting roles, including her Emmy Award-winning role in The Americans. Here, she gets that a full-on, scenery chewing type of supporting role, and it is so fun to she her having fun.

Also, another pleasure of the film is how the narrative has a lot of fun twists and turns in it. The twists aren’t exactly the biggest of surprises, and maybe the film could of used more of a subversive, fun edge to it. That being said, however, these twists and turns, in a very black comedy-type way, are still very entertaining and fun.

The film also has a great visual style and panache to it, and some terrific direction by Cole and Krudy. The film expertly uses editing, especially how it uses fades, and this creates an especially haunting, eerie atmosphere. Also, the soundtrack is one of the film’s real highlights – it has a booming, impactful score that is very attention grabbing, and startling.

There is some really good stuff in this film, but I just wished that it was a little more polished. As much as the relationship between the sisters is interesting, the stuff about the seedy crime underbelly is a lot less interesting. It feels like this is a little tacked-on – they don’t get into it until about half an hour into the run-time, and feels almost like it was added last minute to the plot to flesh it out somewhat.

Also, the police officer part of the story, in which we see young police officer, Justin Brennan (played by Will Brittain) investigate Mary Beth and Priscilla’s murder, and fall for Priscilla, feels very under-baked. All of these underdeveloped plot elements fell like they might of worked better in a TV show or mini-series format, as they would have given more time for these elements to breathe.

That being said, Blow the Man Down is a very interesting film that, although, it is not as perfect or polished as it could be, is still very much worth a watch due to it’s performances (especially by Martindale, Saylor and Lowe), visual style and score. It is available on Amazon Prime, and if you have nothing to do (which I’m sure many people do), you should definitely check this out.

Rating: 7/10

Better Call Saul Season 5 Finale – “Something Unforgivable” Recap

Well, that’s it. Better Call Saul has ended it’s perfect fifth season on Monday (or Tuesday here in the UK) with it’s season finale, “Something Unforgivable”. The episode follows Lalo (Tony Dalton) and Nacho (Michael Mando) going to his second home in Chihuahua, and introduces him to Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) – a former character from Breaking Bad. Soon, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) plans for Lalo to be killed, and sends a bunch of assassins to his house.

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Meanwhile, after the very tense visit from Lalo, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) relax at a motel. Kim goes to collect her pro bono cases, and has a tense encounter with Howard (Patrick Fabian). Back at the motel, Jimmy and Kim have fun, and begin to toy with the idea to resolve the Sandpiper case by sabotaging Howard. Jimmy thinks of it as a joke, but Kim might possibly be serious.

This episode isn’t as exciting and eventful as the previous two episodes. It might not be brilliant as the previous two episodes, “Bagman” and “Bad Choice Road”, but that would be very difficult as the two episodes were all-time classics, and possibly the best two episodes of series, ever. That being said, it is still a really fine and terrific finale to what is probably the best season of the show as of yet.

The episode is particularly great for the character development of Lalo. Lalo has been an absolutely fantastic addition to the series, and that’s especially impressive for a character that was introduced 4 seasons into a popular TV show. In this episode, we see his household, as well as his relationships with various people here, including his friends and family.

What is also wonderful about Lalo’s role in this episode, is that we start to feel sympathy for him, and align ourselves with him slightly. This has always been a great feature of both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, in which the show makes us feel sympathy for characters who we normally wouldn’t care about. Even the villains of both shows, like Lalo and Breaking Bad’s Gus, are written with some complexity and depth. And here, we understand, that Lalo, although sleazy and amoral, still has plenty people who he loves and cares about . And, as we get to the end of the episode (which of course, I won’t spoil), we really get to feel sorry for him for some of the horrible things that happen to him.

This episode is also significant in that it does not give that much closure. Going into this finale, a lot of people were theorising that either Kim, Lalo or Nacho were going to die, all because none of the characters were not in Breaking Bad. However, none of these characters do die, and that is something I like about this finale. They have saved Lalo as the villain for the final season of the show, which is something I think is a safe choice, as with only 10 episodes left, they don’t want to waste time introducing a new villain. I mean, the antagonists in the final season of Breaking Bad (Lydia, Uncle Jack and Todd) were always unfavourably compared to Gus, the season 4 villain.

Also, as always the case with Better Call Saul, the episode has some brilliant sequences, which are delivered with a real punch through the terrific direction and cinematography. The scene in which Nacho attempts to escape Lalo’s compound is particularly tense, and scary. There is a brilliant panning shot where Lalo is running down in the crawl space of the house that is brilliant shot and edited. Better Call Saul continues to raise the bar for cinematography in television, and that’s wonderful to see, as it always used to be seen as a feature of cinematic films.

Otherwise, this episode is great for developing Kim’s character. As we see her and Jimmy consider toying the idea of framing Howard, it becomes clear that Kim is “breaking bad”, as she becomes more involved in the crime world. There is a really great moment that highlights this change, where Jimmy asks Kim if she is serious about framing Howard, and she does finger guns back to Jimmy. The moment feels very Saul Goodman, and very much mirrors the move that Jimmy did to Kim in the season 4 finale (“Winner”).

It is becoming more and more apparent that this is the reason why she does not appear in Breaking Bad, although, the reason itself is still unknown. Possibly she ends up incarcerated. However, as many fans have stated, this behaviour is slightly out-of-character for her, and some theorise that she is playing a long con game against Jimmy. It would be a harsher blow for him than her just being dead or prison, and would explain his cynical personality in Breaking Bad.

In addition, this episode is great because of how Howard gets a lot more to do. By the end of the episode, it seems like they have set up a big role for him in the next season. This is a wonderful thing, because I have always stated that Howard is a great addition to the show, and he should not just disappear after not being appearing that heavily in the past 2 seasons, ever since Chuck’s death.

This episode is really a showcase for Kim and Lalo, and cast a light on Rhea Seehorn and Tony Dalton’s acting chops, respectively. Although, some major characters (like Jimmy, Nacho and Mike) have interesting moments in this episode (like Jimmy’s PTSD, Nacho escaping Lalo’s house, and Mike telling Jimmy that Lalo will be killed), this is really Kim and Lalo’s episode. It’s sets up a final season, which will probably feature them prominently, which is only a good thing.

Overall, this episode sets up a fantastic final season. There are many brilliant story-lines that have been set up, and I can’t wait to see what the writers do, where Jimmy’s arc will most likely be completed. Also, we’ll finally figure out what will happen to Kim, Nacho and Lalo, and also, Saul/Jimmy in the present, under the alias of Gene Takavic. Nonetheless, this season was absolutely fantastic – it was the best season yet and will definitely be up there as one of my favourite TV shows of 2020.

Streaming Options: Tigertail Review

Tigertail is one of the many films that are now on offer on streaming services, if you are really missing new releases due to all the cinemas being closed. This time, for the first time, I am reviewing a film available on Netflix, which will be useful for you all because I’m sure you all have Netflix. Tigertail is the newest Netflix Original for the platform, which has had a mixed output over the past year – with great hits like The Platform, Miss Americana and the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before sequel, but also misses like Horse Girl and Love Wedding Repeat.

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Tigertail is set in two different time zones and focuses on a Taiwanese man called Pin-jui, played by Hong Chi-Lee as a young man, and Tzi Mu as a middle-aged man. In the past, Pin-jui is a enthusiastic factory worker, who leaves behind his homeland and his forbidden love, Yuan (Joan Chen in the past; Yo-Hsing Fang in the present) to move to America with his arranged wife, Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li; Fiona Fu), and make a live for himself. In the present, Pin-jui is a melancholic middle-aged man, who has a estranged relationship with his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko), and begins to feel regretful and mournful for his life choices.

Tigertail is, overall, one of the better Netflix Originals to come out recently. It is not as entertaining or exciting as some recent Netflix Originals, especially The Platform, but that’s not an insult about the film at all. The film is instead, quite a sweet and soulful film that will really relax you. It would be a perfect film to watch on an relaxing Sunday afternoon, especially in light of everything that’s going on in the world right now.

One of the real strengths of the film is the film’s glorious visual style. The film is directed by Alan Yang, who has previously been known for his work on comedy television shows, including Parks and Recreation, The Good Place and most famously, Master of None, the latter of which he won an Emmy for. The film is beautifully shot, with really wonderful gorgeous cinematography and vibrant colours.

The film also has a really nice soundtrack, which much like the film, is sweet and soulful that leaves a lingering feeling. Also, the editing and montages in the film are also wonderful. In particular, there is a scene where Pin-jui, in the past, is constantly closes and reopening the shop where he works at, and this scene is really gloriously edited. Everything in how this film is made, from the direction to the cinematography to the editing is really wonderful, especially because this is Yang’s first feature film.

The performances are also wonderful. None of the performances are particularly big, dramatic, or emotional, but instead, they are quite restrained and understated, which really fits in with this kind of film. Mai heads up the cast very well, especially in how small and detailed his performance is. He bridges the gap between the present and past sections very well. Also, the younger performers, Chi-Lee, Li, Fang and Ko are all equally as impressive.

The themes in this film are fairly familiar and we’ve seen them in numerous films before, but that’s not to say they aren’t effective. In the film’s present-day sequences, it deals with themes of getting older, dealing with regrets and mistakes you’ve made, and repairing relationships with estranged family members; while, in it’s past sequences, it addressed themes of moving away from your homeland, losing your one true love, and homesickness. In particular, the arc of Pin-Jui’s wife, Zhenzhen is particularly interesting, especially for a character that could of been one-dimensional. During the film, we see her become homesick and bored at her new life, and through really lovely scenes, we see her form a friendship the only other person nearby who speaks Taiwanese, her neighbour Peijing (Cindera Che).

Although, the film is really great, sweet and soulful, the film could still be a bit more emotional. The film feels very reminiscent to recent films, like Moonlight (2016) and The Farewell (2019), in how quiet and passionate the film is. However, unlike these films, the film fails to hit you with it’s really sentimental and emotional undercurrents. Possibly, with the film’s length only at 90 minutes, it could of benefited from a longer run-time.

Overall, however, this film is definitely worth your time. If you are looking for a lovely and sweet film that is not too heavy or depressing, then you should definitely watch this film. And make sure not to get it confused with Tiger King, which is a very different watch. I really can’t wait to see what Yang does next.

Rating: 8/10

The Mandalorian Episodes 5 and 6 – “The Gunslinger” and “The Prisoner” recap

The Mandalorian has continued it’s impressive run with it’s fifth and sixth episodes – “The Gunslinger” and “The Prisoner”. The Gunslinger is centred around The Mandalorian (or “Mando”) (Pedro Pascal) and Baby Yoda (or “The Child”) arriving on Tatooine. Mando joins aspiring bounty hunter, Toro Calican (Jake Cannavale), who is on the hunt for mercenary and assassin, Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen). However, while on Mando and Toro’s quest, it is revealed that Toro is not at all what he seems.

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In The Prisoner, Mando contracts his former partner, Ran for work. Ran asks Mando to accompany a five-man job, that they must use his ship for. The job in question is to rescue a prisoner of the New Republic. Soon enough, the members of the crew begin to double-cross Mando, especially when they discover he has Baby Yoda, and then, Mando must take his revenge.

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Although, The Mandalorian is really great, and these two episodes are solid, it does feel like these episodes are slightly filler, particularly The Gunslinger. The Gunslinger is the shortest episode of the series so far, at only 30 minutes, and feels particularly slight and unadventurous.

The episode’s main strength is it’s nostalgic call-backs to the original namesake film, or A New Hope as it will be known to younger fans. These include, among many others, how it takes place on Tatooine, Luke’s home planet; features the same bar, Mos Eisley Catatina, where Han shot Gredo and features the secondary villians, the Tusken Raiders (or Sand People), who meet Mando and Toro on their quest. For a series that, up until this point, has felt very new and original, it was nice to see it addressing it’s past in these cute hall-backs.

Also, much like pretty much all of the previous episodes, this episode also features many interesting secondary characters and guest stars, including Amy Sedaris, Wen and Cannavale. Sedaris is a long-time character actress known for her voice performances, Wen is an actress known for her role in Agents of SHIELD and voice role in Mulan (1998) and Cannavale is a young up-and-coming actor, who is the son of character actor, Bobby Cannavale. All 3 of them are interesting and fun characters, and if they ever show up again (and in Sedaris’s case, I’m sure she will), it would be a very welcome return.

Despite this, however, the whole episode feels a little nothing-y. It felt like the episode was possibly an excuse for it’s cliff-hanger ending, in which we see a rival bounty hunter has arrived, however, we do not see his face. Although this cliff-hanger shows definite promise, the rest of the episode feels like it lacks any real stakes or suspense. As is usually the case, Baby Yoda ends up in peril, and this is starting to become a little tiresome now. That being said, the episode overall is still a fun one that will pass the time finely, even if it pales in comparison to the other episodes.

The sixth episode, The Prisoner is very similar, in how it feels slightly filler, but it feels more adventurous and creative. Firstly, like the previous episode, the guest stars and secondary characters are really interesting. The crew that accompanies Mando includes Ran (Mark Boone Jr.); ex-imperial sharpshooter, Mayfield (Bill Burr); a strongman, Burg (Clancy Brown); knife-wielder, Xi’an (Natalia Tena) and the droid pilot, Zero (voiced by Richard Ayoade).

Although, none of these characters are particularly likeable, they are all fun characters, who are quite interesting. Also, as is always the case with any Star Wars universe project, the effects and make-up are terrific, and the design of all of these secondary characters are great. It’s also really nice to hear Ayoade (of The IT Crowd fame), and I love how the majority of droids in the Star Wars universe are being voiced from funny comedians, from Taika Waititi to Rogue One’s Alan Tudyk.

This episode is very similar to the show’s third episode, “The Sin” in how the action is glorious and really wonderful. The action takes place as Mando is fighting against the crew. Much like The Sin, the action never drags or feels dull, as each person that he fights against has a new, original and creatively choreographed fight sequence. One of the episode’s highlights, is when we see Mando approaching something from behind, and the light flickers until Mando conquers him, which is one of the most vibrant and colourful moments of great visual style for the series.

Pedro Pascal remains as impressive as ever in these two episodes. In particular, his performance in the The Prisoner is great, as he has to show a lot of emotions, with just subtle body movements and vocal performance. Also, his relationship with Baby Yoda is very cute. I do wish that Baby Yoda was getting a little more to do in this series, however, as he has been reduced to just a damsel in distress for both of these episodes. The series keeps teasing that Baby Yoda has some big powers up his sleeve, and I’m hoping that we will see these powers come into play for the two-part finale.

This episode, as a whole, does feels like a filler episode – something to get us by until the big two-part finale. That being said, the episode is a lot more narratively ambitious and creative that it’s previous part. The episode has more thoroughly developed characters, and has everything you want from a Mandalorian episode – it has action, laughs, adventure, thrills and tension to spare, even if it is a little insubstantial.

In conclusion, these two episodes of The Mandalorian are not among the best, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t fun episodes that are worthy of your time. The Mandalorian is by far one of the best TV programmes of 2020 so far (along with Better Call Saul and Inside No. 9), and I can’t wait for the hopefully epic two-part season finale.

Rating (for The Gunslinger): 7/10

Rating (for The Prisoner): 8/10

Horror Tuesday: Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) Review

My Horror Tuesdays have gone by the wayside recently, as I have been reviewing a lot of TV Shows (like Better Call Saul & The Mandalorian) and films on streaming services (like Swallow, Bacarau and Vivarium). This film, however, being broadcast on Shudder, a streaming service mainly for horror movies, feels like it can be both a streaming option, and a horror film for you to watch.

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The film is directed and written by Issa Lopez, and is set in Mexico that has been devastated by the Mexican drug war. It centres on a young girl, Estrella (Paola Lara), whose mother has mysterious gone missing. Looking for her, she ends up joining a gang of four children, headed by El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez). Together, the five of them try to survive against the horrific violence of the cartel, and begin to witness various ghosts created by the horror of the war.

A horror film is probably not the best description for this film, as it is more of a dark fantasy tale that has elements of horror in it. The film feels very Guillermo del Toro inspired in it’s concept, and the best films to compare it to are del Toro’s films, 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth and 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone – both extraordinary films in their own right.

The film really holds up being places next to those films, as it is a really terrific film. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, the film centres on a view of a horrific war from the view of a young child. And, much like it’s influences, it’s child stars are absolutely terrific. The central two stars, Lara and Lopez, are both fantastic, and both really evoke sympathy and emotion for their characters. Lopez probably has the harder job here, as he has to convey the sweetness and niceness that is underneath the tough exterior, and he does a really great job at it.

Other characters include the other 3 members of the gang, consisting of Pop, Tucsi, and Morro, who are played by child actors, Rodrigo Cortes, Hanssel Casillas and Nery Arredondo, respectively. These three are really interesting to the narrative, as they provide a more grounded, sympathetic perspective to the hard life on the streets. All five kid performers give strong and emotional performances, and this is especially important for this type of film.

The film, is very much a fantastical mixture of various genres. The film firstly is a horrific imagining of a war time environment, and that is brilliantly captured here. One of the reasons why is the terrific camerawork. The film uses a lot of shaky-cam, which really evokes a documentary-type feel, and this only makes the environment feel more real and vivid. People who are not fans of shaky-cam, needn’t worry, however, because the technique never feels overused or annoying. In fact, it is used just the right amount.

What really makes the film, however, is how Lopez is able to mix this with the more fantastical elements. These moments are never overplayed, and in fact, they are never particularly explained. Much like del Toro’s films, we are unaware if these are real or in the imaginary of our young leading characters. Along with the various ghosts that Estrella encounters, she sees various things come to life (like a teddy bear and phone case), and witness an odd line of blood that follows her. These images are very haunting and strange, but are also beautiful, and they will be images that stay with you long after you finish watching it.

The fantasy elements are really important to the narrative, as well. They make Estrella’s quest for discovering her mother all the more heartbreaking, as we begin to think that she, maybe, is among the ghosts. The contrast between both of the characters’ central struggles – El Shine wanting to find a home, and Estrella wanting to find her mother are really wonderful and interesting characters arcs, and ones that give the movie some depth.

This is a really great outing for Lopez. The film may not be as scary as some of the films I’ve covered on here, and if you go in expecting a film full of scares, you will be disappointed. However, if you are a fan of sweet and soulful dark fantasy dramas, in the vein of del Toro’s films, you will definitely be a fan of this one.

Rating: 8/10

Breaking Bad & Better Call Saul: Top 6 Moments

Better Call Saul will end it’s pitch perfect fifth season run tonight, with a hopefully great conclusion. This season has even felt like they have upped the quality of last season (which was already fantastic), with the episodes, “Bagman” and “Bad Choice Road” already feeling like all-time classics. The show was spin-off from a small show you may have heard called Breaking Bad, one of – if not, the – best TV shows of all time. Both have some incredible moments and episodes, and there, I thought I’d rank my top 6 moments of each show.

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Firstly for Breaking Bad:

Jane’s Death (in “Phoenix” – Season 2 Episode 12)

The moment when Breaking Bad, a pretty good show finally found it’s footing, and turned into one of the best shows of TV. The moment in question happens when Walt (Bryan Cranston) goes to confront Jesse (Aaron Paul) and his girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), who have been blackmailing him. Jane, drugged out of her head on heroin, begins to choke on her own vomit, and Walt, decides to not to help, and watches his blackmailer die. This is one of the most important moments of the show, especially in terms of Walt’s character development, and this is the moment where Walt changes forever. Sure, prior to this, he has killed someone in self-defence, and has been illegally been producing meth, but this is the first moment where he hurts an innocent person, just for his own gain.

Crawl Space (in “Crawl Space” – Season 4 Episode 11)

The moment where Bryan Cranston gives Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger a run for his money, as he goes full-on Joker. It occurs when Walt is in deep trouble, and it looks like Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) will kill him off. He plans to run away, with the money he has gained, however, disaster strikes when Skyler (Anna Gunn) reveals that she has gave all the money away. Heartbroken, Walt breaks down, starting off crying and then bursts into high-pitched laughter. The moment is often touted as the birth of Heisenberg – the moment when the psychotic and conniving parts of Walt’s personality take over. It’s also a distilled example of the Breaking Bad’s tone – tense, thrilling, at times darkly funny, and always willing for everything to completely change in one scene. Also, Cranston’s performance is insanely good.

Gus’s death (in “Face Off” – Season 4 Episode 13)

One of the show’s most bad-ass moments comes when Walt and Jesse, with help from Gus’s enemy, Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), concoct a plan to get Gus killed. Hector lures Gus to his room, and it is revealed that Hector has a hidden bomb, that goes on to kill him and Gus. Gus, the biggest and best villain of the show up till that point, was always destined for a dramatic death, but how exactly it would happen would be the suspenseful part. And, like it always did, Breaking Bad subverted our expectations to create a shocking and actually quite gruesome death. The image of Gus walking out of the room, with half of his face blown off, straightening his tie, then collapsing dead on the floor, will be an image you remember forever.

The Train robbery (in “Dead Freight” – Season 5 Episode 5)

By far, one of the best episodes of the entire show is the season 5 episode, Dead Freight, in which Walt, Jesse, Todd (Jesse Plemons) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) decide to rob a moving train to get a supply of methylamine. The heist sequence takes place in the last 10 minutes, and could almost be it’s own small short film, especially in how it has a complete beginning, middle and end. The scene is also racketed up with high amounts of tension and suspense, and marks one of the most entertaining and exciting sequences from the entire programme.

Hank figures it out (in “Gliding Over All” – Season 5 Episode 8)

Probably the biggest cliff-hanger in the show’s whole run has to be when Hank (Dean Norris), Walt’s DEA Agent brother-in-law finally discovers that Walt is Heisenberg, all while he is on the toilet, no less. This was the moment where a five-year story-line was finally paid off, in highly dramatic, suspenseful and shocking fashion. It may not seem frustrating for those who watched all of Breaking Bad in a large binge on Netflix, but for those who watched the show as it was released, they would of had to wait over 11 months for it to be resolved, becoming one of the most effective cliff-hangers of all time.

“We’re a family” (in “Ozymandias” – Season 5 Episode 14)

And, finally, we arrive at probably the show’s best episode, “Ozymandias”, one of the best episodes of television of all time. Although, there were a lot of big, important moments in this episode, from Hank’s death to Walt going on the run to Walt confessing to Skyler, his son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) and Hank’s wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt) all of his crimes, but this moment remains the highlight. The moment in question occurs when Skyler physically attacks Walt with a knife, and in response, Walt Jr. saves her and calls the police. Heartbroken at how he has lost control of his family, Walt cries out “What’s wrong with you – we’re a family”. Brilliantly directed by Knives Out’s Rian Johnson and written by Moira Walley-Beckett, this moment is an utterly devastating depiction of a family that been torn apart by tragedy, and it will leave you heartbroken.

Now for Better Call Saul:

Mike’s emotional confession (in “Five-O” – Season 1 Episode 6)

Mike was one of the best characters from Breaking Bad, but all he was known for was his crotchety one-liners, his rivalry with Walt and his fatherly relationship with Jesse. However, his role in Better Call Saul is much more expanded, becoming a real fully dimensional character. Five-O explores a real heartbreaking backstory for him, when Mike reveals how his son, Matt was killed to his daughter-in-law, Stacey (Kerry Condon). The heartbreaking monologue is beautifully written and brilliant performed by Banks, whose delivery of “I broke my boy” was devastating.

Jimmy and Chuck have a talk (in “Pimento” – Season 1 Episode 9)

When Better Call Saul first began, we all though that Saul/Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk)’s boss Chuck (Patrick Fabian), would be the show’s big villain. However, much like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul established itself as a very shocking and subversive show from the get-go, as the real villain was actually, Jimmy’s brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), hiding in plain sight. It is is soon revealed that Chuck has purposefully been trying to keep Jimmy out of his law firm, and got Chuck do to it. Suddenly, Chuck’s character completely changes in shocking (yet still, believable) scenes, and includes an acting masterclass from both Odenkirk and McKean.

Chuck’s courtroom breakdown (in “Chicanery” – Season 3 Episode 5)

Most possibly the best episode of Better Call Saul is the season 3 mid-season episode, “Chicanery”. The episode in question takes place when Chuck and Jimmy’s court case comes to a climax, where Jimmy cross-examines Chuck. Chuck has an odd allergy to electricity, which has Jimmy and his partner, Kim (Rhea Seehorn) believe is all a psychological problem. Jimmy exploits this, having a battery planted on him, and in anger, Chuck goes on a rant, berating Jimmy, to a shocked response from the court. Again, the scene features brilliant acting from McKean, it was really shocking how he was never even nominated for an Emmy for his episode. His monologue is scary, heartbreaking and sad all once, the show is able to make us feel sympathy and hatred for him at the same time. An absolutely brilliant moment, not just for the show, but for television in general.

The Pill Swap (in “Expenses” – Season 3 Episode 7)

This moment is a real showcase for Nacho (Michael Mando), one of the most underrated characters from the show. Here, Nacho needs to get his evil boss, Hector out of the picture, so he plans to change his nitroglycerin pills to ibuprofen placebos in hopes of giving him a fatal heart attack. Nacho continuously practises it, and then finally does it, and just pulls it off. This scene is a showcase for something that both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad did so well, in how they make us sympathise and align with morally dubious characters, and here, we really feel for Nacho and hope he pulls it off. It’s also just a really effectively tense scene that was very well directed.

“It’s all good, man” (in “Winner” – Season 4 Episode 10)

This moment has been a long time coming, but just because it was, it doesn’t make the moment any less satisfying. In this moment, Jimmy goes in front of a court, hoping to get his license back, and emotionally talks about the loss of his brother, Chuck. This is all revealed to he a ruse, however, as he reveals to Kim, in hopes of getting his license back. He walks away, saying he will now change his name. As Kim calls him back, he replies only with “It’s all good, man”, leaving Kim, alone in the hallway. Very much in the similar way to the Walt’s Crawl Space moment (in fact they happen around the same time, season and episode-wise), this is where Jimmy McGill died. Although, he had used the name before, the was really the moment where Saul Goodman was born.

Lalo confronts Kim and Jimmy (in “Bad Choice Road” – Season 5 Episode 9)

Better Call Saul has always been a lighter and softer show compared to Breaking Bad, however, this was not the case for this particular moment, which took place in the show’s most recent episode. Here, Lalo (Tony Dalton) confronts Jimmy about where he got his money, and refuses to let his now-wife, Kim leave, leading to an endlessly tense and suspenseful sequence, as we begin to believe that Kim will be killed. This is a time where Better Call Saul abandoned it’s light-heartedness to create a scene that rivalled the tension in any Breaking Bad scene. It was also a moment where Kim really got a chance to shine, and Seehorn got a chance to show her brilliant acting chops. It was a great scene that can only spell fantastic quality for it’s next episode and final season.

Quiz – ITV Miniseries Quickie Review

One of the best ITV dramas to come out in a while, is the new miniseries, Quiz. The series, consisting of 3 episodes, that was broadcast over 3 nights, was written by James Graham, adapted from his play of the same name. The miniseries was also directed by Stephen Fears, who has directed a variety of real-life drama films, including The Queen (2006), Philomena (2013) and Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), as well as the recent drama series, A Very English Scandal (2018), also telling a real-life story in 3 episodes.

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The series is based off the book, Bad Show: the Quiz, the cough, the Millionaire Major, and centres on the real-life scandal from the ITV show, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?. The scandal in question was that contestant, Charles Ingram (played by Matthew Macfadyen), someone who won the highest prize of all, and was accused of cheating after someone in the audience coughed at all the right answers. The scandal, which took place in 2001, is particularly infamous – everyone has heard of it, although, this series sheds light on the little details you probably didn’t know about.

The series’s first episode is particularly interesting for this, as it reveals that Charles’s wife, Diana (Sian Clifford) and brother-in-law, Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) both went on the show, prior to Charles. It shows how Diana and Adrian had a sort of “network” of people who were all fans of the show, and this people created small cheats and “tricks” to help get onto the show. For example, Adrian created a four finger buzzer that helped him practise, and he pretends he is four different people to get on the show illegally multiple times. Soon enough, these tricks succeed, and they are able to get the dim-witted Charles on the show.

The second and third episodes are, by extension, are a little less interesting as we do know more of these details. The second deals with game show episode in question, and the third deals with the court case, where Charles and Diana stand trial. However, these episodes aren’t any less thrilling or entertaining. The direction by Frears is particularly impressive. Much like his equally impressive work in A Very English Scandal, the miniseries is punchy, pacey and very thrilling. In particular, the scenes that could feel boring or dull (like ITV board meetings or discussion about the inner workings of a big huge game show) feel exciting and entertaining, and has remnants of buzziness and liveliness of certain scenes in David Fincher’s 2010 masterpiece, The Social Network.

In addition, the cast’s performances are splendid. Much has been made about Michael Sheen’s performance, playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire host Chris Tarrant, and although, it may appear odd on first viewing, once you get used to it, you will be delighted how great and detailed it is. It also is really great to see Macfayden and Clifford in here, both of which are stars of two of the best and biggest shows to come out recently, Succession and Fleabag, respectively. Although they do feel like an extension of their television counterparts (Macfadyden playing a high-respected and lovable idiot, while Clifford is playing a highly strung and tightly wound young woman), they do give great and sympathetic leading performances, particularly how they often do un-sympathetic and amoral acts. The series also has some wonderful supporting performances from various TV character actors, like Aisling Bea (This Way Up, Living with Yourself), Mark Bonnar (Catastrophe), and Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders).

Quiz is overall one of the best ITV dramas to come out in a long time – it is pacey, thrilling, tense, funny and entertaining in all the right ways. It is pitch perfect for everyone to binge as almost a long film, and you will not be disappointed if you watch it.

Rating: 8/10

Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 9 – “Bad Choice Road” Recap

Every now and then, a long-running TV show hits it’s stride, and has two fantastic episodes in a row. That has just what has happened with Better Call Saul, firstly with it’s eighth episode, “Bagman” and now with it’s ninth episode, “Bad Choice Road”. The title refers to Mike (Jonathan Banks) lecturing Jimmy/ Saul (Bob Odenkirk) about the choices we make in life, and how Mike and Jimmy are on the “Bad Choice Road”.

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In this episode, Jimmy and Mike get saved from the desert, which they were stranded. Jimmy is suffering from almost PTSD after the gun attack, and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) is helping him through it. Kim is slowly discovering that possibly Jimmy is getting more and more involved with criminals. Meanwhile, Lalo (Tony Dalton) discovers that Jimmy’s car was shot at, and becoming suspicious, orders Nacho (Michael Mando) to driver him to confront both Jimmy.

This episode is so brilliant as it paints a taunting portrait of Jimmy and Kim’s struggles. Both characters are going through some hard-hitting things – Jimmy is struggling with PTSD, and adjusting to his new life working outside the law, while Kim is struggling with the realisation that her husband is a criminal. Sometimes, Better Call Saul can feel like a series of small (albeit, really great) set-pieces, but, here, writer-drector, Thomas Schnauz does a great job at staying purely focuses on the characters’ struggles.

One of the best ways he does this is through the brilliant cold-open, in which we see a split-screen of what both Jimmy and Kim are going through, which is all dubbed over by the classic love song, “Something Stupid”. This does a great job at setting the stage for Kim and Jimmy’s tragic love story, and make a ironic (and slightly, blackly comic) way of opening the episode. Also, who doesn’t love it when Better Call Saul does a split-screen montage?

There are many other small details that also really invoke the couple’s struggles. A great scene is when Jimmy is confronted by a rival lawyer, Bill Oakley (Peter Diseth) – a recurrent character through the series – who boasts about winning a court case against him. Jimmy does not reply with his usual witty comeback, and all we see him do is walk away quickly, and this really clearly paints a picture of how badly the ordeal has effected him.

This is continued in a moment when Kim discovers Jimmy’s coffee cup, which has a bullet hole through it. As Kim bought the cup for him, we understand how distraught she is at seeing it ruined. Another great moment of this is when Kim is juicing all the fruit for a shake, and Jimmy is traumatised by it. The sound and the editing are really great at highlighting the sound of blade, and there we understand just how traumatised he it. This has been a highlight of the show since it began, in how it practises a lot of “show, don’t tell” storytelling. I mean, that is the main reason why film and television is such a wonderful medium, as it can focus sorely on visual storytelling.

This whole episode paints a vivid picture of this couple, and how they are struggling to cope in his criminal world. This was a refreshing element of both Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul, in how it focuses on human reaction to the crimes. Often, TV shows can gloss over these, but it is crucial as it makes us feel and sympathise with these characters.

All of this comes to a head in the heart-stopping and pulsating climax, in which Kim and Jimmy get a menacing visit from Lalo. Lalo, being suspicious that Jimmy’s car has a bullet hole in it, continues to interrogate him, asking him to repeat the story of what happened. He refuses to let Kim leave, and this makes all the audience extremely nervous as Kim’s fate is ultimately unknown.

The scene is extremely tense, so much to the point that it feels like a scene from Breaking Bad – it is up there with the train sequence from “Dead Freight” and the crawl space scene from “Crawl Space”. The music and the direction particularly make this scene so tense – it was so tense that when broadcast in the US, they played it without any breaks to increase the impact.

The scene comes to it’s conclusion, when Kim turns around the interrogation, and begins debunking Lalo for letting Jimmy get the money in the first place. She had real echoes of Walter White in his scene, in how bold and fearless she was, and manipulating a bad situation to work in her favour. Despite how brilliant the scene is, especially in how they subvert what we think will happen, it does leave us nervous for Kim’s fate. It seems increasingly like many her ultimate fate will be dangerous – maybe she ends up dead or in prison.

The episode is left of a slight cliff-hanger, in which Lalo leaves with Nacho, with Mike in hot pursuit. Will Mike or Nacho kill Lalo, or will Lalo kill Nacho? What leaves the most lingering feeling, however, is the taunting portrayal of Kim and Jimmy and their personal struggles. It is a really stunning episodes, and much like Bagman, it is one of the best episodes of television to come out in a while.

Rating: 10/10

Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 8 – “Bagman” Recap

Better Call Saul returned this week with one of the show’s very best episodes – “Bagman”. This episode is set after Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) sets Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) the challenge of getting his $7 million dollars to achieve bail. Kim (Rhea Seehorn) passionately asks him not to, pleading that he is not a “bagman” for drug dealers. After getting the money from “the cousins” (Daniel and Luis Moncanda), a group of gunmen arrive, being tipped off about the money exchange by an informant. Mike (Jonathan Banks) saves him from the gunmen, but unfortunately, as the car was wrecked, they must return home on foot. What follows is an survival-type story in which Mike and Jimmy try to survive against the horrors of the desert.

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This episode was written by Gordon Smith and directed by Vince Gilligan. Gilligan was the show-runner for all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad, and although, he co-created Better Call Saul, he has gave over the majority of show-running responsibilities to co-creator, Peter Gould. That being said, he still comes into write or direct episodes now and again, and this time, he has come into the direct one of the most perfect episodes of the show, and one of the best TV episodes to come out in a long time.

It is quite rare for a sole episode of a TV show to feel remarkable in it’s direction. Often, TV directors get less creative control, as they must operate within the look and feel of an existing television show. This could be different if directors are given a whole season, but, just for one singular episode, it is hard for a director to be singled out for their direction. This is not the case for Gilligan, however – this episode feels quintessentially Vince Gilligan from beginning to end.

The film is remarkably similar to the Breaking Bad episode “4 Days Out” (which was also one of the best episodes of that show), in which Walt and Jesse get stuck in the desert, and have to figure out how to get back home. The episode also feels very influenced by the Coen brothers’ 2007 thriller, No Country for Old Men, in it’s desert setting and stunning cinematography. It also constantly referenced the classic Lawrence of Arabia, especially in how Jimmy wraps himself in a Peter O’Toole-like headdress. All these influences feels very reminiscent of Gilligan’s cine-literate mind.

What’s really brilliant about the episode is just how tense and suspenseful it is. Breaking Bad often toyed with suspense, but Better Call Saul has never quite played with this, as it is often more interested in being a lighter and more melancholy show. This episode plays out almost more like an episode of Breaking Bad. One of the earlier scenes, in which Jimmy is also shot by the group of gunmen is brilliantly directed in just how tense it is, especially in how we all know that Saul is going to survive and be fine.

One of the latter scenes of suspense is also utterly brilliant. This is at the end, in which Jimmy distracts an car with a gunman in, so that it will give time for Mike to shoot and kill him. This scene is also tense and suspenseful, and ultimately ends up feeling very cathartic as Mike shoots the car and saves him. This scene is very big-budget, which is also very fun as it gives the episodes a real blockbuster feeling, very uncharacteristic for a show often so quiet and slow.

This episode is also so wonderful for the relationship between Mike and Jimmy. The two characters are two polar opposites – Jimmy is more flamboyant, lively and (at the moment, anyway) naively optimistic, and Mike is more pessimistic and grumpy – and this pairing makes for really entertaining viewing. It was nice seeing the two back together as they have been apart for a while, and that was how we started off the show, to be fair.

Mike also has some wonderful moments in this episode. He has a brilliant speech, in which he talks about the people who “need” him on the outside, and that is why he must escape. This is the real genius of his character as although, he is quiet and rarely speaks, when he does speak, it has real depth and heart. Odenkirk is also really great in this episode (as he always is), and it is especially great to see him being scared and vulnerable, as we rarely see it. Ultimately, it is really great to see the two of them together, as they have real chemistry, and make a good buddy-comedy partnership.

The real genius of the episode, however, is Gilligan. He is a real steady hand with his direction – the episode feels very paced, punchy, exciting and thrilling. The plot of Better Call Saul is very labyrinthe and complex, but the great thing about this episode is that you never, ever feel that. Also, the cinematography and camera work is also on point – it’s always good, but it was on another level here.

Better Call Saul is sometimes in the shadows of it’s iconic predecessor, but with “Bagman”, the show has definitely reached that show’s heights, and many even exceeded it. Along with the season 3 treat, “Chicanery”, this episode will be one of the show’s best, and will probably be known as one of the best episodes of television to come out for a long time.

Rating: 10/10

Streaming Options: Swallow Review

As all the cinemas around the world are closing, a lot of people are seeking films on streaming services now. Swallow, was distributed in cinemas earlier in the year in the US, but is getting a release through streaming services here in the UK. I watched it on Google Play, where you can rent it for as cheap as £1.99.

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The film is the feature film debut of Carlo Mirabella-Davis, who directs and writes the film. The film’s cast involves a lot of character actors, including Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche and Denis O’Hare. The film focuses on Hunter (played by Bennett), a newly pregnant housewife, trapped in a unhappy marriage to Richie (Stowell), and dealing with Hunter’s judgemental and interfering parents, Katherine (Marvel) and Michael (Rasche). In an attempt to deal with this, she begins consuming small but dangerous objects, from a marvel to a battery to a paperclip. As she gets therapy for this, she must have to deal with her unhappy marriage, and a dark secret from her past.

One of the great things about seeking movies on streaming movies, is that some odder, stranger movies are getting a wider popularity, like Vivarium, Bacurau and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Swallow is no exception – it is a provocative, startling, and sometimes, cringe-inducing drama that never stops being interesting.

Mirabella-Davis has shown – in his first film, no less – that he has a lot of talent and creativity that boards well for his future career. In discussing his influences for the film, he lists the classic horror film, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Todd Haynes’s psychological drama, Safe (1995), and you can definitely feel these influences beaming off the screen.

The film actually, though, feels more influenced by the works of say a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers in how Mirabella-Davis is able to inject real-life situations with a oddness and weirdness. The film is very reminiscent of Anderson’s film, Phantom Thread, as from the outset it looks like a handsome but possibly quite plain drama, but Miranda-Davis is able to make it feel weird, strange and ultimately, creative and original.

There is a terrific dinner scene involving Hunter, her husband and her in-laws, which is exactly like this – at first you think it’s going to be the usual type of dinner conversation, but the director subverts our expectations, and by the end of it, Hunter is chewing on ice. Davis also brilliant does this with the film’s non-diegetic soundtrack. Particularly, a montage in which Hunter swallows a variety of things is juxtaposed with The The’s This is the Day to great affect.

Also, really great here is the performances. Bennett is an actress that has never quite managed to break out into the mainstream – she has had supporting roles in The Girl on the Train and The Magnificent Seven, but they never really went anywhere. Here, with her perfect The Stepford Wives-like appearance and haircut, her soft-spoken voice and sweet nature, is really able to master the character’s robotic nature. However, she is also able to make us feel a lot of sympathy for her, and influences how cathartic it becomes at the end, when, this Stepford Wives Robot type actually sticks up for herself against her doormat husband and annoying in-laws.

Speaking of which, all of which are terrific, especially Marvel. A character actress, who has appeared in various films and TV Shows (a notable credit includes the season 2 of Fargo), she is really great here, injecting a lot of scowling judgement and underplayed disapproval to what could of been a blank character.

Because of all of this, it does start to feel almost believable that Hunter starts doing these unspeakable acts. Although, Mirabella-Davis never loses the cringe inducing squirm-iness that the film obviously has. You still feel completely horrified when she starts swallowing things, and by the end, you’ll probably have a lump in your throat.

The only negative here, really, is that I wish the director had made some more daring narrative choices, particularly for a film as startling and odd as the film is. In particular, an ending confrontation, which is supposed to be the answer to all of Hunter’s worries, feels a little bit too easy and safe.

The film very much feels like a first feature – I’m sure that Mirabella-Davis’s second (or third, or fourth) feature will be more polished, but this one is still damn good on it’s own. If you’re a fan of body horror, Rosemary’s Baby or Phantom Thread, I’m sure you will love this. I know I did.

Rating: 8/10

Studio Ghibli Watch: Whisper of the Heart (1995) Review

Ever since Netflix has added the majority of Studio Ghibli’s movies to their back catalogue, I’ve made it my mission to watch them all.

Whisper of the Heart is decidedly different from the normal type of Studio Ghibli movies. It was the first film not to be directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. It was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, in his directional debut, after he was a key contributor to many Ghibli movies over the years. Kondo was originally going to take over from Miyazaki as the boss of Studio Ghibli, but unfortunately passed away in 1998.

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The film centres around a young girl, the 14-year-old student, Shizuku Tsukishima (Yoko Hanna in the original dub; Brittany Snow in the English dub), a inquisitive and smart young girl, who is on the verge of figuring out what she wants to do with her life. She spends a lot of time reading books from the library, and one day, she discovers that all of these library books have been previously checked out by a boy called Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi; David Gallagher), who could well be her soul mate. Meanwhile, she chases a large cat through the city and she befriends an eccentric antiques dealer, who entourages her to write her first novella.

Whisper of the Heart is a really cute, sweet and lovely movie that feels remarkably different from the rest of Ghibli’s work. In this film, there are no fantasy worlds that the characters escape to, unlike, say a film like Spirited Away, in which the central character deals with her issues through a fantasy landscape. The film is instead, a much slower, subtler, and more melancholic film that sits mainly in reality.

Despite this, it does contain a lot of similarities towards a lot of Studio Ghibli’s work. The film was written by Miyazaki, and like the majority of Ghibli’s work, it is a coming-of-age tale. It centres on a young girl (who is her mid-to-late teens), who is growing up and discovering how she wants to spend the rest of her life. This is also about first loves and going for your dreams. The film is also quite realistic in discussing how each young person, when discovering what they are truly good at, have to make sure that they work hard to achieve this. It is wonderful to see a kid’s film that has a realistic message in how if you want to achieve something, you have to work hard to achieve it.

Also, Shizuku is a really great leading character. Like a lot of Ghibli’s heroines, she is cute, sweet and very talented. What is quite refreshing about her, however, is that she is also quite bratty, and not as “perfect” as some other heroines. Being a young teenager, obviously, she is prone to bratty behaviour and arguments with her sister, Shiho.

Her love interest, Seiji is also very interesting. If Ghibli are doing a love/romance story, then normally both parts of the couple are interesting and well developed (case and point in Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service). Here, Seiji is a very well-rounded supporting character, and is Shizuku’s equal in many ways. His backstory, in how he is a violin maker and not a violin player, is also very refreshing for a kids’ film, in how he doesn’t have the stereotypical “dreams” that kids normally have.

Also, like the majority of Ghibli’s films, the film is really beautiful. It is really dazzling, and in particular, the train sequences very much shine. Another highlight is the imaginary sequences, in which see elements of Shizuku’s novel come to life. The film’s use of the novel’s imaginary character, Baron, who would later be used in the 2002 spin off, The Cat Returns (also reviewed on his blog), is also very fun.

The only thing I’d say negatively about the film is that it is very slow. One of the many wonders of Ghibli films that, although well-made and beautiful, they are often exciting, adventurous and fun, and this film is a lot less so. It is not as perfectly put-together as some of Ghibli’s best movies, but it’s still a underrated and lovely gem. Middle-tier Ghibli for me.

Rating: 8/10

How Better Call Saul’s biggest flaw became it’s biggest asset

If you didn’t know, Better Call Saul is currently airing it’s fifth and penultimate season. The show is both a spin-off and prequel to Breaking Bad, one of the best and most iconic television series of all time, centring one of the show’s supporting characters, Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk). Although the show has got critical acclaim and lots of awards nominations, the show oddly feels underrated compared to it’s predecessor – a shame because it’s probably the best show on television.

The show was first announced in 2013, around the time when Breaking Bad was finishing it’s run. At that time, Breaking Bad was probably the biggest show on television – everyone on the planet talking about it. The announcement that they were making a spin-off came with some skepticism and worry with some arguing that it was a cynical cash-grab, especially true because often prequels and spin-offs often get a harsh run by critics and audiences.

Sure, there have numerous examples of successful television spin-offs – Frasier ranks as one of the best sitcoms of all time that completely escaped the shadow of it’s predecessor, and Buffy’s spin-off, Angel, although, never more popular than it’s predecessor, still gathered a loyal and devoted fan following. But, most of the time, spin-offs and especially, prequels get criticism because they take away a lot of stakes from the story.

And, Better Call Saul is very similar to this from the outset. Think about it, we know the fates of the majority of the characters from the beginning. We know that our lead, Saul/ Jimmy McGill ends up in witness protection and we know that a lot of supporting characters, from Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) end up dead. However, this has never been a problem for Better Call Saul. In fact, it feels even more interesting because we know this.

Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are very similar in their general concept, in how it centres on our central hero (in Better Call Saul, it is Saul/Jimmy and in Breaking Bad, it was Bryan Cranston’s Walter White) going through a drastic transformation. However, Better Call Saul feels like a much more streamlined, clear way of telling this story.

If you think of the variety of cultural behemoth television shows over the past 10 years, it feels like it is always really concerned with how the show will end. Think of shows like Lost, Game of Thrones, and also, Breaking Bad, and as the show approached the end, the questions were all about how it will end, what will happen to the characters and where will they end up. However, with Better Call Saul, we already know all of that stuff.

Sure, there are some unanswered questions, like what will happen to Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and Nacho Varga (Michael Mando), why are they not in Breaking Bad, and what will happen to present-day Jimmy (now called Gene Takavic), which do give some stakes and tension to the proceedings. However, because a lot the questions raised (like where will Jimmy/Saul end up, what will he transform into, what will happen to Mike, Gus, etc.) have already been answered, it gives the show a lot of room to purely focus on why these happen.

Better Call Saul is all about process – it focuses solely on why Jimmy transforms. At the start, we see him as a bright-eyed, naive and optimistic lawyer, and we start to wonder how he becomes the money-grabbing, cynical and sleazy lawyer we see in Breaking Bad. And, seeing his life, his history and his personal relationships with his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) and partner, Kim, we are close to understanding how this transformation happened. Obviously, we are not at the very end yet (that will happen next season), so the transformation is not complete, but we are definitely getting close.

This style of writing is what makes Better Call Saul so special. The show never has a unclear focus, loss of direction or filler story-lines because every scene, every episode and every season knows exactly what they are leading to. If you at something like Game of Thrones, for example, if the show had a much more clearer focus on it’s drastic character turns it’s final season, then the ending would of been more satisfying.

Breaking Bad is most probably the greatest television show of all time, and will always be a special, iconic and striking show for a variety of reasons. There are many ways in which we could argue how Breaking Bad is the superior show to Better Call Saul, but that’s not to say that Better Call Saul is not a special television series.

The show is all about origin stories, and how traumatic events in someone’s life can change them. It’s a deeply nostalgic and melancholic show that is decidedly less fantastical and spectacular than Breaking Bad. It manages to turn around the prequel/spin-off curse, and instead, use it in it’s favour. And that is the reason why it stands out from the majority of television shows out there, and why it’s currently the best television series on television.

Streaming Options: Bacurau Review

Much like Vivarium last week, I wanted to do some reviews for you of recent movies that are available on streaming. Curzon Home Cinema is a great way of streaming movies, where all you have to do is sign in, and then pay for the movie you want. You can stream some great movies, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Vivarium and Bacurau, the latter of which you can stream for £7.99.

Bacurau is a very peculiar and odd movie, which centres on a young lady, Teresa (Barbara Colen) returning to her home town of the titular Bacurau after her grandmother passed away. In this town, there are various odd things happening, including how the town never turns up on any GPS map, no phone seems to have a signal, and there is a odd futuristic drone circling the skies. As two mysterious foreigners pass through the village, they bring along violence and destruction with them.

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The less said about the overall plot, the better, because this is type of movie experienced completely cold. The film has a lot of similarities to last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Parasite, in that you think you are watching one sort of film, and then it completely changes to another sort of film about half way through. At the start, you believe you are watching a foreign-language art-house film about a foreign country and this then changes to an odder, genre-bending thrill ride.

The film feels like a huge blend of genres. It is firstly and foremost a western, but definitely in the Weird Western genre. It feels very reminiscent of the underrated 2016 flick, Bone Tomahawk, in how it is a bloody, gory, strange and hypnotic film with a lot of surprises up it’s sleeves. The film, in it’s deeply gory and violent nature, feels like it has elements of an exploitation film that could of been directed by Tarantino.

However, as we get into the latter parts of the film, the film venues into very different territories. The latter parts feel very science fiction infiltrated, being very influenced by Black Mirror and John Carpenter. Carpenter is so much of an influence on the film that a Carpenter-composed track called “Night” is actually used in the film.

With all of these strange and odd influences, the film is a very startling and strange movie that will definitely leave a mark on you. The violence is tough and hard to watch, but still gritty and visceral. The cinematography is also really beautiful and paints a really vivid picture of this town and it’s villagers.

The film is very sympathetic to the characters in the village. This is where you can feel the Carpenter influence, as the film centres on a community of people that group together over an bigger, more sinister and deadly force. This is an aspect of various Carpenter movies, especially The Fog (1980), but also, The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). In many ways, Bacurau is the best Carpenter movie not to be directed by John Carpenter.

As startling and great as the film is, it also feels as though, sometimes the film is a little slow. This is especially true of the first act, which threads on that wire of being a little boring and un-interesting. Although, everyone will be forced to watch it on they’re home television, or on a laptop (which is where I watched it), it would probably be better suited towards the cinema as there, you’ll forced to sit through all of it.

That’s not to take away from the really, really great things about this film. It’s bloody, gnarly and genre-blending in all the right ways. Much like Vivarium, it is a much stranger alternative to the some of material on other streaming platforms, and if you are looking for something a little different, you should definitely check this out.

Rating: 8/10

The Mandalorian Episode 4 – “Sanctuary” Review

Another episode of DisneyPlus (or Disney+)’s flagship show, The Mandalorian, a live-action spin-off from the Star Wars franchise, aired on Friday. Called “Sanctuary”, this new episode takes place immediately after the previous episode, in which Mando (Pedro Pascal) has taken The Child (or Baby Yoda) off on his adventures with him. The two arrive on sparsely populated forest planet, Sorgan, where they meet ex-Rebel shock trooper-turned-mercenary, Cara Dune (Gina Carano). The three of them help a group of villagers, whose village has been targeted by raiders and imperial walkers.

This episode is another really terrific episode – it is probably not as utterly brilliant as the third episode (“The Sin”), but it was really effective. Directed by Bryce Dallas Howard (yes, that Bryce Dallas Howard), and written by the series show-runner, Jon Favreau, this episode is a really adventurous and exciting episode that adds another great chapter to Mando’s story.

As opposed to the third episode, which felt like a culmination of the story set up in the first two episodes, this episode feels has a very standalone, whole narrative, and very much has a beginning, middle and end. The episode is somewhat of a bottle episode (with a big budget, obviously), in that it does necessarily link to the overall plot or story development, but it is still an entertaining adventure on it’s own.

This episode, in particular, is really great for it’s lightheartedness and humour. The opening act, in which, Baby Yoda disobeys Mando’s very serious orders, is very cute and sweet. The whole use of Baby Yoda in this episode, and seeing his cute reaction to serious things (like fights and war) gives a lightheartedness and sweetness to the episode, that otherwise might be a bit too serious.

We then go to meet Cara Dune, who is a brilliant new character. The character has been teased since the first trailers of the show, and she makes a great debut in this episode, adding to the pantheon of strong, kick-ass Star Wars heroines, like Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). She is brilliantly played by Carano, who also brings a real physically and grit to her roles. The introductory sequence in which she and Mando fight was a real treat.

Adding to that, the action and special effects in this episode was really great. Howard, a new director not just for the series, but also, for serialized television in general (her only credits include the television film, Call Me Crazy: A Five Film and the documentary film, Dads), does a really great job at the helm for this episode. Her style doesn’t necessarily feel original or auteur-ist, but she feels very competent and solid. As always, the action sequences and visual effects shine and the whole episode feels really polished, exciting and adventurous.

Also, as always, the film has some wonderful character development. This episode really reassures the link between Mando and Baby Yoda, and how wonderful they are together, and how much Mando needs Baby Yoda. It’s also wonderful seeing a more helpful and generous side to Mando – after killing a bunch of people in the previous episodes, he goes out of his way to help and save people in this episode. It was also nice seeing his backstory about his helmet, and how he never takes it off in front of people. Seeing other aspects into his personality is very interesting, and makes a great leading character.

Overall, this episode was really entertaining, funny and sweet. The episode will probably not be as iconic as episode 3 was, in discussing the series overall, but it is very hard not to enjoy it. With this and Better Call Saul (and with the new season of Killing Eve about to broadcast next week), television is at it’s very best. Can’t wait for episode 5.

Rating: 9/10

Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 7 – “JMM” Recap

Better Call Saul continues it’s brilliant fifth season, with it’s new episode, “JMM”. In this episode, continuing on from the cliffhanger in the previous episode, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) get married, however, they make it clear it is a business arrangement so that now, Jimmy can tell Kim about his cases without lying.

Meanwhile, Jimmy starts to help out Lalo (Tony Dalton), who has been charged with murder. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), along with Nacho (Michael Mando) and Mike (Jonathan Banks), wish to get Lalo released. Also, Howard (Patrick Fabian) continues to try and talk Jimmy into taking a job at HHM. The title of the episode comes from the initials on Chuck’s briefcase, which stands for “James Morgan McGill”, which he has re-named “Justice Matters Most”. Lalo jokes at one point that it should be renamed “Just Make Money”.

The first opener in this episode was really, quite charming. Seeing Jimmy and Kim get married is quite a cathartic experience as we have invested 5 years into their relationship. The scene is also lovely in how sweet and subtle it is, and Odenkirk and Seehorn have great chemistry. This also very much hints that the reason why Kim is not in Breaking Bad is not because she just leaves Jimmy, or moves away. She now must have to die, or maybe be incarcerated. Either way, I hope it is shocking and well-written.

This episode is also very interesting as we are now starting to see a different side to Lalo. Over the first few episodes of the show, he was a refreshing and different villain for the show in how he was a charming and charismatic presence. However, now we are seeing a quieter and more sinister part of his personality, and this makes him a much more interesting character.

Gus also some intriguing developments this episode. There is a terrific sequence where Gus and Nacho, acting out orders of which Lalo gave Nacho, destroy a Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant. The scene is very thrilling and well-directed, and is a highlight of the episode. It is also interesting to see Gus being a subtly less darker character than he was in Breaking Bad. In the parent show, he never would of gone out of his way to save someone like Nacho, but in this show, we are seeing a lighter side to him.

There is also another intriguing scene where Gus has a meeting with his CEO, Peter (Norbert Weisser), and Lydia (Laura Fraser), the former of which was also a recurring Breaking Bad character. The scene, much like the destruction of Los Pollos Hermanos, is also very thrilling and gripping. However, I would say that Lydia’s role on the show, as of yet, has been slightly disappointing, and it feels like the show hasn’t properly utilised Lydia yet.

Odenkirk and Seehorn also continue to have great chemistry throughout the episode. The scene in which the two debate about a new house they will get is very playful and funny. Also, this chemistry is again, put to good use in the bedroom scene where Jimmy tells Kim he could become a “friend of the cartel”. This chemistry will make it all the more heartbreaking when they will inevitably be split apart.

The last scene in this episode, however, is the real highlight. This focuses on Howard (Patrick Fabian) continues to ask Jimmy about the job offer at HHM, and Jimmy berates Howard with a rant, saying he is too big for that job. The scene is absolutely brilliant, with a real masterclass in acting from Odenkirk. The fact that he has not joined Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in winning a lot of Emmy’s or Golden Globes for his performance is a real tragedy.

During this speech, he shouts and yells that he is a “god in human clothing” and “lighting bolts shoot from my fingertips”. The speech has a lot of echoes to Walter White’s iconic “I am the one who knocks” speech, and is only made better by Odenkirk’s loud, flamboyant but still quite tragic delivery. Also, Fabian makes a great sparring partner, having to say a lot with just his facial expressions.

In conclusion, this episode was really great, and has a lot of great developments. It does feel slightly like an “in-between” episode for the season, as there are no really major moments, or story progression, but it is still essential to the story. It would possibly be better in a large binge of the season or whole series. That being said, the episode is still operating at Better Call Saul’s brilliant quality, and I really loved it. There are only 3 episode remaining, and it would a shame to see it end, especially because we have only one season left.

Rating: 10/10

Streaming Options: Vivarium Review

With everyone now at home, a lot of people are seeking out films and TV shows to watch on streaming services because all the cinemas across the globe are now closed. One of the newest films to be released on streaming platforms is Vivarium, a very strange film, distributed by Vertigo Programming. The film is available on Curzon Home Cinema (which is where I watched it) and iTunes, where you can rent it for £4.99.

The film has a Twilight Zone-like premise, in which a young couple, Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), are attempting to get themselves a suburban, domesticated family home. They go meet a very odd real estate agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who takes the couple to a new development plan of houses, called Yonder.

The homes are all identical, and the neighbourhood looks beautiful and perfect… but a little too perfect. Disaster strikes for the couple when Martin suddenly disappears, and the couple are unable to leave – every-time they drive away from the house, they find themselves back at the same house. Unable to leave, they are soon given a package of a baby, and they discover that they must raise the child, and they will be allowed to leave. However, will this be make or break for the couple as they raise their new “son”.

The film is perfect for everyone right now, because everyone, like our two lead heroes, are stuck in the home. The film has echoes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and feels very influenced by the works of Ira Levin, like 1975’s The Stepford Wives. One of the main reasons for this comparison is it’s satirical narrative. The film could be seen as a metaphor for the experience of a young couple raising a child. After being handed their child, they loose all their free will and become miserable and exhausted, beginning turning on each other in the process. I mean, this is very much a Ira Levin-type plot – The Stepford Wives, of course, is about a husband who wishes his wife was a stereotypical robotic housewife, and then she literally becomes a robotic housewife.

The two leads are really terrific, and give very engaging performances. Poots exudes a likable and sympathetic energy, and makes a empathetic lead. Eisenberg is also very good – he is often a lot more interesting when given a character who is not always likeable. Often times, he is given the “lovable nerd” character, that doesn’t really feel lovable or even likable. However, he usually flourishes with a character a bit more annoying and irksome – case and point is his brilliant Oscar-nominated role in 2010’s The Social Network.

Also great is the child character, just called “The Boy”, played by Senan Jennings. In a very science fiction way, The Boy turns into a seven-year old boy after months of the couple raising him. They also must have dubbed his voice in post-production, as he talks in an adult voice, and with multiple voices. The result is supremely chilling and creepy, especially by how The Boy often lets a high-pitched shriek that feels otherworldly.

The visual style is also very original and startling. The way in which all the houses and the neighbourhood streets are identical creates the same level of paranoia and claustrophobia that the couple are feeling. There are so many interesting stylistic flourishes, from the green and turquoise colours used to the creepily perfect clouds up in the clear blue sky.

As great and interesting as the film is, it does sometimes feel like one idea stretched out to enormous length. After the first act, which is very interesting, the film loses a bit of it’s intrigue. Possibly it would of made a better short film, or episode of a television show. That being said, it is supremely thought-provoking and interesting. You will definitely be thinking about it for a while, and this could be perfect for everyone, stuck at home.

Rating: 7/10

Horror Tuesday: Upgrade (2018) Review

Every Tuesday, I will be reviewing an horror film, and this week is 2018’s Upgrade.

Upgrade is a highly under-seen and underrated horror gem. The film is the directorial debut of Leigh Wannell, who has recently gone on to helm the recent horror blockbuster, The Invisible Man, one of the best horror films of recent years. Upgrade came out in 2018, and received very moderate critical acclaim and box office success. It does, however, feel like it has remnants of a cult classic all over it.

The film follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), an old-fashioned man and technophobe, who is married to the beautiful, Asha (Melanie Vallejo). The two suffer an car accident and attack from a gang, of which Grey suffers paralysis, and Asha loses her life. In the aftermath, Grey meets a millionaire, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who repairs his mobility using a STEM implant. However, the STEM implant speaks to Grey in his mind. Together, the two of them attempt to get revenge on those who wronged him.

As you can tell from the general premise, the film is a bit of a retelling of the 80s film, Robocop, in how it is a tale of our leading hero getting revenge, and rebuilding himself with robotic parts. The film is also a great companion piece to Venom, which came out the same year, in how the central character talks to a voice in his head which he persuades him to give in to his darkest desires.

Being a Robocop-Venom hybrid is an odd and bizarre mixture, but for the most part, it really works. The film is an efficient and entertaining thriller, that plays out like a bit of a B-movie. When the movie is most interesting, however, it when the film explores it’s more bizarre, strange, and sometimes, even darkly humorous elements.

Around the time that Grey starts getting revenge, the film really finds it’s footing. In one of the film’s most striking sequences, we see Grey fighting with one of gang members who attacked him, and he lets STEM take “control” of his body. The result of this is some wonderful physical comedy, that is really effective. However, out of nowhere, this sequence ends on a unprecedented and shocking moment of gory violence. This bonkers mix of physical comedy, dark humour and gory body horror is startling and feels very original. The end result is supremely entertaining.

There is another sequence like this one, where this time, Grey fights off against a gang, headed by another member of the gang who wronged him. Much like the previous sequence, it blends physical comedy, dark humour and strong, bloody violence, but just on a bigger and bloodier canvas. I mean, it loses a bit of it’s impact on doing it for a second time, but it still works pretty well.

Other than this, however, the central premise and plot is fairly straightforward, but effective. Our leading hero dealing with life after his wife died, and learning how to use his new body is the film’s emotional journey, and his quest for revenge is simple, but really works. Marshall-Green also makes a very good lead, even if does look strikingly like Tom Hardy.

However, there are some moments that don’t quite work. This includes the police character, Det. Cortez (played by Betty Gabriel), who is investigating Gray’s wife’s murder. This character is a rather unnecessary addition to the cast – she never gets fully fleshed out, or gets used properly. It’s a shame because Gabriel is a brilliant actress, having made a name for herself for her iconic supporting role in 2017’s Get Out.

The film also loses a bit of steam in the last act. In particular, there is a car chase scene that is rather unnecessary. Also, there is a “twist” at the end, that feels extremely obvious, and I guessed it easily. However, there is a second twist some after this, that is feels a lot more original and shocking, even if it does make it overly complicated. The actual ending, itself, is also quite effective, as well. It also echoes of the end of Inception in it’s ambiguous ending for our lead character.

The whole episode feels as whole it could of been an extended episode of Black Mirror in it’s satirical commentary of technology. However, that is not an insult – Black Mirror is brilliant, of course. The insane levels of violence and black humour make it just stand out from it’s crowded number of influences.

Wannell is a real filmmaker to watch in the future. His newest film, The Invisible Man was oh so great, and his debut feature may not be as polished, but it’s still a great, entertaining and striking piece of work. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here.

Rating: 7/10